Graperide Ultimate

“There is no such thing as false hope - only hope.”
Patti Davis. (The above line is the more common form of the original quote - "And
as far as false hope, there is no such thing. There is only hope or the absence
of hope - nothing else.")

The 2013 Graperide Ultimate, (otherwise simply known as the ‘GRU’ by those who have experienced the event), was always going to be a journey.  The planned journey was to end at the stage.  That would be the stage at the prize giving.  No.  Instead I would have a different journey.  Some have asked me if I am disappointed – That is like asking a car crash survivor if they regret not making it to their destination on time.  ‘Asking’ probably means you’re not in the right place to understand the answer.

The road to the 2013 Graperide Ultimate was one of falling in love with cycling once again.  The 24 hour ride was like a relationship breakup of sorts as far as cycling was concerned.  Some parts afterwards were anyway.  I desperately missed the very thing that that had also left me emotionally, physically, and most of all spiritually exhausted.  I also wanted nothing to do with it – for these reasons, and others.  So I didn’t cycle.  So I missed something that I (in some ways) detested.  How odd that must sound.  Over time though, I would simply get on the bike and ‘ride’ from place to place, and slowly I would begin to understand – once again - that my place in this world could be happier on 2 wheels. 

With the exception of a 12km ride on the time trial bike, (where I was the bike leg with the kids in the dualathlon), I exclusively rode the mountain bike from April 2012 until the New Year.  The mountain bike slowly changed over time, with additional layers of foam and duct tape slowly creating the world’s coolest touring bike, and eventually I was at one again with the world.  Biking was fun, the running was going great guns, and I was almost ready to get back on the road bike.  Almost.

You wake up one day and think, “Yes or no??”.  The Graperide was going to happen regardless of my involvement, and I needed to choose – so I did.  Extended runs on Sundays, and plenty of ‘double ups’ for the cycling.  Truth be known, plenty of ‘double ups’ for everything.  The training wasn’t ideal from a pure cycling perspective, however I wanted to see how the body and mind would cope with the training.  No issues – my longest ride was just under seven hours, and for approximately 50% of the weeks since New Years I spent more hours running than cycling.  I suppose, in hindsight, the ‘test’ would be one beyond just the training.

I knew this event would change me in some way or another.  Cycling through the night will do that.  Local cyclists were in my thoughts as I warmed up.  Not the ones who raced that day.  Not the ones catching up at the starting area.  No.  The ones who had died while out on training rides in the last eight years that I have been cycling.  The one emotional moment in the entire weekend was looking at my watch and seeing that we had 20 minutes until the race started, and then picturing Steve Avery, Steve Fitzgerald, Frank van Kapem, and Douglas Mabey cycling towards the starting line, with 10kms until they arrived...and the race start would signal their final five laps.  I suppose this is one reason why a DNF was never even considered – if you are breathing, then you should be fighting. 

The oddest thing was I had this queer feeling that I would die on this ride.  I’ve only ever felt that once before.  (That was the second Aka’s overnight Triple loop ride I completed).  That thought in itself didn’t bother me so much, as much as me being aware that if these were my last few hours, then I had better be doing something I really love...and doing my very best at it.  While my placing may not have honoured anyone who has died while cycling, I hope my attitude did.  I took this ride very seriously, and at no point thought of Comfort’s shoreline...setting sailing towards it.

At the start line I felt great.  I had no idea what I was in for, or how much I would change over the next 21 hours.  I would finish the ride, recover (albeit pretty slowly on this occasion), and would see the world differently as the dust settled.  “Was I disappointed??”.  I would ask myself that question a few times over the next few weeks.  Eventually, I’d have my answer, and this is the story of the journey to that point...

Where to start??  For the sake of brevity, on this occasion the start line will suffice.  The briefing went in one ear and out the other.  As they do.  I was 5kms down the road already, in my mind’s eye. 

Greg Manson and myself managed to give each other an electric shock as the bikes got close shortly after the start.  This probably should have been our sign to give the pace a nudge.  We didn’t.  Nothing silly.  No moves.  And a slight headwind to Blenheim.  All conducive to the group staying together.  Despite this we were down to 10 well before we reached Blenheim.

Lap 2 would also have a headwind on this stretch of road, with the final 3 laps a slight tailwind.  This said, winds were of little concern for me.  I had been hoping for rain.  Heavier the better.  It never arrive as forecast, and what did eventuate was too little too late.  I agree with a later sentiment that the possible prospect of rain left me a tad geed up, and thus deflated when it didn’t arrive.  Lessons learned.

