Saturday, June 25, 2011

Back in ‘The Alice’

I had been keen to do the Red Centre Stage Race for quite sometime now so boarding the plane and escaping to the arid but beautiful interior was exciting.

On the flight up we were able to see the effects of the wet year that we have had, Lake Eyre was pretty much at 100% capacity and it has taken 6 months for the water to make its way down from the north. It was an amazing sight from the air.

I had been in Alice 10 years ago, after finishing uni, I travelled up and worked here for 6 months, it felt nice to be returning to a memorable place where I had spent some time in the past.

We settled into our comfortable cabin at the caravan park and then set about going for a little roll into town to spin the legs, we did a couple of laps of the town and catching up with some of the regulars from the mtb scene and registered for the race.

Alice Day 1

Race day dawned cool and clear. Perfect Alice weather and great race conditions! We started out at the old Telegraph Station, my old place of work when I was up here, it was nice to see the old buildings and surrounds again.

Dan, myself and Scotty prior to the race start

Today’s stage was 49km, a mix of sandy fire road and some real special Alice single track. I was surprised at the amount of the single track around and also the quality of it. Full of razor sharp rocks and always loose and rutted, meant that you could never fully relax, there was always something round the corner to keep you on your toes!

The start was FAST! Being 3 weeks out of the 24 hour nationals I had my legs screaming very loudly at me in protest in the first 20-30 min. Not having smashed any intensity for some time and still feeling a decent amount of residual fatigue in the legs, I found today tough and uncomfortable, all I could do was to try and stay as consistent and efficient as I felt I could, everything else was out of my control.

After the first half an hour I slotted into third place behind Jess Douglas who was chasing Anna Beck. I was riding the single track smoothly and controlled but found myself floundering in the wind on the open road sections and sandy climbs, it was pretty energy zapping stuff.

Attempting to limit the time losses to first and second I managed to finish third, 8 min off Anna and 6 min off Jess…. It is a long week and I feel today was just the leg opener I needed after the 24hr. Hopefully the body will start to make those wonderful adaptations it does throughout stage races and I will find some more speed and comfort in the next couple of days!

Alice Day 2

Dan and Jayden (junior Bell'ie) on the regular commute to the race start

Day 2 started with a pleasant rollout under police escort through town for 5km, it gave the legs a good chance to warm up slightly before the hammer was put down!

Today was considerably shorter in distance, 39km, and the quality of the single track was optimum, not as rough as yesterdays stage. I felt I had recovered well from yesterdays race and the legs felt a lot more supple and free. I was feeling more comfortable at intensity but still felt I was not able to sustain it. The first sections of the course went through some deep sandy fire roads, where everyone was trying to get a sit and ride as a group but the sand bought many people undone, crashing, loosing their line, and coming to complete standstills.

My strategy was to stay relaxed, not fight it, so I just drop the speed a little and focused on spinning through till it firmed up. It probably was a bit slower but didn’t unnecessarily expend energy. I ended up riding with Jess though the first sections of single track, but yet again my legs felt drained of all power any time the terrain angled upwards, Jess ended up riding away from me leaving me to ride my own race.

The finish line, taking in the glory lap of the velodrome!

An hour and a half later I rolled into the finish line which was quite exciting as we entered the velodrome and cut a lap to cross the finish line. So I came in 3rd again today loosing another 4 minutes or so to Jess, so now I sit 9 minutes back from Jess and about 10 from Anna. It was time to head home and get some quality recovery in before the afternoons’ hill climb stage!

The hill climb was exciting! it was a great vibe with lots of locals out lining the climb to cheer all the riders on. It was a 300m length which consisted of a steep and nasty climb to the finish line at the top. Previous records were held by Jodie Willett with 58 seconds and Ben Mather with 42 Seconds. Tough times to beat!

The Caravan Park Crew hanging out on ANZAC hill.

The format was great, starting with the slowest time and finishing with the leaders of the elite men, so it was interesting to watch the riders coming up and the times getting quicker and quicker. I think I was more excited about spectating during this stage rather than racing, my time was slow, 1.22 reflecting how sluggish my legs had been feeling he last two days in the surrounding hills. Anne rode a cracking time of 1.07 but was just hedged out of the stage win by Anna Beck’s 1.04.

Bellie smashing his way to the top!

Alice Day 3

Well I woke up with a sore ‘froat’ (as Dean calls it!!) this morning which put me in a grumpy mood for the start of the day, it was going to be a hard day and now just a little bit more suffering would be required!!

