Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Akatarawa Attack, but not as we know it!

If there's any event that has consistently got my attention over the last few years, it is the Akatarawa Attack.  Organised jointly by the Hutt Valley Mountain Bike Club and Orienteering Hutt Valley since 2006, I've ridden with Simon at every one.  In 2006 we won the four hour section in a threesome with Simon's brother Paul, and in 2007 Simon and I took out the 8 hour section with probably my best one day ride ever.  2008 was bloody hard but we managed to retain our title.  2009
was even harder, we were less fit and we placed second by a very slim margin. 

2nd in 2009 - we didn't know it yet...
In 2010, we were back in form and regained our title pretty convincingly.  We promised ourselves a sleep in for 2011, but 10 months later, when push came to shove, we were entering the Makara Peak Mudslingers in the 8 hour event for a fifth time.

The event is a fascinating one, and what economists might describe as a constrained optimisation problem. One hour from the start, teams receive the course map, upon which are marked controls.  Each control has a points value allocated to it.  Controls up big hills, or on rough track, or requiring difficult navigation tend to have larger points, while those which are easier to reach tend to be worth fewer points.  The most valuable controls are typically worth 100 points, while the least valuable might only be worth 10 or 20 points.  The aim is simple:  collect as many points as possible within a given time.  The event is called a rogaine; the name derived from the names of the three Australian founders: Rod, Gail and Neil.  The constraints obviously include the time limit, but also the riding ability of the team, its fitness, navigation skills, and to some extent preference - often the "best" route includes track done just because it'll be a highlight of the day (points be damned).  The various elements of the event really excite me, especially the way it introduces problem solving aspects to an already physically demanding sport.   Invariably when the legs go, the brain has already gone, and things can and do go to custard very very quickly, as tired riders find themselves lost and a long way from home!  Riding hard while doing fairly high-level cognitive tasks is a nasty challenge!

It's not all fun though.  I'm riding these things with a living NZ mountain biking legend.  As the event draws near, I feel immense pressure to be in good form, and to not be the link that causes the chain to snap.  My junior status in the team is often a feature in well-meaning promotion of the event - legend and his wee mate, etc.  I don't have much of a competitive streak, though I'm quite happy to thrash myself, I generally pay others little heed.  Teamed with a sublime competitor like Simon, I'm conscious that while it might be a hard day's ride with a mate for me, it's an event to be won for him.  And, he's my best mate, so that win becomes important to me too.  Stressful stuff...

On the bike though, in the heat of the day, the team has always been the defining factor in our success, and it has always been much more certain and reliable than our physical "prowess".  Simon and Paul rode either side of me with one hand each gently adding crucial watts as we ground up the last hill of the day.  30 minutes later they were tucked in my draft as we hauled along a gravel road with the deadline looming.  Countless times since, Simon and I have made decisions on the fly, corrected or confirmed navigational choices, reminded each other to eat, assisted with trail-side repairs, and carried gear for each other to ensure best progress as our legs tired.  Our ability to function well as a team (or not as was the case in 2009, to our cost) has been at least as important as our individual abilities as cyclists and orienteers.  We could no doubt pair with others and still do well, but I doubt there's anyone else in the world who could have got me out of bed at 5-something to be on the start line at 7:30 for five years in a row.

Our preparation for 2011's event was in stark contrast to 2010.  Last year we'd done plenty of riding together, and even gone out running - crucial conditioning work for the inevitable couple of hours off the bike that the Akatarawas demand.  In the couple of months leading up to this event on 30 January we managed few rides together.  Tree Trunk Gorge  was a fantastic ride, but hardly training.  Once up the mountain road certainly was training, and we worked hard around the Dress Circle at Belmont early in the week before the event.  But, no tip tracks; no 6 peaks time trial; no 5-6 hour missions in the Akas honing our technical skills.  I'd managed an Akas loop on my road bike mind you, and a couple of cool "Wellington singletrack smorgasbord" rides, taking in Wright's Hill and Polhill, Mt Vic and the fantastic trails in Miramar as I clocked up special time with my beautiful new Turner Flux.  Simon had had a hard ride from Ohakune to Marton, but was short even more bike time than I was.

The event HQ was at Dry Creek this year, and the event renamed the Alternative Akatarawa Attack on account of it not actually being in the Akatarawas.  That was all good though, and ensured an extra 30 minutes' sleep.  I picked Simon up at about half past 6, and both helmets safely in the car, we were off.  As we made our way into Belmont Regional Park there were about a dozen Transfield vehicles and at least twice as many men gathered there - strange for a Sunday, but they were looking to string a wire from Boulder Hill across to a hill top on the Haywards using a helicopter.  Exciting stuff for a closet bogan like me...

