Sunday, 7 December 2014

The 2014 Taupo Maxi Enduro

Maxi road trip!
The Maxi Enduro!  Four laps of the 160km Lake Taupo course, starting 10:30am on Friday 28 November and finishing the next day.  This was to be my 3rd Maxi and 5th race over 500km.  Each of the previous rides had been different from the others.  This was to be very different!

The story of this year’s Maxi really began soon after I completed April’s 1,010km Monster Graperide.  The magnitude of that race’s impact on my body was a surprise, so I decided that this would be a year of consolidation.  Instead of upping the ante again and doing the Taupo 8-lapper, I would stick to the 4-lap Maxi, which I had successfully completed last year.  I’d make my preparation fun, as some mental recovery was also needed after the training leading up to the Graperide.  I would go on club rides, spend lots of time in the hills, all with the objective of enjoying myself and seeing if I could build some leg muscle.  However, that seemingly conservative plan soon came unstuck.

The recovery required from the Mammoth was ... mammoth.  It took months!  Club rides would leave me exhausted, even if I stuck with the slowest rider.  My heart beat even went arrhythmic after one such ride.  So I scaled things back savagely, lost touch with my cycling buddies, and left my bike alone.  Unsurprisingly, this led to a dose of depression, which was broken by a pre-planned 6 week holiday in Europe on family matters in July/August.  The holiday was great, but, even this long after the race, my body was still struggling. 

Good holiday, but it was very hard going back to work, so I thought I’d up my spirits by getting back into cycling.  I got totally smashed on the first group ride and even struggled the next week with a 2 hour ride by myself.  Only 12 weeks to Taupo!  What to do?  Suddenly, the answer was blindingly obvious.  I would train for the Maxi of course.  If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t do it, but at least I’d have a purpose and a challenge.  Magically, the low spirits went, I decided not to quit my job, and suddenly I was smiling.  Training started really easy, but by 9 weeks I had managed a 250km ride, including 2 circuits of the hilly 100km Akatarawa block.  The final test would be the next week, where I would do 3 circuits of the block, a total of almost 300km hard riding.  The first two laps went alright despite hot conditions, but I was tired and downcast setting off for the third.  Two kilometres into the lap, I thought “Bugger this!”  I stopped to mull things over.  Of course I could finish the 3rd lap although it would be hard, but my heart just wasn’t in it.  And this is what the Maxi would be like, with me under-trained, just inching to the end and destroying myself in the process.  I didn’t think I had anything to prove, so decided not to do it but work on the long-term plan of building up the fitness base and aiming for next year’s 8-lapper.  Good plan I think, but not so clever sharing it with the world.  I was surprised at just how hard my endurance-cycling friends came down on me, and eventually folded under the pressure.  I would do the Maxi.

Sorry for the long start to this story, but it does give you an idea of my mind-set going into the race.  But enough introspection for the moment.  Let’s start that race!

Pre-race briefing.

The start.
There were more than 20 riders lining up in Taupo for the 10:30am start.  The line-up included international cyclists, including Chris (Hoppo) Hopkinson (ranked 2nd in world standings for 24-hour racing), Valerio Zamboni and his team of riders, and I detected Australian accents as well.  There were also Kiwi stalwarts who I’d seen on previous races and some new-comers.

My plan was to start at the back, but there seemed to be competition for that position, with other cyclists wheeling their bikes to the same place.  It’s a long ride and it pays not to get caught up with the initial enthusiasm of smashing yourself on that first 20km to the highest point of the ride.

Suddenly, without fanfare, we were clicking into our pedals.  The race had begun.  As I rode down towards the bridge crossing the Waikato River, my way was suddenly blocked by three Italian riders and I had to brake.  They were calling back to one of their team members, who they were waiting for.  Strange and somewhat discourteous, I thought, but soon wheeled around them and worked my way up the steep hill of the No.1 highway.  There’s a rather sordid story around these riders, which I might share one day.

