100 Mile rider Kat Bulk shares her event experience...
I haven’t been this nervous before a race for a long time. I care about it a lot. I've trained hard. I love to ride my bike, but something about riding it well, in a ridiculous race distance, REALLY matters to me. I wonder if I can do it. The gnawing doubt and the gaping chasm of the great unknown thrills me and terrifies me by turn.
3:30am, Obscenely early. Feed, dress, depart. Start line, Nervous pre-race banter filters into the darkness. We roll out, controlled start: into the inky, funky Rotorua pre-dawn.
12km until we reach the forest. First riding Lake front, then a marooned pathway threaded precariously amongst heaving geothermal pools. The air is thick with sulfur and steam. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s not lung-filling gloriousness.
Forest, A string of red taillights weaves amongst the canopy-propping trunks, we ride fastish, settling in. I focus on making myself more comfortable, easing the numbness out of my hands, the taper-induced tightness in my chest. Legs feel good. 140km to go. Light seeps into the sky.
For a while, the trail loops back and forth on itself. I’m blinded by the strobing of head torches between trees. Past the sawmill, I mistake the screeching of wood being tortured by metal for cheering, it does seem quite early for the forest to be filled with spectators howling at the dawn. It doesn’t take long for the riders ahead and behind to disperse. Riding alone is less stressful, but also less urgent. I Focus on the balance of pushing, but not too hard. There are still quite a few kilometers to go. Eat. Drink. Ride relaxed. Power. Am I pushing as much as I safely can in this moment?
Box of birds. The first properly techy bit of trail. It’s light now. I fumble my way down the decent drop, but ride everything else respectably. It’s interesting riding so much of the same course as the 100km event, and a little bit fabulous to compare and contrast the aptitude I feel riding this year, with the struggle and frustration I felt last year. Progress.
Descending into the flying-buttress skeleton of the Redwoods cathedral, cool and still dim. The golden light of the sun turning the canopy into an achingly beautiful stained glass showcasing glowing emerald leaves and powder-blue sky. Acres of flowing trail, winding and fast. Hero dirt, slick cornering. Legs pistoning. The day heats up. First gravel climb. Loving it. Into Hot Cross Buns. Pretty early into the descent my front brake loses all pressure, and all the pumping and lever adjusting in the world has no effect on restoring its function. Back brake is awesome, controls speed nicely but not strictly effective at actually bringing the bike to a full stand-still.
My standard approach for avoiding the veritable shit-storm of fiery death that most mountain bike trail features present to my mind's eye, is to roll with ebbing confidence into the top of a difficult section and then stop on the precipice of the actual feature (usually what appears to be a cliff, canyon gap or rocky chasm of death, but which others describe as small drops, rock rolls and jumps).
Stopping in these circumstances is variably effective. Sometimes, and rather a lot recently, my sudden change in momentum results in the catapulting of me over the handlebars, head first, into the void. Riding with more confidence, I am regularly told, is desirable, and refrains of ‘speed is your friend’ and ‘just send it’ echo in my mind while I slither on foot down a distinctly non-pedestrian friendly drop or nurse a dislocated finger and muster enthusiasm for re-mounting my bike.
Not being able bring my bike to a full stop midway through a decent downhill portion of the race turns out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise. By the time the solo rear brake corals the bike into something close to stopping speed, my front tyre has usually begun its inexorable trajectory into a feature. There is a bit of swearing, panic and tensing up before ‘just sending it’ becomes the only viable option, and I have to metaphorically close my eyes and hope for the best. I don’t actually close my eyes while I am mountain biking. That would be suicide.
The results are spectacular. I love every second of the downhill, even the cliffy, rooty bits. I learn a lot about bike handling, and whoop and soar with every success. I love riding my bike.
Logging road climbs are mixed with techy descents. Towering forest. Pockets of native bush.
Steaming patches of water and ground belching gusts of sulfurous air. I half expect to see a Watopia dinosaur lumbering past in a fit of real-world/Zwift confusion.
Feed zone. The magnificent and benevolent course mechanic calmly bleeds and restores my brake. I guzzle an up and go (heavenly) and replenish my food stocks. The volunteers and supporters are unfailingly helpful and friendly and supportive, filling water bottles, offering food, holding my bike while I clean and lube my chain.
