Friday, February 1, 2019

Alpine Quest 2019 - Falls Creek

In the lead up to Alpine Quest I kept saying things felt too organised. Flights, hotel, car and team mates were all arranged well ahead of time. No usual pre-race scramble to sort out the details. It was quiet. Too quiet. This could not be good. Unfortunately, I was right. The best thing adventure racing has taught me is to deal with whatever is thrown up at me. Nothing ever goes to plan, although I’d like to keep the adlibbing to the race and not the logistics. What follows is a tale of both bad luck and poor planning.

The first hiccup was when John realised he’d booked the hire car for the previous weekend. In his defence I spend almost every commute to the airport worrying I’ve booked the flights for the wrong dates. It only happened that one time. Usually sourcing a hire car wouldn’t be an issue. Except it was Thursday before the long Australia Day weekend so of course most things were sold out. Especially the things that would fit three bike boxes and people in them. Thanks to Steve from Birmingham at Enterprise cars for finding us a vehicle that worked. We hit the baking hot road to Falls Creek looking forward to racing 36 hours in a heatwave.

Three of us had adventure raced before – John and I together and Wayne with other teams. Callum we dragged in from various multisport and mountain bike races we’d seen him go fast in. The fact he had an orienteering history was a welcome surprise – mostly for John who was the only other team member who knew which way the map went. As the Wild Earth Tiger Adventure team we were a dark horse in the race for top honours with our previous team winning X Marathon the same time last year in similar conditions.

The second hiccup was when Wayne’s bike and two of our paddles were left in Brisbane by the airline. One of the risks of flying in to a small airport like Albury is that heavy things like bike boxes are the first to get offloaded when the plane is too heavy. Again, this wouldn’t have normally been a problem, except AQ had a 3-5 hour prologue the next day which would count toward our overall time for the main race. Facebook posts were put out and messages sent. We eventually obtained a paddle and PFD from race organiser Maria, another basic paddle from Peak Adventure’s Jarad Kohler and a hire bike from the local shop complete with flat pedals and triple chain ring. Not the best but at least were in the game. Just before the start of the race we changed bikes to Serge’s hardtail with better pedals and set up and swapped the number plates. With ten minutes to race start Wayne’s bike turned up so we quickly built that and attached the number plate for the third time that morning. Third time’s a charm, right?

So very hot

 The prologue went well except for the high 30-degree temperatures. It was fast and furious as maps were given after race start and a route quickly plotted. My calves exploded as they hate run legs straight up hills. The navigation was good and we hit transition with three other teams in the lead. Mountain biking was always going to be our strength and we put at least 10 minutes into the other teams bombing down all the black descents with a grin. It was on the climb back out from Flow Town that the full force of the heat hit. We stopped at every trickle of water on the mountain to refill water bottles and soak heads. Absolutely stifling. It must have been a fountain of youth as I felt (finally) great hitting the road for the climb to the lake.

I gave Wayne my carbon blade and took the crap fibreglass one thinking that it would be better for the person who was least able to contribute watts to have the rubbish paddle. But the blade was much bigger than my ¾ paddle so it slowed our stroke rate and we consequently limped around the kayak leg. After spending some time in thick scrub looking for a check point John started screaming like he’d broken his leg. His hamstrings were cramping badly and I gave him my usual sympathy by encouraging him to ‘stretch it out babe!’ as I ran past. We were caught by Alpine Adventurerers at the end of the paddle and Thunderbolt were close behind. Once on the bikes we held our position and finished in second place.

Up at 4am Saturday for the main race we were on buses to Omeo Valley to start with a kayak down the Mitta Mitta river. We knew there wouldn’t be much water but after a bit of boat dragging there were some really fun sections. Fun for Callum and I as the lighter boat, less fun for John and Wayne who got hung up on every shallow section. We kept having to wait for them and eventually found out their boat had a leak and about 20 kilos of water in it. Bad luck I guess.

Team tactics: "I'll take the small chick, OK?"

We had a fast transition building bikes and getting our food and gear together. Somewhat marred when, after 15-20 minutes of riding on a road that didn’t look quite right, we realised we’d headed in the exact opposite direction as the course from the TA. This can happen when nobody is looking at a compass (nobody was) and when people are relying on ‘left and right’ instead of north and south. It’s easy to forget you got out on the right-hand side of the river and then disorientate yourself to the map. Bad management.

I never assume the win is lost as races can turn on one check point. But it was now less likely and we were pretty deflated to have made such a big error early on while in a great position. Making our way back through slower teams we started the big climb up to the ridge. I can honestly say I’ve never been so thoroughly cooked in any race I’ve done. Struggling to push bikes up an endless, impossibly steep fireroad in close to 40 degrees, I had the goal of making it to the next shady spot before hunching over my top tube and trying to breath/not pass out. I was in front of the team which told me they were struggling as I absolutely suck at walking my bike up hills. This is why I try to ride the steep stuff as much as possible (cue: 30 tooth oval chainring). 

