Mt Baldy, Atherton, in Far North Queensland, hosted the National Marathon XC Championship.
The elite men are off and racing in the National XCM championships.
Last Sunday I raced in the National Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) Championships, held at Atherton in Far North Queensland.
And in a stunning follow up to this post, I can report that elite mountain bikers are amazing athletes, and that some of them are pretty cool people too.
How do I know this? Well, one of them is my friend.
Imogen has had quite a few mentions on this blog in the past. We have only known each other for about a year, but we seem to get on very well … you know how you just click with some people?
So I was fortunate to be able to organise two three-day trips out of Cairns. The first one was for work, with my BQ colleagues Leah and Graeme working on the route and campsites for this year’s Cycle Queensland event, from Mission Beach to Port Douglas. It is going to be a wonderful ride … If you have a chance to come along I promise you won’t regret it!
And the second part of the trip was the XCM champs in Atherton, using the newish trail network just next to the town, Mt Baldy National Park. When I knew I was going, Imogen was the first person I went to, to see whether she was also keen to go.
So it was that on the day before the National XCM champs that I came to be hanging out in the car park at the Mt Baldy trailhead with Imo and some of her mtb friends, all of whom happen to be among the elite riders, people who have won races all over Australia and indeed the world.
So off we go for a reconnoitre of the course. A full lap of the course would be 32 km and include 1200 metres of vertical ascent. Yep, that means the marathon is about 3.5km of straight up.
So we go for a look at the first single track loop, and assess the situation after that. As soon as the trail pointed upwards, I let the group go. Although that sounds like I had some say in the matter, and we know that’s not true … the group just disappeared up the trail like elite athletes riding away from … someone who isn’t.
But the single track was very cool, and the descents when I got to them were superb. Really flowy, bermy trails.
Mike and Naomi and Peter and Imogen and Graeme and co were all waiting for me at the end of the trail as it rejoined the fire trail. And the was some discussion about how much of the lap to do. The single track section was roughly the first quarter of the lap. It was followed by a BIG fire-road climb, the more climbing, and some rainforest, and more climbing, and finally some downhill singletrack, and a flatter section of new trail to finish.
So some of this discussion happened while they were waiting for me. And the plan was to ride up the massive fire road climb, and then turn back down the singletrack descent.
Of course I wasn’t sure how long the climb was. And I didn’t realise how long it would just go up and up.
So when I eventually got to the top of the climb, the group had long gone. I went back down the fire road and rejoined the trail for the flat section, and got back to the event centre some unspecified time after all the others.
Reconnaissance done. There was plenty of discussion about what category to be in, and how long a full lap would take and how many bottles to carry, or whether to wear a Camelback. I understand all this stuff — I am a mtb nerd too — but it really wasn’t going to make much difference to me. All I needed to know was: could I even finish the half marathon?
So I managed to cajole Imo into a little bit of sight-seeing before heading back to the motel for rest and race preparation, which chiefly revolves around FOOD. And drink I suppose, but mostly food.
The restaurant options in Atherton are limited. Especially for vegetarian elite athletes. Picky vegetarian elite mtb racers.
So it was decided that Imogen would cook. (Note passive voice construction to that sentence which avoids the delicate negotiations that took place)
Imogen is a single woman, lives on her own. And I have rarely seen her eat. And she is as skinny as an elite female mtber, and from what she had told me, her dietary habits might be labelled idiosyncratic. But she told me was a good cook.
And you know what?
Best. Pasta. Dinner. Ever.
With eggplant and spinach and rocket and tomato and broccoli and pesto. We even had sufficient leftovers for the next night, when we were starving following the race.
End of race preparation saga. What follows is the race day itself.
Naomi Hansen and Imogen Smith are great mates. And you might be able to tell, they both ride their bikes A LOT.
I was doing the half marathon, one and a half laps (in Male Masters). And Imogen was doing the full marathon, three laps. The cut-off time for starting the last lap was 3pm.
The starts were staggered, and my category got under way at 9.30 am on a warm day in Atherton. By the end of the first singletrack section, I could tell it was going to be a long, hard day.
My preparation for this race, realistically, had been non-existent. And although the downhill singletrack was massive amounts of fun, most of the time would be spent climbing. Not something that appeals to me a lot. Climbing on the mtb is a necessary evil.
But some people — elite mtbers mostly — actually like climbing and are good at it.
On that subject, Imogen had said to me the previous night: “Just let the hill come to you . Take your time and find a rhythm.”
It’s really good advice.
It doesn’t matter where you are in a long mtb race, you end up seeing the same people. The elite riders pass everyone, but the people you are racing “with” are your companions for the whole day.