Today was the longest stage at 77km and was a new stage for this year, they had estimated it to take the winners around 3hrs and 15. On paper it all looked and sounded pretty straight forward, with 17km on sealed bike bike path and then a section of sealed road for 12km. I hadn’t studied the course description too closely and was quite surprised how tricky the first 17km were, lots of steep walking pinches and again some more very rough, sharp and loose Centralian rock! I was aware of being quite conservative here as it would come back to bite me for sure. Everyone was a little more controlled at the start today, Jess had pushed forwards into first position and I found myself riding with Anna Beck, in her yellow jersey, for the first 17km, she seemed to be feeling some fatigue from the last couple of days, we were both about the same pace and it was nice having some company!

We got to the first feed station at 25km and from here we hit the bike track. I felt decent here, just so long as it stayed pretty flat and I was sure we had a bit of a tail wind. I noticed Anna starting to loose contact with me, so I made an effort to stay consistent and strong. Pretty soon I caught up to two fellas who were happy to roll some turns with me, we set a cracking pace, with me dipping into the red zone and starting to struggle quite a bit, but I knew Anna was not feeling comfortable so it was best that we kept pushing. Another rider joined us from behind and said that Anna had joined a strong group of about 8 and were only 200m behind us, I was tempted to sit up and wait so we could move with the larger group but we decided to keep pushing at our pace. I have to buy this lovely guy a beer as he was so accommodating in helping me out, he was happy to sit on the front and drive it, as I was no longer capable of rolling turns with any pace!

So we hit the bitumen and caught sight of the group behind us, it seemed they had caught us, so again we just kept pushing, now with two lovely blokes putting in some solid turns. We were now heading into a head wind and it was very open and exposed on the road. After assuming that the bunch behind were onto us we looked around and they were nowhere to be seen! So we continued to push on and picked up another couple of workers for our roadie bunch.

We got to the second feed zone and saw the approaching bunch about 300m behind, they had pretty much caught us, we were swallowed up and joined their ranks soon after. We continued riding as a bunch on the fire road but it all got smashed up as soon as we made our way up onto the top of the escarpment, it got very rough, loose and tricky again, I was really suffering at this point, my throat felt it had almost closed up and I was coughing up solid chunks of yellow phlem. Some of the descents were really sketchy and Anna Beck opted to walk a couple, somehow I got to the bottom in one piece and also on top of my bike, bonus!

So a gap opened up, it couldn’t be far now so I just pushed on through yet some more sand until I was eventually spat out onto the bitumen road that led me home to the BMX track. I hardly had the energy to pump over the jumps and across the finish line….. so happy to be done, now it was off to the chemist to get some froat gargle!

Alice Day 4

Today’s set up was quite different, we had two stages on the same course. In the morning we had an Individual Time Trial on a 23km circuit and then in the evening we had a night race on the same course, but going the opposite direction.

The start of the time trial, another perfect blue sky day!

The time trial started in reverse order of where you placed in the general classification so for me being mid field it meant a bit more of a sleep in and a relaxed start to the day. My start time was 10.10am, they were setting people off at 30 second intervals. It was amazing how much warmer it was by this time of day, we got to a max temp of 27, bit of a difference to the cold Victorian weather!

The course was great, on the way out it was quite fast and flowy, the mandatory patches of sand to catch you out and then some quite technical hilly rocky stuff on the way home. I had not pulled up well from the big stage yesterday and was continuing to have issues breathing, so I just dialed it back and enjoyed the trails, not a cracking time (1hr and12 minutes), think I placed fourth in this stage! We then went back to our accommodation to get some quality time in by the pool before we needed to front up and do it all again tonight!

Everyone was feeling very lethargic from this mornings time trial, and not super motivated to get dressed and back on the bike for the second time today, nonetheless we set up our helmets and bikes with our super bright lights and made ourselves ready to do battle with the night!

It was a beautiful warm and calm night, I just raced in a jersey, no undershirt required! The mass start was quite chaotic, there was a mandatory crash off the start line which I managed to avoid, and then it was hard and fast elbows out to gain a good position heading into the single track, the amount of dust that was created from the pack was amazing and I was not at all enthused about being able to see what I was breathing in!

Once we got into the single track it was pretty slow, a bit like world cup racing, with lots of bottlenecks as the whole field tried to squeeze single file into the technical trail. So for a bit it was pretty slow and at some points off and walking. Eventually things spread out and I found my own space, I was really starting to enjoy the night riding, it’s always an extra challenge not quite being able to define obstacles and also what lay around the corners.

