Marathon World Champs

For the first time ever I was lucky enough to take part in the pinnacle of Marathon racing at the UCI Marathon World Champs in South Africa.   South Africa is an interesting country with beautiful landscapes, huge game reserves, and one of the Worlds largest gaps between rich and poor.  Its the economic backbone of Africa and supplies over 2/3rds of the continents electricity.  It also has one of the biggest Mountain bike Marathon scenes in the World highlighted with the Cape Epic, The Munga (million dollar bike race), and this year the World Champs.

Racing in Europe beforehand was the ideal place to prep and get adapted to the high level of fitness which would be on display.  Even with that, I was nervous as heck when I saw the start list and realized the top 50 or 60 riders were all World class and use to winning all the races on there side of the globes including 6 past Olympic and World Champions.    Too have all these guys converge on one place was going to create an epic battle as you were basically putting a pile of sharks in a small fish tank . Race day started early in the brisk South African morning under a beautiful African sunrise with 90 of  us nervously waiting to ignite our fuses and kickoff the firework show.

Booom! the start pistol went off and it was a pure out sprint for position as there were a number of xc World Cup racers here eager to show off there snappy legs.  This sprint continued on for the whole 97 km race which was insane.  From the start I could feel I had good legs, but was still fighting to stay in the top 60 and was somewhat worried if the pace didn’t slow down a little.

 

Once things started to simmer down I found myself around the 40′s riding with some really strong dudes in French champion Thomas Dietch, Colombia champ Leo Paez and German Karl Platt.  Things started to splinter about 45 minutes in with a lot of riders already cracking, pretty soon I found myself in no mans land, just back from a group of 6, and just ahead of a couple solo riders.  The mind wasn’t completely focused and I ended up losing a great deal of time over the next 1.5 hours.  There was one portage section which helped get the momentum going again as I used some tree planter moves to hop down the hike a bike descent passing a couple guys and catching back up with Dietch.

Struggling to stay on his wheel we headed into the first of two big climbs on the day when out of the bushes came two 30 ft camels.  It was unreal, I figured they were fake as they limbered along in an out of this world fashion.  Seeing this flipped a switch and soon I dropped Dietch and over took 6 other guys on the climb as I started my fight back into the race.  Getting told I was in 35-40th position wasn’t what I was looking for and further ignited the legs.

 

The next 2 hours were great charging past riders, having a helicopter hover above for a couple minutes and hitting some sweet single track to finish off the first 74 km loop back into the stadium.  Here it was announced I was in 21st as I headed out onto the final 19 km loop.  Having missed a feed the tank was running on empty for the first part of the loop, fighting off a chasing Dietch, and just 30 seconds behind 3 riders, including the top 2 South Africans.  Holding on I made it to the final feed where Saya had a bottle waiting which lifted the spirits and energy reserves.  4 cute feedzone girls were dancing, singing “Oh Canada” as I rolled bye which further boosted the moral.  This was enough for one last surge to get past a Spaniard and into the top 20.    With a bit more realestate a top 15 was in the cards as there was just 2.5 minutes of separation and it was coming down fast.

Coming across the finish line was a great feeling to have come so far from Canada and accomplished a top 20.  There were a lot of obstacles in the way this spring of getting this result but with some help from sponsors (Kona, Mongolia bike Challenge, Wild Mountain, Russ Hayes, Freewheel Cycle) and some friends along the way things came together just in time for a great ride.

I will look forward to working on staying focused and maintaining a better position in the early start of these races so I can be up there to fight with the big guns towards the end.  In the last 2 hours my times were within the top 7-10 and not far off the top 5 which is really motivating.  Until now these top riders seemed untouchable but I can now see the light and will be refining a few things to get up there with them.

Huge hug to Saya for zipping around to the different feedzones to make sure Yuki and I were fed.  Travelling to these races without support adds another element but with you there it made it possible to have a good ride! 

After the race Yuki, Saya and myself headed up to the tourist town of St Lucia on the north east coast to set ourselves up for a Safari in the HluHluwe Game reserve.  Getting up at 4:30am to get the Safari was like having teeth pulled, but being at the Game reserve at dawn to see a Lion 30 ft away eating a water buffalo was insane.   Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras, Warthogs, Gazzel, Water Buffalo, Condors and even some Rhinos were witnessed on what was an unforgettable experience. 

 

The amount of life in the African Savana is ridiculous with animals wandering round everywhere.  It’s said these grasslands  have over 30 species per square km, a greater biodiversity then that of a rainforest.  We have some cool animals up in the Canadian Rockies but the abundance of them is about a tenth of what is over here.   After a short nap following the Safari we headed down to an estuary by the ocean to see a pile of Hippos.  Those things are a cross between a cow and a submarine as they float about the lagoon making weird grunting sounds.

