Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Retrospective Blogging and the Beauty of Inspirational Thought

Retrospective blogging needn't be awkward. There's nothing wrong with having such an amazingly great time and being so tied up in awesome activities that you simply continue to put it off, mindful that each day you fail to grace your pages with writing, your post potentially becomes less and less relevant... Or does it??? Retrospective blogging doesn't need to be awkward, but it often is... That seemingly obligatory first paragraph that attempts to explain why you have neglected your beloved reader(s) and deprived them of quality entertainment for more than a month often sets an embarrassingly vain and desperate tone, like crawling back to an ex on all fours, begging them to stay if you can mend your errant ways... Well, I'm not going to do that... Instead, I will write unashamedly of things that happened a month ago (and possibly more) safe in the knowledge that my first paragraph about crappy retrospective blogging has fooled you all into thinking it's ok... The irony huh?

It was nearly a month ago now that I made the trip down to Hanmer Springs for the 103km St James Epic, a back-country race that graces the wide open space between Lake Tennyson and St James Station via the St James Cycle trail. To be honest, it's no easy feat to get from Rotorua to Hanmer Springs, and certainly no easier to get to Lake Tennyson. A shortage of funds meant that I was scrambling for a way to somehow get from Christchurch Airport to the start line (having already purchased a plane ticket and entry fee and failing to budget for the remainder of the trip). Luck came my way during the week and a lovely fella by the name of Wazza not only offered me a lift to the start line, but also a tent to camp in, and a mat to sleep on. What a good dude!!! I must say that I enjoy traveling this way. Reaching out for help has always given me a renewed sense of how people, in essence, are generally good and kind. It was definitely one of the main themes of my trip to Europe last year. It makes me wonder sometimes if having no money makes you richer in the long-run... As if having money makes it all too easy to buy your way out of the inconvenience of having to rely on others and experience life's challenges and hardships.

After a low-key registration in Hanmer Springs, we arrived at Lake Tennyson in plenty of time to set up camp and watch the sunset, which was absolutely stunning. The stifling hot weather in Christchurch had been replaced with cool alpine air and the wind was blowing against our wishes in a headwind direction for our assault on the St James trail the following day. A pasta feed down the hatch and then into bed for a big day in the saddle the next day. I was infinitely grateful that it was nowhere near as cold as it was last year... It would have made camping a very unpleasant experience. As it was, I was so warm I ended up half naked with my sleeping bag completely unzipped for the night.
 There had been a degree of confusion surrounding start times for the races... There were several categories and several different disciplines and it was a small oversight that this information had not being placed in our registration packs. I didn't like not being organised, so I prepped myself to wake up for the worst-case-scenario early start... 6am. As it turned out, my race didn't start until 8am, but there was a glimmer of consolation in the fact that I was up to see dawn turn into sunrise, which turned into a stunning day of blue skies and sunshine. I was also fortunate enough to bask sadistically in the joy of seeing the mountain man competitors swimming in a freezing Lake Tennyson just on sunrise. It's times like this I am glad I can only swim to save my life and not for any other reason. If I was any good at it, with my competitive nature, I would no doubt convince myself that activities of this nature were acceptable, and potentially necessary, to justify my existence... I'll stick to my two wheels for now...

The start line for the 103km race was significantly warmer than last year. I was able to confidently make the call to front up in just shorts and a jersey, and we also managed to convince the race organiser to allow us to ditch a large portion of our cumbersome, mandatory kit. I remembered last year that my undoing had been in the last 30km of the race, where things suddenly got very vertical in comparison to the start of the ride, and I was quite determined, and prepared, to not let this happen again. We set off from the lake and turned onto the St James Cycleway. If I'm being honest, I hadn't done a great deal of training specifically for this event, or this distance, and had chosen to come along anyway based purely on the fact that my ego would carry me to the finish line. It made for a surprisingly stress-free approach, so when we set off and the legs felt a bit weary and the mind a little flat, I wasn't too concerned... I was happy to push through and have an uneventful day on the trails enjoying the riding, scenery and company.
 There was a girl who passed me quite early on in the race. I don't like being passed or beaten any more than the next rider, but that's just racing... There will always be someone out there who can beat you... And that's what makes it exciting. What I found mildly frustrating is that I spent most of the race within about 500m of this rider and she seemed to spend the entire distance riding with her male friend, occasionally drafting him, occasionally getting supplies out his bag, and having him wait for her if she fell behind. I stop short of deducing that I would have won if she had not being riding with him because chances are that on the day, she may have beaten me anyway, and I didn't particularly feel like I had deserved the win on the ride I did that day, in any case... But it did raise the question to ponder in my head... Where do you draw the line between "tactics" and "assistance outside the rules". Certainly nothing in the rules said that she couldn't draft or have assistance on the course, so surely that meant that it was ok? My thoughts on it, in the end, were that if you are riding with a bunch of other riders and you happen to get into a drafting situation on your own merit, and pull your own weight, then that is all well and good, but it is probably a bit cheeky to intentionally ride with someone and receive benefit from doing so, even if it is within the rules of that particular race. In addition to that, though, I felt that I hadn't produced a race-winning ride on that day anyway, and so I was in no position to be pondering the point to justify my own result, but moreso as a thought to stimulate debate within my own head... Certainly a good way to pass the time on a long day out.

