The same crew that put together the 3 Ring Circus MTB race that I took part in earlier this year (Race report: Three Ring Circus (50km MTB event Australia)) also organise one of Australia’s premiere MTB endurance events, the Highland Fling in Australia’s Southern Highlands. After completing the Three Ring Circus I Asked Huw Kingston, the race director, about the possibility of taking part in the 113km Highland fling despite registrations already closing. He was enthusiastic and even offered to refund my entry fee if I came in in under 8 hours! In the time between the Three Ring Circus I also had taken part in The Rocky Entertainment 4hr race at Wisemans ferry, and was starting to get an idea as to what needed to happen to make a race of this length a possibility. At the 4hr enduro I was joined by fellow unicyclist Jamey Mossengren, and found out he would also be joining in the fun at the Highland fling!
First and foremost I had to get more training in. In the lead up to the 4hr race I had not touched my muni in the 2 weeks leading up to it- and my legs paid for it dearly. Despite work consuming more and more of my time I made it my goal to get out on the trails at least twice a week- and pushed myself really hard. If I only had 2 hrs to spare I would set to work on some of the gruelling hill climb loops I have at my disposal on Mt Majura and Mt Ainslie. If I had more time on my hands I would try to clock up 30kms+ on the fire trails and single track at the Majura pines.
On top of the extra training I had to come up with solutions to the issue of the cramping I experienced at the 4hr race. I decided to buy an extra water bladder so I could have one for plain water, and then make up one of really potent Staminade (an electrolyte sports drink). I also went all out and bought a bunch of GU energy gels. Despite initially disliking the Gu gels- mainly because I got a funky flavour – I found two types that I didn’t mind, and I am now sold on how effective they are at keeping you energised and cramp free. I also changed to a tubeless setup on my Muni which reduced rotational weight and helped decrease the load on my legs in all types of riding.
Apart from keeping my salts up, a change in riding technique perhaps played the most important role in keeping my legs ticking over. Instead of getting up and out of the saddle and grinding away in 1:1 for climbs, I tried to stay in the saddle as much as possible. I found that cramps struck most often when my legs were fully extended in the 4hr. I also wimped out on some of the big sustained climbs in the race and walked/stretched. In my mind, the minute or two I would have gained by riding instead of walking would have all been lost down the trail when I would have to dismount to stretch out cramped muscles.
The week of stormy and wet weather leading up to the race posed another critical challenge for the race. In my experience riding in high gear becomes dangerous when the ground is wet/sloppy. The smallest loss of traction or sideways slippage can send you flying, so a few times a day I was checking the weather forecast with apprehension. 90% chance of rain, warm, and humid was the prediction. This was going to be tough.
The Highland fling takes place in the State forests and private farmland property around the Townships of Bundanoon and Wingello. The course is split into 3 different stages with a transition/ feed/water station in between each stage. In total there would be 2350m of elevation gain/ loss. 26% of the racing would be on single track, 58% on rough 4wd tracks/service roads 14% on dirt roads and 2% on sealed roads.
At the event centre 2000 riders gathered to start the race early on Sunday morning after a night of sporadic but heavy rain. The morning looked clear, but the pattern of humid days followed by afternoon storms would surely continue.
The pack was briefed and then set loose on the first 27km stage or the race. Mass starts are always a bit of an anti climax and a little annoying. It takes a good 3 or so minutes after the clock starts before you get to start riding and finding your spot in the pack takes a few k’s after that. The first stage had the riders making their way onto private farm property via sealed and dirt roads, and then cutting across rolling hills on lightly used car trails/no trail at all (except for the path cut by a mower to demarcate the course). Riders passed me on the easy downhill that I then had to try and pass on the uphill, the limited trail space making the first 10km a bit frustrating. Things got interesting at our first water crossing as the line of riders waiting to cross got ambushed by the first wave of Elite riders (who were set off ½ and hour after us) who came flying down the trail and almost straight into the water.
A mixture of dirt road and narrower dual track carried the group to the first transition point at the Wingello Oval. I had a quick stretch, ate a banana and sucked down some water before hitting the next 53km stage which would wind its way around the Wingello state forest on rough 4wd tracks and awesome flowing single track. The Highland fling uses much of the same trails as those that were used in the 3 Ring Circus so I had a good idea as to what would be ahead. The first 30km of the stage had riders dropping off service roads into flowing single track with sharp switchbacks and the occasional log/ root jump. After re-joining the fire trail you would climb to regain your elevation before doing it all over again on a different section of trail. Even though the day was heating up, the shade from the forest and the rocky escarpment that the trail would often trace made the riding enjoyable. My legs were feeling good and I was more than happy hitting some of the more swoopy sections of single track in high gear. After the feed station that was located mid way through this stage, the riding confined itself mainly to 4wd tracks and contained the biggest, and most debilitating climbs of the race. The latter part of this stage had me walking sections of the big climbs but with lots of electrolyte drink and a GU satchel every 45mins or so the cramps were held at bay and my legs started to get a little weaker, but were still functioning.
After a lot of sustained climbing the trail made its way out of the forest and headed back across farmland towards Wingello for the transition for the last stage. While we were in the cover of the forest the clouds had converged and as we shot out across fast and flat dirt roads the skies opened with intermittent showers of light cool rain that made you realise just how much salt had encrusted onto your skin in the previous 5 or so hours of riding.
A quick stop at the transition point go eat a banana and a bread roll and fetch out my remaining Gu satchels from my bag and then back out onto the trail. This time we headed out along fire roads through pine plantations with a few moderate climbs here and there for a relatively quick 10km or so. The trails eventually led us into private property once again but this time the trail took the form of nice single track that meandered its way through bushland that hugged the boundary of the property. There were some fun little descents and technical pinch climbs that were a real challenge after 100ks of riding already. My legs were still ok but my mind was fatiguing. I wasn’t reading the trails as well as I normally do and on a few occasions a pedal strike or a miss read on terrain had me hit the ground. In one tight section a protruding stick grabbed my pedal and threw me off, me legs being too tired to run out of it so I merely flopped on the trail on my right shoulder. Not long after that a section of single track that I was riding in high gear had me repeat the feat after I missed seeing a section of particularly soft sand.
In the last 13km of the race I only used high gear on fire roads and left all the single track to the slower but safer 1:1. My legs could still push the gear ok but I wasn’t co-ordinating well enough with my trail sense to make it a safe or enjoyable.
After 8hrs 41min 17min I crossed the line after having completed 113kms. I placed 541st out of 587 riders that completed the course with there being 102 riders who did not finish.
I didn’t see Jamey the whole race, although he apparently arrived at one of the transition points just as I left. He put in a massive effort and came in with a great time of 9hrs 54min 14s! All of that on an ungeared 29er with 125s!
All in all the entire race experience was a fantastic one. Everyone out on the trails was courteous and encouraging, the volunteers were friendly and helpful. Even the elite riders, despite racing for big money and places, had the time to say a few positive words to struggling riders and the volunteers that made the day such a great success. This was a great race and I am keen to do it all again next year. Maybe then a sub 8hr race would be possible- the 100miler sounds tempting but I doubt I could make the cut-off!
Pictures from the race coming soon.