Monday, 9 December 2013

Lessons from the 2013 Maxi

Before doing the Maxi, my intention had been to progressively increase the distances.  However, the Maxi gave me a scare, especially seeing the pain the 8-lappers were going through.  Rather than making any rash change of plan, I had parked the issue until I was in a better frame of mind to make a rational (rational?!) decision.  Well, I’ve done that now.  My next race will be the 1,010 km 10x Graperide in early April!

So, let’s sift through the entrails of the Maxi and see what can be learned, especially for even longer distances.  (Note that I may add to and change this a bit over the next few days as further ideas comes to me)

1. One amazing positive lesson was the power of the human body.  At the end of the third lap, I thought that I was shot.  However, I finished the last segment of the fourth lap with strength and speed.  The lesson might be to just never give up on your body.  It is the mind that you have to work on!

2. Having said that, the various types of pain and discomfort I felt on the ride may give an indication of things to work on, especially for a longer race.  These were:

  • Sore triceps.  Possibly thie could be improved through strength exercises.  Far more important, however, is riding style.  I have to develop a style that relies almost 100% on core-muscle support.
  • Sore wrists.  This is also something likely to be assisted by using those core muscles; i.e. anything that means I’m using the wrists less.  One problem I have is that I often have my hands on the brake hoods, which puts them at an angle and means that they’re also at an angle when changing gears or applying the brakes.
  • Sore neck muscles.  I would like to use my aero-bars for most of the Graperide.  That will put a lot of stress on my neck muscles; and probably also on various arm and back muscles associated with the position.  I will need to build up strength and endurance in these muscles.  There may also be a better way of holding the position that doesn’t involve such strain.  It might even pay to look at my bike set-up and consider a less aggressive aero position, although only if necessary.
  • Sore hamstrings.  This could be a bike set-up issue.  It definitely is a riding style issue, as the problem lessened when I followed Nick Dunne’s advice, which was to pull rather than push with my legs.
  • Sore knees.  Great news for me is the fact that the pain was the same for both legs, i.e. it wasn’t related to imbalance on the bike or to my usual problems with the right knee.  The pain was at the bottom half and in front of the patella.  I wonder if this is related to bike set-up.  Maybe also riding style.  The knees hurt for some days afterwards.
  • The bottom of my left foot felt slightly bruised.  The fact that it’s only one side is symptomatic of an unbalanced riding style.  I tried to make sure that I was sitting plumb in the middle of the saddle, but obviously this was not enough.  It was a minor discomfort, but did seem to nag at times.
  • Saddle discomfort.  This wasn’t really too bad considering the distance, but it’s something I will need a strategy for. 

3 .My speed was slowest on the hills.  This was partly a deliberate part of my pacing approach, something greatly aided with easy gear ratios.  However, it also reflects a lack of strength.  Strength will be something I have to work on.

4. Pain and discomfort will be an issue with longer rides.  I found my speed increase considerably when I found a more comfortable position.  The ultra-distance rides are likely to have the cyclist living with pain and discomfort all the time.  So the issue becomes how to delay it, how to manage it, and how to ride through it.  This will have a crucial bearing on how well I do.

5. Support crew.  Even the Maxi was pushing it with only one person as support; 33 hours straight is a lot to ask from someone, especially when that person is herself effectively unsupported.  Ideally I would have two crews of two people each.

6. Type of support.  I respond best to positive encouragement.  I respond best to people who respect me and encourage me with practical advice and by the fact that they have confidence in me.  This doesn’t mean that they have to pussy-foot around me though.  However, I have found that I react very badly to negative messages, especially when there is an ego behind them.  I therefore need to be very careful about who is on my support crew.  I would also want to prep them in regards to the types of interaction likely to work best with me.

7. I found that I’m very motivated to finish.  Pride and fear of failure is a very powerful motivator.  However, I suspect that it will be important to make sure I have a group around that keeps me positive and focussed as the laps continue.  The race has to have meaning.  It should even be fun.  I cannot ever be allowed to think, “What’s the point”.

8. Stops have to be managed efficiently.  Sometimes a stop is good, both physically and mentally, and can actually increase average speed.  However, time off the bike should be kept to a minimum and definitely should not be wasted.  The best person to manage the off-bike time is the support crew.

9. Obviously fitness is vital.  My fitness should be of a level that in a race I can recover quickly from a long period of hill work and still have enough in the tank to be able to hit those hills lap after lap without flagging.

10. My “head” messages seemed to work well.  This will be tested more in a longer race.  I’ll need to think more carefully of strategies and even practice some.

11. Food is vital.  I found that the Perpeteum wasn’t enough.  This may have been because I wasn’t consuming enough, although I did consume the Perpeteum and water planned.  The times I had additional food were followed by a lot more energy.  I found even simple carbs (a couple of sips of coke) seemed to work, without any great sugar fall afterwards.  Perhaps best might be to use Perpeteum as my staple, but supplement it.

12. Pacing is also vital.  The Maxi was my best experience with good pacing.  I'll need to remember this in future races.  Be able to finish as hard as you begin!  That's the way to get the highest average speed you can.

13.  The big unknown in the Graperide will be sleep management.  Strangely enough, it was earlier on in the Maxi that I had felt the most sleepy-tired.  Maybe it was coffee that successfully kept sleep at bay later on in the race?  But sleep will be necessary in the Graperide, even just 1-2 hours.  I'll need to develop a carefully worked out strategy for this and even practice.  I could try and wing it with no sleep, but that may be somewhat risky near the end and, also, I want to use the Graperide as practice for even longer races, which means practicing sleeping.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Race log - 2013 Maxi Enduro

The following is the log that Helen took of the race, which is another point of view and probably a more realistic one at that.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The 2013 Taupo Maxi Enduro

Three races have stood out for me in my short stint at endurance cycling:
  • my first race over 300 km, where I was relieved to find that I had what it’s takes
  • my first race over 500  km, where I discovered the emotional depths that endurance racing can take you
  • my first race over 600 km, where I was surprised at just how strong the human body can be.
It is this last race that I am now reporting on.  This was the 640 km Maxi Enduro, consisting of 4 laps around Lake Taupo over the days of 29-30 November 2013.  It is part of the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, the iconic cycling event of New Zealand.  Over 10,000 riders participate in the Challenge every year.  The core event is a 160 km lap of the lake; however, the event has broadened over the years to cater for and encourage all sorts of riders.  Multi-lap options have been included over the last 19 years and now involve a progressive doubling of the distance, with 2 laps (Enduro), 4 laps (Maxi Enduro), and 8 laps (Extreme Enduro).

Big races don’t begin at the starting line.  They tend to be the culmination of a long journey, which can often begin with the sudden thought, “That’s impossible, but I wonder, could I … ?”  Achieving the impossible doesn’t happen over-night.  It doesn’t happen smoothly either and tends to come at a huge cost to yourself and those around you.  I had been thinking, living and breathing “Maxi” for almost two years.  I was ready.
About to leave for Taupo
Support crew by the Waikato River (Taupo), all six legs of them
I love a phrase in one of Steve Gurney’s books, where he talks of the 6 P’s, which is something like “Prior planning prevents piss poor performance!”  This is especially important for long-distant events.  Race strategy, mental approach, hydration, regular food intake (Hammer Perpeteum), back-up food in case variety was needed, clothing for the weather extremes, back-up equipment, and basic tools were all part of this for me.  Most important, however, was having a support crew, which is compulsory on these longer Enduros.  My support was none other than Helen, my wife, and what an outstanding job she did.  She also had two top endurance cyclists in regular text contact with her, Nick Dunne and Stu Down, with our children texting and phoning in fantastic moral support.  All did an outstanding job and I’m grateful for their support.

At my last year’s attempt at the Maxi, I discovered just how wonderful the race start can be.  There is always a small crowd of people to see the racers off.  Some are strangers, curious about these insane people and wanting to see them off on their endeavours.  I was also surprised at how many friends and acquaintances had turned up to wish me all the best.  Sadly, this year’s start was rushed, with an over-long registration briefing reducing the amount of time for socialising.  I think that I only had about 5-10 minutes before we were off.  However, that was sufficient for Howard Davies (60/40 group) and Stu Downs to come and wish me well.  I also thought it a nice touch that Colin Anderson, Mr. Endurance Cyclist himself, made a point of shaking our hands even though he wasn’t taking part in this race.  As we took off, I heard another friend, Ian Davidson, call out to me from the crowd.  There may well have been others.  Much appreciated!
Waiting for the start, with Jeremy Rowe on my right
The 2013 Taupo Enduro Maxi begins
At long last it was 10:30 am and 21 riders set forth on the 2013 Maxi Enduro.  The start was a neutralised one, which means that we followed an official car down across the bridge and up along State Highway 1 (SH1) to the Poihipi Road turnoff, a distance of almost a kilometre and climb of around 60 metres.  At that point, the real racers can sprint away.  However, most of us are well back from the car, as we focus on finding our own pace for what will be 17-18 km of almost continual climbing to the highest point of the whole ride, about 300 metres above the start point.

