12 Reasons why my trip to California was NOT a holiday – And what you didn’t see behind the stunning photos!
After my return from California, I was truly amazed to discover how many people had been following my journey. Some of you got it just right, especially the snapchatters, who witnessed what really happened, live, every day. And I felt supported receiving compliments on getting through the gruelling trip. I was approached by others, however, with: Wow, amazing holiday!
Holiday? Let me tell you why this was NOT a holiday.
1. The travel (35 hours on Emirates Airlines)
I was one step ahead of the jet lag. I planned to the minute what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, when to stay awake, when to have light and when to have darkness, how many litres of water to drink and how I was going to get from the window seat to the toilet without waking the people sitting next to me.
No sugar, no salt, no alcohol, no to anything coming from the trolley.
2. Pro Racing
I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was going to be challenging for sure. It’s easy to sit back on the couch with a beer and watch pro racing on TV, right? Although I knew the level would be much higher than what we do in the UAE/Middle East, I was really hoping I would be able to ‘just hang in there’.
Holy f***! It was tough beyond tough.
I set a new PR for my 20mins max power on the uphill individual time trial. That hurt. For that effort I placed 78th of 81.
In the two circuit races I did, I red-lined for 30-40mins until I got dropped. That hurt. I then fought solo or with a few other riders, chasing the time cut. That hurt. I then got pulled from the races and dealt with disappointment and failure. Now that really hurt.
3. While my team members were racing – and I was on my own.
It was hard. It was very hard. I have put a lot of effort into my training, in every shape and form. But it wasn’t not good enough. As the race team was off to race the next stage; I was left behind, with the time now in my own hands. If I am not good enough, what could I then do? I had many choices, really. But in my head, there was only one option: Go out and work harder! One day I went out and climbed 80km (3250m) of a total 172.5K. That was 7 hours where I was stuck with my own thoughts. That was tough. Mentally more than physically.
4. I cancelled my own holiday
The plan was to do 8 pro races, after which I was going to treat myself to a ‘holiday’ and explore California. I was a failure at pro racing and completed only a fraction of what was planned. In my mind, I didn’t deserve a holiday. Plus if there is something you are not good at, how do you get better? Work on your craft. Practise practise practise. I just couldn’t justify taking holiday. I found another 3 day stage race. I took off alone, to practise.
5. Racing and camping – at the same time.
On race day, I checked into a concrete campsite, living in 2 persons tent, on a 2cm mattress, in a sleeping bag, with no electricity, no fridge, no heating, no light, nowhere to cook or boil water, no peace, no quiet, no space, nowhere to unpack, not knowing anyone, except from the very lovely Janice, who I met only as I crawled into the tent.
And this was all while asking both my mind and body for top performances. I felt like death for 3 days while racing.
I crashed twice during my time in California, both while racing. And while I was lucky enough to avoid getting any serious injuries, the battle with the tarmac left me with bruising and open wounds. When the medics used the rough side to scrub and remove stones from the wounds, I can tell you something: It hurt. Sleeping on a 2cm thin mattress (literally on the tarmac; yes I kid you not the camping ground was an asphalt car park) with bruises and wounds; that hurt. Then there was the dealing with post-race muscle soreness, while racing again and camping again. That also hurt.
Did I mention showering with open wounds and road rash? That really stung.
7. Failing equipment
It’s the same story over again. I have only myself to blame for not buying myself a working bike before I head of to do pro racing. I always crash on the right side, the sensitive side of the bike. There is nothing more to be done. The Di2 software has been damaged, the software has set itself to crash mode; the software is in charge of the gear shifting, the software has control of me.
Every morning of the Sea Otter Classics races, my gears failed to shift during my warm up. Every morning before lining up at the start I raced around to find mechanics; I ran in my cleats through exhibition crowds, wondering if I would ever even make it to the start or out of the start box. Always frantically counting down minutes. And what will happen during the race? Will my gears shift? What should I do if they don’t shift? Train? Complete the course? Work on my mental strength? Quit? Go sightseeing? Those were the thoughts running through my mind on the start line. Stressful. Not ideal.
