Paris to Biarritz Rally September 2019 by Beck Butler
In 2017 Keith and I made our way through numerous national parks in California and Arizona on our way to Lake Tahoe where I was running in a single stage 205-mile race called the Tahoe 200. For a little over 70 hours I ran throughout the mountains that hugged Lake Tahoe whilst Keith met me at the numerous aid stations in our small rented campervan. Whilst I averaged 30 to 60 minutes of sleep a night, Keith probably did not achieve much more. I would come into an aid station and be handed some van-cooked food by Keith and I would see what I could manage to take down. At times I would climb into the van and try to get some sleep while Keith would go through my pack, recharging phone batteries, new batteries into headlamps, filling up my water bottles and making sure my pack was sorted. Keith would then fade into sleep in the front seat of the van until the alarm sounded some short time later. I would pick myself up from my slumber and Keith would start heating coffee, finding food and getting me sorted to walk off again into the darkness. Keith would accompany me some ways along the trail until we would turn to each other, embrace and I would continue into the darkness and Keith back to the van to navigate his way to the next aid station where he would see me perhaps in another 4 to 8 hours. Keith bound to my strength and determination and me moving through every mile of trail knowing he was everywhere I needed him to be. I adored what he did for me and our little team was beautiful, effortless and powerful.
At Ultra Trail Monte Rosa in Switzerland last year it would be somewhat different. I was running 170 mountain kilometres, and Keith would only be able to get our campervan into a few, if any, aid stations. We had prepared for this and as comparatively speaking it was a much shorter race than Tahoe and so not being able to get to a number of the aid stations was not a big concern for us. However, having Keith there meant I would move through the course and the aid stations as quickly as I could to get to him. About 40km into the race I made my way into the town of Zermatt. As cars are not permitted in the village Keith had parked the van not far from our campground and took the short train ride into Zermatt to meet me at the aid station. I was unsure if Keith would be able to make it to Zermatt and I was thrilled when I saw him walking towards me as I came down out of the mountain into the township. Some phone changing and minestrone soup later, we walked out of the town where I would start another mountain climb.
By the time I made it to the top of the following mountain I was wearing the majority of my mandatory gear. Wild weather had made its’s way into Italy where we were headed, and I was in all of my waterproof gear as it began to snow in Switzerland. At the aid station on the top of the mountain we were told that the weather had turned very bad in Italy and that the race had been stopped. The race was over, and I was guttered. I made my way back down the mountain to Keith.
The week following, we delighted ourselves in eating as much culinary delights as we could muster, and hugged the Alp villages throughout France, Italy, Austria and through Lichtenstein and back to Zurich for our flight to Paris.
This was to be the end of our trip to Europe and we were due to head back to Australia. However, some weeks prior to our trip Keith’s parents had enquired as to whether we would be interested in participating in a car rally in France. Harry and Cathy had shipped their 1937 MG SA Tourer that had been beautifully restored by Harry, to Europe. In 2007 Harry and Cathy had driven the MG in the 13,500km Peking to Paris car rally and in the 2009 Nile Trial and as such were seasoned endurance rally drivers. Unfortunately, they were unable to make their way to France for their next rally and Harry enquired as to whether we would be interested in extending our stay in Europe and drive his MG in the Rally Round Paris to Biarritz rally. You’d have to be mad not to!!
We made our way from Zurich to Paris and then the following day to the race start headquarters at the Waldorf Astoria in Versailles directly adjacent to the grounds of the Trianon Place. After living in a small van for the previous two weeks it was quite luxurious to have our own bathroom.
Not long after we had settled into our room, Keith’s mobile rang. The freight company had arrived with the MG. It was pretty wild to see the car come off the truck and know this was going to be our wheels for the next week. We drove the car down into the underground carpark of the hotel. A few rally cars had already made their way into the car park and gradually more arrived. The classic cars navigated their way quite easily throughout the carpark however I stood amazed at how the vintage car drivers pulled their vehicles in and out of the carpark. The sound down in the carpark was pretty thrilling.
I started to get excited. These cars were super cool, and this was going to be a heap of fun. We unpacked the tool kit and went through our mandatory gear. We chatted amongst the other drivers and eventually jumped in the car and went off to find a petrol station. To be honest I was a little spooked as this was no ordinary car and these streets were pretty hectic and we of course were driving on the right-hand side of the road.
As we were filling up the car a woman walked over to us and the look on her face told me that the MG meant something very special to her. As I am basically one language dependant, this woman spoke to me in the few English words that she had, that this was the car that she was married in 50 years ago. She put her hands to her mouth in the prayer position and beamed. As this woman went to drive out of the fuel station, she again held her hands to her heart no doubt reflecting upon times passed and people now gone.
We drove back to the hotel and parked in front of the hotel for scrutineering. This is great, I thought, we are now really starting. Scrutineering reminded me of the mandatory gear check I had done less than 2 weeks earlier in Switzerland for my running race. As a mountain runner I am big on mandatory gear checking so this was fun to make sure we had everything we needed for the week ahead.
After our gear check we took the car back down to the underground carpark and then legged it out of the store to find some, not mountain shoe shoes. With the dinners before us I really needed to find something a little less robust than what I had in my luggage. Keith had his running shoes and his mountain bike shoes with orange laces. He decided that this would be just fine for him, and of course it was.
