I look up at the night sky just before we open transition to see millions of stars twinkling brightly against the black blanket of darkness. Even with the ambient street lighting it’s darker here in the bush than it ever is back in my city home. I will probably never forget this quiet moment standing in the darkness at 3 o’clock in the morning waiting for the athletes to arrive to rack their bikes in transition. It’s peaceful here with nothing but a street light to cast shadows. We’ve been here for a quarter hour preparing for the 500+ athletes to arrive for their big day racing one of Queensland’s toughest races here in the small country town that forms the border between the crop fields of the Darling Downs and the mystical Outback.
And then the flow of athletes and bikes begins. It starts as a steady trickle, rather like the steady trickle of water that often typifies western Queenland’s river systems. Within half an hour a steady stream of athletes is flowing through the two entrances we have open for transition. We check each has a properly fitted helmet, at least two water bottles (it’s going to be hot out in the summer heat today), bike numbers and a bike that looks safe. It’s pleasant work greeting athletes and wishing them well while drooling over their amazing machines. In the half hour before transition closes the stream becomes a flood as those who tried to get some extra sleep arrive ready to race. Unfortunately, a similar flood is now affecting many of western Queensland’s rivers wreaking havoc to lives. But it hasn’t dampened the spirits of athletes or locals in Goondiwindi who are ready to celebrate the great tradition of the Hell of the West, and a meeting of town and country.
Buses arrive to take the athletes and spectators out to ‘The Pond’ where the 2km swim leg will take place. The extra water in the river has made it unsafe for swimming and the organisers have put Plan B into action. Instead of swimming their 2km in the river close to transition the athletes will swim in a lake at the Botanic Gardens then run the 3.2km back to transition before heading out on the cycle leg. The 20km run leg has been shortened to 16.8km to account for the inconvenience of the run from the swim to transition. A secondary transition has been set up at the swim exit so athletes can wear shoes for the run back to transition. For teams, both the swimmer and runner need to be at The Pond to allow the runner to run back to transition where the cyclist is waiting. The smooth way this Plan B operates is a credit to the race organisers.
It’s quiet after the athletes leave and we will have about forty minutes before the leaders are expected back in transition. We have time to use the bathrooms now that the queues are gone and to buy coffees to help keep us awake. It’s 5 o’clock in the morning and the street lights still cast their yellow glow over the tens of thousands of dollars worth of bikes racked in transition.
The speaker system crackles to life as the first athlete is about to enter transition. We are ready at the mount line as he races out on his bike. It is difficult to believe he has just swum 2km and run 3.2km because he looks fresh. There is a large gap before the rest of the leading men run out of transition with their bikes. As the sun begins to light the day, the sound of racing wheels rolling along the road fills the air.
For the half hour the athletes come through transition in small groups. Some look fresh while others are already starting to feel the effects of the long swim.As the morning continues the stream of athletes thins until there are long gaps between each man and woman heading out for the long bike ride. By now the street lights have turned off and the sun shines brightly.
We have about half an hour between the last cyclist leaving transition and the first cyclist’s return. It’s just enough time to grab a delicious bacon and egg sandwich from the lovely Rotary volunteers who have set up a camp kitchen. Their trailer-top cooking set up is as impressive as their effective way of feeding the multitude of volunteers who are performing the many roles necessary to make the event happen. The various uniforms (everyone from the SES to the rotary to the scouts to the local tri club and probably more I didn’t identify) are all working together enjoying front row seats in what is a spectacular sporting event.
Just as I finish my sandwich the first athlete comes around the corner and into transition. Even after an 80km cycle he is able to swing his leg quickly over his saddle and to run quickly into transition. He makes the event look effortless. The other leaders are similarly awe-inspiring in their dismounts and runs into transition. It’s a testament to the miles they must train to seem this relaxed and fresh after the first two disciplines are finished.
All morning long we listen to the telltale cheer from the houses around the corner as cyclists come into transition. Not all have the strength to dismount as gracefully or quickly as the leaders did but that doesn’t lessen the admiration I have for them being able to participate in this tough event.
As the cyclists keep returning to transition I hear that the winners have completed their 102km race having swum 2km, cycled 80km and run 20km. I don’t know what is more inspirational: the speed with which the front-runners complete the course or the courage it must take to continue when you know you are one of the last runners to head out and that, for some, you will have to walk whole sections of the course due to fatigue. The wonderful thing is that the announcer will still call their names and people will still cheer as those near the back of the field come home to complete this tough race on what is now a blistering hot sunny day.
I don’t see anyone finish the race. It’s after 11am when the last cyclist enters transition and I have to return to Brisbane. I grab my gear, take a quick shower back at the Victoria Hotel where I stayed the previous night, load my gear on my bike and start the long 400km motorbike trip home to Brisbane. I make it as far as Yelarbon, just 50km down the highway, when I need to pull over and take a power nap in the shade of a gum tree. I catch half an hour of z’s before I am awoken by the familiar voice of Rob who stopped in Yelarbon to buy a coffee.
Somehow I manage to stay awake long enough to get myself safely home. I stop four more times to eat and rest. After a shower and a feed I fall asleep on the couch. It’s only 7:30pm but I’m exhausted from a big weekend; a wonderfully fun weekend at that. I’ve added Hell of the West to my race calendar for 2013, so long as it doesn’t clash with the Tre-X race on 2-3 February.