Sunday 9 February 2014

It's Pronounced "poo-KEH-koh"

On my Facebook page, I briefly explained the pukeko thing, but it really deserves a little bit more elaboration.

For the non-New Zealand audience, a pukeko is a goofy-looking black and blue bird with spindly red legs and a red beak that tends to occupy roadsides and seems to spend much of its time trying not to become roadkill.
A pukeko, foraging for food./ Photo: David Burgess
Its ancestor, some kind of proto-pukeko, arrived in New Zealand only a few hundred years ago, probably from Australia, presumably blown here in a big storm.  I heard it described in a documentary on native wildlife that it is an example of a bird "actively evolving an inability to fly."   And, considering the ways I have seen pukekos navigate whilst airborne, I think that's being generous.  Pukekos are also the subject of a very successful Genesis Energy ad campaign.  That should give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

But, you might ask, why associate an animal of any kind with your cycling-- why not just be Chris or Lake or something like that?  And that brings me to American ultradistance bicycle racing.  There is a race in California called the Furnace Creek 508 (508 for the 508-mile distance, about 800 km) which runs every year between Valencia and Twenty-nine Palms. It takes the long route between the two, heading north over Towne Pass,  through Death Valley and the race's namesake town of Furnace Creek, and then back south through Baker and on to the finish.  Besides being billed as the "Toughest 48 Hours in Sport," listed in any number of  Top X Toughest Event lists, and being an awesome achievement to finish in its own right, the race is also notable for its use of "totems."

Instead of race numbers, each rider (or team) is assigned a totem-- an animal avatar of the rider that is used pretty much as name, race number, and identity during (and maybe after) the race.  Once a rider has completed the race, the totem is his or hers for life, and cannot be used by another rider.  The Furnace Creek 508 is a dream race of mine, and so I have been thinking about my totem for a couple of years.  A perusal through the list of totems and finishers on the website shows that though there have only been three finishers from New Zealand (2 solos and one team), the obvious birds: the kiwi, the kaka, the kea, and even the kakapo (another awesome choice for a totem) have been snapped up.  Hopefully I won't inspire anyone to use the pukeko before I get the opportunity to do the race.

But again, why the pukeko?  There are two significant reasons why I would select the pukeko as my totem and as the public face of my cycling.  The original idea came to me after an accident involving one of my clubmates in the Hibiscus Coast Harriers and Triathlon Club.  He was riding his bicycle down Woodcocks Rd. in Warkworth when a pukeko ran out in front of him, lodging itself in the spokes of his front wheel.  He ended up going over the handlebars and broke a collarbone.  The bike was essentially a write-off.  The poor, suicidal pukeko didn't make it either.  As pukekos are known for spending time around the roads, and now having taken out one of our own, it seemed a natural fit to use the pukeko somehow in a cycling context.

The other reason has to do more with how I look at cycling.  I really enjoy what I do, but cycling comes with a giant dose of absurdity.  Picture in your head the road cyclist: clad in unforgiving, body-hugging lycra with mushroom-helmet on head (Don't even start on the aero-helmet!), shaved down, clomping around in shoes never meant to be walked in, speaking a language unfamiliar and indecipherable to the uninitiated: "I recently went from a 53-39 to a 52-36 and I really prefer that to the 50-34."  Then put that guy or gal on a bicycle.  Absurd isn't it?  The pukeko with its spindly legs and near inability to fly properly exemplifies absurdity.

Add it all up, and if I were looking for the perfect animal avatar for cycling-- it's definitely the pukeko. In the end, what does an ultradistance road cyclist do but spend most of his time along  the side of the road, trying not to become roadkill?

Thursday 30 January 2014

The Crew. And how awesome they are.

I recognise now that in my zeal to get out a race report, I did not take enough opportunity to discuss just how excellent my crew was, and just how impossible it would have been to do what I did without them. In the report they were mostly reduced to food/water delivery machines who occasionally did something of note, but really they're much more than that.

The crew works ceaselessly and thanklessly to make sure that all the rider has to do is turn the pedals.  They cater to every need (e.g. I want a f'ing cookie!, Can you make me half-water/half-Coke bottle?) without complaint, even when I'm being a whingey prat.  They recorded everything I ate and drank for later analysis, looked after me, encouraged me, and made me feel loved all the way around.

I wish I had a photograph of everyone to post here (maybe a later update to Pukeko-land), but the nature of the race was such that Lisha and Dave drove down, arriving after I started, and then left for other engagements before I finished!

So all I can really do is thank the crew, Susie, Heather, Lisha, Dave, and of course my lovely wife and crew chief Susan who make it all possible.

Monday 27 January 2014

Race Report for Lake Taupo Maxi Enduro 2013. First Ride of the Pukeko.

For those of you who have been following me for a while, you’d know that in my last attempt at an ultracycling race, the Ultimate Graperide (500 km / 310 mi around Marlborough), didn’t go so well. During the third lap, in the middle of the night, the rain and wind had come up and really got the best of me, physically and mentally.  Not far after the end of the 3rd lap, feeling miserable, I called it quits. There were a few things I thought I should have done differently, and I learned from my mistakes.  I acquired more thermal gear to potentially help me through the cold and wind.  We got some new communications gear so I could actually communicate with the crew.  But the biggest thing I did differently was my training.  After the attempt, I got a coach, Silas Cullen, of and it’s done wonders for my riding and for my confidence.

