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 have said it before and I will say it again; I have possibly learned more about myself in the last 2 ¾ years since taking up the sport of cycling, than in the rest of my 37 years. Crazy, right?
I bought my first road bike October 2013, not even knowing if I would enjoy road cycling (I literally just took a chance on it); I had no idea what was lying ahead of me! A rollercoaster inclusive of sweat, blood, tears, highs, lows, victories, accidents, doubts, loneliness, travel, frustrations, connecting with people across the world, the suffering… in fact, the list goes on.
Just to make it clear, the lessons have not been learnt from riding leisurely from A to B, from the weekly cookie ride or from doing any pedalling within my comfort zone! In fact, everything I have learnt, the self-discoveries, the mental and physical growth has happened OUTSIDE MY COMFORT ZONE.
It all happened quite quickly. My first ever ride happened to be the 65K Spinneys92 Build-Up ride (seeding for UAE’s largest cycling challenge); I placed 10th (of ca. 60 women). After one month, I took part in the 98K final Build-Up ride (which felt like the longest ride ever); and crossed the line as the first woman. After two months, I took to the start line with the UAE based elite women at the 2013 Spinneys92 Cycling Challenge; and placed 9th.
My head was spinning. My body urging for more. My inner workout warrior curious.
I wondered… If I can achieve this with almost no training and zero experience, then how far might I be able to go if throw my all into it? Would I have what it takes to be an athlete?
There, at 35 years old, I made a conscious decision to make cycling ‘a competitive sport’.
My first goal, get on a podium!
And that’s where the journey really began….
I consciously chose my cycling journey to be built on self-discipline, focus, structure, planning, dedication and pain; withdrawal from the social cycling community for most of the time; and traveling to learn, explore and push boundaries. I consciously decided to give it my best shot. I knew it was going to be hard. But I never knew how hard, how many times I was going to fall hard (literally speaking) nor the valuable life lessons I was about to learn. Amongst the many things I have learnt, many of them obvious, I will share with you some of the most important lessons transferable to other aspects of life:
#1 Managing Expectations
I used to set my expectations in line with my efforts and the work that had gone into my training. As many of you know, the conditions of a cycle race can change in a flash; one small mistake, by oneself, another rider or an external factor, and everything can be lost or won. Setting expectations led to many disappointments.
I have now learned to practise ‘belief’ rather than ‘setting expectations’. On the basis of knowing I have done my very best to prepare for my challenges, I have to ‘believe in myself’; believe what I am doing is of my best ability. What happens, happens. Sometimes things work out – and sometimes they don’t. ‘Believing’ leads to a sense of calm, control and confidence. ‘Expecting’ often leads to disappointments.
#2 The Art of Letting Go
I used to quietly cry all day and all night when I had worked hard and it didn’t go my way, particularly when caused by external factors. It’s not worth it. Let it go! External factors are often unforeseen and sometimes they have a direct cause and effect on one’s personal situation. It cannot be controlled and it cannot be changed. It is what it is. The only thing that can be controlled is how I choose to handle it, from within. Emotions are allowed, in fact emotions are important. Feeling them. Acknowledging them. Then dealing with them. Hanging on to them may result in anger, blaming, accusation, jealousy and disappointment. It’s not healthy. It doesn’t lead to anything positive. The sooner I can let go, the sooner I will feel ‘free’. Free to quickly move away and move on. Focus on my own journey and my next challenge.
#3 Rising After Falling
Physically and mentally. Oh boy, I have stopped counting the amount of times I have hit the tarmac; hard, very hard. One phase of ‘rising after falling’ from a bike is physical and immediate. Right there and then. On the ground. The body is in a state of shock. Breathe! One moment. Breathe! Don’t touch me. Breathe! Now check arms and legs can move. Now check I can rise. Now get back on the bike! In race situations, things might happen with a sense of urgency. Get back as quick as possible and reap the benefits of feeling ‘numb’ from the shock. Open wounds, blood pouring and bruising. No problem. Rise and ride. Get on with the race. There may still be a chance of success. I won’t know unless I try.
