The Graperide Ultimate

"Believe. Believe in yourself, believe in your training, believe in the possibilities, believe in the results. Go and race the race you believe you can expect".
Paul Rawlinson
(Cycling legend and bloody good mate).

On the evening of Thursday 7 October 2010 I had the most amazingly vivid dream of my life. I dreamt that I was in the Graperide Ultimate event. I dreamt that I was having the ride of my life. And I dreamt that at Havelock - Just 30kms from the finish - I was in third place...and a podium finish beckoned. This story, this page, this portion of your screen, is the story of how that dream came about to a reality. I woke from that dream, and woke to a new world. I would have quite some day - my day of days.

The sporting events I had previously participated in had tested me. Duration and distance extended to push me to new levels. A theme of sorts though was 'finishing'. This is not a bad thing when you consider that this listing includes events such as the Taupo Maxi Enduro and the 2009 Graperide Ultimate. And it would be fair to say that I arrived at the start line of most events before I was truly ready. The approach would be different this time. And subsequently, my status of ‘readiness’ would differ also.

The day after my dream I emailed Brian Bushe and we discussed the possibilities. I also emailed Paul Rawlinson, who essentially said, 'Good...about time you lifted your ambitions!!". (I'm paraphrasing). Paul also asked me if I was prepared to risk a DNF in the pursuit of achieving my goal. There would be two months of consideration before I would be ready to answer this question. The scene was therefore set.

Ahead of me was still to come December's Taupo Half Ironman. With it two years of triathlon would come to a close. For now. I love triathlon. It would be fair to say that I found myself happy with my efforts that day. The following week I would be in Blenheim and would swim the 7.6kms of Lake Rotoiti. This would be about my limit for the time being, and I was very sick for more than a week. Planned loops of the Graperide circuit were scrapped, and each day saw rides, runs, and swims shelved. In short - I rested. To quote Lynley Brown, "Rest is your weapon". Yes. She is so right.

On 1 January 2011 I was home and my bike was finally used again. That ride hurt. It really did. Actually, so did the next ride two days later. "I've entered and will do five laps", I told myself. Discipline it seems has improved for me, and so it would be that in a year where I had resolved not consume crisps, chocolate, or ice cream, I would find myself on the road readying my bike for my third outing of the year. "Now or never", I thought. And I never looked back.

The rides since that day have taken me everywhere in the lower half of the North Island, and have included the 'Four Hills' and 'Kapiti to Taupo' outings. As the weeks of training progressed it dawned on me that this game of pushing and recovering was finally being understood. The eve of the Graperide Ultimate had me feeling the same as the Taupo Maxi Enduro. I was calm, focused, and feeling prepared. The battle loomed ahead and I longed for it.

The Start Line

The Graperide Ultimate would have eight starters, with the 2011 edition of the 505km event featuring a who’s who of endurance cyclists. Taupo Enduro (two laps) and Maxi Enduro (four laps) competitors featured throughout the group. Additionally two riders had successfully completed the Taupo Extreme last November. A full eight laps of the 160km Taupo circuit. (I congratulated Nick Dunne on his achievement shortly after the ride started. It was a genuine sentiment). Nick Dunne is currently training for next years 5,000km Race Across America. Eugene Collins was next to me at the start line - He's previously qualified for Kona. (The Ironman World Championships). Lastly, the field also consisted of Robin Reid, who has previously competed in both the Olympics and Commonwealth Games for New Zealand in road cycling. Robin still races in elite road cycling, and even won the elite division in the inaugural Graperide race in 2005. I would remind myself of this the following day - Standing next to Robin on the stage, in front of 2,000 people. While he was winning that race in 2005 I was further back. I was 110kg and I was 74th of 76 starters in my age group. That was a long time ago. 60,000kms have passed since then. To this new life.

The briefing allowed one last chance to reflect before the battle began.

“The approach would be different this time”.

Lap 1

Warm-ups done, we all listened to the race briefing. "Two minutes" came the call. The talking was now all done. It was now that we would be tested. We would be gladiators on this road of life. I had many plans still running through my head, and was still unsure how I'd approach this race. "30 seconds", was called out. "If I wasn’t here", I thought, "and I wasn’t able to entered this battle. What would I do if I was given just one day?? Just one day to live". The call went out. "Ten". I thought of only a single action that that moment - To go as fast as I could for the next 505kms. Clicking into the big chain ring, I pushed with all of my might on the pedals, and departed the start as fast I could. Then down on the bars. There was a gap now and I wasn’t waiting.

The race was underway. We rode well together as a group, but shortly before Blenheim I took off again. I grew up in Blenheim and frankly the Grove Road bridge on a Friday afternoon is not the best place for fast riding. Better to be the chased solo rider than the larger bunch attempting to get through heavy traffic. I eased up after the bridge and sat on 30kms per hour. We had a slight tailwind, and I waited just long enough for Eugene Collins to jump on my back wheel. I then put the pace back on, and after several minutes Eugene took his turn on the front. It was like riding behind Jens Voigt. The guy does not know how to ride slowly!!