8. When race officials get it wrong
On the first day of the Sea Otter Classics, I raced a Criterium. I crashed. But I was eager to get back out on the circuit. A little too eager perhaps. I couldn’t care less about the dripping blood. But I cared about my handle bars turning sideways. I might have raised my voice at the officials and mechanics, not on purpose of course, but from the crash-adrenalin. “Let me out. Let me out. I want to finish”. The official held me back; “Stop, breathe – let me check you”. “What? NO! Arms and legs are working just fine. Let me out!” They finally let me out. I raced well. And I sprinted myself to a 5th place overall, which was 100% a top 3 and podium position in the Masters category. Apart from crashing, stage one was a success!
After the race I had a feedback session on my racing with a ‘race mentor’; an LA Sweat female pro rider, sitting at the back of the race, taking notes and helping riders improve their racing. How awesome is that?? I got cold waiting. I also had stones in my open wounds, dried blood up and down my body and my bike was getting checked. A while after finishing, I went over to check my final position and the podium ceremony time. I blinked once and walked away. Ice cold. I was at the bottom of the list with ‘one missing lap’. All energy was sucked out of me.
After failing the pro racing, I really needed a bit of success for myself. I had crossed the finish line in podium position with open wounds. But instead of heading to the podium, I headed to the medics, where I screamed in agony as they scrubbed the stones out of my wounds – as opposed to embracing success, smiling at the flashing cameras and receiving my deserved prize. I just couldn’t take anymore that day.
9. Road trip
Sounds amazing, right?
Of course it was. But it wasn’t easy.
Road Trip #Day1
Here is how I started my road trip. I woke up in a tent, I then raced in temperatures above 32C. I suffered on the final climb to get my 3rd place on the podium. I almost fell off my bike at the top. I didn’t expect a podium place, so I rushed back to the campsite to pack up and shower (only to get back into my sweaty kit for the podium pictures). At 3pm only I left the race venue to start my road trip. I still had not had any proper food and I was of course very dehydrated from racing 3 hours in the heat. I had to get on the road as I needed to get as far down the Californian coast line as possible before darkness. I was in charge of everything. Driving, navigating, flicking the radio channels, absorbing all impressions from my surroundings, eyes peeled non-stop. I stopped the car more times that I could keep count; out of the car, into the car, out of the car, into the car, again and again and again. I took pictures, I filmed, I snapped. But I never stopped for more than a few minutes. I simply didn’t have time. As it got dark and my surroundings turned pitch black, my vision literally disappeared. I was too exhausted to drive in the dark and I now searched for a motel. As I crawled into bed, I selected and edited the best photos from the day. Stunning photos. It would have been too selfish to keep them to myself. I made it a priority to share with you too.
Those pictures however, revealed only beauty from the Pacific Ocean coast line, not how hard I pushed my body through that day.
Road Trip #Day2
I had a very long journey ahead of me with many miles and many sights to cover. I had to manage my time in each place and most likely make decisions on the go. After my first stop I was already set back almost one hour. Why? In a car park by Pismo Beach, a large truck reversed into the front of my $700 Hertz rental car and caused damage to the front my car. Oh my god! That didn’t just happen! Luckily the driver was a good guy and happy to share his details. His 4 family members though were a hard piece of work. I had no knowledge of what sort of accident reports or insurance documentation was needed in this scenario in order to proceed with insurance claims. All l knew was that in the US everybody sues everybody. I stayed calm. But trust no one. To my random luck a police car passed. We explained the accident. 5:1. Each of the family members provided a witness statement saying that I drove into the back of the truck. Oh my god! This was not happening! Just get me out of here! I might have paid an extortionate $700 to rent a car for one week, but at least that was including full coverage on damage to the car. Just get me out of here.
I took off, a little shaken, naturally. I didn’t enjoy any part of that. But the journey had to continue…
For around 10 hours I was driving and doing sightseeing; eyes peeled, full concentration. The goal was to hit Redondo Beach in Southern LA before darkness. I just made Malibu, North of LA, to watch the sunset. Just. I snapped an amazing picture. I stayed for around 1 min, after which I continued driving through the dark, blurred vision, tired eyes. I drove through LA in the dark. I felt like I was going the wrong way. I realized my Sat Nav had stopped working and I had gone too far East. Eventually I arrive in Redondo Beach. Exhausted.