It’s a steep kilometre or two up the main highway before we wheel off.  I found myself with Chris Little, a likeable English gentleman from Wellington in his (I’m guessing) early thirties.  I’d met him at the registration and he’d complimented me on my blog, which I of course love to hear.  As we neared the turn-off, my good friend Nick Dunne passed in a support van for Nick Tollemach.  “Come-on pudding tits!” he yelled as he passed.

I rode a bit with Chris, exchanging the odd word with him.  After a while we caught up with Darrall Castle, then even later joined up with Arran Pearson from Singapore.  “Nice way to spend a holiday!” I remarked as I passed him.  Arran had flown in for the weekend purely to do the race.  After some time, Neville Mercer caught up with us and every now and then we could see Leslie White a bit in front of us. 

 “There’s five of us”, said Darrall, “Why don’t we get some rotation going.  How about 2 minutes each at the front?”  “Not me”, I said, “I’m doing my own thing.”  I’d found that riding in bunches in these races always cost me, forcing me to ride harder than I wanted to.  I don’t mind people drafting off me, but always feel I’m bludging if I do the same to them.  Luckily we were cresting one of the long up-slopes of this part of the ride.  I tucked myself down on my aero-bars and gently headed off into the wind.  I expected the bunch to be behind me, but when I looked back some minutes later, they had dropped way behind.  Either I had been too fast (and aero-bars are pretty good for this!) or they had decided not to follow such a snobbish prat.  Anyway, the funny thing is that, after a while we got into the upward slopes again where I’m a lot slower, and they caught up and rode silently past in single file.  Not a word was spoken!  I was by myself now and would not see another cyclist until the third lap!

I’d asked Helen to write a log, so that I could get another’s perspective of how I was doing, the food I was eating, how frequently I was stopping, and so on.  I’ve included some of her comments below in italics.

“Looking good. Very windy.”  Comment at Tihoi relay stop (approximately 40km into lap) at 12:30pm.

The wind was definitely strong.  If you think of the ride as being of roughly rectangular direction, we were heading straight into the wind for the first bit, had it to our right on the other side of the lake, with it chasing us up Kuretau, and to the side again on the No. 1 highway back to Taupo.  I never thought of it as that strong, as it’s been far worse on other races.  However, when combined with rain and low temperatures, it would take its toll!

Helen was meeting me more frequently than on previous Taupo races; probably every hour or less.  It was usually just a quick change of the bottle, when she would also try and stuff some food into my mouth.  After some time, she surprised me by saying, “Be more positive!”  Usually I’m really sparking at this stage of the race, sucking in all the good energy I can get to inspire and strengthen my mind.  But not this time.  The ride was just something to do and get over with as soon as I could.  I had been negative about the whole thing for a while and this had obviously carried over to the race itself.  Not a good thing!  So I tried working on it.  (If you’ve got a weak stomach, I’d advise you to skip the next two sentences.)  I really love my wife and found that the thing that worked was actually looking into her eyes and truly engaging with her at the next bottle changes.  To see that love and care returned was all powerful!  Later that lap and into the next, all further negativity would be dispelled by some pretty harsh weather conditions that would force me to focus and in a perverse way gave me great joy.  This was what endurance racing is all about!

Lap 1.

And so I plugged on.  Up the fantastic Waihaha Hill, which is like Hatepe Hill in having its steeper bit just before the top.  Then on through the series of large rollers towards the start of Kuretau Hill.  I have no recollection of the wind along that side of the Lake, mainly because of past experience and it was from the side, but when heading away from the wind up Kuretau I suddenly found myself being pushed upwards.  It was definitely strong!

Very windy, but he’s looking good.”  Comment at Kuretau relay stop (about 80km into lap) at 1:50pm.

Soon I had crested Waihi Hill and was down on the flats.  Yes!  Another stage knocked off!  Traffic on State Highway 1 was heavy as cyclists drove up to Taupo for the next day’s one lapper. 

I had asked people in my local bike group to toot when they passed me (or any endurance rider) and to send lots of texts.  Adrian McKenzie, president of the local club, had kindly also put this request onto the club website and Facebook page, from which it was shared to other sites again.  And sure enough, there were lots of toots as cars went by.  I tried to acknowledge everyone that I could, waving my hand in thanks.

