Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Hardest Day of My Life

The alarm rang in my ear loudly. It startled me but then the reality set in. It was 5am and it was time to get up. Bags to check, protein shakes to drink, toast to eat, endurance race to run. I sat on the edge of my bed, listening as my race partner was downstairs pacing the kitchen. I wondered what it was that drove me to do something like this - the fun? the opportunity to meet people? the challenge? The reasons would not come to me. It was still dark outside and my thoughts were still back with the pillow, wondering what it would feel like just to lie down one more time... just for a couple of minutes.

I couldn't. I needed to get up. I stood up and felt a twinge in my right thigh. I wondered whether it would be a problem in the coming hours. I then realised that a twinge would no doubt soon be a burning sensation, not just in my right leg but my whole entire body.

These were the thoughts that entered my mind - and I was not even out of the bedroom yet.

Team Adventure Crabs (our team name) dropped our bikes off at the transition field and then drove a further 10km back to the registration park. There were buses there to take up back up to the starting gate. First though, were needed to sign in and receive our maps - the first time we were to see our planned route, at least for Stage 1 of the Race.

We immediately had to get to work. You see, all we were give was a map with the letters from A - J on it. The letters were spread out in a vast, dense piece of bush. It was our task to reach each of those letters and get to the "exit" of Stage 1 as quickly as possible. You did not need to reach each of the letters in any order. The idea was to develop a strategy to get each of them or else suffer a time penalty. We had to decide whether we were to take on Stage 1 on foot (making it, in essense, a trail run) or attempt to design a track to take our mountain bikes with us. This would allow us to gain as much distance on the bikes between the letters - as long as we did not pick a route which exposed us to a "technical route" (ie. almost like a black diamond run equivalent in mountain biking terms). We had to consider which way would be the best, which way may require us to carry our mountain bikes (if it got too technical for us) or whether we got to certain points, dropped our mountain bikes and ran into the technical area to grab the letter and run back. We had little under an hour to decide what we were going to do. We soon resolved that we were just going to take our mountain bikes in and hope for the best.

We were lucky enough to have a couple of supporters (my wonderful mother and wonderful aunty) come along to keep our spirits high as we watched the other competitors arrive. It was pretty clear that there were some very serious adventure racers and athletes and we decided then that we were just best to go at our own pace and just enjoy the event. Out of 100 teams, there were only 5 all female teams.

A couple of checks of the bike, the pumping up of tyres (the one thing i forgot to do the night before!) and another laugh and chat with Team Crab Cheer Squad (mum and aunty) and we were just about ready to begin. It was so wonderful for my mum to be there - on her birthday!!!

Everyone gathered to receive their pre-race instructions but it was clear that everyone was more focused on working out a way to get to the letters quicker than anyone else. It was a concern for a lot of people that the most popular (and more accessible) letters to obtain would be grabbed first, creating a possible bottleneck. Joy (my partner) and I decided that we would take a somewhat alternative route and take a chance. By now, you aren't thinking about how much pain you are about to endure. You are wanting the start to arrive so that you can put your plan into action. And then it was ready, set, go....

We started off and soon realised that a lot of people had the same idea as us. This didnt matter to us - we were happy to hold on and wait up the back than get caught up in the barging and pushing amongst the all man (more serious) competitors. Soon enough, we were on our way.

While some decided to trail run to a couple of letters, Joy and I decided that we would train run to collect our "control card" (ie. the card that you had to mark the letters on) and then race back to get our bikes. This proved to be a fairly sensible decision, because it meant that we could avoid the big boys belting down the trails.

Joy and I emerged from the 800m sprint to the control card and headed straight to our bikes. I felt a little average after the first 800m and began to wonder whether i would really be up for the entire race.

However, I was cheered on by Team Crab's cheer squad once more and decided that quitting was not going to be an option. I hadn't trained hard just to quit now. And I was about to get on a bike - the leg which i knew i would feel more comfortable on than any of the others (kayak, run).

Joy and I grabbed our bikes and off we went. It felt good to be on the bike and I must say, riding a mountain bike is a far more comfortable ride than the carbon fibre road bike. The wheels are far thicker, and there is suspension. This suspension would prove invaluable in the hours ahead, due to the technical MTB trails that we were about to face.

I gave the supporters one more wave and then it was head down. This was when it started to get tough.

Joy and I were gone at least 2 -3 hours. The orienteering was tough, the trails were, at the beginning, hard to find. We soon got into a rhythm and slowly marked each of the letters off from our control card. We opted to jog down a number of the technical trails, with the more experienced men on the MTBs absolutely flying down past us. These guys seriously had no fear - and they all wanted to be first at the very end.

Joy and I were very proud of our efforts, having managed to get all of the letters and make our way out and back down to the Stage 1 bike transition to Stage 2 (the run/kayak leg). The first 50 people to arrive were to run first, and the last 50 were to kayak first. Lets just say we were closer to 100th than we were 1st so we were required to jump in a kayak first.