Blenheim loomed, and I took off to avoid any kind of traffic jam at the main road turnoff.  I put the pace on as I went over the bridge, and then sat up.  No breakaway, and simply identifying and controlling the variables.  We were now 8 riders.

Tuamarina the same.  A little more pace over the rise, and the group once again strung out.  I felt great.  We now had 7.

The pace slowed as we got closer to Picton.  The hills now awaited us.  As we reached the Elevation I reached over to Greg Manson – he was the closest person in the group – and I gave a small push in his back.  “Time to go”, I was saying.  And we did.

However, my legs didn’t seem to have the same oomph they had given me on the countless hill repeats I had been doing.  No need to panic.  I’d catch them on the top.  And I did.

The descent into Picton was, as always, awesome.  Then the first climb of the Queen Charlotte Drive.  I was about 15 feet behind the group for the climb, and once again didn’t panic.  I ‘d pass them on the descent .  And I did.

I sailed past them all on the last portion of the descent, and began the climb ahead of them.  And I suspected that I’d get caught pretty quickly – And they did.

I had three choices at this point.  1) Ride away.  2) Ride with them.  3) Ride my own race.  My view was that the group would splinter, and Josh would leave the group at some point through the hills, and (as with last year) I would pick off the riders one by one.  I made up my mind, and knew this was a risk – but indecisive is the biggest risk of all – I sat up, and they were gone.

I’d now ride alone, and with the exception of about 2kms with Andrew Bence, would do so for the next 450kms.  Riding alone for that long is a rare experience that everyone should do from time to time.  You survive it.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

The race through the hills was one of finding rhythm, and I focused on simply not slowing down.

Linkwater arrived, and I saw the group still together.  Now was the time to simply focus on what I could control, and that was my pacing, nutrition, and mindset.  I felt pretty good, and was in good spirits.

This is not to make light of where I was.  I was here for a medal, and four cyclists were ahead of me.  If truth be known, more so than the medal, was getting onto the stage.  This – even now - is what is missed.  If anything.  I would have hung the medal around Alex’s neck as I headed up the steps.  And then to the top.

And what a place it is.  The view.  As unique as it is cherished.  Not a hill (or mountain) view, or meadows far below, or misty morning valleys around me, or rivers flowing where they will, or green fields passed, or untrodden brown sun scorched sands, or towns silenced by the distanced to them, or cities providing nothing but the roads to them, or unknown roads that offer you the safe appearance you gain when seeing anything from a distance to them.  And not even the familiar view and sounds of getting home safely after a long journey.  No.

The view from that stage is of people.  A sea of them.  Each one like a pixel on a screen – making up the image that you will remember forever.

I thought this race was going to start in Linkwater on Lap 3.  No.  It started at around the 65km mark on Lap 1.  The day was still warm, but I started to get cold.  Really cold.  I started to get cold sweats and in hindsight I probably should have been in bed with a hot water bottle at around this point.  Am I disappointed??  So ask me in 22 months if it helped on this journey to Florida to have found out if I could cope with feeling like crap for 440kms.  I never had a single negative thought, doubt, or moment of feeling sorry for myself on this ride.  I recall in times gone past some commutes home when I haven’t managed that.

The descent into Havelock was a fast one.  I passed a car halfway down the hill.  This wasn’t over.  I commented to Paul and Nick several times shortly after Havelock that “there is always hope”.  If someone wanted to beat me, then power to them.  But I wasn’t going beat myself.

Renwick arrived, and as it did so did the end of Lap 1.  (In around 3:06 or 3:08??).  And the rain??  Well the rain did not arrive on this lap.  Or the start of the race.  (As forecast at times).  Or for that matter during any notable part of the race.  We got a sprinkling later on, but that was about it.  No.  No rain.

I was officially “three minutes behind the leaders” after Lap 1.  Not sure what I was supposed to do with that information.  I had however requested these kinds of updates, so I simply noted the splits, and would then go back into my own world.

A head wind existed between Renwick and Blenheim, and I simply pedalled smoothly, ate food, and drank when required.  My pace went up significantly when I turned left at Blenheim.  Eugene Collins had DNF’ed and drove past, with a toot and a wave.  I’m unsure what Eugene said, as I only became aware that he had spoken to me as they drove off.  I had the blinkers on, and my head going through what was needed to keep moving forwards.  The vehicle got smaller as it disappeared down the road.  Never quieter – it never made a noise.  Not in the world I was in anyway.