Eventually the group caught us and a more modest pace ensued for a short period of time. Then Nick Dunne came to the front. "Ace riding at Taupo", I said. "Ace blog" Nick said. Wow!! High praise indeed from someone who achieved greatness with his eight laps at Taupo last year. He then achieved a bit more greatness by proceeding to lead out the group for about the next ten kms. I think Nick was trying to simple ride off the front, but he wasn’t dropping me - Not on this day. The other six riders fell back and we carried on. Nick eased up slightly and the group reformed. We were approaching the base of the Elevation, and the hills waited for us.

Now anyone who knows me will also know that I have had my fair share of tough moments on the Elevation. The hill is a short sharp climb just before Picton. Ruth waited at the top of the hill. "Call out how far ahead the leaders are", was my instruction before the race. We draw closer to the climb, and the group compacted. Everyone sat up.

I rode to the front of the group, with gears shifted to allow spinning to the top. I didn’t ease up and estimate the cadence was around 115 all the way. Reaching the top I looked towards Ruth – no splits needed - I was leading the group over this first climb, and looking back we had three now, with Robin Reid on my wheel. I got into a big gear and pushed hard down the hill. We needed to make this advantage stick, as the real hills were ahead of us.

The fast descent into Picton was followed by the sharp left turn towards the Queen Charlotte, and the first climb began. I sat in behind Robin, with our ascent swift but comfortable. This set the scene for a good breakaway. The descent followed...and I was dropped!! Descending is not where I am left behind.

'The Wedge' waited for us - A hill about three times longer than the initial climb out of Picton, with seemingly endless corners for good measure. I caught  Robin on this climb, and Robin then casually said, "I'm not breaking away, I just need to go for a slash". Robin then rode off the front, and was out of sight within 30 seconds. He is a class act. I continued up the climb, and we regrouped with Robin near the top. Down the other side then, big gears, a fast pace...and dropped again. I really pushed a fast pace, and at one stage the front wheel slipped sideways on a wet corner. No mishap however. The pace did continue, however I'd next see Robin on the long Linkwater straights. He would be well down the road.

Halfway through the Queen Charlotte the hills end, and in front of you the road opens up as you pass through Linkwater. You then get to enjoy great views, with a climb at the end of the long straights bringing you to a larger hill overlooking Havelock. It was through Linkwater that I looked back. Eugene Collins was about 200 meters behind me. He remained there for what seemed like ages. Then BOOM, he passed me doing what must have been 50kms per hour. I was on 35kms per hour and it was like I was standing still. A perfect passing manoeuvre, with no real opportunity to jump on his wheel. He powered away, and I honestly thought his pace would catch-up with him later in the race. It didn’t. I respect both his ability and determination.

Now forth then. I had 30kms to the start / finish, and focused on staying on the bars. No time to think of the tailwinds that this stretch of road had gifted me in some earlier editions of the Graperide. This time it would be a slight headwind all the way. I neared the sign-in area and noted the time. This was my 12th 'Graperide Lap', and my time of 3:09 was the second fastest, just 4 minutes slower than Lap 1 of the 2008 Magnum. On that day I was cooked after my efforts. On this day it didn’t matter if I felt 'good' or 'bad'. Just one fact mattered - Four laps of racing lay ahead of me.

The start of this 505km race would be fast.

“The 2011 edition of the 505km event featured a who’s who of endurance cyclists, including two Taupo Exteme Enduro (eight laps) riders, the length of New Zealand record holder, and ex-Olympian Robin Reid”.

Lap 2

A super quick changeover followed, with a yellow reflective windbreaker added for good measure. Ruth had everything ready, and I was away almost before I had arrived. The start of this lap would see me back into third place. Straight down on the bars, and despite a constant headwind to Blenheim my speed sat at 30-32kms per hour. Eugene’s place was in my mind at all times, and I focused on catching him.

My folks (and children) were seen together near Blenheim, with cheers and waves. I waved back and pushed on. 100kms ago I had my brief solo breakaway near Blenheim - Now it would be a 450km breakaway, with the sole goal to catch those ahead of me.

Tailwinds from Blenheim, and the Elevation's climb followed. It was still light and we were now on the Linkwater straights. "Almost Lap 3", I thought, "and after that just 200kms". Yes. The mind games were used all day and later all night. I finished my Psychology degree (Victoria University) in January and it would be safe to say that I would lean on skills learned during this ride. In fact, to get to the finish I would need to draw on everything I had learnt in this life. Linkwater arrived again.

Nearing the motel halfway along the Linkwater straights it appeared something was wrong ahead of me. Someone was walking towards the road from the motel - There was much shouting and yelling. Someone else came jogging to the same point. More shouting. More yelling. Then several more people - This time sprinting - from the motel to the road. "Hurry up or you miss him!!", I heard. This small crowd waited at the roadside, with random people running from various units at the motel. I realised what was happening. "Oh my God", I thought, "they are rushing out to see me!!". This has to be one of the coolest moments I have experienced on the bike, and I genuinely wish each and every one of the crowd had the ride of their lives the following day. Say 'hi' to me at the start line one day - I look forward to meeting you.

