Tuesday, January 29, 2013

2013 Akatarawa Attack

There are a few things I dislike about the Akatarawa Attack - an annual eight hour mountain bike orienteering event in the Akatarawa Forest Park, north of Wellington.  The first one to bug me is always the start time - maps at 0730 means alarm before six, night-time in my book.  I also kind of dread the duration - eight hours on a mountain bike in tiger country is hard work - and, the fraction of those eight hours that I spend pushing my bike.  Unlike the Great Forest Rogaine in Rotorua, the Wellingtonians insist the bike goes all the way to the control, but there's a fair bit of unrideable track in the Akas.

There's also a fair bit of pressure.  Simon and I rode the inaugural (4 hour) event together in 2006, with his brother Paul, and before we were close friends.  Since then we've entered the 8-hour event as the Makara Peak Mudslingers, and with the exception of 2009, we've won the thing.  Some years in style, other years despite difficulties (usually me blowing up)!  

It turns out I much more easily forget the wonderful things about the events.  If only I kept these things written down...

My Yeti ASR-5C was gleaming in the back of the car when I picked up Simon at 6:15.  I'd been administering a user survey at the Makara Peak carpark the day before, and took the opportunity to give my fine steed a good clean during rare quiet spots.  Close inspection and a visit to Mud Cycles later, it was also sporting a new pair of rear brake pads, and was good to go, remarkably the original drive train still going strong!

I'd been disconcertingly unwell during the week - an inner ear problem was resulting in a wave of nausea pretty much every time I turned my head.  A short and sharp road race on Wednesday had been no thang, but working, doing shit around home, and particularly driving were horrible affairs.  I'd been to the doctor on Thursday and was prescribed some anti-nausea tablets, but was told the problem was viral, so I'd have to wait it out.  I was also told not to ride my bike, but I've ignored that advice before...

Consequently, I was feeling very queasy when we arrived at Whareroa Farm, just by MacKay's Crossing at around 7am.  This gave us plenty of time to get organised - bottles in the bikes, map boards on, gear stowed in our bags, and all checked in with the organisers.  I'd turned up with three jerseys, and despite a warm forecast, I couldn't quite bring myself to wear my white Cape Epic "Finnisher" jersey.  Nor was riding Black Ops a sensible idea, and so it was back to the old faithful, Roadworks blue, and a nice compromise. 

Despite my nausea, Simon and I were pretty chilled out.  We got the maps at 7:30, whereupon the planning, and head-scratching, began.  The course included Queen Elizabeth Park in the west, "Havoc Forest" in the south, a cluster of controls in the valley which includes "Ho Chi Minh" and "Boobies", another cluster in and around "The Three Sisters" down into the Maungakotukutuku Valley, and a bunch of controls in Whareroa Farm itself. 

QE Park seemed straightforward, and we initially decided we'd do it last, enabling a hasty retreat when the finish time loomed.  Penalty points for lateness are hefty, and it doesn't take long to lose hard won points.

Also, there were two routes east, so obviously we'd have to do one out, and one back in.  The eastern part of the course was tricky though.  With a fat ridge in the middle (Titi and Big Ring Boulevard), and singletrack descending both north and south.  We'd have to do some of them in the wrong direction.

We talked a lot about "this way or that", and in amongst that discussion, tried to think about best sequences in the various clusters independently of the broader picture.

In the end, the debate converged very quickly to an actual plan.  Very quickly, but from a starting point a long way away.  All of a sudden, we'd decided to do QE2 first (rather than last), Whareroa Farm last (rather than first), and everything else in the opposite direction to what we'd almost settled on!  We weren't totally sure what to do about the Ho Chi Minh area, nor the Three Sisters, but we could think about that on the way there - roughly 3 hours' riding by our estimation.

After a third toilet stop for the morning, the bibs were finally up.  We were briefed (and warned about the mud out on course), and we took our spots on the start line.  There were only three ways to leave the start area, and it looked like ours was the least popular.  Even the team Follow Simon and John didn't seem to be living up to their name. 