At the top of the hill (well there were always more hills, but the big hill) most of us had run out of water. Wanting to let the guys rest but also conscious that were we getting dehydrated just sitting there, we pushed on. With just 1.5 kms to transition it was all up hill and John was looking pale and shaky. I pushed his bike and he walked while being pushed by another team and collapsed into TA. The volunteers where wonderful getting him cold packs, water, electrolyte and a comfortable place to rest. We got ourselves ready and packed his gear up. I wasn’t sure we should go out on the 12 hour trek but thought the setting sun would help with the heat and we could slow the pace. I did the girlfriend thing of lubing his sweaty feet and putting new socks on as he cramped every time he tried to do it himself. The lengths we go to.

Adventure racing transcends team rivalry. Thanks for the push guys.

We spent most of the trek walking with the Wild Yaks and it was nice to experience the more social side of adventure racing. It’s so busy before the race, and people are so wrecked after, I don’t often get to meet other racers. They were looking strong and we picked up the pace until John started vomiting. I’m not talking about ‘oh I’m going to be a bit sick’. I’m talking about on his knees, hanging off his walking poles and hurling until he was dry-retching. This went off and on for 4 hours and we were halfway down to check point 25 before we reassessed our situation. He couldn’t keep fluids down and needed to rest. We weren’t sure if he was going to get worse and if there was a shorter way to a main road to get picked up. In the most remote part of the course, on a mountain ridge near the Bogong summit, we had a satellite phone but wrote the emergency numbers on the paddling map which we’d left at the last TA. Bad management.

We were laying back on the grass with our head torches off admiring the stars but Wayne also commented on a large cloud so I thought a storm could be on the cards. Sleeping on the trail wasn’t an option so we trekked back up the mountain to Maddison hut. Except Maddison hut doesn’t exist anymore despite what the map says. Three kilometres further we finally fell into Cleve Cole hut and disturbed a bunch of walkers at around midnight.

Happier times with the Wild Yaks who ended up in third spot.

John got a spare space on a bed while Wayne and I went outside to gorge on beef jerky and BBQ Shapes for dinner while watching the lightning across the valley. We accosted an unsuspecting camper who went for a toilet break and managed to use his mobile phone to call HQ. The plan was to bed down for the night and they would send us an evacuation plan in the morning. Another kindly camper gave us two sleeping mats and I finally fell asleep when the door opened. There was Tiger Adventure founder Trevor looking a little worse for wear and various members of two teams who had got in a similar predicament to us. Except now it was raining and they were close to hypothermic. I gave up my mat and crawled into the other bed with John and wrapped us both in a foil blanket to keep warm.

Another kayaking shot as we disappear from the official photographs at this point. Water looks nice and cool.

Race HQ had texted our camping helper, Billy, a new map with the exit point. It was a trek toward the top of Mount Bogong then down a spur to shelter in another hut. Once we were there, we were to contact the pick-up crew and hike the final few kilometres so we didn’t get caught exposed waiting in the weather. It felt like a proper adventure as we trekked across the ridge in a 60kph cross wind with sleet that threatened to blow us off the mountain with every step. In a weird way, this was my favourite moment of the event. We were seeing a part of the course that no other teams saw. The view down the valley from Mount Bogong was stunning and with the cooler temperature this felt more like the rugged Australian Alps. Once at the hut the reception on the phone was patchy but we managed to ascertain that the 4 wheel drives couldn’t make it up to Granite Flat Spur so we’d have to hike down Eskdale Spur instead. We were very happy to see the event crew at the end of the track and Callum did a great job leading us out.

So this is my second DNF in a row (third if you count the Did Not Start when Gary ended up with appendicitis before Geoquest 2018). I’m getting a bit of a complex as I generally prefer to finish what I start. I learned more this race than any other race though. I generally just focus on keeping up, hanging on and carrying extra stuff if needed. I looked at the map more than any time before and had to monitor and look after team mates. Giving directions while keeping motivation up is difficult. Organising logistics and problem-solving is both exciting and exhausting and fundamentally what adventure racing is about. I’m really looking forward to the next one. But for now, it’s 100% bike as I prepare for the Cape Epic in South Africa. Maybe a run or two a week just so I don’t have to go through the agony of resuming running AGAIN.


Adventure Junkie Event Team
Tiger Adventure
Wild Earth
Flight Centre Sports and Events
Infinit Nutrition Australia
Ride Mechanic
NS Dynamics
Absolute Black

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