The “Abercrombie River Silent Retreat” NSW 24 Rogaining Championships 2018 … by Tristan White
Team 50 – Tristan White & Mike Hotchkis, “Remote Control”
After plodding through cold paddocks and climbing over and under barbed wire fences in the pouring rain just a mere four weeks ago at the so-called “Sun SEQer Rogaine” Australasian Championships, I nonetheless once again decided to put my life on the line and take part in another 24 hours of pain and fatigue, this time being in the more local Abercrombie River National Park. I once again teamed up with Mike Hotchkis, who has been my teammate for about five events in the past couple of years. Although he is a super-veteran (I’d place the emphasis on the word “super” rather than “veteran”) Mike is an outstanding rogainer who rarely is far from the top in any general classification, and seeing his name plastered in several places on the trophy for the overall win, I knew that we were not going to be out there for a casual stroll!
I got the train to interconnect with the organised bus at Lithgow station where I caught it with about a dozen other rogainers, a trip that was not without its fair share of excitement – the driver had to constantly slow down to avoid hitting kangaroos and we even chased one 500m down the road! We didn’t arrive till almost 10pm, meaning that all we could do was set up tents and sleep given that the latter wasn’t something I expected to do much of the following day!
We received the A2 maps at 9am and took a brief survey of the land to observe lots (even for 24h rogaine standards) of contours and very few roads so concluded that most of our movement would be off course. As per the typical strategy, we measured the total course distance to determine what portion of CPs we would be likely to collect. Including a 10% buffer margin in straight line distance, I estimated 80km, making us ignorantly optimistic that we could clear the course, and quickly started working out which few CPs we could knock off if we weren’t doing well for time.
In principle I have found 10 pointers in a 24 hour rogaine rarer than a 1930 Australian penny, but this course was littered with seven of them, and I could not get over how difficult many of them looked to get to. But as we both had learned from first-hand experience, 10 points can be the difference between first and second (or first and fourth!), so these had to all be in our planned itinerary for the moment! We planned a loop that went anti-clockwise, on the basis that there were more obscure low scoring CPs that we could knock off at the end, and lined up at the start line.[It helps to read the rest of this saga with the course map nearby. If you don’t have a copy you can download it here.]
We started off with the run down the watercourse to 65, before the serious climbing began across to 48, 76 and 38 where we saw several competitive faces including John and Mardi Barnes, David Williams and Ronnie Taib, and Gill Fowler and Steven Hanley, but by the time we headed along the western road towards 46 we were alone, followed by the campground at 28. 55 was collected after a minor glitch of running up the wrong watercourse, but was rectified quickly. 27 required a massive effort of descending for such a low score, but nor could we really miss it given it was en route to 57. Finding a Retreat River crossing took some work – despite me reaching the bottom first, Mike seemed to have much better luck with an easy place to cross. After heading downstream and jumping my way across some precarious stones, I heard Mike’s cheerful voice at the flag itself, with about 200m thick scrub to fight my way through beforehand!
57 was yet another major climb up one spur and down the other (given the terrain we had just crossed we opted to Retreat from following the river). 49 was found uneventfully, and we managed to get to 50 after having a surprisingly easy time following the watercourse and up the spur. I felt that we had been moving reasonably comfortably, but it was 4pm by this time and we were aware that we weren’t nearly far enough in to clear the course. We reached 39 before an unexpected bash through scrub much of the way down to the watercourse near 31. Climbing up a very narrow spur to the CP we ran into our key opponents, David and Ronnie! With a treacherous scramble down to 60 (there had to be a catch to two CPs so close together) we climbed our way back to the road and up the hill to 12 and the water refill point for a much needed resupply, just as Dave and Ronnie were leaving.
Now it was just past 6pm and dusk, we were aware of two obvious things – now was the time to get out the torches, and being theoretically a quarter (20km) the total distance, expecting to clear the course at this point would be like leaving on a porch light for Harold Holt so it was time to think about what CPs could be deleted, in addition to the obvious 23 and 24 which were always big question marks. We made a decision to skip the low scoring 21 and subsequently 40, and instead follow the ridge around from 51 to 62, and get 75 in favour of 32. From the water point, we headed down the spur and curled around to 42, 52, and after a rather gnarly clamber up and down the river’s sides, to 34, where once again David and Ronnie showed their pretty faces (or more correctly, torches.)