The Start Line

Unsure at the start
Thoughts of loved ones departed
Yes - Race with no fear.

My original plan was for a full clothing and lights changeover somewhere through Linkwater, but I decided the top of the long climb out of Linkwater would be better yet. This was perfect, as darkness was arriving fast. With the darkness the cooler conditions started to make their presence felt. I was feeling a little light headed when I stopped, so had some short chained carbs that I keep with my emergency stash of food. This left me with an upset stomach for about the next hour. Tested after six hours for the Aka’s Double loop. Tested after ten hours for the Four Hills ride. Tested after 12 hours while on riding from Kapiti to Taupo. Not tested enough it seemed. I was staggered that this hadn’t worked for this event, and didn’t use them again. Just as well the rest of my food was Hammer - I never missed a beat.

I descended into Havelock, and then pushed on towards the start / finish. This race had changed though. This year had changed. I now had all of my eggs in one basket. Ruth's plan was to wait at three specific spots on the course for Lap 1 and Lap 2. While changing into my night clothes I pictured this happening for another lap. I also visualised Ruth handing me food and drinks for an extra start / finish. "I'll do you a deal", I said. "Stay out for one more lap and there will be no Taupo this year". Ruth paused. "You're on!!", she said. Our pact made then. No four laps of Taupo. I carried on. Two riders ahead of me. Five riders chasing me.

Focusing on those ahead of me I looked upon my beloved bike. This was not Taupo. This was not a ride simply to complete. This was not 2005 - and I was no longer fat, or slow, or full of doubt. This was the Graperide Ultimate, and I had just one day to live. I thought more during those 30kms than I ever have before. No dreams. More seeing this new place I sit at in the universe. The view was worth the wait.

I also understood for the first time ever what teamwork truly was - we would live, or die, together - my guardian angel that I sat upon and me.

Lap 2 then would come to an end. I figured that it was best for the sign-in staff (and Ruth) to know that I was approaching. "Rider checking in", was called when I was about 50 meters from the sign-in area. They heard me. The subsequent 'stop' was at the upper end of quick. I've been told that it was easily under a minute. The wheels stopped though, so it was too long for my liking. (Of Note: My total time off the bike for the entire ride was around 12 to 15 minutes. While this is pleasing, a single digit time would be the ideal. I'll have to put my thinking cap on!!). I looked ahead into the darkness and cherish the lap ahead of me. Lap 2 took 3:34, and Lap 3 represented the backbone of the entire ride.

The map of the Graperide circuit. The Graperide Ultimate is five full loops around the course.

“I thought of only a single action that that moment - To go as fast as I could for the next 505kms”.

Lap 3

I rode off into the darkness at speeds nearing the start - 200kms ago. Turning towards Blenheim I encountered the headwinds once again and got down on the bars. Ruth passed me in the car and tooted. She would wait further ahead. I was in my own world now, and pushed the pace into the wind, while reminding myself that these hours of suffering would soon enough become fleeting seconds - recalled as memories in quieter moments.

Blenheim came and went, and I reminded myself of this same race two years ago. I had reached Blenheim on Lap 3 and got the biggest case of the munchies ever. It had to be shoe string chips that I craved for some reason, and so it was that I got to the Grave Road bridge and looked left (towards Picton), and then right (towards the local KFC). To this day I am very proud of turning left. Even though I don't even eat KFC, I know that the meal would have tasted sooooooo good. Perhaps there would have been additional chips purchased to pop into my back pocket. Maybe some potato and gravy. Perhaps even a drum stick or two. But no. I had carried on. This year however I simply looked to the right for traffic and swept around the corner at pace.

The bridge represented my last true headwind until Havelock, and thus I got down on the bars once again and focused on keeping the tempo riding going. My heart rate was struggling to reach where it had been earlier in the day, but the miles were being eaten up and I focused on catching Eugene.

While almost at Picton, it occurred to me that I was also almost halfway through this ride. No. "Better yet", I thought, " I am almost 50kms from Lap 4…and after that lap have just a single lap to go". This sounded much better.

The Elevation followed, and at the top I'd have my one and only 'pit stop'. Ruth waited patiently with drinks, and I had time to work out that I'd be stopping just six times on this entire ride. In the midst of all of this a car pulls up. "Are you guys ok??", they asked. "Yes…we're doing a race", replied Ruth. Yes - 'We' is very apt. While only I sat on the seat, Ruth was there every step of the way with the training, and very seldom did she complain about my longer commutes, or even longer Saturday training rides. To ever consider that this was a solo effort would be not only arrogant, but also missing the point entirely - Without my family this ride would be meaningless.

