Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Otway Odyssey

People debate whether the Otway Odyssey is the toughest mountain bike marathon race in Australia. I’m not going to argue either way here today. I’ll simply say it’s hard. Very bloody hard. Or, in a word, an odyssey. Its trails snake through the beautiful and varied landscapes from Apollo Bay to Forrest, about 200km west of Melbourne. There are pitches so steep and slippery that even the pros are forced to abandon cycling for walking. There are descents so extreme and dicey that your rear wheel seems determined to overtake your front wheel, which, if you’re me, it succeeds in doing a number of times. And this year, there was mud, which I will discuss later.

I have now raced the Odyssey twice: last year and this year. Last year was a disaster; I did manage to finish, but of the 8 ½ hours it took me to do so, I can safely say that the last five were in no way pleasurable. In fact, they were awful and the only reason I bothered dragging my carcass all the way to the finish line was because a mate I was riding with gave me an inspirational speech at about the 70km mark along the lines of, “Why bother finishing? Because that’s the point of this thing.” And of course, once I did finish I was happy I’d done so.

This year was a different story. I knocked two hours off last year’s time and more importantly, this year I was fit enough to enjoy all one hundred thousand metres of awesome trail…well, almost all of them. It’s impossible to enjoy all of it. That’s the thing about the Odyssey; because it’s so long and so rough, things will go wrong during your day. Almost every participant falls off at least once (Depending on your definition, I fell two to ten times). You will probably lose something (I lost two things). You will likely suffer never before experienced ailments (My hip started hurting and then repaired itself for no apparent reason). Your equipment will misbehave, possibly to the extent that it no longer functions (My gears worked intermittently). You might puncture (None this year, but two last year). And you will almost certainly have to push your bike up a hill that when muddy is impossible to do with any grace, if indeed walking a bike up a hill can be done gracefully (Even this year’s winner, Chris Jongewaard, had to push his bike).

It’s how you deal with things that will colour your day. If you start to feel sorry for yourself then you will likely not enjoy the race. Be prepared to be philosophical. And be prepared to fix things; at a minimum, take a couple of tubes, a pump, hex keys, a quick link for your chain, a chain breaker and a spare derailleur hanger. This won’t guarantee you’ll be able to get yourself out of any situation, but it gives you a fighting chance. I gave a guy some advice this year on how to convert his dualie into a single speed after his rear derailleur had failed. I recommended a ratio and to lock out his rear shock so his chain line would remain constant. I saw him after the finish with his Giant Anthem single speed. He said it worked great for a while but then the chain jumped up a cog on the cassette causing the chain tension to become so tight that it unscrewed his bottom bracket. So, being prepared wasn’t enough for him, but he did say he loved riding a single speed while it worked, so at least he got something out of it. He was just one of 225 competitors who DNF-ed (Another 130 odd entrants didn’t even bother starting, most I assume because of the overnight rainfall).

As I mentioned earlier, losing things is part of the race for many people. This year I lost my glasses. I had them hanging precariously out of my jersey pocket and they fell out on a climb. A guy behind me yelled out to notify me so I pulled over to run back and get them. Another guy yelled yell out, “Don’t bother.” I thought he meant, “Don’t bother, this race is too important to worry about a pair of glasses.” However, on collecting them, I realised he meant, “Don’t bother, I rode over them and smashed them into three pieces.” No bother. I also lost my Garmin 705. I don’t know how but I suspect it was when I fell heavily on a muddy descent. Unfortunately, there was no helpful soul behind to notify me this time. By the time I noticed there was no point going back. Despite this being an expensive piece of equipment, I didn’t mind too much. I was on a mission, I had a higher calling and I felt if I lost things that didn’t stop me moving then it didn’t matter. And besides, now I have a good excuse to get myself a Garmin 800. I reported my loss to race administration who told me not to lose hope; someone had once lost their Leatherman only for it to be found 12 months later. I’m not holding my breath.

The mud was surely the thing that defined this year’s race. Last year, I remember being annoyed that I got my feet wet early on doing a river crossing. This year, I was praying for river crossings as they afforded a chance to clean my bike. It was quite a funny scene at the rivers. Scores of people had their bikes completely submerged in an attempt to get them running as closely as possible to normal. Some were shaking them about to simulate a washing machine. Others used sticks to scrape the mud off their sunken steeds. If their mechanics could have seen this, they would surely have had their heads in their hands, horrified at what they would have to deal with come service time. I wasn’t even sure if the washing served much of a purpose. A few minutes after each wash the bike had returned to its prewash state. Fortunately, the worst of the mud was over by about the halfway mark. This is not to say that there wasn’t any more mud, just that it was possible to continue without having to stop to wipe it off.

If I needed any extra motivation during the race it came in the form of Phil Anderson. At a point in the course where you pass by those faster than you in the opposite direction, “Skippy” rode by, grimacing with pain, his face splattered with mud. I felt like I was racing Paris-Roubaix. For some reason I yelled out, “Go Phil!” Maybe I mistook myself for a spectator. Whatever the reason, it was a real buzz and I entertained myself for the next few kilometres with thoughts of cobblestones and drunk Belgians.

Awesome flowing single track, gnarly descents, fire roads, river crossings, ball-breaking climbs. Both my Odysseys have shared all these aspects and more. Last year was awful and this year was great. What was the difference? Training. It might seem obvious but if you haven’t attempted a race like this before it’s easy to underestimate what’s required. Last year, I wasn’t “unfit”, and while I knew I wouldn’t be fighting for a place on the podium, I thought I would manage the race OK. As I think I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t OK. Your training doesn’t need to be over the top. This year I did it on Chris Carmichael’s The Time-Crunched Cyclist. This program promises “fit, fast and powerful in 6 hours a week” and it delivers. It’s bloody hard, but at 8 weeks in duration, the end is always in sight. This amount of training is probably close to the bare minimum so if you can afford to invest more, do so. But as long as you set your target and work towards it, and the good luck gods shine on you come race day, or at least the bad luck gods stay away, you should be fine.

For the uninitiated MTB marathon aspirant, these are my final recommendations:

· During the race, be positive – things will go wrong.
· Eat throughout, even if you don’t feel like it.
· Use a front mudguard – your eyes will thank you.
· Don’t go out hard early – there’s plenty of time to go hard later if you can muster it.
· Use equipment you’re accustomed to (bike, clothing, nutrition).
· Take tools and spares.
· Train.

The Otway Odyssey is a great race. I plan to be back next year. If I can figure out a way to slash another two hours off my time, I’ll be battling for a spot on the podium!

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