X-Marathon Lives Up To The Hype

The second to last CP on the X-Marathon course.  It was a long road and a long year to get to this point.

The second to last CP on the X-Marathon course. It was a long road and a long year to get to this point.

Every year I like to fit an interstate race into the calendar.  In the past, this has generally been Max24, but with the Adventure Junkies organising a 24hr race during what is otherwise a relatively quiet time on the racing calendar, X-Marathon was to be it in 2013.  I’d heard a lot of good things about this race: tough hills, tough navigation, tough competition and potentially tough weather and I was looking forward to the chance to race in some new terrain and with a new event promoter.

Coming in to X-Marathon, I’d had a very hit and  miss year in terms of racing.  I felt I’d had some great performances at GodZone, Hells Bells and the Washpool 52km run, but these were tempered with some rough races at GeoQuest and Darkside.  Training had also been pretty patchy and flat for the past couple of months.  I was again teamed up again with Leo Theoharris for X-Marathon.  Leo has had a big year racing GodZone together before taking a win in XPD.  I’d sensed from conversations leading in to X-Marathon that, while strength and fitness were never an issue for Leo, he was feeling a little bit burnt out from the busy racing schedule.  Hence, it was decided before we even stepped on the plane to approach X-Marathon more as a cool experience of racing somewhere new and different, as opposed to tackling it as a competitive race.

Wayne, Liam and Leo at race HQ.

Wayne, Liam and Leo at race HQ.

Arriving in Melbourne we were met by Wayne Benton at the airport, who was to be our chauffer, gear provider, logistics manager, errand boy and map contact-er for the weekend.  Wayne was originally meant to be racing but had to withdraw with a last minute injury but was still keen to hang out at the race.  His time and effort were invaluable and took much of the stress of racing interstate out of the equation.  After prepping the gear and dinner at the pub, we were in bed by 10pm, only to woken at midnight when the Preston brothers from Team Macpac turned up to share the cabin.  The conversation turned towards past races and it was well after 1:30am before heads went down: not ideal preparation with a 5:30am wake up call to head out to the boat drop location.

X-Marathon logistics matrix.

X-Marathon logistics matrix.

Anyway, on to the race.  Just up front, I have to say the Adventure Junkies run an excellent course, with all the little touches that I think are important to making a great event.  Good quality, event specific maps were used with pre-printed controls and control descriptions (the only thing missing was a scale bar, which made quick estimations on distance a little tricky).  Each leg had its own map on a single page.  They also provided a logistics matrix prior to the race on the leg order and approximate lengths, which made packing of food a breeze and the decisions on what gear to bring or not bring simple, which was great coming from interstate.  It might be nice to see this in more races, and I get the impression that these logistic matrices are very popular in US races.  The event also used electronic timing with a tag per person, meaning both people had to visit the controls which prevents splitting.  Timings for all the gear drops and map preparation were sufficient without any wasted time on the weekend – you could conceivably drive up on the Saturday morning , race, and be home in time for a Sunday roast dinner if you lived in Melbourne.  A relatively cheap entry fee and provision of gear drop bags were also welcome additions.

X-Marathon Race HQ.

X-Marathon Race HQ.

On presentation, the course also had a nice, logical flow to it – long loops stopping off on the paddles and bike legs for trek legs with no back tracking over old terrain involved.  It also visited a number of highlights that the area had to offer such as Mt Torbreck and areas on and around Lake Eildon and Eildon township.  It was also obvious from examining the maps that we were in for a pretty hilly day out – the only flat part of the course was the paddling.

One of the few decents on the first bike leg.

One of the few decents on the first bike leg.

The opening leg was a short foot rogaine around Eildon township, picking up 5 controls.  In keeping with our ethos of just enjoying the race as an experience, we set off to the first control at an easy jog, but were still surprised to find that we were last in line to the first control – it seems like teams were starting out pretty hard.  Back through the start and there weren’t many bikes left in the TA.  The first bike leg was predicted to take under two hours, and with maps with a 20m contour interval, it was evident we would be hitting the hills pretty soon.  Again, without pushing we seemed to pass a number of teams on some of the steeper pinches and we rolled into the transition area to find we were in fourth place and 15 minutes down on the leaders after just on two hours of racing.

On the first climb of the trek leg with Kim and Dave.  Kim was kind enough to let Dave carry the team pack for the photo.

