Before, during and after my first ever (unsupported) ultra cycling race, BikingMan Oman, 1000km with 7,200m elevation meters, I said it countless times; selling it to myself and also attempting to convince others (who just looked at me and laughed… “yeah yeah… you have no idea, just wait and see”), I WILL NEVER DO IT AGAIN!
Ultra cycling is one the most ridiculous thing I have ever done in my life.
I’ll tell you why:
It’s long, it’s stupid long, there is just no need to cycle that long, what for?
It’s lonely. Yes, the actual event is lonely, from start line to finish line, but that I don’t mind that so much, because something happens when the gun goes off and I know I have to deal with myself and my mission, totally alone. This is actually a unique opportunity to learn about one self. In my opinion, it is more so the demands of the training which is the harder part. Because how can you possibly ask someone or anyone not into ultra “hey, you fancy going on a 8hr slow ride?” Hell no they don’t! Training is ultimately long and lonely. And this is even coming from someone who is very comfortable in her own company and even so often prefer yet. Yet, I still think it is lonely at another level. Do I enjoy the long and lonely training – and the long and lonely drives to training? Not that much.
It’s painful. Yes, it’s going to be painful. It will probably happen to most riders. We just deal with it. And then we heal. But during the times of dealing with the pain and no way to escape it, again I swear to myself; I will never do it again!
Wet, cold, tired, even freezing. How about dealing with bad weather? There’s no escape. Fun? No!
Mechanical issues. Well well, if you are not a bike mechanic, or like myself, don’t have any interest in repairing bikes, well then you might be screwed.
Organizational stress. Organizing a million small things; some mandatory, some personally selected, some I don’t have a clue if I will need or not. To carry it, or not to carry it? What if? This might be useful, but what if I’m not going to need it? Borrowing from other riders. Asking for help. Getting help. Argh… It’s stressful. Stressful organizing. Stressful packing. I have said twice now (as I head off to my 2nd Ultra Race); I will not do it again!
So this is the reason why I am going back. I can’t stop where I started. I am not satisfied. I need to know for myself if I can do better. If you remember from Oman, I rocked up with ‘all the gear and no idea’. I jumped on the bike and started pedaling into the unknown. I had ups and downs, I has mechanical issues and I had pain. I was on a mission to learn about myself, and I dealt with every situation as it appeared. In the latter part of the course (final 300km), I hit race mode, flicked my psycho switch and will-powered (because there was zero physical power left) through the ridiculous Omani hills, crossing the finish line Top 10 overall and 2nd Woman (53 mins after female winner Jasmijn Muller). I was overwhelmed and surprised, but admittedly pretty chuffed with that result for my first ever ultra. I remember my exact feeling at the finish; Good I did so well, I have now proved to myself that I can do ultra cycling well and there is no need to do it again!
Was I physically strong in Oman? I am not sure. Was I mentally strong? Yes. Was in control of myself and my situation? Absolutely yes. Was it beginners luck? No, I had plenty of problems along the way. Was I efficient? No (not enough). Did I waste more than 53 mins? I would say yes. Do I know where I wasted time? Absolutely yes = unfinished business.
I have to know.
I went to Oman as a beginner. I will now go to Corsica with experience. I am by no means an expert, it takes years and many races to build solid experience. But I have one ultra race under my belt and I know where I should be able to save time (as long as it is within my control). I want to know how I do with my time saving strategies, if I will be able to cover the entire course faster, if I can handle it mentally and physically (there is also risk of breaking down) and if I can be efficient, when there is also the option to take it easy.
BikingMan Corsica – 700km w/ 13,000m elevation.
This is not Oman. This is Corsica. It’s way more hilly, it’s colder, it’s wetter. There may even be encounters with angry stray dogs. I have never been to Corsica, but it also looks absolutely stunning, I hope I will be able to take in the breathtaking views and not miss too many beautiful places while I pass during night time. Once again I will be heading into unknown territory, geographically. But this time, I believe I know what to expect, from myself. I believe I know my ultra cycling strengths and weaknesses, to a certain extend. I have mentally prepared myself for above mentioned reasons for not doing it; loneliness, potential bad weather and PAIN.
I aim to go all in. Push myself harder than Oman. Enjoy the dot watching.
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
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.
I had no idea what to expect when I entered my first ever ultra cycling event in Oman, covering over 1,000km and 7,200m elevation. But I aimed to push myself to the limit. I share my journey capturing my highs and lows. The result is surprising….
