The sun had just risen and there were so many teams fumbling about on this plateau that it looked like the unofficial third starting line in three days. The one thing I noticed was that there were plenty of teams standing around and looking at maps but very few people were actually moving at all. I saw a great opportunity to jump eight spots in the standings instantly and we quickly started riding to a high point in the hopes of finding a route out or at least pin pointing our position. We were tempted more than once to take a random trail that appeared to maybe end up going in the right direction at some point in time, but thankfully resisted and doubled back. Upon our return ten minutes later not a single thing had changed, every team was still exactly where we left them. We spoke with a few teams and one had been stuck here for almost two hours already!
Finally about thrity minutes from when we first arrive and under consensus, a few teams started back tracking. The only thing that made sense was to double back to the last point of certainty, which was about 2km of climbing behind us. As we headed up I noticed another group of teams proceeded through a field into what appeared to be a dead end. We had seen a team coming up that way when we first arrived and had therefore ignored it. As we climbed in elevation we could now peer out over a clear view of the trails below. Those teams that looked like they were headed for a dead end were now bombing down steep trails to the valley below. Everyone commented successively and a dozen adventure racers were now scrambling to pull a 180 degree turn on a single track trail (the only single track of the entire event, about 200 meters of it!). As we were now pedaling hard through this field it became evident to all other teams on the plateau what was happening and a large peloton of riders ensued.
We hit some water towers and an intersection after a few hundred meters and every team but ourselves and one additional continued to drop. Mark stopped us, looked over the maps, and said that we were in fact now supposed to turn right!
"Are you sure?"
"Sweet! Nice work Mark, ya know I've been really impressed with you out here so far in this race. You've gotten better at your transitions, your not falling asleep every two hours, and you have really been on top of the maps from the start. Nice work on not just following every other team in the race!!"
There were tire tracks everywhere in the dirt which helped our confidence in Mark's decision and we started to up our pace. After five minutes we were even able to drop the other team that were following us. We hit a big descent followed by a short but steep climb and as we crested the climb there was another team coming straight for us...this is never a good feeling for more often than not the team approaching is a team that was minutes ahead of you before they realized their mistake.
Their team name was 'Capital Stamina' and unbeknown to us at that point in time, we would be seeing quite a lot of them during the next five days. They explained that there were on the plateau with all the other teams and made the decision to double back to their last known point, at which they found this road that was somehow completely hidden in the dark. All the bike tracks we were seeing were in fact the lead teams who would have nailed the turn from its inception.
We quickly turned and joined them. One of the great joys of adventure racing is when you link up with other teams. When you race 24-7 with your teammates the conversation can falter from time to time...when a new team arrives it completely rejuvenates all involved and it's funny to watch people's energy levels shoot up as the chatter begins.
Me to Mark,
"Remember when I said that I was really impressed that you weren't just following all the other teams out here!!!"
Mark laughed, and once we made it back to the water towers we opened up and started screaming down the trail. As we rounded a corner there were some larger rocks hidden in some grass. We always yell obstacles to our teammates, but when you are travelling that fast the words don't always make it in time.
I thought I heard a yell back but assumed it to be everyone repeating for each other. I hit a dip climbed up the other side and turned to find myself all alone. I thought someone might have bailed and was worried they might have messed themselves up if that were the case. I biked back up with fear coursing through my veins and was amazingly relieved to find that Megan had but flatted. She had indeed hit the hidden rocks in the grass and as I reached to grab her tire she informed me that she had torn her tire's sidewall!
Megan rides a bike with 29 inch wheels verses the standard 26 inch mountain bike wheel, and I knew without even needing to ask around that she would be the only person in the race doing so. These bikes a great and have their purpose, but they only make up a small percentage of mountain bike sales, even smaller still in Australia. I was fully aware of the fact that we could be looking at a situation that if bad enough would effectively end our race right there and then...either that, or someone would have to run with a bike for over 300km!
"How bad is it?"
"Do you have a spare tire in your bike box?"
"Nope." (in fact none of us did and this was a serious oversight on our part...mandatory gear from now on!!)
The most common way to fix a torn sidewall is to tape money to the inside of the tire itself. The money works well at limiting the bulge from the tube as it is inflated. This slash was over an inch long and just about to round the corner of the rubber to the traction side of the wheel...there was virtually no room for it to split further and remain rideable. We did all that we could to prevent it from getting worse and held our breath as we re-inflated the tube. It started to bulge and I thought that the tube would burst through at any second. All we could do now was get back on and hope to make it to the end of this bike stage. We were 90km in, so it only had to make it another fifteen and hopefully we woule find just one other rider who might have a spare twenty nine inch tire!
Honestly, at this point in time I just hit the dumps. I didn't say much at all but I know my body language was terrible. I could not get over the fact that there just did not appear to be any way that Megan's tire would hold up for even a few km's, let alone three hundred of them. Why the hell could we not catch a break in any event that we do! How many more races would I have to travel to before my team managed a fully ranked finish? Did I love this sport or hate it? Were the AR God's looking down on me and telling me to get the hell out their sport?
I promised myself two things at that moment in time,
1) If it came down to it I'd run with that bike until my legs fell off. I was not about to walk away from another expedition adventure race without a ranked finish!
