It was the worst of times and the best of times. As Victoria’s fifth lockdown loomed large, and months of training, weeks of planning and an experience I thought was beyond my grasp almost disintegrated due to COVID, I decided to make a break for it! I jumped on a flight to Cairns a day earlier than planned to get to my first expedition length adventure race, just before Victoria entered lockdown that very night. I felt like a fugitive on the run, getting last minute flights and nervously transiting through Sydney, the nation’s Covid capital at the time (fark!).
We were a team of four – Kim, Cass, Shelly and I. Shelly unfortunately, didn’t make it out of Victoria due to lockdown family commitments. Kim, our captain, was on the hunt for Shelly’s replacement. With 36 hours to go, Amie Munson put her hand up. Due to lockdown she had all the support she needed to run the shop and look after her family! We had a full team.
As I teetered towards the start line, I had doubts about my fitness, doubts about my nutrition plan, doubts I could kayak 53 km or back up day after day, all with a team I barely knew. My mentor, Bern, and AR friends told me I was made for this format. Only daring to be bold would tell.
The race is over 6 days. Elite teams will do it in around 3-4 days. Teams are made up of four. To complete the 500 km course teams have to navigate through all the checkpoints (CP) and arrive at the finish line at Race HQ.
You get a logistics plan about a week out from the race that tells you which activity happens in what order, how long the distance and approximate time it will take. You find out how your gear will be moved around the course (in four 100L boxes, a bike box and a paddle bag). This helps you plan what gear you need where, how much nutrition for each leg, potential sleep strategies and batteries for lights (you move throughout the night too). All teams complete the course by mountain biking, kayaking or trekking. XPD traditionally is an international event, part of a world series. Not in 2021!
It’s a technology-free event (yeah!). While you do carry a phone and an emergency beacon, they are for life / death emergencies and not really to be used if you get lost or break a bike!
Rivers of Gold
The organisers did have a theme for the event. We were to explore the area, experiencing many of the challenges that pioneers went through – paddling rivers, dragging boats over rocks, trekking barren land exposed in the sun as well as visiting graveyards and monuments where we learned about the pioneers’ contribution to the region. We even did a bit of gold panning.
The day before the race, each team had 1.5 hours of scrutineering. We had to pass a navigation and rules knowledge test, learn emergency comms equipment and protocols, how to clip into ropes, and get a brief about ‘What will Kill you?’ in North Queensland. No word of a lie – crocodiles, cassowaries, jellyfish, spiders, snakes, Gympie Gympie….as if the race wasn’t intimidating enough.
Leg 1: A dog of a leg
This leg was a bit weird. We split into teams of 2, one pair kayaked the ocean and the other pair trekked the coast line. It was to be a harbinger of our race. Cass and I were the paddlers. We were first to the kayak corral, first to select a kayak. Kim and Cass checked out the kayak out as we set it up. It was looking good.
For the first 1.5 km we were paddling quite nicely, about front of mid pack. Suddenly, the kayak took a severe left-hand swing and threw us in to the water. WTF? Cass was in the driving seat. Having paddled with her before I knew she was competent. What was going on? We remounted the kayak, with safety looking on. I felt like a muppet. Whilst it was a bit choppy, we shouldn’t really have capsized. We turned the corner so to speak heading more downwind to the first checkpoint. Another bloody capsize. WTF again! At this stage I could feel the kayak continuously wanting to turn to the left. We avoided a few more kamikaze attempts by the kayak to feed us to the fish. On shore for CP 1, we inspected the kayak but couldn’t work out what was going on.
Onward to CP 2, averting several more capsizes with the paddle and by shifting our weight. At this stage both of us were trying to sit more on the right-hand side of the kayak to offset the left hand tug. With about 5 km to go now to CP 3, we were well and truly over the mischievous attitude of our kayak, and caught us off guard for a third time! Cass swore! Very unlike Cass. Whilst bopping around in the swell, Cass shortened the leg length for her feet. This seemed to help but not totally eliminate the left-hand intent of the kayak. We noticed that for CP 3 some teams were leaving their kayak at the entrance to TA and trekking the last 1 km to the CP. So, we followed not wanting to steer the lunatic kayak any further.
On arriving in the first transition, Bern (my mentor) asked how we went. “Not great” I said, “I’ve done more swimming in the last 3 hours than in the last 5 years!” At least I didn’t get bitten by a dog… there was an unfriendly dog on a nudist beach somewhere attacking the trekkers with two people in hospital from Team Happy Wanderers, and Captain Kim having a near miss!