Prior to signing up with a coach I’d just grabbed plans out of books or off the internet, tweaked them a bit, and went for it.  Often that meant lots of distance riding (I am after all training for long distance events), with back to back weeks of longer and longer rides, culminating in a ride of about ½-⅔ of the total race distance (e.g. a 185 mile/300 km ride from Clevedon to Taupo before Graperide), with some middling rides during the week.  Silas didn’t get me to do nearly as much mileage as I would have, and I rested a lot more.  The intensity during the hard bits was much higher than I would have previously done, and the rest/step-back weeks were a LOT easier.  And amazingly enough, I got stronger, and faster.

According to Silas it’s too difficult to do very long rides in training because it takes too long to recover; so I simulated the race with long days back to back (e.g. 10 hours on Saturday followed by 5 more on Sunday) or massive long hill rides (8 hours on the bike with 4300m/14,000 ft. of climbing).  I was regularly getting up at 3:30 AM to go and ride in the dark before work to get in my big gear hill rides, speed work or whatever, and getting up on Saturday to do hard bunch rides-- heading out and hammering it with the local bike shop.  When I started riding with them I was getting dropped during the circuit, but by the end I was finishing strong near the front of the bunch (well, of the medium-fast bunch I ride with).

For over 6 long months I worked for my chance at redemption in the main ultracycling event on the NZ calendar-- The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge Enduro events.  I had done the Enduro, the 2-lap (320 km/200 mile) version, back in 2010 in just over 14 hours as my first foray into ultracycling.  Now I was back to give it a shot at double that distance. The so-called Maxi Enduro. Four laps.  640 km. 400 miles.

This time I was very clear with my goals.  A) Finish.  B) Finish. and C) 26-28 hour time goal. This time quitting was not a consideration.  It was all about going the distance.  I had a plan-- ride with a bunch, hopefully near the front,  in the first lap at a comfortable speed (I was hoping 5:30 - 6 hours for the first lap), then minimize stoppage time and keep a reasonable pace through the night on the second and third laps, then pick it up on the fourth lap when it would be light again and I’d be riding with the other guys doing the main Solo (1-Lap) and Relay rides.

Crew Chief, Susan and me before the start.
On the morning of the event, we headed over to Great Lake Centre in the middle of Taupo to get ready, register, and hear the race briefing.  I chatted for a bit with Wayne Lewis, a rider who had pulled out in the event the previous year in the night and, like me, was looking for a finish.  I also talked briefly with Steve Mangino, who had won the event in 2011 in horrendous conditions.  The NW breezes were picking up, and he was trying to put together a group to stay together on the first lap in around 5-5:30.  I told him I was interested, but that seemed a bit fast to me, and we’d see how it went.

As part of the safety brief, they gave each of us a GPS-transponder which was supposed to broadcast our position to race HQ and on the internet-- it turns out they underestimated the power requirements of dealing with the poor cell signal on the back side of the lake, so they ran out after 2 laps.  Sorry to anyone watching; they say they’ll have it better for next year.

At the briefing I ran into Gary Bence, whom I had ridden with a bit during the Graperide. It turns out he’d moved to Taupo recently and was also looking for a finish after having pulled out in the night in 2012.

With the race briefing in the bag, it was time to head for the start. I put my cycling shoes on, popped on my helmet with bright pink overcap to identify me as a 4-lapper and I headed over to the start. I ran into Ross Lorimer with whom I’ve ridden at Echelon Cyclery and who was doing the 2-lap starting in the evening.  He wished me good luck, and told me he hoped to see me during the night.  I kept quiet on that one, as if he did catch me in the night it would mean because of their starting time that I was well behind my planned time. I shook his hand and headed for the start, where I lined up near the front. 21 of us started out on Friday at 10:30 to head around the lake 4 times.  A couple of minutes later, we were off on a neutral start through town and up “Control Gate Hill” to the first turn onto Poihipi Road.

My first lap crew, Susie and Heather raring to go.
Susan saw me off with the starters and then went to sort out my crew for the first lap.  Unlike at Graperide, where Susan was my lone support, following by herself in the vehicle, we had managed to enlist some aid.  Our good mates from the HBC Harriers and Triathlon Club, Susie and Heather had signed up to do the Solo race, and had volunteered to come down early to help out and support me on the first lap.  They basically made it so I didn’t have to carry anything I didn’t need-- no extra bottles of water, no extra food, tubes, tyres, etc., and they also were there for any mechanical issues.  If I got a puncture, for example, they would swap a wheel for me and I could carry on riding while they fixed it.  We even brought a spare bike in case of major malfunction.

But we were off.  Steve was trying to get some people working together, and I liked his pace over the first couple of hundred metres (yes, metres.), but then Jim Moore, an Australian whom I didn’t know anything about, and the eventual winner of the race, took off up the first hill, and Steve followed.  Their pace was well faster than what I was prepared for, so I let them go.  Remember goal A) Finish.  I slowed my pace a little bit figuring a group would come by shortly.  Two riders, Mark Turner and Daymon Shack cruised by and I hopped on with them for a bit, but my heart rate was still a little higher than I wanted at that point, so I let them go as well.

The Taupo circuit starts with a 10-mile/ 16-km climb from about 1000 ft/300m at lake-level to the highest point around 2000 ft./ 600m.  In general, it’s uphill for the first 20 miles / 30 km or so, then rolling hills up near the 2000 ft/ 600m elevation along the back side with a couple of larger climbs and descents for good measure.  Not far after the halfway point, the course drops back down to lake-level, and pretty much stays there except for one big climb between Turangi (68 mi / 110 km) and the end of the lap in Taupo.

