Sorry if it’s long, but an awful lot can happen in 5 days, particularly when you’re awake for 4.5 entire days during that period! Also it’s mostly photos, thanks to the race photographers. Here are some of the highlights and testing moments of our newbie foray into expedition length racing at Wildside AR. You can see a map of the whole course and the routes that each team took on the live tracking page.
We’re all quite inexperienced at ARs. Alex has done a fair bit of trail running and mountain biking, Sarah has competed extensively in orienteering and rogaining, Oliver has plenty of mountaineering and ropes skills and Tom has focused on trail running and rogaining. AR veteran Keith Conley recruited Oliver, Sarah and Tom to do Geoquest Half this year, teaching us his methods and attempting to suck us into this epic sport. After a surprise win, we entered Wildside while on a high post-race. We smashed out 17 hours of racing, surely 5 days would be a great idea! It became difficult to secure a 4th teammate until we finally locked Alex in with two weeks to go – that’s enough time to train, right?
The lead up to the race was pretty stressful. None of our team had competed in an expedition race before and we were grappling with the never ending logistics and organisation. We started to feel a bit out of our depth because everybody else knew exactly what they were doing whereas we were totally winging it.
After the maps came out on Saturday arvo, we realised there wasn’t enough time to do everything we wanted to do, so it was a matter of prioritising the most important things – marking up a basic route for the whole race, contacting a single set of maps, and planning our TA logistics in terms of time estimates and what to pack in each crate. If we rocked up to a trek leg with only bike shoes, that would be embarrassing and potentially painful! We also had to fit in some solid eating and sleeping time before the race bus departed on Sunday arvo.
The race bus was a familiar feeling for us after participating in ANU’s Inward Bound competition. At least this time we weren’t blindfolded. We arrived at a winery for a surprise gourmet meal of cheese platters, angus beef burgers and chocolate/berry dessert. A 4 person tent per team was provided to sleep in until the race started at 1am Monday morning.
Leg 1 – 37km trek – Monday 0100-0800
We quickly established our reputation as the kid team of the race, with an aggregate age of 101. Hopping over fences through farmland soon gave way to trekking along hilly single track. There were two short river crossing requiring dry bags and swimming, before we hit the high point lookout – which apparently provides glorious views if you arrive during daylight. We didn’t. Most teams took the exact same route on this leg. We did a minor bushbash across a saddle to avoid some extra descent/climbing along the fire trail – which took a similar time to the nearby teams, but saved us some energy. As we popped out of the bush a couple of teams looked confused and seemed to panic that there must be a control nearby. There wasn’t. Much of the last third of this leg was marked with tape through farmland and made for easy nav. We hiked our way down into the town with Tiger and finished in equal 2nd place behind Mountain Designs. Spirits were high.
Leg 2 – 35km paddle – Monday 0900-1600
It became apparent that TAs were going to be a weakness for us, as several teams came in behind us and left before us – the volunteers at the TA even started carrying our boats down to the water because they were so concerned about our time wasting!
This leg was a good chance to refine our paddle technique, as it was more than twice as long as any paddle we had done before! Also more hours on the water than our entire race buildup! Alex’s early enthusiasm was quickly curbed by the rest of us. We recruited her to the “I hate paddling” train. We allowed ourselves a quick 10 minute break on one of the beaches to rest our bums, then powered out the final hour or so. Some dolphins frolicking less than 10m from the kayaks were definitely the highlight of this leg, along with the bemused fishermen and boaters who had a much better grasp on how to relax and enjoy the long weekend.
Leg 3 – 39km MTB (radio tower) – Monday 1700-2000
Thanks to Alex for her expertise in unpacking our bike boxes. This was a new experience for the rest of us. A quick stint on the highway really woke us up, then it was back on to fire trails and constant granny gear efforts to spin up some big climbs. We set a pretty good pace on this leg and were all stoked to be riding our bikes instead of paddling or trekking. The radio tower checkpoint was a good opportunity for some stretching and yummy food as we enjoyed the remaining daylight. Then a ripper downhill as we sped towards the single track park housing the next rogaine. We were pretty confident that we’d make the first short course cut-off with a bit of breathing room.
Leg 4 – rogaine – Monday 2100-2300
It was pretty devastating to ride in on such sweet flowing single track, then be told to ditch our bikes and complete the rogaine on foot. As we got our trekking gear ready and discussed our Canberra background, one of the helpers at the TA recognised us! It was Trevor Banks, Taree local and dad of one of our uni mates, who I had met just one week earlier at the Canberra 101 trail race. It’s pretty hilarious how small the world is within endurance circles.
