Monday, 26 November 2012

The Taupo Maxi Enduro

About to head off for Taupo with my support crew - Helen and two dogs.
After the 505 km Graperide Ultimate in March, I had decided to take things up a further level and do the 640 km Maxi Enduro – four times around Lake Taupo.  It’s only 135 km more than the Graperide, but the terrain is a lot tougher.  I was going to step up my training and be in a condition where I would not only finish the race, but also get a mid-field placing.  However, things don’t always turn out as we want.

As it was, I entered the final countdown to the race with a great sense of disappointment.  Injury and other reasons had meant that I was under-trained.  What’s more, I was still recovering from a prolonged, debilitating cold.  Not only would I not be getting a good result, even finishing was going to be a huge effort.  However, at no time did I think that I would not finish.  The key thing with endurance sports is mind over body.  I didn’t doubt myself and wasn’t going to let any set-back such as insufficient training stop me racing.

"Skinny legs" having a chat with Stu Downs
(Thanks to Liz Gibbs for this and some of the following photos)
Question: what's more important than a clipboard?
Answer: the woman holding it! 

However, all thoughts of dread were thrown to the wind as I gathered at the starting line just before 10:30 am on Friday 23 November.  I tend to spend a lot of time preparing myself mentally for such events, and part of this is having a positive and open mind.  So I was relaxed at the start and had a big smile on my face.  I was determined to enjoy this as much as I could.  There would be hell to come, but it could wait its time.  It was great catching up with old friends and making new ones.  It was also a somewhat surreal experience, with a small crowd of supporters and well-wishers gathered around, including several photographers taking photos of each of us as we got ready for the race.

I think it was 16 riders that started the Maxi this year, which is historically a big number.  We were quite a mixture.  Some were absolute top athletes, setting out to make records around the course.  I placed myself firmly amongst those mainly interested in just finishing.

A minnow standing in some exalted company - the start line (Liz Gibbs)

After a couple of short speeches, we were off, with cheers from the onlookers.  The rabbits took off.  I was determined to go my own pace and expected to be well towards the back.  But, as the field quickly stretched out over the long initial hill, I found myself about three-quarters down the field.  I slowly caught up to Craig McGregor, expecting him to hop on my tail, but soon found I was by myself.  There were a couple of people ahead of me, who were tantalisingly close at times, but they slowly pulled away.  Once they were out of sight, I saw no other rider for the next 120 km.

I find Taupo a tough course.  A lot of it is very hilly, with the hills tending to be sharp and frequent.  Being 1.85 meters and just over 70 kg, I should have a power-weight ratio well suited for the hills.  However, once they become too steep, my lack of power more than counter-balances any weight advantage.  The Taupo hills are incessant and really wear me down.

For the first three laps, the Maxi Enduro riders take the slightly longer route over the first “40 km”.  Over the last lap, it’s the shorter but considerably hillier route.  I much prefer the former!

The first 100 km is a series of almost continuous rollers, with sharp up-hills and down-hills.  I quickly developed a pretty simple approach to riding them.  It was to have the bike in its easiest gear for the up-hill bit and just grunt my way to the top.  I would then be down on the aero-bars with the smallest chain-ring clicked in and plummeting down the other side.

Despite using the easiest gear, the up-hill bits were still difficult.  They required far more effort than I wanted to spend, which was very different from the Graperide Ultimate where I surprised myself by handling the two big hills quickly and easy.  However, I felt confident that any delays going up would be made up by the high speed I could achieve going down-hill, especially on the longer, less-steep segments.  I can get some pretty decent speeds while down on my aero-bars and was able to use this to successfully stave off any challenges from behind until I stopped for a gear re-arrangement around the 120 km mark.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The hazards of cycling, although the traffic was very considerate
(Thanks to Matt Oliver for this and some of the following photos)
About 10 km from the start-line.  Notice how the backpack is pushing my head forward? I didn't for a long time! (Matt Oliver)

Cramp proved to be the dominant theme for the first circuit.  The plan was to meet Helen every 40 km.  I would stop the bike, grab a couple of electrolyte tablets that she would have waiting for me, wash them down with water, change drink bottles, and then be off again.  This tended to work very well and I really don’t know how I could have managed without Helen, especially later on as things got difficult.  I don’t know when the cramps first began, but it was well before the 80 km mark.  As they got worse, I upped the number of tablets to three, started using my homeopathic anti-cramping spray, and also, once past Turangi, upped the frequency of the stops.