2) If the bike did fail, and we were not able to get to the finish line of the event, I was done. I did not have the finances, apparent luck, or necessary patience to continue on with this sport.
I was counting down the fifteen kms until the trek, I needed to be away from the bikes more than anything and refocus on a discipline that could not shut us down due to a mechanical. As we started to gain confidence in Megan's wheel we again started to catch teams in front of us. Basically the tire was going to hold up or it wasn't. Riding slower wasn't going to solve much so we all tried to forget about it. I know at least I felt a bit better as we caught and passed teams fixing flat tires...I mean I felt bad for those teams...actually no I didn't, it felt great to know that others were suffering like us out there!! We would ask everyone we passed if they happened to be using a twenty nine inch wheel set, but I knew it was a useless pursuit.
As we approached what was supposed to be our total distance for the bike leg we paired up with another team and after looking over the maps the news wasn't good, we had at least antoher 30km to go! Our wrong turn had cost us but a few km at worst, but this is very typical of expedition racing and I have yet to do a bike leg in a race that is anywhere close to the listed distance. The biking wasn't taking it out of us but I was still seriously concerned over Megan's tire. I thought that if we could just get to transition we could at least spend our trek thinking about potential ways to improve our situation.
In the next 30km I know I flatted again and I think Nick may have too? The flats are a blur, all I know is that they never stopped coming. The benefit to the additional 30km of riding is that we were able to put more teams behind us before heading into the trek.
We were expecting to hit transition for sunrise, it was what we planned our sleep strategy around. We finally made it in at 10:10am, after almost 15hr's with the bikes. As mentioned we did sleep for 3hr, but our butts were more than relieved to get off the saddles for a bit. We had put in the 15th fastest bike time and arrived just over an hour behind Dart, who were suffering bike issues of their own. I looked at Dart's transition time of fifty six minutes and told the team we needed to be gone in fifty five! Fifty Seven minutes later (so close!) we departed with the tenth fastest transitional time.
While in transition we were notified that the top teams had yet to return. The estimated times for the 30km orienteering section, which was almost all off trail, were 5-10hr. The lead teams had now been gone now for 11.5hrs!! We then estimated that going into a full night of orienteering we would probably be out there for 24hr and made sure to pack extra food.
We departed transition with another team and after about a km we split from them while attempting to find the same CP. It was a big boost for everyone, especially Mark as this was the first major navigational test, to arrive a few minutes before this team and to pass them on our way back down. We had but six hours of daylight to work with and we were attempting to gather the toughest CP's first. There were thirteen on the orienteering map and you could choose any eleven, in any order. This made for great racing as every team took some form of a different route out there.
We went up the wrong ridge to our second CP but it was a minor detour that only cost us twenty minutes. The travel was tough as it was all off trail in deep spear grass. There were rocks and logs hidden all over the place and we had to switch out the lead trekker numerous times. As we were scrambling down one steeper section we were all over the place and it looked like someone was going to pull or strain something before Nick spoke up and showed us how the locals do it! We had to spin around, face the slope, and use the spear grass to help us. If you grabbed enough of it down low it did not hurt the skin and made for great handholds!
We made decent progress on our CP's in the daylight but made the stark realization as the sun was setting that we had not packed ample batteries to make it through a full night of trekking! When we topped up our food supplies we inadvertently forgot to do the same with our battery fuel supplies...no problem, we just have to start hitting up other teams!
One by one, as we passed teams going in the opposite direction we threw it our there,
"Hey, can we help lighten your packs for you!"
After four teams had each spotted us some form of a battery or two we figured that our lights, if kept on low beam, would all make it through till dawn. One team that helped us out in particular, a bunch of 'Aussie Blokes' who had serious bike troubles, were walking them the final 10km into the transition (for sections of the trek we would come across the back of the pack teams still on their bikes) and they had a teammate drop out on them already! They wanted nothing more than to sit down and chat it up and we were certainly obligated! They were very entertaining, but after ten minutes, and as the sun was sinking below the horizon, I felt that it was time to get back to racing again. We slowly started edging away and eventually they let us go.
As the dark enveloped us we all agreed that it would make sense to pair up with another team if possible. The conversation alone would help keep everyone awake as had now been racing for over sixty hours and had only slept for six. As we struggled to find a CP on top of a small peak in the dark, another team showed up and fulfilled our wishes. We joined forces with 'The Yoga Slackers' and as each team member paired off with someone from the other team everybody's pace quickened noticeably.
We spent the better part of the night with the Yoga Slacker's, named so because they do Yoga on Slacklines...as in Yoga while standing on a rope...a piece of rope dangling from trees or whatever else...kinda like combining Tight Rope Walking and Yoga...of course why didn't I think of that! None the less, they were great conversation and amazing people. It was not until they decided to lay down on top of a rocky outcrop that we decided to go it alone again. We headed back to the valley floor and as everyone started to falter we agreed upon 2hr of sleep, from about 2am till 4am.
Again not great sleep as the night was chilly. Once we got going we spent two and a half hours from 4am until the sun finally crested the mountains at 6:30am unsure of exactly where we were. We were on what should have been the only 4x4 road in the area but it did not travel in the proper direction from time to time. As Megan and Mark were trying to pinpoint our exact location Nick and I headed for higher ground and a better vantage point.