Leg 2: Strip Amie naked
The second leg was a mountain bike. All was going okay until we hit the long slow ascent up Quad Road, where Amie declared she wasn’t feeling too good. We stopped. She didn’t really want any advice on how to deal with this. The other three alpha females on the team weren’t having it. We stripped her back to just her racing vest, took off her backpack (Captain Kim) and fed water and electrolytes (me). Once she stopped her attempts at vomiting (nothing ever came out), Cass put her on tow to get her up the hill, Kim carried her backpack and I pushed her to focus her energy on recovery whilst moving forward. The team worked.
We paced ourselves really well over the coming few legs, making it to the bus transfer with 45 mins to pack our bikes, get gear for the trek, refill water and food, and have a freeze dried meal. We nailed it. We were now 3.5 hours up on our estimated time. Woo Hoo!
Leg 4: A very fit lemming
We had beautiful sunsets throughout the race. One memorable evening on Leg 4, Amie and I were ‘resting our legs’ whilst our navigators were orientating themselves on the map. As we took in the landscape below us, Amie, a Queenslander, speaking to no one in particular, said that they didn’t have mountains like this in Queensland.” I paused for a few seconds wondering how much fun I could have with this one and asked, “Amie, where do you think you are?” (We were almost 48 hours without sleep at this point, and Amie tends to put her head down and get on with it during races with the exception of spotting wild animals). Amie answered “Victoria!”. I cautiously reminded her that we were in Queensland (wasn’t sure whether she had lost the plot at this stage), and she then laughed so hard!
Unbeknownst to Amie, she provided me much entertainment throughout the event. Having never met her before, I was gifted so many surprises with her no nonsense, straight-talking Qld verbiage, as well as her unbelievable talent for sleeping in any position and having the characteristics of a very fit lemming.
Leg 5: Hold on to Bern's paddle
One of the hallmarks of the event were the rivers. Rivers of Gold. Many pioneers spent much of the lives in and around the waters – a source of transport, food, and treachery. We paddled two rivers; the McLeod for about 2.5 hours which fed into the Mitchel River on Leg 5, a 53km paddle.
The McLeod River was peppered with strainers and rapids. In my lingo there were trees everywhere, blocking routes that required us to drag our kayaks over rocks and under more fallen trees and vines. Every now and again we’d hit a serious strainer or rapid, sometimes too late to be able to avoid it. This was my first near drowning experience. The kayak I paddled with Cass was sucked into a large tree truck blocking access across the water. She fell out, I got stuck under, eventually popping up the other side of the tree trunk to her, after being held under for about 3 seconds. Fortunately, Bern’s paddle, which I had borrowed for the race, ended up in an eddy about 20 m downstream, an easy retrieval.
On the second capsize, Bern’s paddle was lost for good. It was dark when we approached the racer rapid. Cass called out to paddle across it but the flow of water was too momentous, and we got pulled in again. Turned upside down again. The flow was crazy. Visibility was poor due to darkness and structure of the rapid. To avoid being thrashed downstream I was hanging on to branches on the side, as was Cass who somehow also managed to hang on to her paddle, the kayak and the river bank! We recovered and portaged again. Bern’s paddle gone .
Once on the Mitchel River, Amie took to spotting freshies – the shy crocodiles of Australia. They were everywhere, and at one point about 1.5 m from our kayak with the head torch lighting them up. They looked stunning. This transitioned to spotting a variety of structures and signs floating around the banks. I was seeing laundry baskets and architectural drawings, Amie was seeing signs, which Captain Kim validated from time to time. The sleep monsters were poking me and Amie, and without a paddle to give me something to do I was an easy target.
In transition, Cass and Amie set about trying to find out whether we could get a replacement paddle for the next kayak leg. Turns out you can borrow equipment from other teams with their permission. Bern was parenting her new born baby whilst her partner was racing. She was at each transition checking in on her partner, friends and protégé. Amie knew Bern from previous transitions but didn’t realise that the paddle I’d be using was hers. As Bern was enquiring as to how we were going, Amie mentioned that I’d lost a paddle and we now required a replacement. I was behind Bern when Amie mentioned this. Bern turned around, looked at me and I confirmed that the paddle was indeed now part of a strainer somewhere on the Mitchel River. Amie looked suitably contrite. Bern was chilled. Her well used MS2 is now brand new!
