Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Convict 100 2018

What a fun day !

A few years ago I stumbled across an event called the Convict 100 in my neck of the woods, around Wiseman's Ferry/ St Albans way.  I was hoping it was a running event, but it was in fact a 100km MTB (mountain bike) event.  I didn't even have a MTB, so no real interest from me.  For what it's worth, I have pretty much spent my entire life on a bike, and as a kid I would ride bits of the Convict Trail on an old fixed gear back pedal brake bike.

Forward several years, and now I have a MTB.  Time to revisit.

The event is staged by Maximum Adventure.  I had the chance to do some volunteering for them, which I would have done without reward, but I received a free entry to an event of my choice.  I chose the Convict 100. There are also shorter courses, but hey, in for a penny...

Am I a genius MTB rider?  No, not at all.  As it turned out, I am less than useless. I had no real idea of how to train.  I just kept up my usual running and walking, did the occasional 16km ride home from work, threw in some extra rides, as well as a couple of rides along the more technical sections of the actual course.  These turned out to be invaluable.  The last of these was a 45km ride that left me shattered, and wondering what was I doing.  I seriously doubted I could finish this sucker.

The big day arrived.  After a not so comfy sleep in the back of the car, it was time for race entrant #337 to face the music.  I whipped up a couple of super sweet hot chocolates (no need to count calories today) and a strong coffee.  Then time to make sure everything was thoroughly lubricated.  Taking care not to get the vaseline and WD40 mixed up, I applied copious amounts to the relevant bits of equipment.  As I rode down to the marshalling area trying to look vaguely like I had a clue, I changed gears and my chain fell off. Oh dear.  Making looks like "I meant to do that, that's just what us MTB riders do", I slipped it back on. I watched young fit humans with bodies like gods, squeezed into tight fitting riding gear, riding by on silent perfectly tuned and lubricated machines that probably cost more than my car.  I watched them in awe as they silently rode around in the early morning mist. However, I was stoked to see riders on bikes similar to mine.  It made me feel so much better.  Some of them were a bit creaky and rusty (both bikes and riders), which also made me feel better.  More than a few were wearing shorts over their lycra just like me, and I was really beginning to feel more at home.  Apparently someone was even riding the event in thongs. However, no one else seemed to be wearing gardening gloves with the finger tips cut off.  That seemed to be just me (and they worked just fine the whole ride).  A quick chat and a cuddle with Gavin "Tailwind" Markey doing sponsors duties and mate Marc Psaila in the 68km event (thanks for the photos Marc) and I was ready to roll.

hey Marc, look at my gloves 
 (photo courtesy Marc Psaila)

and we're off
(photo courtesy Marc Psaila)

We had our pre-race briefing.  They were talking about things like hazards, and signs for "water bars".  I nodded wisely, but really, WTF is a water bar ?!? A poolside bar in Bali ? I was clueless.

The starts were staggered.  The 100km riders were first off in three self seeded waves (Elite 4 hour finishers, Mid Pack 5-6 hour finishers, Old and Slow we may never finishers).  I happily put myself at the back of the last wave.

We started.  I suddenly realised that I had never riddien in a bunch before, and had my first test of nerves.  As photos later revealed, I was terrified less than one minute in.  Big right turn and I was desperately trying not to take out half the race in a careless moment.  Then it was a nice easy road section.

I had watched a few youtube videos of the event, and knew a river crossing through sand was approaching.  This didn't stop me from nearly flipping my bike when it arrived. Sand is deadly.  I managed to get off in time to push my bike across safely to another road section.

Then it was the first big climb up Jack's Track.  At this point most began jumping off to push their bikes.  I had worried about my old runners that I was wearing, but riders with cleats had a struggle on some of the rockier sections whereas my old rubber soles worked just fine.

Jack's Track was a series of countless short steep climbs mixed with some nice flat stretches, until the top was reached.  Then it was a series of downhills, then a flat stretch, then another climb, with most climbs requiring a dismount and some pushing.

It was at this point I discovered just how fast other riders were able to ride downhills.  I was amazed and am still in awe of their abilities.  It was also at about this point that the Elite 44 and 68km riders caught up and were absolutely tearing the downhills.  There would be a whirring sound, a shout of "on your right", then a blur as packs of riders tore past.  I was going so slow that I was trying to move out of their way to avoid a massive collision.  I began to think that the race organisers should have hung a special hazard sign around my neck.  At one point I heard "on your right" and moved across only to discover that some riders can't tell their left from their right.  A moment of sphincter clenching and a quick "sorry" and he was gone.  I had a heady mix of adrenaline and stress hormones pumping through my body as I held on for dear life bouncing down rocky stretches with superheroes literally flying past me.

