There’s big mountains and big vistas in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
And while we have great access to Department of Conservation areas, the chance to have access to some of the most mind-blowing and special landscapes that are working high country stations is too good to turn down.
It’s called The Camelbak Big Easy, but it really should be called The Big Hard.
Starting at 1500m elevation and gaining 1000m of elevation up and over Mt Pisa before a hair raising 2000m descent through Lake McKay Station to finish under the willows at Luggate (Wanaka’s truck-stop-cum-undiscovered-secret).
It only happens once a year, and odds on it’s not only NZ’s most scenic MTB course, but also the best and one hell of a best kept secret (until the word really gets out that is).
Ever felt like you’ve been on Struggle Street? Like you really should have rolled over and not gotten out of the car, let alone out of bed?
I think you all know what I’m talking about – there’s going to be times when you’re winging it on less than ideal preparations and you know exactly what you’re in for.
Those are the days that all you can do is trust your intuition, have faith in what you’ve done before, realise that you could be in for a rough day and know that what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger (one way or another!).
In my part of the world it’s unseasonably cold right now, wet and more like winter than ‘spring’ (If the Northern hemisphere is looking for some snow, come see me – I know where to find some).
Last week a few of the crew had admitted to putting in an entry to the annual end of November AK47 hurt-fest through the Nevis Valley (you might as well be sprayed by a machine gun as this is what you may feel like).
I was sitting on the fence on this one – I simply had not spent enough time back in the saddle and having done it last year and almost passed out from exposure over the climbs I knew what I would be in for.
Friday rolled around and so did a severe weather warning of rain and gale force winds with a freezing level dropping to 800m.
But it’s amazing what your friends can talk you into….and before I knew it I was in the kitchen getting my baking on whipping up my customary post-ride baking favourites for the team…and deliberating about what to wear to stave off the cold as not only do you climb over two mountain passes, but you cross a river close to 30 times and that was is coming straight off the snow further up.
I’m not sure what draws the crowds to this particular race as it’s more a battle with your mind and the elements than against other people falling into the category of ‘to finish first, first you must finish’, but they come in their droves every year. You also could ask yourself why people turn up to Tough Mudders to be electrocuted ……obviously people like to satisfy their inner masochist.
Within 2km of the start you hit the first hour-long climb. Straight up and over you go, gales in your face at every switch back.
To put it in perspective, I think I’ve ridden one decent hill since getting home and sure as shit – it was not at race pace.
I’d been feeling fairly average all morning and knew that I would likely be in for ‘one of those days’.
20minutes in and my thoughts were confirmed.
My lower back was aching, I was debating if I’d gambled on the right selection of clothing layers and I could feel the every ounce of the 3L of fluid and safety gear that was weighing my pack down as people flew by me (for those that have ridden with me they know that this is usually the opposite way round). There was a large roster of big hitters out in force and I was very much there to make up numbers and support a local Central Otago event.
What I did know is that this race is never won in the first half of the climb.
As we made our way further up, I started to find some rhythm and started to reel people back in.
On this particular course this is where’s it’s a bit of a gamble – do you go out hard and try to to descend with a bunch to ride through the valley with company, or do you ‘self preserve’ and hope you’ll find a buddy to ride through with?
My lack of preparation and average-ness necessitated the latter.
As I crested the plateau along the top of the range, I unrolled my sleeves back up my arms, pulled on my wetsuit gloves and tried to suck as much fluid on the descent as I could.
It’s a bone chilling descent into the Nevis Valley and as soon as you hit the valley floor, you hit your first river crossing.
If you weren’t cold yet, you’re now cold, wet and freezing.
If you’d over done it on that first climb over the Hector mountain range you’re now about to suffer through two hours of no-man’s-land through the valley straight into a bone chilling head wind.
As I came off the hill, I clicked down my cassette and aimed for the wheels I could see in front. I caught them and hoped to find some company but blew through as they didn’t heed my call to jump on my wheel.
