Espresso 24-Hour Adventure Race

Sunday, Sep 06, 2009 at 16:26

TriathlonOz - David

The Espresso Adventure Race is a non-stop, unsupported, 24-hour challenge (12 noon Saturday – 12 noon Sunday) for teams of 4 conducted in the Blackwood Region of south-west Western Australia. The 2009 race was conducted over the weekend of 5th – 6th September (Father’s Day weekend). I’ve just completed it and am having trouble recovering as I write this blog.

The event is very much an extreme challenge with each competitor pushing themselves to their absolute limits of physical fitness and mental alertness. For those unfamiliar with adventure racing it is a course race, comprising stages of mountain biking, cross-country running, kayaking and sometimes rope work. Teams have to work and stay together as they cover a course that they have never laid eyes on before. Teams normally have to complete the stages and checkpoints in order and the first team to complete them all wins. This race also included a rogaines section – which means choosing which checkpoints to visit within a time limit to earn time deductions from our finish time. In between stages are transition areas where you change from one mode of transport to another (e.g. from bike to kayak). It is also typically the only time that teams will see race officials and have access to any support facilities. We had to prepare 3 tubs of a certain size to be placed at these transition areas and these mostly included equipment, basic food, and dry clothing. GPS, mobile phones etc are banned. There is a mandatory gear list and a prohibited gear list, so lots of rules and lots of logistics (and expense) goes into setting up an Adventure Racing team.

The really fun part, is the unknown course and adventure racing is as much being fast and fit as it is skilled and methodical. Teams are given topographical maps of the course just hours before the beginning of the race and are required to use their skills with the map and a compass to plan a route and then traverse the course. But if teams do not use these crucial few hours prior to race start to focus on planning the route, all sorts of mayhem and confusion will be their undoing during the race when extreme fatigue opens the door for small errors that can render a team hopelessly lost and disorientated.

Did I forget to mention this is 24 hours of slogging through mud, uphill, downhill, pain, confusion, exhaustion, stress, more mud, rain, cold, wind, more pain and another muddy uphill? Guess not! Think Kokoda Trail and you’ll be halfway right. Our team name for the event, ‘Are we there yet’ seems very appropriate for such an event!
Did I enjoy it? Well, a lot after it was over, not so much every time I saw a muddy uphill climb that was impossible to ride up. Overall it was great and the weather was as perfect as it could possibly be. I will try to recount the event as best I can and omit all the bad bits.

We woke up in the morning and started the event. The end. No, this is not really true there were a few moments so let’s start the real story...

I guess the story should start 2 weeks before the event when I had a quick weekend trip to Sydney and returned home with a bad case of the flu. I was so sick I couldn’t train the entire week. Finally by Friday, 1 week before the event, I felt well enough to get out for a ride. Although the bike leg of this event would be on a mountain bike, I trained on my road bike (it’s easier). Well, that was a mistake! I was definitely still quite unwell, and quickly felt a little faint after the first hill climb. I glanced down at my bike computer to check my heart rate and I obviously looked at it for too long ‘cause I hit the gutter and was thrown onto the footpath at around 30km/hr! Ouch! It must have been a spectacular crash because quite a number of concerned people came running to my aid. But pride got the better of me so I quickly straightened out the handle bars, put the chain back on, ignored the blood and ripped lycra and went on for the next 30kms of my ride. It wasn’t until I got home that I felt severe pain in my ribs. I realised I’d done some serious damage when breathing caused stabbing pain and I was sporting a strange shaped bruise on my ribs the exact shape of my heart rate monitor. So I did what anyone else in this situation would do, started taking pain killers and anti inflammatory pills and succumbed to lay off the training to rest for a day or two.

The following Monday (week of the event) word had spread to the team that I was not 100%. At this late stage finding someone to fill-in for me would be impossible and I was torn between team loyalty, my pain, and my very strong desire to do this event. Our team has previously participated in one other Adventure Race of this nature – last year’s 2008 Great Southern Adventure Race (in which we did not finish), so there was a strong commitment to do better this time and we weren’t ready to give up before we’d even started. I had a plan to take as many painkillers as was required and really hoped this would work as I tried to cover up how much pain I really was in and knew what Michelle would say if she realised how bad it really was (and I was not going to hear it!). So on Friday lunch time our team travelled down to the small town of Balingup (about 3 hrs drive south of Perth).

We arrived at about 5pm and went straight to the Balingup Recreation Centre (Race HQ) and checked in for the event. We are given our race vests and a shirt plus the usual sign your life away, you are doing a dangerous event, tell us who to call forms. Then off to our accommodation at the Hikers Hideaway (attached to the Post Office). This is a backpacker’s style place designed mainly for Biblumun track walkers but tonight hosted three teams from the event. We started getting our gear organised and repacking into our transition tubs (marked A, B & C) and being our first entry into this event we really did not know what we were doing but did it anyway. After a few hours of packing we decided to hit the local tavern for a meal, walked in the door to find it overcrowded and was turned away. With no other place in town offering a meal we had no choice but to raid our event food. Thankfully, on this count we are a well organised team and could eat some without impacting on our stocks. Tony in particular is so organised he could single-handedly provide for all of us and we were able to muster up a very nice dinner indeed.