The last steep descent arrived.  I had realised in the lead up to the ride that my rear tyre was losing it's tread.  I was hoping that it would be fine, but I now discovered that if I tried to descend too fast, at certain points my wheels would lock and I would begin a lovely slide.  I was descending at a snail pace to avoid this happening, and at some of the steeper points I had to get off and walk my trusty steed.  At least I was still moving and alive, not dead in a ditch.  Finally we hit tarmac and it was time for a nice road stretch beside the Macdonald River.

Now it was time for the kayak bridge.  This was something that I had been looking forward to, and it appeared out of nowhere.  I had the option to sit back and watch a while, but decided to just do it.  More adrenaline and stress, some wobbly moments as the boards unexpectedly changed levels, but then it was done.  Aid Station One was a lovely sight to behold as I reached the other side.
kayak bridge
(photo courtesy Marc Psaila)

 Another short road section, then the climb up Shepherd's Gully.  Most stayed on their bikes for a slow steady uphill grind of a few kms.  Then it was time for the technical stuff along the Old Convict Road.

This is where a couple of training rides paid off.  I began hearing frustrated comments from other riders who hadn't been expecting it too be so tricky.  I was happy to jump off and walk the bike.  I had a few places where I had a plan of attack about whether to walk or ride.  I reached a memorable spot where I just automatically got off to carry the bike.  A fellow rider was standing looking down in disbelief.  Riders approached and he stood frantically waving them to stop, yelling "stop, there's a drop, you can't ride down".  They simply rode around him and plunged over the edge, and rode down without missing a beat.  I just laughed in disbelief.  Absolutely f@#*ing amazing. 
I just carried my bike 
 (photo courtesy NoBMob images)
This is also where I began to hear the unmistakeable sound of MTB riders crashing.  A kind of crunchy sproingy spoke bending sound with lots of swearing.  I was desperately trying to avoid the same fate.  At this point I had come close many times, but thus far had avoided the inevitable (I knew it would come at some point).  I also began encountering riders whose bikes had smashed gears, chains broken or jammed, and assorted other mishaps.  
I was watching the time to make sure I made the 47km cut off before 12pm.  Made it by 11.30, so avoided being redirected down the 68km course.  However, I did think long and hard about taking the shorter option.  I munched down handfuls of purple lollies as I contemplated.  The sugar kicked in, and I head off down the 100km course.

This was when I began to experience cramping.  I was still riding the uphills as much as possible, but this was exacerbating the cramping.  The act of raising my leg to get off the bike was a tightrope act as it brought them on.  At one point I stood paralysed as my right quad and left hamstring locked shut.  I was unable to move.  I needed the bike to remain upright to keep me standing, but the slightest movement to balance the bike would start a chain reaction of pain.  I stood frozen for several minutes, trying to relax my legs.  I downed a gel and some electrolytes (good old Tailwind) and waited.  I finally felt things settling down, and began slowly walking.  After a good while of walking, I tentatively began riding again.  However, as soon as I needed to use my legs with any effort, it would all begin again.  Eventually I got things into some kind of shape, and rode slowly on.  The cramping would continue to hang around until near the end though.  I did see quite a few dropped gels, but there was no way on earth I could stop to pick them up.  

Despite the cramps, I remember this section being the most pleasant to ride along.  A few technical bits, some walking, a few near disasters, but pleasant.  The weather was perfect.  The only hassle was the over hanging vegetation.  Tomorrow would find my face covered in scratches and cuts.  At the 75km turn off a helpful volunteer said only a few km to the next aid station, then it was all downhill.  As it turned out, he was either sadly misinformed, suffered from dementia, or was just a bastard.  The up/ down went on forever after the aid station. 

At the aid station I ate half a pack of awesomely salty chips, filled up my water bottles, and pushed my bike up yet another hill.  One of many more that were to come, followed by a steep descent, then off the bike to push some more.  This was when good ole fashioned exhaustion began to set in, and I really had to pay attention on the downhills.  Meanwhile other riders continued to scream past me as I wobbled my way down.  How do they do it !!  Brilliant stuff.

It was also when the sounds of crunching gears truly kicked in.  By this time everything was layered in dirt and muck, and any pre-race chain and gear lubrication had well and truly worn off.  A click-click-click of gear change would be met with silence, then a horrible grinding, then a sudden shift up or down of multiple gears to a gear that was either too high or too low.

Finally the true downhill arrived, and the track began descending steeply.  The inevitable stack also arrived.  An application of brakes was met with a locked back wheel and a long long drawn out slide that saw me heading inexorably towards a large roadside ditch, which eventually ended with me upside down in a pile of dead tree fall.  Clambering out I slipped and ended back where I started.  I hung suspended for a moment, took a deep breath, then slowly extricated myself.  A bit of skin missing, some blood on the knees, but no real damage except to my pride.  I untangled my bike from the timber, and decided to just walk and carry my bike until the slope levelled out a bit.

