Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The ups and downs of the Great Southern Brevet 2014

I was exhausted! I reached for my drink bottle and drunk the last mouthful of dirty warm water as I shoved a piece of cold mince pie in my mouth. There I was, standing on the side of the road 10 km from Tekapo and the finish of the Great Southern Brevet 2014. My feet were throbbing, I had red hot pains shooting through my Achilles, one knee was swollen from the 1000 odd km of riding and my other knee was really swollen due to a crash late last night. Oh and guess what? My arse felt like it had been repeatedly hammered by a blunt instrument and sand papered for the last 4 days! As I looked up the road all I could see was another hill and the consistent head wind was getting really old! I was so close to the finish but it felt so far away.

The course 

When I signed up for the Great Southern Brevet I had wanted a challenge. A new challenge that would test my physical and mental limits. At ~1100 km, ~14000 m of climbing and the self supported solo style, the GSB ticked all of the 'right' boxes. My goals going into the ride were simple. I wanted to ride as much of the available 20 hour ride time each day (you were require to stop for 4 hours every 24 hours). I planned to do this by riding until 2 am each night/ morning and then stopping for a snooze between the hours of 2-6 am. If I could ride as hard and as consistent as I could then no doubt my physical and mental limits would be pushed to their limits.

Day 1:
As all 70 riders meet at the start line at the Church of The Good Shepherd overlooking lake Tekapo, I felt well out of my depth. There was a lot of talk about previous Brevet races people had done, big training weeks (see how I trained HERE) and age old gear debates (see what gear I took HERE). Being a newbie I did not know what to expect and I just had to keep reminding myself that the only way to tackle the daunting task that lay ahead was one pedal stroke at a time. Simple.
As we rolled out of town and started to climb over towards Lake Pukaki six or so riders started to pull away from the main field. We settled into a steady pace and the km's started to roll by. I had planned to carry enough food and water so I did not have to make a stop in Twizel. While it meant carrying some extra weight it would save a lot of time not having to stop. So while everyone pulled in for a stop at Twizel I quickly did my check in text and then kept rolling. Out the front by myself now, I settled into a steady pace and made my way towards the first real climb of the day up to Flanagan Pass. This was a tough push/ carry and the calf muscles were feeling the burn big time. Breaking the climb down into 20 - 30 steps at a time, I made my way to the top and took a moment to admire the stunning views of Lake Ohau before getting started on the brilliant downhill.

At the top of Flanagan Pass

Down on the lake front there was still no wind and I was still out on my own, so it was steady as she goes as the road joined up with the Alps to Ocean trial. Climbing once again, this time on the opposite side of Lake Ohau the views were amazing in the low afternoon light. Once at the Tarnbrae High Point it was time to enjoy a fantastic downhill and final pull into Omarama. A quick stop in at the petrol station to stock up on some water and I was on the road out of town with a few hours of day light left in the sky.

Tarnbrae High Point with Omarama in the distance

When the going got tough all you had to do was take a look around and it was all worth it. Lake Ohau

The climb up to Omarama Saddle was a tough haul with 170 odd km in the legs. I got into a routine in which I would ride as long as I could until my legs could not go any more. Then I would get off my bike and push it for 100 steps to give the legs a rest before getting on and riding again. It was not the prettiest way to get up a hill, but if there is one thing multisport and adventure racing has taught me is that relentless forward momentum (RFM) pays off. One pedal stroke and one step at a time, that was what was going to get me up this hill. As it turned out the Omarama Saddle climb was the gift that just kept on giving and it was not until around 10 pm, just as the sun was going down that I crest the top of the saddle and started on the descent. As I started down the Manuherika Valley I encountered the first of many river crossings. Ranging from knee to ankle deep, there was river crossing after river crossing. This is what it was all about. Carrying your bike through rivers, in the dark, by yourself, in the middle of nowhere. If this was Brevet racing then I was loving it!