This was the first cutoff point of the race, and we made it with less than half an hour to spare. This made us the last team ahead of the cutoff, keeping us in what was now a 5 horse race with MDs, Stromlonauts, Bear Hunt and Tiger. The whole idea of a major cutoff with a small time gain at this point in the race seemed a bit weird – was it there simply to make teams sprint the first day? Regardless, we’re using this cutoff to claim that we finished 5th overall. We were pretty excited to see some fireflies when we switched our blinding ayups off at one point. At first we thought Olli was halucinating, but when all four of us saw these little night fairies floating around it seemed like they really did exist.
Leg 5 – 27km paddle – Tuesday 0000-0500
There was temptation to sleep before this leg, but we pushed on and used sleep afterwards as a reward to get us through another mammoth paddle. This was the first encounter with sleep monsters as we had delirious giggle fits and experienced the 5th teammate sensation. Also the trees lining the water began to look like cliffs. Tom was the first to drop out – we fed him No Doz and slapped him around a bit to no avail. Luckily the kayaks were tied together so the rest of us dragged him for the first couple of hours. Luckily the excitement of a sneaky route choice underneath one of the small piers provided some excitement and we powered through to the next TA, with the reward of a big sleep luring us in. Apologies to the caravan park whose toilet block we destroyed via tag team.
Sleep 1 – 3hrs (luxurious tent setup at end of paddle)
Leg 6 – 51km MTB (Big Nellie) – Tuesday 0900-1600
The boys were eager to stroke their own egos and spun their way up to the first trig point. At this point Sarah realised her handlebars were still loose and promptly tightened them before the monster downhill. On the next climb, the big tough boys got off and started walking what could only be described as a rideable gradient, to exasperated sighs from Alex and Sarah. Finally we were trying to be efficient with our energy use. At Big Nellie we ran into team 1 chick and 3 token blokes (Tokens), and got the impression they were pretty keen to beat us! Their competitiveness added to our amusement. At TAs, officials were getting stressed for us about our luxurious transition times, and photographers were exasperated that we always seemed to be having a whale of a time.
Leg 7 – 22km trek (Ellenborough Falls) – Tuesday 1700-Wednesday 0300
We took it pretty easy for the start of this leg, strolling along the farm access roads along the top of the ridge with glorious views of the sunset and bushfires (?!?!) in the distance. It reminded me of running along Narrowneck in Katoomba with the land falling away for epic views on both sides. As we began the steep descent down a bulldozed track towards the river, we were cautious of the aggressive land owners we had been warned about. We did our best to sneak through unnoticed.
Once we hit the river, it became apparent that it was going to be a very long 7km. There were nice tracks on both sides, but we were forced to stay in the central river corridor to avoid private property. There were little yellow frogs all around us and it felt like you were going to crush them with every step (but they always managed to save themselves at the last minute). We were constantly crossing back and forth across the river to follow the bank of least resistance as we pushed forwards towards the falls. The stress of navigating kept Tom awake for once, but Sarah was starting to fall asleep while standing up and leaning against trees, Oli was having some nasty stomach issues and Alex had fallen quiet. We came up behind Tokens and travelled near them for a little while – until we reached the last 2km of rockhopping and one of their guys decided to aggressively inspect a rock with his face. We moved on while they applied first aid (after checking he was going to live). The rock hopping was heaps of fun and lifted our spirits, but it still seemed like an eternity until we finally saw the rushing falls and 600 steps coming down to the viewing platform.
Sleep 2 – 3hrs (inside the kiosk at top of falls)
The Ellenborough falls cutoff was a shock because I don’t think we had prior warning about that. As we emerged from the 600 stairs, we were informed that because we hadn’t made it through the checkpoint before 1am, we had missed the MTB window to avoid the logging trucks, so were being shortcoursed. My interpretation is that this was primarily for safety rather than because we were horribly slow. So once we got short coursed there I guess we relaxed a bit seeing as we were out of the race anyway. On the bright side, this gave us a bit of breathing room to sustain our reputation as the fun team of the race!
This was the first time we got to chat to Glenn Smith and Geoff Lillistone, the search and rescue boys who knew Keith from previous races. They facebooked some happy snaps to Keith so he knew how we were going. The wonderful lady at the kiosk took pity on us – setting up beds outside on the concrete, in the rain – and let us sleep inside on the tiled floor beside the warm oven – deluxe! (photo evidence added below!)