At last the final descent was over, and it was time to knock over the last 13km.  A group of RFS volunteers directed me around a big right turn.  The road was a bit slippery and I nearly collected a few of them even as I thanked them.   The day wasn't done with me yet.  The sign announcing 10km to go appeared and it was time to ride for home. Yee haaaaaa !!  The cramping had finally gone.  With 5km to go, bitumen appeared, and the riding was great, and I pushed as hard as possible just because I finally could. 

St Albans came into view, a bunch of campers packing up gave me a rousing hero's welcome, I turned into the finish chute and finally crossed that line in 8.37, 5th last overall and proud as punch.  I had predicted 8 1/2 hours, so right on the money.  I received my token for a free beer, and it was glorious.  What a well earned beer.

I rode back to the car, packed away like a muddle headed wombat, and set off home.  As I drove out of St Alban's, a lone rider was riding into town.  I stopped to clap him home.  Last man back in about 9.15 hours.  What an effort.

Next day I was alive, but tired.  I still had a bag full CLIF and HAMMER bars that I did not at any time feel like eating.  I ate two salted caramel gels (yummy), drank gallons of Tailwind, a handful of lollies, some salty chips. Lots of soft tissue damage that rest and plenty of fluids would take care of.  Both knees puffy, which was pushing things (painfully) out of alignment and making walking an effort, but experience told me that it would pass.  The top of my left foot had a swelling like half a tennis ball, but it didn't hurt a bit.  The only chafing was very location specific (but I won't post photos).  Most importantly, I had survived and I WAS ALIVE ! I was proud as punch and have been riding a high ever since.

What a fun day. 

As usual, thanks to the lovely Cait for patiently waving me off to do some crazy adventure thing.  What a Gal.  I wonder what I'll do next ?

Monday, 12 February 2018

GNW 2017

Not able to enter the GNW100 run this year due to injury, there was a little 100km hole in my life.  I already had the time off work, so what to do.

I put together several tentative plans, but decided heading up to the Watagan State Forest would allow me to be around the race, see some familiar faces, and get in a nice solid couple of days of walking.  

Being a supremely organised kinda guy, of course I didn't pack until the night before, when I realised that I didn't have the right bleach.  The right bleach ? Yes, you can use household bleach ( how to purify water ), but it has to be plain bleach.  The lovely lemon scented variety we had in our cupboard wouldn't do.  The lovely Cait apologised for her domestic fail, but seriously, how many wives have husbands requiring "drinking bleach".  A quick visit to my parents en route and requesting plain bleach had them confused, and they offered me a plethora of cleaning products.  Lemon scented bleach, Domestos, Pine-o-Cleen, cloudy ammonia...all those delicious cleaning products and not a drop to drink.  Thankfully Wollombi General Store had 2L of the good stuff, so I was set.

I set out from Congewai East Track Head at about 1.30pm, a bit later than planned, but it was a simple section of track and no chance of getting lost (I hoped).  If I had to walk in the dark, so be it.  It was nice and toasty hot as I climbed the stile and set out.

Of course the paddock had to be filled with cows.  Those familiar with my ramblings know they freak me out - because as everyone knows, those animals you like the least, love you the most.  A large black bovine immediately began moving towards me.  I tried ignoring him and keep on moving.  A nervous glance behind suddenly revealed five large black bovines walking abreast right towards me (with a menacing look...).  I began eyeing off the fence and planning a leap as I heard hoof steps and "hrumph hrumph" noises behind me get closer and louder.  I clapped on the speed, wondering if I was about to suffer death by cow. Eventually I left them behind.

First reconnoitre stop was Crawford's Tank - and it had plenty of water. I filled my bottles, added some delicious drops of bleach, then headed out for Barraba Rest Area.  I was fascinated to realise that I had almost completely forgotten all this stretch running the GNW last year.  Possibly after a 4am wake up and running 45km on adrenaline I had been a little distracted.  I didn't remember it being so pretty.  Or so steep.  A lot of it was gentle incline, then a sudden climb to get the legs and lungs burning.  Lots of lovely views that I had no memory of.  It was nice to walk and take in the sights instead of slogging it out in the heat like last year. 

