Sunday, November 17, 2019

Doctors Randal at the Whaka 100

Email time-stamps confirm that about a week after publishing my Mongolia Bike Challenge write-up, and the day after being invited to ride the Queen Charlotte Track by Simon, I entered Sarah and I as a team in the 2019 Whaka100.  As a hat-tip to our academic qualifications, and our surnames, we chose a team-name of Drs Randal.

This would be my third "all you can eat" 100km MTB extravaganza in the forest on the edge of Rotorua, having last done it in 2015.  I'd done a fair bit of riding in Mongolia on my own, and the discounted team entry seemed like a good way for us both to take part in the event, and for me to support Sarah in her first attempt at anything of this nature.  While I've not done much off-road riding to speak of, she'd been regularly commuting via the Polhill tracks, and had been really enjoying the variety. 

Once again, the event was during the 3-day Labour Weekend.  The daughters were both keen to come with us, and while Kaitlyn had an exam on the Friday afternoon and Khulan one on the Saturday morning, we managed to sort the necessary logistics to get everyone to Rotorua for most of the long weekend.

The race itself was on Sunday, and after over-nighting in Taihape, and an early lunch, Sarah, Kaitlyn and I unloaded three of the four bikes on the back of the car for a cruise at Craters of the Moon, just north of Taupō.  It is one of the few places in NZ you need to pay to ride, but followed the rules and bought passes at the cafe near one of the trailheads.

I'm fairly certain we didn't sample the best the forest had to offer, but nonetheless had a nice spin.  It was Kaitlyn's first ride in a long time, and the only advice we had on which trails to do were the "loop suggestions" on the map.  I found navigation a bit of a drag, and must have refolded the map a few dozen times!  In any case, it was a good opportunity for me to get the shock and fork pressures on my aging but still awesome Yeti ASR5C sorted, to test out the hand-me-down Light-Bicycle/Roadworks  carbon wheels (that had gone from Khulan's Merida to Kaitlyn's Yeti, and now to the only remaining 26"-wheeled bike in the family),, and to loosen the legs a bit.

Sarah and Kaitlyn at Deb's Seat

We uplifted Khulan from Rotorua airport that evening, and had a lovely dinner together - one of those where it seemed wise to keep shovelling food in well after the point that the stomach says "that'll do...".

"What I love most about my home is who I share it with" - never a truer word spoken

Aside from putting race numbers on the bikes, I had a couple of things to try to sort, and they tested both my skills and patience.  Sarah's headset seemed on its last legs, and tightening the stem cap bolt only a few degrees took it from too loose to too tight.  Also, my brakes weren't functioning quite the way wanted them to, but I managed to improve them slightly, and was satisfied I'd be able to stop if needed!!!

Unlike '15, the race day weather forecast was great, and when Sarah and I rode down to the event HQ the next morning, we were only wearing Gore Shakedry jackets over lycra jerseys.  I was using the Revelate Vole to carry spare tubes and tools (as well as our jackets), so just had a pump and food in my pockets.  It was a delight not to be carrying a back pack!

We dropped off a couple of bags which would later be available to us at the 50km aid station, and said gidday to a few friends from Wellington.  Then it was time to line up at the back of the first start wave - unfortunately, the Teams weren't seeded by predicted finish time, unlike the rest of the field.  Looking back to see the likes of Andy Hagan on the front row of the next start wave had me figuring it wouldn't be too long before we were getting in the way.

It was a wee while before we hit singletrack for the first time, at which point I decided just to follow Sarah.  Everything seemed to be going fine, but I was still second guessing my choice to follow her  after she'd taken a nana-line on Creek, and again when we started getting swamped by the lead riders from the second start wave. 

We stopped several times to let people past, so it was doubly frustrating when we got stuck behind a rider for about 5 minutes on a torturous bit of track.  From my vantage point, things seemed to be going fine, and we were moving along well, but then out of the blue, Sarah hit the deck for the first time.

Photo:  Redstar Images

She quickly dusted herself off, and got moving again, I heard some hollering from a rider that had got between us, and rounded the next bend to see Sarah lying on the track trying to disentangle herself from her bike.

During the crash she'd burped her front tyre, which was good, because it gave me a chance to settle things down a bit.  I took the bike off the track, and forced her to sit down and have something to eat.  Luckily, I was able to re-seat the tubeless tyre again, and after a five-minute spell, we set off again.  I hoped that would be the last of our troubles.

Alas, it wasn't to be, and after a couple more silly crashes, I started to threaten withdrawal if she hit the deck again.  She was quite belligerent, and I spent a long while wondering how on earth this was going to go - perhaps I was overreacting, but I was fearful that she'd eventually hurt herself badly or damage her bike.  I didn't like the close up view I was getting of all this carnage.

I was getting really worked up, and may have shouted "USE YOUR FUCKING DROPPER" as she resumed riding down Tukonohi after yet another crash, - again with her seatpost at full extension, making life harder than it needed to be.  We were only about a quarter of the way through the event, and in very different ways (but with the same cause) neither of us was having any fun.

Halfway up Hill Road
Fortunately, we now had an epic climb ahead of us, and with all the crashes, the "race" element had at least gone.  It was now a matter of survival, as it should have been from the very start.

Back at the top of Tukonohi, we saw Shane Wetzel, whose voice I hadn't recognised when he'd cheered us on our way into the track.