My race plan’s key theme for lap one was to be “Light and relaxed”.  It’s especially important to watch your pacing over the initial 20-25 km, as many riders get caught up with enthusiasm of the start and ride faster and harder than is wise.  So I started towards the back of the pack and just spun up the hill, interacting with those I passed or who passed me.  I introduced myself to Di Chesmar from Masterton, who I’m aware of through the Enduro Cycle NZ Facebook page.  I also met Barbara Goodwin from Whangarei, who I was to see a bit more of in the race.  Likewise with Richard Hampson, an Englishman from Brisbane.

It doesn’t take many minutes for a group of 21 riders to get strung out over a long climb, especially when it’s the beginning of a 640 km adventure.  Noticing Barbara going slightly stronger than me, I let her slowly pull ahead.  I then became conscious of a bike sitting behind my wheel.  It was Richard, who came up for a wee chat, and then took his turn in front of me.  Again, he was too strong for me, so I let him ride ahead to chat with Barbara and then pursue the next group.
Cycling with Richard, a few kilometers from the start
As I proceeded over the four laps, I worked out that a circuit of Lake Taupo was really a race of four parts, with each being defined by a particular climb.  The three famous climbs of the race were: the steep Waihaha hill climb, 55-60 km into the race (part 2); the extended Kuretau hill climb, around the 85-90 km mark (part 3); and the final and ferocious Hatepe hill climb, about 25 km from the end (part 4).  In between these are an almost continuous series of body-sapping rollers – steep up-hills and down-hills – which so much define the Taupo cycling experience.  And part 1?  That consists of a climb that is rarely mentioned and yet ultimately contributes to many “Did Not Finish” (DNF) results and poor times.  It was the 20 km stretch I was currently on.

Despite the best of intentions, I found my heart rate permanently at around 155 bpm for an extended period of time, which is far higher than where I wanted it.  By now, Barbara was the only other rider I was aware of, but I had consciously decided not to look back or worry about the placing of anyone around me.  After some time, I found myself slowly crawling back to her, especially on any down-hill sections.  Eventually I caught up.  I like having people draft behind me, as it’s company, it’s good to help people, and (less admirable) it’s nice to feel that you’re the stronger rider.  Riding up to Barbara and saying “You can draft behind me” seemed a bit demeaning, so I instead clumsily said “Why don’t we work together”.  This was not a good idea, as Barbara also wanted to pull her weight and would take her turn in front more often than I wanted.  More importantly, she increased her speed when she did so.  After a while, I decided to drop off slightly and ride by myself at a more measured pace.

While we were riding together, we passed Helen for the first time.  She was going to meet me every hour for a rapid water exchange.  The first point was around 25-30 km into the race, where the route turns off Poihipi Road and onto Marotiri Road.  Our stops in previous races had involved me stopping and doing the water exchange, but this time Helen was holding up the water for me to grab.  “Shit, I hope this goes right”, I thought as I rode towards her at some speed.  I let my part-empty water bottle bounce towards her and, whack, had caught the full bottle in my left hand.  “You look as though you’ve practiced that”, Barbara said as we raced off down Marotiri Road.  “No, first time!”

Maroiti Road is only 5 km long, but as the laps continued, I began to view it as my little oasis.  Winding through a cosy little slice of New Zealand rural life, it was one of the few parts of the course that makes no demands on the rider.
On the other side of the Lake
Soon we were out on Tihoi Road at around the 30-35 km mark.  The traffic was a bit heavier here, especially as it was a working day.  Cars and big trucks thundered past on a road that is windy and quite narrow at times.  This was the beginning of the hilly, rolling countryside that would continue all the way to just before the town of Turangi, 100 km into the race.  It was the place where I thought my faster down-hill speed would have an advantage over Barbara’s skill set, so I expected to slowly drift away from her.  It’s hard to say good-bye to someone in such circumstances, so I just got down on my aero-bars and focused on efficient, well-paced cycling, putting Barbara out of my mind.

After some period of just concentrating on my riding, I noticed that Barbara was still with me, which was pleasing.  We soon noticed a rider ahead, slowly making his way up a hill.  “Must be an 8-lapper”, I thought to myself.  I’m not sure how general the rule is, but others may be like me in being in awe of those going further than we think imaginable.  I was looking forward to meeting such an icon.  “Jeez, I’m sure that’s Ron Skelton”, I thought as I drew up next to him.  Ron is a New Zealand endurance cycling hero, being one of only four local legends to have made it to Race Across America (RAAM), the world’s pinnacle  endurance cycling event, and one of only two to finish it.  I’ve talked with Ron once and seen photos of him.  However, the man I fleetingly glimpsed as I passed did not bear very close resemblance to what I knew.  He was suffering.  Struggling to think of words of encouragement, I stupidly blurted out.  “Hi Ron!  How’s it going?”  Duh – I could see for myself and what else would he say except what he did, which was something along the lines of “Fine”.  He informed me he was on his 6th lap.  Barbara and I wished him all the best as we continued past.

After a while, Barbara must have gradually slipped behind me.  When I finally made it to the top of Waihaha Hill and looked back, I noticed her about half way up.  I wasn’t to see her for another 170 km or so.

A race like this is all about having the right mental approach.  As mentioned, I had split each circuit into 4 parts.  The trick was not to think of the parts to come, but to celebrate the parts that had gone.  The task was to knacker down and methodically eat up those kilometres, bit by bit.  As the circuits mounted up, I also began to recognise significant features within each of the four parts, and would also tick these off one by one.  Part two was not just Waihaha Hill.  There was still a succession of steep rollers to ride up and down.  However, after a while it was time to come down off the hills, and the rollers were mostly down-hill.  This is where you can put in amazing speeds and try your best to make up for the time lost on the up-hills.  Where possible, I’m down on the aero-bars, although for large stretches of the road the surface is too rough for this.

At long last, after a few more nasty little climbs, I reached the end of part two.  I’m just before where the Western Bay Road comes out onto state highway no. 41 and there, stretching up to the left of me, is the third great hill of the race – Kuretau Hill.  It’s not really that bad, but it is long and can be a somewhat daunting sight as you view it from afar.  These more iconic hills are also where the pace picks up when riding in a pack, as the better hill climbers seek to drop the slower members of the bunch.  When I did my first Lake Taupo race about 25 years ago and had not yet learnt about the power of drafting, I was forced to rest half way up the hill.  However, with appropriate pacing and gearing (50/37; 12/30), this time it was a doddle.

Somewhere just before reaching Kuretau Hill, I had noticed a woman helping a struggling rider off his bike and onto the back of the van.  I had applied my brakes , stood up, and yelled “All right?” or some such thing.  No response from the rider and a rather non-committal one from his supporter (presumably his wife).  “Cooked!” I thought as I had ridden on.  I had been wondering how many riders I would catch up because they had over-done the first bit in what were hot and windy conditions.  As I made my way up Kuretau Hill, the same support car passed me once, once again, and then not at all.  Because I saw neither it nor the rider again, I assume it was a DNF.  (Postscript: I've since worked out that it was actually on the 2nd lap that I passed this rider)
Team Morrison support van and friends
The trick with the 3rd part of the lap is not to think that it finishes once you’ve crested the first hill.  At long last, you reach the last hill, Waihi Hill, from which there is a wonderful panoramic view of the beauty that is Lake Taupo and its environs.   From here, the road quickly descends about 150 metres along a windy road to the plains below.  It is the most exhilarating and enjoyable part of the race, as you charge along it, focussing on staying safe while going as fast as you can.  Finally I was down on the plains.  The fourth and final part of the lap had begun.

What characterizes the fourth part is its flatness.  Oh yes, there is a mammoth exception – Hatepe Hill!  But it will take a while before we get there.  Immediately as the road flattens, you find yourself by the lake front, with beautiful reeds stretching around you.  I was ready for speed now, so didn’t pay much attention to them but went down on my aero-bars.  I find that such races are best done by breaking them up into little stages.  The stages can be really small sometimes, especially as you become familiar with a route through repetition.  Here it is focussing on the bridge only a kilometre away, wondering whether my momentum will get me over the very slight rise or whether I will need to go down a gear to keep a steady effort.  The Maori presence is very obvious along this side of the lake, with marae and small settlements.  We soon pass Tokaanu, a small settlement and pool by a thermal area.  Then there’s the run-off from a hydro works, the turn-off to the National Park, and finally after a total of only7 km from the bottom of the hill, the town of Turangi.