I was climbing into a pretty stiff NW headwind, and I watched the next two riders disappear into the distance.  I was in 5th place and was feeling pretty happy about it, curious about how we would all fare in the next 394 miles / 630 km.  Susie and Heather cruised by me, and went ahead to look for a spot to stop and wait.  The rules said no “shadow” support, and allowed only leapfrog support.  We had arranged that they would drive about 5-10 km up the road, stop and be ready for whatever I might need.  As I mentioned before, we had gotten a Cardo BK-1 pair of headsets which allowed me to communicate line-of-sight with them, up to around 500 m separation.  The headset was also bluetooth-voice-command linked with my mobile phone, so I could call them if they were out of intercom range.  It meant that I could tell them what I needed as I went by, or prepare them for the next stop so I wouldn’t have to stop for anything.

A little further up the road, I spotted Daymon off with his crew grabbing a drink. As I rode by, he asked if he could join me for a spell, and so he hopped on my wheel.  Now I was in 4th and figured working together we’d catch up with Mark, who wouldn’t get far on his own.  Less than a minute later, a bigger group of 5 or 6 more riders came through, so Daymon and I joined them and started working with a bigger group.  It didn’t take long for us to catch up with Mark, and we were making a nice pace.  We were on track to come through the first lap in about 5:30 or so at that point.

I traded my first empty water bottle for a full one with my crew, and carried on with this bunch.  We were heading towards the next big turn, when an ambulance pulled up at speed.  I was hoping nobody was hurt further up, or that there wasn’t a problem with any of the guys doing the 8-lap race who were scattered about the course.  It turned out though that it was the support vehicle for Hannah Latta (the eventual winner of the women’s race) who was in our bunch.  She was raising money for the Wellington Free Ambulance, and so they sent one up to crew for her. I was just glad there was probably a defibrillator nearby for any unplanned difficulties.

The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge Map.
Soon enough we got to the next big turn at Marotiri Road.  It’s easy to get into a zone and mess up. Gary and I were yelling “Left!” quite loudly, but Hannah, who was in the front of the group at that point, didn’t catch on.  A couple of riders nearly missed the turn at Marotiri Road, and it was still daylight!  It would have looked messy, but at least nobody went down, and nobody got lost.

Our group rode together along the back side, up Waihaha Hill.  Near the top on the way down I heard a tyre blow, confirmed it wasn’t mine, and then looked back to see Gary pulling off to the side.  His wife/support crew wasn’t too far away so I hoped it wouldn’t hold him up too badly.  I wouldn’t see him again for more than another 100 miles.

We cycled on through the rolling hills continuing to make good time.  Back here we caught the first 8-lapper we’d seen, who was looking pretty rough.  The weather had been terrible with thunderstorms over the last couple of days and nights while they had been riding.  He was on his 6th lap I think at that point. He rode with us for a while, but eventually dropped off the pace.

After Kuratau hill, the group spread out-- I hung on for a while with 4 riders including the formerly mentioned Daymon and Mark, but on the way up Waihi Hill I decided not to follow and dropped off.  I pushed on alone up Waihi and through the rollers before the one big descent back down to lake level.

At the bottom of Waihi Hill I spotted a “Warning Pukeko” sign, which made me cackle with glee.  I didn’t see any other pukekos out there though besides me, so there was nobody to share it with.  Sorry, no photos of it either; I’ll have to get one next time I’m down that way.

Once down on the flat, I was able to drop into the aeros and start grinding along at a really quick pace.  I tried to keep my heart rate low, but I still put in some good speed here, made the turn north in Turangi and headed back along the lake towards Taupo for the first time.

The road back to Taupo is SH 1, the main North-South road in the country, and the traffic was starting to stream in for the race.  Quick, happy toots of the cars’ horns became the norm, and it was almost an effort to wave back at everyone who gave their encouragement.  It’s really awesome, and I really appreciated it.  About halfway back up the Lake, and approaching Hatepe, I started to hear voices behind me.  I sat up and got picked up by a few riders coming through, including Tracy Parke and Allan Gilder, whom I knew through their Facebook page and had met very briefly before the race.  We chatted, and then began our first climb up Hatepe Hill.

Hatepe is the single largest climb in the race, about 2 miles/ 3km long and maxes out at about 8% grade. It’s not a killer hill, but it comes with about 12 miles / 20 km to go in a 100-mile / 160-km loop.  The three of them stuck with me a bit, then accelerated off up the hill.   That put me in something around 9th or 10th place, which to me was a bit disconcerting, but I was trying to be a little conservative and to be sure I didn’t collapse during the night.

From the top of Hatepe, it’s a nice cruisey downhill back down to Lake level, with a steep bit at the bottom.  I spotted my support crew, and I picked up a bottle of water to last me until the return to Taupo about 9 miles /15 km away.  This section is also very flat, until a little bump by the airport.  Just before the airport, I saw a car parked up on the side of the road.  A couple was jumping around outside of it cheering for me. Yelling for me to keep it up and give it heaps.  I have no idea who they were.  They weren’t another group’s support crew, as I hadn’t seen them before in the lap.  I think they were just some folks coming in for the race who just stopped to give me some encouragement.  It was an absolutely awesome display, and I took that with me for the rest of the race. [UPDATE: I found out that the couple cheering for me was Patrick Greene and his wife, Susie. I know Patrick from work as NZ Post's Advocate. He did the solo race the next day and they were on their way in when they spotted me. Thanks for the support! I'm tearing up thinking about it, honestly.]

From there it was just a couple of miles along the lake back into Taupo town.  I finally came up to the turn-off to the Caltex to meet up with my crew, swipe and sign in for the lap, make a quick change of clothes, and head out.  There were lots of cars for the various riders in the carpark of the Caltex.  I saw Hannah’s ambulance for one, but didn’t really register any of the others.