We scooted back to the hotel for the mandatory briefing. I scanned the room for the people who might look like rally pros however, as I had no idea about what we were doing, I had no idea of what I was I looking for. At running event mandatory briefings, we often scan the room seeing who had turned up, who were our competitors, who looks fitter and stronger until one comes to realise that none of that actually matters to the race we are running. It was the same in this briefing room: none of it mattered, we were all in for an adventure. But I still checked people out nonetheless.
I had the Rally Round road book in front of me and it was humongous. I looked at the directions and thought holy crap, I have to call out every one of these directions! At least everything looked like it made sense. Most of the questions that come from the other teams didn’t make a lot of sense to me though, but I retained the information and drew on it in the days to come.
After the briefing we went back to our gorgeous hotel room to relax for a bit before our dinner. I didn’t think to look at the road book and instead opened my computer and squeezed in as much work that I could. I looked over at Keith and wondered how he would go driving for the whole week. Keith was better experienced than me to drive this car and I was pretty spooked about causing any damage to his dad’s car. Keith also was unable to navigate as he would get nauseous when looking down for such long periods, so our roles had been made. In our van holidays we alternate driving and navigating but that wasn’t to be this week as Keith would be driving every day for the whole day for the whole week.
I was pretty excited about getting some runs in before our day started and to also get some work done in the evening. Finally, some time to relax and spread out. Little did I know that I couldn’t be more wrong!!!
We ate dinner that first night in a ball room at the hotel that was connected to the Treaty of Versailles. We walked into this room and thought my gawd, where would we sit, us two scruffy van dwellers. We made our way to the table of the rally crew and made ourselves at home with this small group of people that would soon become so familiar to us.
Fed, tired and happy and we disappeared back to our room to pack our bags ready for the early start. The road book still closed and in its bag.
Rally Day One
Next morning my alarm came on at 5am. I had a coffee and headed to the gym for a short session before we started our first rally day. Back to our room, shower, dressed, final pack of bag and down to breakfast. We filled up on coffee and yummy breakfast samples and packed a few pastries for the day. Little did we know how important the pastries would become to see us through each day.
We then headed down to the car, packed our gear in and checked to make sure the water level was ok. Road book still unopened. I was quietly shi**ing myself. Is Keith going to be ok driving this vehicle and more concerning, am I going to be god awful at navigating. Well, at least we were in for a spectacular week of driving through the beautiful French and Spanish countryside.
As we were Vintage Class, we were one of the first to leave. The earliest we could leave was 7.08am with 5 cars before us. A marshal signed us out on our Time Card and we looked to Liz, founder of Rally Round, to direct us out of the carpark into the crowded traffic of Versailles. Liz had already become a friendly face and her sense of humour was spectacular and Keith and I both came to adore her. In those first few days we would often look to Liz for the “what are we supposed to be doing now..” look. Which is what we did this morning, as we signed out and left the Waldorf Astoria behind us.
A slow nervous start to the day had us working our way through the busy streets of Versailles. The traffic was its usual hectic self and the MG started to overheat because we weren’t moving. We were making our way up to 100 on the thermostat and we were losing water. A group of lads walked past and let us know we were losing water. I smiled at them thanking them for letting us know whereas Keith said, barely lifting his gaze from the road ahead “yep we know”. What was going through Keith’s head was well as long as we are stuck in this hell traffic our car is going to overheat and yep, it’s going to lose water.
We had only just headed out of the hotel complex and we were already at risk of overheating. I understood that this car, without a modern cooling system, was designed to have air flow through the radiator for cooling and when in heavy city traffic air flow was scarce. Watching the temperature needle rise and the look on Keith’s face I thought we were in a bit of trouble. We would finally get to move a short way and then we would be stuck still again. Eventually the roads started opening up and the air finally flowed through the radiator to allow the engine to cool and we were good to go.
Without further ado, I got stuck straight into navigating. We had a few vintage cars in front of us but of course we travelled only by our own navigation. So, for the next week I spent most of my day with my head down eyes glued to the road book. Our road book was made up of 8 columns: total kms, interval kms, total miles, interval miles, tulip diagram, feature/instruction, km to go and miles to go. Our Halda Tripmaster was set to kms and our tricky speedometer was set to miles. These were our only navigation tools. I think it is common for people to put a line through the column that they don’t utilise and use a highlighter to mark off significant directions, but I left the page clean. I would sit my fingers down on the line we were on and just moved my fingers down the page as we went, and this appeared to work perfectly. Keith would glance over occasionally and see exactly where we were situated by looking at where my fingers were sitting. At infrequent times when we got a bit confused, unsure of whether we hit a marker or had passed one, we looked at the trip master, back to the page and found our bearings.
I came to become familiar with the Tripmaster and its way of working. It would often run ahead of our location. I would wait until we were coming to a significant marker, such as a town sign or a junction and then I would hold the Tripmaster until we hit the marker to balance us again. I even managed to do this throughout the Regularity, as when it was out, we could find ourselves losing our bearings.
Our first Regularity came after 13kms. It was a practice Regularity and would not be counted towards our final score. I had no idea what I was doing. The columns in our race book were now divided into further columns: total km, interval km, kph from this point, total miles, interval miles, mph from this point, tulip diagram, feature instruction, intermediate time, total time.
By this stage many of the speedy Classic Cars had passed us and we no doubt entered the Regularity as one of the last vehicles. This we became accustomed to. I sort of understood what I was doing but really just relied on a bit of common sense as to how these tests worked. Luckily Keith knew exactly what he was doing and was like the most chilled out driver you could be in a car with. This meant that all I had to do was work out what how to navigate in a Regularity. Keith wasn’t going to get cranky or stressed out about me doing something wrong and he wasn’t concerned about what anyone else was doing. He just did his thing.