Turangi is where we finally rejoins SH1 and it is here that I tend to stand up on the pedals for a brief moment, stretching my legs and celebrating.  “Well done Andrew, you’ve made it!”  The end is within sight.  Now, for a total of about 25 km, the road is mainly flat, following close to the lake shore and offering some lovely views.  While flat bits offer a chance for speed, in long rides they are also the places you are most likely to sink into black negativity.  They don’t offer the immediate (often painful) distraction of a hill, so they instead present greater opportunities for you to think of your aches and pains, become scared of the distance still to cover, and generally feel sorry for yourself.  It was still far too early in the race for this to happen, of course.  Indeed, each of my four times over these 25 km in this race were times of happiness, as I focussed on positive thinking, acknowledged the supportive toots from passing cars, enjoyed the lake views, and relished being out of the hills and so close to the end of the lap.

But, for anyone doing Taupo, there’s always that dreaded word drumming away at the back of your mind: Hatepe; Hatepe; Hatepe.  For me, it’s the toughest hill on the whole course.  Some say that’s only because it’s last; however, having done multi-laps of the course, I can assure them it’s the hardest each time.  I’m not sure what contributes most to this, whether it’s the steepness, the length, or the fact that the road is wide and makes you feel you’re hardly making any progress.  Interestingly though, on some of the laps and as the race progressed, I began to view the difficult hills less as obstacles and more as things to look forward to and progressively ticked off.

With a couple of minor exceptions, from the top of Hatepe Hill it’s downhill or flat all the way to the end.  It’s 7-8 km until you get off the hill itself, with the shallow gradient and wide verge offering great opportunity for really pushing that speedometer up.  The hill finishes with a wonderful steep bit that shoots you into the village of Waitahanui and over the lovely Waitahanui Stream.  It’s now just under 20 km to the end, which in my exhausted state in some previous single lap races have been a long, painful slog.
After Hatepe Hill, lap 1
As usual, my focus is to be light and happy and with positive thoughts.  This was not difficult at all in this first lap.  Obviously I’m not yet exhausted, but there is also the fact that it is now around 4:30 pm and the road is filled with cars coming in for the event and with cyclists out on easy pre-race spins.  Taupo is getting ready to take in 10,000 cyclists and their supporters and many of these know the significance of the pink helmet cover worn by Maxi Enduro cyclists.  All along SH1 I’ve received a succession of toots from cars and shouts of “Well done buddy” and “Good on you mate”, which only increase in intensity as I approach Taupo itself.  As I whizz around the last corner leading to the Caltex Station where we sign in, someone even takes a photo of me with their cell phone.

I’ve completed the first lap in a time of 6 hours and 12 minutes.  At the station forecourt, I waved to Helen, cycled up to the station’s front door, and went in to sign in and go to the loo.  Helen was waiting just outside when I came out, chatting briefly with Peter Cole, someone who has done a lot of endurance riding.  She and I then went over to the car.  I had been informing her of how I was at some of the stops, so that she could record it for training purposes.  One fairly constant comment I had was about sore hamstring muscles, with threatening cramp.  She mentioned this to Nick Dunne later on in the second lap and he suggested pulling more with my legs when riding rather than pushing – problem solved!  Helen also reckoned I was a bit confused at this stop, almost forgetting to restock with water.  Water stocked, goodbye kiss, and I was off for lap 2.

By now, Taupo traffic was at a grid-lock.  Even as a cyclist, I had to stop for ages as a police officer let traffic flow out of a side-street.  I even began to feel a bit precious – “I’m in a race, dammit!”  Eventually I was allowed to go and, as I climbed up that short bit of SH1 for a second time, again got toots and waves from cars stuck in the traffic.  Throughout the race, I made a great effort to return these, as I appreciated their generosity greatly and know from experience how well a returned acknowledgement can be received.

The second lap is when day turns to night.  Whereas the last lap’s race-plan theme had been pacing, this one was “Steady and efficient”.  This didn’t only refer to my pace and riding style.  It was vital that my mind was steady and even.  I was still nowhere near even the half way mark and could not let myself be panicked about the distance still to go.

The great thing about this year’s second lap was that I could compare it with the previous year’s one, and the comparison just had to be good.  Previously, I had suffered bad cramps that had begun in the first lap.  When I met Helen about 15 km into the second lap, I’m quoted as having said “Shit, this is hard”.  As the lap had continued, I increasingly worried that the growing tightness in my chest was the early symptoms of an impending heart attack and had felt forced to slow my pace considerably.  None of that this year!  And that fact really motivated and helped me.  Indeed, as I was riding, the thought struck me – not much in here for a race report!  So far it was an uneventful race – what a dream!

I think it was towards the end of the second part of lap 2 that I had my first substantial stop.  It was for about 20 minutes and involved a sit down and two small cans of creamed rice.  I also put on all my night gear – lights and extra clothes.  Barbara whizzed past me at some stage and I was happy to have seen her.  “Well done!” I shouted as she sped by.  Sadly, I heard later that she had been feeling really sick and was forced to pull out after the third lap.  I feel gutted for her, as she is physically and mentally strong, but know that victory will be all the more sweet when she succeeds next year.  Helen’s noted comment about me at this stop was cold and tired, but happy.  “Happy” was to be a dominant theme for much of the race, although with one major exception.

So I duly ticked off the first, second, and third parts of lap 2 and found myself out again on SH1 at Turangi.  There was now more traffic than in the second lap of last year’s Maxi Enduro, so I assumed that I was somewhat earlier than then.  Last year I had felt safe enough to ride on the road proper, but the slightly greater traffic now forced me to ride on the verge, which can sometimes be hazardous, especially in the dark.  Hatepe had previously surprised me by seeming longer at night than I had expected, but I adjusted those expectations and duly conquered the hill a second time.

Just at the bottom of Hatepe Hill, I had noticed a van and another further ahead parked on the 1st lane of the highway with hazard laps flashing.  “Yay, must be a cyclist or two”, I thought, “I’m catching up!”  As I closed in, I saw the higher-up van pull off.  Then I noticed a Maxi cyclist and his supporter next to the first van, seemingly engaged in earnest conversation.  I yelled a greeting of some sort (not sure what).  No acknowledgement from either of them.  I continued on to and up the hill, thinking that it was another impending DNF.  Helen later told me that the higher car was hers and that she had noticed the rider stopped by himself, had stopped the car, and rushed down to make sure he was alright.  By the time she arrived, the support van was also there.  She too got little response from them.  (Postscript: 2 riders didn't make the end of lap 2.  Presumably this was one, with the other being the one mentioned previously.  What was interesting is that both had very fast 1st laps - of just over 5.5 hours)

This does raise an interesting feature of the Maxi Enduro supporters, which is how varied they were.  Some were very generous with support and would clap and say encouraging words as I rode by.  However, from too many there was not a peep.  I’ve no idea whether it was because of shyness, lack of involvement, or because they viewed other riders as competitors, but you would have thought that they of all people would have realised the psychological importance of support.

Reading back over what I’ve written, I see that there has not been much reported on in terms of actual happenings.  One reason is that there is little interaction with others in endurance races, unlike in shorter, faster races, where being in the front of bunches, being dropped from then, joining others, and similar such things make up much of a report.  Another reason is that you don’t actually remember much, as one lap merges into another and it all eventually becomes a haze soon to be forgotten.  This is one of the reasons I try to do my race reports as quickly as I can.  But the other is the focus of any racing cyclist, even one racing for hours upon hours.  “What do you think about?” people often ask me, “Don’t you get bored?”  What you focus is on is cycling and very little else!  If you’re not sweating your way up a hill, you’re racing along the road, continually looking for potential hazards, rising slightly off the cycle where there may be possible bumps or dips in the road, constantly changing gears to get optimal output from the bike, checking your posture, having sips of drink and food, keeping an eye on traffic.  Where your mind does remove itself from such immediate things, it’s mainly focusing on practical things such as how much food you’ve got until the next stop, is it time to put on night clothes, how far to the next hill and how high is it, and so on.  As the race goes on, another set of thoughts tends to dominate, which essentially focuses on the issue of comfort – “Jeez I’m sore, how can I get in a position to ease the pain”.  Any thinking beyond this tends to be extremely unstructured, for example I often find myself singing a single line of a song over and over.  This year it was four laps of one line each from Cat Stevens and David Bowie (which immediately gives away my age!)

As I rode into Taupo, I noticed other bike lights around.  Suddenly I heard a voice behind me and Brian Bushe came up, complimenting me on how well I was spinning.  Brian is also from the wider Wellington region, a genuinely nice guy and top athlete (he eventually came 7th in the Enduro and would probably have been disappointed with such a creditable placing). We chatted briefly before he rode ahead and on to the start of the Enduro race.
At the Caltex Station, end of lap 2
I can’t remember much about the Caltex Station stop this time.  I remember struggling to find a pen at the sign-in at Caltex Station and someone, who eventually was introduced as Damian Day’s mother, lent me her pen.  Damian is a cycling phenomenon who I’ve mentioned in a previous blog and was doing the 8-lap Extreme Enduro.  I didn’t hurry at the stop but didn’t dilly dally either.  With the second lap completed in a time of 8 hours 15 minutes, I was soon out of the station and off up the SH1 hill for a third time.