I tried to keep the stoppage time to a minimum, so I grabbed my next set of clothes from Susan and headed into the Caltex to check in.  They had 4:12PM on the clock, which put me at 5:42 for the first lap (later I’d find out the official lap time was 5:36:05), right in the middle of my planned 1st lap goal.  Woohoo!  I swiped my race number over the sensor to log it with the race officials, then signed an old-fashioned pen and paper log with my time.  After that I headed to the toilet for a quick stop and a change of clothes.  Then it was back out for the second lap.  All up I was stopped for about 10 minutes.

The crew changed over here for the next lap.  Susie and Heather had finished their turn and headed off for the rest of their day, and to get ready for the Solo race in the morning.  Lisha hopped in with Susan to continue following me around. I headed up through town to the main roundabout with Tongariro St. and Spa Road weaving through the traffic of all the tourists coming in for the main event.  I dropped down a slight dip and then started climbing “Control Gate Hill” for the second time.

Traffic was jammed in the opposite direction, coming into town, but that meant there were plenty of people to wave, toot the horn, cheer, flash headlights and generally make things pleasant.  But after a few hundred metres of that, I made the left up Poihipi Road again, and began a slog uphill into the wind for the next 20 mi / 32 km.

In terms of my position in the race, I wasn’t really sure how I stood-- I was pretty confident I had passed a few in “transition,” but didn’t really know.  Lish and Susan cruised by and we began the leapfrogging support.  The wind had picked up compared to the first lap, and the difficulty it posed was only compounded by having to go it alone.

I turned onto Marotiri Road and headed for the back side of the lake. On one of the short climbs along the back side of the lake, I caught Daymon.  I’d spied him in the distance previously, and at the top of a hill, he was waiting for me-- it’s always easier to work with someone else especially in a headwind than to go it alone.  This is a draft-legal race after all. He hopped on with me, and we took turns being in the front for the next few miles.  Eventually I went to take the lead up a hill, and when I looked back, he was gone.  I was alone again, but I’d moved up a place in the race, and I was feeling pretty good. Susan and Lisha were getting into a groove, keeping the comms and a bit of banter going when they were nearby, and keeping me well-watered and well-fed. I climbed alone up Waihaha Hill, then down through Kuratau and eventually made the left turn to start climbing up Waihi Hill.  It was getting on past 7:30 PM, and was starting to get dark.  Whilst I climbed up Waihi, I got passed by Gary’s wife in their truck, so I supposed he wasn’t too far behind.

After the main climb and a couple of rollers, I was getting a bit cold, and it was dark enough for the lights and reflective gear to go on.  I had told the crew that there was a big pull-off ahead, but I “misunderstimated” the distance to it, so we pulled off. I gave the bike to the crew while I changed to a merino baselayer and long-sleeve jersey.  I added a pair of knee warmers and a wind vest, and then a reflective vest and reflective ankle straps.  I pulled on a thin pair of full-fingered gloves to round out the ensemble.

At the same time, Susan and Lish were popping the lights onto the bike.  I use a 3W LED front light underhung on the front handlebar to light the road.  On the back for visibility I have a Cateye 5-LED flasher mounted up high, and a “flare”-- a long LED light that goes the length of the rear stay.  All flashing.  I also use a small headlamp on the helmet to illuminate the ever-important cycle computer, saving the battery from the backlight.  It also helps to add some extra light wherever I happen to be looking.  Compared to what people use for mountain biking, the front lights might seem minimal, but really it doesn’t take much light to follow a white line, and the Taupo course isn’t so technical that it requires lighting up difficult turns.  It was unfortunately a new moon, as bright moonlight is also helpful and beautiful to ride by.

This change-stop took about another 10 minutes, so I guessed that this lap had about 20 minutes of stoppage time in it.  During the stop, Gary sped by, and I didn’t see him after that for a long while.  With lights fixed and warm clothes on, I cycled past the wide place where I had planned to pull off, dropped down Waihi hill to Lake-level, through the small settlement of Tokaanu, then on towards Turangi.  Susan warned me that another rider was coming up behind me, with his support vehicle directly following (which was against the rules, but oh well.).  I’m not really sure who it was, but he was friendly when he came up, and asked how I was doing.  I said I was ok, and looking forward to getting through the night (which had only just begun really) and he said he was going to stop in Turangi for a nap.  After another minute or two, he picked up his pace, and he and his follow vehicle disappeared into the darkness.

Shortly I came into Turangi, made the turn back onto SH1, savoured the short burst of tailwind and cruised back along the flats towards the next big hill at Hatepe, about 22 miles/35 km away.  I didn’t see any other competitors through this section at all.  Susan and Lish kept providing food, drink and encouragement.  Occasionally a bit of banter and amusement as well.

By this time, my neck was starting to get sore from the aero-position, and it was tough to maintain for any length of time-- this is something I’ll have to sort out, whether it’s a position/fit thing I can fix or just by riding more in aero to strengthen my neck muscles (or some combination of both) I’m not sure.  I did a lot of hill riding in training to build strength, and long, flat rides in aero weren’t really on the agenda.