We survived our first Regularity and continued on. I always breathed a massive sigh of relief when a Regularity was over. I feared going into them, had an awesome adrenaline rush when I was in them and was elated when they were over.
We made our way to what I thought was our first “rest” part of the day. The Angerville track where would have our first driving test. Bolting out of the car I ran to the loo and thought about sitting down with a hot cuppa and a pastry. This was not to be, our time was ready for us to get on the track. Keith glanced at the road book but then to the track. He got a better understanding of what he had to do by looking at the track and then relied on me to tell him in which direction to enter each obstacle. Navigating a person through a Regularity is not overly complicated and it is up to the driver to listen well and fly that car around the track as fast they could without making any mistakes. Being not overly complicated for me though was where the problem lay, it was the potential for distraction that was concerning me. I put my head down and tried to settle my brain and we were off. It was a blast, we didn’t make any mistakes and it felt like we were flying, which of course we weren’t for we were in a vehicle not renowned for its speed abilities.
We were in probably the slowest car out there, but Keith made awfully good use of the assets of the vehicle and drew on his dirt rally skills. In 2009 Keith drove in the Classic Outback Trail, a multi-day dirt rally, has driven in the MG car club motorkhanas and track days and was never absent from Canberra’s Summernats car festivals. Basically, Keith grew up with a thirst for driving fast. I had enormous confidence in Keith as a driver and I would simply put the fitted harness on, bury my head in the road book and dared to look up when we were flying around tight corners. I would glance up to check the bearings and would do so with self-imposed imaginary blinkers on thinking to myself “don’t think about anything but locating the marker”. I would get flung around the car, sh*t myself, but I kept calling out directions and only every now and again show any sign of absolute fear.
We constantly had the Classic cars race behind us with very much a theme of let’s go go go. However, in a Vintage, that was never the case, we were never really in a speed race, we just moved through the landscape as well as our vehicles would take us. We loved watching the other vintage cars come up behind us or us up to them and it really like we were in a class of our own.
By lunch on the first day I still really didn’t quite understand how everything worked. Keith is always pretty non-stressed about these things and I didn’t know whether I should be keeping an eye on anything. At lunch one of the navigators of a pretty serious team told me and Toby, a young newbie and excitable as me navigator, that the navigation would get progressively harder as the week progressed. Oh, bugger I thought, when would the point come that I would be out of my depth and being happy and excitable and enthusiastic was no longer going to cut it and we’d be the hilarious Australians who were just out here for the ride. I am not sure what was keeping me from reviewing the road book, but I really didn’t want to see it until I was following it. I don’t know if it was a case of not wanting to overcomplicate the process of trying to understand what I didn’t understand or whether I was just being flippant. If I looked would I discover a complicated process that I didn’t have the experience to grasp and just feel pretty ordinary as a navigator. What I thought was more necessary though was my attention or a lack of distraction. To make a mistake when I was concentrating was ok but to make a mistake because I was goofing about or checking out the trails that weaved their way around the mountains beside us was not ok.
We made our way through a further racetrack, numerous Regularity tests and miles upon miles to our first hotel and checked into our room. Pepe was our baggage handler. Pepe would take our baggage with him each day and would take them to our room each evening. It was amazing, Pepe was delightful, and we so loved this service. I really needed to get some work done but I said to Keith that after a full day of driving and navigating I was really keen for a beer. We made our way down to the bar still in our driving clothes. Everyone was showered and clean. I felt much in running mode of being pretty grubby and smelly. I noticed that Liz’s stepson and mate were also not showered so that made me feel better. The beer was heavenly as we sunk into the sofa next to Liz’s husband David and Jeff from Australia. Jeff had flown out from Australia to navigate for David. These two guys were old mates and their relationship was fun to watch.
Jeff was an Orienteer and spoke of his adventure friends in Australia, Tom Laddon Smith and his wife Alana. That was crazy as Tom is the creator of Ultra Trail Australia, the biggest ultra-running race in Australia. I am a gear checker in my trail store for his race and Tom is altogether an excellent dude.
Finally, we were asked to go to our tables for dinner, and I said to Keith, let’s stick with the non-showered folk. What I did notice this evening, besides the fun that we all had was that these guys could outdrink the Australians. These guys were massive on rounds and we were pretty smashed on our first night.
I didn’t really think too much of where we stood on our first day. Turns out we were 2nd in class and 12th overall.
The gym wasn’t open in time for me the following morning and it was a bit dark and spooky outside for a run, so I slept in with Keith until about 6am. Coffee, showered and down to breakfast feeling a little bit weathered by the massive first day and the celebrations and lateness of the previous night.
We headed out to the car early as usual and checked on the water and that all was ready to go. It’s funny because I really was pretty clueless as to what the car should look like if it is healthy or if it is feeling poorly. I was always confident that Keith was all over what had to be done and that was so awesome. I also knew this vehicle had been out in the wilderness with Harry and Cathy and they got the vehicle through such crazy remote regions and that therefore we were going to be just fine on the paved roads of France.
In a 1933 Lagonda 3 Litre was Ed and Tim. Just like ultra-runners, when you’re out there you always seem to gravitate towards people that kind of become your people. That was pretty much Ed and Tim. These guys were kitted out in time-period appropriate gear and were a sight to behold in their roof-off vintage vehicle. Ed was a MG restoration owner and Tim, an auction house owner for vintage cares. When you ask these guys what cars they have at home, the list is long. I don’t believe it was a matter of being cashed up but more so having a real love for vintage and classic cars. Ed was crazy gregarious and everything about him shouted out “I’m going to work hard, but I am going to have a hell of a lot of fun while I’m doing it.”