This is the stage that I usually really put the speed on.  I’m not good with continuous sets of hills, but I can definitely go fast when it’s flat, especially with the aid of aero-bars.  Unfortunately I quickly found that my right aero-bar arm had sunk downwards and was too uncomfortable to use.  At one of the bottle swap stops past Turangi, I asked Helen to have the Allen keys ready at the next top.  It's an awkward thing to adjust, but I needed those aero-bars working!

That was when those intermittent showers became no longer just intermittent!  It started raining.  Helen had the tools out at the next stop.  “No” I called, “I’m too cold to stop.  Wait until it clears!”  But it didn’t clear.  The rain got harder and harder, coming in right off the Lake and drilling into me.  I tucked myself down on the sagging aero-bars just to reduce my exposed surface.

“Raining, raining, raining!”  Comment at 3rd relay stop (about 120km into lap) at 3:20pm.

“Fricken freezing!  Strong winds and very cold rain”.  Comment at lakeside somewhere before Hatepe Hill.

Finally I stopped and jumped into the car.  I had to put on extra clothes.  I was shivering and feeling incapacitated from the cold.  With the aid of heaters going full-bore and warm coffee, I slowly began to warm up.  I then stripped off my top clothes, put a thick long-sleeved vest on and a rain jacket in addition to what I was already wearing.  Finally I pulled some long trousers over my shorts and added a polyprop cap.  After a bit more warming up, I was out of the car, still shivering a bit as I rode off.

Hatepe Hill warmed me up and I stopped for a bottle change just past the crest.  Helen was chatting with a cyclist who was riding from Wellington to Auckland on a foldable bike, stopping off at Taupo for a loop of the Lake with the one-lappers tomorrow.  I think she might have given him some hot drink, as he also was very cold.  He was lonely as well, as it’s a long way to travel by yourself, and was enjoying a chat.  His name was Wally and he was disappointed that he had to wear a shower jacket, as it was covering his “Where’s Wally” shirt!

About 15km out of Taupo and with the weather calming, it was at last time to deal with those aero-bars.  Somewhat late for all the flat bits missed!  The operation went surprisingly well and I was soon off Again.  However, after riding a bit, I suddenly realised I’d left my glasses on top of the car, wheeling around to go back and get them.  Luckily Helen had also seen them and soon dropped them off to me.
End of lap 1.
At last I had finished lap 1.  My time was 6:45 hours, which was 25 minutes slower than last year.  Not bad considering the weather and my two stops.  It was a fast turnaround at the sign-in, with Helen reckoning it was only 7 minutes from my arrival to my departure, with me signing in, using the loo, and putting the shammy cream on in in that time.

Almost an hour into the second lap and I was suddenly blasted by a shower of near hail.  It drilled into me and was so painful I eventually had to stop and turn myself away from it to protect my face, hands, and chest.  But this also made me cold so, as the main force of it bated, I was on the bike again and riding hard to keep warm. 

“Poor Andrew.  He’s looking so tired.”  Comment about 1 hour into lap 2, at 6:10pm.

At the next bottle-change stop, I was into the car again, with heaters full on and another hot drink.  This time I put on warm, waterproof socks and a pair of water-proof, winter gloves.  Helen also put a small portable speaker on the bike, which I could use with an iPod.  I’d not used music yet this ride, being too focussed on riding and not in the mood for merriment.  But the music did slowly begin to help, when I could hear it through the wind.

Early lap 2.

Time for waterproof gloves and socks.  Lap 2.

Lap 2.

“Cold but going strong.”  Comment at Tihoi relay stop at 8:00pm.

Fifty kilometres into the lap and it was time to stop to put on lights.  It was almost dark now.  Dusk and dawn are definitely the prettiest parts of any ride and, even in my tired condition, moments of their glory peeked in.  Not much though!

“Doing really well.  Another guy 2-5 minutes ahead”.  Comment at 10:20pm at intersection with Turangi-Taumaranui road.

“Not much rain.  Andrew looking very tired.”  Comment at 11:05pm at top of Waihi Hill.

“Rain again.  It wasn’t meant to rain!”  Comment at 11:20pm at Turangi.