It wasn’t long before the other teams started to return from the Tavern and we started chatting about the event. It suddenly became apparent that our tub packing exercise was useless as we had learnt that only one tub was going to each of the TA’s (transition areas). We had packed as if they would all be available at each TA. It was too late to change now so we decided to go to sleep and worry about it all in the morning. But I did not sleep well at all, taking hours to get to sleep and waking every time it poured with rain (which was often), I just lay there thinking that I would be out there doing it in this weather at about this time of the morning in just 24 hours, it was not a pleasant thought. The pain in my ribs did not help (What am I doing??).

Race Day arrived and I couldn’t move before taking another round of pills with breakfast (but I didn’t let on) but before long our team was headed to Race HQ (Balingup Recreation Centre) arriving at about 8:30am. What a hive of activity! 26 teams of racers were all there packing tubs and making last minute adjustments to bikes. We also started the same process as all the others, packing, repacking, stressing and then adjusting the packing again. Serious stuff...

During all this utter confusion a loud voice started with the introduction and briefing. It was Muzz (Murray) the race director telling us what a wonderful 24 hours we had to look forward to. We then received our rules and maps for the course and once this happens the real panic sets in. I grabbed the maps and started all the route planning. This initially involved me telling the guys which tubs were at which TA so that they could work out the food requirements and spares to go in each of the three tubs. I spent the next 2 hours planning each of the legs and drawing our route on the maps and hoping I was not making too many mistakes. A mistake at this stage can be very time consuming down the track. Anyway, we were all sorted. We’d start out with a 14km paddle so we changed into our paddling attire and were put on a bus to the start line.

Well, even the bus ride was interesting! We were in bus two and enoute we were stopped by a fallen tree across the road (did I remember to talk about the howling wind?). The bloke in the 4wd in front of us must have been shocked to see a bus load of people wearing numbered bibs all jump out and move the whole tree out of the way by hand. No need for winches when there’s pure adrenaline flowing.

Before the start, the first challenge was to inflate the boats! This involved several steps, including finding two free pumps, getting two sets of seat and foot posts, and constructing the vessel. Once we had the boats ready, we put into the water ready for the start. The start order was given and off we went.

Our team raced out in fine fashion and we learned the complexities of paddling and steering these boats quickly. There were a few trees to contend with and in some spots we were very glad to have been able to get out near the front as the traffic jams would have been horrible. We travelled along well following our new friends from the accommodation the night before. At some stages we were being blown up the river faster than paddling down, however after 14km which seemed like 40km in these not sleek, not fast vessels, we hit the TA in second place and felt a huge bout of success! We had to drag, sorry lift (race rules say no dragging) these boats and carry them about 150m up a hill to where we had to deflate and dissemble them. My ribs did not think much of the paddling section and carrying the boat up the hill but I was still feeling ok. We then spent a considerable time in TA (this is something we must fix in future events) putting on nice fresh socks and clean dry shoes and then telling the officials we were off.

Well, within 2 minutes we were on a rope climb over the river that was just loose enough to sink our feet (and dry shoes) underwater about 6 – 8 inches! Then, just after the rope we had to jump in a boat and pull ourselves across the rest of the river to the other bank. This is where the clean part of the shoes ended with a very muddy boat exit. So within about 5 mins we were wet and dirty.

One of the things we commented on during the boat stage was the steepness of the hills in the area, this was an understatement of the century. We seemed to have been transported into the middle of the Himalayas. We ran for the first few checkpoints and realised that we had better slow down a little else we would not get to the finish line, so the fast walking started early. We had a minor navigation error early in the event and found CP2 was not on the creek that we were walking along – we corrected this without too much fuss and moved around the trek picking up all the required checkpoints and heading towards the next TA.

