I arrived early for Round Three of the Australian XCO National Series at the Commonwealth Games course at Nerang and watched the junior men race. By 8:30am it was already over 32 degrees and very, very humid. The field was completely devastated by the heat, many youths ending up in the first aid tent. I did a warm-up, trying to balance ‘warming up’ with ‘overheating my internal organs’, filled a stocking with ice and shoved it down the back of my jersey, then headed to the start.
It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity
The Elite Women started in some of the worst heat of the day, and it got more intense as the race went on. I’m told the thermometer topped 41 degrees while we were on course. I’ve raced in 40 degrees before and been fine, but with 85 or so per cent humidity? Never.
Racing the Nerang Commonwealth Games Course
The Commonwealth Games course is, by now, notoriously brutal. The first loop features a bunch of technical climbs made out of jutting or moving rock that I can clean in practice – sometimes – so, along with most of the women, didn’t even attempt under race conditions. The result is a lot of messy dismounting, clambering, stumbling, tripping, cramping, elbowing, apologising, crashing, and dodgy remounting. On Saturday, all of that went on in the hottest section of an already scorching course. The rest of the track is made up of a flow descent with berms and jumps, and a gentle singletrack climb with another flow descent, which are pretty fun, but require intense concentration.
I felt great on the start line. Fresh legs. Excited, but not nervous. Positive. Then the gun went off, and after 20 seconds I started going backwards. ‘Ha! They’ve gone out too hard,’ I thought. ‘I’m going to race smart and it will pay dividends’. Oh the hubris! Barely a lap in, with all my ice long melted away, unbelievable nausea, and ridiculously high heart rate, I stopped expecting to catch the field and started to freak out. My chest hurt. I had cold chills all over and a stabbing pain about where I thought my liver must be. I was convinced I was going to drop dead if I pushed any harder, so I slowed down, trying to get my body temperature to drop, then slowed down some more when it didn’t. Eventually my race degenerated into a combination of freewheeling, soft pedalling, and walking. I got lapped out.
I live in Brisbane, which is a pretty hot place, especially in summer. I like the heat, but this weekend got me thinking that while Queensland might be called the sunshine state, really it should be called the air conditioning state. I generally finish training by 7:30am, when it’s still relatively cool, then sit inside all day in 21 degrees.
Queenslanders are really, really good at avoiding the heat, but I was still shocked when, on Saturday, I wasn’t able to cope with it. It didn’t help that the week before I’d lost a lot of sleep over a health scare (consisting of chest pain no less – but don’t worry, it was probably just anxiety). It’s hard to push yourself when you’re convinced you’re about to have a heart attack.
I fared better than many other women. One junior fainted on her bike and had to be carried off the course by spectators. Plenty more didn’t finish and ended up in first aid. Sirens wailed above the noise of the loudspeakers at the Nerang Velodrome on and off for most of the day.
Kiwi Samara Sheppard could handle the conditions, and rode a classy race to win the ladies event, followed by Bec McConnell, Holly Harris, Kate Fluker from New Zealand, and Sarah Riley. The weather was ever-so-slightly cooler when the men raced that afternoon, won by Anton Cooper from New Zealand, followed by Dan McConnell, Ben Oliver, Tasman Nankervis, and Sebastian Jayne.
Backing up – Round 4 at Nerang
That afternoon, I dragged husband-Mike to the beach ‘to cool off’ then, clearly still suffering after-effects from the race, I spent 45 minutes sitting on a bench in the middle of Surfers Paradise trying not to vomit before we gave up and drove to our accommodation and put the aircon on. Needless to say, with the forecast predicting more than 37 degrees for Round 4 on Sunday, backing up required some mental gymnastics. I was plagued by such rational questions as: Would I, indeed, drop dead if I pushed too hard in the heat? Would I suffer kidney failure? Multiple organ failure? Or just vomit in front of everybody? None was appealing, and husband suggested heading home to our air-conditioned house and forgetting anyone ever even suggested racing in the middle of the day in Queensland in a summer heatwave.
Instead, Mike and I came up with a few strategies for keeping cool. We’d find someone to hand me splash bottles twice a lap so I could cool down more often. I’d put a jersey on ice before the start and fill the pockets with ice. I’d drink more.
