Sunday, 30 October 2011

Running with the demons

Despite feeling a bit kicked around by the Cape to Cape event, I still wanted to get outside and do some exercise this week, especially as I realised that it was now less than nine weeks until the Murray Half Marathon where I'd have to do it all again ... though this time though it would be by boat not bike, it would be five days not four, and only 202 kilometers.  Plus this time it would all be downriver.  How hard could that be?

So after getting back into Hobart on Tuesday, I went out and joined the club for the normal Wednesday night paddle, and even managed to produce a good pace almost keeping up with the faster paddlers until the very end.  I was happy enough with that.

Saturday morning dawned overcast and threatening, but I just needed to get out and play anyway.

Launch at Kingston Beach

I headed out for a paddle, this time from Kingston Beach.  The conditions were a bit too rough once I got around the headland and into the open sea, so I ended up doing a few runs in and out of Kingston beach before realising that Brown's Rivulet was open and that I could just paddle right in (always wanted to do that). 

So in the end I went for a nice explore up the rivulet before returning to the beach, doing a few more runs and practicing my self rescues ... much to the amusement of the kids who were there for a sailing day watching this idiot who seemed to keep falling out of his boat.

Top of Brown's Rivulet

The open mouth of Browns Rivulet

Then came Sunday.

Kim and I had agreed to compete in the Ellendale 4 hour MTB Bush Rogaine, and set off in good spirits for a bit of fun and exercise.  The course looked pretty easy (navigationally) and we pinged the first control and moved quickly to the second.  I was in particularly good spirits because every single other group, except one, had gone in a different direction than us, and even that exception headed off somewhere different after the first control.  I love it when I go my own way.

Just before the second control, which was in a pine plantation, I lost my back wheel going over the smallest of logs and before I even realised what had happened I was on the ground, bruised and confused.  I managed to unclip and get up unhurt, but it still shook my confidence a bit.

I shrugged it off and we proceeded to ping two or three more controls pretty quickly, though somewhat worringly I was really struggling to keep up with Kim's pace on the hills and roads.  The smallest of demons began gnawing at my confidence.  I found I had no motivation at all for being here today, and found myself thinking that maybe I should have given this one a miss.

Over the next two hours, I had what could only be described as a bad day.  I crashed for a second time going through a deep puddle and couldn't unclip in time.  This led to me lying in the puddle with my bike on top of me struggling to get out of my pedals. As I twisted and turned trying to get out, I managed to trigger a small cramp in my right calf which I really didn't need.

Kim found this dreadfully funny, which pushed me inside myself and I found myself battling a growing number of demons in my head.  The gnawing had turned into a roar.

Not long thereafter, Kim, who had forgotten to bring a map board, took off down a hill whilst I tried desperately to call after her to stop as she'd miss a control.  It should have been nothing, but I got very frustrated and rather than let it out, I just bottled it up inside and went quieter and quieter.  I was in a very dark place indeed and struggling to get out of my head.

I told myself that things couldn't get any worse, that I just needed to shift my attitude and enjoy the day, but my feet kept getting stuck in my pedals causing many near misses as we crossed extremely  soggy ground and I kept wrenching my sore knee trying desperately to get my feet out each time which just shoved me further into the wrong headspace.

Then my chain started getting sucked up into the front derailer and I found myself riding in all the wrong gears to try and keep going forward.  By the half way point I was fighting my bike and fighting my demons even more. Any pretense of outward good humour had long since vanished.

The only reason I kept on going at this point was that I had slipped into 'stubborn'.  I was going to finish this race no matter what.  I was vaguely aware at this point that I was upsetting Kim with my brooding silence, but I wasn't in a place to fix this, all I had at this point was the will to go on, and that was driven purely by a brooding anger not to fail.

Perversely at this point I was actually approaching a new source of happiness:  I could feel it growing inside me, but it was still too fragile to grab hold of and use.  It was that growing will to just go on, to beat my demons, to push forward purely by will knowing that at the end I would look back on the battlefield and know that I had won. I wanted to beat my demons this day.  I had to beat them.

We came up to another pine tree that had fallen across the track, and as I lifted my bike over it the back wheel got caught on a branch and I couldn't get it unstuck.  I think I may have screamed or swore in frustraton before I eventually managed to get my bike over the log.  I started climbing over myself, and just as I got half way over the log, I realised I probably had just freaked Kim out, so I turned to explain that I was actually OK.  However, just as I did this, I put my weight on a branch which promptly snapped sending me crashing over the log and down into the deep mud on the other side.