10. Los Angeles
The next day
I had only one full day in LA; which meant I had to cover ALL sights in one day. I got on my bike, naturally. 10 hours later my mission was accomplished. I had covered all sights on a 140K ride. However, halfway through the day and at the bottom of Griffiths Park (the hill with the Hollywood Sign), my Di2 battery went dead (totally my own fault, but still not helping the situation) – and I was sitting on my one single gear while looking up to the Hollywood sign, thinking: I WILL get up there! To make it short, I was given wrong directions and I went up and down twice, grinding my legs in a too heavy gear for a 7% incline. No matter which road I took, I didn’t seem to get close enough to that sign! It turned out only a dirt road for hikers go to the top. Nope, that is not going to stop me! Not now! Let’s test if the 60mm carbon clinchers can handle the mountain biking surface. Towards the top I hit a 14% incline. I could only just keep my bike upright. The final section to the top is a climb on rocks. That can be done walking in cleats while carrying the bike, of course!
Was it worth the effort? To see the view from behind the enormous letters? No. My advice; save yourself the hassle.
My phone was dying, which meant I would soon enough lose navigation. I had to find a route home where I couldn’t get lost. I chose the simplest route – and the longest. Down Santa Monica Boulevard to Santa Monica Pier (it took me one hour to ride that street because of all the ef**** traffic lights). And then another hour along the coast line to Redondo Beach. I didn’t make it home before darkness and I didn’t recognize a thing around me in the dark. Did I mention this day was HOT? I eventually arrived home, exhausted – and dehydrated.
Holiday makers may call it wining, dining, lunching, brunching, sun downing etc. I call it fuelling.
During the two weeks with the pro team, all fuel consumed was with the aim of providing the body with the best tools to perform. One day though we all had a chocolate-chip cookie (some of us 2!) (and it was one of the medium sized ones too!). Oh my god, that was so good.
In San Francisco, I had sushi one night. Otherwise during my time in San Francisco, racing at the Sea Otter Classic while camping, and my road trip; so around a week, I had no one single real meal. I survived only on snacking on rye bread, peanut butter, avocados, carrots and hummus, freebee Cliff bars – and coffee. Fuel that required no cooking, no cooling, no heating, no preparation and no plates. Fuel making my life easy, while on the road, on the bike, in a tent, in the dark or simply out of time. And fuel that could keep me going through my adventures.
12. The last day
On what was supposed to be my last day in California, I woke up with heart palpitations. The few nights before I had also started to become affected by insomnia. It was very simple and very clear; I had run myself down into exhaustion. I had not given myself room for recovery. I had pushed on too hard to fit in too much in too little time. I woke up ill from exhaustion. I recognized the signs. I knew what I had to do. RELAX. I postponed my flight to return to Dubai 4 days later than the original return date. I was desperate for rest. Desperate for a holiday.
My California trip was freakin’ amazing! I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be invited to test my strength and skills (or lack of) in a Pro field. I am extremely blessed to be able to travel for a whole month. I am forever appreciative of the amazing people I know or meet along the way who help and support me through my adventures and travels. On many levels I can be my own best role model, especially when it comes to courage and bravery. Every single day of that trip I discovered beauty, beauty in nature, beauty in people and beauty in my sport. Every day I learned and every day I grew stronger.
But it was NOT a holiday. It was simply to exhausting to be a holiday.
I only decided, spontaneously, in the same week to give it a go, to hook onto someone else’s Everesting attempt. The timing wasn’t super great; I had family visiting and for personal reasons, at the same time, I felt rather emotionally drained. The night before, I confirmed my attendance and organized my bottles, fuel, clothing, lights and chargers to last me most of 20-24 hours. Honestly, I wasn’t much up for it and that was also why I didn’t tell a single soul that I was heading out to potentially complete one of cycling’s toughest challenges. I wanted a ‘bail’ option. I didn’t want any pressure. I gave myself permission to quit at any time.
What is Everesting?
It’s a simple concept, but a fiendishly difficult challenge to complete. Pick any climb, anywhere in the world and ride repeat after grinding repeat until you have notched up 8,848 elevation meters; the height of Mount Everest, in one activity. It is open to anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is not necessarily an organized event. All you need is a bike, a hill, a tracking device and a huge amount of determination.
