One of the great features of being human is our inability to remember physical pain. I mean, we can recall it, but it’s abstract… We can’t really tap into our memory banks and recreate the intimate feeling of self inflicted suffering from a past moment.

This feature is critical for allowing us to carry out a range of functions, (and how the Rodfather managed to get second dates), but none more so than entering another Marathon XC stage race. If when we went to enter the next such event and we could instantly feel the various suffering emotions from the last time, entries would likely plummet from their current all time sell-out highs.

Yes, it feels like we’re in a golden age of Mountain Biking XC Marathon action right now. While amateur road racing appears to be dying a compliance fuelled death, the long-range dirt sufferfests are selling out as hordes of fevering Banditos clamber for the next event.

At the forefront of this SO hot right now Wave is the Volcanic Epic, back for it’s second act in 2024 and with a number of sneaky good upgrades which showed they’d taken on board rider feedback from year 1:

  • Later start times for a more chilled morning and better travel options
  • Earlier in the year, so not quite as cold as absolute fuck for the starts
  • An extra day with the prologue, but slightly shorter stages
  • A bit more technical spice to the trails – Welcome news to Enduro Bros who have only mild Banditry tendencies

So, scene suitably set, how did the now 5 day Volcanic Epic 2024 roll? Let’s deep dive…

Day 1 – Prologue: Rotorua

  • 10.2km’s
  • 306m climbing

First 2024 plot twist! The extra day snuck in for a prologue to set your starting wave… And while 10km’s and under 400m of climbing doesn’t seem like a tall order, if badly managed from a match burning perspective, it was going to be easy to do more harm than good on this first outing.

And naturally Tim & Team laid out a prologue course that invited you to blow yourself out early for those with low impulse control; Up Apamoana, lush… Frontal Lobotomy, say no more… Before a final blast down EVS to clock your opening time and stage pecking order. Whilst making it into Wave 1 was more than likely off the cards, the anxiety fuelled horror of being in Wave 3 was enough to get me to invest a little more than I probably should have, hence employing ALL the attack position at once:

Times later confirming that I did indeed have significant margin to comfortably be inside Wave 2, but that aside it was great to finally be apply pent up form in anger after the usual sensations roller coaster of a tapering period.

Another bonus of the earlier calendar slot? Warm afternoons, which meant that post stage lake ice bath protocol was put straight into effect as the second daily race began to reboot the chassis and prepare to subject it to high abuse levels the following day…

Day 2 – Stage 1: Rotorua

  • 44.8km’s
  • 1,413m climbing

Ride a 5 day pace, not a one day race” was the motto of the week – A strategy that had seemingly worked well the prior year, but lasted about the first 30 seconds of 2024. Front row start in Wave 2 (a key upgrade from last years terrible ‘back of the pack’ starts) quickly translated into finding myself alone and with a large gap halfway up Hill road less than 3 minutes into the start of the first proper day.

The allure of getting into the first decent down Tukonohi was simply too much to say no to, and as the rev counter went way the fuck past recommended safety parameters, designed to avoid a Soviet like core melt down, it was obvious that this was a foolish endeavour and it needed to be dialled back… Right after a full gas shred down the first descent naturally. Then, of course we would regulate shit and get something more measured going… Right?

With that in mind, here’s a picture of me about 15 minutes into the stage, smiling like an over-promoted fucking idiot as I proceed to set fire to my own plan and subsequently, my legs too, as I led Wave 2 up the luscious Apamoana climb:

The very clean set of heels on a man living on borrowed time you can see there didn’t last long. Even though it’s possibly the friendliest climbing gradient on offer, my continued suspect climbing form combined with still being an ‘Enduro-friendly’ weight north of 80kg’s, meant it was only a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ that the little people would come for me and feast on my excited hairy carcass.

And so began the now all too familiar format of me attempting to outrun the Bandito horde, desperately trying to hold on until the next section of technical singletrack or DH to reestablish a buffer, while they hunted me relentlessly on anything resembling a climb or 4WD track. Like a wounded WW2 bomber buzzing in and out of clouds, the relief I could feel each time I made it into the next descent was delicious.

This cat and fat mouse scenario did have one drawback however – I was really struggling to back off the pace. Each time I promised to drop the revs and get to a range that was more sustainable, there would be a “just one more” moment as I rationalised burning another match to savour some traffic free section of superlative Vegas singletrack. Which serves as a reminder – This was a fucking excellent race course, granted, its one of the best places I can think of to ride a short travel bike in, but the VE crew had constructed a total banger of a parcours for the opening of real lactic hostilities.