Without any further ado, we were off!  After a few hundred metres, Simon and I headed into the SH1 underpass, followed closely by Rachel Drew and Mark Hearfield.  Emerging on the far side, we realised our timing was appalling!  The lights at the level crossing had just started to flash, and by the time we stopped, the barrier arms were on their way down.

Of course, the train was still a wee way off, and so by the time the barriers were up again, we'd probably spent over half the elapsed time stationary!  There was little we could do, and it reinforced our already chilled out vibe.  The wrong turn we made immediately thereafter did little to dampen our enthusiasm, and we were soon plunging through a stream, Simon on his bike, and me on my feet - we'd observe this pattern throughout the eight hours.  Chain suck sucks, and I'd rather lift and run as a precaution. I dare say Simon's got the perfect anti-chain-suck pedal stroke, while mine is at the other end of the spectrum.

An equestrian tried to deter us as we scaled a gate across into "private land"; the terse response (times two, almost in unison) "we're in an event" seemed to satisfy her.

After a series of turns, we finally had our first points - always a sweet moment.  We saw Rachel and Mark coming the opposite way as we left the next control - a super fun part of the event is trying to work out where on earth the team you've just seen has come from.  Usually I manage not to focus on the next obvious question ("should we have done that too?!").  The controls were coming thick and fast, and while we were not 100% accurate, we were only losing a few seconds each time we erred.  We made good work of the penultimate controls, successfully negotiating a fairly long sequence of intersections without having to stop to consult the map, and nailed our approach and egress from the 80-pointer and the last in the set.

(For those of you with the map, our sequence was:  41-61-31-21-51-32-22-81)

We passed by the start/finish soon after, quickly telling Steve Meeres about the train!  He told us we should've checked the timetable, and also that we'd pretty much met his expectations about how long it would take over there - an hour.  We had 330 points in the bag, out of a total of around 2200.  That was a great start, and we were pleased to have done it with clean bikes, fresh legs, in the cool of the morning, and before it got too busy with walkers.  While we hadn't analysed points per area before we got going, it was probably the best return on the map too.

Next up was an out and back on a bit of private land.  The track was in much better nick than the map indicated.  Shown as "Rough/overgrown, very slow riding", it was probably not quite that bad for the most part.  The last 150m was a totally gross push, but we stuck to our original plan and returned the way we'd come.  A near-constant source of tension in these events is reacting emotionally to unpleasantness.  Undoing hard work (by riding back the way you've come) is often the best course of action.  Strategy developed sitting restfully in the front seats of a car is usually pretty good, while that done on the fly, usually while temporarily rooted is often poor.  Go figure!

Back on the main climb, we spotted Rachel and Mark up ahead.  Where the hell had they come from?!

Random Mountainbike Orienteers Ahoy (Photo: Steve Meeres)

We soon had another couple of easy controls before a bit of pushing took us to our first hundred-pointer, up above "HAVOC Forest".  Our route through here was probably not optimal (up through 67, around and down through 55) but it was effective, and we were soon making our way out of the confusing area, all points and self-esteem intact.  We got a little confused on our way down the valley, with one "Maintained surface, easy riding" looking more like a stream than a gravel road.

We bumped into Mary (also rocking the Roadworks colours) and Dave a couple of times before blasting past Orange Hut, and hooking around into the Karapoti Course near the bottom of Dopers.

(Our sequence:  83-66-37-103-67-55-92-45-68, for 570 points.  All up this took just over two hours)

We'd been deliberating throughout the morning on how on earth to do the next bit.  We were basically going against the flow, and we knew any elevation was going to be hard won.  Nonetheless, we decided to push up the bottom of Ho Chi Minh for a control before returning to the stream, and walking on up.  At least riding uphill through the Toi Toi resulted in fewer cuts than we'd have got blasting down.

We were pleasantly surprised by the our first foray onto singletrack, and the descent at least had been 100% rideable.  The track up the valley was confusing at times, but Simon had point and made a good fist of it.  A fair chunk was rideable, albeit slowly.