All the vintage cars had their roofs off and we were yet to bring ours down. We were a little concerned about how difficult it would be. Ed came over on the morning of Day 2 and helped us to bring it down with relative ease and so by day 2 we were rallying through the French countryside with our roof down in our beautiful MG. Even this was enough to make the day exciting even without thinking how successful we might be in not messing up. The sun would be shining brightly again.
Day two was cool because I started to understand more about what I was doing. I think perhaps with a better understanding of what I was doing I was better able to be a little more strategic in being a better navigator.
Day two started with a Regularity. Blimey. Nervous right from the start and we were both a bit hung over from beer and lack of sleep. By being nervous I wasn’t being dramatic; it was just that I was pretty cognisant of not knowing what I was doing. Keith was always pretty relaxed about what we were doing so I was going to be a nervous nelly on my own and I would keep doing what I was doing until he would look at me with a “babe, you blew that one” glance. But up until this moment it all seemed relatively straight forward, the road book made sense, and we were working brilliantly together.
The first Regularity took us out of our daze and the blood started to flow. Cold morning air whipping through our bones as we flew around the country roads. Adrenaline is better than coffee.
Out of the regularity we made our way to the Circuit De Mornay, operated by Peirre Petit, a former French Formula 3 champion racing driver. This was rad!!
Off we went for another 33km or so to our morning tea break. Getting out of the car to have our time sheet signed it was warming to know we would be sitting down to a warm drink and something to eat. I rushed inside busting for the loo. When I went to check in, I realised that we had arrived at our checkout time. For sure we could stay a bit longer and have a bite to eat but that would mean playing unnecessary catch for the rest of the day. I came back out to the car and told Keith it was time to go again. This would be how all of our morning tea breaks would eventuate. Luckily, we always had a small stash of breakfast pastries with us, and my goodness, what did morning tea matter when you were driving to an amazing Chateau where the lunch food was to die for. The food at Chateau Ribagnac, where we had lunch, was so amazing I took a video of the food display which was not something I would ever do but I did not want to forget this. Meat eaters, non-meat eaters, health nuts, sweet tooths, oh my goodness, this was heaven.
The afternoon was entertaining. We were making our way to a Regulatory when a local woman came up to the car and spoke with much urgency and vigour through our driver’s side window. Keith remained expressionless and I examined this woman wondering what her grievance or otherwise was. When I realised there was perhaps no end to her monologue, I informed our local visitor that we did not understand French. She sighed deeply, perhaps comprehending that we would not understand her, but then she continued again. After some time, I said “We still do not understand French”. She signed again and then continued again. We drove on.
Part way through the following Regularity we were flying through a left-hand turn, observing all road regulations, when we saw two men standing by a car. One of the men came bustling towards us with his hands waving in the hair. Either there were some pretty out there people in this region or something significant was going down that we didn’t know about. Keith kept his hands on the wheel, his eyes on the road and continued with his sharp left-hand turn. I kept my fingers on the location spot on the road book and we disappeared along our road and through our Regularity. When we came upon the marshals, we mentioned our encounter only to say that there is some obstruction in the Regularity. However, I was starting to understand that obstructions were part of the game. We are faced with obstacles during the race, whether it was traffic, animals, road works etc and managing these obstacles were part of the strategy of each team. To be affected by the obstructions was a pain but to be affected by the obstruction but keep it together was a buzz.
At afternoon tea we understood that the man waving his arms around was in fact the mayor of the region and he was intent on stopping the rally. We were perhaps the only car that managed to avoid the mayor and were oblivious to the drama that was unfolding behind us. It seems that the mayor had perhaps enjoyed a long lunch of much wine and thought he might try his chances at squeezing some money out of the rally drivers for passing through his county.
The rally round crew brought out their diplomacy skills and eventually all cars were permitted to pass, and no money was lost for the safe passage. However, due to the incident we were all heading to the final destination of the evening without rally. This meant we were able to drive on the freeway as a direct route to our hotel. Surprisingly, this was a bit boring. I jumped in the driver’s seat for a short drive before I said to Keith that I was happy riding shot gun. As we couldn’t hold the seat still, when I pushed on the brake pedal, I almost ended up in the horizontal position which was not terribly conducive to arriving safely at our hotel.
We got lost in the town and then found our way to our hotel. We were knackered! This time we decided to shower before dinner. Keith spoke to a few people and decided to make a challenge on one of the Regulatory tests. He was of the view that our time was way off and must have been recorded inaccurately by one of the marshals. I still had no idea of how the system worked and was pleased that Keith was able to read the sheets. I was still a little oblivious to what we were aiming to do during the Regulatory. All I knew was that I had to get us to where we were going in the right direction. To me, doing that without error was a win and not getting competitive was pretty cool.
At the end of day 2 we had moved down to 4th in our category and 13th overall due to the error on our timing sheet. The Regularity error had cost us 60 penalty units which was the maximum time penalty per check point within a Regularity that may have numerous check points.
We started to drink less but with the continued lack of sleep and dehydration I am not sure it mattered. It was similar to a multi-stage running race: your pack got lighter as each day went and as you ate through your food, but fatigue and shoulder sourness meant that you didn’t really feel your pack getting lighter at all.
