After a confidence building ride at the Wild Horizons 50km ‘3 Ring Circus’ in Australia’s Southern Highlands, I made my way the following weekend to Callala Beach (on the edge of the Jervis Bay Marine Park) for my first attempt at the ‘Husky Enduro’ 100km MTB race. The Husky was initially scheduled for much earlier in the year but was postponed due to a week of consistently poor weather conditions. The race is 100km or single track, fire roads and 4wd tracks…well, usually it is. A torrential down pour the evening before the race not only encircled my van in ½ a foot of water (letting it sink up to its axles by the time I stirred for breakfast), but it turned the first (and last) 15km section of single track into a swamp of churned mud, bogs and running creeks- and that was before they unleashed a couple hundred gung-ho mountain bikers on it. Rob O’Brien (dragonfly), after a successful jaunt at the 3 ring circus, would also be backing up to ride at the Husky- albeit in the 50km option.
I knew that the conditions would be vastly different to what I was used to. I had expected the surface to be much softer because of the sandy region in which the race was held- but I didn’t expect the fine, sandy granules to congeal into a mud that resembled a dark whipped cream from a can. I also didn’t predict the lush undergrowth that would ensnare riders who ventured too far from centre line of mud, pot holes and erosion channels. I was initially annoyed that I would be starting the race in shoes that were already soaked through with mud and water courtesy of my camper van’s makeshift moat. But considering what was to come, I soon came to realize that wet shoes were the least of my problems. The 100km loop lead out from the Callala beach bowls club and would return to the finish line along a sodden and churned 15km or single track. Riding any of this section even once would be tough. But knowing I would have to do it in reverse at the end of the day was not doing great things for my riding mojo.
I’m the sort of guy that gets annoyed if things are too sloppy to use high gear in these types of races. By the end of the first 15km I was happy to find any piece of trail that afforded enough space, and traction to ride at all. This mud was something different. For those of you that did the Karapoti with me last year- imagine the worst of the mud there- then put it in a blender with shaving cream and spray it everywhere. I don’t have a great amount of experience riding in super wet conditions- but after a while I found a bit of technique to it and was tractoring, in an almost aimless fashion all over what was left of the trail. I wasn’t deliberately wafting here and there, It was more of just a pedal and then see where the unicycle took you kind of affair. Any sudden shift of weight or being too picky in your line just resulted in a dismount to ankle deep muck. But even dismounting was a challenge here. Normally you can get yourself balanced with your first or 2nd step after dismounting. I had a few laughable crashes where, upon dismounting, I slipped 3 or 4 times on various slippery surfaces until I came to rest- usually on my butt, into the muddiest pool of least resistance.
The trail lead inland, and luckily, to regions of a more granular and gritty soil where the stormy conditions of the previous night had been less fierce- or the draining much better- or both. Suddenly I could put my hub to use and get a few slightly easier Kms under my belt and get in a rhythm for the days riding. There were feed and water stations positioned every 25kms along the trail and as I came into the first one it dawned on me just how gargantuan this expedition would be. It was not going to be my longest race- that honour goes to the 113km Highland Fling I completed last year- but it would probably be the most draining, physically and mentally. However, you’d be amazed what a handful of lollies, a piece of pineapple and a chat with some good hearted volunteers will do for your legs and spirits.
The Husky had a reputation as one of the easier 100km races to do because of its flatter profile than other enduro races. I started to question this accepted knowledge as the single track wrapped itself in ever tightening spirals, forcing harder, more sustained and technical climbs than any other enduro race I had yet completed. Sure, there were no massive hill climbs to rack up the big elevation gain stats, but there was hour after hour worth of snaking single track that traced over every contour of the forest floor. It was amazing fun, but incredibly tough. I had to change my usual relaxed and ambient playlist to something a bit punchier to keep the adrenaline flowing and the legs pumping. I got in a really good zone in this section, my legs had come good and I was only occasionally lifted from that meditative state by the need to suck down some water, eat a muesli bar, or down an energy gel. It was a very solitary affair. The field was, by this point, all spread out and I only occasionally came across someone whose strength was fading, or was suffering mechanical issues. As I passed the 50km feed station riders started to pull out of the race- using these strategically placed intersections to return to the event centre on sealed, flat asphalt roads. I was still feeling strong and keen so decided to push on and reassess my situation at the 75km mark.
As my strength started to wane my mind started to drift. My thoughts gravitated to recent events in my personal life creating alternative realities and revising past scenarios; the constant dissection of my current circumstance often taking me to dark and sad places. It was an amazingly cathartic experience, working through personal issues through the lens of physical fatigue and exhaustion. The answer to the whole complex issue, and also that of my endeavour in the days race, materialised as a choice between to options. You can back yourself, or doubt yourself. I had to choose.
As I climbed up to the last feed station that had all but been torn down by volunteers and relieved of its most delicious and useful items by ravenous bikers, I knew what had to be done. A quick refill of my water bladder, and a reorganisation of my food supplies to more accessible locations and I was off to conquer some personal demons and another 25kms of trail. There were still a few surprises up the sleeve of the course. Keeping me on my toes were some sneaky north shore log crossings and a few chest high creek crossings- the cold water providing a welcome anaesthetic like sensation for my aching legs as they dried at 20km/hr in high gear.
The last kms in a race like this can be torturous. For the duration of the race there were distance markers along the trail side every 5km. In my experience, the more attention you pay to distance markers like these, the more of a slave you are to them- and they can come to ruin your day in the dying moments. I prefer to resolve myself to a slightly inflated time frame. At the beginning of the day, I say to myself- ‘you are going to be riding ALL day’. Nothing you can do will make that go any faster, so just get on with it. I find this helps me really enjoy the experience for the whole day’s riding; instead of framing it as something that has to be endured. In the last stages of a race (10km or so), I let myself get excited about the finish- I compare distances to those of my usual loops and training rides and start to aim for a finish time. Its amazing what your legs can accomplish when they can sense the end of a big ride like this. For me, I like to push hard in the last stages of a race- there is nothing worse than feeling like you could have given more. Inconveniently, this period of heightened enthusiasm coincided with the least rideable terrain. I was now in the midst of the mud chute that we had left some 8 and a bit hours earlier. It had dried out in some sections but the worst of it was all still there so I resolved to jogging when riding was not an option.
After 8hrs, 51 minutes and 21 seconds my day came to an end. I crossed the finish line to a small but enthusiastic crowd of folks either packing up the event centre or waiting anxiously for signs of loved ones still out there on the trails. I came in 225th out of 229 riders who completed the course. I’m not sure how many pulled out of the race- but there were definitely quite a few of them.
It was while I was stretching out my back on a small but dry patch of grass that I remembered the predicament of my van, which could be seen in its sunken state across the field. It was a sorry sight indeed and one that I wasn’t sure I was in a position to deal with. Luckily for me, one of the lovely ladies at the timing desk took charge of the situation- forcing me to eat a hand full of left over gelatin snakes while she took my keys and rustled up a 4wd with a snatch strap that heaved it out.
This was one of the toughest races I have ever completed. It would have been much easier and faster in a dry year, but tough isn’t always bad. It sure was one hell of an experience, I learned a lot about riding in mud and wet conditions and also about myself. The trails there are awesome- with tough single track all throughout the days riding. For anyone in the region, it would be well worth a bit of an explore. Again, I can only speak praise about the Mountain bike community, their events and the general attitude of riders out there on the trails.
I was too slow to be around while photographers were out on the course so no pics for this write up unfortunately. However, Rob and I do feature briefly at the end of this video wrap up from the race that aired on SBS’s cycling show.
Get out and ride,