VERY BIG YEAR 2017
During 2017 Michael Laloli competed in all four of the Australian Ultra Marathons being the RPM200 (208km along Murray River in SA), Avon Descent, Hawkesbury Classic (111km overnight in NSW) and the Massive Murray Paddle, previously known as Murray Marathon (404km NSW/Vic). In addition, he completed the “Very Big Year” challenge set by Sydney Kayaks, being 1000km of racing within a year.
In 2015, I entered the Avon Descent as a personal challenge having support crewed for friends and been impressed with the atmosphere and spirit of the event. I purchased an old Finn Multisport, entered a few lead up races where I got well beaten and took a punt on the day. 2015 was the year of no water on the leadup, then torrential rains the few days before. After a nightmare in the ti trees day one, my race became a lot tougher day two during my trip down the valley. Having managed to just make the cut off, then haul my broken body up the Swan, the satisfaction of finishing was most rewarding.
Come Feb 2016, I left for the NZ Whitewater school where I learned white water, was coached by some inspirational instructors, particularly Mick Hopkinson and left feeling confident. 2016 I entered the Avon in a Wavehopper and had an enjoyable race. But the elation of finishing was not the same as 2015 and I sought a new challenge.
2017 I would enter the Murray Marathon. During April 17’, when I decided I would commit, Sydney Kayaks launched the “Very Big Year”, a challenge to race 1000km within a year. I had been looking about for a paddling group near Fremantle and begun paddling with the “Bull Creek Buoys”. I enjoyed paddling amongst the squad and they encouraged me to paddle at the Tues night Canning races, which I did and joined the club.
Entering the VBY we were encouraged to enter other Marathon events, particularly the big ones interstate and so I showed interest in SA’s RPM200. Contacting the President of the SA Marathon Club, they were very encouraging and offering all support to help make the trip happen. Given their excitement I couldn’t back out. I was supplied a boat and support crew, flew across and raced. Mornings were very cold, the race days long and day one’s scenery was non eventful. But day two and three were stunning and I placed 3rd amongst the ocean ski category.
RPM provides a photo with race results to each competitor.
As my paddle speed was increasing, the “Bull Creek Buoys” encouraged me to buy a K1. It would improve my stability in other boats for the ocean and Avon and teach me a lot about paddling. So I did, and maybe it wasn’t the year to be distracted by learning to paddle a K1, which took a bit of time, but their advice was right after paddling a Nelo Vanquish, my WWR layup Wizard copy I had acquired seemed much more stable now to the point where I decided to enter it in the 2017 Avon. So 2017 would also be the year I paddled a composite K1 in the Avon for the first time. I had a great race, enjoying a speed advantage over the hopper and felt some satisfaction having steered a much tippier boat down the valley. Some other VBY paddlers made the trip across and were awestruck with the level of technical difficulty the Avon presents. But also overwhelmed by the welcoming nature of Perth paddlers whom helped them out with practice valley runs.
Start at AD 2017
However I had learned at both the RPM and Avon the need to be comfortable in the boat for the long races, both races I felt extremely uncomfortable. For the Murray I could have hired a boat in NSW but my fear was of not being able to set it up for me. The cost of couriering my boat was the same. So we made modifications to the Wizard, including a new seat and at last minute I enquired about sending it to Sydney first.
A fellow VBY paddler offered to collect the boat, take it to the Hawksbury, then take to the start of the Murray. We met at the start of the Hawkesbury and immediately I was adopted into the “Lane Cove” Kayak Club. The clubs there operate differently for the big events, they turn up with marquees, shared ground crew, bbq’s and so on. Believe they sometimes assist with boat transport and is probably a reflection of a different lifestyle where boats live in the club, and people in apartments. The Hawkesbury seemed bizarre to me in many ways, my strategy was to try and remain on WA time by sleeping in then arriving at the race as late as possible, about noon. The locals arrive much earlier and hang about all day! Registration took hours. I was allocated the last start wave so commenced at 1700hrs. Within 15km I had rudder issues, probably as the boat had been trucked over with constant vibrations and with the long rego I had little time to get ready for the race and check the boat thoroughly. I paddled onto Spencer (30km), paddling without the rudder and the shore crew attempted a fix. Paddled to Wisemans Ferry (another 30km) in the dark where the full logistics of the Lane Cove Kayak Club was to be seen, their club was up in neon lights to help paddlers locate their pit. The rudder was repaired but half an hour later it came off again, I made the decision to return to Wisemans where it was repaired. For now I was merely a participant so stopped at “low tide pit stop” manned by volunteers , with a big bonfire where they put on hospitality, it was great. Paddling to the finish I was happy I could last the full 111km in one day and my technique was satisfactory. It was a good warm up being only 3 weeks out from the Murray. This race was difficult, the night aspect adds additional fatigue, navigation is an issue as is the cold. Regularly I could not see the river bank, nor much in front of me so can be hard to enjoy the progress. Having been so uncomfortable in the boat during the Avon, I was happy I had resolved this issue.