The next morning was another early one as we headed down to the sea for one last South African sunrise before my Japanese friends returned to Durban to catch there flight to the USA, and I started an epic 8 hour back road journey to Johannesburg via Highway 2.   15 minutes into the drive I started to get bored so changed the route to go through HluHluwe game reserve again, heading northwest on hwy 618 towards Nongoma.  This made things a little more interesting with some more game sightings and then a drive along some ridge tops overlooking a poverty stricken region of the country and some beautiful landscapes.

Getting into Nongoma I couldn’t locate a petrol station but was advised by some guys there was a gas station 40 km north on hwy 66 which would return me to the main road and back to Johannesburg in time for a 8 pm flight.  10 km from the gas station the gas warning light came on and the paved road turned to a pot hole infested dirt track.  Not quite what I had envisioned for the day.  Rolling into the gas station there was a pile of vehicles lined up, and soon found out the station was out of gas and they were waiting for the gas truck to come, sometime later that day.  Uh oh, I asked around but no one had any gas to spare. With no time to wait I crossed my fingers as I started back north hoping there was enough fuel to get to the city of Pongola 40 km away.

The heart rate went up as the gas gauge went down, luckily the angles were watching down and provided just enough fumes to roll into Pongola.  South Africa is a really nice country, but it does have a certain edge to it.  It wasn’t exactly a place I would want to be sitting on the side of the highway with a load of gear and $7000 bike.  That being said I ran into no troubles on my visit, rather just a lot of nice and helpful people.

After a rather long 30hr + journey I made it back home to Victoria BC and have since been hit hard by some jet lag.  Totally cracked I opted for 7 cliff bars for dinner the first night home.   Going to bed at 10 pm, waking up at midnight and up for the night, it’s always a struggle getting back into the groove  but it seems after 3 or 4 days things slowly come around.  The 2nd and 3rd days back with little sleep left the mind in the thought field that jumping off a bridge would be fun.  Returning from these trips is the biggest challenge of racing.   Back down for some R&R in the cave to let this pass as there’s a stellar Canadian Summer waiting up ahead!

Over and out.

PS  Special thanks to Liam Philley @ Canadian Cycling Magazine for the Canadian support at Worlds and the riding pictures in this blog and Saya & Yuki for the rest of the shots!

Italian Racing and Onwards to South Africa

Racing around in the Italian Dolomites was spectacular.  High mountain passes, abundant alpine, fresh air and the towering castles of the Dolomites in every direction.  The scenery easily matchs that of the Canadian Rockies I grew up in, the big difference here is the amount of people in the area.  Italy has almost double the population of Canada, situated in a land mass about 1/30th as big.  This means there are people, tramways, and buildings everywhere and on every corner of every mountain.  In Canada the Rockies are more less still wild with few people outside the main valleys, instead Grizzly bears, packs of wolves and there prey roam around the landscape.  Over in Europe the only animals we have witnessed have been herds of cows fattening up in the alpine.

The SellaRonda Hero race itself was unreal as 4014 racers, + there support staff took over the small village of Selva di Val Gardena for the weekend.  I was travelling with Willy Mulonia and Roberto from the Mongolia Bike Challenge, they were the support team and had us arriving on Wednesday evening so we could get a campsite before the hoards came.  We found a small tight space between a couple other campers along side a road to set up base for the weekend.  The atmosphere in town before the race was crazy with “Hero” signs on every hotel and street corner, 10 times more bikers then cars, and every hotel room in the valley booked solid with bikes hanging off there decks.

The days before the race were spent watching campers drive around in circles searching for places to pullover.    Race day itself hit early with a 7:10 am start time.  The body was not pleased when I tried opening the throttle on the first 30 minute climb heading straight up from the start line.  Going over the top in 40th or so we surprisingly hit some single track down the backside which was awesome, but unfortunately clogged up with the elite woman and hobby racers they sent out at 7am ahead of us.  Going around one lady I clipped a tree going down lightly but banging my bars out of alignment.  1 minute later after an adjustment I was back in the saddle, now a long ways back and at rock bottom for the day.

From here the engine finally got fired and the next 4 hours was spent picking riders off.  The last 2 hours were spent battling with Italian Marzio Deho, we had an epic battle at the 2011 Mongolia Bike Challenge with him taking the honors after I triple flatted on stage 7.  This time around I avoided flat tires and took him on the last climb to claim 15th on the day.  This was a nice result given the horrible start and the fact only 14 guys were faster on the day and 3999 were slower.  The added bonus was finding out I had the 6th fastest time over the last 15km of the course which is a good sign the legs may be in fine form for Worlds this weekend.