Leg 8 – 101km MTB – Wednesday 0800-1800
In the morning we were slow to start, then Tom almost got carsick when we were getting the car shuffle, which would have been an inconvenient reason to lose calories and fluids! As we were setting up our bikes we saw Bear Hunt cruise past. They were in good spirits but looked a bit sleepy. We figured we had skipped pretty much the first half of this leg. After a couple of minor missed turns, we were back on track riding through grassy farmland tracks and opening/closing gates. Here we bumped into Tiger and Stromlonauts who both powered off ahead of us.
Next up was a brutal hike-a-bike up a log infested fire trail. This pretty much consisted of carrying our bikes the whole way and it felt like about a double Black mountain effort. It was tough for us, and brutal for Oli’s hip flexor, but we spared a thought for the teams ahead of us who had already done an extra 50km of steep hills in the first half of this leg. We were rewarded with some sweet flowing downhill as we headed off the ridge. Top nav by Oli leading us through the farmland and into Barrington without any dramas (we found out later that Tiger lost 6+ hours through this section).
Leg 9 – cancelled for all teams (private property issue)
Leg 10 – 10km Trek + Tube (Barrington) Wednesday 2000-Thursday 0200
After walking through the local cemetery at night and searching the graves for our checkpoint (WTF Richard?!) we reached the start of the tubing section. Everyone expected this to be easy and fun, but the volunteers gave us a few cheeky hints that it might be tougher than we thought. We raided the recycling bin and cut open some plastic coke bottles to use as hand paddles. Then we were off. On the longest, slowest, coldest river tube of my life. There were a couple of rapid sections separated by huge flat pools of barely flowing or shallow water. It was a battle to stay awake – I’d open my eyes and be paddling towards the bank, then not even know which way the river was supposedly flowing. We tied our tubes together because it seemed like a good idea at the time. For everyone except Sarah, who was the only one who hadn’t dropped her hand paddles, and she basically towed us through the flat pools. It was pretty fun to slingshot down some of the rapids and get all tangled up.
This was the first time we really broke our trend of being the fun/happy team. It was impossible to maintain the smiles and giggles after a wet, cold tube down a shallow, barely flowing river for 4 hours in the middle of the night. We finally found the bridge finish point and trudged up the road to the TA, shivering to the core.
Sleep 3 – 2hrs (in Barrington town hall)
I don’t remember how we negotiated this, but the boys fell off to sleep with the sleeping bag and mat, while the girls shivered and spooned on the hard floor under some space blankets. Props to Ben Cirulis for capturing our lowest point of the race and being the only person to catch us without smiles and laughter.
Leg 11 – 87km MTB Thursday 0600-1700
We set off with all our layers of clothes on so that we could start to warm up. There was quite a bit of hilly road riding and it had started to rain, so we pretended we were in a road peloton and raced up the hills, trying to draft closely off each other (although probably going so slowly that it didn’t matter!). Next we took an obscure turnoff into a grassy paddock, but Oli assured us it was the right way (which it was). A bit of fire trail hills and then we found a checkpoint and the entry to some sweet dirt bike style single track. There was a bit of concern about our sleep deprivation and lack of riding skills, but we made it through the muddy ruts without incident. The same cannot be said for the teddy bears found hung by their necks from the trees.
We had a midday nap in the sunshine, and nobody set alarms or was really sure how long it lasted for. Turned out to be a great time to nap, as it immediately preceded one of the toughest nav sections of the whole race. The mapped and visible tracks did not match up at all, so we just had to trust our friendly contours, which never lie, and ended up hiking our bikes up the massive hill that could be none other than the one we were aiming for.
We missed the next control that was ‘east of the track-creek junction’ after noting that there were no creeks or gullies visible on the map, and we could only see water bars in real life. Apparently there was a tiny gully on one side of the road near the edge of the circle. Oh well. Big downhill cruise towards the next TA (I actually bothered to lower my seat because it was so steep).
Leg 12 – 18km trek – Thursday 1900-2000
Optional/self selected shortcourse. We skipped this and rode our bikes to the kayaks. The organisers wanted to give us a shot at completing the course so realistically it made sense to skip Leg 12. Tom was useless at the kayak transition – preoccupied after getting his bike shoe stuck on his foot. Thankfully a volunteer provided a big screwdriver to lever it off before he got around to cutting the shoe open. This was the best transition point because they provided us with free vegetable soup and sausage/egg sandwiches!
Leg 13 – 22km paddle (Myall Lakes) – Thursday 2200-Friday 0900
After shortcoursing the previous leg, we skipped the supply crate that contained our maps for the paddle leg, whoops! All we had was a little tourist map with no detail or contours. We rummaged through Bear Hunt’s crate that was waiting for their arrival (thanks guys!) and scribbled some notes down from their proper map.