Now I was in the place that you never want to be – no man’s land, all by yourself.
Thankfully about quarter of an hour into the valley a big guy came hurtling from behind. Hell no was I not going to lose that wheel!
It ended up being more of a ride side-by-side with a steady stream of banter and chit chat as we picked off rider after rider as the km’s ticked over, each time expecting our group of two to grow as we rode through the remnants of the first climb that were now scattered through the valley, but no-one jumped on (that first hill takes scalps of epic proportions).
As we encroached on the head of the valley and the end of the ‘flats’ the final climb stretches far beyond what the eye can see up and over the Carrick mountain range before it drops over the other side into Bannockburn.
Rather than weaving to the contours of the landscape, it’s more a series of steep straight grunts that result in pinch-after-pinch through a maze of never-ending blind corners that lead to yet more pain-inducing suffering as you hit the each pitch riding at anything up to sixteen degrees of gradient.
Throw in some gale force side winds that whip your front wheel out from underneath you and it’s more a test of mental fortitude than physical that will get you to the top.
When you have bugger all deposits in the training bank, you have to spend your pennies wisely.
Having been in a few situations like this, I knew that if I just kept turning over, respected my heart rate and used every easing of the gradient to click up a gear and keep the speeds constant, I’d ride myself up to the guys in front. And sure enough 3/4s of the way up I caught them.
That’s also the point where it all starts to get a bit sketchy. With temps at freezing level on the top, gale force winds and an 8km descent ahead of you, what ever internal heat you generated on the climb just got released straight into a blast chiller.
You’d think an 8km descent would be all-sorts-of-awesome come this point in the ride, but no – this is (and was) a descent of survival, attempting to lean into the wind from your right side while maintaining enough weight on your front wheel to avoid losing it in a gust.
Add in corners and corrugations and by the time you reach the sealed road for the final stretch to the finish you’re greeted with a blasting headwind and a couple of pinching rises just to well and truly finish you off.
And yes, there was a guy lying in a ditch having been taken out by the forces of mother nature on the descent (he may have been rethinking his choice to ride a cross bike at that very point).
It’s a welcome sight when you see the Bannockburn Pub come into view over the brow of the hill
As you crest the final brow to the finish I’m not sure what you’re more excited about. The thought of hot chips and free beer at the Bannockburn pub, or getting out of your damp shoes and manky riding gear to toast your ass in some fresh clothes beside the fire. What I do know is that you’re bloody thankful to just make it to the finish.
It’s one thing to finish near the pointy end of an event like this (and somehow I’d ridden myself into second for the second year in a row) but what’s fascinating (and inspiring) is the amount of people that turn up to ride through some country few will ever see and yes, some of these people are out there for the best part of 6-8hours….which is a totally different battle of the mind and body to those of us who finish in half the time.
With a significant field of heavy hitters hailing from mountain bike, road and multi-sport including our resident world cupper extraordinaire Kate Fluker who rode like a demon to win there’s no lack of talent in these parts as they all build into their summer seasons – most of which they dominate (this is one of those parts of the world there must have been a mutation in the genetic code giving unnatural human physical abilities out if you drank the water) making local events extremely competitive raising the bar all around which is awesome.
So this time next year, if you think you may be in need of a good dose of ‘harden-the-freak-up’, I might know a ride you’d like to lock in. You will probably hate me for it half way through, even more so at the end – but I’m betting you’ll thank me for it a couple of months later.
In case you’re wondering what my choice of gear was for a ride like this – here’s what I used (and it was a marked improvement in the comfort stakes on last year). Hands down I’d rock the same combo next year or for any other ride through the mountains that you may experience extreme weather conditions.
Ever had that sense that you may have had too much of a good thing?
Feeling a little ‘fatigued’ but not really sure why?
The clocks have turned and it’s dark at early-o’clock.
Welcome to the dearth of the “Off Season” and taking scalps the world over.
