The first full Stage of XPD would see us paddling for up to 50km, trekking for 30km and biking for 47km. There was a dark zone before the start of the second Stage and no teams would be allowed to begin before 6am the following day. The first day of the race was basically a competition to see who could bank the most sleep before continuing onwards into the second stage.
At 6.30am we were loaded onto buses to take us down the coast to Shute Harbor where the race would officially begin at 8am. The first leg of the race was a kayak rogaine section (collecting check points in whatever order you see fit) through the incredible Whitsunday Islands. It would consist of up to 50km of paddling and was interspersed with island running sections and snorkeling stages throughout the day.
In the race notes it stated that there would be a one hour penalty for a missed C.P. and an additional 30min for each missed C.P. after that. This penalty time would then be served during the second stage of the race, after the second kayak leg. The instructions also stated that it would be to your benefit to utilize as much time as possible on the water, however any boats still caught out at sea after dark (6pm) would suffer an even greater time penalty (TBD later) and would have to be picked up by the safety boats.
We were once again using inflatable kayaks, although these were slightly longer, narrower, and faster than the versions we utilized during 'Raid The North Extreme' in June. To be off the water by 6pm left only ten hours to cover this distance, including two decent trekking stages and two snorkeling stages. After what we had suffered through in RTNX, with these inflatables, we quickly agreed that we would skip the first two checkpoints, thereby taking a 90 minute penalty. We would then assess our progress later in the day with regards to possibly foregoing additional C.P.'s if need be. If these boats were anywhere near as bad as RTNX this was going to be a long and painful day!
There was a short paddle out to an island where the race would begin and already you could see some boats giving teams fits as they zigged and zagged back and forth in the water. XPD had two versions of these inflatables, a newer yellow version which seemed to be quite efficient and even tracked straight without effort, and an older gray version which was pretty much the exact opposite. Each team was dealt one of each to keep things fair...guess which boat I started in.
As the sun crested the islands the gun went off and over a hundred boats were left scrambling for position. It appeared that most people were thinking along the same lines, except for three or four teams who looked like they were going the wrong way.
"Where are they off to?"
"Those are the only teams going for C.P. 'A'!!"
It was a perfect day to be out on the water, twenty eight - thirty degrees, a slight wind, and calm seas. This was in complete contrast to the days leading up to the start as the winds reached 25 knots and we were told to possibly expect a cancellation of the paddling leg altogether. As a team we had secretly hoped for this scenario as kayaking is generally our weakest discipline, but as we glided through the pristine waters around the Whitsunday's on an idyllic day in Australia, I know we were all feeling very lucky to be experiencing such an incredible start to an event.
We arrived at 'South Mole Island' after about an hour of paddling, having skipped CP's 'A and B'. There were a handful of teams in front of us as the majority of the pack decided to only skip CP 'A'. Our thoughts were that an additional 30 min penalty in a race that was going to take us a week or more to finish was completely insignificant. We jumped out of our kayaks and grabbed our CP 'C', then started running to the top of South Mole Island for CP 'D'. We managed to track down each team that had started the trek before us and were the first team to arrive at the CP. From the top of South Mole we were presented with an incredible panoramic view out over the islands below and for a fraction of a second I wished I was not racing on such an beautiful day!
Here is where our strategy really payed dividends...it looked like we were leading the race...I mean we knew we weren't leading and a lot of other teams realized we were not, but just having that illusion around us seemed to change our focus and drive. Our competitive nature kicked in and we went to work on protecting our 'lead' from every other team! On our way down from the top of South Mole we crossed paths with no fewer than a dozen teams including our friends 'Dart-Nuun' and 'Canada Post'.
Back in the kayaks and off to the opposite side of the island as you were not allowed to simply trek over the top to the other CP's. I thought for sure we would be caught on the paddle leg but no other team was in sight when we docked and started running again! Our transitions were solid and after another few CP's we still held our 'lead'. Orion Health, the eventual overall winners, caught us at the peak of this trek and outpaced the team on the downhill, but otherwise we were holding form quite nicely.
From here we headed to our first snorkeling leg of the race. It was pretty amazing to be racing an 800km expedition and to find ourselves snorkeling over coral reefs that were teaming with fish and plant life. Talk about adding local flair to an event! (I forgot to grab my waterproof camera for each of the snorkel stages but did get some good shots after the race)
The 50km kayak leg was proving to be almost enjoyable as we were basically paddling for about an hour at a time before hoping in and out of the boats, and all the trekking was allowing us to keep our position towards the front of the pack.
We paddled back across to the south side of North Mole Island for a CP and then followed the coastline to our second snorkeling area. It was about this time that I started to feel a bit off. A headache was creeping in and even though the water was virtually flat I was feeling as if I had become sea sick. I kept it to myself and said very little as I tried to figure out what was up and how to fix it. By the time we hit the second snorkel section, a lengthy 1.5k swim, I had a splitting headache and thought I would actually puke. My foot also cramped up in my rigid swim fins and I ended up swimming with one fin for the second half of the snorkel. Nick moved like a dolphin through the water and I handed him our passport to collect our underwater CP's. I was shivering when we crawled out of the water, even though I had worn a neoprene top. I popped a few Ibuprofen and hoped for the best as we embarked on our longest paddle section of the day. I tried to draw strength from the fact that we had still managed to stay ahead of the majority of the field and were basically on the home stretch for the water stage.
Over an hour later as we hit CP 'M' I had figured out where I had gone wrong on the day. I had made a completely rookie mistake in the fact that although I was on top of my food and fluids I had neglected to take in any electrolytes! It was about 3pm now, the sun was beating down on us and we had been running, swimming and kayaking since eight in the morning. I quickly dug into my pack and sucked down a few Nuun tablets, hoping that would solve the problem before we headed into our 30km run.