Leg 7: Slingshot arse or smack the pony
Our teamwork was thrown a big bone to chew in Leg 7: an 86 km mountain bike ride. We had estimated this would take us around 8 hours, we anticipated fast terrain. About 1.5 km into the leg, Captain Kim’s bike seemed to be intermittently losing its drive. Sometimes she could peddle, sometimes the peddling wasn’t giving her any forward motion. We tried a few things between us but nothing seemed to lock the freewheel in place. Rather than going backwards – a notion I think is far from any Adventure Racer’s mind – we kept moving forward by setting up a tow and having two pushers on hills.
The route to the first checkpoint was monumental – rolling hills, significant climbs. It may have been faster on the longer road route but we were committed. We well and truly refined our tow and push technique over the following 86 kms, however this was not without consequences. Captain Kim in particular, developed a knack for extending the tow rope so much that the person being towed, for self-preservation, had no choice but to let it go, resulting in the slingshot of a carabiner into Captain Kim’s arse, on numerous occasions. At CP 19, Team Directionally Challenged in the spirit of the race, helped us ‘tie’ the cassette to the spokes of the wheel in an attempt to set it up as a fixie! That lasted about 10 seconds on the first revolution.
A wee while later we flagged down an ocker Aussie dude, his dog and some wire, to try the same thing. This time the chain kept falling off. In despair we took the chain off and continued with towing and pushing. Mt Mulligan was dappled in the sunset set as we limped our way past it. The remote stillness of this vast country was simply magnificent in all its glory that evening.
We did get to see the blossoming tones of the bruise(s) when we finished. Kim’s entire right butt cheek was black and blue. Either Amie’s aim was inconsistent, or she was determined for Captain Kim to feel the full impact of her frustration of having to tow a bike and a human 86 km! I never asked. Originally this leg was meant to take us 8 hours. After 17 hours (who knows), we entered the transition to Leg 8 at Kingsborough, Leg 8 being a 60 km trek leg.
Leg 8: A frosty evening hunting for CP 27
Our times were well blown out at this stage and our goal now became to stay ranked and try and avoid being short coursed. CP 27 became the nemesis checkpoint for many teams and most definitely ours during Leg 8. We hit the base of an abundance of hills around 1.30 pm. Knowing we were looking for the top of a small hill, I was grateful not to be navigating. The terrain was populated with too many! We launched three attempts to find the nominated hill, the third attempt was within an hour of the sun setting, time was ticking.
At around 590 m elevation, we ‘bumped’ in to another team that was contouring in its attempt to find CP 27. After some consultation between the teams, we opted for the same strategy but left the team to it as they had some clothing changes to make. We contoured, and contoured, up and down gullies, making slower progress than we thought. Our team was slowly beginning to fall apart and lose confidence in finding CP 27, all save Captain Kim. I wasn’t sure whether I was watching friendships disintegrate as friction festered between lead and check navigator, with Amie telling me from time to time that this never happens. They don’t get lost, and normally finish races well within the estimated times. All of us were keenly aware of time away with (or without) families diminishing with each tentative step in the dark.
Watching this incredible team I had raced with so far, disintegrate before me, I suggested we should take a break, eat some dinner, maybe have a short sleep. We’d been hunting this CP for over 6 or 7 hours now. It was beginning to take its toll on the navigators who were no longer working as a team. The mini break resulted in us agreeing to walk off the mountain, down to the Dora river bed to sleep for the night. The Queenslanders were worried about being cold on the mountain without a fire. Not something my Irish blood or Melbourne winter living was too concerned about.
We bush bashed down a crappy ravine/gorge to the river bed. Kim impressive as always in the way she can glide over terrain – I’d swear she can walk on water! We collected lots of timber for a fire, only to find my waterproof matches didn’t have the striker attached to the box – no fire. Oops! Bugger! So sorry all! The frosty four got inside our individual emergency sleeping bags, then into our individual bivvies, and lined up inside the bothy around 11 pm. We slept, for far too long. Captain Kim had a nightmare. Amie checked where she was once in her sleep. Cass thought about her new family she now wouldn’t see as early as planned.
The following morning (5 am) we knew we still had about 8-10 hours of trekking ahead of us. Captain Kim didn’t ask for us to go back up for CP 27. We’d left that behind. She sensed mutiny. We divvied out our food, checked our water – we needed some shortly. Onwards we trekked through the Dora river bed – Kim leading the charge, Cass now sensitively back check navigating having thrown in the towel last night. It was quiet as the world woke up. Finally, we hit the Bicentennial Trail – we were back on track!