We soon came to the bottom of Boobies, and I got a bit worried on account of my eyes not really being good enough to notice the track was doing exactly what it was shown to do on the map.

After a grovel Simon finally relented to my concern.  Fortunately, he'd noticed a small track about 10m before we'd stopped (I hadn't).  It was a hell of a lot less major than what we were on (despite being the same line-type), but the shape of the junction was good, so we took it.  As the "it must be here somewhere" sensations started to peak, we found the next control, and were off again.

Most of the time I was walking my bike, but the going was reasonably quick.  We had a bit of a scramble up to the next control, and I was super impressed with Simon's navigation through to the final control in this shitty area!  Had I been on point, I think we would have got well lost.

We'd seen Mark and Rachel again, and Mary and Dave, and also a couple of other teams, and we felt we were in good shape when we popped out onto Big Ring Boulevard, just below the major left hander at the end of the ridge.  Richard and Mark shot past in their Roadworks Blues (such common tops these days...!)  We snuck down Perhams Rd to nab another control (there were Mark and Rachel again, how, why?), before seeing Dave and Mary en route to Titi.

Without discussing the relative merits of doing so, we hammered up the climb, and it was in rough shape.  After emerging from another bit of hardly rideable singletrack, we made a quick decision, and decided on an out-and-back we knew would be nasty.  I was pretty poked, still reeling from the climb, and foolishly said "let's do it - how bad can it be...?"  We descended for almost a kilometre on Boobies before turning around and pushing back up.  And then it was into the Three Sisters...

(This lot had been slow, but essential scoring:  73-102-44-72-64-71-57 for 460 hard-won points)

We took the second singletrack off the somewhat arduous 4WD climb, and were soon at an intersection.  We continued on the first sister, grabbed a few more points, before returning to the intersection.  A quick hello to Dave and Mary, and then we were off again.  Soon after the next control we were at an intersection which wasn't totally consistent with the map.  It looked much more like the next one down, but we were sure we hadn't travelled nearly far enough, so we followed our instincts and took the right turn instead of the left we had planned for the next turn.

We were pleased that the doubletrack quickly reverted to narrow (and mostly unrideable, for me at least) singletrack.  I came around a corner to find Simon standing with his bike.  He'd been outriding me regularly, and had been stopping lest we get separated.  He said something that sounded like "I just did a somersault" but he looked fine, and I assumed he'd said something else.  I replied "cool" which he later told me was pretty unsympathetic given the somersault he'd actually just done!!!

We soon got to the 4WD intersection we'd wondered about minutes earlier.  Our plan was to push up it before descending the final sister for an 80-point control.  We were starting to get nervous about the remaining time though.  And besides, we were tired, and dirty, and we decided to pike on it, descending the 4WD straight into the Maungakotukutuku Valley instead.  This control was the third on the map we'd ditched, but the first we'd intended to actually go for.  Consequently, it stung a little, but we agreed that it made sense.

I'd refolded my map over to a 3x enlargement, but I couldn't tell which track we'd taken into the area.  Simon set me right, and then I was on point into the next controls.  We crossed a big bog, hoping it was the one shown on the map.  Then we swung left, picked up a side singletrack, soon after turned right, and voila!  It's sometimes a great relief to find these things.  If the control is not exactly where you're expecting it, it can be incredibly hard to deduce where you actually are.  Luckily we don't often have to confront that.

I called Simon on to a bit of singletrack away from the control, and as it ducked and dived, I started to second-guess my decision.  I was soon put out of my misery though, and we were travelling again on much faster track.  We hooked onto the main gravel road leading up the valley, counting off driveways through to our turn off.  We saw another team crossing the stream towards us, giving us some extra confidence that we were in the right place.  We clambered up a bank, and onto a bit of track that took us through to our next control.