We collected the last few CP's and were pleasantly surprised that we were going to be off the water by 4:30pm. We easily could have collected CP 'B' but still agreed with our decision to forgo it. When we hit the beach there were only six teams ahead of us an at least one of them had skipped out on a significant portion of the rogaine course. There were still some very competitive teams behind us and I was greatly impressed at how the team had kept a solid pace throughout the day. On top of that, my earlier concerns were now solved and I was thankfully feeling 100% again.
Our transition was decent, ranking 20th in terms of overall time at 45 minutes, and tied exactly with our friends 'Dart-Nuun', who came off the water just seven minutes behind us. There was never a doubt that Dart would finish ahead of us at XPD, but that doesn't mean that I couldn't enjoy every second of being ahead of them and of comparing transition times throughout the event.
Later in the race: "OK, Dart were out in 35, let's be gone in 30 guys!!"
We hit the trek feeling fresh and confident to be heading into our strongest discipline, and to be off the water for at least 18 hours! It was a steep climb up to the high point of our hike, 'The Great Whitsunday Walk' and we kept a solid pace until we were able to start running the downhills and flats.
About an hour into our trek Mark confessed to an injury that he was hoping to have had under control by the start of the event.
"I can't keep this pace."
Mark is a solid runner and I simply looked at him, "Huh?"
"I messed up my I.T. band a few weeks ago. I was going to mention it and give you time to find another teammate but I thought I could get over it in time. I don't think I'm going to be able to run man, I'm sorry, I just don't think I'll make it through 800km if we continue to run the trekking sections."
As shocked as I was to hear this from him there was no way that I would have ever considered replacing Mark as a teammate for this event. Mark's been a close friend for six years and that fact that he now lives in Australia was one of the main deciding factors for me to head down for this race. I won't lie, of course my competitive side was dieing at that moment in time, but my only concern was now to ensure that we were able to get through the event.
"So how are you if we hike?"
"I'm good with hiking, it's just the impact from the running that sends a shooting pain up my leg."
"And how do you think you will be on the bike?"
"Should be fine."
"Then no worries, we hike." (this may not have been my exact response, but it's how I like to remember it!)
As teams caught us from behind and ran past I struggled to remember Mark's injury. My teammates were constantly reminding me to relax and slow down. Megan also mentioned that she was having some leg pain and I realized that we would have to concentrate on keeping or making our time on the bikes. Hell, until a few days prior I thought I was the one who was the most battered, now I was somehow the healthiest!
Injuries are a part of the game though and with the season that Helly Hansen-MOMAR just had I'm surprised we all fared as well as we did.
We made it to the end of the 30km trek in 4h45m which was still good enough for the 7th fastest overall trek time, and followed that up with a 31min transition to the bikes (having to assemble them from bike boxes...and four minutes faster than 'Dart' I might add!), which was the 6th fastest transition time, so we were still flying high when we hit the bikes...but that is where the wheels started to fall off...almost literally...
We bombed out of transition feeling great to be on our bikes, as pretty much everyone was pain free for the first time in the race! What lay ahead appeared to be a fast and fairly flat 47km of mountain biking, and that was all that stood between us and a solid night's rest. We got a good pace line going and knocked down the first 35km in no time...then Nick flatted. No big deal, but how? As I showed in our video we had come up with what we thought to be a fool proof system to prevent flats...one problem, the wrap that we used around the tires did not cover 100% of the tube. There was about a one inch gap and this gap was creating a bubble in the tire that was constantly pushing that section of tube against the edges of the insert. We hauled the liner out of Nick's bike and quickly changed his tire. No biggie, we should be back on the road in a matter of minutes. As we tried to pump up his tire we couldn't help but notice that the damn thing wasn't actually putting any air in the tube. No matter how much we played with it the damn thing was garbage. We were stuck out waiting for another team to catch us.
About seven or eight minutes later a team caught up and allowed us to quickly borrow their pump. We inflated our tire, thanked them greatly and went about putting Nick's bike back together to hit the road again. As we started to ride again my bike felt wonky. I looked down and my tire had gone flat while we were fixing Nick's! The team we had borrowed the pump off of were now gone and we were stuck awaiting another team's help!!
We had stopped in front of a farmer's house and there was a dog constantly barking in the background. I guess we had now been there long enough to concern the owner and he made his was out, at about midnight, to see exactly what the hell was going on. Apparently our rear red flashing bike lights combined with us laughing at our situation had lead him to believe that some drunken fool had been arrested while driving! He was very nice and offered to help in every way he could dream up, but our 'presta valve' tubes (different from schrader valves on older bike tubes set-ups and car tires) would not fit anything that he had available. It was at least another ten minutes before a second team caught up and were nice enough to leave their pump with us.
"We have two, we'll get it back from you in the transition."
We had removed both of my tires to take out the insert and after inflating them we were finally back in motion again...for all of about 300 meters...
Our rubber inserts had not only failed but failed successively in less than a KM! We ripped off both of Meg's tires, replaced the one tube, watched two more teams pass us and prayed that we could just get through the last 12km and get some sleep. We had lost an hour while fumbling around with out bikes and instead of being able to get three hours of sleep before the 6am restart we would be down to two or a late departure.
We finally made it to the transition having taken 3hr13m to cover just 47km of pure flat terrain! It was the 35th 'slowest' bike time of the entire event...but that was alright, the real race didn't start until 6am anyways and up until then everyone was still basically tied for first!
We decided that we should still stick with our three hour sleep plan and after breaking down our bikes we looked over the Second Stage of the race and plotted our maps. Up next was:
-105km Mountain Bike
-145km Mountain Bike
We put our heads down on the beach for our three hour nap, knowing that we would depart an hour later than the lead teams...