The Tassie Bush
Every eighteen months for the past ten years, when Geocentric Outdoors announces the new dates and location for their famed expedition race, Brent has come down with the XPD Blues. You see, the event has been at the top of his bucket list since he dove into the world of multi-day adventure racing, but as a teacher, their spring/fall rotation meant that he would never be able to make the trip to the other side of the world, to experience the wild and rugged Australian landscape, the ace organizational reputation, and the famed mid-camp.
And then, the 2018 schedule was released, and he discovered that the 10th running of XPD fell over his spring break. We talked about trying to field a team (the race fell just enough over my spring break as well to make it potentially possible, thanks to the generosity of my colleagues), and then when I decided that two multi-day races in one season felt like too much, I suggested he try to put together a team on his own.
Fast forward six months, after the USARA champs and my change of heart about two expedition races, after Eric Caravella signed on and my family called – out of the blue – with an offer to hang out with Zoe for two weeks in March, after recent Hong Kong transplant Ryan Vangorder cleared his schedule, we were en route to the Philadelphia airport in my dad’s red pickup. The bed of the truck was packed with gear bags and bike boxes, and the cab was filled with three frantic racers, trying to navigate the site for the Electronic Travel Authority after the discovery that we needed a visa to visit Australia.
Thanks to the typical Schuylkill Expressway traffic, by the time we made it to the airport, we were collectively $60 poorer but with text message confirmation that we’d be able to enter the country upon arrival. Crisis averted.
A few hours later, we boarded the first of three flights for the forty-hour door-to-door trip (complete with an Arnold Schwarzenegger sighting at LAX) to St. Helen’s, Tasmania and the start of the 2018 XPD Bay of Fires Adventure Race.
We arrived in the sleepy coastal town on Friday evening, built our bikes at the sprawling race headquarters, and headed off in search of dinner at the only open restaurant on the main strip – a pizza shop that took two hours to bake two pies.
From there, it was off to the retro chic of the Queechy Cottages and the beginning of a frenzied 36 hours of final prep.
Going into the race, we had some general performance goals, but mostly we were focused on enjoying the journey that Geocentric would undoubtedly offer us. Though the field was small, we expected a strong lineup of local teams, and we knew it was in our best interest to focus on our own race and not get caught up in the competition. We wanted to trek through the Tasmanian bush, to avoid two-wheeled collisions with wombats and wallabies, and based on the recommendation of our friend, Aussie-expat Kate Matthews, to sample a few savory pies along the way.
We learned at check-in on Saturday morning that Legs 1 and 3 (both short coastal paddles) would be canceled due to high winds. Consequently, Legs 2 and 4 were modified as well. None of the changes dramatically affected course flow or time projections, so we didn’t worry too much about swapping out gear or re-sorting calories.
Lockdown began at 8:00am Sunday morning, which meant we had two hours to study maps and take in the course. Based on the limited information we had before the race and the short time we had to distill the different legs, I estimated that if all went well, we would finish around 4:00pm Thursday afternoon.
At 10:00am, we boarded coaches for a short bus ride to a “surprise” location (a section of beach on the modified Leg 2). There, we were greeted by town officials for a quick welcome, and following an unceremonious countdown, we were off!
LEG 1 – Beach Run
We began with a 10-15km beach run/coasteering leg along the Tasman Sea. I hate the adrenaline surges of fast starts like this, but I knew it would be relatively short-lived, so I put my head down and followed the guys down the beach and across the sand dunes to retrieve seven lettered CPs, each of us punching on individual wrist bands as proof that we’d been there.
There was lots of jostling among the top several teams here, but at some point we left the beach and found ourselves alone on a beautiful stretch of trail — green and lush and rolling, and exactly what I pictured Tasmania to be. We popped out onto a rocky point of the beach and discovered that we were momentarily in the lead, but then we entered a technical coasteering stretch and I fell back a bit on the slick rocks.
Toward the end of that stretch, I slipped awkwardly, cutting open my left knee and cranking my right. I shook it off and we continued on, sprinting down the beach for the last CP and then backtracking along roads to the TA. The last kilometer or so, though, I noticed sharp pains along the outside of the right knee. Ryan grabbed my pack and we continued to run hard, coming into TA within a few minutes of the leaders. I tried to put it out of my head, but it was hard not to think back to Ireland, where IT band issues took a huge toll on my race experience.