I kept riding along the lake, the traffic on SH 1 dying out, with fewer and fewer horns and waves.  It was dark enough that I couldn’t see the lake, and the crosswinds were getting fierce.  Somewhere along here I asked my crew for a cookie.  I was feeling hungry and wanted something that wasn’t perpetuem, and some kind of cookie was going to fit the bill.  Susan asked me what kind (we had chocolate chip and Anzac and maybe others) , but in my state I really didn’t care. She started relating the different types, but I really couldn’t handle such a weighty decision.  “I don’t care!  I just want a fucking cookie!”  The crew had to put up with a lot, including a tired, grumpy rider who wanted something but didn’t want to tell them what it was.  Such is the life of a crew member…  Many thanks to them for keeping me going.  I got an Anzac bikkie (for the Northern audience, a plain oatmeal cookie), scarfed it, and carried on.

I got to Hatepe and climbed it. It seemed noticeably harder than the first time I went around, and I wondered how I was going to do this 2 more times.  I got to the top without major difficulty and met up with the crew to get some more water for the last 7-½ miles / 12 km back to Taupo.

Along the flats through here I passed an 8-lapper sitting on the side of the road, talking with his crew. I said hello, but got no response, and have no idea if he heard me or not.  60-odd hours in, I think they had better things to worry about than me.

By now it was pitch black and very late.  I headed along past the airport, and Susan warned me that Gary was coming up behind me.  He must have stopped somewhere because I hadn’t noticed passing him in the night.  He came by me a few minutes later at a good pace, and then hung a left, leaving the course.  I spotted his truck idling on the corner.  He’d told me before that he had moved to Taupo a few weeks before the race, and I assumed he was heading for his house for a bit of a rest and a change.

On the way into Taupo town, I saw the Hot Cycles truck, which had been following Tracy and Allan go past me then turn and head up a side-street (I assume to their hotel).  I hoped they hadn’t pulled out (they hadn’t it turned out), but I didn’t know.  After that, I made the right onto Heuheu Street and made for the Caltex for the 2nd time.

I got up to the Caltex, grabbed my 3rd-lap clothes and the transponder and headed inside.  The graveyard shift attendant said I was only the 2nd person he’d seen check in.  I was thinking, “Holy crap I’m in 2nd!”, but Susan disabused me of that notion by pointing at the 2nd sheet of check-in names.  Doh!  Oh well. I thought I was in 4th or 5th, but wasn’t really sure.  It was just on 11:30, and I went in, changed my clothes, then headed back to the car to load up with whatever else I might need and go. The official time for the 2nd lap, which includes the stop at the Caltex at the first lap, and the light change was 7:18, so a fair bit slower than the first lap.  It had taken me just under 13 hours (about 12:40 or so riding time) to do the first 2 laps (over an hour faster than the 2-lap Enduro I did in 2010), so I was pretty pleased.  In a fair bit of pain, and not really looking forward to the next lap, but pretty pleased.

I thanked Lisha for her help and headed out.  Susan left to drop Lisha back at the cabin, where she would pick up Dave (Lisha’s husband) who would drive for the 3rd and final crewed lap. They would catch me up further down the line.  I headed off into the dark.  It was closing in on midnight. Taupo town was very quiet-- most of the town was full of cyclists trying to get some sleep before an early race in the morning-- I didn’t even hear any thumps of bass from the local bars, which should be rocking on a Friday night.  I started thinking about the fact that this time I could tick parts of the ride off as only “one more to go.”  Only once more up Control Gate Hill.  Only once more turning onto Poihipi Road, etc.

I found the one party going on in town just on Poihipi Road. Music was blasting, a bit of Sublime I could sing along to in my head-- “Loving.  Is what I got.  I said remember that…” Up ahead someone was lighting sparklers in the middle of the road.  A very drunk girl in her late teens danced out in the road as I went by.  The group cheered for me, which was cool, then the girl screamed, “Ride your fucking bike! GOGOGO!”  I smiled and waved, took it to heart, and headed off up the hill.  Ride my fucking bike indeed.

The wind had abated a bit late at night, so the long climb wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared.  I started to get sleepy through this section.  I stopped with the crew and got Susan and Dave to fix me a bottle of half-Coke/half-water.  Straight Coca-cola can be a bit mean on a weary stomach, and has too much sugar to be kind to the stomach.  I drank the bottle standing there with them (I should have been riding though-- precious time slipping away and all that), then gave them the empty bottle and got back to business.  It certainly perked me up, and I felt better for it. After that,  back to the pedaling.

Through this section of Poihipi Road, I started seeing a red minivan leapfrogging past me.  I didn’t recognize it from the first 2 laps, but a rider was definitely coming up on me.  At the turn onto Marotiri Road, I nearly mistook the minivan for my follow vehicle.  I started to ride up to him, but he pointed me in the right direction.  “I think you want the car up there, mate.”  He also seemed to be taking measurements-- he had some laser surveying equipment set up in the middle of the road, and I saw him at a few corners using it.  Not long after, I got passed like I was going backwards by the woman who would win the Enduro (2-lap) race.  I was surprised to see anyone so early-- it was about 1:30AM, when the Enduros should be starting-- not 20 miles (35 km) or so into the ride.  I assume they let her start early to go ahead of the men and go for a non-drafting race, or something of that nature (I still don't know what was up there-- I'm happy to be corrected here).  She said hello, I replied, and she quickly disappeared into the darkness.

By this time, my heart rate had completely plummeted, and I basically trudged along at around 120 bpm, unable to make any harder efforts.  This situation is to be expected and is quite normal, but it meant I couldn’t make any pushes to get up a hill faster or anything like that.  If anyone had come along for me to race, it would have been a real stretch to pick up the pace to challenge him.  I had developed a few other issues after riding for that long.  I was coughing some stuff out of my chest (I assume just it was just from dust and general dry irritation), which wasn’t fun, and I was getting nauseous.  My abs were getting sore from the coughing and the dry heaves, which I didn’t talk to my crew about-- they obviously knew about the coughing as they could hear it on the radio.  Susan tried to get me to eat something, but I was less than enthusiastic about it, even yelling at her at one point to just “Leave me alone!”  I think I ate a Hammer bar somewhere in here, but I’m really not sure. That’s what I told Susan at any rate. I kept sipping the perpetuem, getting some calories in and hoping it would stay down, and I wondered if I’d be able to puke and keep riding at the same time.