Sitting there in the mud, I felt a small smile creep up from inside.  I'd gone so far into the dark tunnel that I could start to see the light on the other side.  I knew it would take a while for it to get brighter, but I was at least able to try and explain to Kim not to worry, and that I was actually enjoying myself in a very dark way.  I'm pretty sure she didn;t believe a single word I said.

Just to prove that this wasn't to be my day, I next found myself deprived of around half my gears as my chain suck got worse and worse.  basically every time I tried to put some pressure on the pedals,  my chain was getting sucked up into the front derailer and locking, so my only option was to spin in a very easy gear, or to climb into my biggest gear.  About thirty minutes after this had gotten really bad, we pinged our last planned control for the day, and I had the sense to agree to an early return back to base. 

Somewhat ironically it was Kim that did finally lose her chain, just two hundred metres from the finish line, however, we still got back with about 30 minutes to spare amassing  a total score of 1,540 out of a possible 1,900 points.  What was really surprising was that we actually managed to win the mixed-open team (admittedly against only one other team, but a win is a win and ultiamtely we got the wine).

By the time we got back to Hobart we were both laughing and the days run with the demons was almost forgotten.  To be honest there's a part of me even now which is tempted to just delete this blog and let it lie unknown.  But the truth is that today's battle occured, and it's probable that it will happen again. 

But that's part of the essence of competing: somedays it's pleasure, somedays it's pain.  But as Bill Martin recently said in an interview on why he does ultra-sports "Suffering brings you somewhere,"  "It brings you to a different place."

Sometimes it's good to visit those places, sometimes.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Cape to Cape 2011 - The Whole Story

There's still a lot to digest about my four days in the Cape to Cape.  In fact as I write this I'm sitting in the Dome restaurant at Perth airport, it's 11pm and I'm looking out the front door as the rain pours down.  I'm wondering if even now, over 24 hours from the end, if I'm far enough away from the event to even begin to see it clearly.  Perhaps I'd be wise to wait until I got home?

Well it's fairly safe to talk about the stats:  I cycled 226kms, it took me 15 hours, 12 minutes and forty eight seconds.  I came well (well) down in the standings, in fact they'd need to dig a hole to be able to show where I came in the standings (423rd).   The only good statisctic is that according to my heart rate monitor I burned 72,408 kilojoules - for once a big number that looks good.
What can I say beyond this?  I recall writing recently about how for me races tend to occur in four parts, well in this case each day represented one of those parts.
Day 1 was despair, pure and simple, I went out as hard as I could and I just got ridden off the pack like the pretender I was. The tracks were divine, in fact over the whole four days the tracks were just amazing, but when you don't have the fitness to enjoy them, well one man's pleasure is another man's pain.  Today was pain.

I expected day one to be a short warm up.  It isn't, it is easily the toughest day of cycling of the four especially for those who don't like steep hills, I got off and walked my bike up nearly every incline towards the end, and the fact that virtually every other cyclist around me was dong the same brought little solace.
At the end of the day I was beyond shattered, I got off my bike at the end and almost fainted, I had that light headed feeling I've had before which had proceeded vomiting and dizzy spells, but thankfully this time I managed to pull myself together.  However I lay in bed that night thoroughly convinced that I couldn't do this race, that I didn't have enough to continue. I was in short, right at the cusp of the first part of the race - I was in despair at what was to come, with only the smallest voice whispering to me to persist, to survive.

I had a restless night, but during its course I realised that amid the clamour of doubt, this was indeed all I needed to do on day two - survive. I didnt have to go at it 100%, I could throttle back a bit, keep a little in reserve, treat it like a marathon, not a sprint, and hopefully just survive to the finish line.
And this is what I did.  After an initial climb on bitumen road out of Hamelin bay, the trail turns to single track and passes through 30kms or so of bush trails through delicious forest before coming out into more open scrubby bush and sandy soils and then finally a network or rail trails, farm tracks and gravel roads through private property and vineyards. 

There were still some brutal climbs, and some very frustrating delays at the start as the back half of the pack would just get stuck behind less experienced, slower riders who had gone too far forward and held everyone else back, but overall, I crossed the line exhausted, but not defeated. That was as good as I could expect coming into the day, so I took it.

Day three's mantra was to again persist.  I was very worried about my (ex-broken) right knee which was extremely painful to bend and which I couldn't even lift properly.  I had no idea if it would carry me through the day, in fact I just had no idea if I would get through the day.  I just knew that if I did then maybe, just maybe, I could get through this event, and I knew to get through the day I had to at least start.