That’s all we could think of.
I spent the morning before the Sunday race sitting in the car running the air conditioning, then did the most perfunctory of perfunctory warmups and headed to the start line wearing my iced jersey and my ice stocking and with my pockets full of ice. It had all melted by the time the race started.
The all-important race start
And what a start I had. The start loop began in the middle of the velodrome then took in a lap before heading onto the course proper. I was called up next to the left hand barrier which I noticed jutted out into the first left hand corner onto the bitumen track, so I had to drop back or risk getting squished into it. Then, having had rather a bad experience with bitumen in the recent past, I suffered a bit of a flashback when another rider swerved in front of me, and gave up around 15 places to Elite and age group women alike before we’d even hit the dirt. I had a big job in front of me to catch back up. Not an ideal start.
The Sunday course was the fun one. It started with a fire road climb, then went down the second flow descent of the day before, up a singletrack climb, back through some of the rocky hike-a-bike from Saturday, a bit more climbing, then a rocky descent full of drop offs and finally the flow trails from the Comm Games course. In short: more climbing, more recovery and a more familiar XCO character.
I made up a few places in the climbs that followed and ended up behind Sarah Riley and Eliza Kwan, feeling like I was at last in the race, but aware of the front of the race disappearing in the distance. The pace felt fairly comfortable, so I tried to get away on the climb in lap 2, but was passed back by Eliza right before the first flowy descent. I didn’t fight, thinking that following skillful Eliza’s wheel downhill would help me get a bigger gap on our chasers. I followed her perfect lines as best I could and jumped back onto her wheel for the next climb.
Up we went, and I sat back a bit and planned my attack. It would be devastating! It would be blistering! It would be… later! We muddled through the hike-a-bike and at the end of it I had a lot of trouble clipping in and Eliza got a gap. A gap I never quite closed even while I kept plotting my Great Big Move. She extended her gap on the rocky, droppy descent and I spent the rest of the race pretty much on my own, with Eliza and Holly Harris dangling just in sight ahead of me. Poor Holly got a flat at the furthest point from the tech zone, and I moved up a place, finishing in fourth. I was thrilled with a podium behind the storming Samara Sheppard, Kate Fluker, Eliza Kwan, and with Sarah Riley in fifth. A much better day thanks to slightly lower humidity, a good plan, support from husband-Mike and Kyle Ward, and a bit of determination not to let crazy-death-thoughts get the better of me twice in a row. I’d barely given the extreme heat any attention during the race, although I’m very thankful for sponsorship from Camelbak Australia – I went through about 12 bidons in the race and all of them matched.
The Elite men lined up again for another serve of Nerang’s special flavour of punishment, with Anton Cooper again taking the win, followed by Cam Ivory, Reece Tucknott, Ben Oliver, and Alex Lack.
There’s always a takeaway! Every race I do I learn something. This weekend I experienced a new kind of anxiety (there are so many!), but worked out how to deal with it, and reaffirmed my belief that sometimes just showing up is victory enough. I have some points to work on, and overall the weekend was empowering and a very positive experience. I’m not an XCO specialist, and I’ve been using these races to rehearse for marathons later in the year. I’ve done a lot of thinking about tyre pressure and tyre and wheel choice, and feel I’ve found what works best for me on rough courses (Ardent Race 2.2″ with EXO casing, Nextie 29AS30 rims, 18 PSI), and my Norco Revolver, Fox suspension and Shimano Di2 are all completely dialled to suit my needs exactly. I’m perfecting my nutrition and hydration, taper, warmup and gear choices with every event I do. This prep will see me through the season with only minor adjustments to suit conditions.
My next race is Oceania Champs in Dunedin. It’ll be my first trip to New Zealand in about 10 years, and I’m so looking forward to jumping into an international race and seeing what I can do in a different environment. I’ve got a lot of work to do on my fitness, which dropped off considerably when I had an unexpected break from training for all of December. I aim to snatch a bit of form back over the three weeks before I take off again.
Huge props to everyone who raced at Nerang this weekend, particularly those who backed up again for the second day, knowing full well what conditions would greet them.
Next stop, Dunedin!