Amazing evening sky on the climb up to the Omarama Saddle

I had seen some huts on the map that I thought could have been a good place to sleep on the first night. However, as I rolled past the first hut it was not even 11 pm yet, well short of my 2 am target. So I kept riding to see how far I could get, St Bathans maybe?
After the last of the river crossing it was back into some solid riding on a gravel road. Just after midnight I arrived in St Bathans and decided to sit down on the ground for the first time today. As I sat there to send my check in text I shared some muesli bar with a friendly little hedge hog on the side of the road. Still short of my 2 am goal I saddled back up and pushed on. Arriving at the bottom of the Thompson Gorge climb the wind had picked up and I could hear it howling through the gorge. Having been though Thompson Gorge when training and racing in the Gold Rush Multisport race I knew it could get pretty nasty in there with the wind. It was just after 1:30 am and I figured that this would be a good place to have a kip before pushing on through Thompsons in the morning. Who knows, the wind might even die down by then.
I huddled down behind a bush in my bivy bag and cooked up a feed of Back Country Cuisine freeze dried spaghetti bolognaise. With a full stomach I lay down trying to fall asleep. However, whether it was the noise of the howling wind or the fact that I was still buzzing from the riding from day 1 there was not much sleeping happening during this 4 hour rest stop.

Day 2:
My alarm went off just after 5 am, I rolled over and started heating some water for porridge and a warm drink (I was very pleased at my choice to bring the cooker as this was one item I had hummed and harred about). Packed up and on the bike I had a really sore right knee as I started to climb. I must have banged it last night during the river crossings as there was a bruise starting to come out, bugger, I hope it does not get to bad.
As it turns out the wind in Thompson Gorge had not died down and I was faced with strong gusts that would blow me across the road into the gutter/ almost over the cliff or to a complete stop. Once out of Thompsons and on the road to Hawea the wind did not improve any. Strong head winds made the going very slow and tough. Thinking ahead to the crossing of Lake Wakatipu I thought that I could potentially catch the final 6 pm crossing on the Earnslaw tonight all going well. This wind was not helping my case though. As I made my way into Wanaka the heavens opened and it started to pour.

 Coming into Wanaka in the Rain

Stocking up on energy products

It was a welcome sight in Wanaka to have some of the athletes I work with cheering me on. After a quick stop at Races Edge powered by R&RSport to pick up some gels and bars, then a run through at the Bakery for a sandwich and cream donut it was back on the road heading up the Cardrona valley. The easy road ride soon gave way to the steep climb up to Rock Peak. This was a very tough push climbing ~ 1200 m on steep rutted tracks. While the rain had stopped since Wanaka the wind was unreal as I climbed higher. False summit after false summit kept appearing and I could feel every single one of the 1200 m, was this climb ever going to end? Unfortunately the thick cloud meant that the views from the top were very minimal. Luckily this did not affect the quality of the downhill which was great fun and well earned after all of the climbing.
Heading down into Arrowtown it was clear that I was not going to make the 6 pm Earnslaw sailing. During a quick stop in Arrowtown there was a rumour of an 8 pm sailing, which if I rode hard I could maybe make! Riding hard through the endless Queenstown trail network, the clock was ticking and it was going to be very tight. I finally rolled into Queenstown at 8:10 pm and there was no Earnslaw! Apparently there was in fact no 8 pm sailing, bugger. Luckily I was able to squeeze onto a water taxi and did not have to overnight in Queenstown and give away the lead I had built up.
Getting on the water taxi to Walter Peak Station

Once over at Walter Peak Station I found it hard to get into a rhythm again. I had a quick stop and got stuck into the sandwich that I had brought in Wanaka. I realised that this was the first solid food I had had since the cream donut while leaving Wanaka. Instead I had opted for the fast acting ' high octane fuel' in the form of gels and lollies to keep me going through the high workloads over Rock Peak. Now with some solids in the stomach I felt like a million bucks and I was soon rolling again down the Von River Valley.

Amazing scenery around Walter Peak Station 

As I rode along in the dark I got a huge fright as a light lit up behind me. Was it a car, a rider? As I looked around I saw the most amazing full moon climbing up from behind a ridge. It was incredibly bright and I almost did not need my lights to see. Recharged by this amazing experience I ploughed on through the cold clear night until 2 am. Finding a soft grassy spot on the side of the road I dragged myself into my bivy bag and it was lights out almost immediately.
Crossing into Southland. I was shocked when I was not asked for my passport!