So I started right down at the back, and this turned out to be a huge tatical mistake.  After a fast first few kilometres we hit the bike trails into Margaret River and as this narrowed to single trail the ride just ground to a halt.  It ended up taking nearly an hour to travel the first 10kms, and most of that was spent standing still as we waited for the riders in front of us to go over "Technical Trail Features" (TTF's) one at a time.  The call of "TTF" was a common cry of derision as we'd finally get up to the choke point to find a log over the track with a diameter no larger than a coke bottle, or a tiny little up-hill section which any half experienced rider should have been able to get over.  To add insult to delay, the track crossed over itself in a figure eight just outside Margaret River so we also had to spend many minutes waiting for all the riders in front of us go past and get further in front of us.

However, maybe this was a good thing as it did let me do an easy first 10kms and warm up the legs, plus it got me angry, and so when the traffic did finally lighten up I attacked the trail with a vengence chewing up rider after rider.  The track soon entered some amazing pine plantation trails and it was biking nirvana, even for someone as beaten up and destroyed as I was.

Unfortunately I enjoyed myself a bit too much and so wasn't watching my food intake.  I bonked around kilometre thirty-five and suddenly found myself falling backwards through the pack as we left the pines and entered more open trails and eucalypt forest.  The riding was good, but when you're broken inside, you don't see the beauty that's around you and all I remember is hills, more hills, and constantly trying to re-fuel.  Suddenly those TTF's didn't seem quite so easy.

I pushed across the finish line in just under four hours, but although I managed a sprint over the last half a kilometre, for the first day today there was no one to chase down before the line, just the demons that circled in my mind.  but I'd persisted, I'd got myself into the final stage of the race, both literally and figuratively.

Day 4.  I woke up tired and my knee was so sore I could barely get out of bed.  I had taken to sleeping in my Skins and I think they made a difference for my muscles at least.  What I did like is that on the starting line, I felt something inside for the first time since the starting line three days ago - excitement, anticipation ... I felt that I could do this.

I had arrived a bit earlier than normal and set myself up a lot closer to the front of the field and what a difference that made.  Today I managed to roll out with the mid-pack riders and as the ride charged across fast farm tracks, gravel roads and rail trails I found myself able to work with the riders around me in free-wheeling, hard pedaling fun.  I clocked up 22kms in my first hour (compared to 10kms yesterday) and reached the half way point still pushing an average of over 20kms/hr.

Todays riding was described in the riders guide as the fastest and easiest and it was, with the route including many sections of road, some even with bitumen.  Heck, even some of the bicycle trails were bitumen.

However warnings had been whispered of the ending: 5kms of technical single trail over loose pea gravel trails.  It wasn't the pea gravel that got me though, it was the heat.  I'd ridden 62kms without a break by the time I hit the last climb of the day and suddenly I felt like I was in an oven as the white gravelled hilled combined to reflect back the sun.  I felt like a grilled cyclist.  The single trail, by contrast, turned out to be great fun, I even timed my run into the finish using my GPS ... except that as my GPS hit 68kms (which should have been the finish line) I passed a marshall who call out "just over a kilometre to go".  I broke, my legs just gave out, they'd given me everything and had no more.  I just managed to grab the wheel of the rider in front of me to hang on to the group for the final kilometre.  I therefore came up to the finish line with a group in front of me and although I could have overtaken several riders, well it just didn't seem right.  I'd finished.  I'd survived and to try and claim anymore than that didn't seem right this day.

In hindsight (a week has passed), I now realise what should have been obvious - whilst you can enter a four day mountain bike event with no training and no fitness and get to the end, you can't really enjoy it with that strategy.  I'm proud that I didn't give up, I'm joyous that I finished, but the truth be told I wish I had had the foresight to train, to get fit, because only then could I truly have enjoyed this magnificent event.

A Comment on the Event (Just in case you ever think of entering)

I'm told that the event expanded from 350 entrants to 750 entrants this year, and that may explain some of the problems I had with the event.

Whilst the event covers some magnificent trails, the event itself was marred for me by too many riders.  Sure if you're at the front of the pack you'd have a great run, but I talked to too many people, like myself, that wanted to strangle the organisers.  You can't send 750 riders off onto a single trail and call it a race.  I probably spent nearly an hour overall, just standing still or moving at 1 or 2km an hour as we moved past choke points.  Every day it would be 3 or 4 minutes before I'd even cross the start line.  I remember on day 4 racing past riders only to come to a main road and then be stopped for four minutes as the traffic passed.  Four minutes meant that every rider I passed had caught up to me again.

