It’s close to midday in Pemberton and I join other mountain bikers gathered on a field about to commence the last race (adventure!) of the WA XCM State Series for 2019. This round was organised by the running group at Perth Trail Series, their first mountain bike event. Already 34 degrees Celsius and I am sweating at the start line, it is going to be a summery ride on the forest trails and a little bit of a shock to the body, given the summer season hasn’t yet commenced in Perth. I’m still keen though. Pemberton is a great place to mountain bike in Western Australia, it is one spot where you can ride under the tall forest in natural surroundings. Quite a few of the trails are in town and we were able to cycle to the race event village from our accommodation.
The 83 km riders are already riding out at the mountain bike park back in town, they started at 11:00 am. The 53 km category which is the race I am in, sets off at midday followed by the 23 km category.
The beginning of the race is a flurry of eagerness as we move across the field and into the shaded Gloucester National Forest to then descend through a very memorable sequence of switch backs. The thrills flow and the dry ground attributes to a good spot to slide out on the tight corners. I’ve performed the slide out trick a few times in Kalamunda and intentionally take it easy on these turns in Pemberton. We are greeted with a few ‘hike the bike’ efforts up steep embankments topped with trees. This tires me out early on in the course and I don’t recover straight away, finding myself falling behind a little. We cross a few bridges. The temperature on my garmin GPS device rises from 34 to 36 degrees Celsius at the 5 km mark. Then by 7 kms it surges to a searing 38 degrees Celsius.
Everett Dirksen once said ‘When I feel the heat, I see the light’. Well, I did see the light and that was the realisation I had arrived early to struggle town. I called upon the melted museli bar in my pocket to help me through the hills that soaked the sun’s rays. It was the several long fast descents in the forest that bought back a state of happiness as I continued to punch through the course. The air remained hot under the canopy of trees, I thought (hoped) I would pass through some ‘cold’ spots but that wasn’t the case today. I made my way through a single track section which was a mash of fun and confused thinking as my concentration dwindled. The flies were out and about when I stopped to rest on the trails, they hung out with me, mostly settling on my face. Instead of using up valuable energy to try and shoo them, I deployed Karate Kid’s ‘wax on, wax off’ discipline to ease the mind – something I picked up whilst riding in the Pilbara.
At roughly 20 kms I reach the first water station where other weary riders are resting in the shade, bikes laid out on the ground. With the heightened heat, the energy is lacklustre, however we all check in on everyone. I’m out of water and fill up the water bladder and bottle. I empty a second packet of the electrolytes into the water bottle. Talk amongst riders and a plan is hatched to shorten the route to the finish line. We are a mix of 83km and 53km category riders. It is still quite hot in the forest at 37 degrees Celsius and the time is 2:00 pm. I really want to finish the course, but similarly I hold doubts as to whether I have it in me to withstand the heat any longer and make it back by sunset. My body is doing some strange things and my mind is not in it. So eight of us riders set off together at a good pace on a gentle slope before we come across the second water station where some of the 83 km riders soldier on through.
Our group keep going on the bikes, only 2 kms to go and this entails returning up the switch backs we descended at the beginning of the race. I was really happy with the effort up and enjoyed the continually turning, then I thought maybe I should have just completed the full course? Or was the underlying thought of finishing very soon changing my mindset, giving me that extra energy? The field appears and the last bit of pedalling was driven by thoughts of being cooled down with a garden hose at the finish line. Four of us now rode two by two through the finish line and although we would be a DNF (Did not Finish), we gave each other a congratulatory fist bump. We were done!
The trails were mint and Perth Trail Series did a fantastic job in putting together the course, I had never been through this side of Pemberton on the bike so for me it was great to experience. On the flip side, the very next day was a lot cooler in Pemberton.
While I’m disappointed in myself for not finishing the course, I am super grateful for riding with a group for those last kilometres where we worked together and laughed a bit along the way which became a highlight of the race, turning the ending experience into a happier one. After this, I think I am ready for summer next month.
Over dinner that night at the Pemberton Hotel with some ice cold beers, my partner mentioned the idea of freezing the water bladder that sits in my backpack, now that would have been a great hydration strategy! I am sure there will be a next time!