It was while going up SH1 that I was surprised by another Maxi Enduro riding up to me.  It was Richard from Brisbane, looking fresh and strong.  He had got in ages before and even managed to have a sleep.  He was now hanging back to ride with one of the Enduro riders. We chatted briefly before he stopped to join up with a group of his supporters to wait for his friend.

I was on my own again, but it would only be for a while.  I was looking forward to the 2-lappers reaching me, both for some distraction and to shout encouragement, especially as I knew some.  But I didn’t want it to happen too soon.  The longer it took, the further and faster around the course I would be.

And at last they came!  I couldn’t believe how fast the first group was.  This was on the up-hill part of a demanding 320 km ride and they were racing as though they were a team pursuit in a velodrome.  Jim McMurray, the top rider, made the course in 9 hours and 1 minute, at an average speed that few of the one lappers would reach.  Eight of the riders came in under 10 hours.  I felt very lucky to see such athletic poetry in motion up close.  After the first group, there was a bit of a space, then another rider by himself, then another group.  And so it continued, but the frequency between the people passing me became less and less.  Boy were these guys friendly and supportive!  “Well done”, “Good on ya!”, I would hear.  Some people actually recognised me, “Go Andrew!”, I would hear.  Jay Waters, my new and first ever coach, actually dropped off a bunch to say hi, before riding up to re-join it.

The Enduro riders meant that there was a lot more to distract me on the first part of the lap.  I remember Richard and his friend passing me.  Then, a lot later, I passed them (something must have happened) and they later passed me again.  After a long time, however, I realized that I was again by myself.

Once again, it’s hard to remember much.  The wind was a lot calmer than before, which was a relief.  I know that I would have stopped for a more substantial rest in the car at some stage.  In fact, I remember allowing myself to shut my eyes with strict instruction to Helen that it was to be only 5 minutes sleep, but with no success on the sleep front.

One thing I do remember is slowly becoming aware of a couple of car lights in front of me.  Maybe I was catching up to two of the slower Enduro riders?  I eventually caught up with the second car, which moved over to let me through.  The driver then proceeded to follow close behind, lighting the road before me, which was great.  I assumed that it was the official follow van of the Enduro riders, there to help anyone with difficulties.  I pondered whether I should tell him that I was not a 2-lapper and that he could go ahead, but decided the windy, narrow road made it too dangerous to do so.  I slowly caught up with the first car and saw an Extreme Enduro rider.  My God, did he look in pain.  He was crunched up to his side, no doubt striving to find a position with the least discomfort.  As I pulled past him, I looked around and saw that it was Art Schwencke, another of the four Kiwis who had participated in the RAAM.  “Art!” I exclaimed.  He looked up surprised, “Who are you?”  “I’m Andrew.  You don’t know me.  Well done on RAAM!  (Shit, I thought, you’re an idiot Andrew, he didn’t finish it.)  I’m really sorry about the accidents.  There’ll definitely be another time.”  “Thanks buddy”, he replied.

Art and Ron were the only two Extreme Enduro riders I was to see on the course, although there were a further four competing.  By no means were they a glossy advertisement for the sport!  In seeing them, I was brought face to face with the harsh reality of what ultra-cycling was about.  Man they were suffering!  I felt pretty tired by now, but it was a drop in the ocean compared with what they must be feeling!  What I saw were two exhausted, pain-racked bodies, held together and pushed on by nothing but sheer will power.  “But why do they do it?” I wondered, “What’s the reward?”  I also began to apply these questions to my own involvement, especially later on when things began to get bad for me.  Do I really want to continue upping my distances as I planned to?  I still don’t know the answer to that.
Dawn has broken, lap 3
Very slowly dawn broke.  Dawn is an amazing time.  It wasn’t quite as beautiful as it was in the cosiness of the Apiti Hills part of the Tour de Manawatu four weeks earlier, but maybe that was because by now I had been riding 12 hours longer than then.  At some stage, my befuddled head became conscious of something strange.  I suddenly realized what it was.  It was the extremely loud screech of distant bird chatter surrounding me.  It appeared to be everywhere.

Throughout the ride, Helen had been relaying to me messages of support from various people, which was really nice.  Nick Dunne and Stu Downs had even sent texts at 5:30 am inquiring how I was!  They were all gratefully received by me, but I was even more appreciative of the support given to Helen.

Once on Kuretau Hill, I started coming across cars with bikes hanging out their backs.  The car hoots started again, resulting in a distraction and a wave back.

Along the lake shore getting towards Hatepe Hill, I noticed several vans and cars coming towards me with flashing lights.  They were just in front of the pro-elite women’s cycle race.  I leaned back from my handle-bars and reduce my pedalling speed to acknowledge them.  “Well done!” I shouted as they sped past.  Along the line there were calls of support back to me.  A bunch of three women a wee bit behind all cheered to me as they passed.  Who was cheering who?!

A bit past the women, I saw Helen’s car.  I slowed down and called out “No water”, as Hatepe Hill was approaching and I didn’t want to have extra weight.  I also started to say a few loving words when Helen quickly stopped me, saying “Stu’s here”.  And, sure enough, there was Stu Downs.  We exchanged a few words, then I was on my way again.

I don’t know when the blackness started to descend, but by the time I was almost at the top of Hatepe, I was no longer feeling happy.  Since around Turangi, I had noticed that I was riding with my mouth open and my jaw hanging down.  Hardly a glamorous look!  I was physically exhausted.  While riding up Hatepe, I began to wonder whether I would truly `make the whole race.  A few supporters were gathered at the top of the hill, waiting for the women’s race to return.  I acknowledged their cheers, but with considerably less enthusiasm than before.  As I continued, my mood got blacker.  I’ve no idea what caused it, but as I climbed up that last small hill 6 km from Taupo, the mood fed on itself.  A group of about three photographers were on the other side, waiting for the women’s race, chatting.  One saw me and rushed across to take a photo.  I attempted a brief smile, but it was hard to pull myself out from where I was.

As I wheeled around the round-about and turned into Taupo, tears started flowing, quite probably surprising an official waiting there.  Tears flowed a few times as I rode the remaining kilometres into Taupo.  I knew that I couldn’t do it, but I also knew that I had no choice.  I would get to the end, but how could I do it?  I just had no strength left to climb all those hills yet again.  It was well beyond anything that I had done or even trained for.  But I knew I had no choice.  When you set out to do something, you have to do it!  Quit once and you have a lot of ground to cover not to quit again.  I had set out on this adventure because I felt it next to impossible, so I could not let it being hard be the reason for quitting.  That was easy to say, but now I was at the sharp end of what it really meant.  I also felt the incredible wait of expectations.  This may have been what brought the tears.  I had a lot of people supporting me and wanting me to achieve my goal.  I could not let them down.  In fact, I had even become known as that crazy endurance cyclist amongst my family, friends, work mates, and cycling acquaintances.  More than anything though, I didn’t want to let my daughter down.  She’s a top cyclist herself (of the round-tired kind) and is tough as blazes.   She was proud of me and I owed it to her to succeed.  There was no way that I would not finish, but I just could not see how it could be done.
Near the top of Hatepe, lap 3
Up the last hill into Taupo, lap 3
So, it was into the Caltex Station for the last time.  By now, I was not only physically tired, but mentally and emotionally spent.  I checked in my time (lap time of 8 hours 47 minutes), then rode over to Helen’s car.  It was rest time.  I might even have a wee sleep.  Helen gave me some food and I then struggled to find comfort in the cramped confines of the driver’s seat.  Of course, sleep wouldn’t come, but I did manage to zone out for what seemed about 5 minutes.  Time to go, I thought, then I heard Helen talking with someone outside.  I waited a bit longer, hearing snippets of conversation.

This was the only moment that the well-oiled and effective Team Morrison had a slight glitch.  I was exhausted and not thinking straight.  Helen, who had been driving all this time and had as little sleep as me, would have also been feeling as jaded as anything.  Such a combination meant that it wouldn’t take much to put Team Morrison out of gear.  And that push was in the form of a very friendly supporter, none other than my ex riding companion’s husband.  Ideally, Helen would have politely asked him to wait a while until I was off, but the conversation continued.  I felt ready to go, so struggled to get up, hoping that this would provoke some action, but it didn’t. “Damn”, I thought once up, “I need to go to the toilet.”  So I slowly and painfully began to clip-clop my way across the long forecourt.  By this time, Liz, the partner of an Enduro cyclist, Tim Neal, both of whom are my friends, had come over for a chat.  I went through the door of the station.  “Do you mind if I use the toilet?”  “You can, but there’s a queue”.  Sure enough, there were four people queuing for only one toilet.  I turned and slowly clip-clopped back.  I would find a place out on the course.  The three were still talking.  I looked around in confusion for my bike and stuff, not quite knowing what to do.  “Damn”, I thought again, “I really do need to go to the loo.  There will be a long way with no bushes to use”.  I swung round and once again made my way back to the station.  By now the queue had just reduced to one, so I hobbled up to join.  I chatted with the lady there.  When the loo was free, she offered for me to go first.  Instantly, my natural polite deference kicked in, “No, no, after you”.  “Damn!” I thought, when I realised what I had done.  Time was of the essence for me and I wouldn’t have been long; just a pee and re-applying some shammy cream.  Business eventually done, it was then a clip clop back to the car.  By this time, Brian had left and Liz, an experienced Enduro supporter, was carefully keeping out of the way.

