Wildside Geoquest Special Edition: How the race was won and lost
I first heard about Geoquest in 2004 when I was on an orienteering camp in New Zealand on their Queens Birthday long weekend, which is the weekend preceding Australia's. I'd just a month earlier raced my first AROC Sprint AR at Lake Narrabeen and a friend told me about Geoquest and that it was on next weekend. 48hrs sounded like a very long time for someone with a background in orienteering races lasting up to 2hrs. But I came home and looked on sleepmonsters and found a team needed a replacement and that started my AR addiction. I still remember that course in Eden quite vividly, and how scared I was of the course. And I ended up with a knee injury because I only knew how to run, and walking was a whole different sport.
Our Team Thought Sports for this race consisted of myself, Rob Preston, Kathryn Preston, 5 time Geoquest winner Damon Goerke, and Dave Schloss. Damon and Dave had shown their recent form with a dominant performance at XPD in Tassie a few months ago. And Rob and Kathryn had been fighting child-borne diseases for the last two months and were just hoping to hang on.
The logistics of the race was made a little easier this year with the new supported format, and I'm sure my parents enjoyed not having to move 2 double surfskis, 4 bikes and occasionally 4 smelly and hungry racers through day and night. With only the first 3 legs of maps to mark up, and the gear mostly sorted ahead of time due to the logistics planner, we got to bed at a reasonable hour ready for the 6am start.
I'm never a fan of an early start time, but I now have new respect for starting in the dark as this added some difficulty to what looked to be a straight forward beach trek from Diamond Beach to Forster. The lead teams made a few mistakes, overrunning CP1 by not seeing the flag, and then attempting to climb a cliff out of CP2 before getting back on course. Wild Earth Tiger Adventure (from now on WETA), had a few minutes lead but Damon put down the hammer on the 8 km beach section to CP3. Thunderbolt dropped off the pace, perhaps saving their energy for a final beach sprint tomorrow. Running across the bridge to Forster we relived our team victory here in 2013, and it felt like a long time between wins.
Leg 2 was a 27km paddle, all against the tide and up river. There were a few small navigational challenges mostly involving missing the oyster leases and making sure you found the correct river junction to head up to Wauk Wauk. WETA pushed hard for the first hour and made up the 2 min gap they lost in transition. Then we shared the lead, with Thunderbolt still not far behind.
We had a small lead out of TA2 but know its probably going to be short lived before the Uber bikers WETA and Thunderbolt come past. WETA make the pass at CP8 and while I would have loved to stick to their back wheels for the long leg to CP9 there was no chance of this happening.
After the fast roads to CP9, the course headed uphill and into the forests. After the first major climb we met Wild Earth as the bottom of a hill with Russell on the ground. He'd taken a superman flight over a waterbar and unfortunately had broken his collarbone. On the plus side he had a doctor as a team mate and a race photographer with 4WD car was already on site. This definitely dulled the mood and also the speed of the next few descents.
Thunderbolt catch up we push our bikes in and out of the wet creeks heading to CP10. We decided to take an alternative route choice to the left to the remainder of the wet gullies. Thunderbolt pull alongside on a climb and there is a bit of banter before we reach a junction and we continue on at speed down a hill and wonder why Thunderbolt have stopped. A few mins later Dave calls out that we have missed CP11! 3 mins downhill and 7mins back up hill all the way to the fire tower at the summit. We have a look around the tower but it is obvious the CP (or even a punch) is not there. And we did have a lot around the back of the nearby antenna but didn't see the punch minus flag. But in our experience it was obvious the control was not there and continued on- and thus causing considerable controversy.
On the way to TA3 we pass a lot of local mountain bikers and get sight of the large network of singletrack trails we were about to tackle. We collected our remaining maps for the rest of the course but decided to look at them in depth later. Leg 4 was a mountain bike orienteering section where we had to collect 5/7 CP's. Our route avoided most of the single track and before long we were back at TA and heading off to the boats at the Manning River.
At the TA were found Pete and Hugh perched on a picnic table marking up their maps and Josh and Bern sorting gear. A coffee and some warm noodles were much appreciated and before long we were on the water. The first thing I thought when I looked at the leg was I wished I had Wild Earth's portage wheels. I asked race director Chris if it was ok to portage from CP17-18 through the town of Taree. The look of disbelief on his face was quite humurous as he asked whey we would want to do that. Well because it would be quicker of course. Thankfully he made the decision we had to paddle but I wondered if that would get passed to all the following teams.
CP18 was a tricky one, being placed in the middle of a long skinny island. We decided to pull up a little early and walk along looking for the control. But the trail marked on the map was very faint and we walked straight over it to the other side of the island. When we got back to the trail, Dave decided he was going to leave his map case on the track marking where are boats were for our return. Really Dave, didn't you think we might need that map?! Anyway we eventually found the CP and came back, and couldn't find the mapcase, or our boats. We did find Peter from Thunderbolt running down the island with his team paddling nearby. Finally we found the boats and were back paddling with Thunderbolt just behind. Did anyone find Dave's mapcase? Luckily we had two maps...