I think we got a bum steer from some locals at the portage site. There was a boat moored at the entry track and they gave us some convoluted explanation about how to bush bash through to the other side. Sarah and Oli did a quick scout with torches and the track was so overgrown it would be impossible to carry kayaks through there. In hindsight, we should have checked google maps before the race, but we didn’t have time for that much detail. Satellite view shows that the main track heads south a bit before reaching the clearing and branching east (red arrows).
We tried to go directly east through the blue area and got stuck. All the 2 man teams went on the red arrow track below, but it looks like Bear Hunt and MDs somehow found a way through the blue area. Missing that portage was a real bummer, because it got our heads down and was followed by Sarah falling asleep and some delirious nav in the next bay. If we hit the portage I reckon we could have made it through to the next TA for sleep instead of crashing by the side of the lake in the cold/wet. That was the first time we really had to have an emergency stop with people borderline hypothermic and risk of falling asleep/tipping kayaks. It was a miserable, wet 1.5hr sleep but it got us through to sunrise, where we woke up and finished off the leg at a consistent pace.
Sleep 4 – 2hrs (halfway through the paddle, on the side of the lake)
Leg 14 – 37km trek + SUP – Friday 1000-1800
More map problems. The start of this leg was in the corner of the map, and there appeared to be a track through the bush leading down the the start of the SUP. However, the real life track didn’t match with the contours and seemed to be heading inland (off the map), so we opted to bush bash down to the water and wade around the shoreline. Once we reached the SUPs, it became clear that the track did in fact lead straight to the checkpoint, and we would have been better served by mindlessly following the track. Apparently MDs did the same thing as us, so I’m ok with navigating like the race winners!
After the SUP we trekked around the next bay towards the golf course, then really battled on the first big climb of the day up to the trig checkpoint. At this point we figured we weren’t going to make the cutoff and weren’t having much fun, so we might as well get picked up at the next town. A quick chat on the phone to Richard and he organised a rendezvous for us to shortcut the next 20km or so.
We hiked into the finish line only to discover that it had been packed up already and told that we should head straight to the Laneway restaurant. Another 10mins and we found Richard, had a quick debrief and bitch about a couple of the control descriptions, then headed to the hotel for a shower before dinner. Whoever didn’t have first shower just collapsed on the beds/chairs/floor.
Back to the Laneway for presentations, and we saw Stromlonauts and Bear Hunt arrive at the finish line. Mammoth effort by these guys and we are super proud of our fellow Canberrans who made up 2 of the only 3 teams to finish the full course (along with winners, MDs).
What did we learn?
We received a lot of advice and tips pre-race, but we really had no idea what we were in for. The stress of logistics and pre-race organisation was outrageous, and we were very lucky to have such a laid back and capable team. There were moments of panic but we got through it together and luckily our personality clashes were fairly non-existent. Physically, I think our speed was almost on par with the top teams and it wasn’t as hard as we expected, mostly due to the constant low intensity. Logistically, we have a lot to improve on. We lost a lot of time to the other teams in transitions and generally faffing around a bit too much. This is something that will improve with experience, and concentration to stay in ‘race mode’ for longer than the first few hours of the adventure. Mentally, the battle was tougher than we ever imagined. The lack of sleep and feeling so terrible every time you woke up was tough to deal with and really made us appreciate our normal schedules and shorter (<24hr races) where we get to sleep properly.
Where to next?
There is a bit of contention in the team about this one, but I think we’ll have a bit of a spell from expedition racing. Everyone is keen to do Geoquest full next year – a distance we think we can actually maintain concentration for the whole duration and put in a competitive race effort. The longer stuff is so expensive and mentally draining that we might have to make it a 5 year reunion style of thing. Definitely an amazing experience to do at least once!
Thanks to everyone who helped us to prepare, race, recover, develop our skills or loaned us gear. The depth of experience and knowledge available to us through our Canberra AR and rogaining friends was invaluable. It’s always a bad idea to start naming people, but thanks in particular to:
- Keith Conley, who definitely can be held responsible for luring us into the sport
- Bear Hunt – constant advice, answering our noob questions, sharing their house/maps/food/gear, generally supporting us however possible
- Seb Dunne and Ed Hall for providing some extra Ayup juice
- Our friends/partners/family for putting up with stressed/tired/busy bandits before and after the race
- Many of the Canberra AR crew for their stream of tips, training and gear advice leading up to the race
- Richard Old and the entire Fully Rad Adventures team. It was a really beautiful area with some stunning legs. The gorge was particularly spectacular (even in the dark), complete with snakes and frogs. Officials and photographers were super friendly and cheery, and it was really rewarding to see most of the course.