Reaching Barraba Rest Area, a lovely tank full of water awaited me.  I topped up some more, then headed out along the 13km stretch to Watagan HQ.  It was uneventful.  I walked a stretch that I recalled as being incredibly steep and a painful descent - nah.  A few moderate slope at best.  The sun was setting, the day was cooling, and it was lovely to plod along, stopping to look out at views.
Barraba Rest Area
After an afternoon of uneventful walking, the sun began to set and the temperature began to plummet, and I cranked the pace to reach the camp area before full dark.  I eventually reached the Watagan HQ campsite with  the last glimmerings of light and warmth.  The place was empty except for one lonely campervan.  I quickly threw my tent up, popped on my head torch, and sat in the dark mixing up MILO and powdered milk.  Clouds of mist swirled past, and it became decidely chilly.  I soon realised that I was freezing.  I was also completely knackered and not at all interested in cooking dinner.  I had planned on a twilight stroll to collect water from Hunter Lookout, but decided to do it in the morning. By 7pm I had brushed my teeth and was tucked up in my sleeping bag.  After a few pages of "1984" it was lights out.  My pillow was a pile of extra warm clothes I didn't need.

I would love to say I slept like a baby, but a constant flow of 4x4's playing spotlight kept me company.  No worries.  I just nodded back off each time (and hoped they didn't come and do burn outs around the camp area).  The main hassle was waking up cold and having to add extra layers from my pillow whilst writhing inside my sleeping bag to retain warmth.  About 3am I ran out of extra layers to add, and huddled, foetal and cold, with no pillow, until morning.
With sun rise I peered out of my cocoon (I was not a beautiful butterfly).  Miraculously a race checkpoint had appeared at the camp area.  I wandered around hoping someone would offer me water (insert pathetic face here), but no.  Eventually I wandered along to Hunter Lookout (not that far) and the water tank.  A nice moment to sit and relax.  Then I wandered back to make the first of many coffees. 
Hunter Lookout
By now the checkpoint was in full swing and all abuzz with family, friends and support crews.  For those not familiar with ultra events, check points are addictively good fun.  As a runner it can be super hard to drag yourself away.  This morning it was great to wander around with coffee and take it all in (part of why I chose to come a wandering and camping).  I met a bunch of familiar faces and chatted with total strangers.  The runners began coming through and the place went crazy.  

Andrew arrived and Team Layson swung into gear.  Panic ensued when they couldn't find the right hat.  In the world of runners "crew" stands for "cranky runner endless waiting".  So true. Special running hat located, Andrew was ready to set out.  Told Bek I was waiting for Gav to come into the checkpoint before I set out.  Found out I had blinked and missed him.
Hi Bek
Team Layson - special running hat located
After many a coffee, it was eventually time to break camp and head home.  Runner after runner passed me by.  Some very intent and focussed, some happy for a chat, some just grinding it out.  The lovely Steph stopped for a hug, then serenely glided on.
Steph making it look easy
slogging it out
It was interesting to discover just how little memory I had of the event last year.  I was looking out at views, admiring the enormous grass trees and hidden rock orchids, and enjoying stretches of trail I just did not recall.  As jealous as I was of runners going past, I was definitely enjoying endless stopping and snapping photos.

so many grass trees

Eventually I reached Barraba rest area to top up my water.  As I did, a runner arrived.  It was race legend Andy Hewat. I remembered him from last year with the last few sleep deprived brain cells that I had possessed after 132km.  I had been hallucinating about snakes and about to drop out.  We exchanged a few memories, then he set off to complete yet another 100 mile journey.

From here it was downhill wandering.  I repeatedly stepped off track to let runners past.  As the day heated up I was becoming less jealous of them, and beginning to look forward to reaching the car.  Congewai Road came into view, looking all hot and dry.  This exposed stretch was hell last year because I had run out of water and was slogging it out to the check point at Congewai School.   
lovely gentle walking
Getting hot now.  Have fun guys

hot, dry, dusty Congewai Road
As I reached the fence line I began to cast my eyes about for the dreaded cows.  I eventually spied them high above, staring down on me.  Waiting to pounce.  Evil creatures.  Like a Stephen King book ("The Mooing" ?)  I powered up and pushed for the safety of my car, climbing the fence stile before the bovine menace could perform an encircling maneuver.
I know they are up there somewhere...lurking...waiting...
"Hey guys.  Here comes Rob ! MOOOOO.  Let's perform the circling maneuvre. MOOOOO

After this brush with the bovine death, I noticed a runner cheerily climbing the stile.  It was Paul, who is always cheery.   Pound for pound he is the happiest rally driving ultra runner in existence.  I offered him some water, then he calmly trotted off.  I wandered back to my car and fired up the air con.  I did feel a little guilty driving past him, so I tried to make amends by waiting for him at the Congewai School checkpoint to offer aid and assistance.  Not that he needed it.  He was in total control.  And cheery.

Paul being cheery
still cheery

Once Paul had left the check point, it was time to head home.  I had survived cold, I had survived cow.  Another adventure finished.