Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Pummelling For The Legs - 9 Weeks Out From World Champs and NDuro Winter #2

These last couple of weeks have treated me very well indeed. After an amazing weekend of mountaineering in Tongariro National Park and racing in Raglan, my squash team won their finals (no thanks to my abysmal loss in three games), then, despite the foggy weather I was treated to the delights of some stunning sunrises, and some unseasonably warm mornings (amongst some very cold mornings!) whilst training in the forest. Then in the middle of it, a smashing race on my home trails during a weekend where the rain the weather man promised never arrived (YUSSS!).
I've become addicted to my morning rides... There are few things these days that would stop me from crawling out of bed in the wee hours of the morning whilst the rest of the town is sleeping to throw on some lycra and launch an early morning mission into the forest on a cool, clear crisp morning. So three times a week, I find myself heading out into the darkness at around 4.30-5am to do my training before work. It has become a bit of a ritual to finish my morning ride up the top of Katore Road to enjoy the sunrise before finishing off with a choice of lovely flowing downhill singletrack routes that deliver me straight back to my back gate. It's my happy place (and time) in the forest and on the days when I don't see the dawn break in the forest, I sincerely miss it.
It blew me away these last couple of weeks just how delightfully stunning our sunrises have been. It has also blown me away how unseasonably warm it has been in the mornings (after a couple of minus two degree days a couple of weeks ago). It's such an amazing feeling standing on top of a floating island surrounded by fog as the sun creeps over the top of the fog, spattering brilliant colors across the top of the misty lake that has engulfed the valleys throughout the forest. Trees poke through the mist, spiders webs hang heavy with dew and the still lake borders our city while the sunrise throws pinks and oranges across it's smooth, calm surface.

It's surreal to ride around in the fog, then climb above it to see the first rays of sun for the day, before descending the trail and disappearing back into the fog. On the odd occasion, I will bump into another lone soul or two, but usually, I have the morning all to myself in that spot. People ask me where I get the energy to do all the crazy things I do, and I always tell them that the more energy I expend, the more I seem to get back... But those mornings on top of that hill... They fill me with good, positive vibes... Like I'm absorbing energy from those first rays of sun to hit the Earth. It's a magic feeling.

I must say that the last couple of weeks, the legs haven't felt particularly lively. Whilst I have definitely enjoyed my rides, I have found the old legs to be a bit flat, lacking the punch I would like to push out good hard training efforts. From experience, I know that these periods are just phases you go through, when you feel a bit tired or run down, but it is frustrating nonetheless to feel like you are smashing yourself then realise you are actually lucky to be sitting at 85% of your target heart rate. 24 hour solo world champs are only nine weeks away now and it's funny... I feel fitter than I ever have been, and I attribute this largely to the crossover and variety in activities I have added into my schedule over the last few months, but because I haven't really been racing against any of my 24 hour counterparts, it really is hard to quantify how that fitness is going to translate at world champs.