We built our bikes and set off for a short ride through the Scamander Forest…
LEG 2 – Hike-a-Bike
This leg began with the same ferocity as the previous one. We spun through a couple steep climbs before the solid line on the map turned dotted and the dirt road devolved into muddy jeep track as we lugged our bikes up steep pitches and across cliffy creek banks. The challenge of these short opening legs was that we didn’t settle into a sustainable pace — we worked our way through the terrain with a frenzy usually left for 12-hour racing.
There was more on the ground than the maps offered, so Brent (with Eric on the second set) carefully led us through the various junctions, gaining confidence on the terrain as we clicked through the CPs. Just after checkpoint 7, Eric picked up a subtle five-way junction that led us straight down into a valley and through a network of trails, with teams going in every direction. We turned right and continued on our way, hoping to avoid notice of other riders. A couple kilometers after the junction, we ran into the Wild Yaks, who we knew to be a strong Aussie team, in search of the elusive CP7. We pointed them in the right direction and continued on our way, crossing back onto roads and nabbing the final two points – on either side of a small bridge – as we sprinted into TA to drop our bikes and ready our paddle gear. We were hanging in 4th-ish place at that point, but with the exception of the Antelopes who had already opened up a commanding gap on the field, everyone was right on top of each other.
LEG 3 – Up-River
This paddle took us about 13 kilometers up the Scamander River to the next transition, without any checkpoints along the way. Ryan and I took one boat, with Brent and Eric in the other, and this configuration worked out well for the duration of the race. We expected that the Aussie teams would be significantly stronger on the water, and so we were only a little bit surprised when the Wild Yaks came barreling by us just a few minutes into the section. Maybe we shouldn’t have given away the location of CP7, after all!
About halfway through the paddle, Brent suggested that we cut off a section of the river with a quick portage across a grass flat. It was a risk, he told us, but a relatively low stakes one, and maybe we’d gain a little bit of time.
We pulled off the water and dragged the boats to the next bend. It was a bit further and slower than we’d anticipated, and we may have ended up losing a little bit of time, but it wasn’t significant either way, and it was a nice break from the headwinds and unfriendly currents. Plus, Eric and Brent spotted the first wildlife of the race in the grass — a wallaby, hopping across the field!
We made quick work of the rest of the leg and arrived at the next TA having given up relatively little on the rest of the field. One of the volunteers told us he liked our decision to portage and appreciated seeing teams taking risks out there. A reminder of how good the Open Tracking system is and how attentive race personnel are to those small details!
LEG 4 – Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
This first longer leg also offered the first measurable route choice of the race. Early in the stage, we could either ride directly through some of the dashed trails on the map, or swing around a wider jug-handle, adding roughly 8km but potentially limiting elevation and sticking to the safer and presumably faster roads. Given what we’d encountered on Leg 2, we decided that the additional distance might be worth it if we could ride the whole thing while others were hiking through mud.
We got to the first intersection – the point of decision – with the Nordic Island team just a hundred meters behind us. Thinking about what others might be planning and just generally getting a bit disoriented, we ended up turning right, off-course entirely, instead of staying straight to pick up the longer route. Brent caught it quickly and we were able to cut the distance on a mountain trail back up to the road, but it was a messy, steep climb that required a fair amount of energy to lug our bikes up and over the ridge. At least our blunder rewarded us with another wallaby sighting, this time a near-miss as it darted out in front of Ryan while we screamed down the road.
Within half an hour, we were back on our intended route, and we sped through those additional kilometers to the first checkpoint. We learned later that the dashed road was perfectly rideable, so teams that took the more direct line did make up some time, but given the information we had on the map and the conditions we’d seen earlier in the day, none of us regretted the decision.
We arrived at the CP – a short out-and-back to a cemetery – just as darkness was starting to fall, and encountered several bikes converging. For the next couple hours, we found ourselves leapfrogging back and forth with a handful of other teams. During this stretch, I also became a bit of a zombie. It was only 7:30pm on Night One, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I ate. I caffeinated. I tried to talk to my teammates, and to engage with the other racers around us. Nothing worked. I’m not sure if it was the travel and jetlag, or the general fatigue I’d been feeling pretty intensely in the weeks leading up to the race, but I simply couldn’t stay awake. I shook myself out of sleep several times on a long descent, and counted myself lucky that I hadn’t fallen into a ditch. Ryan came up next to me and started telling me stories of past races, and gradually I pulled it together, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be dealing with in the first hours of darkness of a 100-hour race.