Into the next climb. I love going uphill. The Whaka Miler has over 4000m of elevation gain, so I am cautious not to burn too many matches. I am also wildly curious to see how close I can push myself to having no mountains left in my legs. This climb is reasonable, never crazy step, but quite long, and the last portion is pinchy and strewn with fist sized chunks of scoria: difficult to power through, and unpredictable to ride.
I’m 65km in before I hit a trail that I don’t enjoy. The entire hillside of this section appears to consist of mud which is held together by off-camber, greasy tree roots. Blinding patches of sunlight dapple through the trees, making terrain reading unnecessarily complex at this juncture. This is 100% the sort of trail that I struggle to ride, and 200% the sort of trail I don’t really like. I resolve to hate every second of this trail, survive it, and then go back to enjoying the remainder of the race. I figure that if I get a horrid section of trail every 65km, I can manage.
Kung Fu Walrus is a delight (this had been a challenge last year) and the utterly glorious flowing trails down to the Lake Rotokakahi loop are fast and soul-filling. Another long logging road climb, still feeling strong, then into the recently re-modeled no-brains. I’d quite enjoyed no-brains last year, but hill side forest has been felled in the interim, and the track re-cut. The de-nuded slope feels horrifically exposed, and the track is dusty and raw and obscenely steep. The rider in front of me has a spectacular stack. I walk some of the messier sections. My shoes fill with dust and stones. Not my favourite but thank god my brake is working again.
Time sort of stops existing. I know I have been riding my bike for a while, and I still have a bit more riding to go. Quite a bit more riding in fact; I am around half way through. I see Alex and Mary at the next water stop. Their cheerful friendly faces are a delight. I am feeling really good and loving the race. I tell them this. I also lament my current proximity to a port-a-loo, and pinpoint the current phase of my digestive cycle. I use very descriptive and succinct language.
Mons Royale climb. If I was in Zwift i would balls to the wall this segment. I am not in Zwift, I am 100km into 100 miles. I tick away steadily. Still plenty of mountains in my legs. About halfway up the climb the boys are waiting for me. They break into cheers. I do a bit of cheering. The other supporters join in. Rockstar moment. I am so happy.
Mons Royale Climb complete, notorious Split Enz awaits. I remember this descent being brutal and painful last year: my not-quite-conditioned-enough-body protesting loudly the whole way down and then sulking for the remainder of the race. This year I just send it. The boys join me part way down, which makes me ride harder. I feel so good. My bike feels good. We gobble up the terrain. Its such a pleasure to have friendly faces and a bit of banter for a while.
Back through the feed zone. Not many riders around now and I wonder if I am the last one on course. The final third of the race takes in a few sections of trail already ridden. One bit of new trail stands out though: a nasty Grade 5 section, rather full of cliffs and a bit beyond my skill set at the best of times, let a lone quite a few hours into my ride. I walk a lot of this trail and worry that I will not make the course cut offs. The words of Nathan Fa’avae trickle into my head: “Don’t wish it was easier, wish you were better”. I do wish it was easier though.
Alex offers to join me to ride out the last 20km or so (course distance marking becomes a bit defective in the last part of the race). I am just getting to the point where I feel like l am getting in my own head a bit, so the company, enthusiasm and support is magnificent. We fly through Old Chevy, Lion Tail and Grinder, some flow, some techy some punchy climbs, I am still feeling strong enough to stomp.
Nearing the notorious water jump and hearing the music and cheers of the spectators, I feel a bit teary. I am so proud of myself.
Not only have I managed to complete a distance on single track that I genuinely didn’t know if I could manage a few weeks ago, but I managed to corral my nerves and sometimes tenuous race brain into absolutely loving the experience. This is the longest race I have done since I had my big bike crash in 2019, and the relief at beasting a big effort without the concussion symptoms rearing their ugly heads is immense.
Finish line and into the smiling circle of amazing humans who shared the epic Whaka100 MTB Marathon weekend. I still feel ridiculously good, and like I have plenty left in the tank. I guess the next step is to work out how to race it harder, use more energy, but hold that effort for a big distance. Where do I sign up for 2024?