While the lands down under are emerging from winter hibernation, the harsh realities of the winter are about to unleash on our northern comrades
While the temperatures may be plummeting this can be the time to embrace and welcome a whole new world of fun and games you never knew existed.
They say a change is as good as a holiday and the change of the seasons is exactly that.
But while many will extol the value of working on your weaknesses or what you need to be doing in your “off” season (no matter what your sport, job, passion, hobbies or pursuits), I like to take a different approach – and it all starts with mind set.
Regardless of the season, I start to make lists along the lines of ‘if anything was possible, and time or money were no barrier’ what would I want to do? And I’m not talking about sport – I’m talking about life in general.
It’s a pretty powerful statement and it can be pretty intriguing looking at what you write down.
Once you’ve conjured up your list (this comes recommended to do this over a fine brewed drip of caffeine or decent glass of fermented grape juice) the fun really starts and the jigsaw of how to incorporate these things into daily life begins.
A sucker for trying to pack too many things in, I invariably end up with a list that I know is completely unachievable – but by jotting it down I know that at the very least I have acknowledged the things that has been lurking in the depths of my subconscious.
I revolve on a yearly schedule that is fairly unusual, and being someone who thrives on routine and structure, I have to exist in a world which allows little of either.
But what I can do is section out the year – and yes, I hollow out an ‘off season’ and guard it with my life.
In years gone by, I’ve succumbed to the lure of either pleasing other people or foregoing my own sanity to do what I felt others wanted and needed me to do.
The result? A pretty decent dose of mental fatigue, elements of burn out and starting to hate the things I liked to do. (I’ll temper that statement with the reality that at certain points in your career – no matter what it is, you’ll have to go above and beyond if you really, truly want to make your mark).
So for the 3rd successive year, I have officially declared ‘the off season’.
A period of recovery, rejuvenation and reconnection with the things that really matter. It’s unstructured (yes, that still challenges on many levels), there are no rules but there is a massive emphasis on doing many of the things I miss doing during the year.
Simply put, there’s a mental, physical and emotional triangle that needs to be put back into equilibrium.
It’s an evolutionary process and one which I find myself changing and adapting each year depending on what feels out of balance.
Having grown up around many different environments of high performance sport and people who have reached momentous feats in many different walks of life, I’m fascinated with what makes them tick and what allows them to consistently perform to levels of greatness.
One of the things I recognise in those that have to spend large amounts of time away (as you do when you have to travel prolifically for work or sport) is that these people are fiercely protective of their ‘off’ time – be it an ‘off season’, time with family, a vacation or something far removed from what they have to engage in for majority of the year.
So where am I going with this and what is my point?
Embrace your ‘off’ and don’t be afraid of it.
The more you do something, the more important it becomes.
On a personal level, this means coming home. Back to the mountains and to relish the opportunity to do things I don’t get to do much of throughout the year. Depending on how unbalanced my triangle of equilibrium is (mental, physical, emotional) – I use this to guide what this time entails.
It’s a time to debrief and to plan with absolute objectivity. It’s a time to rebuild and repair from the bottom up. It’s a time to go and be humbled in the most humbling of ways (this happens frequently when you hail from a village of super human athletic specimens). It’s a time to challenge the status quo and re-evaluate.
I’m not going to lie – it can be a challenging time.
Be it the end of your season, a staleness in your career, a dissatisfaction at work or the imminent challenge of SAD (seasonal affects disorder) as the grim realities of winter set in – embrace the opportunity to do things differently.
Here’s cheers to the off season – may it be as epic as the rejuvenation, challenge, change, growth and excitement it may bring.
Slap me across the face with a wet fish right about now…. I started trying to write this back in August, have tried to finish it on numerous occasions but for lack of a better reason you’re getting it lock stock and barrel now.
In fact, there may just be some keyboard diarrhoea ready to explode onto the inter web in the near future.