And so I conversed occasionally with people as we slogged up the steep short hills out on the back of the course. And asked nicely for the track when I caught up again with the super-masters woman who was a better climber than me, but more cautious on the downhills.
And over time, I rode slower and slower, until on any hill I was barely moving forwards. And most downhills I was coasting. It was as though my legs had decided not to contribute to this effort any longer.
And this was before I had even completed one 32km lap. I came to the event village, and pulled over for a can of coke from the canteen, before even completing the lap. As I got going again and passed through the start-finish line, Hayden the commissaire said to me: “But I saw you over there sitting down!”
Meg and Pete were at the feed zone, and Pete lubed my chain and Meg filled my hydration pack. Pete’s race was over early when his shifter broke. And Meg had injured herself on the reconnaissance ride. So these two top-level riders were helping me (and others!) in the pits.
Off I went, with a Coke in my belly and encouragement from Meg. And I cruised as much as I could up the singletrack climb, because I knew that the best section of the course for me was the singletrack descent.
Imo’s longtime friend Mike Blewitt came up to lap me. You don’t know who is coming past you as they approach. But MIke said, “Thanks Andrew” when I got off the track to let him past.
And I thought, for a mad moment, to follow him down the descent. Over my shoulder as the course doubled back on itself, I could see Jodie Willett, another elite rider, who I know a little bit.
So I’m trying to not let Mike disappear away from me, and at the same time I’m anxious to be able to let Jodie through when she needs to get past.
So I’m flat out, flowing the trail, full-on attack position, railing the berms, pumping the downside of bumps, getting as low as I can.
Out of a berm, there’s a rocky section of trail. Then a muddy section, with several deep ruts in the mud. And then a log across the trail, and a tree to the right.
At least four things to process in all of that as I set up for the log, and end up catching the tree with my handlebar and going OTB.
So I’m on the ground, disentangling myself from my bike, as Jodie comes past, barely looks at me (in my imagination, saying “another muppet stacks it”) and disappears out of my life.
Having read Jodie’s race report since, I think she was in a world of pain as well.
This left only the fire road climb as the last major obstacle to me finishing the event. I came out of singletrack at a marshal point, and stopped, slumped over the bars, bike pointed up the hill. The marshals at each checkpoint on the course had a competitor list, and were ticking off numbers as we went past.
So the marshal said to me: “Andrew, you just have to get to the top of this hill and you’ve done it.”
“I know. But it might take a while.”
After a couple of minutes of slumpedness, I got off the bike, and started to trudge up the hill.
Three things happened on the hill. First, while I was still walking, Naomi Hansen came past. Still riding, still looking as strong as ever, but wishing for the end of the event, just the same as me.
Second, I got to a point on the climb where I thought I might be strong enough to ride again. So I got back on the bike, and found if not a rhythm, then at least some forward motion.
And third, a familiar voice from behind me as I was churning slowly up the hill.
“I don’t believe it. Get outta the way Demack! I’ll see you at dinner!”
I gave Imo a big push up the hill as she came past. It gave me a boost as well. Mentally, not physically. I had nothing left physically.
But the top of the hill came along eventually. And after that some sweet sweet downhill. I didn’t care how rough the trail was … it was going down and that was all I cared about.
I finished. Received congratulations from Meg and Pete. Bought a chocolate brownie, and a powerade and a coke from the canteen. Scoffed it all in about five minutes. Still covered in dried mud, I gave my bike a cursory clean. Got changed out of riding kit, but because I was expecting still to ride back to the motel, I left the muddy bike shoes on.
And cheered in Naomi and Imo as they arrived. And anyone else who crossed the line. Heroes all.
The presentations followed. The post-race post-mortem. Where did you go? What happened to you? No, really? What about those leeches/snakes/tree kangaroos/hills/rocks/berms/views/bastards.
What about Jenni Fay? What about that Jason English?
Naomi and Imo post-race.
Imogen finished 7th in elite women, a result that she was content with. I believe that she will do better and get faster in these events as her ‘comeback’ continues. She is such a talented athlete and an amazing bike rider. The only people who were faster than Imo on the last lap of the marathon were the top two placegetters, Jenny Fay and Jenni King.
I was just happy to have finished the course, still be on two feet and in one piece. And although cramps plagued me for the rest of the time I was conscious on that afternoon/evening, Imo and I still had a great dinner, and icecream, and watched ‘Downton Abbey’ before lapsing into unconsciousness.
The Atherton trails are really good … Ridgey-Didge is the name of Trail 6 and it is a beauty. I am definitely riding there again in September.
More relevant coverage from last Sunday:
And the ‘restless gorilla’ thing? That was how I felt two days later.