It was about 7:00am – 250 meters into the start of a new lap, more than 5 hours from the end of the race. The peanut butter and honey roll I’d stuffed into my mouth was fighting for its life. Despite my maniacal chewing I couldn’t quell the little beast. It clung to my teeth and pressed itself violently into the pockets of my cheeks. My mouth was dry, my tongue was bruised and my jaw was tired – and due to a pressing need for oxygen, I couldn’t keep my lips closed long enough to generate some saliva.
Involuntarily I threw up a little into the back of my throat, forced myself to swallow and wondered – how long could I keep this shit up for.
I was leading, but I was crumbling…and that feisty little bread roll was still kicking….
My entry into the 2016 24-Hour Worlds was pretty swift when it was announced that it was to be held amongst the amazing trails of Rotorua New Zealand.
For mountain bikers everywhere, be it the super skinny XC types or the baggie shorted beer drinking gravity cats, Rotorua is a southern hemisphere Mecca. The local community has a deep and close affiliation with its surroundings and well-credentialed trail fairies are empowered to carve amazing lines within the forest. The results are phenomenal. Hero dirt, a lack of restrictive litigation, and obliging landowners have allowed a small NZ town to show the rest of the world how mountain biking should be done. When the course was revealed, all manner of froth and stoke leaped across the digital landscape.
Kylie and I had landed in Rotorua just in time to get rained in. 200mm of heavy NZ precipitation had avalanched out of the sky keeping us and my race-primed bike confined to our lodgings. My plans of finding perfect lines for both day and night laps went un-executed – and I had to be satisfied with a quick whip around half of the course and an abbreviated recon of the pit area on the afternoon before race day.
It was far from ideal, but by this stage, I was beyond nervous. Instead, I was heavily pregnant with energy and expectation – and rolling around the now fully bunted trail with Kyllie and SS hardman Michael Timp made me feel like I was waddling the corridors of the delivery ward, begging for the contractions to start.
And start they did. Before I knew it a sleepless night had dawned into the flurry of pit-lane setup which then fell away to see me in the starting chute, enduring waves of silent emotions as the pre-race ceremonies came and went. The pros rolled away with a 10 minute buffer, leaving us wedged in between placarded barriers, sharing the burden of nervousness and poor pre-race humour. The announcer counted down the remaining seconds, cleats snapped into pedals and a chorus of “Good luck’s” rose from our ranks as our race roared into life.
Mercifully my nerves faded away as the nuances of the Rotorua course rose to meet us. While not armed with the rocks of Stromlo or the relentless climbing of Wearverville, this loop had captured the essence of the local trails and indeed, turned out to be a demanding beast.
The first few kilometers of the trail were fast and inviting and made us eager to push harder into the forest. But it was bait in a well laid trap and we would soon find ourselves grinding up one of the two technical and rhythmless climbs that would deal out much suffering over the coming 24 hours. Before and betwixt the climbs lay sections of fireroad and sweeping super-fast drops. The descents were fast and dangerous with wet roots laying in wait in alarming places at alarming angles. Trees and ferns leaned out over the trail like football fans, straining to clip a handlebar or brush a shoulder. Jumps and berms begged us to go faster and harder and we found ourselves committing to mid corner G forces more at home in a a gravity race than a 24 hour event.
Thus, there was no rest. We would punch out on the fire trail at the end of these descents with heart rates as high as when we entered.
3x womens 24hr World Champ Jessica Douglas had said that a fun course is harder to race than a hard course. She was entirely correct. It was the trail equivalent of a Long Island Iced Tea, too much too quickly and you would be without pants, in a whalebone corset in the company of deviants way more devious than you.
Holding this image soberly in my mind I let the hours tick by. On the wise counsel of 2015 SS 24hr World Champ Scott Nicholas I’d started relatively slowly. The rationale was that as opposed to finding the race, I’d let the race find me. About 3 hours in I was well and truly down the standings convincing myself to hold tight to my plan. It was hard – the restraint was driving me crazy. I felt like a sailor on shore leave – in a chastity belt.
