I have never done the Highland Fling Marathon race before. Conflicting events had conspired against me so that the timing was never aligned. I don't ever recall actually ever being to Bundanoon or Wingello either for that matter, for racing or other reasons.
I had however, heard all the stories from friends who had done this event. Fireroad, fast, rough, paddocks, creek crossings, yada yada yada! I think I might be the only person in the world who hasn't done this race. That might be a slight exaggeration, but I definitely had a lot to learn.
Two days before the race, Andy Blair posted on his blog - http://andysracingblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/briars-highland-fling-preview.html - a bit of a preview of who would be in the mix. I also scoured previous year's results to get a feel for the length of the race, who had done the race and also get a feel of the times for the individual stages. In addition to these metrics, I also analysed course profiles posted by people on Garmin Connect to see how hilly the race was. I was essentially trying to arm myself with as much information as I could in order to negotiate the 110km that this event throws up.
The next item on my race prep agenda was bike choice. At my disposal I had identical Cannondale Flash Carbon bikes. One 26er and one 29er. My 26er is the ultimate bike. I have had this same frame and forks for almost 2 years. It is perfect. The 29er also is perfect, however I don't know it as well as the 26er and this is purely more mental than anything. Everyone I asked said 'definitely go the 29er'. It was good to get everyone's opinion, and it was greatly appreciated. I also discussed the bike choice with Dylan Cooper, and ultimately I said to him, 'the Fling has only been won on 26ers'. This pretty much says that 'it's down to the rider'. Footnote: next year I will definitely be on the 29er J
The Highland Fling has been running now for 7 years. This year it attracted over 2000 competitors making it the most popular ever. From rider analysis, there were at least 2 Olympians, one TDF rider (and holder of leader's jersey from every Grand Tour), multiple National XCO, XCC, 24 hour champions across every category (male, female, junior, veteran, masters), multiple world champions (24 hour), and just a bunch of fast dudes and dudettes. It appeared that this race is a big deal!
Arriving at event HQ on the Sunday morning, the anticipation was high, commentator already going off, people sorting bikes and getting their stuff together for the ensuing hours ahead. At about 7:45 we started getting into position. The Elite 100km riders were starting with the 55km riders, so the start chute was packed super-tight. It was quite comical. We could barely even sit on our bikes. When the gun went off hundreds of riders clipped in and the race was on.
My initial race plan was to ensure that I was with the lead bunch at the first transition. At about the 3km mark, I got chopped off and hit an erosion channel on a fireroad. Bam – hit the deck! As I was skating along the gravel, I copped a wheel in the back of the head, and I saw another rider ride over my back wheel. First thoughts were, I hope the bike is OK. 2nd thought was, crap, there goes the lead bunch. One good thing about crashing is that you get a wicked burst of adrenalin. I got back on the bike, amazingly nothing was bent or broken and basically chewed the stem as hard as I could for the next 10 minutes to try and reel back the front group.
At this stage, Will Bowron (Lonsdale Street Cyclery team member and Sunday training partner – half fling) saw what had happened and dangled off the back of the lead bunch until I was back on to his wheel. He then drilled it and dragged me back up to the lead bunch. This goes down in my book as fully PRO.
After that effort, which was probably higher than Thursday night World Championship dirt crits intensity, I hung on at the back and tried to recover a little. I knew I had used up a few matches and that I needed to get some fuel in so that I wouldn't hit the wall later on.
The first stage was reeled off at an average of 31km/hr for the first 52 minutes. This is off road. That is flying. The group of 12 crossed the first timing mat at the Wingello transition and picked up fresh bottles. At this stage, 4 of the 12 turned left and headed back as they were doing the half fling. The remaining 8 headed off to stage 2 in the full fling. Here we also had 5 minutes to cross the train line, and get to the start of the next timing mat. This was done at a pretty chilled pace, everyone thankful for the slight reprieve in the racing. At the start of the next section we all hammered through the slight downhill section before the right hander onto the smooth fireroad. Someone started the rush out of transition, and someone said 'I don't want to miss that train'. It was back on.