Furthermore, whilst the volunteer marshalls were great, they're not cyclists and they didn't realise that yelling out things like "only 4kms to go" when in fact there were 7kms to go, doesn't help a rider in the long term, it doesn't make that extra 3kms go away, it just means you use up your energy before you need it.  Similarly the distance to go signs were atrociously inaccurate.  I think that Day 4 took the cake - it had two "Half Way" signs - they were just 3kms apart.

There's other small things as well.  There's very little information for interstate travellers about how best to organise yourself around the event (where to stay, what transport options there are), and although there was a bus service from the finish back to the start each day, there was no way of transporting some clothes from the start to the finish (other than on your back) so often it would be 2 or 3 hours after I'd finished before I had stored my bike, got a bus to the start and driven back to my hotel to get changed, have a shower and get some food ... not an ideal way to finish a day.

Hopefully, the organisers will think about this some more next year - maybe they'll try staggered starts, or use riding chips for timing, maybe they'll provide more information about transport (they did provide this information, but only two weeks before the start of the event long after you have to book everything else).

However, when all is said and done, it was still a great event and if you ask me whether you should do it ... I'd say go dance with your demons on some brilliant trails ... Yep, I'd say go west and play.

Friday, 21 October 2011


After a fitful nights sleep I drove down to the start with a simple plan : Survive. I figured so long as I kept it simple and focussed, I might be able to remember the plan and stick to it ... and it sounded slightly better than "give up".

Unlike yesterday, I place myself well back in the field - my ambitions of finishing mid field had been thrown on the bonfire of reality. Survival was my only goal today.

So I survived the first climb out of Hamlin's bay, I survived the crowded hills, the brilliant single track, the climbs, the climbs that came after the climbs, the sandy trails, the sun and even the creek crossings.

I went past the half way sign, then the 10km to go sign, 5km to go, 1km to go, then I could see the final banner ...

At about 500metres to go I realised I could perhaps do more than just survive ... So I ratcheted up to top gear and overtook one last guy in front of me ...what can I say?

I ended up finishing in just under four and a half hours. I was so slow they had already done the presentations before I'd arrived, but that doesn't matter because I did survive.

I'm told tomorrow is an 'easier' day, though I confess that doesn't bring much solace.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Crushed on the cape

Maybe I'll have more to say later, but to summarize, I was completely broken by today's efforts and I have no idea how I'll back up tomorrow.

Whilst these life coaches might talk about it all being in the mind, I think sometimes they need to step out of their air conditioned offices and charge at a steep sand dune after 30kms of hard riding and as their muscles scream, their lungs burn and their heart rate peaks they'll find that the mind can only take you as far as you've already prepared your body to go, and my body went past it's meager limits today.

So today I kept one promise to myself, about a kilometer from the finish I locked onto the back of the guy in front of me. We were pushing up a steep sand dune, and he jumped on his bike and tried to break near the top, I was already so shattered I could barely draw enough oxygen to keep standing, my back muscles had been spasming for the last 20kms: I was shattered, but I jumped on and followed him.

We hit the bitumen for the last 700metres run into the line, I overtook him with 400metres to go, then I overtook the two guys in front of him for good measure. It may have been a small phyrric victory in a day of defeats, but at least I got a win.

How much I'll pay for that win we'll see tomorrow ...

The storm before the calm

Five hours until race start, and already my heart rate is probably over 100 beats per minute, I'm sick with fear and doubt, my breakfast sits heavy in my stomach, the demons of doubt run rampant through my head encouraging me to flee, to hide, and each second ticks by like an eternity. It's the storm before the calm.

I remember the first time I felt like this, probably a decade ago now, when I agreed to enter an event - the Point to Pinnacle race - which climbs from Wrest Point Casino to the top of Mt Wellington in Hobart. A distance of 22kms - every one of them uphill.

I couldn't sleep the night before that event I was so sick with worry about what could go wrong, about being last, about not being able to make it. I saw a thousand ways in which I might fail, and unfortunately in any event there is always only one way in which you succeed.

So, I'm killing time trying to distract myself from my lack of fitness, and the killer times I just looked up for those people who competed last year. (note to self - looking up past competitors times to distract yourself may just make you more nervous).