Picton arrived, and I started up the Elevation for the second time.  Nick was now driving, and Paul leaned out of the window to ask the question I was thinking through myself.  “Do you want to swap bikes??”.  I felt squashed and powerless on the time trial bike, and at this stage of proceedings nothing would be gained by weighing up the merits (or lack there within) of only riding the time trial bike four times in the last 12 months – a 12km duathalon (with Alex and Amy both doing the runs either side of my ride), a 6 hour and 40 minute easy ride three weeks earlier (that also happened to be my longest ride for this event), and two rides of 90 minutes each the weekend before the race.  In hindsight, this may have been at the lower end of clever in terms of getting used to the bike I’d be on for a 20 hour race.

Life is not always that simple however.  Frankly, I wasn’t ready to ride the road bike until after New Year’s, so I had no sooner gotten used to the road bike than the GRU had arrived.  I then followed the logic of the time trial bike was superior, thus I would go faster on a time trial bike.  There was a logic there.  Albeit a logic that now saw me needing to swap off the time trial bike 140kms into a 505km race.

I swapped bikes, and found myself feeling better instantly.  Gold.  Feeling a LOT better I pushed on.

Conversations, that occasionally took place when food and drinks were handed to me, centred around me doing the 42km ride the following morning.  Dad and Alex, (so ‘Granddad’ and ‘Grandson”), were riding together and I figured that another 90 to 120 minutes in the saddle was simply more time in the saddle.  It wasn’t like I would be feeling any worse, and if I finished before they started then I’d ride with them.  As it turned out, I missed them by about 40 minutes.

Physically I was the worst I’ve ever felt on a bike.  (More was to follow – for the next nine mornings I’d feel worse than the day before – the blanket and sheets would be changed, and I would be drenched in sweat.  Then I’d have cold chills on and off throughout the day).  This physical feeling on the ride created a moment – a state if you will – I have long aspired towards, and have now reached.  It came from nowhere and stayed with me.  Halfway through the Queen Charlotte on Lap 2 I started laughing.  I called for Paul and Nick up to share the humour.  “Hey, I’m pleased I didn’t feel like this last April!!”, I said.  And I carried on, chuckling away from time to time.  They probably thought I was completely mad, but this was the sanest I had ever been.  I had a clarity of the world that had taken a long time to come about.  A world where nothing mattered except for the next 30 seconds of your life.  Over.  And over.  And over.  Forever if needed.

I changed into night clothes at the top of the hill overlooking Havelock, and push on.  A headwind awaited for the next 50kms, and I didn’t really care what the winds decided to do.  The descent was not as fast this time.  Into the dark.  No cars passed.  Caution replacing recklessness.  Chasing replaced by riding.  Looking ahead for others replaced by looking ahead to the finish.

Onto Lap 3.  “Almost finished I told myself”.  And I was right.  A slight tailwind to Blenheim, and then the side winds to Picton.  I was later told that my Lap 3 time was at least 30 minutes faster than Lap 2.  This is perhaps due to reaching Picton, and knowing that the finish was within arm’s reach.  Mentally anyway.  I would compare my mental state to Levin’s ride, and everything was mapped out.  At Picton I (mentally) reached out and touched the finish line.  The rest was very simple - finish this lap, and I’d be just 101kms from the last lap.  That’s it.

I was now on the road bike for good.  The time trial bike had been ridden from Havelock through to Blenheim, and it ceased to give any kind of (relative) advantage.

My eyesight started to go at this point.  Previously I have twice lost my eyesight on the GRU, and this had previously started with a halo effect around any (and all) sources of light.  When the sun comes up I get black spots, white specks, and a misty effect.  Then white out.  This usually starts on Lap 4.  I was 100kms earlier than that.  Not cool.  Eye drops twice a lap now.  I’d find out later if this would help.  It did.  (A big thanks to Grylles Optometrists for the handful of eye drop sachets they gave me leading up to the race).

The rain started shortly after Havelock.  “About bloody time!!”, I said out lout.  Then it stopped as fast as it had arrived.  The road continued to be soaked however, with puddles appearing in some areas.  We stopped, and I put on several additional layers of clothing.  I was cold all over.  Quote of the weekend goes to Paul – “Well Stu, you got the rain.  You were just too slow to be in it”.  And he was right.  I had clearing skies and puddles all the way to the start / finish.

Before setting off Paul leaned forward, and said in a hushed tone, as if this was meant for just the three of us, “Stu I know you don’t like to be told how you look on rides…but you look like crap”.  “I’ll finish this ride even if it kills me”, I stated.  (I would later read an update stating that ‘Stu was determined to finish the race’.  No.  I was finishing.  That was it).

I was about to set off, and got an update about another rider.  “Gary Bence is about ten minutes back”.  “I don’t care”, I replied.  Nick leaned in now, and commented - “Survival??”.  “Survival”.  Lap 4 awaited.

