Unfinished business, five years has passed by, and now a return to what some would consider hallowed turf. Endurance of the mind, the body, memories; it’s time to empty the tank.
This mind excursion is set in Rotorua, New Zealand, particularly in the Whaka 100km MTB event.
Five years ago a conservative approach resulted in a broken AC joint
, what can be incorrectly described as a dislocated collar bone. What was to be a 10-day mountain bike trip of a lifetime ended up being at best 45 minutes of pedaling, a significant crash and 9.9 more days of watching nine riders have the time of their life. Sometimes situational acceptance pays and vicarious living is the way it’s delivered.
Flash forward five and 3/4 years and the memory is strong. Driving into Rotorua for only the second time, the path to the hospital was instantly recognisable. From that moment, the reminders and visual references rolled out like a carpet. As did the odour. Along with the NZ$35 dollars retained from last time, it was hard to ignore the strong connection to this place. The stark memories had endured. Not like memories of an old place like home, but more like the tingle felt brushing the edge of a nerve-damaged scar. The flash of the cause brilliant in it’s instantaneous recreation.
Visiting to compete in the Whaka100, the first time in an endurance event of this type, it was to be a test; physical and mental. A chance to restore order to history.
Ironically, the Whaka 100 race started and finished at the very same spot the previous 45 minute escapade occurred. How would the approach differ for this event? The best could complete the course in five hours, the determined in around eight, with an average of around seven. That’s quite a time on a bicycle, especially off-road. Moreso on a course with this much climbing.
It’s all about conservation. Too hard too early and there’s nothing left for the final climbs. Too easy and you’ll be left thinking “I could’ve gone harder”. It’s a delicate balance and that’s across both physical and mental domains.
Backed by ACDC’s “Thunderstruck” soundtrack, the Whaka race started HARD. Fast like a short-course cross-country race, fast like a motivated take-off from the traffic lights. You’re red-lining. It gets you clear of the pack and able to settle into a tempo. Fifteen mintues of that at least. The first hour remains hard and solid, to make a good dent into the time and distance and develop a healthy momentum. You’re thinking a good start will set you up for a safe and uneventful mid-race, able to focus on riding a constant tempo without the clatter and disruption of fellow riders.
As much as it’s a race against competitors, the strategy is your own, it requires a plan and to stick to it. Temptations hover to follow faster riders, to ease off behind slightly slower riders. This is a thinking event though. You’re constantly watching your personal mental dashboard. Like the speedo, fuel gauge and trip computer in the car, the pace, fluid and food intake is monitored, too hard? Too slow? Legs okay? Heart rate? How many kms done, where’s the next climb, left arrow ahead, rider behind, that guy looks tired. Another bar to consume, maybe a gel this time. Coughing on strawberry yoghourt flavour, too gritty for now.
The second hour ticked over, some riders had to be let go, some yo-yo’d for a while but they’re gone. Conserve, conserve, conserve. In the first third of the race the tempo has been determined, a maintainable rhythm is reached. Tough enough to challenge but always holding the thought of the last third of the race in mind simultaneously. Balance, conserve.
In hour three it’s noticeably quiet, apart from your own breath, chain clatter and thumping in your chest. Haven’t seen or heard anyone in a while. Blue arrow again, got to turn right. The dashboard is alight with fueling reminders, economy rate, food and liquids remaining, aiding constant planning for the 63km replenishment area. Concentrating on tight single track, legs throbbing, mind focused, body moving about constantly with the terrain and to keep the bike in flow. Processing thoughts of the gel packet precariously held between fingers and brake lever, seeking not to spill any precious carbohydrates.
As the hour and kilometre numbers climb higher, the goals and objectives held firmly from the start of the race begin to be tested. Is it on target? Is it missed? The balance of output and moderation of stress tolerances continues, but is it all in vein? Everything began to ache. On the climbs, the legs did most work, on the descents, navigating drops, roots, gullies, chutes, it’s a total body experience. It did not let up.
Closing in on the final third of the race, the hardest climbs present. It’s the moment to surge to commit the momentum set.
After 4+hrs a solid 45min climb presents up a steep fire road, the constant pressure got easier as it developed into a known quantity. However, continuing onto the trail, the series of undulations served to disrupt the rhythm, change the pressure, creating irregular patterns. It’s akin to shifting goal posts in business, it gets harder to maintain the momentum after each fit and start, the brain resists, gets locked up after each successive change in pace/direction. The body resists and cramps up in defence. A double full-leg simultaneous cramp created two wooden legs necessitating a brief pause. Thirty seconds later the tension eased, more electrolytes consumed and an easy return to pedaling followed. Over the course of a few minutes the load was lightly increased with more revs once again. Refocused, stabilised and a return to rhythm it signified the time to ’empty the tank’.
Knowing that the hardest terrain had been overcome, the worst possible aches, cramps and pains overcome and endured, the time came to expend that which had been conserved. The time and distance to finish gets calculated and assessed time and again. The allure of the finish line reached its strongest point. Holding thoughts of what has been achieved and the vision of completion creates a resurgence of spirit and freshness. The mental dashboard lit up like a christmas tree, so many boxes ticked, but one remained.
Hard on the gas for the last few kilometres, depleting all tanks and reserves, then a swoop around the corner and there it was. The finish line. Less than 200m remained, passing by the gateway where five years ago it signified the end of the adventure and the commencement of the trip to hospital, this time it was relief, joy and a personal victory. Rolling across the line, the tank was empty. Whaka 100 complete!
Around 100 competitors attended this year, the fifth edition of the race. Many locals and Australians entered as it is a fantastic opportunity to ride almost all of the trails in the Whakarewarewa forest, potentially New Zealand’s finest MTB area. Well worth a visit. Or two.
It was a triumphant return to NZ with the tank emptied and new memories filling it up. And that same NZ$35 interestingly was retained. I’ll just have to go back and do it all again.
For those who know the trail network well, here’s another description of the race from a local competitor.
Please take a moment to share.