Whilst my competitors have been away racing overseas, I have been plugging away at home in the forest, fitting my training around work and other commitments. It's a far cry from my lead-in to last year's world champs... Different, but not necessarily bad or wrong. I'm excited, and a little bit scared... Probably because I'm feeling a little like I'm flying blind... But I don't think it's a bad thing to be slightly on edge. It keeps me honest, and I think the most important thing is that I keep my mind fresh, enjoy what I'm doing, and seek out positive vibes in the best ways I know how. My preparation on the logistical side of things is going well, and that's always quite a relief... This is something I know I have planned a little better than last year.
So as part of my training schedule, the odd Winter race has made an appearance... These things can be really hard work because I train through them and they tend to be at a higher intensity than my usual training (good stuff). When I lined up last week at the second Winter NDuro, my legs felt wrecked (for want of a better description). I don't think they had fully recovered from the previous week traipsing around the mountain and racing in Raglan and whilst I knew, in theory, that my legs must be getting stronger, they felt pretty sluggish on this particular day. I was hoping to maybe pull a rabbit out of a hat like I did last week in Raglan, but I knew that wasn't going to happen without a certain degree of pain.
I love it when these races start at Long Mile... It means I can register the day before then roll out my back door five minutes before race briefing starts. It was my only "sleep in" that week (and a welcome one at that!). We took off up Nursery climb and after about 30 seconds, my legs began to burn... This could be a long 45km! We made our way up Genesis and then into the old Rock Drop... I'm the first to admit I avoid riding these trails... They certainly aren't my favorites and I find it difficult to establish flow on them (which, in itself, should be a reason to ride them more often!). Heavy legs and a tired brain resulted in two impressive crashes in the first twenty minutes of the race... One over the bars down a rooty switchback and another collision with a tree (which I easily could have ridden either side of... I just left my decision as to which way far too late)... Best to get that sort of carry-on out of my system early in the race!
Head switched back on and legs as loose as they were going to get, I wound my way around the trails. It felt like I was working really hard and not going anywhere too quickly. The first part of the course was relatively flat, which made it even harder work... I remember thinking to myself "geez Carl, where are the climbs in this freaking course dude?!"... I was begging for some solid climbing so I could give my legs a rest on the descents.
Despite the complaints my weary legs had, I was having a blast... There's nothing quite like ripping up your local trails at race pace (or as close to it as I could get on this day), and there were a few of my favorites in there, too! The recent frost and rain had dampened the trails just enough to makes them fast, smooth and sticky, which made for excellent riding. My wish for some good climbs came quite late in the piece as we headed up Direct Road and down Hot X Buns followed by a climb up my old friend Katore to bomb down my home run to the finish line.
Like I said, I wasn't expecting much from today's ride, but I still held my own against the usual suspects (still didn't quite catch Margaret!) and placed 5th in quite a large female field. Cool thing about this is that with some more hard weeks on the bike and some taper, I should be punching out some good pace. It's a relief when you can still have an ok race on tired legs!

Nine weeks to go!!! Bring it on!!!

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Big Weekend, Even By My Standards - The Win

The drive from Turangi to Raglan was a long one... About three and a half hours, to be exact... I was pretty tired, definitely hungry, and knew I was going to be sore the next day, especially considering I had come straight off the mountain and into the car. I felt bad that I was arriving in Raglan so late. My buddy Sarah had arrived earlier in the day and had been hanging out in Raglan... I love hanging out with Sarah and I had kinda promised her I would be there early afternoon after scooting up the mountain that morning. I felt a bit like I was running behind schedule, and a bit like I had let Sarah down (although I'm sure she was just fine hanging out by herself for a day!).
I arrived in Raglan a little after 7pm. We were staying at Solscape Eco-Retreat, which is an awesome little place I love staying when I go to Raglan. Relatively cheap and a really nice vibe. Our "room" was an old railway carriage. I arrived feeling completely famished, and was stoked to find Sarah had a pot of pasta cooked up and left some for me to devour... I couldn't thank her enough!!! Then I did some stretching and hit up the foam roller in the hope that it would loosen the ol' legs off a bit for the following day's race... It was all in vain... I knew I would suffer the next day regardless of what I did that evening!

I slept pretty soundly that night, then had another early wake-up to pack the car, eat breakfast and make my way to race registration. The race is called the Karioi Classic. The standard race is 43km long and starts at the very civil time of 10am. I, however, had chosen to do the "double buster", which was two laps of the course... This one started at 7.30am. I arrived at registration in the dark, grabbed my number, transponder and my two bananas and then made my way to the race start. It was a mild morning by Rotorua standards, and it was quite clearly obvious that I had been doing my training rides in minus two degrees when I rocked up at the start line in nothing more than shorts, a jersey and a pair of arm warmers whilst some of my acquaintances were wrapped up in beanies, leg warmers and wind-proof jackets.