I know from experience that my memory gets quite confused in these races.  Because I wanted to keep a record for this blog, I asked Helen to jot down some notes for me.  My plan was to say the odd thing at most stops.  At the 80 km stop, my unedited notes-to-self were apparently: “Finding the hills hard work.  Very hot.  Feeling light-headed”.  They were to be my last and only such words, but luckily Helen also jotted down some notes, which have helped a lot in putting a sequence to some of the events in the race.

The race turned out to be so very different from the Graperide Ultimate.  There I had the luxury of being able to Zen out.  I had worked on putting my mind into a good place where I was positive and open and enjoying every minute.  I’d done this while maintaining a high speed and surprisingly respectable placing, at least until around the 350 km mark, from which time some grim moments began to sneak in.  I couldn’t do this in Taupo.  The hills were just too intense and took my full effort.  In a way, this is also a Zen-out, as you totally live in the moment.  Your full focus is on moving those pedals, maintaining that momentum, and getting to the top of the hill.  Then, when at the top, the hill would immediately start to descend, so I’d be down on the aero-bars and concentrating like heck as I reached average speeds of around 60 km/hour on the narrow, windy roads.

However, my mind was steady.  There was at least one fleeting moment later in the race when I wondered whether it would be physically possible for me to actually complete four laps, but I’d quickly chased that thought from my mind.  The focus would instead be on the shorter milestones – the 40 km relay transition stops and the three big hills – Waihaha, Kuretau, and Hatepe.  And this tended to work.  I’ve done the shorter Taupo races quite a few times already and had a fairly good idea about where the different bits were, where things tend to drag, where the going got really intense, and so on.  So Waihaha Hill was duly ticked off, although it felt somewhat longer than before.  Kuretau hill and the shorter Waihi Hill were eventually also ticked off.

A hill somewhere on the other side of the Lake

I was surprised not to see Helen at the Waihi Hill lookout, which was pretty much the 100 km mark.  She’d mentioned its views of the Lake, which are stunning, but she’d obviously decided to meet me at Turangi, where there was a compulsory check-in – not for me, but for the support-crew to say that I’d passed.  Once down the other side of Waihi Hill, the going would be mostly flat for about 35 km until the famous Hatepe Hill.  I hoped to put on a good time.

I found Helen waiting for me just before Turangi.  This was convenient for two reasons.  First, I desperately needed some more electrolyte tablets.  Second, I wanted to take my back-pack off.  I’d made the decision to wear a back-pack, because I could put my race number on it and then change shirts easily without always having to take off the number.  The only trouble was that it was putting a gentle pressure on the back of my head when I was down on the aero-bars, which made my neck strain just enough to be likely to cause trouble as the race went on.  It was while Helen was pinning the number to my back that Alistair Davidson and Don Bruce rode past.  A friendly “Hi” from Alistair (one of a few to come!) as they whizzed by.  It was duly responded by me, of course, but my inner voice loudly said, “Bugger!”

The early afternoon traffic along the No. 1 highway was not as bad as I’d thought it would be, and I was able to keep up a good speed without too much stress.  I was down on the aero-bars most of the time, only going up on the main bars when the verge got a bit narrow and for the slightly hillier bits.

It was definitely a pleasant change to be on the flat part of the course.  It’s especially beautiful when you suddenly reach the Lake shore and ride along it for quite long periods of time.  However, as I said, my mind was not in a space where I could enjoy it too much, except at a sterile, intellectual level.  But things were still going well on the mental front.  My focus was purely on turning the pedals.  Interestingly, my mind had actually slowed down, which was a great help.  There was no angsting, no clock-checking and working out how much I still had to do.  Instead, milestones were duly ticked off – village number one; village number two; lake view; caravan park; bluff number one; bluff number two; and so on.