“Andrew absolutely freezing.  Took ages to warm up.”  Comment at stop 20 minutes pst Turangi.

A bit past Turangi, it was time for another stop for even more clothes.  This time it was an additional long-sleeved polyprop shirt.  As I warmed up in the car, Helen read to me all the texts of support we had received.  It was wonderful to hear them and I laughed at the cheeky ones.  She had mentioned several before but I had just not been in the mood, focussed instead on just getting through the ride, but feeling somewhat guilty as I had requested them.  Now, however, I lapped them up!

“Look at the stars!” Helen said as I got back on the bike.  “Yes”, I replied automatically, but then looked.  Between the shower clouds skittling by, you could see the dark night sky with bright vibrant, piercing shafts of white light.  They were beautiful.  Sadly I only noticed them a couple of times that night, but they were indeed precious.

The problem with being on the State Highway is the traffic.  All through the night, trucks and convoys of trucks whizzed by.  It meant for very careful riding, as the judder line at the side of the road often forced me on to a narrow strip of tarmac that was hard to see.

Finally I was over Hatepe hill for a second time, stopping at the top to change over one of the light’s rechargeable batteries.  Only a short way to the end of the second lap now!

“Andrew is really struggling.  Tired and cold”.  Comment at 1:00am.

One thing I had been really curious about the race this time was how my lower level of fitness would fare against the considerably increased experience I’d gained since last year’s race.  Experience brought three additional lessons.  First, not to get carried away driving up hills or into the wind.  I’d always known this intellectually but hadn’t managed to put it into actual practice until the Graperide.  It’s average speed that counts, not speed over any particular section.  Second, I need more nutrition than I’ve taken in previous Maxi Enduros.  Third, time off the bike costs!  There was also a fourth – don’t think, just turn those pedals; you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve!  Unfortunately, the weather added an additional factor that made all comparison invalid.  Experience may well have won out in better conditions, but I was facing an uphill battle this time around.

End of lap 2.

At the end of lap 2, there was no quick turnaround.  After signing in, I hopped into the car to have some hot drink and try and warm up.  I was really tired, so even tried to sleep, but to no avail.  Finally, 20 minutes after arriving, I was off.

About 30-60 minutes into the lap, I was overtaken by three individual riders.  I wasn’t sure whether I’d been lapped or whether they were on the same lap as me and had just stopped and showered in Taupo before continuing.  My guess (correctly) was that they were the latter.

I find these up-hill bits hard, especially this far into the race.  The first of the following comments refers to the fact that I know that Helen hates seeing me physically destroy myself in front of her, and I knew that this was what was happening.  But there are ups as well as downs, hence the second comment.

“Andrew keeps apologizing for doing this.”  Comment at Kinlock turnoff.

Andrew looking really good.  Just rushed past me!”  Comment at Marota Rd turnoff, 4:20am.

One thing that I was finding unusual in this race was just how sleepy I was feeling.  Sleepiness had not been an issue previously.  Even at the Graperide, I only needed a 15 minute sleep just before dawn after a second night of continuous riding.  The reason this time was, I think, the fatigue brought on by coldness.  Sleep is something you should ideally avoid in anything but a multi-day ride.  It not only means time off the bike, I’ve also known people who haven’t managed to start again on waking up.  Come on Andrew, hold on!  My hope was that the coming of dawn would drive the sleepiness away, but early light was soon beginning to fill the skies.  I needed a rest!

Finally I was with Helen at the Tihoi interchange for the third time.  “I need to sleep!” I said as I hopped into the car.  “Have some food first”, she responded, so I slowly munched through something or other.  I then sat with my head resting on a blanket propped up against the window and was immediately asleep.  Fifteen minutes later I was suddenly awake.  Yes!  I was ready to continue and feeling much better!

When I got into the car, I had noticed a person going into the big tent at the relay change.  I had thought it was one of the officials doing some early preparations for the day’s one-day event, but it proved to be another Maxi Enduro rider.  When I woke up, I found him on his bike and coming over to join me.  He was Leslie White and I was to ride with him for much of the next 50 kilometres.  He was a nice, cheerful guy, stronger than me but I think enjoying some extra company.