The hills were ahead, and were also still quite manageable. It had been 200kms since I had ridden with others, and I rode through the twisting ascents and descents with the rhythm you tend to get when roads become familiar.

Linkwater again followed, and for the first time I glanced back, just to check, looking for any lights from other cyclists. The night was moonless, and the road was dark.

In a blur Lap 3 seemed to finish. I had now cycled almost the distance from Kapiti to Taupo, and as the forth lap approached I reminded myself that just 202kms remained once Lap 4 commenced. This is the equivalent of Kapiti to Palmerston North and back. Or perhaps a single lap of Taupo, carrying on to the first relay point. Or perhaps the Magnum. In that instant my world's focus shifted to a variable that I had not considered. I thought about a factor that could change everything. Lap 3 had taken 3:56, and Ruth handed me drinks and food for Lap 4. "See you at the finish at 9am", I said. My mind was elsewhere as I set off. Still comprehending the Magnum. Yes - The Magnum may yet change everything.

Lap 4

The Magnum is the two lap race around the Graperide circuit. It's fast!! I've done the event twice (2007 and 2008), and on each occasion set a new record for the Magnum for the Kapiti Cycling Club. (Not that I'm keeping count). The time of 6:33 has thus stood since the 2008 edition of the Graperide. Along come Brian Bushe, with two Taupo Enduro's under his belt, and this year smashed the previous time. 5:49!! Love it. He did this with no drinks on Lap 2, and I admire his discipline to not stop at a drinks station (thus losing time). We caught up at the prize giving and he still looked fresh.

Darkness arrived soon enough, and we raced throughout the night.

“After several minutes Eugene took his turn on the front. It was like riding behind Jens Voigt”.

The Magnum however, for me, was something else on this day. The two lap event starts at 6:20am, I had chasing riders behind me, and it was looking increasingly likely that I'd be passed by some (if not all) of the Magnum riders on my final lap. All this hard work. All this effort. All this progress. And I could lose everything - with the chasing riders catching a free ride with successive bunches of Magnum riders.

My next 202kms would have these thoughts running through my head without reprieve. How far back were the others?? Was I doing enough?? When would they catch me?? It then begun that I looked back.

Almost at Blenheim I looked behind me…and saw a small light on the road well behind me. It was too small to be a car's headlight. I was being caught. The Grove Road bridge announced the only tailwind on the loop, and I knew that the time was now to push back. At the very end of every long straight I glanced back. Never before the very end of the long straights. I wouldn’t dare. To look back any sooner, and to see a light, that would be a bitter blow.

The Elevation arrived once more. Reaching the top I thought, "Just once more up this climb". Ruth wasn’t waiting at the top this time. Her work was done, and I was not to see her at the three spots where she had waited patiently for me. It was amazing how the three places where she had been were transformed. Those spots were now grass verges, small hedges, and painted fences. Devoid of the headlight (she wore on her head), and lacking the warmth of knowing that I was one step closer to the finish at each of these junctures. Each place was now a reminder that I was simply being chased.

Picton’s descent was fast once again, and I looked forward to the penultimate ride through the hills. The first climb up the hills was fine, but The Wedge really surprised me – My legs were basically gone. Up until now there had been fatigue, but I now felt like I was going up the hills in the big chain ring, and I even thought I was at the top of the hill three times before actually getting there. “What will this be like in 100kms??”, I wondered.

Five Laps

Racing through the night
Pushing so hard to stay clear
Striving for my place.

Linkwater followed. A glance back told me that no one was on my heels just yet. However, a subsequent look behind me just before the final bridge on the long straight was a different story – The light was there again. I checked again. And double checked. I even slowed down and had an extended look at this road I had already travelled. Yes. It was there. Hallucinations do sometimes happen on longer rides, but this was real. Crossing the bridge and starting up the long climb out of Linkwater I had a thought. “Was it a street light??”. Now I was getting confused.

This scenario was akin to a cycling version of the ‘Japanese water torture’, with each seemingly harmless look back growing in my mind...and creating alternative realities of what could really be happening all around me.

It was at about this point I wondered if I could maybe turn right at Havelock, and carry on to Nelson and down the West Coast. I have no idea why. The idea passed though. I reminded myself of the training done this year, and of the efforts on this race. “Believe!!”, I said out loud. “Believe in this race!!”. I felt like I was being chased by a pack of wolves, while waist deep in mud.

With this ride carrying on towards Lap 5 there were some tougher mental moments. I was now accustomed to the physical hardships and in fact welcomed them. I knew everyone was suffering, and each painful movement on the seat, or in my back, or through my head, was simply raising the stakes. I had no problem with this scenario, and welcomed the game of ‘lets see who blinks first’. No. It was the mental side of the race that was gruelling. Your mind will help or hinder you, as it is commanded by your soul.

I reached Havelock. Looking right I turned left, and knew that the time was truly now. “Believe!! Come on Stu – 130kms to a medal”, I said out loud. The headwind had waited for me, and I pushed hard, while getting on the bars. This was a time for doing what needs doing. Without complaint, self pity, or half measures.

