Exploring Gippsland The Hard Way

This is a long report. For those with short attention spans, check out the race video:

Two weeks out from the Explore Gippsland start line, it was looking very sketchy on whether team Rogue were even going to be able to field a full team at the race. With Brisbane sent into a three day Covid lockdown and Victoria declaring us a red zone it was looking like our plans at another tilt at the Adventure 1 national series rankings were going to be derailed before they even began.  But as we transitioned to orange zone status, a route to the race opened up like a path beaten down by Chris Delaney through thick Victorian bush: not easy, but definitely possible. With flights changed, extra accommodation confirmed, an hour and half queue for a covid test, a train ride to regional Gippsland for self isolation all while toting a bike box and all the other excessive gear required for an adventure, the team were finally all together and ready to rumble for the inaugural Explore Gippsland race. The difficulty in getting to the race was rather fitting given the issues previously beset by the event including bush fires and then pandemic inspired delays.

Empty flights and long delays for a Covid test all part of the Victorian experience.

Retrospective Predictions

In the mad lead up to the race looking at all the different combinations of alternate travel arrangements and covid compliance requirements, I didn’t get time to provide my usual predictions blog for the Adventure 1 series.  But, had I done so, here is a synopsis of what I thought looking at the starting line up (and yes, I know it’s much easier to look like a predictive genius when you already know the results)! Whilst the relatively smaller field was reduced even further by the absence of four Tiger Adventure teams who couldn’t make the journey from Brisbane, the first race in the Adventure 1 series managed to do what the series does so well: attract all the top teams in the country for a heads up battle.

All three previous winners of the national series – Thunderbolt, Thought Sports and Alpine Avengers were present, along with our own team Rogue who have finished second in the previous two seasons and who have shown we are more than capable of mixing it with the top teams. Indeed, these four teams along with the former Tiger Adventure/Wild Earth team account for all victories in past A1 races. Along with these teams, other notable entries included the Dynamite team, Wild Yaks (racing as an all male team) and the Gold Coast Tigers who all had the right mix of either experience and/or strength to go well over what promised to be a challenging race.

Rob Preston in race directing duties at the pre-race briefing.

Now, whilst all these familiar teams were present at the race, not all were racing with their full regular line up.  Indeed, only the Alpine Avengers had their full team present, and this fact combined with their recent results, they were my pick of the favourites – would it be foreboding for me to say that it was their race to lose? Thought Sports also had a strong line up, but with Rob and Kathryn Preston on race directing duties, I felt like they were much more beatable.  Similarly, Thunderbolt were missing their regular navigator in Hugh and welcoming a new look line up this year.  Even our very own Rogue team was welcoming new team member Thor for his first race with the squad. So, my pre-race take would have been that it would be Alpine Avengers leading from the front with the other three listed teams trading blows for a podium spot with a possible upset from Dynamite, GC Tigers or Wild Yaks.

No Pressure….

A look at the course logistics and the area we were heading in to suggested a rather expeditionary course. Races that head to the wilder areas of the country are by definition a lot more work to get to. Rob had tried to ease the burden by organising accommodation and transport shuttles for teams, and keeping the pre-race faff to a minimum. Having done a lot of racing now, I’m definitely finding these more adventurous locations much more appealing and the area around Erica definitely ticked all the boxes.

Shortly after the starting gun.

With the race starting on bikes, the team were a bit nervous about a mass start with 100+ riders hitting the trails at once, but Rob had the answer for this – teams must complete a 7-piece tangram puzzle before rolling out.  I stupidly put my hand up for this and instantly found myself in a jam. No worries I thought, I’ll just copy the answer of the person next to me given that the volunteer gave them the nod and let them go. Only problem was that they had a built a rectangle and not a square and by the time I’d managed to replicate it my answer was swiftly shut down by Kathryn patrolling teams for honest answers. Anyway, after a little while Chris was able to step in and help and we were on our way, albeit one of the last teams to roll out.

Wish I knew this solution going in to the race!

A Worthy Course

We steadily began to make our way through the field with sharp navigation and solid riding.  I didn’t expect to see the top teams again at that point, but we caught them milling around the location of CP3 in an old mine. Thunderbolt and Wild Yaks were just clearing out, but the other teams were reporting that they couldn’t find the flag in the mine. We headed deep into the underground and sure enough, no CP flag.  Back out at the bikes and another review of the map – Chris picked up on the fact that the CP was drawn halfway along the track and we were at the track end.  Sure enough, there was another smaller mine and the CP was bagged. This moved us up into third place as the Avengers had ridden out further up the road before we directed them back to the CP location.