Back on the course, several teams were still riding together and jockeying for position, but as we made our way toward the original plot of CP13 (the checkpoint had been amended before the race), everyone blew up. We took a route that led us on a short bikewhack through the forest, and when we emerged there, we started losing teams, one by one. In the final kilometers, we found ourselves all alone, no idea whether we were ahead of or behind the pack, but continuing to focus on our own race and belt out Bohemian Rhapsody under a blanket of stars.
LEG 5 – Hike-a-Boat
We arrived in transition, surprised to find ourselves in second place. Wanting to maintain that momentum, we shook off a pokey TA, packed up our bags, gathered our paddle gear, and received instructions for the revised start of the next leg, what was to be a 38k paddle that was slated to take roughly 10 hours. It seemed that the first 5k of the river was so low and strewn with obstacles that course testers had deemed it impassable, so instead we were to take the road to the police station in town, and then turn north from the “old jail” onto a farmers trail that would take us through the marshes along the water and lead us to CP15, the new boat put-in.
Except that the police station and jails were not the notations the volunteers highlighted for us on our map. And turning north from the old jail would have put us on the opposite side of the road from the river. It took 30 minutes just to figure out our way out of the TA…
…and that is how we found ourselves picking our way through dense riverside thicket, climbing through electric fences and barbed wire, and knocking our paddles on braided trees and branches. But, if you squinted and turned your head just right, you could kind of make out a rough trail. There was no flagging or any other markings, but the volunteer in TA had mentioned the marshes, and we figured as long as we stayed along the river, we would get there eventually. And while it was sloggy and annoying, we assumed that since everyone was doing the same thing, we couldn’t really complain.
After three hours of this, we looked up toward the off-limits road and spotted what seemed to be four headlamps, traipsing along at a solid clip. We beelined for the lights, and eventually crossed paths with our friends, the Wild Yaks, who had found a true farmers trail that went through the cow pastures along the road. We abandoned our earlier effort and continued along their route, putting a small gap on them as we shuffled down to the water at first light.
We set up the boats, punched the CP, shoved off, and quickly discovered why this leg was meant to take so long. For the next eight hours, we alternated between pulling the boats over shallow rocks, lugging them around, over, and through massive obstacles, and paddling into swirling wind gusts that someone told us topped out at 120kph. I’d never seen water do what it did there — literally shooting spray off the river as though someone had flicked a finger on the surface and set off a cyclone.
It was a hard effort, especially for Ryan, who commandeered our boat while I carried the paddles and gear, but it was also a beautiful river, and we caught sight of quolls (cat-lemur-monkey marsupials), pademelons (tiny kangaroos) wallabies (including one who appeared to walk on water at one particularly shallow spot), and even a platypus, which Eric spotted as we were counting down the final kilometers.
With the winds continuing to kick up, we were happy to be done when we pulled into the TA at 1:00pm. The Yaks had passed us earlier, a spot where we’d lost the river entirely and lugged the boat through high grass, but we knew they weren’t too far in front. Excited for what lay ahead, we swapped our paddle gear for our trekking kit and embarked on what we knew would be one of the crux legs of the race.
LEG 6 – Big Ben
The section began with a handful of kilometers of climbing on roads, a good opportunity for us to eat our rehydrated meals and get our legs under us before we entered the forest for what was essentially a 35 kilometer bushwhack.
When we left the road, we started with a steep climb up to a ridge, where Castle Rock loomed over the valley below. At the top, the winds rivaled what we had encountered during the 2016 tropical storm in Ireland, and after a few minutes of fighting the sharp gusts we dropped down to sidehill around to a spur, which would pull us up to the next CP. We had already been moving steadily, but the surge of adrenaline that hit when we caught and passed the Yaks boosted our pace further.
By then we were watching the clock, aware of the quickly diminishing daylight. Initially we wanted to get to the first CP before the sun went down. Then we sought to make it to the top of the next ridge, to be able to see the expanse ahead of us. When we got there, there was still about 90 minutes of usable light, so we made it our goal to the get to the attack of the next point, an old and unused railroad bed. We were moving well here, with Brent and Eric managing the maps near flawlessly, and with conditions still favorable we found the old mining bed with relative ease. We continued on for the next hour (spotting a Tasmanian Devil or two along the way!), before we had to pull out our lights. We paused to reorient and wondered briefly if we’d gone too far, but following the First Rule of Adventure Racing, we pushed on another couple hundred meters and came right onto the point.