The Graperide's profile.

“I was leading the group over this first climb with Robin Reid on my wheel”.

Approaching the start / finish I called out “Rider checking in!!”. Ruth was not about, (having done her three laps), and this I expected. However, what was unexpected was that no one at all was about. I called out again. Still no one. I got off my bike and started to walk over to my gear to get drinks and food for Lap 5. I had made a conscious decision to not litter at all on this ride, and put all of my wrappers into my transition boxes. The way I saw it, what was gained by dumping rubbish on this, the most beautiful road in the world. Bottles and bars were loaded. I never felt rushed, and must have spent at least four minutes at the sign-in area. Almost enough time for a sleep!!

Out of nowhere came a friendly official. “Hi”, he said calmly. I was at my last sign-in, and it would be the most relaxed few moments of this entire ride. I signed-in and walked to the bike. Clipping in I paused. “How far ahead is second place??, I said. “30 minutes”. Hmmmmm...Eugene had done enough it seemed. “How far back was third lap ago”, I queried. The official checked quickly, and reported, “4th place was 55 minutes behind you at the end of Lap 3”. “What about Nick Dunne??”, I said. “He was 15 minutes further back”, came the reply.

I was stunned. “Are you serious??”, I asked, with the official double checking and confirming the placings. I paused for what must have been 15 seconds. “Flipping Heck”, I said. “Are you telling me that one full lap ago I was an hour ahead, and 75 minutes ahead, of two riders that successfully rode eight times non-stop around Taupo last November??”. The marshal calmly replied, “, but that’s 55 minutes back to 4th place”.

I thanked the official and took off into the darkness for the final time. Lap 4 had taken 4:12, and I knew that this was it. I knew that if I gave everything I had on this last lap then I’d make it. ‘Giving 100%’ has been redefined over the last year, and I knew that I had to reach my true limits, or I would lose everything.

Lap 5

So it was then, as I setoff for this final lap of the Graperide Ultimate, that I would finally realise that I was actually doing well at the end of Lap 3. But what about now?? The pace was on as I headed into Blenheim. Cars were about now, and all traffic seemed to be heading for the Graperide event. “Come on!!”, came the call from a car coming towards me. “55 minutes”, I thought, as I waved to the tooting vehicle. “But what about now??, I wondered. “40 minutes?? Perhaps they had a great lap and it’s now 30...or 20 minutes”.

Blenheim was reached for the last time and a road to Picton waited for me. Then the hills. How would I get over those hills?? I was absolutely buggered at this stage, and was still pushing the pace. I would do everything to keep the pace going, and as I crossed the Grove Road bridge leaving Blenheim I stood a fraction, so I was just off the seat. This would give me slightly more power as I cycled on. I stayed in this position for as long as I could, and eventually I feel back down into the seat.

This ride had no spinning, no freewheeling, and no room for complacency. Looking back at the end of a longer straight I glanced back as I rounded the corner. The light was there again. Or was it from the previous lap?? I had rounded the corner now, and couldn’t see back down the road. Crikey, I was getting confused now. No looking back for now, the Elevation was the next hurdle to overcome, and I needed to focus on that task. Then the hills, which I needed to overcome with some degree of pace.

My day was done, and surrounding me were riders yet to start their own races. Utterly surreal. (As was the sunlight creating 'white out' for my vision!!).

"I'll do you a deal", I said. "Stay out for one more lap and there will be no Taupo this year". Ruth paused. "You're on!!", she said”.

My strategy was to swap the batteries for the lights at the top of the Elevation. However, at the base of the climb I suddenly found myself surrounded by darkness. The lights had run out of juice. It was pitch black. I mean absolute darkness. I looked back – No lights there either.

Only once in my life have I been ever experienced being in such complete darkness. That was my first overnight Aka’s Triple loop. On a climb halfway through the Aka’s forested area I turned off my lights as I carried on, in the dark, on the road to nowhere. I felt like I could have reached out and touched the darkness - it was as if everything in this world was gone...except for the road, my bike, and me.

I pulled over to the left in the dark and only knew I was off the road once I was on gravel. I calmly reached into my back pocket and found the cable for the batteries. I swapped the cabled over, and pushed them into the battery. No light. I pulled the cable out, and pushed it back in. Still no light. The cable was swapped to the old battery. Nothing. Then again to the recharged battery. Nope. It was official – I had no light. These lights had been tested and used for night riding in training, and thus I had a fairly good idea of how to use them. “A solution exists here”, I thought. “Think of what is not right. I usually plug in batteries and the lights come on!!”. I then realised. The lights had switched off due to the batteries running out. Thus, the lights were now ‘off’. Reaching up to the light I pressed the button. I now had light. No time for back patting however, I had lost two minutes.

