Saturday, 31 December 2011

Murray River Half Marathon 2011

I’ve tried to sit down and write about the Half Murray Marathon several times over the last couple of days, but it seems that the words that I put on the page just don’t seem able to capture what I feel I should say about this event.
How do you capture this river?

I’m torn between telling the story of what I went there to do: namely to paddle a large distance and achieve something large in my life and what I actually achieved which was to race a large distance and enjoy myself more than I could ever have imagined.
You see from the first minute of the race, I found myself in third place, so a bit like Forrest Gump when he ran to the farm gate and decided that felt good so he just kept on running, I also felt good, so I just kept on going.  For nearly 20 more hours of paddling, 200+kms over five days I raced all the way down the river, and the story I’ve been trying to type is the story of the ins and outs of that race, but it’s a story that doesn’t seem to want to be told, because it misses so much about the event that I feel needs to be told.
Firstly the story of the river itself.  The river is absorbing in its beauty in that it is both unchanging and yet never the same.  Around every corner something changed:  the banks, beaches and snags were constantly changing, the current raced and stalled seemingly with no rhyme or reason, the water surface went from millpond smooth to being whipped up into white caps in the space of seconds depending on the river and wind direction, and also the atmosphere as many of the hundreds of campers stranded on shore by the closed river cheered or laughed you along.

On the water you were constantly passing or being passed by other paddlers, sometimes you’d paddle along chatting together for hours and other times it would be a fleeting encounter and a few words of encouragement or shared pain.
The people on the water were amazing:  I remember at the end of Day four, a few kilometres from the finish at Echuca, I passed a lady doing the full marathon.  She asked me how I was going and I made a small quip something like “great, but I’ll be happier when I’ve crossed the line”.  She looked across at me with this big smile on her face and said “Why would you be happier when we cross the line?  Look where we are, and what we’re doing.  Why would you want to be anywhere else but here and now? Why would you want it to end?”.  She was right, it just took me a while to realise it.
My poor hands at the end of day one.
At the finish line on that same day, another lady pulled up just after me and as I turned to congratulate her, I noticed her hands were completely covered in plaster.  She had blisters on every single finger of both her hands and on her palms and yet she was just so happy to be there and to be paddling she couldn’t stop effervescing about the day.  I want to be like that.
Perhaps the defining moment of the race for me came on the first day when I was coming into the first checkpoint  (Charile, 24kms from the start).  I was pretty sure I was in fourth place behind two singles and a double team (there were 14 half marathoners and another 6 or 7 Junior teams doing the same distance) and so a bit fired up at a possible third place in the singles, I wanted a quick turn around with food and water.  There was just one problem – there seemed to be something like 200 people standing on the river edge, and not one of them looked like Bec.  I scanned for her red shirt, I looked for my car, but as I drifted past the 100 metre or so length of the checkpoint I came to the horrible conclusion that she wasn’t there.  Running out of checkpoint area, and not knowing quite what to do, I pulled up onto the beach with what must have been a very lost look on my face.  A girl on the water’s edge looked at me and asked if I was OK, to which I responded that I was fine, I just couldn’t find my support crew.  The next thing I knew her whole crew was all over me, feeding me lollies, sprinting up the beach to grab fresh, cold water and refill my camelback, offering me a sandwich and other food to eat:  heck one girl even held my paddle, whilst another turned my boat around and got me ready to get back out there.  That and all of the hundreds of other moments like them, are to me what the Murray Marathon was about.
But yes, I also raced, even though I wasn’t in the racing category and so never really knew where I stood as my times weren’t posted against the other racers, and I wasn’t awarded a handicap.  I did know at the end of the first day that the time on my GPS had me about 3rd or 4th across the line, and at the end of day 2 I checked with the officials and found that I was coming second overall for line honours for single kayaks in the half marathon (there was also a relay team in front of me).
Bad day, I'm fifth from the left,with the blue cap.
I think the guy, who was "officially" coming second also may have realised this, because day three was one of the toughest and fastest on the water as we raced each other for the full fifty kilometres. 