We were in good time, and were able to get our bikes and gear organised at a fairly leisurely pace, while still having time to say gidday to some familiar faces.  At 7:30, we got our maps, which instantly had us scratching our heads.  The course extended almost to Moonshine Road in the north, and Stratton St in the south.  Key areas looked to be St Pats forest, the Eastern Hutt hills, and Belmont Regional Park, with a cluster of points south of HQ, and another north.  In the past we'd been able to get almost all the controls, so eliminating a few had been relatively easy - an out-and-back to the top of Dopers last year springs to mind...  Bugger that!  On this map were many more controls than in the past, so we needed to cull out quite a few to design a manageable route.  "Which though?", is the million dollar question.

Eventually we settled on a clockwise route, through farm land to the Haywards stock underpass (no crossing of SH58 otherwise), St Pats Forest, then across the river and south along the Eastern Hutt Hills before climbing up via Stratton St and north along the tops to Boulder Hill.  Time to smash back a tin of creamed rice before briefing, and then last minute prep before we begin our chase.

The start's always a bit of a hoot as teams scatter in all directions.  We headed through a gate after about 30 metres' ride.  As I leapt back onto my Flux I noticed Simon starting to run, and 10 metres later, as I rounded a bend, I realised why - the climb before us was too steep to ride.  Before too long the gradient mellowed out a little, and it was back on the bike.  Simon and I rode away from those behind us, including 2009 winner Ian Paintin, this year paired with Ant Bradshaw.  I allowed myself a smile - a sign of things to come I hoped. 

A minute or two later that smile was well and truly tucked away in my back pocket as Simon's chain started skipping on just about every pedal stroke.  He jumped off, and diagnosed a joining link which was about to shit itself.  I grabbed a powerlink and my chain breaker out of my pack.  Simon did a great job of repairing the chain - not using the powerlink in the end - and it gave us no more trouble after that.  No surprise that Ian and Ant had passed us by this stage, Ian kindly checking that we had everything we needed. 

We soon had points in the bag (control 31), and were on the way to the next control when we saw Ian and Ant disappearing off up a gully. Goodness knows where they were going!  I urged Simon on, trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that we weren't following them.  We found control #2 (63) shortly after, and wondered how Ant and Ian were faring. 

Simon made an uncharacteristic cock up and disappeared down the bank on one side of the track.  After hauling himself up and dusting himself off, he wondered aloud what ill fate was going to befall him next...  We didn't have to wait too long to find out...

We started off on a fast descent through open paddocks.  After a few scorching minutes, I pulled up next to Simon, who'd stopped and had a perplexed look on his face.  "They're gone" he said, "Everything's gone..."  I looked at his empty mapholder in astonishment.  Only one of the four sides had been unfastened, yet somehow Simon's maps and clue sheet had been sucked out has we hurtled down the hill... I guess.  At that point I would have found it more plausible if he'd said an Alien had vapourised them with a ray gun...  What?!  The?!  Hell...?!   We decided against riding back up the hill - we still had my maps and clue sheet, and we thought the chances of finding Simon's maps in the wind were pretty slim.  We had no choice but to press on.

We picked up our third control (71) at a high point, moments after Liam and Rachel had grabbed it.  How the hell did they get there so quick?!  In fact they'd taken the long way round, would double back for our 2nd control (passing Simon's maps en route), and then head for our 4th.  They'd be only a few minutes behind us there, but 50 points up, and with a full complement of maps!  Nice work!

Three controls and 160 points in the bag, we began our descent towards SH58. I was in front, and yelling at the top of my voice at the dozens of sheep that were sprinting down the hill ahead of us.  We were undoing all the good work Liam and Rachel had done bringing them up the hill!  The missing maps were missed almost instantly as we moved from a formed track to an allowable route through open paddock.  We deliberated over our single map and picked up the correct track back to our right. 

We scoped out the SH58 underpath on our way to our 4th control (61), Simon having to take my word for most of it.  We were soon under the highway, and climbing up towards before dropping down a spur.  I put us temporarily wrong as we followed a path that wasn't on the map.  Again, we consulted over our single map, before backtracking 25m or so and picking up the correct route. 

The descent down the spur had a few surprises, and I was damn pleased to be on the Flux.  A couple of times a rut or drop appeared out of nowhere, and by the bottom I felt pretty lucky to have held it all together. 

