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)

10 comments:

  1. I'm amazed that you can remember such detail after 4 laps. I don't think my report will be as comprehensive as things have already blurred & merged lol. Congratulations on a wonderful achievement. Yes, I was still out there behind you. My time was within 20mins of what we estimated prior to the start, so that wasn't too bad. Might see you up there again ???

    Di Chesmar

    ReplyDelete
  2. Outstanding!

    bb :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Congrats Andrew great youv,e got the Maxi under your belt, with a big tick.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Congrats Andrew, fantastic achievement and perseverance. What a great read.

    Phil M

    ReplyDelete
  5. Congratulations Andrew. A massive effort. It is hard to imagine what it must be like. And what on earth can you ever do to top that? But no doubt you will have something in mind!.
    Well done,
    John Barber

    ReplyDelete
  6. The words nutter, and amazing, both spring to mind! Mark D

    ReplyDelete
  7. Fantastic effort and very inspirational Andrew.
    Peter Campbell

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ive just done the Maxi for the first time. A great read and well written. I'm sure any other Maxi finisher can well understand what you, and us, all go through. Regards John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks John. Yes, it really is an achievement I look back on with pride. Huge congratulations to you John and all the best for your future adventures. Andrew

      Delete