Orienteering through Walhalla

Into the first TA off what had been a fantastic bike stage – high mountain views, river crossings, old gold mining history and a bombing decent into the historic town of Walhalla. The next stage was another highlight with a split orienteering leg through Walhalla answering questions from the history boards scattered around town. Chris and Mish took the low road through town while Thor and I knocked off the high track, meeting up before continuing with the scramble down a speccy little creekline. Highlights from this stage including leap frogging Thunderbolt at some point into first place at CP7 despite not seeing them – our attempts to hide in the bush on the spur up to CP7 while they walked past failed at the last minute as Dave took one last look over his shoulder and spied us (the yellow race bibs aren’t great for covert operations). Further down the creek we were passed by Alpine Avengers and were back in second place.  At one point, despite passing through waist high pools at times, the water completely disappeared leaving a dry creek bed for stretches of a hundred meters, presumably moving underground.

Chris in his usual position up front through the bush

From the trekking, we moved into what looked like the queen stage of the race – a long packraft paddle and gnarly hike back out. The team were racing with new Frontier packrafts which Thor and I only saw for the first time the night before.  It did make me a little nervous racing with untested kit, but to be honest, the boats were brilliant out of the box – so much better than any other packrafts I had used in races like Expedition Alaska, GODZone and XPD. The extra length made the rafts so much more comfortable for both paddlers, the self bailing floor kept us both dry to the point where we didn’t need to stop and empty once and the inflatable floor insert gave the boat so much more rigidity and buoyancy. There will be minor tweaks to my set up I’ll make next time, but the packrafting on the Thomson River was amazing – definitely a course highlight. Our only downside was a slow transition that let Thunderbolt get back out in front again giving them a gap which took us another hour to close down on the water. Indeed, slow transitions were a bit of theme for us in this race and definitely an area for improvement for the team.

Chris and Mish in transition.

After a fantastic 3.5 hours of packrafting, we pulled up to the extraction point just as Alpine Avengers were finishing their packup to clear out. Surprisingly I estimated we hadn’t given up any time on the strongest paddling team in the county in a 25km packraft stage. By the time we packed up our gear for the hike out, the GC Tigers, Thunderbolt and Thought Sports had all pulled off the river. It was weird to go from this feeling of being completely isolated on a wilderness river with my own little band of team mates to be suddenly surrounded by 12 other people in a tight race for podium positions.

Finally on the water

The trek out was as tough as promised –  a couple of massive climbs and descents lugging hefty packs through bush thickly regrown from last year’s bush fires. Chris put in a monster effort here leading the charge bashing a way clear for the team. To get a small taste of it, this FB live video of the team from the Race Director was taken on the relatively clear track out towards the end of the trek. Again, the team rolled in to TA just as the Avengers were leaving and were joined by Thunderbolt and Thought Sports shortly just before it got dark and headlamps were pulled out for the first time.

Things Get Tough

A slow transition again saw us roll out in third place behind Thunderbolt on the bikes. A horrendous hike a bike up a steep, slippery trail covered in deadfall made for tough going up past CP12.  The flag was hung much lower on the track than indicated on the map, and we came across Thunderbolt traversing the hillside in the bush with their bike at a point where the trail disappeared somewhere between the flag location and the CP circle.  We set them right and sent them back down the hill to the flag as we pushed on up – they were able to repay the favour later when we lost the list of control descriptions for the last lot check points on the rogaine.

Avengers on the hike-a-bike to CP12

By this stage, things were definitely starting to get a little grim. The weather went from cold, to cold and wet, to cold and sleeting, to cold and sleeting and muddy. Fingers stopped working, feet lost sensation, bikes started to squeal their complaints as brake pads gave up. At no point for the rest of the race did I feel comfortable: shivering with a bone chilling cold was just a fact of life for the next 18 hours. The bike leg had some spectacularly long, fast descents, but the whole team was just begging for them to be over so that we could start the next uphill to get warm.  I made the comment that if we were finding things hard, it would be carnage for the rest of the field, and this was certainly the case. Of the 13 starting teams, only 6 made it through the minimum full course.