Slightly before Hatepe Hill, Helen stopped again.  Yes!  Time for more electrolyte tablets!  It was while I was stopped that Alistair and Don passed me a second time.  They must have stopped off at Turangi and I had unknowingly passed them.  I was too slow to jump onto their tail and didn’t want to waste energy trying to catch them only to be dropped.  We were soon on Hatepe Hill and, once again, the cramps started to attack.  Some loud shouts of pain from me, which I’m hoping the other two riders didn’t hear.  Anyway, I slowly started to reel them in.  This was not intentional, but maybe my gear ratios (11/27) are slightly different to theirs, which meant that I was forced to go faster and spend more effort on the hills.  Who knows?

So, by the top, I’d caught up to Alistair and Don.  Don was in the lead and I exchanged some friendly words with Alistair.  No doubt they were very meaningful and intelligent, but I can’t remember.  Alistair then took the lead, with me behind.  I quickly worked out that there was no way that I could match his pace, let alone be able to take my turn at the front.  “It’s too fast for me”, I said to Don, and allowed them to slowly pull ahead.

The 20 km into Taupo was then quickly ticked off.  Just on the outskirts of Taupo, my daughter (Raewyn) passed me on her bike going the other way.  She’d come to give support.  “Good luck for the Criterium!” I shouted as I went past.  Raewyn was going to do her first Pro-Elite criterium race that evening.  She later told me that she’d then tried to follow me, and Helen was apparently waiting to take a photo of both of us as we went by, but that I was too fast with my aero-bars and high cadence.  It’s not that she couldn’t thrash me, but she was saving herself for the Criterium.  As it was, she was very pleased with her Criterium race.  She also did the Lake for the first time ever the next day, doing it in a time of 4:38 hours, making her the fourth fastest women around the Lake.

One lap over!  I clocked in at the Caltex Station with a time of 6:20 hours.  This was pleasing, as it was faster than my estimated time of 6:30-7:00 hours.  It was now 4:50 pm.

It was then a case of managing my way through the busy town, which was full of traffic coming to participate in the next day’s one-lapper of Taupo.  As it was, everyone was very courteous and I got through with no problems.  One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is the many toots of support I got from cars passing on the course.  They were all gratefully received.  I would try to wave an acknowledgement each time, although my waves admittedly became less enthusiastic and more of an effort as time went by.

So, lap 2 was beginning.  My speed was now a lot slower and the hills were especially hard.  I was also beginning to notice a tightness in the chest that would worry me more and more as the lap continued.  It’s like what you feel when you run up a steep hill as fast as you can, without any warm-up – even the next day your chest/heart feels strained.  However, cramps were again to be the main theme, at least for the first half of this second lap.

I was very pleased to see Helen 10 km out from Taupo.  It had started to rain very lightly, so it was good to be able to get a wind jacket to stave off the cold.  Helen also met me 10 km further on.  Time for more electrolyte tablets!  I also did some stretching for the cramps, something that I’d not done so far this race.  “Shit this is hard”, I said and told Helen that I would have a quick rest.  “Why not wait until the 40km relay transition stop”, she replied, clever woman that she is.  I agreed and hopped back on the bike.  “I’m too tired to kiss you”, I said as I pedalled away (which was surely a first!)

By the time I reached the relay station, I was feeling a lot better.  I was now 200 km into the race.  Some tablets, some more stretches, then I was away again.  No need for a rest, especially so early into the race!

I found the stretches a real godsend for my cramps.  I’d also changed my riding style for the hills.  Up until now, I’d done the hills completely sitting down, which meant continually working my hamstrings.  From now on I would stand up on the pedals more frequently, especially for the steeper segments.  Also probably helping may have been the cooler weather.