The following day we went for another splendid ride into the alpine before my A+ support crew headed home and dropped me off in the quiet Italian town of Bolzano for the night.  This was a great place to chill, one of the few places left unscathed by the World Wars and now offering a pleasant blend of Italian and Austrian culture.  It has been ranked #1 in Italy for quality of living in the past few years and was easy to see why with the laid back atmosphere and clean cobblestone streets slithering between looming castles and churches.  A couple Austria friends, Manual and Anderl were training in the area and came down from there mountain retreat for some cappuccino/ green tea chilling before I started the 36 hour journey to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa for the World Marathon Champs.

The journey started off with some good training as I tried to lug 60 kg of luggage to the train station from the hostel.  The problem here was that I planned on having a car for the trip so packed on the heavy side.  About halfway to the station I was starting to crack, but luckily there was a street shelter with a bunch of bored people hanging about which I hired one of them to pack my bike box for a couple euros.  The porter service was great and soon I was on the train to Munich Germany.  The next problem hit when the Train security guard came around to collect tickets and saw my bike box, immediately saying it must be given away at the next station.  I disagreed with this but the German dude was serious, and pissed.

 

There is a real problem in Europe trying to figure out the situation with taking bikes on the trains as some welcome it and others hate it, with there being no real way of knowing until you board.  After negotiations and $10 euro bonus pay the bike was allowed to stay but I was forced to drag it through 6 train cars to another area.  It was like tertras trying to negotiate the bike box through  the cars but it was eventually completed, then I returned to my seat, just in time to see a young Swedish boy hop on the train with his bike box, placing it exactly where my box had just been.  It was a good show watching round two as the German ticket master blew his top to see another box on his precious train.

Once at Munich airport the journey went smooth with a nice flight with South African airways to Johanesburg.  Then another round of my $190 dollar rental car turning into $700 as the Europcar agency didn’t like the price I found online and opted to change it, a little searching around I found a car for $170 for the 9 days and was off on the  5 hour drive to Pietermartizburg.  Trying to be proactive I bought a electronic pass to get through the tolls, which worked great for the first 2, but the 3rd one required other payment.  Visa was accepted, unfortunately just not Canadian visas. Sometimes you think you have things figured out but you forget key steps like getting out some local currency.

Trying to pay the $3 toll with Euros wasn’t accepted so I was screwed and left sitting there as the toll lady glared down.  I asked to pull a u turn to head back to get money but she said no,  instead she continued to glare down expecting me to suddenly come up with some South African money or something.   I had plugged up the South African freeway with 10+ cars in the lineup honking and yelling so I understood the glare but it wasn’t a getting us anywhere.  Unable to pay, unable to turn around, I sat there trying to figure out a solution.  First I tried walking back to the cars behind asking to trade 10 euros for 3$ South African dollars but was denied, I opted not to ask the 3rd guy as he was one of the yellers.  Lucky enough there was a random nice saint way back in the lineup who voluntarily paid the toll and my journey continued.

Finally rolling into the B&B in Pietermaritzburg to see my Japanese friends Yuki and Saya was a nice relief after a rather epic travel adventure from Italy.

The last few days have been spent getting ready for the race and pre-riding the 97 km Marathon course.  It was a safari out there with herds of wildebeest, gazel, zebras, wild boars and ostriches roaming about.  There were also a gazillion gates and fences as a large part of the course is over private property.  Yesterday 6 of us were out on a pre-ride when we came to a fence with no gate, I was the first to try and hop it but got zapped back as it had a serious electric current running through it.  My hair is still standing up. Other than the electric fences, the course is rad, full of climbing, single track, and everything else, making it a very dynamic and fun course to ride.

 

Off to fuel up.

Race Day is Sunday @ 8am (midnight Saturday in Alberta):  Live coverage can be found at:  www.mtbworldchamps.co.za

 

Here is a little pre-race talk with the guys from Canadian Cycling Magazine:  www.cyclingmagazine.ca

Italy and some Pre Marathon Worlds Media

The SellRonda Hero Marathon in the Italian Dolomites left its imprint on my mind after 84 km and 4300 M Vertical .   One of the most spectacular and hardest races to date with over 4000 racers converging into the small Dolomite village of Selva Val Gardena to take part.    Racing is unreal in Europe with the size, professionalism and enthusiasm of events like this. 

  Huge thanks to Willy and Roberto from the Mongolia Bike Challenge for the excellent support over the weekend.   Next year we will look to improve on the 14th position as it will be host of the 2015 World Marathon Champs.  We now know just how high the bar is set and have a plan to get there.

A full race report is in the mix once recovery sets in.  For now here are some cool links from some recent media coverage:

From Danielle at Pinkbike.com- Rider Profile-     http://www.pinkbike.com/news/cory-wallace-rider-profile-2014.html

And from Mike Blewitt in Australia some Pre- Marathon Worlds Coverage- http://www.marathonmtb.com/2014/06/18/wallace-to-fly-the-maple-leaf-at-xcm-worlds/

& The Original Worlds Coverage straight from the Worlds website-  http://www.mtbworldchamps.co.za/news1422.html