Clicking through the gears I started up the Elevation. The short break had seen me freshen the legs slightly, so I pushed hard up the hill and thought about this same hill 400kms ago, when our group had split. That seemed like another age, and I wondered where others were - all facing their own challenges and internal battles. Reaching the top of the Elevation I was relieved. It had been easier to get to the top than expected, but it had still been the toughest climb of the entire race thus far.

Ruth was not at the top. No. There would be no handoff of a bottle, or a call of “You’re doing well”. The road at the top was once again simply a grassy verge. In quieter moments I sometimes contemplate how much I love Ruth, and can only wonder if I will ever comprehend the dimensions. With all my heart I loved her from the moment we met, all of those years ago in that flat on Adelaide Road.

The Hills

Legs strain on The Wedge
Seeing my goal gives me strength
This is the last lap.

Picton’s blur arrived again, and with it the increased issue of lights all around me. My eyesight was now getting worse. Every light had a large glowing halo around it, and while this may sound ‘pretty cool’, it was actually ‘pretty worrying’!! Any cars with headlights on high beam would actually be blocking out all of my vision of where I was cycling, and I’d simply try to keep a straight line of cycling until they passed. I would occasionally dip my glasses to check if it wasn’t simply my glasses fogging. But no. My eye sight was receding, and I would need to battle on with one more variable to manage.

“Loss of sight won’t prevent me from doing this”, I thought. “Believe!!”, I said out loud. “Believe in yourself Stu!!”. My hardest critic in my corner - this boded well – he is not swayed by mood or public opinion, only by that most scarce of commodities, which also surrounds us everywhere. He feds only on winning...and he had been hungry.

Still a pitch dark night, I started climbing the first hill out of Picton. “Only three hills after this climb”, I told myself. And once again I wondered when I’d be passed. Magnum riders were racing now, and I could feel them approaching fast. With them would be passengers from other races, seeking what I wanted, but gaining a free ride. When would they pass me??

I descended towards The Wedge now, and gained any momentum I could before the climb started. “This is your whole race right here”, I told myself. The last big hurdle lay before me, and I started the climb in bottom gear and pushed with all of my might as the pedals turned slowly right from the base of hill. I went to stand in the saddle...and immediately fell back to the seat. I couldn’t even stand on a climb now. There was no pain now, no cramping, no power. Nothing.

The pedalling continued and I reached a slightly flatter section, but there would be no clicking up the gears as I had done on previous laps. I knew there was more to come. The Wedge continued and I focused only on the spot just in front of me. “Three or four more corners. Surely”, I thought. The road still remained my focus two dozen bends later. I then reached a strange section of road, with the climb going flat. A brief reprieve once again?? No. The top. I allowed myself the luxury of coasting down the initial sections of the descent. Others still had this hill ahead of them, and it now separated us on this journey.

Brian Bushe and myself at the prize giving.

“My eyesight was now getting worse. Every light had a large glowing halo around it”.

Descending now, and my vision was such that I was needing to squint to actually make out if the corners swept around to the left or right. Occasionally, bike laden vehicles would pass me, with toots and cheers. I would wave, but celebrating now seemed a little too foolish.

Forwards, always forwards, and down on the bars, as the flat sections of Linkwater opened up before me. Daylight was almost upon me now. The long climb out of Linkwater started. I emptied out a water bottle to lighten the climb to the top, and now had just enough to reach the finish. With one bar also in my back pocket I had everything I needed - as long as I also had enough spirit to not slow down. A new day now, and I was surrounded by daylight. The warmth that follows daylight wasn’t felt however. Instead, in front of me, black lines and white dots were seen everywhere. I could sense that this ride would need to finish before this curtain closed.

Then, 300 meters from the top of the climb the first of the Magnum riders flew by. Almost without exception calls came out – “Go fella”, “Well done”, “Great riding”. I waved, but didn’t hear the precious words I desperately wanted. I received no replies when I repeatedly asked, “How far back are the five lapper riders??”. I did however take comfort in the fact that this group was going too fast to pick up someone who had done 475kms.

Descending was now fairly cautious, with brakes used in places that had seen me clicking up gears and pushing the pace on previous laps. "Two climbs left", I thought to myself, as I started up the rise to Havelock. I managed to get out of the saddle this time and simply looked to the top of the hill, knowing I had to get to the top as fast as I could.

I then saw the cyclists. The passing cyclists. More Magnum riders were coming by. Brian Bushe was with the group and called out, "Are you still third??". "Yep - How far back to the chasing five lappers??", I said. "What five lappers??", came the reply. "You're the first one we've passed".

I carried on to the top of the hill, and looked towards the marshal. He was directing cyclists to left, and thus towards the finish of the race. It's safe to say I knew the way. If this had been a four lap event I would have possibly been fresh enough to punch the air, giving cries of "I did it!!". But no. This is five. On this day there would be no mistakes. No arrogance. No regrets. I was 30kms from the finish, and I knew that I needed to give one last long push home. I also knew that I would go to places I had never been before. In that moment, in my minds eye, I pushed all of my chips across the table - Pointing to the number I knew would come out of the wheel. I would either feel this was destiny, or would be destroyed.