From there, it was just a quick whack out to a road, which we followed for the next 90 minutes or so, to CP20 and the base of the climb up to Ben Lomond.
While we walked, we worked over our sleep strategy. We were going into Night Two and one of the hardest sections of the course. We considered risking it and pushing through to the next TA, but it was windy and cold — with forecasted snow up top — and there would be limited options to stop if we got ourselves into trouble. That, coupled with the fact that the monotony of the road was wearing on our energy, prompted us to find a place to sleep before the ascent.
We poked around for a little while before ultimately bedding down right near the CP. We had our bothy and our bivvy sacks, so we made do okay, but it was a chilly few hours. Three hours later, we packed up and began the steep climb up the boulder field to the alpine ridge, saying hello to the four-man team of DASH, who had just arrived at CP20 and were looking for a place to sleep.
Eric and Brent worked together closely on the maps, pulling each other – and us – onto the right spurs and ridges, following the contours and creeks as they swept around the heathered, rocky landscape, overlaying a plateau of water courses. We trekked under a spectacular sunrise, boulder-hopped through an early-season snow, and communed with more wallabies as we made our way up to CP21. It was just a stupendous section.
At the CP, we were greeted with energetic race volunteers, who suggested that we “not dilly dally” into transition. My knee was smarting pretty good by that point, especially as I pulled myself through the thick, tall heather, but my spirits were high and my energy was good, and so I handed off my pack to Brent and we all picked up the pace a bit and shuffled down the final rocky slope to the TA, housed in a piping hot ski hut. We arrived still in second place. Our energy flagged just a bit as the warmth of the hut drew us in, but after a few minutes we refocused our efforts, built our bikes, and shoved off for the biggest ride of the race, 115 kilometers with 2500 meters of elevation.
LEG 7 – Blue Derby
The leg started with several kilometers of screaming downhill, and as with Night One, I found myself falling asleep on each straightaway. I made it down to the bottom, but not without jerking myself awake several times. When we got to the valley road, we paused to pull our rain jackets off, and entered an impromptu rap battle to keep ourselves fresh. I think Eric and I stole the show with our rousing rendition of the Fresh Prince theme song.
In West Philadelphia…
For the next several hours, we rode along paved valley floors and up and down steep fire roads. We were pacelining, moving well, navigating smoothly, and enjoying the scenery. Craig and Louise joined us briefly on one of the long climbs and got an excited earful about all the animals we’d seen, and we spared a few minutes during a bathroom stop to nab a round of ice cream cones in town. It was really just great.
I also started focusing specifically on descents, letting go of my brakes and following the line of whoever was in front of me. It had the double benefit of speeding us up and keeping me awake on the long drops, and would come into play at the end of the race.
We spent some time debating whether to stop at one of the many pubs and cafes along the route (conveniently and convincingly plotted on the maps), but decided instead to maintain our momentum and continue on through the end of the leg. As dusk started to fall, I became aware that I was starting to fall behind on calories — a combination, I think, of the advil I was taking for my knee and the fact that none of my food was remotely appetizing — but I was still feeling good and riding well.
(Something I realized during this event — I’ve typically treated expedition races as a series of 12- or 24-hour races in terms of nutrition, with the same monotonous bags of performance food and snacky stuff prepped for each leg. While that’s worked some of the time, more often than not it’s led to fueling issues. Now that I’ve named it, I’m excited to work on it for Untamed.)
The last section of this leg took us on a 12-kilometer climb up to the top of the Blue Derby Trails, one of most famous mountain bike parks in Australia. We were to ride the Blue Tier, 18km of single track, offering stellar flow, big drops, wide berms, and rock gardens — pretty much everything you could ask for on one ride, all in pristine condition. I had been looking forward to the section but expected that the flow-happy guys would all ride substantially quicker than I would, so my plan was to stay at the rear and just have them wait for me as needed. After settling in, though, I found myself comfortably hanging off the back, enjoying the rhythm of the trail and the sharp focus of the technical terrain.
Everything was going smoothly, until two kilometers from the finish, when Eric rode head-first into a low-hanging tree. He bounced off the back of the bike and fell flat on his back in the middle of the trail, his bell sufficiently rung. I called Brent — our resident WFR — back to evaluate. Brent took him through the injury protocol, and luckily Eric was totally fine, but we took that last stretch a little bit slower and coasted into TA at 11:00pm, an hour too late to enjoy the famed Weldborough Hotel Pub (which we heard about from just about every person we encountered, as the race wore on).