Day 3:
Waking from a deep sleep just after 5 am I cooked up the most amazing breakfast of warm Back Country Cuisine freeze dried Three Fruit Cheese Cake. This was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, on the side of a road, in the middle of nowhere! It was quite a cold morning as I headed towards Mossburn. My right knee had not improved any since yesterday. Funny that I though a couple of hundred km's would have sorted it out. It was really sore and I hoped that it would not get too much worse.

Early morning breakfast views

 As the sun rose above the hills it turned into a picturesque Southland morning. When I arrived in Mossburn I had my first 'sit down' meal in the local cafe with a bunch of confused looking Asian tourists. Ordering way to much food, I stuffed the extra into my pack for later in the day. Rolling out of Mossburn for a relatively short push to Garston along the main road I was feeling good and looking forward to the upcoming haul through the Nevis Valley.

 Was this really a good way to go?

 Historic Nevis Ski Hut

The climb up to the top of the Nevis was a Scorcher with the sun now high in the sky. The road was in great conditioning making climbing out of the saddle a good option to give the butt a rest now and then. A quick stop at the historical ski hut for some body and bike maintenance, I soaked in the views before heading off for the final part of the climb and then the downhill. With the wind at my back the ride down through the valley was great and the back country views were stunning. The multiple river crossings through the valley were a welcoming break from riding and a chance to cool off. The enjoyment soon wore off as my attention turned to the climb out of the valley over Duffers Saddle. This steep climb was made all the more tough as there were 5 trucks carrying gravel up and down the road as part of some road works that were going on. This meant every couple of minutes I would get a massive face full of dust as one of the trucks roared past.

Top of the climb. Still on the right road at this stage!

As I wound my way through the roads above Clyde I found myself at a cross roads with the option of heading right or left. This is where I ran into my first problem. The maps that I had printed for this leg of the ride did not show very good detail. I had thought that the navigation was going to be pretty straight forward here, and in hindsight I guess it was and I was just not thinking straight due to fatigue. But I could not work out where I was on the map. Looking through the ride notes the kilometre markers and turn instructions were not much good to me as my odometer was out due to the fact that it did not register at speeds below 4 km/h, meaning that the pushing and carrying uphill and through rivers that I did earlier in the day had not been included to the figure that was now showing on my screen. This is where it would have been great to 1) have a GPS (which was sitting at home on my desk) and 2) be riding with others so I could talk over route choices. With neither of those options available at the moment I choose to turn left, which as it turns out was the wrong way completely.
The detour! The way I was meant to go (red) and the way I went (orange)

I soon learnt the errors of my way when I emerged at Bannockburn. Absolutely gutted that I was now off course, I made the decision to take the main road from Cromwell to Clyde and pick up the course there. Why I did not choose to back track? I am not sure, as it would have likely been much faster, but in my fatigued and pissed off state I could not face heading back up the long hill I had just descended.
I set to work making up for lost time on the ~30 km detour. As I crossed the Cromwell Bridge I heard the sound that no rider wants to hear, hhhhhiiiiiisssssss as all of the air rushed out of by back tyre. I pulled out the big piece of glass sticking out of it hoping the tubeless sealant would seal up the hole. Unfortunately the gash was too big and before I knew it my tyre was completely flat. I sat on the side of the road in the howling wind and set to work changing my tyre. I had signed up for a physical and mental challenge, this was sure doing it!
Setting to work focusing on the process of how I was going to get back on track I put my head down and started pedalling. My pace was painfully slow as I pushed into the head wind through the Cromwell Gorge,  one pedal stroke at a time, one pedal stroke at a time. I breathed a sigh of relief as I finally caught sight of the Clyde Dam. On to the Clyde to Alex river trail I was back on course and had managed to lose minimal ground. Unfortunately the detour meant that I was arriving in Alexandra in the dark which was going to slow down the next stage.
It was great to see some familiar faces in Alex during my quick refuel stop at the petrol station. Heading into the Knobby Range track I was taking extra caution finding my way through the maze of tracks and trails around this area. As I started my push up the track it was quite over grown and in the dark it was slow going as I kept checking the map to make sure I was in the right place. 10 km into the stage I came to one of the important cross roads. In the dark I had troubles picking up the faint farm track that I was meant to be on. After 15 min of looking I decided to bed down for the night. I think it was around 1 am and I was not getting anywhere fast. I found a comfortable sleeping spot back at the last point where I knew I was on the map and waited for dawn.

