Six km into the Sunshine Coaster XC race I was faced with a crucial decision. A fork in the trail with a sign directing short course (22km) racers to the left and long course (43km) to the right lay ahead. Even though I had signed up for the long course, I had only been on my mountain bike a couple times this year and really wasn’t sure if I was up to it. It was early in the race and every muscle in my body was screaming at me to take the left, but my stubborn brain was telling me that it was only 43 km. How hard could it be? As it turns out, very hard.
The day started with a 5:00 am wake up accompanied by an unhealthy amount of coffee to help get the body moving. The sun was making it’s way over the horizon as I gathered my gear and set off with Owen for the ferry. On the short ferry ride to the Sunshine Coast I obsessively studied the course map to memorize the profile, and more importantly, try to figure out when we would stop going up and start going down. The course was front loaded with climbing, but after that things would get easier, or so the map led me to believe.
We followed a convoy of vehicles from the ferry and arrived early enough for me to nervously fiddle with my bike and do a quick lap through the parking before determining that everything seemed to be working properly. This was my first XC race of any significant distance and I had no idea what to expect. I looked around at bikes with gels taped to the top tube and I wondered if I was prepared. Fifteen minutes before the race start, riders supposedly seeded themselves according to their projected finish time, but in the end everyone crammed in from all sides and it soon didn’t matter. By the time we rolled out the pack was tight but it didn’t take long for things to stretch out. I lost sight of Owen immediately and was alarmed by the number of juniors that were flying past me. These kids were fast.
The majority of the first 14 km was an upward grind, with a couple of downhill teasers mixed in, peaking at around 750m elevation. It wasn’t long before my legs started to burn and I became fixated on my Garmin, watching the kilometres slowly accumulate. A good portion of the climbing was on a dirt road, wide enough to ride side by side and chat with those around. I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one suffering so early on. At the 12 km mark my pedal strokes felt much harder and I pushed down to hear a loud snap before my legs began spinning incredibly fast with no resistance. A broken chain. On first inspection, I figured my race was done, and my legs secretly rejoiced at the premature end to the abuse I was inflicting on them, until I remembered that I had the required tools to remedy the problem. I was passed by a seemingly endless chorus of “everything ok? Have what you need?” while I turned my hands into a greasy black mess to reattach the chain. All the heat and sweat from the climb quickly disappeared and by the time I washed up in a nearby puddle, I was shivering. Twenty minutes and many curse words later I was back on the bike. Onward and upward.
The climb finally came to an end and transformed into some sweet singletrack. There were sections that were some of the best trails that I have ridden. A narrow ribbon of dirt weaved through a sea of lush greenery and I opened it up to make up for lost time. I managed to catch a few who had overtaken me during my mechanical and momentarily forgot about my fatigue as I happily whipped down the trail. This would be a common theme during the race. The downhill trails were so much fun that it made the climbing worth it. Each time I finished one of these sections, I immediately wanted to do it again.
Despite the redeeming downhill, there was no avoiding the fact that I was hurting. A quiver that had started in my leg developed into a full on raging cramp that forced me off the bike doubled over in pain as I tried to stretch it out. By the halfway mark I had given up any preconceived notion that I was racing and was now focusing on mere survival. I had been riding for a long time without a soul in sight and without the frequent arrows attached to the trees to mark the route, I’m sure I would be lost. Even those arrows were slightly deceiving and I frequently found myself snapped out of a pain haze by a passing marker, which caused me to hit the brakes and backtrack to confirm that I was headed in the right direction.
For the final 10 km I was joined by some other riders who reminded me that there was indeed a race going on. The smoke from the BBQ wafted through the trees on the final stretch of trail and I managed to muster up enough energy to carry me through to the finish. Owen already changed and was waiting for me. Clearly his race had been more successful than mine. We gorged on the post race BBQ and slowly the life came back to my legs. It had been more difficult than I had anticipated, but that also made it more rewarding. It was good to get some experience under my belt in preparation for my next race, the Nimby 50.