What to wear?  I was in my night gear, which included a water-proof jacket, but it was now getting on to late morning.  The sun was strong, but it was also really windy and showers were forecast for later on in the day. Given how easy it is for me to get cold, I decided to leave my gear on, just taking off the polyprop shirt.  Better too hot than too cold!  I got on the bike and Helen started passing me an extra bottle of water.  “No”, I said, “one’s enough.  I’ll refill it at the drink stations.”  Mistake!

I slowly pedalled through the town, around the roundabout, down across the Waikato River, and on to that stretch of SH1 leading to the Poihipi Rd turnoff.  By now, all the thousands of cyclists had cleared and traffic was flowing freely.  I slowly and carefully pedalled up the hill.  With one pedal stroke at a time, not thinking of the next one or the next several thousand to come, I would make it back around again and finish the race.

It was strange not having any other cyclists about at this stage of the race.  In my two previous Enduro races, I would now have been joining the thousands who were doing the 1-lap and have received great encouragement.  I wasn’t sure whether it was a good thing or not – the support would have been nice but I felt I had barely enough strength to focus on keeping forward momentum, let alone interacting with people.  Then a nagging thought slowly began to develop in my head.  No other riders?  That meant no drink stations!  I would be doing this with only one bottle of water plus a bottle of concentrated Perpeteum!  What is more, it was hot and had become very windy.  I would definitely need water!  What to do?  After pedalling for some time mulling this around, I realized there was no choice.  Helen was going home to sleep and would come and cheer me later on, but I needed support sooner than that.  I rang her.  With the wind whistling past the phone, we could hardly hear each other.  I explained my dilemma, but she argued back.  She disagreed.  “There will be water!”  I didn’t want to argue and she had already done so much supporting me.  I said goodbye, trusting that the logic of my argument would eventually sink in.  I continued on.  Now I had an additional problem!

As I rode up that long first hill, I really felt on my own.  It wasn't just having no support crew.  That was not really an issue, as in my heart I knew I would see Helen before things got too tough.  Partly, it was that this was a very private battle I had to fight by myself.  But it was also because I did not think that any of the riders behind me would continue on to the fourth lap.  The wind was terrible and, in my exhausted state, I couldn't imagine anyone else being mad enough to follow me.
(Postscript:  Now, after the race, I’m very happy to inform you that I was wrong.  The results show that five riders were behind me when I left Caltex.  You may remember me mentioning passing Di Chesmar at the very start of the race.  What I did not say was what my split-second glance showed me, which in my mind was a tiny frail old lady massively daunted by the huge task in front of her.  I was impressed but at the same time sorry for her, as I just could not imagine her getting anywhere near finishing such a race.  Well, of those five people still behind me, only one made it, and that was none other than Di Chesmar, who ended up third out of the four women who started the race.  Di the Lion Heart!)

It was a very slow ride up that 20 km.  I was focussing on keeping my mind steady and still concentrating on eating up those kilometres.  I made a decision to ration the water, only using it to wet my mouth at the 20 minute beep.  After ages, I was surprised to pass the 10 km mark.  I had actually made 10 km!  What is more, these were 10 km that I would never do or see again in this race.  Then it was the highest point reached, then the 20 km mark.  My pace was as slow as anything and I hardly pedalled when going down-hill, but I was still going forward!

Finally, I was turning into Marotiri Road, the oasis I had created for myself.  It was while I was riding along here that I realised that I was actually happy.  I’ve no idea why this was.  It might have been my focus throughout to stay positive.  It might have been endorphins and other drugs released naturally by the body.  It might have been the fact that I had started the last lap, had progressed into it, and knew I would finish it, no matter what.  It might have been that I had a really bad sense of humour.  I’ve no idea why.  What is also strange is that, later on, when I was early into some of those major hills, I would sometimes mentally pause from my struggle and a great sense of euphoria would overwhelm me.  Later in the lap, when Helen was responding to texts of how I was doing, she commented that I was grimacing but smiling at the same time.

I think that it may have been on these slow bits that I also began really noticing the things around me.  I saw a field of cows and noticed a couple facing each other, heads cheek to cheek.  My God, there’s a whole world of social interaction and real life that we’ve no idea exists.  Later on I saw a couple of lambs playing, with one standing over the other, trying to keep him pressed to the ground while the other struggled to get out from between his heads.  Happy thoughts!

What I haven’t mentioned much yet is that strong, strong wind.   It wasn’t as wild as the near gale-force winds that caused so much trouble a couple of years ago, but still pretty bad, with a lot of debris strewn across the road.  That first 20 or so km was straight into it!  And I had made it!  My confidence was growing, as well as my spirit!

By now, I had decided to break the ride up into four equal parts.  I would make getting to the end of the part I was in my immediate goal and reward myself with a rest each time the goal was achieved.  Of course, in reality you go slightly past the point needed to reward yourself, thus making it easier next time.  So, at about the 45 km mark, I found a sheltered place on the side of the road, propped up the bike, and lay down like a corpse.  Cars would be going past too fast to worry and stop, so I allowed myself to relax.  Peace!  Time out!  I was almost asleep when I caught myself.  Time to continue!  I had to get back on the bike and carry on the progress.  Already a quarter done!

Now my target was the Tihoi store to see if there was any water.  I had never been there before and thought it likely to be closed, as it was a Saturday afternoon.  However, there was also a pub.  Perhaps I could get some bottled water there?

At last, there was the store.  Yes, there were even cars!  I wheeled in over the gravel and clumsily parked my bike.  What a great wee place.  The tavern was small, with an even smaller store integrated into the side of it, and a large covered verandah.  Three guys were chatting at one of the tables.  One of them looked up and I acknowledged him.  There was little interaction besides that.  I must have been a strange and alien creature!  The young woman in the store was friendly.  There were only two bottles of water left and both were sparkling.  I bought them both.  I then clopped outside, sat down by my bike, and finished the remainder of what was in my water bottle.  And that was when I heard the crunch of tires on gravel and looked up to see Helen driving in.   What the …?  Of course, she had tracked me down using the GPS that all Maxi and Extreme riders had been given.  Helen got me some real water, bought me an iceblock, all of which gave me time to struggle to one of the seats, stretch my legs, and try and really relax.  However, you can’t postpone the inevitable and it was finally time to go.  “On your way!” said Helen.  Yes! We were off!

The break, the iceblock, and seeing Helen had really revitalised me.  Not only did I know I could do it – in fact I had known that for some time – but now I knew it wouldn’t be as hard as I had thought.  “See you after Waihaha Hill”, I had said to Helen, but she was now stopping far more frequently.

The winds were now mainly from the side and their ferocity and gusty nature made it quite dangerous to cycle.  At times, I was leaning sideways into it, trying to stay as close to the edge of the road as I could but fearful of falling into ditches or skidding on the gravel if the wind pushed me too far.

At last I made it to the top of Waihaha Hill.  It was hard but no problem, once again being a case of just pedalling, stroke by stroke.  At some stage along the second part of the ride, I had a stop, some food, and a few sips of coke.  I was now feeling energized, waving at Helen as I cycled past at several of her stops.  We had agreed to more sips of coke at the bottom of Kuretau Hill to power me up.

For some time now, it had been drizzling lightly.  Wind and rain – not a good combination for a skinny bloke like me!  At the Kuretau stop, I dived into the car, which Helen had already warmed up with heaters.  I struggled to find a comfortable position, and relaxed, eating some stewed apple and having those sips of coke.  Helen was dying to go to the loo, something difficult for women to do in public due to their acute and misplaced sense of modesty and poor structural design to go with that modesty.  She took the dog out and wandered up and down.  There were lots of places to go, but none quite as discrete as she wanted.  Finally, with still full bladder, Helen returned.  This had all given me an excuse to rest for even longer, but now it was time to go on.  It’s strange leaving the comfort of a cosy room, realizing that that this normality is but a temporary haven and that the real world is that which is waiting for you outside!

By now, I realised that I was actually looking forward to these hills.  They were definitely milestones, not obstacles.  Parts one and two over and only two big hills to go!