Day 4:
I was up before dawn, packed and ready to ride. The cloudy morning meant that it took a while to see the track it needed to be on. Sitting on top of a rock tor I could finally make out the faint farm track making its way up the ridge in the distance. I set off up the hill with my legs feeling surprisingly good and NO knee pain, yay. However, now my right Achilles was sore, which potentially could have been from me over - compensating for my knee.
Looking back towards Alex on the Knobby Range

I had been here before, again as part of the Gold Rush Multisport Race, however heading in the opposite (downhill) direction. The climb to the top soon gave way to a fantastic downhill into Roxburgh which helped bump the average speed up and clock up some easy k's for the morning. A quick shop in Roxburgh for what I thought could be my last opportunity to get fresh supplies and then it was off up the epic climb to Lake Onslow. The inside of my mouth and tongue had developed some painful sores that stung when eating. Choosing 'comfortable' foods to eat now became a real challenge. One thing I found really good was the small bottles of favoured milk. There is even some research out there showing flavoured milk to be an effective sports drink, so it ticked two boxes.
I broke up the ~30 km climb up to Lake Onslow into 10 km segments having a small rest and something to eat following each segment. The mist was hanging low around the hills keeping temperatures cool as I climbed. I finally broke through the mist and was greeted by the sprawling Lake Onslow and some well overdue downhill. The next few hours were taken up with rolling high country terrain and what felt like hundreds of farm gates (it is amazing how many different latch configurations farmers can come up with to keep their gates closed. Over this trip I beat I have seen them all). Down onto the Maniototo Plains and it was a strong head wind all of the way into Ranfurly for a quick feed, air the feet out and swap some chat with some friends who meet me there.
Somewhere on hot and dusty road

After 10 min or so it was time to push on to Naseby, Danseys Pass, Kurow and who knows maybe, even make a start on the Hukataramea Valley. With 145 km already in the legs it would be a game of wait and see. While the Naseby Water Race Track was a nice break from the 'gravel grinding' the bumps were torture on my battered bum. Luckily it was only a short detour. The streets of Naseby were buzzing with families enjoy the last of the sunshine as I pasted through only stopping to use the toilet. The climb up to Danseys Pass was a little bit of a letdown (in a good way). I had prepared myself for another epic climb, however the grade was quite gentle and more than manageable. As I rode towards the ominous looking dark clouds I knew that I was going to be getting a bit wet for the second time in the Brevet. As I crested the pass the thick fog limited visibility to about 5 meters and it was raining quite steadily. I rugged up warm and started the descent in the fog and now the dark. With minimal visibility the descent was extremely slow going.

If the going was not already slow enough I came around the corner onto a bridge that had raised wheel tracks. I found myself in the middle of the bridge between the raised tracks and was drifting to the outside of the bridge due to coming out of the corner. My wheels started rubbing up against the raised wheel tracks and I tried to get back into the middle. However, with the weight of my loaded bike, downhill speed and force coming out of the corner I could not pull myself back on track and ended up hitting the ground hard. My right knee took the full impact of the crash and almost instantly started to swell Great, now my right knee was sore again! With blood running down my leg and my knee stiff and swollen I took stock of the situation and did a bit of a quick body check. Nothing else felt broken or bruised, what a relief. I proceeded to Duntroon with whatever the equivalent is of limping on a bike is. All I can tell you is that it was slow.