Having said that, I didn’t feel quite as stoked as I could feel the first hints of mini-crisis starting to creep in around Arepa and climbing up Soak Hole the master alarm started to go off. It occurred to me that the problem was twofold – I was starting to go backwards after my red mist fever dream start, but I was also likely digging a hole for myself for the queen stage tomorrow. After crawling through Tickler and up Direct Road, I was never more stoked to see the entrance to Tuteata ahead of my front wheel:

In true Mr Farmer fashion, some more grinding singletrack was to be had to get to the finish, and mentally I could have done without the cramp that was a theme as I navigated those last couple of Km’s which felt significantly longer than that. Cue fretting about the following day and ones ability to back up.

With 9 non-starters in the M40 Solo category, the field had dropped in size to 33 riders, so coming in 16th with a time of 2.58 (and 44th/133 solo riders) was right about where I usually wash up given my mid-pack Bandito theme.

Worth noting the M40 winner, up in 5th overall (WTF) with a time of 2.19 was clearly on another planet, not to mention Matt Wilson throwing down a 2.05 to be the leading overall Solo rider, and beating the winning pairs team by 6 mins. Eye watering.

Day 3 – Stage 2: Taupo

  • 62.1km’s (53.2km’s of race stage, 8.9kms roll back)
  • 1,495m climbing

First a confession before we admire the Queen – My summer build up had coincidentally led me to ride the fuck out of the Taupo course, to the point where I started to pick up Strava ‘Local Legend’ awards on some of the segments in the Craters MTB park. Whilst that’s not something to be blowing the trumpet about, it didn’t leave many excuses available aside from the question mark about my ability to back up from the Day 1 antics.

Another front row start in Wave 2 and after a quick straw poll of those around me, which mostly consisted of Aussies or out of towners and my original plan of a more chilled start was overruled by my rampant ‘traffic in singletrack’ anxiety, prompting another hole shot as I treated the start like it was a short track world cup race.

With just an Aussie Wave 1 refugee for company, we quickly set about ripping the Rotary trail out of town to pieces, and after establishing his legit Wave 1 credentials (only demoted due to a Mechanical failure the previous day), I soon found myself extremely alone… Not a single person behind me, or in front. The luxury of a bubble now established, the game of pacing soon began.

Given the ridiculousness of this whole starting caper, I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or annoyed when I finally got overhauled about 35 mins into the stage.

With my fuckwittery now solidly put on ice, it was time to settle into my first crisis phase of the day as I suddenly found myself going backwards at a more consistent rate than the day before, a scenario made all the more Bandito anxiety inducing by the 2 long zig-zag climbs out in the open. Both provided the opportunity to really fuck with your head as you marvelled down the hill at the never ending stream of lycra clad ants feverishly making their way towards you, hungry to feast on your Rapha clad carcass.

I ignored the fact that even though I had, in my mind, pre-ridden the fuck out of the course, we were taking trails I didn’t think were part of the stage. I furiously remapped my race plan as I continued to ignore the messages from my body that the sensations were not as we had hoped.

While Taupo may not be gnarly, at all, it does make up for that by being somewhat relentless. The climbs were soft and sapping and the downhills never really open up in a way that gives you a rest and time to regroup, much like a calendar of back to back meetings, it’s an endless onslaught on the senses with no respite to regroup and refuel.

After the gritted teeth death march of Outback, ZeeZee Top and Dier straits, I knew all I had to do was get into the jank of the Waipouwerawera trail to be safe from being consumed by a full Bandito apocalypse horde. Yes, I had put in an unusual number of laps on this janky fucker over summer and that started to pay dividends when I not only left behind those around me, but started to pick off stranglers like an angry hairy Pac Man with a Rapha fetish. Ride slow, look fast:

The last 5km’s of this stage can have the tendency to feel like 3 times that, which probably explained why I was now hauling in people I didn’t recognise. In the back of my mind, I also semi-acknowledged that I was busy digging a hole for myself with 2 days to go – But being in the moment it was better to go out in a weird blaze of amateur glory than attempt to save myself.

I can also confirm that no one really needed the 9km neutralised roll back to the finish after the stage ending in Craters, I begrudgingly got it, but that felt like some form of dirty detention as it delayed my date with a can of Coke and the wrong kind of recovery food.