A particular low light of this point of the race was the loop of optional check points around controls A, B and C.  This was through some horrendously muddy and overgrown motorbike trails involving a lot of pushing, slipping, falling and carrying but very little riding. We were passed again by Thunderbolt at this point and our team lost a bit of momentum in the cold and rain as sleepiness crept in – another definite area for improvement for the team. Knowing that there was a perfectly good road just a hundred meters to the south that was out of bounds certainly didn’t help with the head games.  But as has always been the case in the past, the stage had an end and we rolled into the transition area, again sandwiched between Thunderbolt and Thought Sports who we just couldn’t seem to shake.

Strategy Comes Into Play

The next crux of the race was a big packraft rogaine section with 11 checkpoints on foot worth one point each, and two paddle check points worth six points each. There were also designated put in and pull out points on the river for the paddling.  Getting the timing right was critical with the final big leg also featuring a number of easy bonus points up for grabs, so it was important to leave enough time to collect all these CPs.  At this point the race effectively moved from a linear adventure race to a rogaine. We decided on a long hike up the western side of the river collecting all the foot controls in the area before paddling back down to the TA. If we had time left over, we would then look at dashing over to get a few of the eastern foot controls.

Rogaine CPs E to Q from TA2/6

On the hike to the first CP (E), we came together with both Thunderbolt and Thought Sports at the top of a big climb.  Surprisingly, neither of them had their packrafts with them. When I quizzed Dave from Thunderbolt on this, he said their strategy was to collect most, but not all, CPs on the east before going back to their rafts to hike along the flat track next the river for the paddle. The advantage was that they could hike with much lighter packs, but by my estimation it made for a much more inefficient route.  On the out and back decent into CP-E we dropped our bags with the packrafts and took just our mandatory gear, but halfway down realised we forgot our mandatory tracker.  Having to go back and grab it allowed a critical split to Thought Sports who jumped away and were able to establish what was ultimately the race winning break.

Despite carrying the heavier packs, sharper navigation kept us in touch with Thunderbolt up to the point after CP-I where they turned back for their rafts and we headed north for an extra CP (H).  A horrid time trying to inflate packrafts by the pre-dawn light on the river edge with three semi-functional pumps (even resorting to inflating them by mouth) meant we were caught up again by Thunderbolt, although we again put time into them on the paddle for another mini-break.

It gets cold when you stop!

Coming in to the transition area, it was my estimation that we were in third place, being up by one check point on Thunderbolt but likely down on points by a small margin to Thought Sports and by a bigger margin to Alpine Avengers.  Once again, Thought Sports did what they do so well – they seem to have a knack of just sitting behind the lead pack all day long, but when things get dark and there is a long, navigationally tough trek leg they drop the hammer and but in massive margins to teams around them.  This has happened in many past races recently, and why at the start of this A1 season, I had them pegged as favourites for the Rogue Raid despite the Avengers being possibly the favourite for all the other races on paper.  The Rogue Raid by nature involves a lot of strategy and navigational challenge.  This year’s course is particularly trek heavy with over 50km of hiking compared to only just on 70km of cycling – this includes a tough overnight trek leg which will favour Thought Sports in particular, noting that they will also have Rob and Kathryn Preston racing again (former world rogaine champions in the mixed pairs).

Packrafting the Thomson River

Back in the TA, we had some tough decisions to make – pick up the relatively easy CPs J and O and risk leaving ourselves with not enough time for the rest of the course, or push on. Playing it safe, we decided to kick on and collect just CP D on the return to our bikes, but on route decided to drop it too, figuring the risk of making a navigational mistake or having a bad bike mechanical might cost us some of the easy bike bonus points, or worse see us back late and lose all our bonus points. In the end we swept the final bike leg rather easily (including a great little tour of the local Erica mountain bike park single track) with 74 minutes to spare. At the time I figured any points left on the table wouldn’t make a difference to our result, but perhaps that didn’t quite prove the case.

The Seemingly Arbitrary Nature of Rules

As adventure racers, and members of society as a whole, we are pretty attuned with rules even when they feel rather arbitrary.  Some rules are there for safety – “put on a mask while catching a flight” – “wear a helmet while hiking down a creek”. Other rules are there for structure – “get a covid test within 72hrs of arriving in the state” – “ride along the horrendously overgrown and muddy trail and not the beautiful gravel road”.