Down on the bars for the final time I flew down the hill away from Havelock. Any notion I had of pacing myself on this final stretch evaporated in those moments. With daylight about fully now I found that the white road markings were not visible at times. Squinting didn’t help, and twisting my head no longer provided visual cues. Finally I decided on focusing upon the object that seemed most fitting - My front wheel. For 90% of the time I would get the peripheral view of the moving white lines as I looked straight ahead.

My one thought on the stage?? "How do I get down those steps!!"

“I was 30kms from the finish, and I knew that I needed to give one last long push home”.

More cyclists passed. The Magnum riders that went by were still too fast to have chasing riders amongst them. These were relatively large groups, and thus the work was shared - and speed was fast.

However, shortly after the group went by a lone cyclist passed me. Slower than all of the others. The fresh pace simply wasn’t there. Had this been a chasing rider?? I was now just 10kms from the finish. This was not the time to feel sorry for myself. I had to believe in my race, my ability, and my legs pushing me through to the very end. No one else passed me on this ride.

There are two rises to climb before the Wairau Bridge, and reaching the top of the first climb I noticed that there were road signs at the top. This seemed odd, as I recalled this being on the next hill. I then looked ahead and was very relieved to see ahead of me a long the Wairau Bridge.

I was almost there. Crossing the Wairau Bridge I tried to keep well to the left, but at times this really became tricky, because the side of the road has no white road markings. If they were there I couldn’t see them anyway!! Then a bump that I recognised. The bridge was crossed. A small descent now, but I wouldn’t be on the bars again on this ride. I looked ahead, hoping, waiting, to see the finish.


See it at the start
Race against such good riders
Who became my friends.

It was just the white line and me now. Occasionally I’d swerve around 'Cycle Race' signs, but the white line would take me to the finish. "Go Daddy!!", I heard. I was there. Orange cones were ahead of me, and I turned left - just making out where Ruth was. I stopped between Ruth and an official.

I had always thought that the Maxi Enduro would be the benchmark for fatigue, but racing these 505kms had me more tired than I had ever been before. My eyes closed. "Have I finished??", I said. "Yes". "Did I do it??", I asked. "Yes". "Was I third??", and both Ruth and the official said "Yes". Finally, I asked one last question. "Are you joking??". "No", came the reply.

I felt my head fall onto my hands. Now I could stop. At last I simply breathed. And this race, this day, this day of days was finished. Running scared for 200kms I had survived. Never ever would I be arrogant enough to sit up and cruise - not with the calibre of cyclists who lined up with me. This field of riders had no weak links.

"Excuse me", I heard. "Do you want to cycle up the finish shoot??". "Have I not finished??", I said. "Yes, but we have a couple of minutes until the next wave of riders leave", came the reply. "You'll get quite some reception", he added. "Can I have two minutes here first??", I said. The official made a quick phone call and confirmed this was all ok. I then setoff to the finish...once again.

The five lapper riders finish on the main road, as the other 2,500 cyclists all come out of the Forest Estate winery. Not a good look if this situation isn't managed. So small windows existed to ride into the winery. Alex ran next to me, and I have to say that it all seemed quite effortless. I had gotten to the finish, and had also gotten a placing I wanted. Big announcements were made, crowds cheered, and I found my spot - finally - on the grassy area near the large stage. I could at last truly stop. And I did.

It was all worth it.

“My eyes closed. "Did I do it??", I said. “Yes” came the reply”.

Sitting on the grass I recalled the first time I had been in this same spot six years ago. I had finished 74th of 76 starters in my age group and now I was at the other end of the spectrum. That was so long ago. 60,000kms ago. A lifetime ago. Another life.

So I sat there wondering about this life. This journey. Paul Rawlinson's phone number was dialled. "I did it", I said. "I bloody did it - Thanks for telling me I could". It seemed fitting to finish this ride where it had begun. With an update as to what was possible, and what was later achieved.

The prize giving would follow later in the day. In the crowd I waited to collect my medal, and I stood next to Brian Bushe. This journey had truly come full circle. I then setoff for the stage...and a new chapter of my life. I had seen a new world, but more about that later.

*** The End ***

The 2011 Graperide Ultimate Riders

This was a strong field. The 2011 winner was over an hour faster than the 2009 winner. The only woman in the field was also over an hour faster than the only woman in the 2009 edition. Additionally, the average time for all finishers was over 30 minutes faster compared with the 2009 race.

For those who wish to assume that there existed faster conditions: Both the Magnum (two laps) and Solo (one lap) times were - on average across all 2,500 riders – over 20 minutes slower in 2011 compared to 2009. It was a tougher course this year.

For those I lined up with - Thank you. To race with you has been cherished. May our paths cross again. In a world of softer options and weaker moments, we eight are kindred spirits. I look forward to hearing your stories also.

The placings for the 2011 Graperide Ultimate.