We had a series of intersections to deal with next, and the magnitude of having only one set of maps was starting to sink in.  No doubt Simon was stressed out not having his own map in front of him, and having to rely on my navigation.  I was stressed out at having the only map, and what felt like sole responsibility for the navigation.  Fuck! 

We started a long bike push up a very steep 4WD road.  We grabbed another control (90), and eventually the road leveled out and we were able to start riding again.  The navigation got a little awkward - what I could see on the ground didn't seem to match what was on the map very well.  In hindsight, perhaps I was just jaded from the climb, and in a bit of a tizz on account of the maps.  I almost came a cropper on a bit of slick clay, and then lost my nut a bit - I wasn't coping very well... Simon took over and steered us well to our next control (51).  At least now I knew precisely where we were on the map...

A few minutes later, we were standing at a fence, and were deliberating again.  Neither of us had seen an intersection we were expecting to see, but I was convinced I knew where we were. Simon wanted to go back, but I insisted we pop over the fence to grab our next points (50) first.  Luckily for me, I was right about where we were.  No harm, no foul.  But, already the cracks were showing.  In the past, we'd always breezed through these sorts of issues, as we'd always both had maps in front of us, and always the instinct to quickly come up with the correct decision.  Here, we were constantly having to stop to consult, and it was frustrating both of us.  Horrible to have the map, horrible to not, and we were little over one hour into eight...

The next few controls were pretty straightforward (60, then 91, then 100) before an out and back loop through another couple of controls (52 and 62) on the hills above Silverstream Bridge.  More tension as we decide which way to back-track, before we started descending.  I could see it didn't matter which way we went, but of course Simon couldn't.  Fuck this sucks!

Back up the ridge, we lined up for our descent to the river.  We'd orienteered in this area a couple of times before, and while I was stopped and looking at the map, Simon disappeared from my view.  At least I had the map, and I had little choice but to cross my fingers and "follow" him down the correct route.  Sure enough, he knew where he was going, and was waiting for me 30 seconds down the track. 

We picked up our final control in St Pats forest (70) and were out at SH2 after about 3.5 hours elapsed.  At this stage we had 840 points, 20 ahead of the winning 4-hour team, and with time enough to grab at least 40 points on the way home.    We had more riding to do though...

It was Simon's turn to have the maps for a bit - it hadn't been much fun for either of us, and it was about time things were reversed.  We decided against our initial plan to cross the river - we both had dry feet, and the 30 points didn't seem worth the effort.  Instead, after negotiating the culvert under SH2 (and getting thoroughly wet feet), we rode south, and were soon crossing Silverstream Bridge.  We peeled off to the left and swung around under the bridge, and were soon counting concrete slabs at yet another control (20).

Access to the Eastern Hutt hills was via what was surely a Christian enclave.  It looked to be old nurses' barracks or similar, but there were people strolling around with idyllic looks on their faces, and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. 
Freaky stuff!  Had it not been for the people it would have been quite fun hooning around the narrow alleyways, complete with a covered walkway we had to pass through.

Simon was on point now, as we picked up 3 more controls (72, 32, and 92) as we slowly but surely gained elevation.  I'd never ridden this far north before, so it was all a bit of a mystery to me.  We had a long run south, with what felt like a good tail wind.  We picked up one control (84, east of Fraser Park) en route to 93 in the south (east of Hutt Hospital).  From there it was a long 3 kilometres back north to a turn off into some singletrack.  Strangely the wind didn't feature much on the return journey, which was a relief to both of us.  We'd initially thought to do an out and back through this next bit of singletrack and exit the hills in the south, but changed our minds on account of the track quality and height we'd lose on this next bit.

The points were good (57 and 102) but the track was slow going.  The surface was pretty mint - steep in places, but not rutted at all - but the track was so narrow, and the vegetation was obscuring the trail itself.   Simon made much better progress than I did down here with his slightly narrower handlebars (and body), better technical skills, and probably better frame of mind now he had the map.  As our through trip continued, we started to regret our decision - the track went on and on, and was so slow.  At one point some toitoi had been cut, but had been left on the track to harden, and was like walking on marbles.  After what seemed like an eternity, we made an intersection which marked an improvement on the map, and we were soon riding again.  We stopped at control 73 to have a bite to eat, and to reassess our plan having lost a whole heap of time getting there.

We agreed that Stratton Street was now out of the question.  We looked at heading up Hill Road to cut down the distance, but we were worried about the wind on the tops.  We settled on a climb through Kelson - luckily there was one control to get on the way through.  First, some work to do in the valley.