Start HCC, I’m on far left
Early in the evening HCC
Lane cove team working on the rudder at the HCC
For the Murray, I was still a little unsure of what to expect. Despite asking about it in Perth, I was yet to meet a fellow paddler whom had competed in the race. By now I had a good rapport with several of the East Coast endurance paddlers and as the race approached it became more active in media circles. We attended the opening ceremony at Yarrawonga and left for bed early. The organisation before hand was so well drilled, better than any race I had seen. Day one was to be a 94km paddle and having had a good start I was comfortable in 2nd place (amongst solos) heading to the first pit. Leaving the checkpoint in 5th, I could see the other paddlers in front of me and noticed many did not stop, approaching the second stop I expected them to stop, but they didn’t. Still feeling good I was tempted to chase but knowing we had 5 days of paddling chose to continue with my original plan. Turns out the top 5 paddlers strategy for the entire race is to not stop at all during race days!
Day two being another 94km was tough to wake up to, in hindsight mentally I may not have been in the right place. Off the start I settled into a very large pack, but within 10km became uncomfortable, especially with the seat. I pulled over to adjust its setting and by the first pit stop (28km in) was in a lot of pain, having dark thoughts and fighting the talk of pulling out! I changed my paddle, seat, pants, started taking pain killers and continued. Whilst I couldn’t rid the pain, I could manage it. The rest of the race really became a trip of managing pain, recovery, having periods of energy and the constant need to remind myself this was to be enjoyable. Which it was. By Day 2, we had a good relationship with other paddlers in our start wave, and did work together wash riding each other. At times the strongest paddler would take huge leads of up to half an hour. The heat was intense, about 35 degrees all week and I was drinking about 8 litres a day. I was one of the few boats paddling an “Avon Spec” K1, a good choice given the debris in the river, I was able to cut the corners and save big km. Many others had composite surf skis, and many others damaged their rudders. We saw some beautiful towns, most I had never heard of and paddling into Echuca was a treat, a busy paddle steamer port with plenty of tourists and plenty of wash! Solo’s were well and truly outnumbered by doubles and for good reason. By Day 3 when the fatigue had well and truly set, it took much longer to catch the earlier start waves and by then we had run out of conversation with our fellow Wave 4 paddlers!
At the finish MMP
Enroute to the finish at Swan Hill Murray Marathon.
Reaching the finish of the Murray was a huge relief and I received as much satisfaction as I’d hoped for. It was the annual goal and whilst I knew the distance would be tough, paddling in the heat was probably the most foreign part. Immediately after the race, a constant in conversation was “what’s next”. I completed in 37hrs 40min, good enough for 10th solo and 16th over the line. Hadn’t given much thought to time, but now very very happy to have come in well under 40hrs.
I completed the 1000km VBY on Day 3 of the Murray and still have until April to be logging km’s. The Very Big Year did expose me to many of the East Coasts regular endurance racers, many of whom are talking about Yukon River Quests, Bass St crossings and there is even talk of a Tasman Crossing.
It has been a hugely rewarding paddling year, I have learned to enjoy Perth kayak club culture, been coached by the best, headed plenty of good advice and learned to love a pure K1. Initially, I expected logistics to be the biggest challenge and cost, and it was but I asked for a lot of help and found if you ask, someone will always put their hand up. Seems now I will be hosting a large contingent in 2018 for the Avon. The East Coasters are fascinated and petrified of the Avon and all wonder how they can practically race it. Wouldn’t it be great to develop a fleet we could have available for interstaters to use each year for the Avon?
I’m still hurting and fatigued from the Murray but looking forward to returning to paddling. I can concentrate on mastering the slick Nelo K1 sitting in the garage and will probably look to paddle more K2 in 2018. For anyone considering competing in the Murray, 2018 is the year to do it as it will be the 50th anniversary of the race, so don’t delay!
So what’s my message? To East Coasters who are thinking of doing the Avon…. Just do it, put your hand up, the locals will look after you. For those thinking of doing the Murray – same applies. For anyone else, join a kayak club!