We went back-and-forth for a few minutes but ultimately decided to get another two hours of sleep in TA. It wasn’t the ideal place for it, but we didn’t know what we’d find on the trail, and we thought that curling up in the big U-Haul would give us some protection from the elements.
Already depleted nutritionally, I should have eaten something hearty before I went to sleep, but I was feeling rushed to lie down and take advantage of the time, so I had a few bites of Eric’s spaghetti-o’s and curled up in my sleeping bag, shivering through the next two hours and waking up in pretty bad shape.
LEG 8 – F’ing Flagging
The guys helped me through transition, and we walked out a little while later, mountain meals in hand (and one in my pack, because I couldn’t seem to wrap my stomach around eating something substantial and instead opted for a lighter oatmeal packet to start), ready for the next long trek. The Yaks came in as we were getting ready to go, so we knew that we had at least a couple hours on them, assuming they elected to sleep there as well.
Based on the course schematic and time projections, we had planned seven hours for this trek through the myrtle forest. Those time estimates quickly went up in smoke. We started with a bit of a nav bobble in the cow pastures, as Brent was more focused on his mountain meal than the maps, but righted ourselves into the forest in search of the infamous pink tape, which we would attempt to follow for the next 25 kilometers.
The first challenge was sticking to the tape at all, the heavy darkness making it near impossible in places to spot the next marking. In this early stretch, I was a bit of a zombie, but soon enough the guys put me on tape-spotting duty, and that worked out well, as it woke me up and gave me something to focus on, and allowed them to concentrate on bearings and contours without getting mucked up in the flagging.
We started moving relatively efficiently and made our way to the area where the first CP was meant to be, at the base of a “big tree” on a spur off of the flagged route. And there we wandered for hours, spoking outward from the pink tape to make sure that someone always had eyes on someone who had eyes on the pink. It was unrelenting, and we were positive we saw other headlights in the area. Ultimately, after half a dozen different attacks, we made our way out to a road – our only known point – and then walked down to our elevation and painstakingly followed a bearing 900 meters back in. By this point, it was daylight, and we were able to see the land and the features, which helped immensely. Eventually, Eric dropped into a reentrant and worked his way up, hitting the flag dead on.
We were all relieved, but also pretty deflated. So, Brent circled the wagons. “Okay guys,” he said, “what do we want to do here? Are we going to meander through the rest of the day and see where we end up, or do we want to race?” We looked at each other and nodded emphatically, the pep talk having its intended effect, and then we picked up our pace as we trekked up and over a ridge to the second half of the section — more pink flagging along the Rattler Range to Ralph Falls.
Brent spiked that point perfectly, and as our energy buoyed, we began to run along the muddy path toward the next CP. That is, until we paused for a bathroom break, and when we began again, we somehow followed the wrong pink flagging back around in a loop, finding ourselves back at the CP we’d just visited. It had only cost us 30 minutes, but once again, it was pretty deflating. Our pace slowed, and we trudged along through the rest of the section, intermittently losing the flagging and having to pause to reorient.
The leg ended with a descent into a creek, before climbing back up to the viewing platform at Ralph Falls. As we ascended up from the creek, race ref Igor popped out of the bushes. “Busted!” he yelled.
We all looked at each other in horror, wondering what we could have possibly done, until Igor started smiling at us. We dissolved into delirious giggles, answered a few questions from the media person accompanying him, and pulled ourselves together to run the last kilometers to the point and into the TA, astounded to find that we’d maintained our second place position.
As we were building our bikes, DASH came rolling in. Ryan pulled a couple leeches from his shoe (hangers-on from the muddy ridgeline creeks) and we picked up our pace and shoved off for a 100km ride to the beach.
LEG 9 – Wombats and Wallabies and Possums, Oh My!
This was a pleasant and not particularly noteworthy ride through the Tasmanian farmlands. Once again, we opted to avoid stopping at pubs or cafes, but since I knew I needed different food from what I had, we made a quick pitstop at a grocery store, where I walked out with a banana, a liter of milk, a few snowflake rolls, and a chicken and camembert pie. I ended up largely ignoring the milk, but I shared the rest with the boys over the next several hours and got a needed boost of energy for most of the ride.