Day three and we were getting into the hang of things. We found it easy to get our roof down and we were getting to understand better of what we were doing simply by just doing it. As we were about to head out of the hotel, I had a look at the road book just to see where the first regularity would start. 50kms in phew.
I loved knowing what I was doing. Navigating just made sense and I was loving it, especially the thrill of a Regularity. I loved that Keith loved the driving and that we kind of just melted into this really cool team. In a Regularity I would pin my head down in the road book, then up to glance at markers and then down again until marshals appeared out of nowhere. It was awesome to see the marshals especially when we had an indication that we had done pretty well and then we were off again.
Tonight, we were staying at a converted convent. As was now the usual fashion, Keith would drive into the carpark and I would bolt out of the car with our time sheet and up to the marshals to check in to avoid any time penalties. We would always be scrapping in. We would calculate our check in time, added the minutes of our car, usually 7, added the extra 30 minutes grace and then added any other time provisions provided for the day and cross our fingers we were in on time. Often it was hairy. I would panic a bit (a lot), Keith would be cool (of course). I think if we were late, he would still be cool, whereas I’d be like goddamit.
The convent was beautiful. I checked in with the normal excitement of “we made it on time, today was awesome” big grin across my face. There were lollies for us on the check-in table. An expected sight for an endurance runner at any aid station. I grabbed some lollies and wondered outside to pack up the car with Keith. Stephen and John rolled up in their 1924 Bentley 3 Litre Speed. They were car number 2; they were cutting it fine and they look exhausted. I offered them both a few lollies that I had grabbed as an energy boost to get them from the car to check in. We packed up the car, checked the oil, filled her up with water again, gathered our gear and wondered over to the front entrance to the hotel. As we walked into the font entrance we were approached by one of the marshals about the appeal we had lodged. It appears we were in the wrong and had miscalculated the start time of the Regulatory in question. Shit!! We lost massive points of our own dumb administrative error. Whilst I was starting to grasp the game by now, it was still not to comprehend the magnitude of our mistake. That would come later.
We took some time getting to dinner this evening as we took some slow down time together before heading to the pre-dinner drinks. I’m not sure if Keith thought about our error but he didn’t speak about it. Here we were together on this very cool adventure, having a heap of fun and the silly mistake wasn’t really rating highly for us at the time. I don’t think it was the kind of thing Keith got worked up about whereas it was probably the thing I did, but since I really didn’t understand the error at the time, I gave it the same amount of indifference as Keith.
We wondered down to get a beer and sat with Liz in the courtyard. Damn her humour is to die for. Dinner was incredible and this was heaven. We sat with Liz and David and a few of the crew and had a spectacular night. David was to my left and after some lovely wine and much conversation about his rally driving adventures, I concluded that ultra-running and rally driving were closer than he might otherwise think. There were the obvious mandatory gear checks, scrutineering and navigation. But more so, it was that both runners and drivers did something they loved with gusto, they delved into something they adored and did it with so much fun and veracity. So many people do nothing, they don’t have a thing. Rally drivers and ultra-runners have a thing, they have endurance and a sense of adventure that makes the 2 activities so similar. We both have something.
At the end of day 3 we remained in the same position as Day 2
Again, no gym. My gawd, I’m doing bugger all. But another delicious breakfast and packing away a few pastries for the morning and afternoon teas that we would miss.
I think I was starting to get the hang of this now. The Regularity tests were everything, sort of, and we had to not only not get lost, but we also had to make good time. The onIy instrument I used was the Tripmaster and Keith used his analogue watch that to me looked very convoluted in that it had a heap of different time information on the face which made it difficult to read when fling around corners. As we drove, he kept spinning his watch around to read the time. I couldn’t believe he was using it as an instrument which was pretty impressive. Every now and again he would ask me for the speed requirement during the regularity and I believe day four was the first day I understood that time was a significant element of a Regularity.
We ate lunch today at a beautiful barn. I think I had the option of cheese and bread and potato. It didn’t actually matter; the bread would feed my hunger and I was more excited about getting out there on the road again. I guess that’s the life of an endurance runner. It’s the doing that’s the best part. I said to Tim “did you hear about our time stuff up on the timing sheet” and he said “yes, I did, it’s fantastic” and we both laughed. But I think something clicked inside of me at that moment. I loved that we could laugh about it, but I realised at that point that the game was on and people were out to win. It wasn’t that I was naïve, but I guess I race so often that I have come to love the camaraderie of a race rather than the competition. The competition is a sugar hit, the camaraderie lasts forever. Nevertheless, the more I was understanding the more competitive I started to become.
I started to ask Keith a few more questions about what we had to do, and things started to become clearer for me. I adored that Keith; a first-time road rally driver, knew exactly what he was doing and that if I was doing anything wrong, he would have told me by now. I started to realise that we had something. We got an insane buzz out of doing this together.
As we were driving along and at times where we had the infrequent relief of 5kms without a direction, I asked Keith about what motivates his parents to be attracted to the remote rally events. I understood people who went on driving tours and people who went to remote areas but to rally drive every day in remote areas, I wanted to know more about that. I asked: is it the unknown, being out remote, on banged up roads with an old vintage car. That if anything went wrong, when of course it would, you had to undertake serious mechanical mending. On the Peking to Paris rally Harry had to weld a broken chassis that he and Cathy had been driving on for 2 days. Of course, there was also the magic of the vintage cars that welcomed the hands of old-school mechanical attendance and as Harry had been restoring cars for so many years, he wasn’t the kind that turned to the mechanics for help, he would fix things himself. I totally got all of this. On endurance runs I don’t seek assistance or want someone to mend my wounds. I take my own kit and mend my own poor feet. Whilst fixing a broken chassis is different to sorting out a bothersome blister or pack rash, it was the mindset that was the same. A resilience and a desire to manage yourself.