But sure enough, the love I was looking for began to find me. I was told to expect to see my race in waves, the first wave would come back to me between 5 and 6 pm and the next circa midnight. Cats in my category came back to me just as the sun was setting, and through no direct effort, I was drifting up the leaderboard. As 10pm swung into view I began seeing the names and numbers I was looking out for. While Kevin Skidmore and I had been casually lapping in proximity, we’d caught category threat Elvio Fernandez and eventually reeled in hardman Jamie Vogele. Sometime near midnight I noticed that my shadow (caused by Kevin’s insanely bright lights) had disappeared – as had his jovial chatter. The chatter I’m Ok with, but his lights were giving me the shits, so I put in a bit of a surge to maintain the gap and rolled through the midnight milestone with a significant buffer.
The novelty of riding at night had disappeared and an enduring blackness had settled in, blanketing everything with a an eyestraining lack of contrast. But I was doing OK. Maybe a little too-OK. My average speed had varied by less than a single kilometer per hour for 13 hours, I had almost 20 minutes over Kevin in second and had lapped both Elvio and Jamie. I was beginning to write my speech.
Then shit started going wrong.
In an attempt to conserve my batteries I’d been running my lights on low beam on the fireroad climbs, but a moment of inattention saw me barreling into the Mad If You Don’t section of technical singletrack at attack pace, with the candlepower equivalent of a small glass of light beer. I was riding by braille and ended up misreading a fast berm and burping my tire off the rim. A panic bomb went off in my chest. While I’d avoided a crash, I was now faced with a flat front tyre, a long way from home.
My hands were trembling, partly from the adrenaline but mostly due to the fear of being forced from the podium by an avoidable rookie error. I was taking the same deep breaths people take before they jump out of a plane or confess something to their boss. Way too deliberately I primed an oversized CO2 cartridge, attached it to my valve and with a little silent prayer, deep inside the pitch blackness of the Whakarewarewa forest – released the CO2.
In the recent past, I’ve seen the frigid cold gas escape into the air, through holes or gaps or stupid errors, disappearing as quickly as my place in the field, but in this instance, my tyre went up and stayed up. My relief was so palpable it could have worn a nappy. I was back in the game – but by now my methodical execution of a relatively boring plan had been replaced by a suddenly spiked heart rate and the impulsive desperation of a junkie.
Over the next few laps I began straying from plan. I was unable to retrieve my gel flask from my back pocket without pulling the light cable from my battery – and on arriving into the pits I put on a vest with the idea I could eat without plunging myself into darkness. In my sleep deprived state it seemed solid, but it was a remarkably flawed plan. The vest had no pockets and I couldn’t reach my food without pulling up my vest and yanking on the cable. I ended up being appropriately illuminated, but entirely undernourished. My stomach was beginning to complain about all the bananas and muesli bars and while rice cream and custard was a welcome interlude, I wasn’t eating enough in the 60 seconds or so I allowed myself in the pits. I wasn’t riding to victory, I was riding to bonks-ville.
My lap times were starting to stretch and with each hour, something else had started to hurt. First my hands, then my neck, then my bum. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, my knees, something I’ve never complained of previously were grievously voicing their displeasure. The science inside me assured me that the pain was a symptom of tight ITBs and while I was placated by the rationale, it did nothing to alleviate the droning, monotonous pain that I found hard to ignore.
In previous 24 hour events I’ve found the night-time to be a strangely comforting thing. Without the harsh reality that daylight carries technical climbs and arduous fireroad ascents don’t carry as much weight. What I couldn’t see wasn’t hurting me – quite as much as it was about to.
Disorientation and exhaustion are comfortable bedfellows. Ironically I was searching for signs of the new day, eager to rid myself of an extra kilo of lights and batteries. I was planning on shedding this equipment at 5:30am, but twilight persisted right up to 6:30am and in the darker parts of the trail, way past then. It was a little heartbreaking – but nothing compared to the fact that I’d found myself at the pointy end of the event, with 6 hours remaining, almost completely spent.
By contrast, daylight had woken up my competition. I had a 40 minute advantage over Kevin, but he was eating into that like acid. From 7:00am he was charging. In the space of three laps he’d regained 30 minutes of lost time and there were no signs of him slowing down. While still trying to ensure that I ate and pocketed enough food during my pit stops, Kyllie now had the task of recapturing my focus. She let me know, in the gentlest way she could: You’re losing this.
