One foot planted on the ground, one on the opposite foot peg, I lean to the side, craning my neck in an attempt to see past the riders in front on the prologue grid for the 2015 Tatts Finke Desert Race.
Poor visibility with the setting sun against the billowing dust cloud ahead means the best chance at a good prologue is going to be a hole-shot, so I'm trying to figure out the starting light sequence. Was that 3 amber lights then green, or 4?
The bikes stop progressing forward and the light remains on red as an injured rider is collected from the track. Unfortunately there have already been a few injuries on the track and I feel for the poor rider who's dreams have been crushed before the real racing has begun.
Eventually I'm on the start line, two riders next to me, all gunning to get out in front and avoid the dust. Alas, as the green light beams, both myself and the rider next to me are a little too keen and the bikes start on the back wheel. We have a short battle but he pulls away after the first corner and I can't see a thing. Being our prologue sight lap was cancelled, I rely on memory from 2 years ago to guide me around a track I can barely see. I cannot see the depth of the whoops, hard edges, or where the next corner is. I ride the best I can in the conditions, relying on the track markers and, (if this is even possible,) feel. I run off the track once and take a few unwanted risks in the dust. I prologue 437th, in a time of 7:54.
Sunday, day one rolls around. Like jumping on a train into the unknown, big races like these leave me battling nerves, fear, and somehow a sense of dread and excitement all rolled in one. By the end of today, will I be in Finke safe and sound, or will there be crashes, injuries, or worse? Shutting down the side of my brain that stresses about these things is difficult. I think I have more nerves about nerves than the actual race!
It doesn't help that as I gear up ready for my start time on Day 1, I'm hearing of crashed and injured riders before the first 50 have even left. I strap my wrists, knee, foot, check my camelback, lose my goggles, find my goggles, go to the toilet 30 times, and arrive on the grid 45 mins early.
I quickly realise there has been a change to the starting order. Due to the exceptionally dusty conditions, prologue order has been scrapped and everyone is pretty much pushing to the front to get out as quickly as possible. I find two of my desert racing girlfriends, Alexandra Long and Kristy-Lee Stephens, and we all push forward in a line. I look back, and there are literally hundreds of riders waiting to chase the dust down to Finke and back. Ahead looks like a scene from Mad Max. The exceptional dust cloud looms thick for as far as the eye can see.
Amber, Amber, Amber, Amber-Green. I'm not quick enough again, and I get dusted immediately. I cannot see the track, but I manage to pass a few riders by the first couple of turns. I can barely see my front guard. I hit edges, whoops, run off the track, and nearly run into other bikes. In 2013, the
dust cleared within the first 40ks. This time around, no such luck. There is barely a breeze to clear the track, so keeping any kind of pace is very hard. I, and every other rider is gunning to get ahead. I know there are hundreds of riders behind me, so slowing down to avoid the dust is impossible. This is desert racing.
The spectators along the track are so much fun, and finally, after the 110k mark, the dust clears so I put in a last big effort to make up time, managing to get into Finke in 382nd place. My fitness really came through here and I felt strong especially through the whoop sections. In spite of my concern about racing a 250 2T, the bike feels fantastic. Light, powerful, didn't miss a beat. Of course the suspension is yet another trusty set up from the guys at MPE.
It was so good to be at Finke safe, but here is where history repeated itself and I set myself up for a huge struggle on day two. My knee was in a lot of pain and kept me up most of the night, and I accidentally left my earplugs and pain killers in a car which got locked so with every buggy blasting past the campsite at all hours of the morning, my chances of sleep were ruined.
Of course I had to get sick with a Ross River Fever relapse in the form of a respiratory infection too, and definitely didn't eat as well as I should have. I literally turn into a zombie when I'm that tired, I'm not even hungry for days after a big race, so forcing food down along with all the nerves can be the start of a big let down for me.
Nevertheless, day two start is in front of me and immediately I'm battling with other riders to stay ahead. This in itself is tiring, but once again we're all racing the dust.
Somehow from behind a quad catches and passes me in the bull dust after a big straight, and I manage to pull up just before hitting a tree. Choice words were issued in the riders general direction but truthfully I was pretty scared. It's like riding along and suddenly you're blindfolded. Should have been quicker!
The run back to Alice Springs from Finke was a fight to stay on the pace, out of the dust, and upright. I battle fatigue the whole way back. I don't know what I would have done without my trusty Steg Pegz, and as for the personal training leading up to the race, well, without that, this would have been an entirely different story!
There are constant reminders of the sheer danger of this race as I pass riders lying motionless on the track with paramedics providing assistance, and bikes, quads, and buggies parked off to the side of the track, their presence a testament to the nature of this race.
I try to focus on riding the best I can through each straight, corner and whoop; but it's impossible not to notice how slowly the car bonnets pass by. 50 K, 40K, and finally, the longest 10 Ks of my life and I'm 6th gear pinned over the finish line.
I've just finished my second Finke desert race, in a respectable 351st place out of 600 entrants. In spite of the additional entrants and tougher than usual conditions, I have pulled a better time and finish than 2013 which I am pretty happy with.
I make the now familiar walk down to hand my transponder in, one step after the other. Riders everywhere shake hands, I give the girls a hug, some dude hands me baby wipes, and we're all happy to be finished and safely home. I'm so tired and sick though, my hands can't open a bottle of water for days afterwards, but I finished, I collect my spike at presentation that night and I'm already planning my trip to Tasmania for the Australian 4 Day Enduro in October!
I can't thank the amazing sponsors enough who made yet another fantastic race possible. MPE Suspension, Defined Fitness, Force Accessories, Clake, Mass Nutrition, Clever Paws, Steg Pegz, and Zero MX Graphics.
Read how Melissa prepared for the race in Part 1 of her story.