D&R silently departed along Silent Creek, whilst we started clambering up the road to 20. As it turned out, they had collected 20 before 42, perhaps cleverly avoiding a massive climb upwards. Looking back that was a good idea, but in the planning stage neither of us blames ourselves for taking the road given the many unfavourable experiences we’ve had in waterlines!
The trip to 30 was surprisingly difficult going up the lower part of the gully, with a huge amount of scrub making us wonder if we were actually on the right track at all, but after several cuts, bruises and yelps we saw the flag, and made our way to 70, which turned out to also be more effort than expected – there was a 10m drop down to “Chain O’Ponds Creek” meaning we had to follow around the spur to the south to find a safe way down. 43 and 51 were found without incident, which was followed by a largely uneventful traverse of the ridge 62. Aside from D&R we had seen nobody since about 13:30 so was a pleasant surprise to run into recent Australasian Ultra Veteran champions Andy Macqueen and Greg King. However this seemed to throw us off, as once we dropped into the watercourse for 62 we saw no sign of it, forcing us to backtrack and realise we’d dropped down too late, a needless waste of 10 minutes, but a reminder to be more careful, particularly as time ticked into the early hours of the morning.
75 was a long way, but found without incident by carefully following a bearing, the same method used to find 33. As it was now after midnight we contemplated going straight to 59, the theoretical halfway point, but as it’d be easiest to head there via the watercourse to the west, decided to jump across to 22, which in turn led us to venture to 41 with minimal additional climbing, something we had become very accustomed to. We made a bold, possibly heart-wrenching decision to skip 71, but there was also a feeling of relief given how far and difficult it looked, and headed up the simple, albeit steep spur to 10, only to descend another 200m down to 68 and back up. This followed with 53, 74 along a welcome stretch of road, 26 and 54 where we could see the welcoming glow preceding sunrise over the horizon.
It’s worth mentioning the moon, which at this point had just disappeared. It was bright for most of the night, and did an excellent job of making out a silhouette of the landscape and meant that we could walk along the roads without torches. Notwithstanding the craziness of bashing around the bush when we should be asleep, this is one of the magical things about 24hr rogaines that 99.9% of other people would never experience.
We passed through 54 and got 61 just after dawn, about 06:15, and it was once again time to make some decisions. It was obvious that attempting 23 would be crazy, but we had to decide if we would ditch 25 to head to 36 and 67, or miss the latter two and make a run for 45. As painful as missing a 60 pointer was, we opted for the latter, given that there would inevitably be something else we would need to omit later on. 45, 73 and 44 were picked up and 58 was just before 9am, followed by handrailing around the heads of umpteen watercourses to get to the long ridge to the small knoll of 72. Needless to say we resisted the temptation to go 2km out to 13.
It was just past 09:30 so we had just under 2½ hours to get in. This is the point by which many rogainers are physically and mentally spent and want to get home ASAP. Fortunately Mike is not one of those people. He had the ambitious plan to do 35, 15, 56, 47, 16, 63, 64, 14, HH – that’s 9 legs, so we had to average 15mins per leg. To make a long story short, we made it, but not without a significant push on my part. After making 63 just past 11, the hardest bit of the course was yet to come. The final part of the course included going up 100m over the spur, then back down the same elevation to the foot of the 64 spur, another steep and narrow climb, before another clamber back to 14, where Mike almost left me for dead as I limped up feeling on the verge of collapse (be proud of yourself Mike – you’re someone who could break me!).
Words cannot describe the feeling of relief of seeing tents and cars in a delirious state as we stumbled back to the Hash House. Although it was “only” 11:52, we were the final team in and all eyes were on us, wondering if we indeed did clear the course as we had marked on our intention sheet. Oh yeah, did I mention that it was my birthday? It’s because I forgot as well. But fortunately Michael Watts and everyone else reminded me as they sung a slightly out-of-tune version of Happy Birthday to me at the finish line.