In our pre-race musings we’d often wondered who goes fastest, the rabbit or the fox. With our best quasi-scholarly intents Tobias Lestrell, Kevin, Hayden Muir and I had wondered if the fear of losing one’s life is greater than the hunger that drives the chase.
I was finding out in a very tangible way. I was a very tired and terrified rabbit being chased by a very fast fox.
Kyllie stuffed food into my mouth. I forced it down over the complaints of my stomach. I drank until I felt like I was going to throw up and I pedalled. I pedalled like my life depended on it.
The rot was not routed however. Kevin was still hammering. I had slowed the advance but it was like trying to halt a flood. Like the race for elite category glory, being fought with bottles and chains by Messrs English, Wallace and Lestrell, this was going to come down to the wire.
As the race stormed into the closing hours Kevin’s pit chief Kenny Soiza and Kyllie – who had both been magnanimous in sharing the load of caring for two athletes during the night, called a civilized separation of duties – lest an advantage be given to their respective riders.
There were ten minutes left on the clock when I came into the pits for what I hoped was the last time. I desperately wanted Kyllie to say that Kevin had come off the pace, that he was too far behind to overtake me and that I should be able to get off my bike and call this race done.
Fat chance. I was in concentrated agony. Lactic acid and exhaustion burnt in the back of my throat, smouldered behind my eyes and coursed through me like a grassfire – but despite my protests Kyllie sent me out for one last, final, all or nothing effort.
On that last lap I was tripping like Alice. The trail sparkled with things that simply were not there. I saw photographers change back into ferns, I saw wallabies turn back into logs and I saw Kevin’s blue jersey – everywhere. My mind was both freaking out from hallucinatory input and trying to command an athletic response from my exhausted body. It was like a wrestling coach on acid. The noise in my head was so loud – inputs, outputs all mixed up with the wind and the sound of a broken body mashing the pedals of a mountain bike. I pushed myself over the micro summit that heralded the end of the last real climb and suddenly, there was a moment of silence. I craned my neck to look back at the trail and it was empty. No Kevin, no chase and for the first time in 6 hours, no fear.
The last few kilometers still hurt, probably more so as the anaesthesia that is terror had since dribbled away. I concentrated on staying upright, brought my bike through the last of the technical trail and dropped into the final fireroad section that led to the finish line. Half out of ceremony I stood up and sprinted to the line, crossing with none of my long planned histrionics but to a warm reception from the waiting crowd.
This old rabbit had found himself bent and broken, but with a long coveted category World Championship to take home to his warren.
My list of people to thank is significant, as everyone had a part to play that is hard to acknowledge in person, let alone here.
My sponsors, Cycles Galleria and Pro4mance Sports Nutrition for their ongoing support, Curve Cycling for amazing wheels and David Heatley from Cycling InForm for excellent coaching.
Props to Craig, Lindy and Hayden Muir for their selfless help and huge thanks to Kenny Soiza for his excellent, bipartisan pit assistance.
Special mentions should be made of Scott Nicholas for his sage and calming advice, to Adam Kelsall for his enthusiasm and race-day composure, to Robert Douglas and Stuart Peele for their remote support and analysis, to Team Cnut for intercontinental stoke and to all those cats who stayed up late at night to yell at a computer screen as the race
unfolded. And a big thanks to Leon, Paige and Maroun for acupuncture and osteo treatments to help keep me on course.
Huge thanks go to Wembo (Russ Baker) for keeping 24 Solo alive and growing and to Nduro NZ events (Tim and Belinda) for putting on such a rad event, even under trying conditions.
Moreover, to all those people who came out and made a race of it, especially to very good mate Kevin Skidmore, who swapped out friendly for fearsome and scared about 10 years of my own life out of me.
Finally, to my amazing wife Kyllie. She not only put up with and supported a strung out athlete for 3 months leading into this event, but executed our race-day plans to perfection, often under considerable duress. You made this happen baby, you’re awesome.