Another phase I am relating to is perhaps more metaphorical; or at least psychological. I have had a habit of using ‘competitive cycling’ as a mean of ‘jumping into the deep end’. Taking on challenges beyond my capabilities. Taking opportunities that scared me. Taking chances where the success to failure ratio equalled 1:100; but where at the time I thought to myself ‘but if there is a chance, I will not miss this opportunity’. For example:
• 9 month into my cycling journey, I took off alone to the Amateur World Championships in Slovenia. Everything went wrong. I came last. Like very last. I had almost no experience. I had no luggage. I had no support in any way.
• In 2015 I competed in the Elite Danish National Championships. I got disqualified in the individual time trial; I hadn’t prepared. And I didn’t finish the road race; I had run myself to the ground.
• Only 3 months ago, spring 2016, I had a shot at American Pro cycling. I wasn’t good enough to even complete the races within the time limit.
That’s falling hard, psychologically. Very hard. The pain of failure goes deep.
So why do I keep doing it?
Because I freaking learn so much about myself! Because it’s right there when times get tough and pain goes deep, that personal growth happens. I have discovered that the falling and the failures of cycling have helped me understand myself better. All those uncomfortable situations have helped me to stop, reflect and negotiate with myself:
• How would I like to feel about this situation?
• How do I choose to handle this situation to ensure a positive outcome?
• How can this be turned into a strength?
• What can I do right now to rise with honesty, acceptance and respect, to myself at least?
• How can this situation build foundations of knowledge and experience, for my cycling journey going forward, but also for treating and overcoming obstacles in other aspects of life?
I have learned to rise after falling. In many ways.
The more I fall, the more I practise ways of rising after falling; and ultimately the more resilience I build. Resilience in the sport of cycling. But also resilience to help me cope with life’s headwinds. Life is a roller coaster. It is not possible to protect oneself from the smaller or the bigger storms of life. Health issues, injures, tragedies, redundancies, change and so forth; some situations are totally out of our control. And the only thing we can control is how we deal with these situations; how we come out of these situations healthily, our ability to cope and move on. I whole heartedly believe that the experiences and challenges I have had through my journey of competitive cycling has helped me build resilience. Resilience that will help me cope better with life going forward.
#5 The Importance of Support
It’s no secret I have spent a lot of time on my own through my life. Twice I have relocated to a new country or continent on my own, completely of own choice. No doubt it has made me strong. Very strong. I have had to be strong. I have also ventured out solo on travels countless of times. Moved countries, backpacked and gone off on personal challenges, with no close support. I fully believe in the benefits of going solo. Owning decisions. Choosing one’s own path. Learning to become self-sufficient. However, from this I have also learned that without support, it is hard to hit one’s full potential. Without support, it may take longer to rise after falling. I come from the most supporting family I could ever wish for, but they live in a different continent. I have had longer term relationships, love was plentiful, but I am now on my own.
How did I suddenly learn this through my cycling journey?
Because this roller coaster has had some steep curves and loops. There have been many ups and many downs; many personal failures, but also many personal successes along the way. I guess I never before really took the same risks as I do now. And I guess with taking risks, you can fall deeper and equally you can rise higher. At times of doubt, support can make the world of a difference. And what is success worth if you have no one to share it with?
What I have learned is that it doesn’t matter who it is and from where they come. As an expat, it may not always be the immediate family or the old friends who knows you inside out, who will be the obvious support. Building a support network with people of similar mind set and lifestyle, with people who genuinely celebrate your successes and offer tools and support to lift you even higher and with people who understands the pathway you are taking and who offers to stand by your side when you fall, is one of the essential elements to enjoying the journey of highs and lows. But also significantly important; fun happens around other people. Smiles, laughter and silliness is created between people. The building of my support network continues.
It is not necessarily ‘cycling’ that has taught me these valuable life lessons. It is the fact that I have chosen to immerse myself fully into the cycling, push physical limits, set goals, take risks, travel, always believing I can do more, do better…. And staying on the path no matter which obstacle brings me down… Always rise again… And always continue the fighting.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are in your life, no matter how big or how small your challenge is, no matter where you set your goals – doing something that scares you, of your own choice – is your opportunity to learn, to grow and to become better at handling LIFE!
Learn how to deal with uncomfortable situations by choice, rather than waiting to be taken by surprise.
I am ready for the next challenge. I am ready to write the next chapter of my LIFE story!
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