We rode past cow pastures, Brent yipping and yelling and inviting herds of cattle to chase him down the roads. We chatted with local kids, who asked what “shock systems” we were riding and told us that they liked living in small towns because there were fewer kidnappings. You can imagine the number of references to Antoine Dodson’s “Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife” tv spot that came in the miles that followed. We passed back onto forest roads, where we established a great system, with Ryan and I riding steadily while Brent and Eric alternately sped up and slowed down as they managed the maps. We were never out of eye- or earshot of each other, but it allowed us to maintain efficiency while keeping sharp focus on the nav.
After the last CP, Brent masterfully whacked to an invisible trailhead (“I wonder how many teams that’s going to get,” we mused), which took us out to the main road for 20 kilometers leading straight to Musselroe Bay and the start of the final trek. By that point, he had been so focused on maps, that when the nav let up, he started to fog over. We paused at a little school in Gladstone to get some food in him and regroup. Brent needed a short nap, and never one to pass up sleep, I curled up next to him in the bothy and woke up 15 minutes later with an uneaten cheese sandwich in my hand.
Brent settled back in quickly and we continued on our way, through what was essentially a wild animal park of wombats, wallabies, possums, and even a little owl, all darting out across the road. It would have been a ton of fun, but I woke up from our nap still pretty tapped out, and spent those 20 kilometers dry-heaving on the bike as I slogged down the road.
Brent has dealt with those empty-stomach heaves before, so he and I strategized about a recovery. Start by nibbling on crackers. Maybe graduate to teddy grahams. Just keep taking in small amounts, until you’re settled enough to take in more. And gradually, that’s what I did. First on those final kilometers to the TA, then as we transitioned, and then into the next leg. I was never totally on the other side, but I got myself stable enough to get through the race without further compromising the team.
LEG 10 – Bay of Fires
When we arrived in transition, we took note of the fact that there were only two sets of bike boxes there – ours and DASH’s. This meant that the Yaks were likely not close enough to worry about any longer. We made it our goal to get out before the four guys came through, and had our most efficient TA of the race to that point, breaking down our bikes for the last time and loading up on food for the 40-kilometer beach trek along the famed Bay of Fires.
It was 1:45am when we left TA, which meant that we had to contend with five hours of darkness along a nondescript sandy beach. It was an undiscovered form of torture. We all dealt with some variation of sleepmonsters, from reading messages in the seaweed to sleep-walking dangerously close to the surf. Ryan pulled out his iPod shuffle, which we rotated among us, we belted out more Queen (and a little bit of Peter, Paul, and Mary) into the dark sky, and we ended up taking two 15-minute naps in the sand. It wasn’t much, but it got us through the night.
To add to the challenge, all the lugging and lifting of the past three days had taken a toll on Ryan, and his central back muscles simply gave out on him, reducing him to a hunched-over lumber for the entirety of the trek. He gave up some gear to Brent and his pack to Eric early, and alternated between leaning on one of my shoulders (an advantage to the team’s height disparity!) and using one of my poles.
His capacity for suffering was truly remarkable, and while we weren’t moving quickly, his drive for forward progress buoyed the rest of us considerably.
Once the sun did come up, we spent a fair bit of time looking behind us, waiting to see another team. And sure enough, just as we were rounding the final bend along Shark Bay, we spotted four dots in the distance. We picked up our pace then and shuffled the remaining couple kilometers to a channel crossing, Jared Kohlar joining us with random factoids and questions for his Facebook Live audience.
At the channel, there was a kayak, PFDs, and paddles on either side, and we had to figure out how to get all four teammates to the opposite bank. Wading and swimming were prohibited, even though we’d gotten there at low tide and could have easily walked across. As we approached, Brent and Eric worked out a strategy — they would paddle over in the first boat and pick up the other, then return to bring me and Ryan over before paddling back across to drop off the first boat and cross one last time to get themselves and the second boat to the TA.
It was a Mensa-like puzzle four days into the race, but they executed it with relative ease, and before long we were zooming through the TA and onto the water.
LEG 11 – The Sprint, Part 1
This paddle took us across the protected Ansons Bay for a checkpoint and then up a narrowing river to a dam and the takeout, a total of 11km. Despite the low tide, we moved well and egged each other on with competitive spurts. At one point, I saw a brown speckled fin just in front of our boat. I thought I’d imagined it, but I later learned that teams had seen both stingrays and small sharks in the water. I’d like to think that I spotted one of them.