I remembered doing this race in what I think was it's first year, probably about five years ago now. The turnout had surprised them on that day, and I think it still does these days... They had 310 competitors across all the races and categories!!! One of the things I love about this race is that the people who organise it truly love putting on a great event for the riders... I was so flattered that Lisa (the race organiser) remembered me from all those years ago, and she has such an infectious, bubbly personality... It's impossible to not feel the good vibes! The course itself is all gravel and sealed road with some reasonable climbs in it, but nothing too substantial... The thing that made it so hard was the fact that because it is only gravel and sealed road, it has a real tendency to be a complete smashfest... It was entirely possible to have your heart running into the red the whole way around this baby! Great training ride!

As we lined up at the start line, I couldn't help but notice just now tight and fatigued my legs felt... I couldn't expect any different after the day I'd had beforehand climbing up Mount Ngarauhoe (but so, so worth it!). We were apparently behind a neutral vehicle up to the first turnoff, which would be a lovely way to get the legs turning. The whistle blew and the neutral vehicle took off... At about 60km/hr... I remember thinking "wow, my legs must be really f@#ked if I can't keep up with the neutral vehicle!" but the fact that I was definitely not the only one was comforting... So we pretty much raced straight off the start... My legs screamed at me, as did my lungs, who struggled to supply my legs with the exorbitant amount of oxygen they were requesting.
Based on the course, I had chosen to take my Yeti ARC hardtail out for a spin today, and it was absolutely the right choice. It always amazes me when I jump on this bike how nimble it feels, and how well it climbs. The only error I made was that I put extra air in the tires to match the course, but it probably made some of the descending a little more sketchy on the loose gravel. It really was a trade-off though... Sketchy descent versus fast climbing and fast sealed road sections...

There were a few other girls in the double buster, and one of the girls, Megan (good name!), who was from Hamilton, threw down the gauntlet early and was sitting just ahead of me... I'm not sure what was going through my head, because to be honest, I think I had resigned myself to the fact that today probably wasn't going to be a strong day on the bike for me... But maybe having that carrot dangled just in front of me was enough to have my head override my legs. I remember writing after last year's 24 hour solo world champs that "the body is merely a vehicle for the mind to achieve it's goal" and today was definitely testament to that statement. I added a gear up the first climb and edged in front of my competitor, then kept pushing until she dropped off... One thing I have learned in all my years of racing is that generally, if you can force yourself to hurt enough that the other person drops off, then you have won that mental battle with your competitor.

As we climbed that first hill, the sunrise splashed us with rays of light through the clouds... For some reason, I always find a good sunrise fills me with energy, and I was off! I opened up a lead gradually on the other Megan, but whenever a looked across at the road winding back behind me, she was still there. I have this theory called "out of sight, out of mind", and it goes like this... Once you are out of sight of a competitor, they no longer have a way to gauge just how hard they need to push to catch you... Once again, a battle of minds... So my aim was to get out of sight of her, and then keep pushing to make sure she didn't pick up any time on me.

Like I mentioned before, the course is hilly, but I wouldn't say any of the hills are substantial... And most of them are a pretty reasonable gradient... So it is entirely possible to big ring a good chunk of most of the climbs, and that is exactly what I did. The views were stunning, when I reminded myself to look, and it was a beautiful, warm sunny day. It felt good, even though my legs were ready to turn to jelly. About 30km in, I caught up to two guys. One was on a singlespeed, and as we sped past a driveway to the right, he yelled out "oi, you have to go up here!"... Myself and the other guy slammed our brakes on ready to do a 180, then the guy said "nah, only joking"... I gave him a pretty deathly stare... Then made some remark to my practical-joker friend that maybe he needed a harder gear on his singlespeed if he had the energy to be such a smart-arse... Then I set about making it my mission to chick him that day (mission accomplished!!!).

I cranked out my first lap in a speedy 1:51, only 7 minutes slower than the female winner of the single-lap race! As I turned the corner, my dear friend Paul Page pulled alongside me. He was doing the classic race and they didn't start for another half hour... He chatted with me... And I didn't chat back much (very rude of me!)... I was really putting myself in the hurt box on this one, and whilst I appreciated Paul's company, I had little energy left to expend on anything beyond turning my legs in circles and drooling. So Paul, whilst I may have appeared to be ungrateful, it was certainly not the case!!!