In contrast to last year's race, the day was a scorcher, the wind had disappeared, and it was thirsty, thirsty work. I lost count early of the number of river crossings we had to negotiate... I had a love/hate relationship with these crossings, each one stripping the lube from my chain, but soaking my tired legs in a refreshing blast of coldness. It was, without a doubt, a stunning day to be out on the bike. The first 60-70km of the race went well. I felt good, and I thought I was eating and drinking well. I had hoped to redeem myself from last year's poorly time, which I had attributed largely to my lack of form on the hard climbs late in the course. I wanted to break the 7 hour barrier, and it looked and felt very realistic up until that last 30km or so. It wasn't my climbing legs that let me down this year, though... It was my inattention to my own well-being on course. To be fair, I thought I had been drinking enough, but in hindsight, it was nowhere near what I should have been consuming. I reached the top of the first large climb and in my desperate quest to rehydrate myself, I made the ghastly mistake of drinking too much water in one hit. I now had heat stroke, and a belly full of fluid that my body had no idea what to do with, and I felt immensely ill. I knew if I was sick, it would be the end of my day, so I backed the pace right off, focusing all my energy on stopping myself from vomiting on the side of the track. I was so angry with myself for making such a novice mistake. I absolutely knew better, and it meant that, once again, I would finish this race unhappy with my time and spend the next year warding off my demons until I had the opportunity to quell them the following year.

The good thing was that I actually climbed really well, albeit a little slow... But much better than last year, which was encouraging given my lack of lead-up preparation to this race, and the fact that last year, I was in the final throes of Cape Epic preparation, which meant, by all accounts, I should have been a weaker rider right now, but it wasn't the case. I still beat my time from the previous year (granted, the conditions were much more favorable than the previous year), but my lack of self-care during the race meant that I would have to return next year to complete my unfinished business with the St James Epic. It was a good lesson, however, that every moment spent on your bike are kilometers "banked" in your legs... Each kilometer you ride is a kilometer stronger that you get... It was nice to think I wasn't back to square one after my trip from last year, despite my lack of solid training.
I must admit that of late, I haven't felt the desire to train hard. It's been five years (maybe even six?) since I raced my first world championships and in that time I have sacrificed a great deal in the pursuit of speed, distance and glory. I've strained relationships, distanced myself from friends, missed out on activities that I used to thoroughly enjoy to spend hours and hours on the bike, clocking up kilometers, in all kinds of weather, and more often than not, on my own. It would be foolish of me to say that I had enjoyed every minute of it... I don't think any rider who trains would say they enjoy it all the time... And if they do they are either invariably lying, or must be certified insane. After returning from South Africa and Europe, there has been a constant void inside me. I hate to admit it, but I think I'm scared... I'm scared that I had such an amazing time overseas that it may be as good as it gets... That I could chase that feeling forever and never find it again... That I could spend the rest of my days as an endurance athlete trying to get one up on my result from last year's world champs and never achieve that... That I might die a slow, graceless death in my beloved sport clutching in vain at something that may be beyond my reach. And then, admittedly, I worry about what people would think of that. It shouldn't matter right? But words cannot express how amazing I feel when someone comes up to me and tells me that I inspire them... I like that people are inspired by what I do... Not because I am vain or because I use it to inflate my ego, but because it means I have done something worthwhile and wonderful that has enriched another person's life... It's a powerful feeling... And maybe... Just maybe... I am frightened that one day, I won't inspire people anymore... That would be a true tragedy for me.

It is true that inspiration often comes disguised in many forms, and it is easy to mistake success for inspiration when, in fact, the two are very separate things. The ability to inspire people stretches far beyond winning races... In essence, inspiration is born in the ability to make things happen and maintain a positive outlook, regardless of the circumstances. If I were to look back on my last five years, I think I could confidently say that was something I have done very well. I'm not saying that winning races and riding bikes is no longer important to me... It definitely is... But it's also important to me to enjoy riding my bike, to invest time in my friendships and relationships, to make a worthwhile contribution to the community, to have a family someday, and to enjoy, without guilt, a world of activities outside riding a bike.

So with that in mind, my training is now interlaced with a mish-mash of casual rides with mates, the occasional shuttle run, some hiking and running, and my venture into the realms as a volunteer for Land Search and Rescue. The funny thing is that I have a strong suspicion that these welcome additions are likely to not only make my life more enjoyable, but will probably have the effect of improving my riding anyway (I'll let you know how I go with that!!!)