The rules: One hill / One activity / No sleep / No time limit
Full Everesting rules here https://everesting.cc/
Weather forecast: RAIN
This is the Middle East, the likelihood of rain, is minimal. Although the UAE is made up from mainly desert, we are very fortunate to have some pretty epic mountain climbs too. The chosen climb for this Everesting challenge, was Jebel Jais, hosting the highest point in the UAE, at 1,934m above sea level, with the challenge segment at ca. 24km of 5.4% average gradient. To reach the height of Mount Everest, Jebel Jais had to be climbed just over 7 times.
6am start, right at dawn. It was miserable from the first ascent, wind pushing hard against the bike on certain sections. Followed by an even worse first descent, with rain hammering down; it felt like hail hitting face and skin, riding straight into the raindrops at high-ish speed. As I naively hadn’t respected the weather forecast, I arrived at the bottom of the first descent, in a thin soaked windbreaker and frozen fingers. Although not planned already, I had no choice but to make my first stop at my ‘base camp’. I was cold to the bone, soaked and shivering.
My planned ‘base camp’, was basically my car parked a few hundred meters before the start of the segment. It was my shelter and my fuel station. I changed to a rain jacket, then continued up on ascent number two, still with numb fingers and soaked shoes.The pure misery continued, although of course, as I started climbing again, I got warm and peeled off my layers. The final 4km to the top of the section and top of the mountain, is very exposed hence very windy. It takes a bit of courage and some decent bike handling skills to control the bike both up and down, but nothing more than I couldn’t handle. On the second descent, the roads were wet, but as we have good road conditions in the UAE, I didn’t want to lose time on the descents and it was so cold, I wanted to get down FAST. I nearly swallowed my heart! In one bend, three cars appeared fast on the road in front of me, with the one car coming straight towards me in the wrong lane. He was overtaking on a prohibited overtaking section. I had nowhere to go and no choice but to hit my breaks hard. My back end of the bike skidded left, right, left, right….. I envisaged: either losing control and crashing on the road in front of the car, or taking a hard right turn into the gravel and crashing into the mountain side, to avoid getting hit by the car. Miraculously, I managed to keep the bike upright and narrowly missed the car and the selfish, impatient, irresponsible driver. Breathe!
To bail or to continue?
Heading back to the car, I seriously considered bailing, it was just too miserable and clearly dangerous. It didn’t help by the fact that other riders on the mountain disappeared one by one. I got it! Why ride in miserable conditions, when most days are gorgeous and warm? But then I get stubborn! This is not a valid reason for quitting. A bit of rain shall not stop me. Holding on to the thought I would warm up when making my way up for the 3rd time, I headed back to the car to stuff more cheese sandwiches and snickers in my pockets. The weather must change. It must.
2,000m, 3,000m, 4,000m…. 5,000m. This was my crucial point. Final decision; go home or go all the way. Anything between 5,000m and 8,848m and it is not acceptable to quit; not in my head anyway, then it just turns into wasted effort.
No turning back
I am healthy, my bike is working and I still have more hydration and fuel in my car. I am pretty organized. Do I even have a valid reason for not completing? The answer is NO. I have no valid reason for not going through with it. Quitting would mean I would have to go back and do this to myself again. No thanks. I am doing it now. Now is now. And I am doing it! I know I can do it. I never doubted it. Of course I can climb until the target is reached. Yes, it’s miserable. Yes, it’s lonely. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s a mental struggle every time I need to start a new ascent. Yes, it’s hard on the legs, very hard. It’s A LOT of climbing, it’s beyond what I have ever done before. But ultimately, I believe in myself. I came to do it. I am not going home without it. One more factor to push me in the right direction; no woman has ever completed the Everesting Challenge in the Middle East (probably no one ever tried). I will be the first. Determination switch on. No turning back.
Enter the Darkness
By 5,000m of elevation, and riding 100km uphill and 100km downhill, dusk is upon me, just after 18:30. Here comes the darkness, it will be a long, dark and lonely night. The rain stopped a long time ago, the temperatures a bit milder and the wind on the mountain side much less aggressive. I can do this.