His name was Pete and he had already run me into a sand bank on day one going past me too tightly on a corner which hadn’t put him in my good books.  He was obviously both a very good and clever paddler using the other boats around him to make getting down the river as easy as possible.  We raced so hard that we kept up with the double relay boat all the way down to Delta Checkpoint (over 30kms), but finally Pete broke about 10kms from the finish and I managed to take about 2 more minutes from him.
Day four, we also set out racing like devils for the first 8kms, but much to Pete’s credit after getting a jump on me by getting one of the sweetest wave wash’s ever, he dropped off the back of the boat he was sitting on and waited for me after realising that I hadn’t got on.  Basically day four was an unofficial truce and we just paddled down the river together for the whole rest of the day chatting away.  OK we were keeping up a fast pace and we did race the last few hundred metres, but I got to know and like Pete that day and realised that I respected him.
Day five was stinking hot, but the paddle was only 21kms, so I thought I had it in the bag with fifteen minutes over Pete.  However,  just to show you should never take anything for granted, Pete jumped very quickly from the gun and I was struggling in the heat and just couldn’t follow him. 
He got onto the back of a double team, and I had to watch as he pulled further and further ahead.  About half way down the river I was only glimpsing him as he rounded the farthest corners in front of me, but all I could do was hold the fastest pace that I could and hope that my fifteen minute buffer was enough. 
Then I hit a submerged log.  I saw it coming, but I saw it too late.  I had been paddling with this young guy who was talking a million miles a minute and had let him distract me and despite my evasive manoeuvres I heard a sickening crunch as my underslung rudder slammed into the log at 12km/hr.  As soon as I slipped off the log, I wiggled my rudder and was relieved that I still had steerage, but I had no idea what damage I had done to my hull, but realised all I could do was paddle and see if I stayed afloat.
The rudder aftermath - damaged but not broken (I think)
Miraculously about 3kms further down the river, the exact same thing happened to Pete (except he had a retractable rudder) so I was able to catch up to him as he had to pull into shore to reset his rudder which had flipped up out of the water.
We were back together and pretty much paddled the last few kilometres down the river side by side.  We caught up to one last double about 5kms from the finish.  These guys were obviously exhausted, so I pulled in front of them and slowed down to let them get on and wave-wash me down to the finish line.  The gratitude in their voices was palpable, but strangely it wouldn't have seemed right to not have done so at that stage of the race.  My experience is that a good wave wash can make paddling up to 20% easier or faster.
The final race to the finish ... me in the middle.
Then we came around a corner and there were the crowds at the finish line.  It was over.  I was sore yes, I was muddy and sun burnt, but I’d also had five of the best days of my life and all I could really think of as we pulled my boat out of the water and congratulated all of the other paddlers around me was that I wanted to do it again ... I wanted to do the full Murray (probably in relay), because these were five of the best days of my life, these five days captured what I want life to be about.
Do we do it fo the piece of metal?
It was the perfect ramble down a wet and muddy trail.
... or for the smile it brings to our faces (please note the "Get off the Couch"" T Shirt)
Thanks Bec for being the most amazing support crew and making it possible.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Murray River Marathon - Day 0

The good news is we made it and are technically ready to race. I have to say technically because there are a few small niggles we’re still working our way through.
My back is still pretty tight and sore following my nerve pinching issue (which I decided to spare you the details of but which has had me in a bit of agony and unable to paddle for the last two weeks); I had to get my boat through safety scrutineering with the rudder hidden in my pocket as a key bolt had shaken loose on the drive up here – thankfully a bit of a late night cannabilising of my mountain bike and I think I have fixed it; Bec is a tad unwell with hay-fever or a head cold; my brand new deck bag broke when I put it on for a test so I can’t carry any gear with me between check points and despite remembering to bring no less than 18 rechargable batteries with me for my GPS, I forgot to bring my actual GPS holder so won’t be able to track my distance or pace.
Situation normal … bring on the race!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

An indecisive summer

Why do I jinx myself?