It was also pretty special that Keith was able to jump in the driver’s seat and take on the rally when his parents were unable to. Had he not had his father’s love for cars I am not sure that we could have taken the rally on. That was also pretty cool. I asked Keith why he had an interest in cars and much of his answer lay around not just the buzz he got in speed but having an understanding of how things worked.
The end of Day Four took us to the start of a chair lift where again I bolted out of the car to get our time sheet signed just in the scrape of time. We pondered as to whether to climb up to the summit or take the last cable car up to the summit. Instead we chose neither and jumped back into the car and headed to our hotel in the township of Lordes. We went to our room and I am not sure at which point we ordered a bottle of champagne to our room. There was no food on the menu that our tired brains could see so we just drank a delicious glass of champagne. Life was wonderful.
No doubt with most of the champagne bottle still full we headed back down to the car to do some work on it. The car had been missing during the day and we knew (Keith knew) something was probably up. We were also losing a lot of water. Ed wondered over and having much knowledge of the newer models of MGs suggested we were putting too much water into the car and that the car was probably just fine. What amazed me about these vintage cars was that you could overheat, pull over and pour water straight into the boiling radiator. So, we might be getting hot, but we had ways to cool it down. Keith doesn’t say a lot, so I was wondering what his thoughts were on this. I think it may also be that Keith knows what makes me get concerned so if there was something a bit wrong, he’d probably just tell me it was ok so that he didn’t have to take on my worry. Strategic move.
We (Keith) looked at the spark plugs and we (he) thought they might need some work. We had no spares which made me think we were probably be ok as if we needed them Harry would have packed them.
As we were pottering about the car, Gary one of the very cool mechanics came over and immediately was interested in what we were doing. Kreme, another very cool mechanic, also came over and did the same. Kreme pulled out some new spark plugs from his truck, but unfortunately none were of the size we needed. I was thinking – oh bugger, is this a bad thing? But no, of course it’s not silly, this is a vintage car! Keith pulled out the spark plugs and Kreme went to task filing the tips and resetting the gaps to get them sparkling new again. Genius.
Before long the sun had gone down and here we were in the carpark of a posh hotel in the saintly town of Lourdes, taking Aperol shots in “I love Condom” (Condom is a town we had passed through that day) shot glasses on the bottom of the mechanics Landrovers, filing away our spark plugs. This was bliss.
The rest of the Champagne, showering and finishing off spark plugs had us arrive ever so late to dinner. We sat with Wendy and David, two Marshalls from Wales and Wendy a keen trail runner. Fred, the assistant Clerk of the Course stood and gave a synopsis of the day to us all and then presented Keith and I with a beautiful bottle of champagne from the Montauban region where we had stayed the night before, as we were the first team to get a “0” penalty on a Regulatory. Wow, with limited navigational instruments these two shabby Australians were doing alright!! This was rad!!!
At the end of day 4 we were 2nd in our class and 10th overall.
Day Five and we were on. This is it I thought. Let’s be bloody good at this. We headed off to our first Regulatory. Keith informs me that the speedometer has stopped working!! Well bugger us hey!! Nope, we can do this. By this stage I understood how knowing our speed was really important in a Regularity. I had also that morning suggested to Keith that he wear my cheap little mauve-coloured digital Casio watch that I wear during endurance runs that at least had a stopwatch as it might be easier to read than his watch. I downloaded an App that would be a speedometer. It was pretty fancy I guess because it gave us an actual speed whereas the MG’s speedo was more like a round-about speed and to be honest I think Keith was estimating our speed most of the time. We had tried using a stopwatch on our phone but when I had gone to refresh the screen, I had inadvertently touched the pause button. Well that’s not going to work. I think we best stick to doing simple.
During a Regulatory I came to think that perhaps I would make a good auctioneer. I would often turn to Keith at the end of a Regulatory and say, “aren’t you sick of hearing my voice babe, because I sure as hell am”. In true auctioneer style I would continually belt out the distance we were at, the distance to the next direction, how long to the next direction, the direction and what speed we needed to go. When the car was hot, I also added in a temperature reading and also looked down to read out the speed we were going. I didn’t stop I just read it out over and over and over and over and over again. I read it out in a big clear loud monotone voice. All I knew was this was what Keith needed and this was how he liked to hear directions, and this was how he gave directions. Back home when he was riding shotgun, he would say to me “clear left” and I would think “yah weirdo, just say “good to go babe””. But now I understood as these phrases started to become mine that they actually made sense and I loved it.
Day 5 and we were headed into the Pyrenees and into Spain. What a glorious day. Except this meant mountain climbs.
Our first Regulatory felt good. As I hadn’t got my head around how to know what was good and how to judge the next timing spot, I started to ask Keith how we went. I hadn’t really asked him much before. “How’d we go babe” “yeah pretty good”. I also started to understand that we needed to know what our time was at the first check point to gauge what we needed to do for the remainder of the Regularity. Previously I was like “doesn’t matter babe, let’s just drive well and keep going, it doesn’t matter what we did, what will be will be”. Which was a bit daft as apparently knowing the first timing point was necessary for understanding the second timing point. Oh!! I get it now. We came up to the top of a climb and the end of the Regularity where Baz and Danielle were who we had come to adore. Danielle always had lollies which we treasured but she did mention that she didn’t offer lollies in the middle of a Regulatory. I told her we were all good with the lolly offer at any time. It was cool to see them at the top of the climb and we pulled over and pulled the bonnet to let some air in as the car was suffering with the climb. What a magnificent view. Danielle said she had been doing a spot of yoga on their mountain peak. Love it.