Darkness approached as we hit TA2 at around 5:45pm and we then had a bike section to get into. It was raining on and off, still windy however we were able to remove the wet dirty shoes and put on some clean and dry riding shoes (within minutes this would be ruined again). I handed over the navigation to Rob as we have learnt that doing too much navigation fries your brain so you get even more exhausted. Being that bike is generally my strongest leg I was very disappointed to be so concerned about falling off with my rib issue. I knew that if I crashed, my race would most likely be over because I was hurting enough already. We headed out and could see the lights of other teams all over the place however we went a different way to what seemed like everyone else and went straight to the next checkpoint number 5! It was then off to CP 6 when we had a major drama to the point where Rob admitted we were lost. Oh crap! It is the worst feeling to be in the middle of nowhere, in the wind and rain getting colder and colder to hear the words ‘I am not sure where we are’. We all went to put in our 2 bob worth with the map and decided to head up the road in front of us and see if we could find anything at the next intersection that would give us a clue. Luckily for us it was a 5 way junction and was only about 200 metres away. We then found a 5 way on the map and there appeared to be only one in the general area we thought we were in. We realised we should be less than 500m from the CP. We headed down the road that matched the map and it was the longest downhill section we had yet encountered. We got to where the CP should have been and guess what? It was not there! Another team had made the same error so we consulted them only to find they were as lost as we. After about 40 mins deciding the CP was not there and checking roads near where we were, we decided that we had better go back to the 5 ways. YES up that bloody hill we had been so happy to ride down. We deliberated again and then took the next track which was parallel to the one we just rode down and back up. We headed down another hill and hoped we would not have to come back up. Luckily for us we found CP6 so after what seemed like hours (and was at least 1.5) we had found it and we were back on track.

What happens next is some of the most demoralising uphill, mud, water crap that I have ever encountered. CP7 I think it was (do not have the maps with me) was at the top of Everest and it had been raining so the road was just mud. This mud was so thick the wheels on the bike would not go around - you could neither ride this hill up or down! The CP’s in this area did not have to be hidden to make them hard, just put them in plain view at the top or bottom of the biggest hills in the area, add mud and water and instant Adventure Race! After doing this for what seemed like hours and actually it was about 5hrs we made it to the next TA. As always we were greeted with a big smile and a welcome from the volunteers who were manning the TA. What a great job they did in these conditions, which by the way were clearing up and the moon and stars were out and the wind had stopped.

The next stage was a rogaine (navigational) section with optional CP’s. Each of the CP’s was given a time bonus and this would be deducted from your total at the end of the race if you found it. During planning I had created two routes that both led back to the TA, the first giving us around 2 hours of credits and the second another 2 hours. We headed out on the first section and apart from the horrible uphills we managed to complete it in around 3 hours. It may seem like dumb maths to compete for 3 hours to get 2 hours of credit however you had to get a minimum of 30 mins credit and this took a big percentage of the 3 hours. We got back to the same TA at about 2AM and Tony was suffering from a groin strain and having a hard time walking so stage two of the rogaine was called off and we made ready to ride again. Rob handed the navigation over to Tony for his first navigation attempt and we ate and made ourselves ready to hit it all again.

On this stage I had planned all the optional CP’s as I was thinking that we should be able to achieve them, little did I know how hard they were going to be. I was really starting to hurt now and the ribs coupled with exhaustion made me have a really tough time for the next few hours. But Tony did a fine job and we hit all the CP’s in order and as per the plan. I basically had to walk more than ride as the hills were just killing me. It was getting closer to sunrise now and we were heading towards the final bike stage CP and I had to stop and go a number 2. I am sure you wonder why this was important but to me it was the best thing I could have done – I had recovered enough just from this simple act to again be in the game and happy to continue! We nailed the last CP’s and rode to the last TA. It was now 7:30am and light with overcast conditions. When we hit the TA something was obvious and a little disconcerting - almost every other team’s bikes were there. We were then told there were only three other teams yet to arrive. This was not a good feeling as we thought we had made some massive error however we had to continue.

We had another long TA and ate and changed into more wet socks and shoes for the last 18km trek section down the Biblumun track and back to Race HQ in Balingup. Clyde was handed the map and we started off in mixed spirits as we knew we were going to finish however there was a concern about our position in the race. We trekked at a good pace for the next few hours and I spent a fair amount of this recounting the event and thinking about our placing and glad to be off the bike. I was convinced that we had done a good job and that we must have hit more CP’s than a good percent of the people ahead of us. When we had collected the final few CP’s and could see the end our spirits lifted and we proceeded directly to Race HQ and the finish point. At 11AM it was over, the event photos were taken (will be loaded when available), now we had to pack up, clean up and get ready for the lunch and presentations at 1PM.

We all wanted to head home to spend the last hours of Father’s day with our kids however we stayed for the presentations and enjoyed a great lunch with some great people. Then came the announcements of team places. Muzz started at the end and worked towards the winners. Clyde was still convinced we came 23rd – Tony and I knew we were better than 15th, the countdown was on and 15th came and went then 10th came and went and we thought there must be a typo, 9, 8 and 7 Are we there yet! Yes it was 7th place and as first timers in this event and only second timers in Adventure Races we were very pleased!

Thanks to my team mates Clyde, Tony and Rob. These events create a bond between people that is hard to describe. Thanks Murray and your wonderful team of volunteers. Thanks also to all the other competitors for making this 24 hours I’ll never forget!

Update 16/09/2009

There was an error in the results and our team (due to slow transitions) was placed 9th. The error in the results was that the transition times were not correctly added in the initial results. Ah such is life we still finished and happily in the top 10 - cannot ask for more than that in our first step out in this event.
If it's not hurting your not tri'ing!
David Martin
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