I wasn’t supposed to race the Convict 100 – not at all. Instead, I was supposed to be at a team training camp with my road team to prepare for the NRS race Battle on the Border.
BUT it turned out that I was going to be in Canberra last week for some skills training with RideTECHNICS – and while Canberra is a good four-hour drive from St Albans (the tiny, historic hamlet about 85 kilometres from Sydney where the Convict is held), Canberra’s still a hell of a lot closer than Brisbane so, after checking with my team manager I was released – one more XCM race for me!
There were a few reasons I wanted to do the Convict. I had a sense of unfinished bizniss after a disappointing XCM Champs where basically everything went wrong, climaxing (lowmaxing?) with my crank arm falling off and a DNF. I also have unfinished bizniss with the race itself, having done it three times in its eleven (now twelve) year history and never really making a good go of it…
More than anything, though, I wanted to go because the Convict 100 is one of the few really epic marathons left for us here in Australia. For me, it’s disappointing to see lap-based, singletrack-only marathons (our National Champs included) taking over from the journeys, the moving experience of riding changing landscapes with the unknown ahead. For me, this is what a marathon should be – a mix of challenges: technical, physical, tactical, psychological – and it should take you somewhere.
The Convict 100 takes you places. It’s an epic loop of historic roads built by actual convicts who were probably being exploited in some way by my ancestors who, I’m sorry to have found out, were not convicts. It’s also a uniquely Sydney race – the towering red, orange, yellow, and white sandstone cliffs, dramatic ridgelines, salmon-coloured Angophora costatas (those are trees), the coiling Hawkesbury River, sand, scratchy bushes, and soft, crumbly rock. I grew up there. I learned to mountain bike there. Why not dodge a single day of road miles to experience this again? (Sorry team.)
I joined one of my favourite discussion partners – James (JD) Downing – at the Wiseman’s Retreat. We drove for about an hour to get to race central for rego then did another hour-and-a-half round trip for a solid thai meal where I ate as much rice as I possibly could, having only been able to find cheese and eight celery sticks to eat during my drive up from Canberra (neither, I believe, contain carbohydrate). When we finally got to bed I had a sudden realisation that I couldn’t sleep and there followed a long and frustrating night of insomnia – a not uncommon thing before a race, which is good, because I know for a fact that I can race for four hours on four hours’ sleep – and that’s what I got.
We left in the dark for St Albans, still a decent drive and a ferry boat ride away, and I was both pleased and dismayed to see it was raining. Pleased because the Rural Fire Service had decided to burn off the day before and the haze had been at a level that I would rate as moderately noxious, plus the track was dusty and needed settling. Dismayed because I only really like bike riding when it’s sunny and somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees.
Race time for the Convict 100
It carried on drizzling until race start, and I crouched in the car feeling a little sapped of motivation. This came back once I was on the start line next to 24-hour World Champ Liz Smith and roadie star Em Viotto! Soon we were off and rolling with the elite men and I actually found myself having fun for a few kilometres as the guys sledged each other and everyone warmed up over jarring corrugations. We hit the first of many obstacles, a creek crossing with deep sand, and because I hadn’t positioned myself correctly near the front (would have learnt that at road camp!) I lost the bunch, which splintered a fair bit. I rode solo to the start of the real race, the loose, dirt climb up Jack’s Ridge, then set about, well, just trying to get up the pinches of nearly 30%. I stuffed up a couple of sections but didn’t let it worry me much. By now rabid, mouth-foaming masters men were catching me and I rode with some of them for a while, but here’s the thing: This race I’d gone in with this amazing thing called a ‘pacing strategy’, which dictated that I go easy after the initial flurry at the start. I looked at my heartrate, looked at the boys, looked back down at my heartrate, and decided to pull the rip cord. For the first hour I kept a lid on it, soft pedalling the climbs to keep my heart rate below threshold until I was caught by a super group of gentlemanly and experienced super masters men. Employing my new skills (thanks RideTECHNICS) I stayed with these big boys down the descent and won a sweet sit for the 5km road section! Win for Imo.
During the road section I leeched off the guys’ back wheels so I could remove my glove and pop two Ibuprofen to deal with an injury I’ve been nursing in my SI joint, which was flaring badly. (Hint: only take Ibuprofen or anything for that matter in a race if you absolutely, really have to – it’s bad for you!). I washed it down with what, since race start, I had been thinking was ‘Gatorade that’s gone off in the cupboard’ but was really the result of an accidental bottle mix up with JD. We had identical bidons in the fridge and sports drink of identical colour, and while JD was now somewhere up the road drinking supermarket Gatorade, I was drinking his spicy magic potion of expensive-sounding supplements that I’m pleased to say didn’t make me sick at all, just extremely thirsty.