The verdict? Our score was 2300, 60 points short of David and Ronnie’s 2360, but we pipped Gill and Steve by 20 points, which was the source of immense satisfaction. As Mike’s GPS stopped we couldn’t measure our distance though I suspect it was around 70km or a bit more; not shabby at all in this terrain.
Of course, the million dollar question is, aside from moving faster, is there anything we could have done to get 60 more points AND arrive in earlier than D&R (11:45)? I don’t think so. Had we gone for 67, there is no way we could have made it back in time, certainly not if we got 36 as well. 71 could not have been bagged without biting significant time. Most of the other 10s, 20s and 30s that were a long way to go were basically en route to higher scores so there would have been no gain missing them either. Perhaps getting 20 en route to 42 would have saved time and energy overall but not enough to allow time for an additional CP. Anyhow, a second place overall in a State Championship is none too shabby and we were in no place to complain, particularly after receiving “champion” glasses anyway.
FOOD & HYDRATION. Knowing what to eat in a 24-hour rogaine is always a balancing act, as is drinking enough, and I went through phases of having too little, then too much, of each. Unlike a 6hr, it is impossible to get away with gels alone, but it is crucial to have food that is easy to digest. Aside from 3 amazing granny smith apples, I had a packet of grape tomatoes, fruit puree squeezes, seed bars, nuts, dried fruit and some chocolate for the end. The relatively mild weather meant we could get away with minimal water refills but I suspect I drank about 8 litres nonetheless.
ARC vs NSW Champs. The Australasian Champs and the NSW Champs this year were both 24hrs in length, but that was where the similarities ended. With the ARC summed up by huge distances between CPs, open paddocks and more barbed wire fences than Australia has had PMs in the past dozen years. The NSWRC was full of hills (mostly open) forest and hence very well defined features. For two people who are inherent climbers (remember Mike missed the minigaine as he was doing the national mountain running champs up Mt Wellington) this suited us just fine, as it meant we could walk the whole thing, unlike the ARC where jogging was mandated to any team wanting to place highly. The weather was quite a contrast – after plodding through the final 10 hours in sopping rain in Qld, it was a relief to have no clouds and very mild weather, both during the day and night.
COURSE REVIEW. Every rogaine is different, but I did like the course area with some great views over the horizon from the high points, and fairly minimal scrub (though it popped up unexpectedly quite a few times). And there was no clear route either – whatever route you chose you’d be forced to do some long-winded traverses for very low courses to score highly. But that’s part of the challenge – otherwise it’d just be an ultra-marathon, and there’s plenty of those! The fact that there is a range of scores means there is strategic thinking in planning a course, and that is what a rogaine is about. Another thing about the steep terrain is it makes the features more defined, and is a possible reason for our lack of blunders. That said, having subtle features (i.e. “A knoll,” “The middle watercourse” of about five or “The shallow gully”) rewards careful pace counting and bearing following and therefore has merit as well.
A SOLO ENTRY 24? There has been talk in recent weeks on the Forum about opening rogaining up to solo entries. As someone who competes in the minigaine solo I definitely see the attraction to it. But even without the safety considerations, could I imagine doing a 24h rogaine alone? I couldn’t. Working as a team around the clock is much more interesting than plodding along alone. Even a 12h event would be hard to imagine alone. Would a 6h work with solo entries? Perhaps, but it would completely change the dynamic of the event and whilst I would possibly score more points, I’d find it a lot more physically painful and less enjoyable to have to go out alone. But this is a discussion for the next committee meeting!
Overall, as always, despite wondering what I was doing at 02:00 in the morning, I am very glad I did the event and really appreciate the work Michael, Trev and all the other volunteers have put into setting, hanging and collecting all the flags, as well as all Michael’s coordination. 24-hour rogaines are where the real challenge is at, and for that reason, if you were not at this event you should flag the 2019 NSW rogaining championships into your diary!