Finally, I was charging down Waihi Hill and out onto the flats.  What were previously showers had by now turned into a steady rain, creating large puddles I was forced to ride through.  I had taken my glasses off due to them impairing my vision, which is probably not the best thing to do in regard to long-term eye protection.  Luckily, the wind had died down, which was a huge blessing.

Slowly I began to realize that my mind was lightening up; indeed, this had been happening for a while.  I could do and had done the hills!  I was now on the flats and, at least in my mind, going at a good speed.  Being on the home-run was part of the reason for the speed.  The other was comfort.  I had really sore triceps, which made going down on the bars and drops in my normal way painful.  In addition, my neck muscles were sore and it was becoming difficult to hold an aero-bar position.  However, by accident, I discovered that turning my elbows in an outwards, forward direction and holding my arms straighter used different muscles and gave me a position that I could hold with comfort for a long time on the drops.  It’s amazing how a relative* absence of pain can really free up your mind and body to do what they are there for, which is to pedal fast!  Thinking back, I wonder whether I was even beginning to enjoy myself, powered along by a feeling of overwhelming relief.
(*For the record, I only had the expected sources of pain and none that were of too great a degree: by now my wrists were painful, my knees felt sore and strained, my hamstrings had been painful from very early on, and I was already fidgeting around in the saddle to achieve a position with slightly less burn.)

At one stage before Hatepe, I saw a van with a group of cyclists in front, some using hand-held pedals, which must be truly difficult.  I waved at the driver as I rode by and I am sure that he almost wet himself with excitement as he waved back.  He tooted the horn for the others to notice and I greeted them as I passed.  They can’t have been looking forward to Hatepe Hill!

And so I sped, along the lake front, up Hatepe Hill, down the other side, and along the flats to Taupo.  I can honestly say that I actually enjoyed Hatepe Hill.  I must be one of the only cyclists to have said that.  It was because of all that it represented – the last hill!

By now, cars full of cyclists were returning home.  The toots started very early on.  By the time I reached Taupo, a steady stream of traffic was leaving from the prize giving.  In my mind, it felt like I was in a ticker parade.  Toots, waves, and thumbs up.  And I returned them.  I returned them and felt the acknowledgeent doubled back in return.  Mostly it was just peripheral vision stuff, seeing people out of windows yelling “Good stuff” and such like.  Once I looked up after waving and giving the thumbs up to one car, and saw a guy excitedly shaking his thumb around in return with a huge grin on his face.  I was home!

No problems the last 20 kilometres then!  In fact, I even increased my speed and really played the part.  I was quite confused though.  There were obviously other endurance cyclists still on the road.  One of the support cars I had passed a number of times from early on had a guy who I thought was Colin Anderson.  When I overtook it on the flats before the final hill, I realised that I was riding fast and looking pretty good on the bike for a guy completing 640 km.  I felt like stretching my legs, but didn’t want to spoil the image, so waited until I was around the corner from him before doing so.  Later I worked out that I was not Colin, as he had done the Enduro.   Down the last home strait by the hotels, I suddenly thought I had gone too far, stopped pedalling, checked behind before turning and cycling around the other way in the middle of the road, looking for a way through the traffic, worked out that I was wrong, wheeled around again, and once more was down on the drops pedalling the last bit.

It was then around that last corner and on to the Caltex Station for the last time.  I … HAD … DONE … THE … TAUPO … MAXI … ENDURO … !  I felt a winner and you could see it by the size of my grin.  There was a muck-up at the Caltex Station, with all the recording equipment having been cleared out, the result being that at this stage I still have a DNF recorded against my name, as do all Maxi riders after the 31 hour mark.  This is ironic considering how hard I had struggled to not get a DNF.  One of the organisers was there and very apologetic.  Helen told me that a welcoming party was waiting for me at the place where the finishing line had been and that Craig McGregor was currently walking towards the Caltex Station.  I left her and the official to sort things out and cycled to the finishing line, keeping an eye out for Craig.  There at the finishing line, I saw Jay Waters, Brent Atkins, and the support crew of another rider, welcoming me in.  Apparently Tim and Liz had been waiting further down the road, but had missed me.  Both Craig and Jay had been texting around organising a welcoming party, which was really wonderful of them.  I was over the moon and could see my own absolute delight and happiness reflected in the smiles greeting me.  I had made it!
Proud athlete and his coach, Jay Waters
(Thanks Brent for photo)
So, I am now a person who can say, “I’ve done the Maxi”.  This makes me a very proud man!  For the record, my time was 33 hours and 12 minutes.  This places me 13th out of 14 finishers, with 6 of the 20 riders having DNFs besides their name.  Thirty three hours is well behind the first rider, who took only 23 hours and 34 minutes to get around the 4 laps; there was also one other rider under 24 hours and one just over that time.  The median time was 29 hours 42 minutes  However, whatever my placing, I am more than happy to have made it to the end.

One great thing about such a race, is that it really is a team effort.  I cannot take all the glory.  Team Morrison had two equal halves and having Helen there made it so much easier for me and considerably increased my chances of success.  The support of Nick and Stu through text messages was invaluable, as were Raewyn’s many texts and calls.  Lastly, to any reader who was at Taupo and waved at and supported an endurance rider, thank you!
Who's a happy chappy?
(Thanks Brent for photo)

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Strategy for the 2013 Maxi Enduro

I won't bore you with my more detailed plans for the Maxi, such as food, equipment, etc.  They haven't changed much from last year's plans, which can be found here:

However, you may be interested in my game plan.  In summary, it's about pacing, positive attitude, and relaxed riding style.  Here it is:

Throughout race:

  • Meet Helen every hour
  • Bottle of Perpeteum and bottle of water each stop
  • No stopping in Taupo
  • Stops to be fast
  • No rest stops planned, but be flexible on that
  • Helen to monitor me.  Also to take notes for future reference.
  • Pacing is the all-important theme of this race!

Lap 1 (Light and relaxed):

  • Theme of “Light and relaxed”.  Watch style/technique!
  • Pacing!  Ride at a pace I mean to continue with.
  • The measure off how well I do this is a genuinely cheerful “Hi” to Helen each time I see her.  If cramping, then I’m definitely failing on this!
  • But be efficient – make the full 4-lap average speed as high as possible.
  • Be happy!  Treat it as Sunday-drive equivalent.  Make sure I’m enjoying it.
  • Easy up the hills and rollers.
  • Don’t feel pressured to go fast up Kuretau and Waihi hills.
  • On flats, go fast, but with easy, efficient style.
  • Don’t be suckered into going fast along lake-front and through Taupo.  You’re on a Sunday jaunt!

Lap2 (Steady and efficient):

  • Theme is “Steady and efficient”.
  • It’s hurting now and you’re tired.  Keep a relaxed style going up the hills.  Keep mind steady and positive.
  • Eat up those kilometres, enjoying the interaction with Helen along the way.
  • Also enjoy the change from day to night.  Even enjoy the SH1 traffic.
  • Don’t race the No. 1 highway; just an easy and steady pace.

Lap 3 (I am happy):

  • Theme is “I am happy”.  I’m here because I want to be here.  I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.
  • It’s all about achievement.  Just continue to eat up those kilometres, and do so with a smile on my face.
  • Light and easy mind.  It’s great to be doing what I’m doing!
  • Relax and ride through that pain and tiredness.
  • Every pedal is taking me on to the next milestone.  Positivity!
  • Enjoy the night.  Listen to the night sounds. 
  • Celebrate people I meet.  Everyone is friendly!
  • Breaks to be only for stretches, toilet, and bottle change.  Only 2-3 minutes.  If need break, stand up off the seat! 

Lap 4: (You’re a hero)

  • Theme is “You’re a hero”.
  • Sub-theme no. 1 is “Act like a hero then … and race!”  Look like the athlete I am!
  • Sub-theme no. 2 is “Acknowledge and feed off all the praise and support I will get.  This is the celebration lap!”
  • The final lap is one of other people – talk to them; accept their praise; interact with them; encourage them in their own efforts; enjoy their company.
  • Show off!  And just go get that prize!!!
  • But keep your mind focussed.  Remember, this is a race!
  • Practically speaking, keep the food intake up and … keep hydrated!
  • If possible, join bunches.  If too fast, let them go.
  • Ride through the pain

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Tour de Manawatu 2013 (3 laps)

This was my 5th endurance cycling event.  I wasn’t even thinking of it as any big thing when I set out.  It was to be purely a training ride as preparation for something twice as long in 4 weeks’ time – the Taupo 4-lapper.  Boy, was I proved wrong!  By the end of it, I was even doubting whether I wanted to do the 4-lapper!

The Tour de Manawatu is actually a great course.  A lot of it is set in the hills north of Palmerston North, so you get a wonderful taste of typical North Island upper-hill country.  The ride also has long flat bits on relatively empty roads, which offer a great chance to get down on those aero-bars and just focus on going as fast as you can.