Gary Bence passed me as I crossed the Wairau Bridge.  He was in good company – 202kms later I’d have several groups of around 150 cyclists pass me on this same spot.  I pushed on, and called out to Gary to ‘work together’.  It didn’t happen, and he obviously had more in the tank than me that night.  We took several turns, then I sat behind Gary, and then I figured I was several minutes from throwing up.  And I sat up instead.  Time to ride again.

And I was alone again.  Apart from the trailing support crew.  Alone otherwise in my own thoughts.  This was to be a special ride, no matter how many times it would be completed, and I knew this.  I always have.

And it was.  I thought about one place in this world, and all my roads.  They will lead to one place.  The finish.  The finish line for the GRU this year is also the start line of another journey.  This last journey to an ‘event’.  The new day however would bring its own challenges.  Daylight would arrive.  I had to push on.  Reach the new day far enough through this circuit’s fifth lap that the day does not get the chance to spoil this ride.  A low set of expectations, but on this occasion it would have to suffice. 

Lap 4 is the entrance way to the final lap.  And that’s all it was really.  I would have Paul and Nick drive up next to me through to Blenheim, I would have my head down through to Picton, conservatively rode the hills, and enjoyed my second to last climb out of Linkwater to see the lights in Havelock.  Then the final 30kms of this race that were not involving the ‘last lap’.  The start / finish arrived, and I desperately wanted to stop.  Even if for just 30 seconds.  Paul and Nick had this down to a fine art by now, and I rode through, with the officials happy to simply sight me.  I thought of previous races heading into Lap 5 and the feelings were the same.  I knew this circuit and would complete it.  It would be daylight, and a busy day, when I would be back at Forrest Estate for the finish.

So finally my friends, Lap 5.  Lap number 24 in total if I was keeping track, and at times I gave thought to this greater journey that started in 2005.  Thoughts like these seldom start before the final lap, and on this occasion the thoughts were as fleeting as they were belated.  Surprises still lay ahead, and one of them was directly ahead of me.

Still dark, we saw a cyclist down the road.  A long way off.  The flashing lights the only clue to their existence.  Paul and Nick went ahead to investigate.  They drove off at speed, and everything was silent as I carried on.  This stretch of road was our opportunity to have a chat and catch-up, and it seemed odd to not have them about.  The vehicle lights were almost as small as the bike’s when I saw the brake lights also appear.  They had reached the cyclist, and I assumed were finding out who was ahead.

“I was a commuter…but we ran him off the road just in case he was a competitor”.  The humour was still about.  Good times.

I stopped for a spit about halfway to Picton.  The sun was up now.  My vision was going.  I had no idea on what the time was, as my watch was just a blur.  Truth be known, the time didn’t matter.  Only the finish mattered.  I’d get there, and between now and then I’d pedal.  My only concern time wise was keeping up enough pace that I wasn’t swamped by the 2,500 cyclists before I reached the finish.  Being passed by a few leaders is one thing, but to has the masses fly past could become dangerous for all involved.

Through the Queen Charlotte I struggled – not with the pace, as you adjust the pace to the fatigue and conditions – it was my sight.  I almost rode up several driveways, as I’d see a ‘road’ taking a sharp turn, and line it up, before quickly adjusting my angle(s).  These incidents seemed to occur mainly on the descents, so I called up Paul and Nick.  The main issue was the road having no road markings.  It was the road markings I had been following for the last 200kms, and not the road per se, so to lose that white paint on the side of the road me leading to concentrate on a haze ahead of me.

I decided I’d have them about 30 meters ahead of me, and I’d blindly (no pun intended) follow them, and would simply ignore everything in the universe for the next 15 minutes, and would focus purely on the back of the car.  “Drive off the road and I’m not far behind”, I said.  Imagine trying to explain that in an ACC accident report!!

I stopped very briefly halfway through Linkwater.  I don’t recall what for, and suspect it was probably tuna again.  Real food was helping, and I was very focused on the final 50kms.  Mentally I was 100% there, and it was just the body.  Cold chills continued, and I’d be shivering on the bike.  Nick also pointed out that I was ‘huffing and puffing’ a huge amount, and when you factor in the pace (slow), it didn’t add up.

Another quick stop after Havelock.  Another spit.  20kms and I’d be all done.  It was fantastic to climb the rise that leads into Havelock for the 5th and final time.  I felt like this was really starting to wrap up.  If you had told me that two weeks later I’d still have feelings of nausea, and that I would have cold sweats for the next 9 nights…then I may not have felt like this race was coming to an end.