17th from 33 finishers in M40 is about as mid pack as I could have possibly made it, in 3.14 I was an alarming 15 mins off the Top 10, which if this was my go to discipline would have been fucking horrifying, but instead I drank coke and booked another Thai Massage, all while thinking how I didn’t really want to go to Tokoroa…

Day 4 – Stage 3: Tokoroa

  • 35km’s
  • 787m climbing

Admittedly not my favourite day on the schedule, and slightly perplexed how this one was voted the favourite stage of the prior year, so I was pleased to see the slightly shorter format for the 2024 visit to Cougar park, a name which naturally provides a lot of material to work with.

I deployed my dual slalom style antics at the start again, bagging my 3rd hole shot of the week, which would have been great if the finish line was 500m from the start. As they say, play stupid games, win stupid prizes, and it didn’t take long for me to start to resemble a mobile chicane and I got shuffled back in the pack on the first climb.

Tokoroa is short on pumice dirt and high on clay and like most cougars, is fucking lethal when it gets wet. I found out the hard way, and they really weren’t joking when a marshal at the top of the first downhill called “Be careful, it’s slippery“. Consistent with most cougar experiences, I found the slippery part and went down hard.

I narrowly avoided death by Bandito as chasers swerved around me as I flapped about to get going again, but my usual descending powers felt gone, like some sort of Tokoroa kryptonite made me into a normal Bandito descender. I could feel the flow draining out of my body as tiredness and low trust collaborated to make me feel like a legitimately slow cunt.

It was around this point that the greatest head fuck you can endure in a marathon XC stage race occurred – Being passed but people you’ve never seen before. This special form of psychological punishment is based around the relative consistency of your racing ecosystem – If you’re going well or your normal pace, then you generally see the same bunch of characters each day; “Oh yeah, there’s the guy on the Orbea…“, conversely, if you’re busy shitting the bed, you end up in a neighbourhood of people who are totally alien to you.

This is naturally compounded by them also looking at you like unfamiliar road kill, as they realise you’re on a downward slide from grace. With about as much rhythm as an EY partner trying to bang an intern, I struggled on in full damage limitation mode while desperately willing each kilometre to disappear faster than it was. Not to offend the town of Tokoroa, but the predicament wasn’t helped by some of the trail that we had to negotiate, as I was reminded why I don’t invest the time in detouring from Vegas to do a recon.

Having said that, the final climb up Sabre Tooth and decent down Speedy Cheetah are probably about the best, and most aesthetically pleasing, parts of the whole course. Given my unraveling, I of course faced the sum of all fears with being stuck in traffic on the final downhill with people who didn’t like descending and then sprinting with the same people who also didn’t like holding their line… Quite the way to wrap up the low point of the week.

Another 17th in M40 for a 1.59 race time, the mind bending significantly at the comparison to the times at the pointy end of the field and race overall, which I will sideswipe here like a politician not hearing a fact based question in an attempt to hold on to some vestiges of credibility.

Day 5 – Stage 4: Rotorua

  • 36km’s
  • 801m climbing

You could not have got me back to the hallowed pumice lands fast enough – With the slippery death clay in the rearview mirror, it was time to settle in to what are essentially adopted home trails, where I was desperately hoping to emulate the prior years Phoenix impersonation to rise from the Tokoroa dumpster fire to glorious resurrection… Which may possibly be overstating the importance of middle aged amateur marathon XC racing, but regardless, it was Burn the Boats day!

Not that I hadn’t treated every day like that, but there was genuinely no tomorrow at this point, so it was time to go home as empty as fuck and provide zero domestic value after being away for 5 days. It was the first day however where I not only missed the boat on a front row start, but was also too rinsed to make a rabid idiot of myself at the start… But as things unfold, that turned out to be fortuitous.

Being queued up at the start had the distinct advantage of keeping things tranquilo and not trending towards an early load blow. I inadvertently found myself in the perfect position, now in a leading Wave pack which had separately itself off at the front of the race.

The importance of this was all about the GC, no, not the Rodfather and Creator variety, but more of a repeat of last year where my final overall placing for the VE would be decided by a head to head on the last day. I was camped out in 15th overall, 7 minutes ahead of Roman, a giant Euro unit who looked like he had a penchant for snapping cranks and chains, which funnily enough is exactly what had happened the day before at Cougar Park, which was now why Roman found himself 7 mins down on the ultimate mid-pack warrior.

7 minutes should have been a comfy buffer, but a quick scan of the data highlighted that I had lost 7 mins to Roman on the Taupo stage, and I recalled him riding away from me on the 4WD sections on Day 1 as he pumped out about 450w whilst looking like he was on a recovery ride.