I’ve finally made it home, FINALLY managed to unpack and feel like at least part of my life has some kind of order and structure. It’s the small things like being able to open up your draws and find what you’re looking for at a glance rather than having to explode a bag and sift through the destruction on the floor that means you’ve actually made it home.
When I started writing this back in August, the second half of my season was on the verge of not happening. A lot was up in the air and I was on the verge of heading south in search of white gold and the lure of my own bed. The reports coming out of the Southern Alps were that the snow was all-time.
And when it’s on – it’s on….
With not much going on in the first half of the summer, it felt like it had been a good long while since I’d had some hard and fast racing on the water.
From the middle of the Pacific I made the call to fly east rather than west.
The next two and a half months were full to the brim, full-noise action and working out how many cans of nitrous had in the reserve tail at the ready to unleash (thankfully there were plenty!).
When I say I was close to not coming back, I’m not joking.
Every time you make a decision to do one thing, there is always the opportunity cost of what you’re not doing. But for some reason, I had a sense of unfinished business; that I needed to go and finish out the season and see where things were at.
It was a bit of a gamble, but knew that I was carrying some serious form from the first half of the year. If you’re not going to back yourself, why should you expect anyone else too?
It’s the ability to continually evaluate a situation and remain objective that allows decisions to be made on fact rather than emotion.
With a view to taking each weekend and each event as it came, I landed back on the West Coast at the ready to let the high speed roller coaster of racing, travel, more racing and more travel unleash.
From LA to Huntington, to Hood River, Oregon to LA, California to Japan back to LA, up to San Francisco, down to LA, back into the depths of the Orange Curtain and San Diego it was a roller coaster of planes, airports, some toxic chemical burns, never ending logistics, fun, games and plenty of banter for good measure….I’m finally coming up for air after the marathon of the past three months.
With pace in my favour and fitness on my side, a re-found willingness to gamble the odd risk that I haven’t had for a while, the confidence to change up equipment and roll with the consequences, and ‘that’ moment in surf race final of the Pacific Paddle Games when I decided I loved being back in the depths of the pain cave so much that I went for another lap giving away the win….the overall win ……and a decent amount of lunch money in the process, it’s fair to say – I was definitely ‘back in the game’.
Them’s the breaks.
With the willingness to take risks, the heart to charge and a re-found love to compete that has come back stronger than ever, these are the highs and lows that make you fall in love with sport all over again.
Heck I even busted out a couple of cross-country races in San Diego for shits and giggles and seriously surprised myself in the process (not to mention an off-the-couch 110+ miles on the roadie in Oregon on whim…).
Now the bags have been packed, unpacked, packed, unpacked, packed, repacked and finally Unpacked for the year, with only the ‘weekender’ version in the proximity of easy access.
There’s the familiarity of the landscape of home and the security and peacefulness of the mountains that I crave at this time of year.
The bikes have been dusted off and the puffer jacket is in full effect.Even though it is spring, there’s at least a weekly dusting of show half way down the hills and a climate where the changeability of the weather is ever-present in the decisions you make daily on what you are doing and how you are going to do it.
The yoga mat has been unrolled and my annual pilgrimage back to the warmth of the yoga studio has been embraced as much as the awkward positions that my body loves to hate at this time of year have become the norm.
The reconnection with old mates to fix the problems of the world over coffee, wine or a long ride through nature’s playground.
The cry of the mind and the body to simply go and play rings true and louder than ever – for these are the months that are the ‘jackpot’ for the hard yards and investment of energy and time away when you ply your trade from afar.
Following every period of expansion there is the need of the balancing period of contraction.
For me, that is home and it’s the contrasting environment of the mountains.
It’s a world away from the madness of the year. It’s a chance to reflect, recharge, refocus and rebuild the energy required to rise to the challenges of the months ahead.
Thanks for the support, it’s been a roller coaster of a few months – the extent of which most will never know.
I know I’m here for the right reasons and I’m stronger, faster, fitter and hungrier for more than ever before.