Many thanks to...
Everyone who asked me how the training was going, or even better yet trained with me. The list of people is extensive, but you know who you are, and 'yes', you made a positive difference.

Hammer Nutrition

Still the best endurance supplements on the market. Thanks to Rachael at Hammer. Four years ago you were simply someone who sent nutritional products to my doorstep, but at some stage you become a friend. You have a great spirit, and I wish you every success for yet another Ironman event you'll conquer next year.

On Yer Bike

Nigel, Simon, Matt, and the staff at On Yer Bike in Paraparaumu (and Wellington) are second to none. They know bikes, and they also know your name. I puzzled as to why anyone would go elsewhere. I look forward to continuing my association with your stores.

Rhonda Byrne

Your texts have centred my world. Thank you for sharing your journey, and opening my eyes.

Jacky James (Aka 'Iron Jack')

I will always remember that moment I saw you coming towards me on Lap 2 of the Ironman run. Unlike so many others, you were still running. You had come past us so full of doubt at the end of Lap 1, and approaching us on Lap 2 you had come to realise how tough the Ironman would be for you...and you embraced the suffering. You ran towards the finishing line, but you also ran from an old life to your new one. This symbolic gesture was not lost on me. I too 'kept running'. Pushing hard throughout the night of racing, I knew that others would weaken if I gave 100%. In a ride defined by darkness, I now find myself surrounded by light - thanks to you.

Paul Rawlinson

Your comments were from the heart, and I will always respect that you cared little if I 'liked' (or disliked) what you had to say. You said what would help me better myself, and that is true friendship. They say that when the student is ready the master will appear, and through listening to you I have learnt a lot about ambition, racing, and humbleness. In this world of infinite possibilities, you have taught me to seek out only success. I read those words everyday...and will continue to do so.

Mum and Dad

Another successful Graperide for both of you. I really hope I’m still cycling when I’m approaching 70. You both make me really proud. Dad – Thanks for the tyres, and tubes, and the seat. They were very much used, and made a huge difference. Do keep pedalling. You are better than you know, and just need a good run of solids rides to get to where you want to. You are however, ahead of where many ever dream of - Even if they are half your age. Mum - I still can't believe you said, "I'll give you a good luck hug here at home, so you won't have to hug me in front of everyone else". I will always be proud to stand next to you. Who was there when I was throwing up blood every night when I had tonsillitis every for successive years in my youth?? Who worked nights for all of those years so Sandra and myself never went without?? Who gave me my competitive streak?? You have given too much to be in the shadows.


My little sister. I am so pleased we found our friendship. Your gift of the huge amount of bars came out of the blue, (after my subtle graduation hints!!), and they were very much used. I rode for two hours into work, and two hours home every Tuesday and Thursday throughout my training. This ended up being a 120km round trip by bike each day. I thought of Gary, Ella, Ari, and yourself on each of those rides. You have a fantastic family and you should be proud.

Alex, Amy, and David

It seems fitting that I only knew the finish had arrived when I heard your voices. You are the centre of my universe, and without you my I would lose balance in my life. Your goals will grow as you do, and I look forward to supporting you as you strive, and succeed, at whatever dreams you choose to chase.


Finally then, on this great journey, I reach the very end - in terms of the words I use to talk about the 2011 Graperide Ultimate. It seems fitting then that the person who gets the last word is the one who loved me before all of this. Before Graperide Ultimate's, and Taupo Maxi Enduro’s, and night time rides, and cycling, and even self confidence. You loved me for who I was, and also who I could be. You help keep my feet on the ground, but you also give me the freedom to be who I am. I love you and I think you are perfect.

Thank you. Thank you one and all...

In Memory of Steve Avery

I never knew you.

But you inspired me to look towards the clouds,
Then try to reach them,
And finally try to fly above them.

The view above those clouds,
That I had once seen from so far both rare and unique,
And made all of the effort worthwhile.

I will never be your equal,
But hope to someday be your friend.
May we inspire others.


Toni said...

Great account of a long day in the saddle - thank you for sharing it. All of a sudden I'm thinking a multi-lap grape ride might be a good goal if I start losing enthusiasm for ironman. Might even get Jacky James enthused as well!

Paul R said...

quite some company up on that podium Stu. Well done mate.

Anonymous said...

Stu great job at the grape ride I want to tell you how much energy I get from your blog it helps me to get out there when I am felling tired and has helped many of my friends who see training as a huge obstical, they get inspired by you. It was an honour to ride with you and finaly meet you maybe we could go for a spin some day when the pace is more relaxed :O) for me the race was a tough one I am in the midst of a raam campaign for 2012 and was using the grape ride as a test and tune I have had a knee injury that has prevented training and blew up on lap 4 so 150ks on one leg sux you big guys have got some big engines to :O)
Keep up the good work stu many people get motivation from you.I have this quote on my handle bars I thought you might like "a champion is someone who gets up when they can't"
go hard champ
Nick Dunne