The pace was back up over 45km/hr over the slightly flat fireroad. We then entered the pines of Penrose State Forest, and the first singletrack of the day. Stage 2 contained a fair bit of singletrack, but to be honest, it is a bit of a blur. After about 15km in the 2nd stage or so, the lead bunch whittled down to 6 with Troy Glennan and myself going out the back. We rode for a while and managed to have Matt Fleming get back on. Matt was not having a great day, but was hanging tough. Troy and I swapped off on the fireroads and also took turns leading through the sinuous singletrack. We wanted to keep the pace high. Matt was unable to stay with us after a bit of climbing singletrack, so we kept going. Troy was riding really strong up the hills and I was feeling as though the elastic was stretching just that little bit too long. Probably something to do with going a little deep at the beginning.
Once we finished climbing out of the lowest point, the course opened up onto massive dirt roads. I could still see Troy up ahead occasionally, but he was at least 45 seconds in front, and I wasn't getting that back easily. I tucked in a Triathlon position and drilled the fireroads as hard as I could. At times it felt like I was flying, then as I rounded a bend and copped a block headwind, it felt as though I was dying and going backwards!
I couldn't wait to get to transition 2 so I could pick up some fresh bottles and food. I also had a nice cool 300ml bottle of Coca Cola with my name on it in my esky. The 500 metres to transition sign was heaven, and I drilled it to get every second I could.
At transition, I scoffed as much as I could trying to top up my fluids. I had seen goosebumps on my legs pretty early on, in the 25 degree heat, and know from experience, that this is a simple sign of dehydration. I downed a bottle of verofit, put 2 750ml bottles on my bike, got fresh gels and got out of there.
At the 80km mark in a Marathon, you do the sums and think 30km to go, piece of cake! It is actually the hardest 30km to ever do. You have so much fatigue in the body and are pretty much going on mental strength at this stage. I made the deal that at the 90km mark, I would empty the tank. The tank was pretty low so this emptying would have to be a finely dosed affair.
With 10km to go, I busted a spoke in the rear wheel. Delirious with fatigue I just let it dangle and clang around. It then started making more sounds. I should have just stopped and wrapped it around another spoke, but fear of being overtaken by a fresh opponent and also the fear that I might not get back on halted me from doing so. At this stage the noise was such that I thought that the rear wheel was imploding. Going down a hill the back brake started pumping up, then the loudest noise occurred and the brake lever went all the way to the handlebar. I had busted the rear brake housing with the spoke somehow snagging it and snapping it right through.
The brake cable then wrapped itself around the outer hub flange and flapped around wacking the brake calliper every time the wheel went around. Luckily I only had to endure this for 10 kilometres. What was more fortunate, was that the last 10 kilometres could be negotiated with just a front brake.
With 1 kilometre to go, team mate Ben Carmody was yelling encouragement as I rounded a farm dam. I looked over to the left to see where he was and almost veered off the edge of the trail into the dam. I could see the event centre over to the right and knew that I was almost home.
After crossing under the bridge, it was a slight rise and about 100 metres to the finish line. All over. 7th place Elite Men, 10 minutes behind the winner. 4 hours 22 minutes for the 110km. Absolutely spent.
I went and sat under a tree in the shade for what felt like half an hour. I was toasted. I had a coke, a bottle of water and some food. So slow to get back up on my feet.
It seems like the Highland Fling is a big deal.....
Random number items:
- With the results being sorted with the transition taken into account, 1st 2nd and 3rd were within 0.5 seconds of each other.
- Places 5th to 7th were within 17 seconds of each other.
- 4 out of the top 7 were from the 2602 postcode.
- Winner was on a 26er as was 4th, 7th, 8th, 10th
- 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th were on 29ers
I also managed to take out 5th place in the inaugural Real Insurance XCM series. It was an absolute honour to be on the podium with riders of the calibre of Dylan Cooper, Ben Mather, Matt Fleming and Shaun Lewis. This was definitely one of the highlights of my cycling career.
The day after the Highland Fling, like most hilly marathons, I am smashed, feeling like every muscle has been used, I am still dehydrated and starting to understand the importance of this great event in the overall scheme of things. All I can say is, thank god it is not on for another 12 months! Just like any standard marathon really!