Onwards through the Pyrenees and up to the Tour de France route which was spectacular. We passed a heard of sheep across the road and then down we went to our morning tea break. I came up to the counter and ordered a couple of coffees. Kim in a 1967 Reliant Scimitar Coupe was really sweet and always insisted on the cars that were leaving first to get served first. Bless common sense. Realising we needed to get out, we downed the coffee lickety split and off we went again. We climbed up to our next Regularity, our car terribly overheated and losing water. All the Classics cruised up and sped away. We sat and waited, Keith in a state of ever so present calmness. We were Vintage and we felt a world onto our own.
Keith had mentioned that he had once thought that the Vintage class belonged to a bunch of oldies pottering about. We were waiting on the side of this mountain, with the bonnet up, unsure if we would be ok, Classics hooning past. David and Jeff in their 1929 Chrysler 75 down the bottom of this section of the climb, waiting for all the cars to move on so they could make an attempt of getting their vehicle up the hill. Here we were 2 Vintage class cars planning on what to do next. I ran down to David and Jeff and asked them if we could help before we started our Regulatory. It was a pretty steep climb and I knew that David would attempt to drive up the climb as a push would be near impossible.
Before we headed off, I could hear what I presume must be a Vintage class car taking what sounded like a sharp right-hand turn which sounded like it was taking them a massive effort to do. Wow, I thought, this is going to be hard.
We started that Regulatory pretty concerned that this was going to be hard and maybe unsuccessful. We knew what we had to do, and the car would need to do the rest. It was hard but we did ok.
Lunch we had missed, and we really didn’t feel like staying. Let’s grab some bread and split honey. Good idea said Keith. We were then told we had an extra half an hour. It was strange as even though we were probably the last ones in we really didn’t need the half an hour. We were happy to keep going as it is difficult to eat lunch when you have concerns about your car.
The following Regulatory over and we continued through the magnificent mountains towards Spain. We passed Stephen and John who had stopped on the side of the road to take in the vista. We didn’t have time up our sleeve to stop as we would need all the time we could muster to avoid time penalties. Later Stephen and John would pass us yelling, you’ve got steam.
We pulled over and knew the car was thirsty. Within moments Ed and Tim were behind us. Ed was really this dude who seemed to be interested in helping someone out and having an adventure than merely racing. Such a cool trait in a person. We always drove with a full 5 litre water bottle and we now poured the entire contents of it into the radiator. We then poured in the rest of our plastic water bottles and Ed and Tim still had about 300mls of a water bottle that they also poured in. I still have these I said holding up our reusable water bottles, “nah save those for yourselves” they all said.
We drove off and Ed and Tim drove behind us no doubt keeping an eye on their time. We passed a hut that looked like a ranger station. We pulled over and I jumped out with our now empty 5 litre bottle and went to find some water. My Spanish is not so great, but I understood 2 men standing outside the hut who said that there was no water. I walked into the hut and realised it was a pretty cool little Spanish café. I asked the woman if she could fill up my bottle. She did so straight away, and I thanked her dearly. When I came back outside Ed and Tim had arrived and were parked next to us. I told them how lovely it was to be in Spain and how kind they had been in the café and how friendly the customers were. The water went straight into the radiator. They all turned to me and said we should fill it up again. Oh bugger, I thought, I am about to stretch the café’s kind hospitality. I walked back into the café and was greeted with a “you’ve got to be kidding me” look and I was told to get water at the next town. I pointed to the car and said we don’t know if we can get that far. The woman filled up the container again, was kind and I gave my thanks again and went to leave when two men said something that I didn’t understand and then gave that laugh that indicated that it was probably crude and probably a bit ordinary. Right time to go.
And off we went to our hotel in Spain where by this stage we had realised that the MG’s cooling system was siphoning coolant out of the car when the nose was high, most notably when we were climbing. We drove into the underground carpark which was always a challenge. Stephen drove in after us and showed off his fancy pants reversing skills into a very tight corner park.
We backed into a corner and David drove diagonally across his carpark, easy to get in and easy to get out and gave the look of being well and truly done for the day.
We got our gear out and went to our Spanish hotel. It was so cool to be in Spain. We went straight down to the bar to find beer. I managed to work out that one of the beers tasted a lot like ale and it went down a treat. 2 beers later and we felt maggot. The massive days and lack of sleep were catching up on us. Off to the car for our usual pre-dinner maintenance check. We saw water in the oil coming from David’s car. David responded to these things much in the same way that Keith does, in calm ambivalence and I said to Keith that I could imagine him growing into David.
Back at the hotel we showered and again we were late for dinner. At dinner Ed came up to me and said “We have decided that we think it would be awesome if you guys won as you have come with your vehicle all the way from Australia”. I said to Ed that what I value the most and what people in Australia traditionally value the most is camaraderie and the way that he always stopped to see if we needed a hand is a trait that Australians value the most. I said, in fact, Keith is right this very minute over there with the marshals to tell them how you were the two that always stopped to check on us.