I think that it was somewhere along here that I met up with Liz, who was supporting Tim Neal (The Potato Guy).  She was waiting with Helen at one of the stops.  I did my stretches and caught up on Tim’s progress.  She said he was about 10 km back and doing well.  It’s great coming across friendly faces along such a lonely course!

By now Helen was meeting me every 20 km or so, I think.  At one of the stops, I added a couple of rear lights and one front light to the bike.  According to Helen’s notes, this was around 8:00 pm and about 215 km into the race.  Her comment was “Tired.  Going OK”.  An hour later I stopped again to put on some warmer clothes.
My three support crew members took their job seriously - to wait and wait and wait

There was no let up from the hills.  While I was getting somewhat on top of the cramps, I was quite worried about my heart.  Once I got to the top of a hill, I would take it easy for a short space of time, letting it recover as much as possible before I plunged down the other side.  I was also working on going up the hills with as little effort as possible, sitting upright on my seat, gently holding the aero-bar pads in my hands, and also making sure that I did not unduly strain my knees (the cause of my previous knee injuries).  This was all somewhat humiliating, but I accepted it as a plain fact.  I needed to do this to get through the race, despite the time cost.  On the positive side, one great plus about the race this year is that I managed to reduce the amount of time I used my arms to support my weight.  Such poor riding technique has resulted in agonised arms in previous races, but there were no such problems at all this time around.

Night must have fallen by now.  I was still totally alone, not having seen any other cyclists since Alistair and Don left me after the top of Hatepe Hill on the previous lap.  However, as I was nearing Kuretau junction, I became conscious of a light appearing then disappearing to my rear.  At one stage it was quite close and I thought I would soon be overtaken, but then it was quiet for a long period of time.  Obviously a cyclist was closing in.  The light appeared again on Kuretau Hill, but then dropped back once more.

I found Helen waiting at the top of Waihi Hill.  I didn’t want to stop too long, as it would be cold on the down-hill section.  I quickly used one of the portable toilets, did my stretches, and took my tablets.  Helen’s comments in her notes were: “Cold.  Lots of sighs.”

It was while we were stopped on the hill that first one cyclist, then another, passed, each saying “Hi”.  They must have been well ahead by the time I got to the Tokaanu flats, as there was no sign of their lights.  I later discovered that they were Alistair and Don!

I didn’t see Helen again until the 3rd relay transition stop, 280 km into the race.  It was now 11pm.  Her comments in the notes were: “Some swearing.  Says cardio-strain.  Beautiful starry night – chilly.  Trucks going ridiculously fast.”

The traffic was actually a lot lighter than I had expected.  For a lot of the way, I was able to go on the road-side of the white line, trusting that cars passing me would just pull over to the oncoming lane.  I only had one incident, when there was a toot behind me.  I quickly rode to the left of the white line and was immediately passed by a car and trailer inches away from me.  A little sports car had chosen that moment to pass the car and was thereby blocking the road on the other side.  It could have been a close call, but a warning toot and plenty of verge saved the day.

Helen mentioned the trucks.  She said her whole car would shake as they whizzed past.  I actually found them very considerate and would often hear gear changing as they slowed down behind me, rather than risking passing at uncertain places.  I always tried to give a wave of thanks when they did this and hope they noticed.  However, I think that I might have also caused the trucks some other problems.  A couple of the oncoming vehicles turned their full beam on just as they came up to me.  Finally, when one truck turned off his lights and flickered his side-lights, I worked out what the problem was.  My forehead light is bright and concentrated and, when I look up to see them, I was inadvertently shining it into their eyes!

It was somewhere along the Lake shore that Alistair passed me again – a fourth time!  As well as having to make up food and drinks, I think he’d had some mechanical issues.  These stops were somewhat longer for him because he was riding unsupported (except what was required for the compulsory check-ins and also emergency back-up when required).  He was looking strong though and soon rode off ahead of me.  Apparently Don had pulled out at Turangi.