On the first climb of the trek leg with Kim and Dave. Kim was kind enough to let Dave carry the team pack for the photo.

The next trek leg we had marked as one of the two crux legs of the race.  It involved a loop with a couple of CPs and a ton of elevation gain, culminating in an ascent of Mt Torbreck at over 1500m.  We set off with Kim and Dave who were racing in the 12hr course, this being a come back race of sorts after having a baby just over a year ago.  Straight into the climbing and things must have gotten a little social comparing notes on parenthood and past races because as a group we completely missed the desired spur with the first CP on it, wasting over half an hour searching in the wrong location.  Our only solace was that we were not the only teams to have made the mistake, but when we managed to relocate and find the CP we drew another 3 or 4 teams straight to it who looked like they were set to make the same error as us.  The time lost was a little frustrating as I was particular keen to have a clean navigational race, but it was a timely reminder to keep up the concentration.  The rest of the trek was uneventful with reasonable weather for December, good views and a long decent back to the transition.

Map of the first trek leg.  We ended up climbing back down the track from the summit of Mt Torbreck

Map of the first trek leg. We ended up climbing back down the track from the summit of Mt Torbreck

One of the less elusive trekking check points.

One of the less elusive trekking check points.

The approach to CP83 from the south west.  Those are 20m contour intervals.

The approach to CP83 from the south west. Those are 20m contour intervals.

With the nav mistake and the casual pace, we were already well down on the lead three teams.  The next bike leg we had slated to be the toughest of the race with some big hills looming and the 20m contour intervals having the potential to hide a lot of hurt, and so it proved to be.  After an awesome initial decent, we parted ways with another 12hr team, Entropic, who got to turn around and continue a nice cruisy ride to the boats.  For us though, it was a case of dismount, wrestle the bike up a long hill, take a peek at the view, remount, scream down a short, loose decent, dismount. Rinse and repeat.  This process culminated in what I would now rate as one of the hardest hike a bikes I’ve done in a race on the approach to CP83.  Perhaps my memory for these sort of things might be selective (it must be right, if I keep coming back for more of the same punishment race in, race out?), but this hill just seemed to be the roughest, longest, steepest section of trail I’ve ever hauled my bike up.

On the climb to CP83 - one of the hardest hike-a-bikes I've done in a long time.  It made Hells Bells look like a picnic with the family.

On the climb to CP83 – one of the hardest hike-a-bikes I’ve done in a long time. It made Hells Bells look like a picnic with the family.

Feeling smashed doesn't help for a quick transition.

Feeling smashed doesn’t help for a quick transition. Photo credit: Wayne Benton.

Three hours into the leg and just over a third of the distance covered, I was starting to make serious revisions on our predicted finish time of five hours.  Fortunately though, whilst the remainder of the leg was still hilly, many of the climbs were actually rideable finishing with a long decent into Lake Eildon just as the sun had set and the temperatures dropped.  While the ride had only taken us 5.5 hours, it had been very physical and I was feeling pretty smashed.  As usual, Leo was finding it all pretty easy and his positive attitude was great to have in the team at a time like this.

Night paddling on Lake Eildon.

Night paddling on Lake Eildon.

After a pretty slow transition, we hit the water for the first paddle of approximately 17km.  We were lucky to have hired a double Fenn XT ski, the same boat that I have at home.  Boats are always a big question in AR.  Generally, if race directors provide boats for racers, even though it creates more work for themselves they are likely to attract more team  numbers as it is one less road block to teams competing.  However, by letting teams use their own water craft, it rewards teams that work on their paddling skills as it allows them to use faster, less stable craft than those typically provided in bulk by an events company and can save on entry costs.  I think there needs to be a balance of races with some with and some without boats provided.  Providing your own boat can be a real logistic hassle, particularly coming from interstate, and can be rather limiting in your course setting options if teams don’t have support crews to move boats mid race as is the case with GeoQuest.  Fortunately there was a convenient hire option through Peak Adventure, and were racing in a real ski.

X-Marathon kayak legs.

X-Marathon kayak legs.