We were soon looking for a subway under the railway line.  I pulled into a likely spot, but missed the entrance to it.  Simon called me back, and my temper flared slightly.  Damn the map situation!  There was a shop at the far end of the subway, and we quickly grabbed a drink each before heading north towards a suburban control.  Simon drafted me, and called directions from behind, and we were soon another 50 points up (55).  Then, we turned south.  My legs felt good as I hunched over my handlebars and tapped out a steady pace.  We soon bagged another control (34) and then turned back into the wind to cross over the river for the second time.  We screwed the exit off the bridge, circling under it before crossing over the road again to complete our circuit and resume our hunt for the underpass of SH2.  We found it without too much extra drama, and were soon starting to grovel our way up the climb into Kelson.

We had one control to bag about halfway up (42), and apart from that, there was little to focus on apart from the headwind, and fatigue!  After the climb leveled out a bit, Simon tucked behind me, hopefully enjoying a slightly more sheltered ride than he'd otherwise have had.  We made a left turn, and a kilometre or so later pulled off the road onto gravel once more. 

Simon had ridden this singletrack a few years earlier, and had reported some pretty lousy conditions.  Low expectations set, the track was actually very pleasant - obviously a lot of good work had been done by Greater Wellington in the intervening years.  I had the clue which told me we were looking for a tall gate.   Simon had the map, and when he rode past a likely looking gate, I asked if we might be at the control (54).  We were, and he promptly handed the map over!  His legs were objecting, and as always, this meant his brain was already not at 100%... 

Up in the open, we were glad we'd not gunned for a run north on the ridge.  We'd surely have run out of time, and been blown off our bikes in the process.  We grabbed our third 100-pointer (101) at Boulder Hill, and then raced back the way we'd come - pretty much all downhill from here!

We had a short out-and-back to 40, before dropping down to the Dry Creek entrance.  A nifty zigzag put us in the carpark, and then it was up the driveway to HQ.  We had about 15 minutes to spare, so plenty of time to grab a final control just upstream of the cars (21). 

I look like I'm concentrating...
...and Simon looks excited!
A few minutes later, we got to stop, and to be honest, it was a pleasure to have it over and done with!  I felt like we'd been cheated of a bloody good day out by that Alien and his ray-gun.  The missing map had taken with it very many of the opportunities Simon and I had to function harmoniously as a team.  I guess we'd coped well given the circumstances, but the freak mishap had certainly introduced strain on our teamwork that no map had previously been able to.  In the sum total of events we'd done of this sort, we'd been in this sort of flap for minutes, but certainly not hours.  (We still joke about my hollering on the hill in Vegas.)  Yet here, we'd had tension for most of the event, presumable because one of us had no clue where we were, and because the other felt overly responsible for our fortunes. 

Still, our plan had been good, and our execution of it, if not stress-free, had been effective.  As it turned out, we were first on the day, with a score of 1770 points (almost an identical score to 2010, of 1740).  Rachel and Liam had out-ridden us at the start with some very efficient route choice, and had finished the best of the rest, 150 points behind.

The after-match BBQ was a definite highlight of the day for me.  It was particularly nice to see a brick of gingerbeer go to Simon for the win!  In the past, I'd always scored his bottle of wine as well as my own, and it was great of someone to notice and to come prepared!  

HVMBC and OHV put a huge amount of work into putting the event on.  And no doubt that work was shouldered by a select few.  Michael Wood's map was as impeccable as ever, and all the controls we visited were exactly where shown!  Cheers too to Steve Meeres for the photos! 

The day seemed like an absolute shitter at the time.  Luckily though, something in the human condition is much better at remembering the good bits than the bad.  So, while I have a strong memory of it sucking, I can't actually remember the negative emotions that well - just that I'd had them.  On the other hand, I do remember the good bits as if they were yesterday, and can't wait to get out orienteering with Simon again.  I could say that next year we're looking forward to a sleep in and will be signing up for the 4-hour.  But, I suspect I know better...


  1. Jeepers, tense stuff! Great that the Team is strong enough to cope with such a potentially disastrous situation, and not just cope but win! Nice work, John and Simon...

  2. I should point out (since John is too modest to) that he carried most of the tools and my thermal top the whole way (and my jacket much of the way too). My chain didn't have the only weak link. I wasn't really up to a hard 8 hours, but I'm glad we gave it a crack.

    Aside from getting to the top of St Pats forest, I thought your navigation was primo (and the map was a bit dated up around the edge of that pine forest, so confusion was almost a given).

    Must get back on top form for next year!