Written by Craig Colwell
There are some magical moments in life when everything goes right and your body is in tune with the moment, you feel invincible and un-stoppable. I’ve been blessed with this sensation only a couple of times in my life, once on a long-distance run, the other playing a game of basketball.
Unfortunately, at La Molena, on 27 July this year, competing in the 16th World Rogaining Championship was not one of those rare moments. It was more a case of enduring physically and mentally, knowing that we had done this before and could do it again, but realising that we had to limit our goals due to a curtailed preparation.
We began planning for this event in November 2018, but just after entering the event, Evelyn, when running across North Tce on the way to work, ran into the side of a moving car and ended up in hospital with a broken hand and badly cut knee. A few weeks later I badly tore my achilles tendon. Neither of these events were an ideal start to our World Championship preparation, especially as the general advice on my achilles tendon was a 12-month recovery period.
Undaunted, we continued with overseas booking including an 8-day hiking tour through the Pyrenees villages as a warm-up just before the event, as well planning a short visit to the mountainous principality of Andorra to acclimatise ourselves to hiking in the big mountains.
These preliminary excursions turn out to be my main pre-event training and it was clear to me that I was well below my usual physical well-being and Evelyn’s fitness level.
On arrival in La Molena, a ski resort, the mountains and size of them were immediately apparent. Ski lifts headed in all directions and any short walk involved a climb. We were also a couple of thousand meters above sea level, not at the level where you needed to pack an oxygen tank, but high enough to make you (or more likely un-fit me) think about it at times. The weather we had been experiencing in Spain prior to the rogaine was warm to hot (very hot), but for the weekend of the event a major storm front hit. From early Saturday morning rain was falling, which became torrential from about 9am with thunder and lightning all around. The mountainous terrain was enveloped in thick cloud and the organisers were advising competitors to stay away from the open country on the mountain tops to avoid possible lightning strikes.
The main event site was on one of the few flat areas at La Molena and a huge marquee had been set up for the Hash House and shelter for teams to plan their courses. Numerous teams had set up their small hiking tents around this marquee (including SA couple Olivier Fahy and Annika Danielsson) and this appeared to be a very gloomy setting for the weekend. We had fortunately planned on a bit of comfort and had hired an apartment within the event centre area which we shared with fellow SA rogainers, Jo and David Powell and Karen Wishart.
Trying to plan an efficient minimal ascent/descent route was a challenge, especially in the over-crowded marquee with the sharp crack of lightning immediately followed by the loud boom of thunder every few minutes and the roar of the rain on the canvas. Sharing nervous smiles and grins with other competitors nearby, eased some of the tension as the midday start time approached and the rain got heavier.
Standing in the heavy rain in the muddy start arena just before midday, I was feeling a little bit sorry for all the volunteers and organisers and very sorry for ourselves. Fortunately, the weather cleared after about 3 hours and wet weather gear could be packed away, unfortunately my highlighted route, drawn on the polyart material map had washed away and Evelyn’s compass (newly purchased the day before) was playing a few tricks, messing up our team harmony.
As time slowly ticked by, we negotiated winding, narrow rocky hiking tracks, muddy steep-sided creek beds and steep knolls and spurs. The inner 15-year-old boy in me was revelling in the initial part of the event but the outer 60+ year-old body was struggling, eventually hitting rock bottom just past midnight. We got trapped climbing out of a steep sided riverbed, eventually found a route out, only to be ensnared in thick prickly bushes which turned my long-legged hiking pants into shorts. The inner 15-year-old boy had disappeared.
At this stage, only Evelyn’s dwindling enthusiasm and the need to get back provided any incentive to keep going. Fortunately, the weather was mild though getting cooler as dawn approached, but the mountains were energy sapping as we aimed to get to a large ridge line and make our way around the major gully that split the map.
All teams were carrying a GPS unit which was recording and uploading our every move in real time, creating interesting thought patterns when around 3am in the morning we got ourselves lost on an unmarked track and later wandered around a spur looking for a minor erosion gully (C68). Normally in an event if you get yourself orientationally challenged by the terrain you don’t have the feeling that there is a crowd of people watching your every move but having the “live” GPS just added that bit more pressure.
As dawn approached, the temperature was near freezing point when taking in the wind chill factor on the hill tops and ridge line, which was bracing and somewhat invigorating for me but Evelyn’s light body frame was suffering from the cold, forcing an unscheduled stop to enable her to re-dress with more thermals and get her wet weather jacket on. Once she started to thaw out, she then powered on again leading us to most of the remaining control points.
The last couple of hours of the event saw us joining numerous other teams trekking between the final 3 or 4 control sites possibly none more difficult than the massive climb between control 53 and control 24 which had about 25 x 10 metre contour lines to negotiate for the 1 kilometre distance. (Yes, it was a 250 vertical metre climb to gain 20 points!) Body almost completely shattered by this time, so no serious consideration was given to anything apart from getting to the Hash House – we finished about 20 minutes early.
In the final wash-up we had planned a course of approximately 60 kms. This route was revised during the event as we were behind our schedule, however we ended up travelling about 62 kms. The GPS recording said we had an ascent of 7 kms but this seems incorrect and our manual counting of the contour lines puts our climb at close to 3 kms. Though with sore knees, it was more the descent down the rocky tracks or slopes which was the most painful and difficult.
We finished 223rd overall out of 386 teams. Annika and Oliver finished 303rd choosing a scenic route to the mountain tops to start with but chased off the mountain by thick cloud, rain and hail. Karen and Jo took a conservative route through the middle of the map and opted for an over-night sleep in the apartment finishing in 337th place. The top Australian team was David Baldwin and Julie Quinn from NSW finishing in 17th place overall and winning the Mixed Veteran’s age class and coming second in the Mixed Open class.
Results can be seen here: https://www.wrc2019.cat/wrc2019/resultats/RESULTAT%20WRC2019/index.html
Our gps route can be viewed here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/cbxroerxdl3wxgb/AABkwTMy9n1WnUNfp3x5ivvta?dl=0&lst= under team name COLWELL – Team number 67