As darkness descended finding the route got a bit harder, but nav wasn't particularly difficult on this leg until finding the finish TA. There were a couple of distracting river junctions just near the end and we wasted a bit of time here. Thunderbolt came into TA while we were still there and the race was still close.
Not having looked at the trek before we started I was hoping there was going to be some tough off track navigation challenge, especially as the first and last treks were along the coast. But disappointingly the course didn't make good use of the surprisingly open bushland and we were mostly jogging on trails. Near the start there were quite a few new or missing tracks that were distracting, and we had a large group of 12/24hr course teams tailing us as we made a few wrong turns. We had to modify the route a few times when we couldn't find tracks on the map but it still was quite easy. The importance was to keep mistakes to 2 mins or less and be wary of letting them get any bigger.
We increased our lead up to about 20mins by the end of the leg, but spent a bit longer in TA while I needed to mark up and sort through the maps for the following legs.
The mtb leg started of flat and fast but that didn't last long. There were some big climbs but they were mostly ridable. Dave did a great job navigating again and we rode as a team better than the first leg. When we stopped to climb (part of) Big Nellie, we knew our gap was still 15mins and that helped the confidence. The highlight was a few km descent on an overgrown road that was technical, wet and with some big washouts to keep you wary (probably less scary in the dark!). When we punched CP33 it was onto some bigger roads and nice and fast back part TA and onto CP34. What was stated to be a 5hr leg ended up taking 7.5hrs and we were back in the boats without seeing Thunderbolt.
As often is the case when it comes to kayaking, this leg was mostly about keeping motivated and staying awake. Even when the sun is up the hypnotic rhythm makes keeping the eyes open hard but each boat had some good turns on the front and there weren't too many big eating stops. Fortunately the tide was with us for most of the leg and we completed it in less than 3.5hrs and stretched the gap to the teams behind.
Heading out on the final beach trek it was nice to be able to enjoy the views and not push too hard. While having another team close would have helped motivate us, it was mostly the thought of a good burger and chips keeping us moving. The final drama was finding the last control, meant to be placed "under lookout". We had several locals telling us it was hard to find (they had watched Serge and co looking half an hour before us on the Geo half course). After searching every part of the wooden lookout platform several times, and then further down the headland around the rocks, we concluded one of the 'spectators' had probably hidden it and left. We headed back to the carpark to see if the locals could give us some more specific information but they had gone home so we proceeded to the finish.
For anyone who made it to the end of this report, then you have obviously appreciated the benefits that good GPS tracking can allow in terms of not only family and friends dot watching, but analysis of performance and route choices. These techniques have been used in orienteering for years and Adventure Racing really needs to lift its game. Long races have limitations of battery life, but 24hr races can be covered with 1 minute data points which make tracking so much more useful. Though course setters also need to add more navigation challenges for it to be more interesting also. I could do a much deeper analysis however the route choice, and small number of competitive teams doesn't make it worthwhile.
A big shout out to Chris Naunton from Living It Live who has provided the GPS tracking system used for the last few A1 races.
Also anyone looking for their GPS files to share on Strava etc, they can be downloaded here.
I don't intend to elaborate on the debate as to what penalty (if any) we should have received for not locating the punches for CP11 and 38, but I will say we certainly deserved to win the race. In 15 years of AR I have spent a lot of time looking for controls that have either been placed in the wrong place or not there at all, and my tolerance for looking is getting less and less. If you are a good navigator, and the description is accurate then it should only take a couple of minutes to work out if a checkpoint is not there. I consider check points are placed for one of 3 reasons:
1. to show a place of interest (eg lookout)
2. to give a navigational challenge, and this does not include hiding a flag or making it difficult to find
3. to define the route of travel
It is one of the keys to good course setting to make sure controls are placed in sensible places and with very accurate descriptions ("high point", when there are many knolls along a long ridgeline is not a good one).
The A1 series is far from decided but it is nice to be on top of the table. Wild Earth Tiger Adventure will rue their zero points but will come back more determined than ever. And Rogue have shown improvement with every race and are certainly a new force to be taken seriously. Thunderbolt will continue to be a favourite at any race they start look out anyone who gets in between a Dornam and the top of the dais ;-).
Thanks to Chris, Richard and their respective teams for keeping the Geoquest tradition alive. There will be debate about whether we should keep using Spirit kayaks when it is much more fun using faster skis, or if supported or unsupported is better. But whatever the outcome the June long weekend looks to be a worthwhile trip to the NSW mid north coast.
See you at the next race, Hells Bells.
Full race results