In the dark it was hard to know exactly where on the course I was except when there was a major turn-- all of the turns after Marotiri Road are T’s, and they’re all lefts, so it’s pretty easy to navigate, even at night.  I eventually got to the turn to head back up Waihi hill, and I started to see a fair number of crew vehicles pass me, and park up  on the side of the road.  The Enduros must be coming.  I took a peek behind me and I could see a big pack of lights coming up in the distance.  About halfway up the hill, I got passed by a group of 10 or so riders, moving very fast-- the lead group of the 2-lappers. They passed on some encouragement and shortly disappeared.

I met with Susan and Dave at the top of the first stretch of hill and picked up some more water and electrolytes. By this time our comms had run out of charge, so we took it off to try and charge the head units back up.   It meant that I couldn’t tell them what I wanted without stopping, which for me, meant that I could make an excuse to stop pedalling while they fixed me something-- need water, wait for them to pour it, then carry on.

Somewhere on the back section, one of my rear lights came loose and fell off, but I couldn’t be bothered looking for it-- and not long after, my headlamp popped off.  The overcap meant it wasn’t sitting like I normally had it, and I had neither had nor taken the time to cut holes in it to secure the light properly. I borrowed one of the crew ones and continued. I had never ridden with it, and in my state was having trouble getting it to point where I wanted.  I also convinced myself it was very heavy (it’s no heavier than the one I lost) and that it was because of the headlamp that my helmet wouldn’t stay in the right place (It probably hadn’t moved or shifted) and that’s why my neck was sore (It couldn’t have possibly have been the previous 16 hours of riding; it HAD to be the headlamp.).  I eventually stopped and gave it back, figuring I could use the backlight on my my computer if I needed any information, and that it would be light in a couple of hours anyway.

We also changed the batteries on my front light a couple of times during the night-- the battery pack only lasts about 3-4 hours on a charge, and even in late spring, there’s still a solid 8 hours of darkness (no moon tonight).  I’ll need to do some research on lights and batteries to try and cut this time down in the future.  I also realized it was much warmer (11C/52 F) than I had anticipated, so I removed the sleeves from my windbreaker (a convertible vest/jacket thing)-- once the jersey sleeves dried out, it was a good temperature.  When I did the Enduro in 2010, it was more like 4C/ 37F, and getting cold was a major issue.

I got passed by one lone Enduro rider in the dark, about 20 minutes behind the first pack, and then dropped down onto the flat through Tokaanu.  The first bits of light were starting to appear off to the east.  I made the turn in Turangi, took the brief puff of tailwind and started the push back through to Hatepe and finally Taupo.  On the flat north of Turangi I got passed by a large group of about 30 Enduro riders in their distinctive yellow caps.  The guy on the front yelled, “Hop on! There’s like 30 of us!”  I would have loved to, but they were going much faster than I could manage, even with a massive draft.  So, on they went.  Before Hatepe, there are a couple of rollers, and at the base of one I stopped with the crew and had my second half-and-half bottle of Coke.  I had been feeling sleepy since before Turangi, and felt like I needed something.  The stomach issues had mostly abated and I was taking perpetuem ok.  I drank the bottle on the spot and then found a space between small groups of Enduro riders to get back on the road.

Soon enough, it was again up and over Hatepe-- it was pretty difficult this time, and I was getting worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it the 4th time-- that I might have to walk to make it up.  I put those thoughts out of my mind, though and kept on grinding up the hill.  The wind was starting to pick up as it got lighter, and it was mostly a strong crosswind the rest of the way back into Taupo.
On the flat just before Taupo, 3rd lap, Saturday morning.
Soon enough I was back at the Caltex-- Susan handed me my last set of clothes and the transponder to do my final swipe-through/sign-in.  I swiped in at 7:19 AM, just shy of 8 hours after the last check-in.  While I changed my clothes and used the facilities, Susan and Dave reloaded the bike with a full set of perpetuem and water, then when I came out to finish changing, cleaned and lubed the chain and put on my big seat bag, carrying a refill of perpetuem powder, a few spare tubes and some extra CO2.  I was going to have to be self-sufficient except for water from here on in.  We also put on a “bento box,” a small bag attached to the top tube, filled with electrolyte pills.  Since I wouldn’t necessarily be able to add electrolytes quickly to any water bottles I filled on my way around, I shifted to a steady diet of electrolyte pills on the last lap to stave off cramps.

As the wind had come up, I debated taking a vest with me, but decided against it figuring it would warm up as it got later and not wanting to carry the weight.  I thanked Susan and Dave for their support and then headed out for the final lap.

The 2-lappers didn’t have to stop and check in at the Caltex this year, so there was nobody else there when I headed off.  As Susan found out later I was about 50 minutes ahead of the next Maxi Enduro Rider based on the check-in times on the sheet.  I came out onto the main road in between groups of solo riders, so it was just me heading up Control Gate Hill for the fourth and final time.  The crowd clapped their encouragement, and cheered me on.  I saw a few people ask what the pink overcap was for (I would have been the only one they would have seen as the next “pink” rider was about 1.5 hours ahead of me and would have come through before the solos started), and were quite startled to read the “640 km” on the side. 

Last time up Control Gate!
I made the turn onto Poihipi Road (for the last time today!) and began the long climb back to Marotiri Road.  Several waves of solo riders were coming through-- I think it was late Group 1/ early Group 2 which were looking at 1-lap times in the 4:30 to 5-hour range.  Everyone was encouraging, and nobody harassed me for being slow or not doing my share of the work. Mostly they asked how many laps I had done, or how many I had to go.  Someone from the shop I ride with, Echelon Cyclery, yelled out “Hi Chris!” as he went by, but I’m not sure who it was.

The northwest winds were really howling, and unfortunately Poihipi heads northwest, so the climb was really demoralising.  To add insult to injury, about 5 miles / 8 km outside of Taupo, the solo riders made a left, taking a different course around the lake from the Enduros and the relay riders.  The relay riders weren’t slated to start for about another hour, so all I could see was a mass of riders turning left, and one lone yellow cap ahead of me continuing up the hill, into the wind.

I fished myself out of the bunch and moved to the right of the road to keep myself clear of any turning riders, and then continued my lonely ride into the headwind.  I occasionally got passed by a 2-lapper, and I tried to ignore the painfully slow speeds on my computer.  Around 10 miles (16 km) or so into the lap, three 2-lappers came past me and offered to shelter me a bit for a while.  They blocked the wind for me until the next aid station, where they stopped, and I didn’t.

After what seemed like forever, I made the turn onto Marotiri Road, and out of the worst of the headwind.  I stopped briefly to pee, and when I went to get back on the bike, the 2-lap trio from before caught me up and passed me.  I couldn’t keep their pace, and they disappeared.  Not long after, I made the next big turn and started heading south.  I got passed by several buses taking riders out to the relay stop, which I was nearing.  The solo riders come back onto the same course as I was using at Tihoi, about a quarter of the way around, so when I got there I finally had some company again.

I couldn’t keep with the first few solos I met with, but I rode with a few people around the back, most of whom were very curious about the multi-lap thing. “What do you eat?”, “What do you drink?”  “Did you have a sleep?”  Most were surprised that I’d been on the bike for about 24 hours by this point and hadn’t taken a nap.

The weather was also getting worse.  Not only were the winds climbing further as the day wore on, but a few showers came through on the back section.  I was beginning to regret not bringing my wind vest, but still felt I’d be ok to finish up the next 60 miles / 95 km.   As we got back around and past Waihaha hill, I decided to refill my perpetuem bottle-- it wasn’t empty yet, but I had another 3-4 hours worth of powder in my saddle bag.  I stopped and dumped the powder in and asked the volunteer to top it off with water.  I also filled another water bottle-- I wasn’t filling everything I had to keep the weight down, but I didn’t want to stop on the flats coming up if I could avoid it, and I figured I’d have enough food and water to get me through to Hatepe before I had to stop again.

The next big downhill followed, and I passed the next relay stop at Kuratau.  Tick another landmark off the list.  Soon after, I hit the next turn and began the climb up Waihi Hill, my favourite climb on the course.  I started to feel really good again through here-- tired, with dead legs and a heart rate I couldn’t budge past 130 or so, but really good.  Though I was still getting passed by solo and relay riders, I was starting to pick some people off too.

Last time up Waihi!
My stomach problems were long gone.  I was still on occasion hacking up stuff, but not nearly as bad as during the night.  My bum was fairly sore, but I didn’t have to move around too much to stay comfortable.  The worst pain was actually in my hands-- the weight of my upper body was really starting to beat on them, and I couldn’t use my aero bars to take the pressure because of the other people around.  Much of the time I kept my hands up on my armrests to keep pressure off them, but that’s not the best position-- not near the brakes/shifters and a bit upright, so I just tried to stay as comfortable as I could.

I dropped back down to Lake level for the last time and started looking for a good group to help carry me through the flats down to Turangi and back up to Hatepe.  Just after the small settlement of Tokaanu I caught the back of a group I could stay with, and they pushed through at  a good clip into Turangi.  We picked up several more riders, but nobody was rotating and when the guys at the front tired, the whole group slowed until a rider would get tired of the pace and make a break for it.

We made the turn onto SH1 again, but what had been a brief tailwind was now a screaming headwind-- and it wouldn’t get better the rest of the way to Taupo, 32 miles / 51 km away.  The group I was with was extremely springy-- the riders ahead of me weren’t maintaining their pace properly, and would open gaps and then would have to speed up to close them, then brake when they caught up-- just like a traffic jam on the motorway.  I got so annoyed with it that I actually slowed down and dropped off the back of the bunch to wait for anybody else to come by. But I was pretty grumpy and it wouldn't have taken very much to set me off.

Through this stretch to Hatepe I tried to keep the speed up, and I saw I might have a shot at coming in around 28 hours all up, on the edge of my time goal.  I kept an eye on the time and my speedo and started pushing harder and harder.   I tried to find people to hide behind/ride with, and you get some funny looks when the riders ahead want you to do some work.  I pulled through a couple of times only to have the riders apologise for making me do something-- I had after all ridden 300 miles / 480 km more than they had.

On occasion I’d see a yellow-capped 2-lapper come through, and with one of them I had the most bizarre conversation I’ve ever had during a race.  One two-lapper came through, and called me by name (That’s not as weird as it sounds; the names are printed on the race numbers.) and said, “Christopher, well done.  You’ve achieved a lot.”

“Thanks! I’m not done yet, but I’m feeling good. I’m looking like I’ll be in around 28 hours or so.”