The first paddle was ticking along nicely and we were checking off the CPs.  However, the further we moved out into the lake, the stronger the wind got and pretty soon we were paddling across white caps and being drenched and frozen to the bone.  Definitely one of those “why are we doing this?” moments that I’ve come to expect and, somewhat perversely, look forward to.  Heading to CP24 we had to take a bearing of a couple of kilometres across the lake to hit a CP in the dark.  We made sure that we consistently aimed off to the south slightly so that it would be easy to relocate to the control once on the other side, however with the wind hitting us hard from the south east, we were concerned that we had been pushed way north of the control.  Hence, upon approaching the opposite shore, we turned south, only realising after 5 minutes that we were heading away from  the CP and that we had only missed it initially by around 100 meters.  Another 15 minutes lost and another 15 minutes of freezing paddling, but fortunately our last real navigation balls up for the race.  Another complication of the wind is that it made approaching the CP flag amongst a mass of dead trees in a 7.5m long ski almost impossible from certain angles, and a couple of controls took a few attempts to get to.

Off the boats and into the last trek.  In our heads, we felt like once we had the big bike done, the rest of the race should be mostly a cruise to home.  We definitely underestimated this next leg as evidenced by our 2 hour prediction compared to the 4 hour completion time.  I never would have thought that a four check point rogaine could offer up much in the way of route choice either, however this leg provided a really tricky question: hit the controls by heading up and down the major spur lines (gaining and losing a ton of elevation) or save the elevation gain and contour around the longer distances around the lake edge?

Map of the second trek leg. We eventually picked up controls 64, 63, 61 and 62 in order.

Map of the second trek leg. We eventually picked up controls 64, 63, 61 and 62 in order.

We set off to check point 64 to the north east, up over the saddle before making our way around the edge of the inlet.  This is where we got a taste of conditions around the edge of the lake. I was hoping that travel would be easy along a rocky shoreline as the dam wasn’t at capacity.  What we were faced with was a tough scramble through deadfall and washed up debris along the lake edge that was both very physical and slow going.  After picking up 64 and 63, we dropped down to 61 before climbing all the way back to the spur where 62 was set on and returning to the TA via that spur, just to avoid a similar fight along the lake edge back from 61 that we originally planned.  All in, it was a fantastically set little leg, although very tough with repeated steep climbs in the sleepy hours of the morning.

Check point 28 on the kayak leg home.

Check point 28 on the kayak leg home.

The return paddle couldn’t have been  more different to the one earlier in the night.  The wind had died off and we were treated  to a beautiful sunrise and with navigation much simpler in the day light we knocked the leg off in pretty short order.  The final ride home involved a road book description to locate two CPs.  This was a fun little task I’ve never done in a race before,  which could prove tricky if you lost concentration: Leo’s short diversion back towards Mount Pinniger best remains unmentioned at this point.

Finally back onto the hard black stuff on the ride home to HQ.

Finally back onto the hard black stuff on the ride home to HQ.

We eventually rolled across the line in a time a little over 22hrs, well behind the top 3 teams who had pushed each other hard all night.  X-Marathon certainly lived up to its tough reputation, but this made the exercise all the more satisfying: a great way to explore an all new area.  Although it never felt like we were there for the competition, it was still a hard day out and perfect training for GodZone.  In fact, I’d go as far as saying this race should be mandatory for any Australian team heading over to NZ for GodZone, given its timing and the fact that the terrain, hills, navigation on 20m contours and the use of real boats are as close as you are going to get to NZ conditions.

At the finish after 22hrs+ of "racing".

At the finish after 22hrs+ of “racing”.

Thanks to Maria and Serge for an excellent weekend out.  The race only had a small field, but hopefully this will grow as word gets out.  I imagine being so close to Christmas might be a bit of a deterrent for some teams, although it does fill a nice hole in an otherwise busy calendar.  Mercy to any teams though if Victoria is hit with one of its 40C+ days that are possible at that time of year – it would destroy the field.  The terrain was tough, but there were sensible short course options for slower teams, and kayak hire options were quite reasonable for teams without a boat.  I’d love to get back to race again next year with a bit more of a competitive mindset, however another option would be to tackle their Wild Traverse race.  The format looks different to anything I’ve done before and from what I’ve heard it is another great event, and wouldn’t require lugging a mountain of gear down south.

Now it’s time for a bit of rest, recovery and running before the final push towards GodZone.

Note – the full collection of maps for the 2013 X-Marathon course (minus the prologue map) can be found here, whilst the full collection of race photos can be found here.

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