About half way through I cam across a pile up where Anna Beck had come down pretty hard, she was quite out of sorts but all in one piece, I asked if she wanted to jump on my wheel and follow me home, she gratefully accepted and she nursed her self home, it felt good to be able to help out even if it was just a little. We later learned that Jess Douglas had also had a pretty nasty off managing to crack her helmet, such are the joys and the challenge of night racing!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Alice Day 5

Wow it had been a long week and we were finally on our last day.

Today we had a mere 40km estimated to take between 2 and 2.5 hrs, we started by riding the time trial course backwards over all the technical rocky sections and then looped round to the north western side of town to finally finish at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station.

Today I just didn’t really want to get on my bike, my cough had now developed into a snotty and chesty cold and I knew that by continuing to race I would be digging myself an even deeper hole, but it was the last day and I wanted to hold onto my podium position, so off we went!

I felt pretty good for the first hour then by the first feed zone the wheels came off and I just willed myself forward, very slowly getting myself closer to the finish line and also the end of what was an epic week.

I enjoyed the second half of the course, there was lots of new single track and the views were amazing, I contemplated stopping to take some photos but reminded myself that it was still a race!

I had a quite exciting finish, we had to cross the sandy river bed of the Todd river to get to the finish line, and as I was stepping off to run the remainder of the boggy sand Anna Antrecht had managed to sneak up right beside me and we ended up having a little race the last 20m to the finish line! Anna bet me to it and placed third for the final stage with me close behind with fourth!

So I managed to hang onto my third position and was happy for my performance to be what it was for the week, I always knew it was going to be touch and go after the 24hr, but you have to put yourself in these positions to learn and confirm how long it takes for you to recover and be on top of things again.

It was a fun week as always with the team and also an added bonus of having my partner Dan race also. He ended up having a great week and surprised everyone including himself with his result, 4th in the open men’s category! All in all a great week of racing and i'm definitely motivated to come back next year and have a crack!!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

24 Hour Solo Nationals

We were all sitting round the dinner table on the second last night of the Terra Australis Stage Race, Fenz put it out there; “You should do Solo 24 Hour Nationals!”

The seed was planted, I weighed up the do ability of it... the main positive was that it was during the school holidays, plenty of time to prepare and then also recover, but was I prepared to put myself through all that sustained pain and mental battering??

For some reason the answer was yes?!?! I embraced the opportunity to gain yet again another ‘experience’ and have a crack at different discipline of MTB racing!

We travelled up the Hume to Canberra and upon arrival made ourselves comfortable in the TORQ pit area. We had an amazing set up, Dean had towed the Caravan up which provides some real luxuries; microwave, couches, beds, stereo system, fridge and of course a toilet! Not that I would be spending much time in the caravan over the next 24 hrs!

Chilling out and conserving energy before the race start!

Throughout the last 4 years Stromlo has been a constant in my mtb racing experience. In the past I had raced numerous Cross Country National Titles, a World Cup race, and memorably a World Championship.

It felt nice to be returning to familiar turf to attempt something altogether different!

I had two team mates who were competing also; Mark Fenner (the evil instigator) and newly signed Scotty Chancellor, who is well known for his talent and results within 24 hr racing.

The three crazy ones; Fenz, Me, Scotty

I felt blessed to have an exceptionally dedicated and passionate support crew, they would be relied upon hugely during the course of the race.

Dean: the owner of Torq Nutrition and the and manager of the team

Dan: my wonderful partner

Dave: Dan's enthusiastic and excitable Dad who kept my bikes ticking along perfectly with his attention to detail and skills with the tools

Kerry: Dan's proud Mum who provided continious encouragement great photographic talent and precise timing skills and

Angus: one of Mark Fenner's good mates who helped get all my nutrition requirements just right!

The Pit Crew!

My race strategy?? I basically had no idea, being my first 24hr race, the plan was to ride conservatively so that I could complete the monster! The longest time I had spent on the bike was a 7 hr training ride, so it was going to be interesting!!!

My main competition would be Jess Douglas, she is the current World Champion and had ridden a heaps of 24hr races, she has fierce determination and knows how to win in this discipline, so yes I was nervous and felt like a small fry!