I kept pushing hard out on that second lap, but my legs really were starting to feel the burn. I could feel every... single... step I had taken up that mountain the day before. I remember on a couple of the climbs, suddenly noticing I was drooling (yup, charming!). The gravelly descents nearly became my undoing on a couple of occasions over the course of that second lap... I just didn't seem able to concentrate properly! Finally, I climbed over the last hill of the day and continued on towards the finish line. The final one and half kilometres is on energy-sapping grass, and I was absolutely dreading riding that section, but it actually wasn't too bad... I just turned the pedals over and eventually found myself at the finish line... 90km in 3hours 50mins for the win (and a little bit of a pay day, too!).

I hung around to cheer Gayle Brownlee into the finish line (I think I told her to sprint), then headed to the holiday park next to the race village to make use of their showers for a gold coin donation (what a good bunch of people!). I returned just in time to see my buddy Sarah cross the finish line in her first ever race on her CX bike (YAY!), apparently complete with numerous punctures (not-so-yay!)

This race has such a cool vibe, and whilst it isn't the most technically demanding race, it's certainly a good one if you are up for a day in the hurtbox, on the hammer for the full race. It's also got the full support of an awesome community, which is great to see! I was actually pretty stoked with how strong I rode that day... It really is a good lesson in what your body can achieve when you set your mind to it.

I suppose after a weekend like that, most people would spend a couple of days chilling and recovering... I played squash finals the next evening, then hit the trails for some early mornings and beautiful sunrises during the week... I think as long as I keep moving, I should be just fine!!! (it's once you stop that you are in trouble!)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Big Weekend, Even By My Standards - The Summit

The general consensus amongst people I know tends to be that I am a little bit crazy... My weekends (in fact, my weekdays, also!) tend to be jam-packed full of weird and wonderful activities and followed up with a barrage of equally weird and wonderful photos and some good lengthy story-telling (because that's just how I roll). Last weekend was no exception to this... In fact, it was a big ask even for the likes of me...
The craziness started about Tuesday of that week... I got a text from my buddy Edine asking what I was doing on the weekend because she had somehow ended up with the weekend off (a rarity in the industry she works in). I hadn't been on an adventure with Edine in soooo long (in fact, our last outing together was our Taranaki trip), so I was keen to jump on the opportunity to head out for some mountain climbing with her. My weekend was already looking pretty full, so I loosely committed a "morning" to "scoot up Ngarauhoe" (knowing full well this morning would quite likely extend itself well into the afternoon). I shuffled my week's training around so that Friday morning, I would get up at 4.30am (my favorite time of morning lately) and smash out my Saturday session, which just happened to be my 20min hill climb test followed by a two hour endurance ride. The proposed plan was much to Edine's delight... Apparently ripping the legs off myself up Mountain Road on Friday would make me "easier to keep up with" on Saturday (good theory!).

So Friday rolled around and I smashed out a good hill session... In fact, the best I had done since I got sick a month and a half ago (although still a wee way off my personal best). Then after work, I threw all my gear in the car, including my bike, then made my way to Turangi to meet Edine and car pool the rest of the way to our accommodation in National Park. After a slightly longer than planned drive (Edine remembered she left her jacket in her car when we were half way to National Park), we arrived at a modest little backpackers about 10pm. We'd booked a shared room, and were trying to figure out how we would sort out all our packing for the next day, and our 5am wake up, without disturbing the other people in the room (which, let's be honest, was going to be nearly impossible). So we were stoked when we opened the door to our room to realise we were the only ones in there that evening! Perfect! We got all our gear sorted, then hit the sack for an early wake-up.