The day after my gushing forth of how good my training program was going, I head for a ride along the newly opened North South Trail on Mt Wellington, and end up, well with this:

Yea, I crashed ... again.  The super annoying thing is that (a) it was a stupid crash (specifically, just 20 metres from the end of the track, I turned around to tell Kim we had reached the end, and in doing so, my front wheel clipped the side of the track and I went over the handlebars) and (b) it looks like, and should have been, a very minor set of cuts and abrasions, but it wasn't ...

After cycling home, I stepped under the shower to get clean before heading down to Next Level Kayaking's "Come and try it" Ocean ski day, and proceeded to let out a scream that I'm sure was picked up by Seismometers the world over, and heard by the naked ear over 200kms away.  Fortunately it was such a girly scream that no-one will be able to track it directly back to me.

After calming down a bit and giving it as good a clean as possible, I realised that I had scored myself a pretty deep and long cut just below my knee that probably needed stitches.  I've never had stitches, and I decided that was something I'd like to continue to be able to say, so instead of heading off to the doctors, I decided to just try not bending my leg and hoping it would magically stop bleeding.  This is my solution to many things - do nothing and hope that it goes away.  After several hours it was apparent this wasn't going to happen, so I put two plastic strips and an old bandage I found on it, and proceeded to hope that given that I could now not see the bleeding, I had fixed the problem.  Somewhat happily (unless it's got infected under those bandaids) this approach actually seems to have worked.

However, the upshot of this little accident was that I didn't get out in my kayak again until last night (Wednesday).  That's two missed days of training.

Now, to get to something like the point of this ramble, Tasmania's trying to move into summer at the moment, it's just not doing a very good job of it.  I was told that it was snowing on top of Mt Wellington on Tuesday and I've half regretted my decision to wear my summer cycling gear to work yesterday and today as I've felt the wind-chill something wicked descending Mt Nelson in the morning.

My trusty converted electric commuter MTB
Notice the short sleeved summer top ... and the many clouds behind me.
However, last night when I jumped on my ski, and after I'd gotten over the initial shock of the water and being wet, it turned out to be a lovely night for a paddle with the water so bath-like that I actually jumped in the water to show how to do a self rescue on a ski at the turn around point of our paddle down at Taroona.

It was a good paddle too.  As I had my ski, and three other (male) club members had racing kayaks, the paddle for the four of us evolved into one of those races that no one officially recognises as a race, just in case they don't come first.  As it turned out, with a strong headwind and with my technological advantage it came down to a race (and I can say that now) between myself and Terry in his Mirage 520, but I managed to reach the turn around point two or three boat lengths in front of him and claim the honours.  Just goes to prove my theory that technology can trump skill and training, and supports the many hours I spend on eBay buying new toys rather than out training.

The paddle back wasn't even a race: with near perfect following waves and wind, I started back after many of the other paddlers (there were probably 15 or 20 of us in all) and just had an absolute hoot flying back between them and then quickly outdistancing even the paddlers with sails.  It was a bit rude of me taking my ski to the Wednesday Night Paddle, and I won't do it again, but it was fun at the same time and hopefully showed some of the club members that ocean ski paddling isn't just about going fast ... it's about going fast easily and effortlessly whilst playing on the waves. :)

As for the North South Track ride, well that was pretty cool as well, especially the new section which is the only really fast, free flowing section of the trail.  Some pics are below, and I've modified the GPS route and track notes on to cover the newly opened section.

New signed at the Springs

Old section, below the Springs.

Beautiful section between Springs and Junction Cabin.

Entering the rock garden.

All the little ups and downs.

"I thought you said this was all downhill?"

The new section just past Junction Cabin.  Fast and flowing.