The week after The St James Epic, I had the pleasure of hitting up the Motu Trails with Gaz Sullivan. I have had the Motu Trails on my bucket list for a while now and I love riding with Gaz. For an old fella, he keeps me very very honest, and I distinctly remember saying to him "you go easy on me old fella... Don't rip the legs off me today, ok?!" To be fair, I think we make a habit of ripping the legs off each other when we ride together. I am certainly never very ready to admit I am struggling with the pace, and I suspect Gaz is the same, so we suffer together in silence, completely oblivious to the plight of the other. We ventured from the stunning beach at Opape up Motu Road. It's a decent ride up to the beginning of the Pakihi Track. We climbed our way through native bush and farmland along dirt roads, then old roads built directly onto bedrock through massive slips that had since been cleared. It was stunning, and I simply couldn't ask for better company than Gaz. I was entertained by stories of his first descent of Pakihi "way back in the day" and of his younger days racing the track circuit. My status as a part of the mountain biking community pales in comparison to the likes of Gaz. He really is a pioneer in this amazing sport of ours. We arrived at the top of the Pakihi Track to meet Shane and Alice, who had ridden up Pakihi to meet with us (this is probably a much more pleasant experience than the road). After devouring a box of cookies that Alice had in her bag, and a muesli bar or two, we jumped back on our bikes for the thrilling descent down Pakihi Track.
Once you have ridden the Pakihi track it is easy to understand why the mere mention of it brings a broad grin to the face of any rider. I am not exaggerating when I say that this track is 20km of gradual downhill through stunning native forest along tracks barely wide enough to entertain two people walking side-by-side. There are sheer drops down the side of the track that, on a couple of occasions, require mandatory underpants changes. The two main topics of conversation throughout the day were just how amazingly sweet the track was, and the seriousness of the consequences if you happened to f#@$ up a corner coming down this trail. It was certainly in our best interests to ride conservatively, but it didn't make the ride any less fun. With every turn, there was more stunning scenery and it wasn't difficult to see the immense amount of work that had gone into bringing this track up to standard for cyclists... With a total of about 30 bridges built to close the gaps along the trail, DOC deserves a huge high five for the resurrection of this track into a piece of mountain biking heaven.

The ride between the end of Pakihi Track and Opotiki made me want to rip my eyeballs out. 21km of flat, straight sealed road was a bit of an anti-climax to the stunning craft-work we had just experienced. I'm glad that we had started at Opape and that Opotiki wasn't the end of our ride for the day. I imagine I would have felt completely ripped off to have ridden such a fine piece of trail then finish on a flat, boring piece of road. Instead, we finished off with the Dunes Trail, which skirted it's way around the sand dunes between Opotiki and the start of Motu Road, providing stellar views of the track against an ocean backdrop and even a spot of riding along the beach. It was the perfect way to finish the day, but after 100km of riding, both Gaz and I were pretty beat (maybe this is why we don't ride together more often??).
The original plan to head back to Rotorua that same evening was easily dismissed upon Glen and Gaz's suggestion that I hang with them at Opape campground for the night. They loaned me some bits and pieces from their awesomely stupendous caravan and I slept quite comfortably in my van with the sound of the waves crashing on the beach floating in through the open window. Not before an amazing meal, a stunning sunset and the most amazing starry-night display I have seen in a long time. It was food for the soul.
The following weekend, not one to hang out and bum around the house, I decided to make the trip up to Mangawhai Heads to visit my coach of five years, and dear friend, Sadie. I hadn't seen her in such a long time, and it had been nearly two years since I had seen her son, Kasey. I feel kinda like Kasey is my nephew... I have known him since he was only a year old, and it was so cool to see him again and be able to have a conversation with this gorgeous little man who could barely say my name a couple of years ago.
The weekend consisted of a few trips to the beach and a couple of bike rides... The stuff good weekends are made of. On the Sunday, we jumped in Sadie's ambulance (seriously, she has an old decommissioned ambulance) and headed over to a little local race in Kaiwaka named "Top of the Rock", a 30km  race along dirt roads and farm tracks... It was an incredibly well-organised event and despite the seemingly small distance, it was a hard, rough course. The farm tracks were littered with invisible pot holes gouged out by inconsiderate livestock that swallowed your wheel whole if you weren't careful. I was surprised, once I got going, at how strong I felt, and ended up pulling out the win in the female category and third overall in the mens category, too. For my efforts, I won a voucher at the infamous Kaiwaka Cheese Shop, which I promptly redeemed before heading home for the weekend (their cumin cheese is to DIE for!!!).
The following week was a continuous party of biking goodness for the first annual Rotorua Bike Festival... But I think that deserves it's own write-up... Watch this space and keep those wheels turning!!!

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