Our arrival at the trail head the following morning was about half an hour behind schedule, but we were on our way by 6.30am. The plan was to hike up the first part of the Tongariro Crossing and then up Ngarauhoe. The early morning sky looked a little threatening, with quite a bit of cloud, which made for some quite ominous-looking photos, but we were hopeful it would burn off and give us another stunning morning for mountaineering. It was a cold morning, and the trail was frozen, meaning it was well below zero degrees. The full moon sat high to the west and shone through the clouds as they darted across in front of it. Our boots crackled on the ground and our breath drew patterns in the air.

Dawn broke behind the mountain quite modestly today. There wasn't a dancing array of pinks and oranges as I have seen previously on the mountain... Just a delicate stroke of pink painted over the white snow on the mountain we were about to scale, and some spectacular shadows in the foreground. I commented to Edine how it would be spectacular to get up early(er) and be on the plateau or up on the summit to see the sunrise... I'm not sure if she genuinely shared my enthusiasm for this plan, but she politely agreed that, indeed, it would be spectacular, then avoided encouraging my thought process on the idea any further.

The crampons came out of our packs and onto our feet at the foot of the set of stairs that goes up the Tongariro Crossing. At this point, we were clouded in and couldn't even see the mountain, but we had good faith that the cloud would be hanging below us once we reached 1500m, as promised in the weather forecast. We possibly could have gotten away with not putting our crampons on until the top, but it was nice to have good solid footing on the icy steps. I'm always in two minds about the way trails are adapted to make it easier for people to walk or ride them... It's wonderful that it encourages more people to get out and see our amazing landscape, but on the other hand, it also encourages people to go places where they could potentially be out of their depth, and it does detract from the natural beauty of the area. I'm sure that not all would agree with me, but my philosophy on the whole thing is that to see something so beautiful, you should have to work hard for that reward... Not just follow the highway that has been paved in front of you.

As we made our way along the track, we stopped on a number of occasions to readjust Edine's crampons which were behaving badly and kept loosening themselves. We were caught up by a father and daughter who were doing the same trip as us, up Ngarauhoe. They were awesome people, and whilst we both did our own thing for the day, we crossed paths with them on a number of occasions and did an email and photo swap at the end of the trip. It's always so awesome to meet other people who have that innate love of the outdoors.

As we arrived at the ridge where we turned right to head up the mountain, we got our first glimpses of the sun. The cloud that we had sat in earlier that morning now hung lazily below us to reveal a beautiful blue sky. Mount Taranaki poked it's head through the clouds in the distance to say g'day and watch over us for the whole day. We had a snack break, then trudged on up the side of the mountain. The gradient got exponentially steeper as we went and it was relentless, reminding me in places of the climb we did up Mount Taranaki a couple of months ago (Edine didn't think it was as steep as Taranaki, but I thought it probably was... We had just had more practice on the terrain by now and felt more comfortable with it). At times, I found myself leaning on my spare hand to keep my weight forward into the mountain. The other thing that made Ngarauhoe a seemingly easier mountain to climb was that the run-out off the bottom of the area we were climbing wasn't exposed like on Taranaki... A fall would certainly leave you battered and bruised, but there we no outcrops or cliffs to slide off if you slipped and couldn't get a self-arrest in.
The trudge upwards was hard work and I could feel every second of that hill test I did the morning before. My legs felt like they were on fire, but for some reason, all I could think of was how funny it would be to take the Yeti costume and my bike up the mountain for some crazy photos (I have no idea why that thought was occupying my mind, but it was much preferable to having a Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber song stuck in my head, and it took my mind off the burning in my legs).
As it was so early, the surface was icy, and the air was cold in our throats. I'd make little pacts with myself to walk twenty steps, or fifty steps and then have a breather before taking the next twenty or fifty steps. Whenever I turned around, I saw a glorious blue sky hovering over Mount Tongariro and it's craters... It never ceases to amaze me that you can climb so many different areas and faces of the mountains in Tongariro National Park and see completely different views and landmarks, and the terrain can vary substantially. The other thing I never get tired of is the amazing ice formations that gather on the mountains... Rocks that have become a canvas for the wind and snow to delicately carve stunningly beautiful sculptures during the harshest of storms for us to see glistening in the sun on days like this under a brilliant blue sky.