The race itself consists of doing 3 laps of a 115 km course.  This isn’t as boring as it might sound, as each lap is so different.  The first starts at 10pm and is completed in total darkness.  This adds to the challenge of finding your way through a maze of country roads with no signage.  The second lap is very much a “dawn” experience, where the sky slowly lights up to reveal that amazing countryside you’ve been passing through.  While the third lap is in the full light of the day, those pretty views are quite a peripheral to where your mind is at this stage of the race!

And so it was that nine of us gathered outside the Gull petrol station in Palmerston North just before 10 pm last Saturday.  Coming back from some preventative bladder-emptying, I was just in time to miss the end of Tim Neal’s pre-race spiel (thanks to Tim for facilitating this year’s endurance side of things!).  All I was aware of were some vague figures in the dark, lit up by a confusing array of flashing bike lights.  Then, without any fuss, we were off.
Race briefing for 9 intrepid souls
Suitably kitted out, but it looks as though my front light has already blown
As expected, the pace was fairly easy for the first 12 km, with people content to stick together as a group.  The route took us from the edge of the town, along some back roads, and then up the Napier highway to the village of Ashhurst.  I stayed at the back of the pack, using the opportunity to relax and have a chat with various people.  It was good to make the acquaintance of Jeremy Rowe and Margo Southgate for the first time.

At Ashhurst we turn and are immediately into the first set of hills.  Hills are really good at sorting riders out and tend to be where the pace heats up.  My plan was to cruise with the group until Ashhurst and then to find my own pace, whatever that might be.  I wasn’t going to rush to keep up with anyone, but neither was I going to slow down to wait for anyone.  I expected to be by myself for most of the ride, and indeed that was what I planned.  The ride was to be a practice run for Taupo, with the focus being on maintaining a nice steady but efficient pace and keeping myself in the right head-space.

It’s a great wee climb to the top of the hills above Ashhurst – only 4-5 km with an overall rise of around 110 metres.  Sure enough, it didn’t take long before 3 riders slowly pulled ahead (Brian Bushe, Jeremy Rowe, and Chris Pinkney).  I had already passed Tim Neal, who makes no bones about not being a good hill climber. He farewelled us, saying “See you at the end” (no doubt in jest!)  I was then up with Tim O’Brien and we topped the hill together, riding side by side over the next 11 km to the turn into Kimbolton Road.

As we approached Kimbolton Road, Tim noticed Margo and Brent Atkins not far behind and suggested we slow down and let them catch up.  I agreed enthusiastically.  My main front light had not been working since just after the start, so this offered a great chance to see if I could sort it out.  Sadly the bulb must have blown and I had no spare.  I had already been dependent on the flood of light in front of Tim’s bike, and it looked as though this would continue to be the case.  So much for my expectation of riding alone!

We had already done the first straight of a 17 km stretch of false flat (i.e. where the road appears to be flat but is actually rising) and Kimbolton Road was the remaining bit.  No problem for this lap, as there was plenty of distraction, but they can be soul destroying as you struggle to keep a speed more appropriate for a real flat.  The four of us rode two abreast, lit up by the car lights of Margo’s support crew, Sean.  After a while, we were surprised to have Tim Neal join us again.  He’d seen us in the distance, worked out that we were going no faster than him, so had put on an effort to join us.  We were surprised not to have seen Craig McGregor for ages and assumed that something had happened forcing him to drop behind.

At last we reached the corner that ended the long straight, now about 40 km into the race.  I was to really look forward to this moment in the two remaining laps.  And there was Helen!  As always, Helen is a very strong part of my race story, despite me trying to persuade her to not worry and to catch up on sleep herself.  This time I’d managed persuade her to only do the one lap.  One of the reasons she’d agree was that she planned to put balloons and other markers on the course to indicate roads that we should turn into.  I saw several the next lap and they did indeed save me from having to stop and pull out the map.

I really love the route over the next 45 km.  There is nothing boring about it.  I don’t know how many rollers there are, but there were lots, most short with steep upturns and downturns.  They really broke up the tedium of the race, but sure were to exact their due on my legs by the end.

Immediately after the turn, Tim O’Brien seemed to pick up speed.  With the choice of catching up with him or staying with Brent and Margo, I made the instinctive choice for anyone in a race.  I joined the faster rider.  The other two were slightly back and Tim Neal must have dropped off well before the corner.  With the various corners and the ups and downs of the rollers, it didn’t seem long before Tim and I were riding completely alone.

At about the 48 km mark, the route joins the Cheltenham-Hunterville Road and rises a further 50 metres over a 5 km stretch of road to top out at just over 300 metres, the highest point of the race and pretty close to half way.  It’s a bit of a grind up here, but it doesn’t last long.  Then, for the next 20 km the ride is mostly downwards, dropping around 230 metres.  Cycling down it is a great way to celebrate, although with the slight distraction of having to make sure that you don’t take any wrong turnings!

It’s fascinating what you come across on some of these rides.  This ride’s surprise was a graveyard way up in the hills all lit up with different coloured lights blinking merrily away.  A somewhat incongruous sight, but to come across this in the middle of a dark country night is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face.

At some stage (maybe just before the top?), Brent and Margo joined us again.  Interestingly, we dropped them another couple of times, but in both cases they caught up with energy to spare.  My guess is that they might have been having toilet stops, experiencing mechanicals, or just riding a different pattern from us.

Just before Halcombe, a village at the 78 km mark, Tim Neal caught up with Tim and I a second time, making some suitably cheeky comment.  This really surprised us, as we thought he was well and truly behind.  He looked strong too and blasted up some of the hills we came to.  “Whoa big boy”, said the other Tim, “You’ve got a long way to go yet!”

Anyway, at last, after some more climbing and descending, at the 88 km mark the three of us rode out onto the flats.  No more climbing!  But you adjust, don’t you.  We had what I thought was a pretty fast pace when, just before Fielding, Tim Neal got down on his aero-bars and began slowly to pull away from us.  Obviously neither of the remaining two of us felt like matching his pace, as we just continued as we were.

It’s funny how we so easily fall into traps and go off-plan.  Without even thinking, I was suckered into the wrong race.  Worrying about Tim Neal speeding into the distance, I got into race mode and put my foot down.  I wanted to manage that gap and possibly pull him in.  I’m not sure how the pace was for Tim O’Brien, but I was lucky to have him steadfastly behind me lighting the way with his lights.  Then, suddenly, on the home straight from Bunnythorpe to Palmerston North, I heard the cheery voice of Margo as she rode past me.  She and Brent had caught up yet again!  I did my best to match her pace and the four of us rode into the Gull station together, the first lap completed.

By the time we reached the station, Tim Neal had already signed in and left.  There being four of us, we took a bit longer, queuing for the loo and doing various bits of organisation.  Helen was there for me, changing my drink bottles and making sure I was alright (I think she’d been driving behind for some way as well, lighting the way).  I may have delayed things further still, as first Tim O’Brien and then Brent tried to fit me with a light.  Brent’s was successful.  Yes!  Such generosity from both of them, as parting with their spare lights involved some risk to them.  Real sportsmanship and just general niceness!

So it was that the four of set out on the 2nd lap.  And what a pace it was!  First Brent was in front, then Margo was up off her saddle and charging into the front, then it was Brent again.  I made no effort to add my share to the effort, as I thought it was too fast for such a race.  I was hoping that it was just a short-lived enthusiasm and that they would tire and the pace settle, but it wasn’t to be.  As we neared Ashhurst, I noticed that Tim O’Brien had dropped off.  Just before Ashhurst, I finally took the wise option and let them go.  Helen was waiting there outside the Ashhurst Motor Lodge, where we had a room.  I wheeled over to her, gave a goodnight kiss, and then set off after the others.

I talked of traps before.  The second trap I fell into was to continue on racing when I should have been riding in a measured way.  In fact, I raced for the whole of the remaining laps driven by two spectres – the threat of Tim O’Brien behind and wanting to reduce the gap that Margo, Brent and Tim had on me in front.  Even after those spectres had faded somewhat, I was just stuck in the racing rut, aided by a sense of disappointment and rage at how poorly I felt I was doing … but more on that later.

The Ashhurst hills mark 2 and, lo and behold, there was Tim Neal again.  I gradually closed the gap and rode with him to the top of the first slope, having a bit of a chat.  Tim then rode away from me in the short downhill and I caught up with and rode away from him on the second hill.  Soon after I’d crested the hill, Tim came charging past and there was no way I could keep up with him.  The next half hour or more was spent seeing his lights get further and further away.

By now we were on those long, straight, false flats again and I could also see Brent, Margo and their supporting car’s lights taunting me in the distance for ages and ages.  Looking behind, I also saw the lights of Tim O’Brien, hovering to strike.  Harder Andrew, harder!