I sat down and saw the results paper on the table. We were first. Frick!!! It was passed midnight in Australia, but I text Harry straight away. Keith became a little concerned about my late-night messages to his dad, knowing it was still a workday for his dad. I told him that he must be eager to hear as his phone isn’t on silent to which Keith answered: “that’s because he knows I might need to contact him about the car”. Oh yes of course, whoops. “well, I’m too excited and I want him to know as soon as we know!!” We are all in this together right. Keith gave the “the philosophy of Beck, don’t bother to argue” look and we sat down. Ed and Tim then motioned for us to come join them on their table with Liz and we had a spectacular night. It would have been amazing to have this night go on for hours, but we were wrecked and wanted to crash not too late. On the way out I spoke with Baz. He was a seasoned navigator, rally driver, rally operator, our marshals and an altogether very awesome dude. He said to me which I played over and over in my head the following day and probably will do so in much of my racing, car or foot, career, as we were leading into our final day with 2 more Regulatory tests to go “don’t change anything”.
The following morning, we started in first place, nothing to gain, everything to lose. 7kms and our first Regulatory. I scanned the road book to see where there might be a gap in the directions. I would scan the directions until I came to a 600metre gap which meant I would be able to utilise that time to scan to next group of directions. I also knew now that my nerves always turned to adrenalin in the Regulatory and to just go with it. I also knew that Keith was probably not going to get as excited as me as it’s not really his style to do so therefore there was little point in getting too excited as I would be having a party for one.
The Regulatory tests on the final day were really hard. I belted out instructions with precision but who could tell. We were climbing the mountains again and we were at the mercy of this beautiful MG who tried her hardest to climb. “How did we go babe”. “Yeah ok”. What did that mean!!
The road to lunch was awful, the roads were tight, and it was hard. I felt frustrated today. I felt that we were close to having an incident and encroaching on the livelihoods of local farmers. We almost had an accident and luckily, we were a leading car as Keith was incredible in avoiding a head on collision with a car that came around the corner on our side of the road. The roads were narrow here, but they were way too far over our side of the road and we were in wet and slippery conditions. Again, our car was not happy, and we were nursing her as she got hot. We were again last and late to lunch. Ed came up to us and handed over his glass of soda water. Bottoms up let’s go eat.
As we walked into this cute restaurant, we could see the other drivers had been here for some time. There was lots of black pudding, so we grabbed more bread and a lovely woman directed us to an empty table where we were able to eat on our own. We were exhausted and we didn’t particularly like the thought of speaking to anyone as we were not sure we would have been able to get much of a conversation out. We ate and left on time.
Off to our last Regulatory. How would we go. There was a really tricky group of directions. Sometimes I would give Keith four instructions in a row, during a Regulatory and otherwise. I didn’t expect him to remember them and I would still call them out singularly, but I planted pictures in his head. As a pilot I was Keith’s map that spoke. Before we started the last Regularity, I warned him of a tricky spot. I think it confused most drivers and it appeared that the directions were incorrect insofar as the distance didn’t correlate to what we saw. We went up an incline but then came back down: shit shit shit, we’ve stuffed it. We looked, checked and continued and on we went and sighed with relief when the next direction came up in front of us indicating that we were on the right route. Man, we were making mistakes, and this was going to cost us. At the first timing point my head was buried in the road book and Keith handed out sheet to the marshals. He then told me that David and Jeff came up behind us even though they had left in front of us. Others were behind us but should have been way in front of David and Jeff. Shit, if they hadn’t stuffed up like we had then they were on track that meant we were way out. Keith made the calculations in his head as to where we had to be next. I barely said anything but navigated. It was so nice not to think of anything but navigating.
We continued through the Regulatory. At the final check point Keith asked how we went and was told “better than most” Well that was nice to hear, but really who knows. As we drove off a Classic car drove towards us, clearly missing an earlier turn off. Wow, this Regulatory was a mean one.
I said to Keith that if we were late into the final hotel, we would get huge points. He wasn’t too flustered, I was of course. We made the time calculations and I kept an eye on my watch, called out directions and then we made it into Biarritz with a Champagne spray finish. We parked and I went inside the hotel to hand in our timing sheet for the last time. Jeff was at the Marshals desk and said we had done well in the Regulatory test that day. Well that was refreshing to hear. I didn’t message Keith’s dad. I was sure we had lost our place. We went up to our magnificent room where we would spend the next two nights. This was where Harry and Cathy were supposed to be for their wedding anniversary. We loved our adventure, but we were always aware that this was really someone else’s adventure that we had been handed.
We took off into the town. We wanted to find some gifts for Kreme and Gary for being so awesome and for also sharing some spark plug time with us, Liz because she’s magnificent, Pepe for getting our suitcases to our room every night and something for Ed and Tim because they were such great sports. We headed back to the hotel and looked over at the board to see if the results were in. They were. We won. We were the Overall Vintage Winners and 9th in all the cars.
We headed back into the hotel, showered and got dressed for the gala. We would be eating in the room that the G7 had been in the month before. I am sure we would be having a lot more fun than what they had.
Dinner was delightful and it was so great to sit with Liz and David again.
We went up on stage and received our 1st Overall Vintage which also included the Charles Jarrot Trophy which we have brought home with us. Ed and Tim received the 1st in Class Vintage and the well deserved “Spirit of the Rally”.
We were asked if we would like to say something which of course I did. I wanted to thank Ed and Tim for being great mates out there and to Liz for putting together such an awesome group of people that became the rally management team. Grabbing the microphone and with a bunch of faces looking at me my mouth dried up and I felt dizzy and a very ordinary speech ensured. No matter, point made.
What an incredible adventure. We are now back in Australia, gazing at our trophies and searching for our very own vintage car to restore and race.