As we climbed, we would cross briefly onto areas of scoria that had been left devoid of snow or ice by the wind. I quite enjoyed these brief interludes from the endless icy face, but Edine preferred to stay on the white stuff... Everyone is different I guess! Finally, the gradient eased off and we popped up onto a flattish area that preceded the summit. Don and Kat were just ahead of us heading up the last section to the summit. The wind that blew across the plateau was strong enough to put me off balance on a couple of occasions, but we wasted little time in continuing on and making our way up to the summit to join our new friends. The wind up the ridge to the summit made me a little nervous on a couple of occasions. I guess been so small makes me a bit vulnerable to it, but once on the summit, we were able to tuck in behind the rocks for some summit photos and a look at the view spread out all around us. To the south, we could see the Ngarauhoe crater. To the east, the Kaimanawa Mountains, capped with snow. To the west, Mount Taranaki was still peeking above the clouds and seemed unusually close. Then to the north, we could see across Mount Tongariro and it's craters. The blue lake was snowed over and Te Maari crater was putting on a brilliant steam show after it's eruption about this time last year.

The summit area was quite small, so we did our sight-seeing then made our way back down to the plateau. The other thing that made the summit a little precarious, as Don pointed out, was the cornices that form over the edge of the crater... So it is possible to feel like you are standing on solid ground when you are, in fact, standing on an overhanging bit of ice... Scary stuff! By now it had become blindingly obvious to me that today wasn't going to be a "morning trip". The surface was still icy and Don suggested that we hang around the plateau area for a spot of lunch and a bit of an explore to wait for the face of the mountain to soften a little in the sun, making the descent a bit easier. His logic was well-founded, so we went for a little stroll around and found a nice rock for shelter out of the wind to sit down and have a feed (note to self... In future, if you choose to "make yellow snow" on a windy plateau, finding a place out the wind is a good idea if you don't want yellow boots).

The conversation and company over lunch was awesome and it was really nice to have a little posse of us up there. I was glad we had started out so early... As we looked back down on the southern crater of the Tongariro Crossing, we could see swarms of guided tours making their way across the snow... It was even a highway in Winter!!! We could also see other climbers making their way up Ngarauhoe... Starting so early had meant we had the privilege of enjoying the serenity on the summit by ourselves with a couple of other good peeps. Once we had finished lunch, we made our way back to the edge of the mountain and started descending... Don and Kat were pros at it and left us in their wake... And Edine was definitely a bit quicker on the descent than me... I must admit I actually find the descent off a steep mountain a bit daunting and I don't know why... Maybe because I am facing outwards and it makes me feel a bit more exposed? Maybe because my light weight means that my crampons don't stomp into the snow as deep as someone with a bit more weight... Or maybe it's just because I am relatively new to this and need to learn to trust my crampons and my footing a little better (probably the most likely of the three).
I remember having a conversation on the mountain with Edine about how mind-blowingly incredible it was to be up there... And how lucky we were to see and do such amazing things that so many other people would never have the opportunity to do. I got a lot out of the fact that my climbing buddy was as stoked on our adventure as I was.

The descent is always much quicker and it blew me away how much different the area below us appeared now, in the daylight, and with no cloud cover, than it did that morning. Areas of the walk back to the car were still covered in ice and on one occasion, I found myself searching for my footing as my legs slipped out from under me and I found myself sitting on a patch of ice that had somehow claimed the integrity of my grip. The walk back, after being on such a spectacular mountain, was a bit mundane, and had me playing a game of "are we there yet?!" much to Edine's disgust.

Back at the carpark, we bumped into our new buddies again and swapped contact details to share photos, then we got in the car and headed back to Turangi... Edine was heading down the other side of the mountain to go snowboarding at Tukino the next day, and I was on my way to Raglan that evening to meet Sarah and ride a mountain bike race the following day... Yup, I was only half way through the weekend and had a looong drive ahead of me... But that's another story in itself... Check out my next blog!!!