“Great!  I saw you yesterday at the start line and thought you were crazy.”  So far so good, this is all sort of normal conversation.  He continued, “I didn’t think you’d make it, but you’ve really surprised me.  Well done!”  and then he picked up the pace and rode off.  I have no idea who it was, and I was a bit confused by his backhanded compliment-- I mean, I’m no celebrity of the sport.  If whoever said it can clarify, that’s great, but all I could think, was, “What an asshole.  Who does he think he is? and what does he know about me?”

Anyhow, the flats were finishing, and Hatepe loomed.  I pulled over for another pee break (I haven’t figured out peeing on the bike, but that’s another story), then hopped back on for the last climb of Hatepe.  The hill faces east, and so there was a tailwind up it (good), but the sun beats down on it (bad).  It had been cool to downright chilly for most of the ride, but it heated up rapidly as I started to climb.  I passed a lot of riders on the hill and even managed to smile for the cameras.  About ⅔ of the way up, I spotted a pink cap.  I wasn’t sure who it could be as I hadn’t seen anyone in my race since early in the 2nd lap. I passed Garth Barfoot, the oldest entrant (77 I think) in the 4-lap race, and owner of Barfoot and Thompson, the sponsor of the Enduro events.  I said, “Good on ya, Garth!”  He didn’t say much of anything-- he kept his head down and kept grinding.  I had lapped him.  [Note that Garth became the oldest person to complete 3 laps of Lake Taupo in an Enduro event.  Awesome achievement!]

Last time up Hatepe!
Hatepe hill is kind of trapezoid-shaped with a flat bit on the top before the descent. The course took a turn to the north and into some woods on the top.  It wasn’t very windy, but out of the sun it got cold quickly.  I looked at my water supplies and didn’t figure I could make the last 12 mi / 20 km to the end with what I had so I stopped at the aid station at the top.  Like at several of the other aid stations, St John (the ambulance corps) was hard at work helping people.  Many of the riders were suffering this late in the race, but also they seemed to be unprepared for the temperatures which were about 10 C/18 F below what’s normal for the race with wind and rain to boot.  A volunteer filled my water bottle, and I got back on the road.

A rider who’d pulled me along on the flats prior to Hatepe, but whom I’d dropped on the climb spotted me, and called out to hop on and that he’d give me a tow down the hill.  I didn’t think I could catch up, but I pushed hard and did!  I then had a large body to hide behind on the downhill.  The headwind had returned once we came out of the forested area at the top, so I needed all the help I could get.  He caught a couple of his friends and now I had a little paceline to help me out.

We sped down the descent, and I was finally really thinking I could beat 28 hours if I could keep the pace up.  We pushed along the flat, passing riders as we went.  We climbed hard up the bump to the airport, but then the guys who were pulling me stopped for one of their mates.  I went on alone, passing a few people here and there.   There were less than 10 km to go, and I just wanted to be done, as rapidly as possible.  I pushed as hard as I could-- down in the drops, pumping as hard as I could.  I passed a guy on a unicycle, and a guy on a penny farthing.  I came over the last rise and down onto the flat-- and into the worst headwind of the entire race.  Two or three of us had started working together, and I pulled around to take a turn, but once I moved out from behind the rider in front, I was blasted by the wind.  I was pushing as hard as I could, in the drops, and I was doing 13 mph / 22 kph.  I should have been doing more like 25 mph / 40 kph!

We came to the end of the road, where the Esplanade turns up Tongariro St, and that put us out of the headwind and into a cross/tailwind for the last few hundred metres.  I really put the pedal down and hammered it home, passing a few more riders at the end.  When I crossed the line, I could hear the commentators jabbering away.  My race number logged me through with the electronic timing system, and in other years, this data was fed to the commentators so they could call out the rider’s name.  There was a problem with that system though, and so they were just discussing what people looked like coming across the finish.  I heard something like the following:

“What’s the pink cap for?”

“I don’t know.  Just a minute.  It means he did 4 laps.  That’s 640 km!”

“Oh my God, well done!  And here’s a guy on a penny farthing!”

And that was it.  I crossed the line, got onto the grass and got off my bike.  One of the volunteers offered to take my bike--a valet service if you will--but I wouldn’t let it go.  I took off my helmet and started walking down the hill to find anyone I knew.

Susan found me soon enough and we found a place to sit (and have a revelatory beer or two) for a while until I had had enough and we left for the cabin so I could shower, change and get some sleep.  My back was extremely tight-- I could barely bend over.  My hands were very sore, and my bum was pretty raw  (Skin would peel from it in a few days).  My feet were, however, excellent.

The official time was 27:55:24, good enough for 5th man home, 6th of everyone. 21 started (17 men) and 14 finished (including 3 of the 4 women).  In terms of the things I could do better, I could stop less. I had 1:45 or so of time stopped.  I made changes of clothes each lap, and the changes got slower each time.  I also had a few stops for food and drink where I stood and drank a bottle instead of riding-- things like that. Anything that can be done whilst moving must be done whilst moving.  My placing wouldn’t have changed if I’d peeled off an hour of stoppage, but I’d have been done an hour sooner.

The ride was an absolute success for me.  I had managed to not only finish a long event, but do so inside my goal range of 26-28 hours in pretty nasty conditions.  Mentally, I was in a much better spot than in Graperide last April.  My low spots were never, “I can’t go on,” but were more like, “I wonder if I can do that again.”

So now, on to the next event.  I head back to Graperide for full redemption in April.  Not just for the same 500 km race I DNF’ed in last year, but for a one-off 10-lap, 1000-km Mammoth Graperide event commemorating its 10th anniversary.
A happy finisher.