Despite the fact that DASH was behind us and closing, Brent found himself falling asleep as we worked our way down the beautiful, winding river, mercifully sheltered from the winds. So, he doused himself with helmets full of cold, salty water, and in keeping with our race week mixtape, he and Eric entertained the entire field with a final rousing duet of Bohemian Rhapsody as we rolled around the bend into TA.
Knowing that Ryan is considerably faster than I am at building bikes, and that he wouldn’t be able to lug the paddle stuff, I suggested that I focus on gathering gear and he work on our bikes. It was a good system, and I ended up getting to my bike just as he was finishing up his. We worked together, having to play around with my rear thru-axel (a new non-quick release, after several instances last year where the quick-release came unspooled while I was out riding) but otherwise moving quickly through TA. We rode out about five minutes after DASH arrived; all that was left between us and the finish, 35 kilometers of forest roads.
LEG 12 – The Sprint, Part II
From the moment we left TA, we were on fire. We sprinted the flats and the hills. I pedaled ferociously and Ryan and Eric helped with intermittent pushes and tows to get over the humps, knowing that’s where we had to make our move. We kept expecting a screaming downhill, but none ever really manifested, instead just short bursts punctuated by more rolling hills. I capitalized on the descents I’d focused on during the previous two days, attacking those short drops with everything I could muster.
The system we’d set up earlier continued to work well, with Brent focused entirely on the maps and the three of us maintaining pace. Halfway through the ride, I started noticing that my gears were jumping, and a couple kilometers from the finish, Ryan asked if I was aware that my rear brake was rubbing. I was, I told him, but I figured that it had just been knocked out of place after four days of racing. Not worth worrying about now — let’s just get to the finish. Only later did I realize that the rear thru-axel had never caught, and it was hanging precariously out of alignment the entire ride, the whole time we were willing ourselves on with “no mechanicals, no mechanicals.”
About 10 km from the finish, we left the fire roads and hit tarmac. There, we picked up our pace again, flying through the hill towns, looking behind us every few minutes for a glimpse of DASH. I was pretty sure I was going to throw up from the exertion and adrenaline — it was awesome.
Finally, we turned onto the main road in St. Helen’s and screamed toward HQ. We pulled in at 3:00pm – just over 100 hours after we began, and exactly 60 minutes ahead of my projected schedule – to raucous cheers from XPD staff and volunteers. I teared up a little bit as we took pictures under the arch (a rarity for me in an expedition that my first tears came after the finish), and then we sat down on the winner’s couch and waited for pizza. “You guys got here a little faster than we were anticipating,” we were told. “It’ll be about 10 minutes.”
We spent the next two days sorting gear, doing laundry, eating our way through St. Helen’s (I highly recommend breakfast at the laundromat cafe), and enjoying the generous hospitality of our new Aussie friends. Not an hour passed without someone offering to pick us up, transport our bags, meet us for a meal, or take us on an adventure.
The closing ceremony Saturday evening was, as always, a celebration of the sport. We swapped stories from the course, chatted about races long past with Alina McMaster, and daydreamed about adventures to come. Craig and Louise invited each team to share an anecdote about their time in the woods. They revealed a commonality in the power of teamwork, the satisfaction of Type II fun, the dangers of wombats, and the wonderful, rugged wilderness of Tasmania. Thanks to those of you following the race on Attackpoint, we shared our chagrin over learning the true Aussie meaning of our team name, and our retrospective musings over what locals must have thought as we rode through town with Rootstock emblazoned across our chests. “Hide your kids, hide your wife…”
Our thanks to Craig and Louise and the entire Geocentric Outdoors team. Our experience, from before we left Philadelphia to hours after the shuttle dropped us off at the Launceston airport for the return trip home, was a testament to community spirit, appreciation for adventure, and attention to detail. We’ll be watching eagerly for the announcement of the next editions of the race, and hoping that we can keep those XPD Blues at bay. We still have yet to experience mid-camp, after all.
And of course, a huge shoutout to our sponsors. We are forever indebted to Kanpas compasses, Foot Kinetics lubricant, Astral PFDs, Thorlo socks, Loksak map bags, Lupine lighting, Autopilot map boards, Trailnuggets bars, and our newest partner, Dirtbags bike bags, for keeping us fueled, healthy, comfortable, and moving in the right direction! These are some of the finest outdoor companies out there, and we’re honored to serve as their ambassadors for the sport of adventure racing. Get in touch if you have any questions about their products!