Arh, my love/hate affair continues with the #convict100. I felt pretty good for the first 60kms of the race, then was under the pump for the next 10kms, then spent the last 30kms looking for somewhere nice to have a snooze #lightsout. Time to get back into the training ☺ Congrats to @jasonaenglish on the win, @wardy28_mtb had a cracker for 2nd place and @mwiilli in 3rd.
A photo posted by Shaun Lewis (@wombatlewis) on
33 kilometres down and we hit the canoe bridge (now widened to a superhighway) at speed then ended up at the second major climb of the day up Shepherds Gully, which used to be a rocky, technical mess from heaven but has now been graded into vanilla fireroad. I could have stayed with the boys but checked my heartrate again and went back to what felt like soft-pedalling, but was really a high tempo pace. I caught them near the top, but said my final farewells a bit later. I guessed that I wouldn’t keep up without burning a lot of my little matches on the rock steps and power climbs to come.
Then I was alone. This middle section has a lot of technical climbing and very rough descents of rock ledges, loose scree, sand, and more rock ledges. I kept going my own pace and let a few guys pass. I went through another feed zone then up the Clare’s Bridge climb where I probably didn’t go hard enough… The trouble with my new ‘pacing strategy’ seems to have been switching over from ‘go less hard’ to ‘go harder’ mid-race. This section is prickly. You go full gas over a narrow old road so overgrown that it’s effectively singletrack and, thanks to the Sydney basin’s sharp, spiky, thorny flora, you basically get flayed alive. I was whacked in the head by branches, had my arm grabbed and pulled off the handlebars, and have now been so thoroughly prickled and scratched that my arms look like they have measles. I just told myself it would be over soon and after about 45 minutes it was. Back on the sandstone and only 35 kilometres to go.
It was my plan to unleash everything I’d been saving up at about 25 kilometres to go and just empty the tank. This is where, I have to say, the pacing strategy worked a treat. Because I never went over threshold (ok, maybe once or twice), I never got that nausea that stops you eating or the leg hurts that make you feel like you’re riding underwater once the adrenalin wears off. I’m ashamed to say that until today, nearly every single-day marathon I’ve done has been paced like this: Imo! go as hard as you can from the gun and hang on! It takes a lot of discipline to let groups go and slow down when you feel good, but I think it worked for me, although, as always, it needs some refining.
I’d set a pretty ambitious goal of finishing within forty minutes of the winning man’s time, and I estimated I needed to finish in 4:30-something. I was on track and going berserk up some hill when I heard a PING! Upon inspection I discovered my first ever broken spoke! I wrapped it around another spoke semi-securely then crunched through my gears and was off again, pleased my wheel seemed true. It didn’t cost me much time, maybe a minute or two, but still!
That was about it. After a million pinch climbs on rocky, sandy, yellow fire road I finally found the big waterbar descent off the ridgeline. After not seeing a living soul for about an hour-and-a-half a couple of guys caught me and seemed enthused to be 10km from the finish line. The guys pulled, blew, and came back fiercely over and over again (should have invited them to roadie camp), while I sprinted to keep up when they felt good and rolled through when they dropped off. Suddenly, there it was! The paddock full of cars! The final stretch (into a headwind, nice!), the finish line! I won!
I only found out my time later and was blown away… 4:31! And 38 minutes off the winning man’s time! If you’ve seen my previous post on Crunching the Convict data you’ll know that the best female time ever was 35 minutes off the winning man’s time, and with the broken spoke and a bit of wiggle room with the pacing I’m really happy. Plus it’s a new record for the reverse course!
My race was far from over. It was 12:30. I had 45 minutes to wash my bike, shower, pack my bike, and get going because I had a plane to catch to the Gold Coast so I could get to the last two days of roadie training camp. I couldn’t find anywhere to wash the bike or shower myself so I packed my poor bike along with one kilogram of Sydney sand, brushed myself down, got most of the sand and sticks out of my wet sports bra, got changed on the front seat of the car, apologised for missing presentations and was away. Did I mention it was raining? Tip: Never pack a wet, sandy bike in the rain in a paddock unless you have to! A mad dash to the airport (observing the speed limit) with 1/3 of a bidon of water and only three leftover celery sticks for my recovery meal, then, finally, FINALLY – the most well-deserved use of a complimentary Qantas Club entry voucher in the history of Australian aviation. Thank you Qantas Club, for your showers and your copious buffet of food. I almost had a glass of champagne to celebrate but thought better of it. Australia has had enough drunk athletes misbehaving on planes in its history and my services were not required. Plus I had a blog to write.
I had an amazing race on one of my favourite courses and a truly productive, adventurous half-week of riding – plus, I still had another two days of wonderful bicycle anguish to go! If you haven’t done the Convict 100, I highly recommend it. There are only a few marathons in Australia that are true journeys, and this is one not to be missed.