And so it was that I eventually arrived again at the 40 km mark that broke that unpleasant stretch.  There was still the odd glimpse of light in the distance ahead and behind, but I was essentially alone and would not see any of my riding companions until the end of the race.  The hills were now somewhat harder, but I was essentially in a good race mode, keeping my mind steady, riding them without much thought, and just focussing on turning those pedals.

In such races, you seize on anything you can to lift your spirit.  The odd glimpse of the balloons that Helen had left out definitely gave me the warm fuzzies, which I succoured as long as I could.  The other thing was the impending promise and then the actual experience of dawn.  At first it was just a slight pale imperfection in the sky, which very slowly increased and spread.  After a long time, I found that I could make out vague shapes around me, eventually being surprised at just how beautiful this countryside was.  Being hilly, there was always a view, with a multitude of panoramas ranging from flat dairy farms, to rugged pastures with sheep, to bush-clad valleys, to distant views over the hills onto the plains below.  The other riders must have passed ages ago, as I sent at least a couple of flocks of sheep scurrying away as I whizzed by.  I also remember passing a wonderfully big, fat, white pig on the road, and also some cows walking just on the side.

And yet again, I was through the hills and onto the plains near Fielding.  I’d had to stop a few times to check out the route, but was lucky enough not to have missed turns, which has been a fairly common occurrence in past races.  In my mind, the rest of the lap was like a replay of the previous time, with me remembering different places and even small events of the previous lap.  By now, of course, I could see around a lot more clearly.  It was a pleasant change to see the world slowly wake up, with people taking their dogs for walks and intermittent early morning traffic.

But there was no let up.  Having tried so hard to maintain my distance from Tim O’Brien, I didn’t want to drop the ball.  So no rest, but down on the aero-bars and keeping that cadence up.

One thing that kept me in check, however, was fear of cramps.  Every one of my previous endurance rides had been plagued by them and they are no pleasant thing.  I’d previously tried to manage them with electrolytes, but I’m not sure if this had worked.  This time I focused instead on making sure that my muscles weren’t working full-out all the time, but sometimes just using momentum to turn those pedals.  I did feel cramps threatening a few times, but would just relax, which seemed to fix things.  So, one successful outcome of the race – no cramps!

While on such things, I should mention my food.  It was 100% Hammer Perpetuem, a food-based powder that you mix with water.  I’d made the drink at 3 x concentration and every 20 minutes I would have a squirt from the bottle, followed by a squirt of water to rinse my mouth and wash it down.  That was all I needed and I finished the race with no issues.  There were times, however, when I felt somewhat nauseous and, towards the end, I didn’t look forward much to that 20 minute alarm going, but I managed to get through those moments.  One thing though was that I only had one bottle of water and one of Perpeteum for each of the first two laps, which meant that I had less liquid than I probably should have and was thirsty a lot of the time.  Still, no harm came of it.

Now, for the second time, I had to sign in at the Gull station.  I’m somewhat ashamed to confess that I was now getting into mind games with my previous road companion and generous person who would have offered me his lights if they’d fitted my battery.  There was no way that I wanted to be anywhere in sight when Tim O'Brien appeared.  I didn’t want to give him sustenance and hope in the feeling that he’d caught me.  So I was in and out as fast as I could go.  Then, once around the corner, I stopped and gave Helen a text as she had requested.

It seemed even longer to Ashhurst this time, but you just switch your mind off and you're eventually there.  Sure enough, there was my lovely wife.  I careened over to her, leant the bike against the car, and started taking of my various night gear.  Helen slapped some sunblock on my face (far too much, of course), I grabbed some drink (1.5 bottles of Perpeteum and 1.5 bottles of water this time), and was off.  Just out of sight from Helen, I nipped behind a tree for a quick pee, then hit the hills.
A final farewell to Helen on the last lap
As I mentioned, each lap was different and had its own distractions.  Obviously a main one this time was other riders, but they weren’t to start just yet.  However, I began passing officials out on the course.  I don’t know what they made of this lone rider passing them, well before the event.  I waved each time I went by, and most would return my greeting, but few words of encouragement were given.  They probably didn’t know about the endurance event or were just too busy getting ready for the main riders.  Still, their presence did help take my mind off things.

It was hard going up Kimbolton Road this time, and every now and then I would stand up on the pedals and just freewheel for a few seconds.  All the time, I was looking back, waiting for the first bunch of 1-lappers to whizz by me.  At last, just before the 40 km mark, four really fit young men wolloped past, followed soon after by a slightly bigger pack.  I was surprised by the smallness of the various packs that would overtake me and the long distances between them, but guess that the number in the race is considerably less than in Taupo and the Graperide.

By now I had entered the suffer zone.  While my head was steady, my legs were sore, especially behind the kneecaps and the upper parts of my hamstrings.  They were also pretty weak - a few times I would stand up on them to stretch and rest, but the muscles would initially not give enough support and my legs would begin to collapse the wrong way, i.e. against the grain of the knee.  You quickly learn to be careful with that.

As you’d expect, the hills were a lot harder this time.  But you can do nothing about it except just switch your mind off and continue riding.  I continued to have the distractions of the people riding past me, and got a real buzz from the odd person yelling out words of encouragement.  Some even asked if I was alright – I must have looked like shit!

The distraction of officials on the course continued.  It’s great that they’re out there, so I would give all a friendly greeting as I whizzed by.  Many really took their job seriously, and would be holding out cups of water for me to grab as I rode past.  I felt rude declining the generous offers!

One moment I enjoyed was when Matthew Schipper caught up to me on the Cheltenham-Hunterville Road.  I had ridden with Matthew around this very course more than a year ago (a few weeks before the race) and have bumped into him a couple of times since.  He’s a nice guy and good company.  For almost 10 km I think, I had noticed a sole, yellow-jacketed rider behind me.  I had thought it was Tim O’Brien and adjusted to the inevitability of him catching me up.  But it was Matthew.  It was good to see him and I felt even happier when he said something like, “I’ve been trying to catch up with you for ages!”  I couldn’t have been going too slowly then, as Matthew is a good rider.  We talked for a while and reached the highest point of the ride together.

I had actually been planning to have a five minute “short death” rest at this point, something that I had been holding in front of me as a carrot for a while.  However, I was perked up now.  It was also a fast flat bit coming up, so I was down on my aero-bars getting some speed up.  I did feel somewhat guilty, as I would have liked to have chat with Matthew some more, but noticed him drop behind.  However, after some time, he overtook me.  I think he was expecting me to jump on his tail and draft, as he looked back a few times, but I was just too tired.  Soon after that, he hopped onto a passing bunch and was soon out of sight.  I’m sure he got a good time and wish him all the best for the Taupo Enduro this month, his first.
Nearing the end

Well, eventually I was out of the hills and onto the last leg of the ride.  I rode on the aero-bars most of the time, mainly for comfort now.  Lots of positives can be ticked off from this ride.  I might be able to manage long distances on the aero-bars.  My breathing is much better than before, with no hyper-ventilation.  There were no cramps.  Food worked out fine.  …  However, there was one huge negative.

By now, I was well and truly stuffed.  Of course, that’s no big deal towards the end of such a race.  However, what made this different was the fact that this ride was only 345 km.  In just a few weeks, I would be riding 640 km of an even hillier course.  I was already digging deep to finish and just did not want to be there anymore.  So what chance did I have for Taupo?! I would just be around the half way mark by now!  Even if I could take the tiredness and pain – and I was currently in a place where that didn’t have any appeal – would it be physically possible?  What is worst, this was after all the training I had done, which had been pretty intensive, getting up to almost 20 hours a week more recently, involving sleep deprivation from early morning rides, and considerable sacrifice to family life.  Thinking of all this through my tired, befuddled mind, I became really upset.  Not only that, I was angry.  Furious!

So the last half hour had me gritting my teeth, turning those pedals, and raging.  The odd "F" word passed my lips too.  I was just focussed on getting to the end and was pushing hard.  However, this didn’t exactly translate into speed, as I continued to get passed by the odd cyclist.  Finally I was over the line.  There was Helen’s smiling face, which is always so good to see.  “How was it?” she asked.  And my ignomious, shameful response?  “Fucked!”
The old man that Helen says greets her at the end of each race
So now, some days after the event, what do I make of it?  It was definitely hard.  But I did enjoy many aspects of the race, especially riding with my four companions over the first 100 or so kilometres.  It was also good from a training perspective.  There were the positives that I mentioned before.  Also, even that big negative that I’ve been whinging about is, in the end, a positive.  Once more, it’s wiped away all illusions about ultra-cycling away and given me an icy dousing of cold reality.  Taupo is going to hurt.  There are going to be huge tracts that I will definitely not enjoy.  There is also a possibility of me not finishing it.  But also, there is a glimmer of hope, and that is the other lesson I’ve got from the 3x Tour de Manawatu.  Sadly, it's a lesson I've had to keep relearning – the importance of good pacing!