Sweet, sweeping, fast corners.

... and fast, winding sections.

Still had time to stop and smell the flowers.

The rock bridge.

Glenorchy MTB trail ... impending collision

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Silence of the blades

Training:  I'm not much good at training, especially any training that requires repetition, and from what I've seen that appears to be most of it.  So on that basis I've been rather happy with my efforts over the last couple of weeks.  I got out on the water for three nights the week before last and four nights this week, including a longer paddle down to Kingston Beach on Monday night, a fun paddle with Cath down to Taroona on Tuesday night, my normal Wednesday night paddle with the club and then a sprint session with Ben during his free Next Level Kayaking session. 

I would have gone out on Friday as well, but I'd signed up for a pool rolling session to see if I could still get my kayak back upright after a capsize. Turns out I can ... well 80% of the time ... in a swimming pool, with googles on and when I'm expecting the kayak to roll.  This unfortunatelu translates through to about 0.02% of the time out on the ocean.  Still at least I can do it, and who knows I might get lucky.

That brought me to today.  Today I planned on my first 40km paddle from New Norfolk down to Hobart to see how I'd hold up.

Preparing to launch: Note this was a BAD place to launch.
The clubs ramp on the other side of the river, might have been a better place.
I was on the water before 8am, and paddled up under the New Norfolk bridge before turning downstream to cover the 16kms to Bridgewater Bridge, my first goal for the day.  The water was almost mirror flat all the way down, although a little bit of a headwind kicked up half way along before dying off again, but it was really just a case of putting the paddle in again and again and again.

Looking upstream just above New Norfolk Bridge.

Early morning fog.

Bridgewater Bridge - just over 2 hours.
I passed under the bridge just over two hours after putting on the water, averaging about 8kms/hr including breaks and photo stops.  From there it was into unpaddled water for me, though the navigation markers seemed to indicate that I should stick to the left hand shore.  I did notice an interesting trail running alonside the Brighton side of the shore which looked worthy of investigation some time.

With a running tide and a little bit of wind behind me, it was a pretty quick paddle down past Cadbury's and then under my third bridge for the day and past the more industrialised shoreline.

Bowen Bridge

Across from the Zinc Smelter
From there the last 15kms or so seemed to fly by as I passed a bit more boat traffic, zigged and zagged across the river to try and get my miles up above 40kms, and even ducked into Hobart Port just to make sure.

Tasman Bridge from Lindisfarne

Hobart Port, Mt Wellington in background

Sea Shephard Ship

Overall I managed to average 8.9km/hr for the trip and it was a good paddle with some nice sights along the way and a great run home.
This wasn't however the end of my day.  Whilst my ski was safely back on its rack in the Derwent Sailing Squadron, my car was still 40kms away back up in New Norfolk.  Luckily I had left my road bike in the sheds for just this problem.  I got changed and onto the bike, but after four and a half hours in the ski there was no blood flowing through the legs at all and it took me nearly15 minutes to get them moving again, plus that nice little tail wind which had helped push me down the river was now firmly in my face.
I set myself a goal of getting back to my car in under two hours, but then revised that down to one hour 45 minutes by the time I hit Granton, then with 10kms to go, I decided that maybe, just maybe, I could make it in 1:40.  I managed to sit at around 35kms an hour but was constantly in and out of the saddle to keep that pace up.  I finally broke going up the final little hill into New Norfolk and crept over the top at a feeble 13km/hr.  I glanced down at my watch and saw I still had two minutes to go ... was it possible?  I jumped back out of the saddle and pushed down and through the roundabout, then right into Page Avenue with just 37 seconds to go.  Page Avenue didn't seem to want to end as I threw everything into the last sprint to my car, through the gravel car park, followed by a controlled skid as I pressed the stop button on my GPS and looked down to see 1 hour, 39 minutes, 59.92 seconds ... 0.08 seconds to spare ... now that's what I call timing.

Who knew that was possible?