We were very lucky the maps we use are so damn accurate - even though the track was sometimes barely visible on the ground, we took the turns shown, and before long were at the next control.  A few minutes on, we copped out.  It would have taken only a few minutes of frustrating singletrack to grab another 30 points.  While we thought we probably had time, we'd seen so many other teams  we knew hadn't yet been to QE Park, (and we'd missed so few controls), and we felt the points probably weren't necessary.  Lazy buggers!

(Dropping down into the valley netted us 340 points via:  65-91-53-101-42)

We had a nice little smash along the road before turning off onto Campbell's Mill Rd where we met Ant and Ian.  I got a bit discombobulated when they and Simon all disappeared off up a track that didn't appear to be on my map.  Nor was the gate we were at shown, prompting me to say "where the fuck are you guys going?" without noticing they were all standing at a control.  Lousy timing on my part...!

That out of my system, it was time to do some bike racing, and Simon and I drifted off the front, leaving Ant and Ian to finally follow us.  We passed the turnoff down to Whararoa Farm, and pushed on.  The control up the road seemed to take a long time to come.  I eased off a bit towards the top, though we still left the control just before Ian and Ant arrived.

We had a great blast back down the hill, before turning into our final big descent.  The map was a little confusing here, but Simon seemed to know where he was going.  My Yeti was lapping it up, and I was enjoying not feeling totally rooted - a rare thing at the sharp end of an Ak Attack!

We had to shoot up a steep 4WD track which we were both happy to walk.  Mary and Dave were heading further up (where did they come from?!) which was a bit of a surprise to us.  The next couple of controls were easy, with fun track connecting them up.  It was a shame that we weren't out of time, and we were forced to grovel up a hill to collect our final control.

(The run to the finish:  52-63-62-54-34-35-43 for 320 points)

We were able to cruise back from here, and from memory had about 15 minutes in hand - more than enough for that damn 30-pointer!  It would've been nice to miss only three controls, but in the giant scheme of things, all but four was pretty damn cool.  Finding the controls is pretty fun, so the more the merrier!

The finish area had a very nice vibe.  The four hour teams had been due half an hour earlier than the eight hour teams, so most of the field were back.  We enjoyed chatting to various people, trying to make some sense of what we'd seen out on course.

As is always the case, I struggled to tally our points, not helped by the fact that no-one seemed to know what the total on the map was.  In the end, we settled on 2020 out of a possible 2220.  Not a bad haul, and more than enough to successfully fend off Ian and Ant, in second, on 1710, obviously short a visit to QE2 Park!

Simon and I had every right to be thrilled with our race.  We'd really enjoyed each other's company, and managed to find a nice level of intensity that meant we had time to chat, plot and scheme, and not stress out at all about the outcome. 

We talked during the race a bit about what makes us such a good team.  I've always thought it odd that the two of us are so compatible.  I've got almost 20kg on Simon, and am quite a different rider to him.  But, as we discussed, we're rarely both rooted at the same time, so one of us is usually riding below our limit.  That we're both decent navigators is also important - there's usually someone in a good position to take point.

We also make decisions well.  Neither of us dominates, but nor are we shy to insist.  We both listen well to the other, and consider carefully the alternative viewpoint.  Consequently, we rarely screw up, reinforcing our intuitive approach.

And, we trust each other, which helps us be bolder, I suspect.

For my part, I was bloody pleased to enjoy the ride as much as I did.  The morning's (and week's) nausea faded as soon as I got underway, and never reared its ugly head as the day went on.  Imagine the delicious irony (and alarm) at being diagnosed with "viral labyrinthitis" a few days out from an orienteering event!  As Simon said in response to my txt "You are pulling my leg?"

That was a lot of fun, mate! 

* * * * *

Thanks very much to HVMBC for designing a great course, and going to the significant effort of putting on an event of this type.  The map was absolutely spot on, as usual.  And, that's much appreciated.

Speaking of the map, here it is, with our route shown.  Thanks to Orienteering Hutt Valley for permission to post it.  Under no circumstances access the area south of the start finish triangle (shown with "pvte").  This is private land that was kindly made available for the event, and the event only.  Cheers.

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