I rode the break away group magic carpet ride through the first 12km’s of terrain which flattered me more than a non-performer around bonus time, but it was always on the cards that Pondy Elevator was going to be problematic. Actually, I find the 4WD road approaching the bottom of the Elevator to be almost worse than the climb itself, a form of slow torture foreplay where the bandito pecking order quickly becomes evident.

Halfway up the 4.5km climb averaging 7.7%, I looked back to see Roman closing in, this was earlier than hoped and I quickly attempted to do the time loss per KM maths, but as Dok will tell you, I am a total cunt at anything remotely related to calculations or science, so I quickly folded on both the mental arithmetic and trying to hold Roman’s wheel as he disappeared up the road.

I was now in damage limitation mode, stuck between being dropped ahead of me, but looking back to my horror, an extremely large gaggle of Bandito’s closing in as the chasing pack. Fuck… Fuck some more… It was time for some life choices – I knew the sanctity of Split Endz x Rollercoaster and it’s 5.4km of Blur candy descent was close to hand, but naturally Tim sent us towards it up a way I’d never been before, Loop road instead of the usual Moerangi route, so I had no idea what was coming when attempting to decide to fully burn the boats at this stage or not.

Ultimately fear was the ultimate motivator – The fear of spending 5km’s descending behind a line of 10 Banditos, all going too slow to chase down Roman, but too fast to pass cleanly. I started to light matches for the final fireworks display, which also could have led to self-immolation.

Pushing my hairy chips into the middle of the table worked out, and I’ve never been so relieved to see a Grade 3 Downhill in my life, naturally now flogged I had to make do with the flatter upper section and let the speed build as the momentum kicked in, and then it was fucking ON. Ticking off a few riders from the early lead pack, it was about 3 quarters of the way down before I found the large Droid I was looking for in the form of a struggling Roman. Full afterburner was laid on after the pass and it was now a game to drill as much buffer back into the game as I could.

My fastest time ever down Split Endz and Rollercoaster also had the unintended consequence of now being second in the wave, deep into the stage. It did dawn on me at this point that it was a reverse scenario from the previous 3 days, clearly a lesson in there for me somewhere.

My main focus however remained on outrunning Roman the Euro Terminator as the last remaining matches in my box started to ignite. A gradual slow death through part of old chevy became a mini crisis on Sweet & Sour before survival mode was activated on Lion trail climb and up Katore road, a slow slide back through my Wave 2 compatriots was now unfolding as I desperately fought a rearguard action to get to Titokorangi and Old Exit.

The last 5km’s of flat bike path felt like double that, but I was now well fuelled by the euphoria of both no sign of Roman and the knowledge this was the last time I had to subject myself to deep Bandito self flagellation for the season:

Across the line in 14th in M40 for the best result of the week outside of the Prologue, a full minute ahead of Roman to secure 15th overall in age group out of the 30 finishers, quietly stoked that I managed to absolute fucking nail the sheer definition of mid-pack x Middle aged right in the honey hole.

Cheers to being perfectly average at a genre of riding I weirdly enjoy for self loathing purposes that are yet to be fully diagnosed:

Summary time & Some Dirty advice – It may only have been in it’s second iteration, but the Volcanic Epic has absolutely marked itself out in the NZ summer calendar as a must do event for anyone with even a mild penchant for multi day lactic self mutilation. Probably helped that we had pretty much perfect weather for racing, not to mention sensational race courses from the VE team.

There aren’t a lot of these kinds of events around in NZ, and it’s hard to think of one that’s as well run as the VE, so much so I even felt compelled to do some casual faux influencer endorsing:

My only tip for those thinking of hitting it in 25? Come with a crew… Yes, I ignored my advice from last year and did this as a solo mission, and while you meet people along the way, it’s much better if you can rock up with your own units to indulge in the pumice based suffering with.

While executing your uptight post stage recovery process is easier solo, it’s also mildly weird spending the 5 days fairly solo as you focus on punishing yourself without anyone to debrief it with afterwards. If I’m to keep my VE run alive next year, I will be looking into the DN Global Collective stable to guilt any number of the usual suspects out of their Marathon retirement to give it a smash, here’s looking at you Bone, Professor and AT!!

A massive Dirty shout out to Tim and the VE crew for running a banger event, The Creator for hosting me and The Hub for making the Blur sing for the 5 days of volcanic punishment it was subjected to!

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