We stopped just short of the Wairau Bridge, and I swapped helmets so I had the 2009 ‘Ultimate’ helmet cover on my head.  (This was issued to all participants in the 2009 five lap event).  I then set off for the last couple of kms.  But not before thanking Paul and Nick.  They were perfect.  Supportive at all times, always looking for solutions, and everything was positive.  This was our event, not just mine, and they made everything more manageable.  A big thank you to both of them.

The comment was made that if I had wanted to DNF, then they had a strategy in place to get me to continue.  This puzzled me – and still does – and I have no interest in what the plans for this scenario.  We were finishing.  Paul, Nick, and myself would be sharing the result.  We came here for a medal, and in the end ‘finishing’ would have to suffice.  (In a 505kms race ‘just finishing’ seems a little out of place).  Lets be frank though – Unless some kind of serious injury or medical condition has surfaced, ‘finishing’ seems like the absolute minimum that can be done.  ‘Finishing’ is completing the event.  The event that I had spent time and money on.  All of those Saturdays away from the kids, that I’d never get back.  And I’d lose that time with them and would later decide that I wouldn’t finish the race because it got too tough, or I didn’t have the energy left, or because I had now decided that I wanted to have a sleep??  No.  Finishing was the absolute minimum I could do, and it would be done.  Nothing less.  Nothing more.

Approaching the finishing shute I was passed by yet another huge group of cyclists.  The last of them went flying by, and I waited for the next bunch to come by as I entered the final winding stretch of road.  But I now had the ‘road’ to myself.  The last several hundred meters were a little odd.  Part of me wanted the earth to swallow me up before the finish, as I had not achieved what I set out to do.  Another part of me meanwhile recalled where this had all begun – with a 505km race a far off dream. It wasn’t too long ago that one lap of this circuit was a really big deal.  And so it should be.  Nothing should be underestimated.

Ultimately it was simple – I had one thought in those last 100 meters – the kitchen sink had been thrown at me, and mentally I was fine.  This is a positive, and I’ll take every positives that’s out there.

And it was done.  My last ‘race’.  I’ll do other events, and will have no interest in the placings.  Just cool outings…and a journey to Florida.

I sometimes wonder what the view was like from the stage.  Who knows.  The world is full of stages, and we choose to pursue and climb them as we see fit.  This experience is a reminder to cherish those lofty moments.  Whether it is a prize giving, a million dollar view mountain top view, or simply sitting on the side of the road on a summer’s day eating lunch while cycling towards Taupo.  I am eternally grateful that I never glazed over the importance of those smaller moments that have created the memories to this point.

This experience also taught me that I will keep going.  In a doctors visit several weeks after the GRU I was asked, “In the last few days have you been out of breath??”.  “Yes”, I replied.  “Since the Graperide I have been out of breath for even the most minor of exertions – walking up one flight of stairs leaves me out of breath”.  The reply, while it was being typed, was an interesting one.  “Can only walk up one flight of stairs”.

“No”, I stated.  “I can run up 50 flights right now if needed – I’m merely out of breath after one flight!!”.

I’ll heal up.  Rest up.  And get the body where it needs to be.  A break awaits.  Family time for a while, with a trip to Queensland just around the corner.  I love Queensland.  But that’s another story.  More about that later.

Paul has a theory that I “enjoy those darker places”.  There may be some validity in this statement, although on the whole I’d have to say that this captures only part of the picture.  It’s not the darker places that are enjoyed, rather I relish facing and surviving those darker places.  The experiences associated with those darker days later evoking memories on the journey to brighter days.  Not to be forgotten, but conversely embraced as something I needed to overcome - and someone I needed to become if need be - to finish the job.

“Was I disappointed??”  It was like someone holding the Yellow Pages in front of my face.  And as it was being pulled away from my face (preparing for a faster return towards me) being asked to close my eyes.  And then being asked not to flinch or doubt or fight what was about to happen.  And then sitting and learning.  And later learning some more.  What I now know is worth more than any medal or stage could have given me on that day.  ‘All of the above’ would have been nice, but sometimes you get what you need, and not just what you want.

Seek them out - these journeys that make us who we are.  These places, and people, and start lines, and finish lines, and larger views, and smaller moments, and fleeting moments, and recalled stories, and testing trials, and endured tests, and persistent dreams, and deep sorrows, and finding triumphs, and forging friendships, and forgotten moments, and moments to forget, and countless blurred occasions, and those who do not believe, and those who now do.  And moments of self belief – always self belief – they are all parts of what got us here.  When you are ready – throw a knife in the room.  And feel free to turn the light off as you close the door.

To the start line. 

And now it begins my Brothers...

With me or against.
Apathy is the devil.
Board the train...or walk.

No comments: