Wednesday, September 14, 2016

World Rogaine Champs in Australia

This is how we got to Australia in the first place, the race that started the whole trip.  We've enjoyed orienteering in a couple world championship rogaines in the US, not that we stack up anywhere near world champion level, but it's fun attending a big event, meeting people, seeing what we can do.  So here we were, finally ready for some Australian rogaining.

Or as John put it, "24 hours of running around looking for gaps in the bush."

Normally this might be a focus race for us, but several months of lead-up had tempered our expectations in ourselves.  The main question was how to deal with the sharp, spiky spinifex, as explained by the event organizers.  They strongly suggested changing shoes.  We strongly didn't want to, so we worked through various options including trying new shoes anyway, setting up a route plan to purposefully avoid most spinifex, attempting to add shoe covers, and carrying lots of duct tape.  We were ready to be flexible, and we were ready to de-optimize our race plan, and we were most certainly calling it an "adventure" first and foremost.

We had already seen so many amazing things in Australia, had plans for a few more, and were really excited we had decided to come roam around this beautiful country.  Whatever happened during the rogaine would be a major bonus, was our thought.

Coming into race week, a couple more things further lowered expectations.  John's ankle was acting up, and I had been nursing a scratchy throat since arriving in the desert at Uluru.  No worries, whatever happens, happens.

Then I woke up Saturday morning with a sore knee causing something of a limp that got worse through breakfast and toward map hand-out.  I could only figure that I had tweaked it on the practice course the day before, possibly a little twist or something slightly out of joint.  It felt like if I moved it the right way I could get it back into place, but that wasn't happening.  Hmm, what to do.

In the meantime, here are some photos from Friday afternoon race check-in where we met several enthusiastic volunteers and fun folks.

A "Facebook post", too funny - "G'day from Australia"

At one table we got to sample some bush dukkah (nuts, seeds, and spices scooped up with bread dipped in oil, super yum), Vegemite on crackers (not so yum, but at least it's better spread thin on crackers than how we first tried it, spread thick on toast), and Lamingtons (delicious little cakes).  Awesome idea.

Jucy set up in a small patch of shade, before we were mostly surrounded by tents and campers in the field.  Also loved the scenery just hanging out at the TA, beautiful area.  Too hard to see in the photo, but there were dummy controls hanging up high in the rocks in a couple directions, that was funny.

We checked in and got our electronic punch devices.  The system they used was brilliant, and I mean that in both the Aussie and American senses of the word.  Instead of a stick that you poke into a hole in a box at the control, you wear a small flat circular plate about the size of a child's watch.  It fit on your wrist as easily as a small watch as well.  Each control had the stick side that is touched to the plate to record that you were there.

The reason this worked so much better is that we are required to crimp the personal part on for the duration of the event to prove that it was you who was there and not someone else carrying it for you (to prove that all team members went to each control).  Those e-sticks are a pain in the butt to attach to your wrist, always getting in the way of sleeves and branches and well, just trust me, this was so much better.

Doing a little prep work in the Jucy.  I think the main reason John took this photo was to record for posterity the little cone sitting on the top.  We (well, John, let's be real about who stops for roadside items) found this on the side of one of the long Outback roads.  We had been using it to mark our parking spaces at campsites.  At the rogaine he stuck a little flashlight under it, and after dark he lit it up.  So we could be sure to find our vehicle  :)  Not that we really needed it, we were the only purple/green machine in the place if I remember right.  On a related note, there are so many small/medium size bush campers in Australia, some of them 4WD, it was fun checking out all the options at the campgrounds.  Anyway, here's me and Jucy and the cone:

Pre-race meeting, not so easy to get a picture of the whole crowd, but for sure there were quite a lot of people there.  Always fun doing an international event!

After a wonderful breakfast (applause for the caterers), we discussed my knee and made tentative plans.  I wanted to start the race, let's see how the knee handles it, and take it from there.  Not being able to get on the course at all would have been truly disappointing.  Plus I just ate all this breakfast that I should try to work off at least a little...

We would plan a route that didn't go too far away for the first loop and we'd be able to get back whenever necessary.  I decided to use one trekking pole to get some support while still able to carry the map in my other hand.  We were already carrying Ace bandages as required "snake bite kits" so there was that as a backup.

John picked up our maps and we formulated our strategy.  First a loop to the southwest and hopefully to the northwest corner before returning to the hash house (start/finish area) to pick up headlamps and overnight clothes.  Then a larger loop to the northeast with plenty of options for modifications.  The race was setting up an "All Night Cafe" on the road to the east which would be open for real food overnight.  That was so tempting, I really hoped we could make it there.

One corner of the huge map - lots of intricate and interesting contour lines, I love it:

A closer look at the area nearest the hash house:

So that's a way longer intro that I normally write for a race report.  Time to get this thing started!

Precisely at noon, we were off.  I didn't see how many teams took off in other directions, but there were oodles of them on the road going south (I'm in the red pants on the right, and yes, my orienteering pants are red until I can find a suitable pair that isn't):

John ran ahead to get a photo of the O-train:

Some amazing work by the organizers in building a frickin' bridge so we could cross the "river" without getting our feet wet.  What?  Well OK, we will certainly be doing that then.  Thank you sir and everyone who helped you!

My knee was fine with the walking, even handled a bit of jogging on the road as long as I was careful.  So far so good.

Not so good - we followed the large pack instead of immediately starting our own precise nav, and when we figured out that most people were going somewhere other than our target control, we had overshot our turn.  We backtracked to the previous opening in the cliff to a canyon and tried to correct the error.  Until we realized we hadn't even backtracked far enough and we were in a more southerly canyon than we wanted.

A bit of reworking the route plan and we continued ahead anyway.  We were walking right toward #60 and we could get most of the controls that we had planned for.  Just not as efficiently.  But with more humility.  First hour in and we had already made a huge mistake.  Yikes.

But hey, at least we're out there.  My knee was tentatively OK and we walked briskly across the plain toward #60.  John took a nice bearing and soon we were there.

As soon as we paused, the flies attacked.  We had heard stories of legendary swarms of flies all over the Outback in the Australian summer, but winter was much better and we hadn't had to deal with them too often.  But we were in an area covered with cows and therefore covered with cowpies, and apparently therefore covered with flies.

You know, normally if a bug doesn't bite me I don't mind it as much, but there are exceptions.  Bugs that want to live inside my nose and ears for whatever ridiculous reason, I mind.  We pulled out some bug repellent wipes but they didn't work very well/for very long so I guess we have to live with them.  Swatting and waving my map helped a little, so I did that a lot.  Once in a while when I actually hit a fly, that made me smile.  Just a little.

So anyway, we continued up the cow/fly-infested canyon, me pace counting and John watching contours.  We followed a little ridge up to #100, greeted several teams going various directions, and found our second control.  Yay!

Across the canyon and up the other side, I took it a bit slow on the knee and the climbing went OK.  The terrain was pretty open, no spinifex in this area to avoid, and soon we were at the top.  John easily got there first in time to snap a photo:

And another one, with a demonstration of my fly swatting frustration:

We grabbed #50 in a reentrant after a bit of a steep climb down to it.  Over the top of the big ridge and aiming for #80 that we had planned to start with before our nav gaff.  We were now skipping #40 due to the reroute, c'est la vie.

The climb down into the next drainage got interesting.  And by "interesting" I mean that John thought it looked like fun while I tried to find an easier way.  We got cliffed out several times partway down, trying different little drainages but having to move over each time.

We finally found a spot that John considered doable (for me) and I made it work, slowly and carefully.  Stepping my way backwards down the rocks while John waits patiently (with camera in hand):

Finally down, #80 was an easy tag across the way.  From there it was a nice long walk/run up a more narrow canyon.  Fewer cows but no fewer flies, dang it all.

We turned north through a gap in the ridge where John snapped this photo:

I really liked #70, high up on a little spur.  It was visible from down below, hanging just over a small cliff.  An easy climb around the cliff to the control (still waving at flies with my map):

And an excellent view from the top - lovely!  I proclaimed at that moment that this was my favorite checkpoint so far, and actually I can't think of one we found later that I like better.  So it was fitting that we took a selfie here.  Aloha!

We popped out into an open field, followed a drainage over to #31, then cut across the river plain to the main road.  John got some of his daily running mileage (2 miles minimum of actual running) on the road, then we were climbing up to #61.  A couple guys were coming down to it, and they wished us luck on finishing the climb over the top.  The climb wasn't in question for us - how steep was the other side?  Well, they came up it, we must be able to find a way down.  Sure would beat going back down and around the hill.

Somewhere on one side or the other of that hill, John took a picture of the pretty scenery all around us:

The descent was slow for me but manageable.  My knee didn't seem to mind much either, that was such a relief.  We felt it made sense to continue on and tackle the northwest section.  Let's see how much we can accomplish before dark!

Next obstacle = a fence woven with spider webs - ?  We were on the lookout for the big spiders of the region, and several times John backtracked around a large web (thank you John!).  Not sure what they are trying to capture here, but they sure are ambitious:

Hi John, I'm coming!  :)

We ran up to #42 on a small saddle, then back to the field to follow a drainage around to the next big open area.  I really enjoyed the nav up to the next one - a drainage, right turn, up to a saddle, down into the next little drainage, find the right saddle across the way to control #96, fun!

Back to the open area and across to the northeast.  We were moving great, chasing the sun, finally feeling like we were at a "reasonable" pace, not super fast but not gingerly like I had started out.

Shadows from the dropping sun, excellent sunset lighting:

Up to a pass and control #110 - happy to be here!

Bye sun, see you tomorrow morning!

We contoured around to another saddle and I paused to get a read on the terrain while we could still see:

Down to a small creek that joined a larger one, pace counting to circle a hill.  I misjudged the terrain slightly and we missed the first chance to climb up to #41.  It was easy enough to gain from the other side.  Coming down it was finally dark enough for lights, well that was a fun evening of running.  Time for some nighttime nav.

Creek then trail brought us to a big field where we saw lights from other teams and possibly from the water stop to the north.  We took a bearing across the field, found the hill on the other side and followed it around on the south side.  I thought we might catch the bottom of the little reentrant from down below, but after pacing to approximately the right place we didn't find anything.  It was pretty dang dark at this point (I think the moon came out eventually but not right away).  We climbed up the side of the hill and didn't find the control.  We crawled around through the brush a bit until John stumbled upon it, thank goodness.

We then noticed that the control had no reflectors??  This was unexpected, as all our previous 24-hour rogaines have had reflectors on the bags.  We wouldn't have had nearly as much trouble with this one if our flashlight had lit it up.  However, from that point forward we didn't have any issues seeing the controls even without reflectors.

We cut back across the field at an angle to reach a trail, then ran it on in to the hash house.  Time to pick up the rest of our lights, nighttime clothes, and more SPIZ and water.  Somewhere in that first loop we went through a burn area (can't remember exactly where), and although I remember trying to avoid touching the blackened branches, I still ended up with soot on my face.  I looked at myself in the mirror in the bathroom and made a comment to the effect of "it looks like I went through a house fire."

On the plus side, running water and a chance to wash up.  And hot food!  I had been mostly walking, so my stomach was just fine for solid food, and the hash house was just the place to get it.  John brought over our plates and bowls and we piled a bunch of delicious items on them to eat in the Jucy.

The excellent hash house menu - and yes, the toasted cheesies were tremendous!

Well, that was fun, and we were feeling great to go back out.  A nice little break, no reason to quit, legs ready to go, it's a nice cool night (and not too cold), and hey, the flies are gone!  It's all good.

Our 2nd loop started with a gentle walk/run along a dirt road to the east.  We almost made it off the road before a resupply truck passed us, so close.  There was enough dust involved that I was glad we hadn't planned too much road travel.  A bit of creek nav and we found #44 without issue.  More roads (sans vehicles this time) and we were climbing a hill through our first area of spinifex...

The course mappers had helpfully included color-coding to indicate where there was some spinifex (light yellow) and lots of it (light green).  Knowing we couldn't possibly clear the map, and therefore had lots of choices in the matter, we avoided the dense spinifex area.  But much of the northern half of the map had light yellow blotches, in some cases a whole big area of it.  Based on our lower leg coverings and our pre-race testing, we thought we could handle it.  At least until everything shredded and fell off.  Let's see if we are right...

Here's what we found on the way up the drainage to #54: Yes, our shoe covers and leg gaiters worked great!  We were careful moving through the plants to avoid running smack into them, but no issues with getting poked in the feet/legs whenever we had to squeeze between them.

HOWEVER - and I really should have extrapolated here - these were some wicked tall balls of thorns.  Not something we had seen on the practice course nor anywhere else.  Maybe they were visible in the pre-race course setting pics, but I didn't catch it.

So basically, there was no protection from our light O-pants from the knees on upward.  It wouldn't have taken a bomb-proof pair of pants, either, as we were just hitting the edges of the sharp needles.  Just something more than what we were wearing.  It didn't take but a few pokes on the thighs and in the butt to realize this error in clothing.

OK then!  "Rerouting..."  We still had plenty of options, lots of map to work with, and we were moving pretty well, all things considered.  We worked through the next couple of controls as planned, taking roads and then a long creek up to #71 (with some fun little drainage nav right at the end), and then following a lovely trail toward #72.

It was a beautiful night, and somewhere along the way we stopped to stare up at the sky, in awe of the dazzling array of stars, the Milky Way, the southern constellations that we hardly know.  It was so bright with so many stars that it was difficult to pick out the Southern Cross.  Remarkable and awesome and a special experience.

Also somewhere along the way I broached the "thorny ass" problem with John, suggesting we might skip the controls scattered throughout the big yellow blob in the center of our map (we had only brought the northern half, so the spinifex infestation featured prominently on it).  I wasn't too keen on dealing with it unless it was our only choice.

Happily, we had other choices.  The most obvious thought was to continue east along our current lovely trail to the edge of what we had originally thought might be possible (maybe), then cut south through various open areas and eventually down to the road, going back to the finish from there.  It seemed we would have time based on our current pace.  The main downside was that it put us quite a ways away and in a fairly remote spot if something happened (e.g. my knee got cranky) and we needed to figure out a way to get back.

The other consideration was that I really wanted to get to the All Night Cafe - hot food in the middle of the desert, plus coffee for John, yes please!  Would we have time to get there before they closed at 8 am??

Well, let's go for it.  It was all good motivation to keep moving at a solid clip and to watch the clock occasionally.  Also for doing some running along the trail, which felt remarkably fine.  Gorgeous night, legs doing OK, nice trail, we were happy.

Following a rocky creek slowed us a bit, John leading the way so I only had to concentrate on foot placement.  We climbed up toward #72 and then we were surprised to spot it just over there when the pace count said we were supposed to keep going.  Lucky catch on that one!

More creek, a long way north to #101.  Several twists and turns and intersections to focus on to keep us busy on the way.  Back to the trail for another couple kilometers of running.  Thank you trail, that was helpful!

Somewhere along there we stopped to roll some more duct tape around the shoes.  We thought we were carrying a lot, but it turned out we could have used a good bit more.

Time for some cross-country travel to take us through the rest of the dark hours.  We followed a large (dry) river, actually alongside it because it contained slow, deep sand that we preferred to avoid.  The side drainage was better, although we saw a bit more of it than we wanted when we passed up the control.  Slight backtracking and we found #97 a bit up to the side.

The next section involved the most "Zen navigation" of the night - darkness, vague contours, extra little dips that were too small to be mapped, and an easterly bearing for 1.5 kilometers.  We were pretty sure when we crossed the top of a shallow ridge partway across, but then the next undulating open area had me questioning the wisdom of this approach.

Finally we were atop the next shallow ridge and I sincerely hoped the control was located in the small saddle up ahead - and it was!  Phew!  #48, done and done.

That was our easterly-most control, time to hoof it south to eventually find the road.  We had a lovely open area to speed-walk through, then a slight downhill through a bit of a gap to a wide drainage system.  Other teams and headlamps appeared in different places, going different ways, and a set of folks converged with us onto #108 in a small saddle.  It was neat watching the super-fast teams hauling butt through here.

Night nav south through the open field was interesting, following alongside a hillside, working the pace count and prepping to take a bearing across the last flat spot.  Two bright headlamps were speeding ahead of us, exactly on that bearing.  We were able to almost reach the base of the little hill when they disappeared over the top.  Nice to have confirmation, even nicer to locate control #88 at the top of the reentrant on the other side.

The start of that reentrant was the beginning of our next creek walk, heading down, down, merging with other little streams from the side, always going downstream.  I didn't bother counting, we just needed to go down for a long way until we reached the next dry riverbed.  I remember this taking a long time.  Sometimes it's better to stay on the pace count so you know how much further to expect.

The sky was getting light as the land opened up around us.  Funny thing was that we couldn't actually SEE the riverbed, as we were in a bit of a delta from the creek we had just walked down.  But it had to be there.  We sat for a SPIZ snack and surveyed the terrain now that we could see.  That over there should be the ridge with the control just on the other side.

We hauled up the steep side of the ridge, with me wondering a couple things - maybe we should have gone around instead of up and over.  And was I really sure that we were at the river?  What if we were just climbing some random hill in the middle of nowhere?

At the top we could see that everything made sense, and it wasn't too much of a drop down to drainage on the other side.  Lovely morning!  And no flies yet!

#107 was right where we suspected (a bit of relief) and it was only one more climb and descent before we were on the road and heading for the All Night Cafe - lest you had forgotten our quest to get there before they closed.

We did have time for a photo of the giant balls of butt-poking spinifex - happily we had mostly avoided them overnight, we couldn't be too terribly annoyed to have to wander through them here:

Well, my knee was annoyed as I did a couple leg lifts and minor acrobatics to step over and around these stupid things.  I felt my knee "give" a little in one of those moves, and I was back to limping down to the road.  Dang it.  Back to walking in a straight line on a flat surface, it wasn't nearly as bad as the previous morning.  Thankfully I was still walking, and at that pace we should make it back to the finish on time.

But it did cause us to skip a couple controls not far from the road on the way to the Cafe.  Better safe than sorry at that point.

The best news was that the Cafe was still open!  And it was even better than we had imagined.  They had a variety of food and drinks, but what I remember most is that they were grilling up those same awesome cheese sandwiches ("cheesies") and we may have also gotten some coffee.  We sat for a bit and reveled in the awesomeness of the All Night Cafe concept in a rogaine.  Other teams hung around the fire with us and we chatted a bit with them and the friendly volunteers.  Thank you so much!

When we were ready to depart, the volunteers asked which control we were headed to next.  We said we were going to consider maybe trying for #76 (mostly not sure what my knee was up for), and they thought it was funny that we were so noncommittal.  It turned out that my knee was more than up for it, so we had an easy journey across the field and up to the small saddle to find it.

We picked up a little speed again, continuing down the road to the west.  Our foot coverings were starting to disintegrate, and we were running out of duct tape, so it seemed like the appropriate time to get a photo before they fell apart completely:

And a closer look - hey, one of my bike shoe covers actually held on, for the most part:

We navigated north and up a small hill to #102, excited to still be gathering checkpoints as we worked our way back to the finish line:

So much better than trudging back along the long, dusty road.  I was also counting the hours - every hour of daylight without flies buzzing around my head was a bonus.

We followed the north side of a long ridge, heading west and joining a convoy of other teams going in the same direction.  John spotted a parallel trail a bit further away from the ridge so we jumped over to it, happy to have some easier travel for part of the way.  We played the game of "try to figure out which side drainage contains the control" and I'm pretty sure John won.  Most of the other teams agreed, and we were all taking turns punching #64 in short order.

Teams departed in various directions and speeds, and soon we were alone and climbing out the southwest end of the valley, up and over back to the main dirt road.  We had determined that we had time for a couple more checkpoints along the way, and barring any difficulties we shouldn't be pressed for time.  The main disadvantage of our route plan was the lack of optional additional controls to try to hit at the end, but that was a pretty minor downside, all things considered.

We circled around to the east of #52 while having an interesting discussion about the confusing terrain and what exactly we were looking at.  There was another team poking around the hillside to the south of us.  As we approached the base of the climb, all extraneous features cleared themselves up and things started making more sense.  I think John may have "won" that discussion too.  No worries, I was happy with my night navigation, having John pick up my slacking now that we could see is how teams are supposed to work.

Last big climb, nice to still have climbing legs, not blazing speed but still steady.  #52 was just on the other side.  Heading down the valley, there were plenty of tracks from prior teams and prior cows.  Yes, I'm pretty sure the flies had started up again with the fly-by's by this point, but never as bad as the previous afternoon.

It was getting warm by the time we climbed a small way up to #73, but it was the last one, so yay!  My feet were also starting to hurt at this point, getting wet and pruny from being stuck in covered shoes that were turning into sweaty ovens.  It would have helped to stop, discard all the stuff around the outside of the shoes, and aired out the socks.  But we were almost done.

Almost done!  With the race and this report, aren't you glad?  :)

We went back and forth with a couple other teams on the way back, really not in racing mode and just trying to finish it up, not in a time crunch for once.  We revisited our most major error from the start of the race as we passed those spots again, re-crossed the creek on the homemade bridge (thank you again!), watched a team running south apparently on a mission for one more control, and then we were at the finish line, yay!

Success for us meant staying out for most of the 24 hours (check), minimizing our nav mistakes and overall problems (mostly check), moving as well as we could given our condition (exceeding what we thought might be possible as of Saturday morning), figuring out a way to deal with the spinifex (mostly check, including the "mostly avoid it" strategy), and having an adventure (YES in a big way!)

We really enjoyed the course, the map, the experience, the food :) and the whole weekend.  The event was super well organized, we were really impressed with everything about it.  Kudos to the Australian rogaine team that put it on and thank you for hosting us in your beautiful country!

Nice video overview by another team:

The results:

#10 on our international "Race Locations" list:

That was fun, maybe we'll do it again, in a few years...

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