One rule present to provide structure for the race was the fact that check points K and Q on the rogaine must be collected by packraft from the river, while the remaining CPs could be collected by foot in any order. The Alpine Avengers, who had been leading the race at this point, made the decision to collect these CPs on foot and leave their packrafts behind. I’m not sure if this was a result of an alternate interpretation of the rules, a mix up in information from a volunteer at the transition area or a combination of both, but ultimately it was deemed by the race director that this went against the rules and they were docked a heavy penalty of losing all 12 points available for these two check points. Certainly it would have saved a massive amount of effort (and therefore time and energy) carrying the 10kg packs, not to mention two whole transitions of packing and unpacking the rafts, giving a big advantage.

The consequence of the penalty is that the result would move the Avengers from second place down into fifth, and move our team up into second overall. I do feel bad for the Avengers as there was no doubt they were the fastest team on the course. Much to my surprise on review, we were still in with a good shot to take the overall win regardless of penalties if we had backed ourselves and gone for CPs J and O. In hindsight, we had time to collect them and by being the only team to carry our packrafting gear through the eastern check points on the rogaine (instead of going back to get them and carry up the edge of the river as Thunderbolt and Thought Sports did), we were actually in a great position to take the win. But, that’s the nature of rogaine format adventure races – you never know exactly how you are stacking up against the other teams (a fact I’ve seen play out many times at the Rogue Raid), so you just have to put in your maximum effort. We made what we thought was the right call on the day and ultimately I’m very proud of the how the team raced and our final result.

In the end, only 6 of the 13 teams entered finished the full course ranked:
1. Thought Sports
2. Rogue
3. Thunderbolt
4. Gold Coast Tigers
5. Avengers
6. Dynamite

Much of the high attrition rate can be attributed to the brutal conditions. The cold combined with the rain/hail/sleet meant that at times things were pretty grim – once the sun set I never got comfortable or warm again. Even typing this now a week later my finger tips still hurt.  In those conditions, it just wasn’t a race for beginners or inexperienced teams. We covered 146km, about 28km of which was paddling, so the other 118km of riding and hiking accounts for a massive 4600m+ of vert.

A thorough investigation of Gippsland

All told, Rob should be very proud of the race he put on. The course and location were fantastic and well worth the trip down. If anyone is ever giving consideration to racing GODZone, Explore Gippsland is a must do race as a stepping stone given the similarity in terrain, conditions, disciplines and toughness. The event used high quality, purpose built maps which I always appreciate as a navigator and rogaine enthusiast. The trade off with such a fantastic location is the increased difficulty in getting there, but Rob tried to account for this in his logistics with airport shuttles, accommodation and packraft hire all arranged, and keeping the pre-race checks to a minimum. His pre-race communication could be improved, and I think the event would be better served as just a pure linear race with a series of short course options implemented along the way.  I get that by having the second half of the race as a rogaine, he is trying to keep teams out as long as possible for value for money, however I had a lot of feedback that spectators following the tracking couldn’t follow the race plus confusion around the rogaine rules resulted in a penalty for the team who I would argue was the strongest on the day. But these are just minor learning experiences we all make as race directors and I believe (and hope) that Explore Gippsland can become another must-do main stay on the Australian Adventure racing calendar.

Looking Ahead

In the end, the team went from having their whole A1 season derailed to posting a strong result in the first race of the calendar.  We may only make it to 3 of the 4 races this year, so every result has got to count.  A big thanks to Chris, Mish and Thor for such a great expeirence – after all the effort it was great to have a race that tested all our skills and still have it all come together on the day. It feels like an age since the AR community has come together for a competitive race, so it was fantastic to see old friends again.

Chris, Liam, Thor and Michelle

On a personal note, I’ve got to finalise things for the Wildfire Raid tomorrow, with the PreRogueative the next weekend also something to look forward to.  After that I have a weekend of hanging controls for the Rogue Raid and then the Rogue Raid itself, so it’s certainly a busy little period. Unfortunately, the team had a set back earlier this year when Dan broke his clavicle, scapula and multiple ribs in a criterium crash, so they’ve needed to find a replacement for the Rogue Raid – we’ll be welcoming Richard Mountstephens to the team for his first adventure race back in a while. Looking at the attendance numbers of races at the moment, Adventure Racing is entering another golden period. Team Rogue is set for a bumper year ahead.

See you on the trails soon. Liam

Note – you can follow a replay of the tracking here. An album of photos of the team can be found here.


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