At last, I was at Hatepe Hill.  This is the first time I’ve done it at night.  It seemed a lot longer than it probably was.  The pattern was routine though, with me being up on the pedals for some seconds, down on the seat for some more, up again, and so on.  Cramping was kept to a minimum and the hill duly ticked off for a second time.

By now, however, my riding style had totally changed, even for the flat sections.  I was no longer on the aero-bars.  I wasn’t even down on the handle-bars.  Instead, I was sitting upright, again holding the aero-bar pads with my hands, often with only one arm, travelling along the road at a very modest 25 km/hour.  It was slow, but it was taking me in the direction I wanted to go.  I was also riding with a hand over my chest, as though I was doing the American pledge of allegiance.  I was finding it quite cold by now, but the heat of my hand allowed me to maintain some heat.

My plan at Taupo had been to stop at the holiday house, take a quick shower, change clothes, and be off again.  However, I’d decided that I would probably forego the shower and just stop for a short (10 minute) rest.  My heart/chest was still making me worry and I hoped that a period of inactivity would help.  After a while, though, I discovered that the tube of Hammer gel in my back pocket had leaked and had already gone through several layers of clothing.  It might be a shower after all!

You need to realise that much of what I’ve written above comes from a hazy memory and has been difficult for me to piece together.  This especially goes for what was now to happen.

I arrived at our holiday house, which was at a great place just off the main Taupo road.  The time was a bit before 1:00 a.m.  I clomped into the house (cycle shoes!), absolutely tired but with a plan.

“I need to change my top – my gel’s leaking.  I’ll do some stretches first, then have a rest.  I’m really worried about my heart.”  I went over to the sofa and began to do some stretches.  “Oh, when you take my race number off, could you please fill in the contact details on the other side.  Just in case something happens!”

After I’d done a few half-hearted stretches, I sat down.  “I’m cold”, I said.  Apparently, I also kept saying over and over, “I’m worried about my heart”.  Helen put a blanket around me and Raewyn, who must have been woken by my noise, was massaging my quads and hamstrings.  Alistair, my oldest son, also came downstairs to see how he could help.

Helen asked Raewyn to use her watch to check my pulse.  “Your pulse is fine – 76 beats a minute.  Just breath easy.  Breath easy!  You’re hyperventilating.”  “My heart”, I kept saying, “I’m really worried about my heart”.

In a very quick time, out of the blue, I found myself shaking uncontrollably and hyperventilating.  I eventually curled up into a foetal position on the couch, with Helen lying on top of me to reassure me and get me to control my breathing.  After a couple of minutes, things calmed down.

When I’d come in, Helen had mentioned that Nick Dunne had recently texted about my progress and she had given an update.  Both Nick and Stu Downs – endurance cyclists with very creditable records – had checked in several times with Helen to see how things were going.  Both had also said that I could ring them any time I wanted.  “Thanks”, I’d replied when this offer had been made, but I really could never imagine myself asking for help.  I could do this myself.  But they knew!

As I was beginning to recover my breath, I said, “I need to speak to Nick”.  Helen realised that the time was now around 1:45 am and didn’t really want to wake him, so suggested that she text him to see if he was awake.  Nick’s a hard-arsed endurance sportsman.  He’s still recovering from his Race Across America ride in June, where he literally broke his body doing what is one of the toughest endurance races in the world.  Sadly, body won over mind.  After 2,500 km of non-stop cycling, he was one of the 50% or so riders pulled out because they failed to meet the arduous time cut-off requirements (requiring an average of more than 250 miles cycling each day).  As I said, Nick is a tough bugger.  One of his most frequent responses when giving advice is “Cycling Rule Number 5” or, to translate, “Harden the fuck up!”  Now it wasn’t to get a HTFU message from Nick that I wanted to talk to him about, it was because of his wealth of experience at pushing his body to the limit.  If anyone could, Nick would be able to tell me about chest pains such as these and whether or not they were something to worry about.  Sadly, Nick must have gone to sleep, as the text was not responded to.  Now, after the event, I deeply regret and sincerely apologize to both Nick and Stu that I did not telephone them.  I know that their offers were genuine.  My only excuse is that I was not thinking straight.