Jess Douglas Current World Champion

The gun went off at 12:03, just after the men's category were sent off. Jess immediately assumed her position at the front of the race and dictated the pace. Being fresh, rested and feeling tip top, it was really hard to hold myself back and take it easy. Jess continued to pull away from me, keen to get a gap, I chose not to respond, it was going to be a very very long race and I needed to conserve everywhere I could.

The other girls behind me had dropped off and I was left riding my own race with no one else around. I would get the time gaps given to me each time I came through the pits.... Jess continued to increase her lead steadily by about 30seconds per lap, so this was how a World Champion races a 24hr race.... I just couldn't match it!

We got through to dusk and the lights went on to my bike, I felt a bit of a lift, simply with the change from light to dark and felt I was riding smooth and consistent. I was conscious of maximising any positive sensations as from here on in it would become more about my mental state than my physical capabilities.

My race was tracking well, my lap times were super consistent, I was eating and hydrating well and I felt pretty good considering I was now in unknown territory. I was working in 6 hour blocks and the second block coming up to midnight I had planned a treat; a quick wash and a change of clothes... I got to midnight and the gap between Jess and I gradually started to break down, I was now gaining 30 seconds a lap.... so no time for my planned treat, things were really starting to happen!

Kerry's teacher skills on the whiteboard recording my lap splits!

I had now reduced what was once a 9 min gap down to 4 minutes, I was pumped but Jess remained illusive and was nowhere to be seen. Finally at 1.30am after 13 and a half hours of racing I came up behind her on the single track, I was blown away, I had actually caught the World Champ!

I made my pass on the fire road and instantly all my pain was forgotten, I felt like I was pedalling on air, it was the most amazing feeling. I made an effort to remain consistent and gave myself the goal of gradually opening up the gap in the next 3 laps, to give myself a buffer.

I got to 3.30 am and had my planned first hit of caffine, ( It was about at this point that Dan told me Jess had gone to the showers to clean up and assess her situation) this carried me through for another 2 hrs feeling great both mentally and physically. I was so surprised and impressed that I was feeling so great at a point in the race where I should be feeling the worst. From 1am til dawn are known as the 'witching hours' the long slog through the dark and the coldest part of the night, I just kept telling myself that when I got to dawn I could expect another positive sensation with the growing light, being able to see the track again and the fact that there would only be 6 more hours of racing to knock off!

The coming of the new day yeeeehaaaaa!!

I did my 'Dawn lap' with a feeling of contentment but started to crash and burn, my body ached everywhere from the repeated battering of the rocks and undulations.
Jess had since pulled out opting to not complete the race which left me way out in front now with nearly 3 laps up on Anne who was in second place. These were all massive positives and it was looking really good to take out the title, but I now found myself experiencing my lowest point in the race.

It was decided that I would jump off the bike, have my planned wash and change of clothes and a hot meal of gnocci with pasta sauce. Being off the bike was great, but I could hardly walk and was really hurting all over.

A fresh change, hot food..... not so motivated to get back on the bike!

After a lap I said to Dean " You need to figure out how much longer I need to stay on the bike in order to secure the win, because I am done!' I was thinking as I was 3 laps up perhaps I could stop at 10.30am. I had so much time up that 2nd place could not overtake me in the time remaining. I was devastated to learn that in order to finish you had to cross the line after 12 midday. I couldn't pull up early even though I had a substantial lead.
So the plan was to do another lap, then have a sit out for 40 minutes then get back on and complete 2 final laps in order to cross the line after the all important 12 O'clock!

Fenz Trying to get my body working again during my lap out.

The final two laps were the hardest both mentally and physically. I no longer had any strength to push the pedals and I was not even moving fast enough to keep warm. Although I knew it was only 2 laps and I was done, it was so hard mentally knowing that I was so close. I so badly wanted to curl into a little ball and let the earth swallow me up!

Crossing the finish line.....done and dusted!!

Congratulating Jason English The mens winner, who is also the current World Champion!

Being awarded the 'Green and Gold' Jersey was an amazing feeling!

Winning the National Title gains you automatic selection to the World Championships and the question was asked of me; " So do you think you'll continue racing 24's and compete at the Worlds?" I concluded with " Not a good question to be asking me at this point in time!"

24 hour racing has provided me with a rich and unique experience where I feel I have been stripped to my very being and learnt so much about my constitution as person. I loved that it was an experience for our group of people and not just myself as a competitor, my pit crew lived through it with me, the highs, the lows, the lack of sleep and of course the elation of winning. Much thanks to my crew!

That is all!

All photos credit of Kerry MacMunn.