Before I took off, I had to take a leak.  Then Leslie and I rode off together.  It was still very early dawn and the sky was beautiful.  I quickly found Leslie to be a lot stronger than me.  He would easily cycle away from me on any upwards slopes, but I would catch him up whenever I went down on the aero-bars.  On the downwards slopes when I’d surge ahead on those bars, he’d tuck in nicely behind me and keep up.  We chatted a bit and I found he had a great dry sense of humour.  One of the times when he was waiting with Helen for me to catch up, he asked her, “Remind me again why I’m doing this?”  “Because you love cycling!” she replied.

Early morning.  Lap 3.

While riding up Waihaha Hill together, I joked that this hill felt like I was going up in a higher and higher gear each time.  “You’re riding in your big sprocket”, he said.  I thought he was joking too, so laughed (well sort of laughed).  As we breached the hill and started the downhill slope, I looked down and, sure enough, I really had been in the big sprocket!

“He’s looking absolutely knackered!”  Comment 70km into lap 3, at 7:15am.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t really enjoying riding with Leslie.  Really nice guy, but I felt in a bit of a private hell-hole.  I was exhausted and wanted to get into a good mental zone and just plug on.  But I would be distracted with Leslie slowly moving away from me, only to have him wait at a top of a hill for me to catch up.  Eventually his wife came to support him.  He’d told her to go back to the motel to rest, but she hadn’t managed to sleep.  He stopped a while, I think getting clothes and refreshments, and I ploughed on by myself.

Food was also something I was having trouble with now.  Hammer Perpeteum is my nutrition base on these long rides, but it is important not to have too much of it if.  Doing so risks bloating and nausea, which is exactly what was happening with me now.  Yet I still needed the food.  I reduced my intake from 2 sips every 20 minutes to 1 sip, hoping that this was not too short.

At last I was on to the Turangi-Taumaranui highway and making my way up Kuretau Hill.  There was a lot of activity on Kuretau now, with spectators getting ready for the elite racers to come through.  As you can imagine, with my official pink helmet cap proudly claiming that I was doing 640km, I got lots of cheers.  “Well done!”  “You’re amazing!”  I definitely didn’t feel amazing.  I felt really done in as I struggled past the crowds.  I also felt a bit of a con, as I was only on my third lap.  I was definitely no champion.  But I still accepted the praise that would continue to be shouted my way for the rest of the lap.  I knew I was in a place that few others were.

As I charged down Waihi Hill towards the flats, the racers seemed imminent.  People had been craning their necks expectantly and various officials were huddled in chairs along the course, presumably waiting to pounce on any overly dangerous behaviour and call in help if any accidents.

I don’t know when it happened, but as I rolled along to the main state highway, I realised that I’d already decided that I’d probably not be doing the fourth lap.  This came as a surprise.  Soon after I’d joined with Leslie , he'd asked me if I was going to finish the event.  There had been no doubt at that stage!  But I was now feeling so physically beaten up, I just did not want to grind myself more into the ground.  It just didn’t seem worth it.

But, no matter what that decision, I knew I wanted to pause soon and just enjoy holding a coffee in my hands and not riding for a while.  How to arrange this with Helen?  Thank goodness, there she was, at the coffee kiosk just before the Turangi bridge.  As I rolled into the car park, who should also be there but Leslie and his wife, sitting relaxing by the kiosk with their coffee.  The last time I saw Leslie was when he rode past me while I was having a leak by the side of the road.  Our ride together both began and ended with me taking a leak – leaky man syndrome!

“He looks like a 75 year-old and was even swearing a wee bit.”  Comment at Turangi at 9:30am.

I would have loved to stay with them and chat, but I was shattered.  I just wanted to get into the car and die.  The coffee was hot so it took a while to drink.  I felt in heaven and just lay back in the driver’s seat, thinking of nothing.  Soon however, it was time to go.  “Mumble mumble fuck mumble mumble mumble.”  “What was that?” asked Helen.   “Nothing”, I replied.  I had decided no swearing on the race, as you need to do everything to keep your mind positive.  It seemed I'd slipped up at least once!  “Can’t you just drive me to the end and be done with it?” I asked, knowing that the answer would be no, but it was still a nice dream.  “Just finish the lap and we’ll see how you are then!”