“I’m pulling out”, I said.  Poor Helen, Raewyn and Alistair did not know what to do.  They knew how important the race was to me, but I was also in obvious distress and greatly worried about my health.  However, my clever wife hit on a compromise.  “Have a sleep.  When you wake up, you can decide.  In the meantime, I’ll text the check-in and let them know what has happened.”  It was a deal.  But as I made my way to the shower and then to the bed, I’d already made up my mind.  At 5:30 am, I officially pulled out.

What the hell happened?
Still recovering the next morning.

Why, you may ask, go into all this detail?  Well, it obviously was quite an experience for me.  But, more importantly, there’s a puzzle and a lesson to be learnt.  When I entered the holiday house at 12:45 a.m. pulling out was not anywhere in my mind.  Sure I was exhausted, but I had a workable plan and was intent on actioning it.  But, within 15 minutes, I was a physical and mental wreck and had completely convinced myself that I had no option but to pull out.  Even now, I still don’t think that this was necessarily a wrong decision.  However, the question is – why the sudden change of events and how can a similar thing be prevented from happening at a future time?

I really don’t have a good answer to this question.  In the end, I think it comes down to the fact that endurance athletes can come to a stage where their brain is just not functioning correctly.  Support is vital if you’re going to be successful at this game.  And that support is the support of people experienced in the sport.  There are many cases where the cyclist absolves all responsibility for decision making to the support crew; the cyclist’s only function becomes to turn those pedals.  Nick and Stu knew this when they made their offer of help.  I should have taken it up.  However, there is another thing about this sport – you do learn by experience.  In the early morning of Saturday 24 November, I learnt the hard way!

So, what of my chest pain?  I still don’t know what caused it, but have a combination of likely reasons.

  • The first is the difficulty (for me!) of such a hilly course – my training was inadequate and my body still weakened from a 4-5 week cold.  It’s not surprising that such a race would put so much pressure on my heart.  
  • Here’s a surprising second reason – caffeine overdose!  I’m a two-coffees-a-day person, but I cut this to a small instant coffee each day for the two weeks leading up to the race.  I wanted to reduce my tolerance to caffeine so that it would be that much more effective when used to keep me awake over the race.  The problem is that, when I did race, I used too much caffeine.  The caffeine was in the form of the flavouring of my Perpeteum drink, which I was relying on for 100% of my nutrition.  As the hours built up, it was accumulating to quite a whack of coffee!  And the symptoms of caffeine over-dose?  Chest pains, racing heart, shaking muscles, stress, tension, a high-wired brain!
  • A third contributing factor is likely to be my breathing.  My daughter, who has recently graduated as a physiotherapist with top marks, reckons I had classic symptoms of Hyperventilation Syndrome.  Basically, it comes down to breathing too shallowly while cycling and, when getting physically and emotionally stressed, the breathing becoming more of a shallow pant, with all its resulting problems.

So many lessons to learn!

The next day, someone asked whether I’d be doing it next year.  “Hell, yes”, I had blurted out before they’d even finished asking.

Finally, I want to say just how lucky I am.  I’m alive to experience this.  Through doing this sort of thing, you really live and experience life!  Most important for me, I’m blessed with people who love and support me.  Top of the list is my most beautiful wife, Helen.  Also my three lovely children.  Not to be forgotten too are all the wonderful friends that I’ve made along the way and who continue to be there for me.  Thank you everyone!

I haven't earned the right to parade the pink helmet cover too publicly, but the time will come!  (Matt Oliver)


  1. Brave stuff, Andrew. Your time will come. All the very best, Oli

  2. Outstanding read. I love the journey into the mind of an endurance athlete. It takes a special person to get themselves to the start line,and while I know the disappointment of not finishing, not finishing is not failure. Success is failure that tried once more.
    I'll be back there next year to see you earn the pink top!

  3. Great read. Good luck for next year.