Leg 9: Crash test dummy
Inevitably, we were short coursed when we arrived into TA 8. We’d officially taken too long to do the main course. The bike / paddle / trek converted to just a bike leg. We were disappointed as we were looking forward to the last kayak leg, although I wasn’t all that bothered about eliminating near misses with aggressive salt-water crocodiles (salties) we were enlightened about at the ‘What will Kill You?’ station during scrutineering.
There was one hurdle with the bike leg. We had hoped the AR fairies had magically secured a rear wheel or replacement bike for Captain Kim. Thanks for Shaun Jackson from Team Mawson for donating his bike. With a few adjustments Captain Kim was flying, until she had to stop as getting her feet out the cleats proved a feat too much despite all our tweaks. She collected a few more bruises than anticipated!
Much to everyone’s surprise Captain Kim suggested we have dinner here at Mt Molloy as our estimated finish time was the wee hours of the morning, with potentially no one to celebrate it with. I hoped, but didn’t vocalise it, that my mates (who finished some days ago now) would have been watching our dot and be there when I finished! We entered the stage – a remote café, run by an elderly couple and some extras dressed in hats and cloaks. Asking what was on offer, we chose the burger. The wait was too long, the next alternative was a bacon and egg ‘burger’. Amie said “We’ll take four!” and so we tucked into our last supper.
Unsealed roads all the way on the last leg, save for some serious downhill track off a pine plantation and one river crossing. We stopped at the river crossing. It was fair to say, we’d had enough of being wet. We paused, trying to scout it out in the dark (it was about 8.30 pm now) to see how shallow it was. I thought it looked good and was prepared to see if I could get across by riding. I used the hill as momentum, hit the water, it was going great. About 7/8’s of the way across I hit a hole. That was me, catapulted upside down into the flow of the river, completely drenched. All I could hear was Amie’s explosive cackling, which continued for quite some time as she replayed my fall for the next kilometre.
The end or just the beginning
We rolled into the finish line at about 4 am. Captain Kim, Cass, Amie and I. All my AR mates were there, and my mentor Bern. They’d deprived themselves of sleep, checking every half hour on my progress just to greet me at the finish line. They’re ace! We cracked open the champagne and ate some pizza. Not a bad end to 6 days of motion.
Looking back, I wish I had taken the advice of my friends and got stuck in to adventure racing earlier. I was worried about being fit enough. About finding a team (you race as 4). About being a muppet on course. About having a crap team dynamic. Whilst I don’t listen to the negative self-talk about my capabilities much, and coach others to ignore it, we all succumb at some point to the negative chatter in our heads but its truly never too late
My friends didn’t give up on me. Friends don’t. They shared their wisdom with me, their enthusiasm, their tips, their gear, even their clothing – seamless bras ‘n’ all. The morning after the race Amie and I were paralysed in bed having finished at 4 am that morning. We could hear all my mates having breakfast. I gave Elizabeth a ring. “Morning Elizabeth, you guys having breakfast?”, “Yep” she answered. “Well, we’re keen to join but we may need some help!”. Elizabeth had a wee chuckle then appeared at our door 2 mins later donating her flipflops to my swollen feet (that’s Elizabeth carrying her bike in the Alpine Avengers photo earlier). Friends, they can get you to do some crazy things, however the great ones are always there for you.
Thanks for Bern for being an awesome, knowledgeable gofer and mentor. You short circuited a lot of pain and brought so much more pleasure to the race with all your advice and tips. Thanks to Captain Kim for taking a punt on me and allowing me to join Wild Women on their expedition length adventure race two years in the making. It was a fascinating and awesome experience. Coach Tedde, as ever making sure I’m fit to do whatever I choose. Elizabeth for the loan of the flipflops! Mountain Designs for their continued sponsorship of Wild Women. And my family, who told me to change my flights and get out of Victoria. You rock, we rock in allowing each other to live our big and small ambitions. Dare to be bold everyone.
An update on Bern's lost paddle
It resurfaced. About 6 weeks after the event some stranger got in touch with the event organisers as they found a paddle with XPD stickers on it in the Mitchel River. Turns out it was Bern’s. What are the chances! So I cancelled the order, although she still hasn’t actually seen her paddle to inspect it for any damages.
#liveabiglife #getagripofthegrind #noregrets #impostersyndrome #adventurouslife #performance #wildwomen #mountaindesigns #xpd2021 #ARworldseries #triadventure
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