Before we went off onto the kayak though, we had to plot the map of Stage 2. The map and location of the markers #1 - #17 were mapped out on the blackboard and we had to quickly transfer them onto our map.

It was pretty clear from the way I felt that this was going to be a long day. I had already used up my 2 litres of water plus the 1 litre of gatorade and I wasnt sure where i was going to get more water from. I was cranky, my blood sugar levels were down, and my legs were throbbing. The competitive streak had kicked in and I was frustrated that we were in the last group of people to reach Stage 2. Its so hard having this competitive streak whilst being just a beginner at the sport.

Nevertheless, Joy (who was so good at keeping my spirits high throughout the whole event) hurried me along and we made our way into the bush doing a quick 1km run to the kayaks. This was to be the last time we would see the Team Crab Supporters for a further 3 or so hours (hence no photos).

I would say that the 3 hours that followed were the hardest 3 hours of my life. While the kayaking gave the legs a rest, it required a lot of cardio and upper body strength. The kayaks were hard to control, as they did not have a keel, so we found ourselves zig zagging. With a little bit of patience and a whole lot of might, we managed to get into a rhythm and slowly make our way almost 3-4 km up the wide Nepean River. It certainly didnt help with water skiers and jet skis flying past us, creating waves which rocked the kayak.

The end of the kayak leg felt like it would never come but it did. We clambered out of the boats and began the "Trek".

This is when you begin to learn so much about your body. While your legs are screaming and your heart is poundering, you find yourself in this "space" mentally where you know that if you keep running with one foot in front of the other, you will cope. It was hard to trek and keep out for the numbers at the same time. The numbers were often concealed by dense bush and on a couple of occasions we nearly missed them.

Just as we were getting into a good rhythm, the trail stopped and we found ourselves in amongst a massive Gorge. Cliffs were as high as sky scraper buildings, the glare of the sun pounding down on us, and we had a rocky landscape to navigate. The only way we knew we'd eventually get back home was if we stuck close to the river. By now, we had picked up another team of 2, and we ended up trekking with them for much of the way back. When I say way back, I mean nearly 2 hours of traversing boulders, through the river, through dense bush and often, up steep inclines. We later found out that one of the male competitors had broken their leg at this point. Looking back, it simply amazes me how those men would have sprinted across this landscape in the time that they did it. It defies belief.

At this point, you want to go home. However home is nowhere in sight. Cliffs in the distance, running water and just a whole lot of rocks. Your ankles hurt from the constant impact of going up and down the boulders. Your knees hurt every time you land. Your palms hurt from pushing bushes away. Your eyes hurt from the glare. Your neck hurts from the strain of climbing. Your quads hurt because they are doing much of the work. It is at this point that your mind starts wandering and you often misstep because you are tired. On occasion, one of us would slip and fall but on each occasion, we willed the other to get back up. This is when you do most of your complaining. You ask yourself "why did i do this?" You swear that you will never do something so stupid ever again. You angrily snap at your partner when they say even the slightest thing. Dehydration kicks in. You want to give up, but you realise that you actually cannot get out - you have to just keep following the river.

By now we had received 12 numbers, with only 5 to go. We look across the river to find number 13 and realise that there were two options. Either take the long way around the river to get to the other side, or it is up to one of the team members to swim across. Having never been afraid of water since birth, i did not hesitate to take the gear off, shoes off and dive in. Getting to the other side of the river and up onto the rocks was the hardest thing to do. Your shoulders are aching because of the kayaking. Your legs are screaming because of the mountain biking and trekking but the water is cool enough to give some relief, even if it would be temporary.

Once i had to get the wet socks and shoes on, i realised that this would make it more difficult to run. Wet socks and shoes create blisters on the feet and they came quickly thereafter. The end was near but it seemed so far away.

The last leg was one final kayak of about 1.5km - some five and a half hours later, we were heading home. And this was when the mind and body seems ready to fail. Thankfully, my partner was far the strongest out of the two of us, and she continued to push me right to the end. I had never felt exhaustion like this before. All i could think of was "what would have happened had i not trained like i had trained in the last month?" There was simply no way that I would have made it.

We had no idea where the finish of the kayak leg was, until we heard my name being shouted out amongst the trees above. The Team Crab Supporters were following us to the end, cheering us on. I could see my mum looking at me, concerned. By then, i could not even muster a smile. By far the hardest part was to come - Joy and I needed to pull the kayak up a 80 degree incline up to the finish banner. This was what nearly broke us. No one was allowed to help us lift the kayak and on a couple of occasions, both of us fell.

We finally got up to the top and there was a small cheer. We were home. We ripped off our life jackets, and stumbled to the finish line, holding hands as we crossed. The feeling through the pain was indescribable. We had finished.

And to satisfy my competitive spirit, there were at least another 7 or 8 teams behind us.

We had done it.


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