By 21:10pm coming down from the top again, I just missed the last food truck, at the 20km viewing point and plateau. It was open on the way up, but closed on the way down. Damn. I had calculated, that to get me through the night, I would need more ‘real food’. I was running out of home made sandwiches. One last truck was in the process of closing, he had only tea, small bags of crisps and cup noodles. Argh, give me all. I sought shelter from the cold wind, warmed up a bit from the boiling water. But that was it. There was no nutrition in that food. Too bad. I have to manage on my own fuel. I will.
By around midnight, going up, again, Jani Brajkovic, former pro rider, came down the mountain side, for the last time. Mission complete. As the only other lonely soul out there, Jani had completed the challenge in around 19 hrs. Now there was only myself left. I still had another 2 ascents to complete.
The loneliness of Ultra
It was a very long and lonely night. I was also going slower and slower, and my fuel stops became more inefficient and more time consuming, as I was fumbling around in the back of my car in the darkness, warming up and organizing my re-fuel. As I was ascending for the last time past 3am, all lights on the mountain got turned off. All. And there was no one around. No one. On the way up thunder and lightning started to roar and flash in the distance. Oh no. Please don’t come closer. As I reached the open area, 4 km from the top, the flashes were cutting sharp and came too close. I stopped. The wind pulling me while standing still. I had clocked up ca. 8,600m. I was so close. But not done. I doubted my safety. I pulled out my phone and googled: How likely is it to get hit by a lightning on the top of a mountain? Apparently in the Rocky Mountains it happens a lot. I decided I HAD to complete my challenge. Admittedly, I was frightened. I turned my lights off, swerved to the wrong side of the road and crept up along the mountain wall to blend in with mountain. I couldn’t get to the top (and down again) fast enough. I as reached the top, I had logged 8,818m. Argh, I am still not done. An unexpected loud roaring thunder appeared right above me. Then the rain came. Pouring. It rained hard. I couldn’t see much on the descent. I had also lost my gloves at some point in the night (probably while pulling out a survival snickers), I couldn’t feel my fingers either. I had to check and check again during the descent that my fingers were actually wrapped around the breaks. At the same time I knew I would be able to finish the challenge in under 24 hours, if I got down fast. With the rain came dawn, coming close to 6am. I turned around quick at the segment start, and started my 8th ascent. I needed only 30m elevation more to reach the target of 8,848m. That would be done quick and it was now light. I climbed 1km, 2km, 3km, 4km… The ‘total ascent’ figure on my Garmin didn’t change, it was stuck at 8,818m. No no no no no no! My Garmin 520 Edge took A LOT of water from the downpour and roads splashing on the final descent. It must have frozen. I had no choice but to continue climbing and praying the meters would start to tick. I HAD to reach the Everesting target, otherwise this misery would have been for nothing. Time was moving past 24 hours. Okay what to do. 5km, 6km… elevation meters started to increase again. My target was 9,000m elevation (just to be 100% I had officially covered 8,848m on the actual segment). I reached my target 1/3 of the way up the mountain, after climbing just under 8km up again, for less than 200m extra elevation. Okay, but it’s done! MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
We couldn’t have chosen a worse day. It was pure misery, with unusual winds, rain and just freezing cold on the descents. I continuously kept motivated by reminding myself, that the challenge was made harder by the miserable conditions, and that I would grow stronger from staying with this battle till the end. There was no need to complete a grueling cycling challenge like this, in worse conditions than standard. We could choose any other day. But now was now. I was there. I had started it. And I completed it.
Why do an Everesting?
Honestly, I don’t really know. I just decided to do it. And I saw it through. I get stubborn. When I have it in my head and when I set out to do it, I don’t stop till it’s done. Even my self-approved bail out option didn’t work and the weather misery couldn’t stop me. I think the key is that I believe in myself and my abilities. I know I am physically healthy and I trust that I am strong. The ability to overcome or remove fear contributes too. And so does the sheer determination to complete the mission. The way I looked at it: after all, it is nothing more than to keep going up and down the very same road until the height of Mount Everest has been reached. It is achievable.
Power to the women
Only 175 women world wide have officially completed the Everesting challenge. That accounts for 5% all completions. You can check the Everesting Hall of Fame, to see who completed in your area.
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