Photo: Shane Wetzel
I hadn't done any homework on the route, so didn't know what to expect after Frontal Lobotomy.  As it turned out, we were off down Billy T, which went mostly OK.  There was at least one silly spill in front of me, but it looked more like indecisiveness was the cause, rather than the operator being on the ropes, and we proceeded with caution.

After Billy T we had a bit more climbing to do, before heading off down Kung Fu Walrus - a much better prospect in the dry than it had been for me four years earlier in the wet.  Below that was a new bit of track - Te Kotukutuku - which suited us down to the ground given our current state - wide, and a nice smooth surface.  

After a bit of riding in amongst some massive redwoods, we did an anticlockwise loop through Mossy Trail, the course crossing itself in the process.  Soon after that, we reached the half-way point, and an opportunity to refill bottles and pockets, and empty bladders.  Sarah even received a bit of first aid on her multiple-times-gouged knee, and it was a nice opportunity for both of us to relax a bit.  

We were able to ease back into things with a warm up on gravel roads before the climb up to the top of No Brains.  On the way up, we met a school teacher from Christchurch who sounded like she dabbled in all manner of sports, and doing a great job on the day despite, by all accounts, not doing much mountain biking.  

After making it safely down, we had a long, and at-times very steep, climb ahead.  It was the biggest single elevation gain of the course, at about 500m, and took us almost 40 minutes.  My legs were feeling OK, and I glad to be managing to stay on top of the fairly unhelpful granny gear in my 2x10 setup (hot tip:  beware when an ex-pro MTBer specs your bike...!!!).

Body language not screaming "fresh"
The long climb took us to the top of the new Split Enz, which I hated my way down.  Sarah was riding suitably conservatively, yet at about 25kg heavier, and not inhibited by any crashes, I wanted to carry a bit more speed than I was able to.  Consequently, I was glad when we were done with it - aside from the "spectating", it was the section I least enjoyed.

40 to go!!!
While I was no longer terrified about my wife axing herself, I was starting to tire of the riding.  The singletrack that took us to the bottom of the Direct Road climb was taxing, and while the climb itself was fine, a stressful descent took us onto Be Rude Not To, a trail which was glorious in its early days but is now pretty horrid (or at least is, 80km into an event).

Even though I didn't familiarise myself with the course, I had some sense of what was remaining to get us back to base.  In particular, I knew there'd be more than was welcome.

Still power in those legs, despite all they'd been through
Sure enough, even though we were tantalisingly close to the finish, the course seemed determined to take unexpected turns, each time adding in a bit more climbing  and a few extra minutes on singletrack.  But, eventually the inevitable conclusion drew near.

I took the lead into Rosebank, but was shouted after when one of Sarah's tyres randomly lost pressure - just riding along, apparently.  Unfortunately, I'd resumed my position keeping watch from behind when Sarah - ever the trooper - thought to ride through the bog which would prove to be one hurdle too many.  In slow motion, she wrapped herself around the log bridge I was prepping myself to walk over.  Bloody knee and drenched, but with a lovely smile on her face nonetheless.

Photo:  Whaka100
That was to prove the last problem, and we made it safely through the last minute or so, crossing the line together, and greeted by our two beautiful daughters.

Photo: Ryan Hunt

We were both pretty stunned, and didn't celebrate overly much - I'm not sure we even embraced. Sarah went off to the first aid tent to get cleaned up, while I enjoyed the temporary space to recover a wee bit.

I wouldn't have been surprised if Sarah had asked me to go back to the accommodation to pick up the car.  That turned out to be unnecessary though, and all four of us rode the couple of kilometres back to base.  I was happy to ride ahead, and it warmed the cockles of my heart seeing the three of them approaching from my vantage point above the track.

After a good clean up, it was time for some dinner.  All the way from Victoria, British Columbia came the suggestion of Lone Star, and we were very happy to take Rich's advice.  It was a lovely family occasion, and I was so grateful for the company - that the girls had both wanted to come up to Rotorua despite that the parents would be racing the whole day, and that Sarah was in a fit state to dine!!

Photo inspiration: Richard Martin!

It took Sarah a week or so to bounce back after her bruising encounter with the Whaka 100.  The emotional scars were obvious, and it was sad to see her feeling so humbled.   The downside of being tough as nails, and as incredibly physically capable as she is, is that sometimes she sets her expectations a bit too high - and in this case she didn't live up to her own lofty standards.

She should (and I hope does) feel proud of completing what is surely one of the hardest one day MTB races in the country.  It was remarkable to see the recovery she made after a terrible start - not only to overcome the physical costs of crashing so many times, but also to successfully endure the associated emotional roller coaster. 

I hope that my presence was more useful than just to carry a bit of spare gear.  I may have been overly hysterical at times, but I was genuinely becoming scared of the consequences of continuing.  That said, perhaps even that added drama served a purpose, and enabled things to converge onto a sustainable path through to the finish.

I'm ever so proud of Sarah - actually, I think more than I would have been had the race gone less badly.  I knew she was tough, but this event really drew out her inner strength, and over the space of almost 10 hours (less the first couple), I was able to hang out on her wheel in admiration.  What a day!


  1. What a day indeed. I am full of admiration for those who can ride off-road....I will stick to the velodrome and country lanes!

  2. Well done, Doctors! Sounds like a gruelling and painful day at the office, but congratulations to both of you for dealing with your trials and tribulations. Chapeau!

  3. Sounds like a hard day, which in hindsight are the best days. Super kudos to Sarah for not giving in when she probably was doubting herself. Finishing must be self-vindication :)