 My knee at Duntroon

My knee in Tekapo the next day after finishing

At Duntroon I was having trouble pedalling so I stopped to inspect the damage. I got out my compression bandage and bandaged my knee as tight as possible while still allowing some movement for pedalling. Then getting back on the bike I pointed towards Kurow and half one legged pedalled and rolled the longest 20 km of my life along the 'painfully' straight flat highway. When I finally arrived at Kurow I doubted I would be able to make it to Tekapo tomorrow with how my knee was. Because it was around 1.30 am I knew Lily would not have appreciated a SOS call for a ride, so I decided to get some sleep and see how it felt in the morning. As I lay there with my knee throbbing I had a feeling that the morning was not going to be bring anything apart from aches and pain!

Day 5:
I woke up in a content sleepy daze. This soon disappeared as I quickly remembered where I was, how I felt and what there was left to do. I sat up and went to get out of my bivy bag. Then I felt it, my knee. While it was not as acutely sore as it was last night it was not very keen on bending. I pulled on my shorts for one last time, just as well as, the chammy felt like cardboard. I used copious amounts of chammy cream everywhere and then hobbled around getting my bike packed.
All that separated me from Tekapo now was 105 km and 1110 m of climbing up and over the Hakataramea Pass. Luckily the going was pretty easy early on and it gave my knee a chance to warm up. As long as I did not push too hard with my right leg the pain in my knee was bearable, just. I plugged in the ipod for the first time this trip and set to work ticking off some k's. As long as the conditions stayed good I could be in Tekapo for lunch, maybe.
The sun was out, it was calm and things were good. I reached the end of the seal at Cattle Flat and had a quick stop to finish off a pie that I had picked up in Ranfurly yesterday. I washed this down with some water that had a mix of 1/2 tablet of Nuun Cola and 1/2 tablet of Nuun Tri berry. Which tasted pretty close to raspberry and coke! Yum. The only complaint is that it did not come with ice.

 At the top of Haka Pass

Not far to go now!

Pushing on, the wind started to pick up as I climbed up towards the Haka Pass. I was greeted with amazing views of Mt Cook and a stunning downhill. The easy run had to end soon and as I hit the seal and pointed my nose towards the final haul to Tekapo I was greeted with a stiff headed wind. It ticked over 12 O'clock which meant I had missed lunch time in Tekapo. I pushed on along the seemingly endless road and then that was it. I was exhausted! I reached for my drink bottle and drunk the last mouthful of dirty warm water as I shoved a piece of cold mince pie in my mouth. My feet were throbbing, I had red hot pains shooting through my Achilles and both knees were swollen. Oh and guess what? My arse felt like it had been repeatedly hammered by a blunt instrument and sand papered for the last 4 days! As I looked up the road all I could see was another hill and the consistent head wind was getting really old! I was so close to the finish but it felt so far away.
I had signed up to push myself and find my limits. I wondered if this was it. Was this my limit or just another low point. I took a big deep breath and started off again, one pedal stroke at a time. Struggling up the final climb I started to see signs advertising Tekapo, not far now, surely. Finally I rounded a corner and caught a glimpse of the bright blue lake peppered with white capped waves from the wind. The final downhill in to Tekapo was magic and as I pedalled along the final straight back to the Church of the Good Shepherd all of the fatigue, soreness and pain disappeared. I was greeted by my wife Lily and daughter Elsie. I sat on the grass and relaxed (truly relaxed) for what felt like the first time since I left this place.

Pleased to be finished

It was around 1 pm and I had done it. 1100 km + with ~14000 m of climbing in just under 100 hours. According to my GPS tracker I covered 279 km on average each day with an average moving speed of 15.1 km/h. I had seen some amazing places and been some places that I had no real desire to go back to any time soon with a fully laden bike. I was truly a trip of huge highs and lows. Would I do it again..........YES, but not for a while.

A big thanks to Dave for organising such an amazing ride and well done to all of those who took part. Big love to Lily and Elsie for giving me so much strength and thanks to all of you for your support on line and out on the course. Also to my sponsors who helped me get to the start line and helped kit me out with the best gear.
Everyone was out there for different reasons and with different goals. I just hope everyone found what they came looking for. I know I did.

If you are interested in the gear that I used check out this video or if you are keen to know how I trained for this read this article.

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