Rest at Turangi.  Lap 3.

By now the elites had raced past.  One thing I enjoyed hugely about this last leg of my race was seeing so many stages of the one-lap race pass me as I limped back to Taupo.  I especially loved seeing the front bunches, with their athleticism, fitness, and mental toughness.  The bunches were living things, pulsating and continually changing shape, as groups surged and consolidated, with riders continually battling to make or bridge gaps.  It was very exciting.

I had definitely made up my mind that lap 3 would be it.  There would be no lap 4 this time around.  More than any time before, I just wanted to sleep.  I was also sore all over.  Wet pants from the rain meant that saddle sores had started far sooner than they should have, which made the aero-bars hard work.  But riding on the top bars were also painful on my wrists, which were quite swollen by now – I think the result of holding on too tight as I blasted through the wind and rain of the early parts of the ride, trying to keep warm.

Suddenly, from the midst of one of the first big groups, I heard someone call out, “Andrew!”  From the next group, Mike Proudfoot yelled “Go Andrew!”  My slow mind began to creak.  Should I really quit?  A lot of people had a lot of faith in me.  It would be so nice to repay that faith.  I just had to slog it around one more time.  Victory would be all that more sweet, as it would be the hardest thing I’d ever done.  I kept these thoughts alive, teasing and testing myself with them.  Were they sufficient to make me change my mind?  In the end they weren’t.  The drive just wasn’t there.  I still remember the long recovery from the Graperide.  And I’d already completed the Maxi, hadn’t I?  It just didn’t seem worth it.

Lap 3, SHI

Topping Hatepe Hill.  Lap 3.

Limping in.  Near end of lap 3.

As I limped up Hatepe Hill and rode the final kilometres to the end, the nature of the riders was changing, as was the franticness of their pace.  All were passing me though.  The last bit of the ride was absolutely joyless.  There was no nearing finishing line to drive me through the pain.  I just cycled on, standing up on the pedals every now and then, and even coasting down some of the hills.  Finally, I was around the corner and riding up to the Caltex Station where we had to sign in.  I held up three fingers as I rode up to Helen.  Three laps … and that was all I was going to do!

We then went to the holiday house we’d leased.  Helen wouldn’t let me pull out just yet, at least not until I’d had a shower, some food, and time to consider.  I even had a little sleep.  Then she and Iain Clarke, who arrived shortly afterwards, kept on pushing me to go on.  “I don’t want you to regret it!” said Helen.  But there was no changing my mind.  I even refused to talk to Nick Dunne when he rang to encourage me, as I didn’t want to have to face another wave of argument and coaxing.

So that was it - my experience of the 2014 Maxi.  Not exactly a glamour run!  I'm sure I would have made it if the weather wasn't so bad, but that's not how life is.  I'm glad it was tough.  Life is tough and who am I to have things handed to me on a platter.  

I believe this to be my first long-distance cycling DNF.  Actually, I had one at the same event two years ago, but I conveniently don't count that as I sincerely thought I was in the early stages of a heart attack when I quit that race.  But this was definitely one, no excuses!  I know that I could have finished the fourth lap, but I made the decision that I didn't want to.  I just wasn't ready to destroy my body even more and be faced with that much longer recovery.  To take this story back to where I started, perhaps a DNF was no surprise given my limited amount of training and negativity leading into the race.  I just didn't want a win (a finish) badly enough.

So where does that leave me now?  Probably where I was at the start - trying to work out where to go with this endurance cycling lark.  There is definitely a lot that I love about the sport.  However, it's a strange sport that involves driving yourself to the point of exhaustion and beyond and taking months to recover from.  One answer is of course that I need to be fitter, but I have to achieve this without taking too much time away from Helen.  I also need something to really fire my passion.  Breaking myself on yet another Maxi Enduro is probably not the answer.  Watch this space!

25 and a half hours before!