Instead, I'll concentrate on the important decisions that need to be made, like what flavor of powerade to take with me...

Oh, ok that didn't take very long. Next big decision is which lens to wear in my new fancy sunnies (thanks Santa). This time I've actually got 5 whole choices:

It has to be the multi coloured ones right? They're bound to make me faster.

What food to take with me (and no that packet of snakes isn't empty, and if it is then blame the nerves)

Do I bother tidying my mess of a room - yea, you're right that ones's easy as well.

So, that's passed an hour, only four more to go, and like any true athlete I've migrated from my accommodation to a coffee shop to get my caffeine fix to calm me down before the event.

The thing is that I know that on any one day I could ride each of the next four days routes, and really enjoy it given enough time, After all even the longest day is only 68km. However, when you stack them back to back for four days in a row, when you put 350 other people out there, most (if not all) of whom are much fitter and faster than me, well then I find myself sitting here wondering, hoping, that there are other people out there heading towards the event who have also just come here for the experience, who are also concerned not about their time, but whether they can actually do it.

The thing is though that you don't know where you sit until you settle into the event, when you see the leaders and the pack surge off into the distance, and eventually get a chance to look behind and see if you are alone at the back ...

I got to the top of Mt Wellington all those years ago, and yes I was pretty far down in the field, but I made it within the allowed time, and in future years I got faster and faster. I entered this event in part because I wanted to prove to myself that even with a broken knee and other injuries I still had the backbone to compete no matter what level I was at.

I guess today I begin to find out if that is true.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Getting creative ...

The thing I love about photography is it let's me share how I see the world. Sure, very few photos come out exactly as I expect and often they're not exactly what I saw, but regardless they do capture not only a moment in time, they capture they way I saw that moment in time.

Often for me it's not the big picture I see when standing at a lookout or walking along a beach, it's the small things: the vein or colour of a leaf, a drop of water on a flower, a twisted root on the ground and of course the way you can choose how and what to focus on at any moment.

So, I've been over in W.A. for a few days now, just having a look around before the Cape to Cape MTB event, and I've been to some beautiful and special places, some well known like Wave Rock and The Valley of the Giants, but also to many, many special places you don't find out about except as a footnote in some travel guide, through the local tourist office, or best of all completely by accident.

Tomorrow, I head across to Margaret River to get ready for the race, so it's time to put my tourist shoes away and getting ready to survive the next four days. I have no delusions about just how unprepared I am for this event, but for me the critical thing is that I'm here and ready to try. I may DNF, I may come last, and my highest aspirations are only to beat the person I approach each days finish line with, and to try and be somewhere in the middle of the pack overall.

Today I did something I've wanted to do since I first heard about a tree over here that has metal pegs knocked into it and which, reportedly, you could climb up until you were sitting in a crows next 60 metres above the ground. I always thought it was just a myth, but this morning I turned up at Pemberton, and there it was - the Gloucester Tree, no safety briefings, no clip in safety line, just a little sign and a tree with metal spikes going up, up, up around it's trunk which you're allowed to just step on and start climbing. It was terrifying and completely exhilarating to climb up and view the world from the top. It was one of the best things I have done and should be on anyone's bucket list.

It was so amazing, I drove down to another climbing tree, called the bicentennial tree to have another go. However this time when I arrived I was all alone, and it took a while to work up my courage and climb to the first ledge, 25metres above the ground. Then just as I got there, a huge crash resounded behind me and I watched as a massive branch dropped out of a tree less than 50metres away.

Two other guys who had turned up bolted for their car on seeing that happen and with my confidence already shaken the heavens then opened up and the metal spikes got all wet and slippery. I felt that someone was trying to tell me something, so I took some pictures from the ledge I was on and descended down again. It was still brilliant though, and I'd love to come back and reach that crows nest.

I picked up a new book called How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming by Mike Brown about how his discovery of Eris out beyond Pluto lead to Pluto itself being offcially 'deposed' as a planet (something I wasn't even aware of until reading the book). Unfortunately it was such a great book I'd finished it before I even stepped off the plane in Perth, but I thought I'd tell you this because it had one quote in it which particularly struck me, "how could there be nothing left to find? How could this really be the end of the solar system?"

That's sort of how I feel when I wake up every morning - how could there not be so much more to discover in life? Onwards to Margaret River.

PS. You may never read this as this is my first ever post using Blogger+, some iPad blogging software ... I for one hope this works when I press publish ...