“You have no idea what you are capable of unless you try”
Back tracking three days, I climbed up this epic mountain for the first time ever via the Bedoin side, the most famous of the three; the side you see in Tour de France. It was cold and windy at the top and I could hardly see that epic tower although standing right below it, by the summit sign. I couldn’t get down fast enough either due to the cold wind ripping through my sweat soaked cycle kit.
2 days before…
The day after, two days ago, I took the scenic route via Gorges de la Nesque (20K at 2.3% avg) to Sault, which is another entry to the summit of Mt Ventoux. It was a very windy day; in fact, it was an extremely windy day. It was pretty much a battle all day, beautiful too, without a doubt, a beautiful battle. After climbing a total of ca. 40K I reached that epic bald part of Mt Ventoux (6K to the summit on the open bald top of Ventoux) and that’s where the wind or lets refer to it as ‘the storm’ took a decisive and firm hold of me and my bike with 60mm rims. The descenders passed me slowly and narrowly as I moved upwards, half of them walking down, almost leaning up against the mountain side with a firm grip on their bikes, while the others rolled slowly past, on the wrong side of the road, the one with the least chance of getting blown off the side, with one foot clipped in and one foot ready to catch them on the road. I continued upwards, with the firmest grip I ever had on my handlebar, biceps fully contracted, core as ready as if I was taking a punch to the stomach. On the steepest section towards the ‘windy pass’ at 1,830m (Col des Tempetes), I got blown off my bike. One, two, three… Push hard to get back on! I reached Col de Tempetes – and stopped. I have never experienced wind that strong in my life. The Summit was only 600m away (or 79m of elevation (of 1,909m total). I couldn’t actually see the tower for the dark cloud that I was already surrounded by, and moving with storm like speeds. But I knew it was right there above me, because I was there yesterday. The wind on the ‘windy pass’ was so hard, I gulped big lumps of air when breathing in (and talking to my Instagram storyline, because it would be rude not to show those crazy wind conditions to those who would care). ‘’To continue or not continue’’, was the question on my mind as I was fighting to even stand straight and hold on to my bike. Make a decision quick. It wasn’t easy. 79 meters from the summit and then bailing? WTF. I was there yesterday, also covered in a grey cloud, there was nothing to see. Continue the last few meters, see nothing, and take a risk of getting blown off the bike? WTF. That doesn’t make sense either. Arghhhh….
I am super proud of myself for turning around. Not worth the risk I decided. There is also a day tomorrow. With a 60mm flat racing wheel set, I opted for the ‘one foot clipped in’ option and descended like most others in the wrong side of the road, believing the risk of hitting the front of a car was far less than getting blown off the mountain side.
The day before… Rest day?
Yesterday, it was another crazy windy day. I decided to ‘stay away from the mountain’ and instead venture out on a relatively flat and easy day. I chose to explore the vineyards to the west of Mt Ventoux. This day however turned out to become a 3 hours fight with the wind through the open grape fields. A mental and physical battle on the ‘easy day’. I did though enjoy the concorde like 15K ride home from Malaucine to Carpentras. Into the drops, catapulted forwards by the wind, highest watt output possible, time trial mode; -1% or so average too. I was home in no time, with 5 QOMs to my name. Sometimes I really do LOVE the wind. That part was fun!
Going Triple Whammy
Today, finally, it’s a beautiful day, with a blue sky and from what I judge on my hotel balcony, less windy. I feel like a long day on the bike, a nice one, not one going into battle. Ever since my amazing travel buddy Jannie casually mentioned, on our road trip from Cote d’Azur to Provence, that there is always the option to climb Ventoux from all three sides in one day, I initially brushed it off as being a little crazy, but it kinda stuck to my mind too. Anyway, I stuffed my jersey pockets accordingly, 3 gels (one for each potential climb), 2 natural energy bars (a few bites here and there for sustainable energy and avoiding getting hungry) and a wind jacket. I know I would be kicking myself if I had ‘a good day’, but with empty pockets. My friends had other plans for today, so I took off solo.
SUMMIT ONE (via Malaucine) – 21K @ 7.2% (max 12%) and 1,540m of elevation – 1hr 53mins
I had already climbed up Ventoux the days before via Bedoin and Sault, so of course I started here. I would go as far as saying this is my favourite side. The climb has some very steep and unforgiving sections, but what I love on this side is that you are also randomly met by sections of 4-5% which certainly feels like a nice break from 10 and 11%. While counting down the kilometres one by one via the road signs, the gradient varies all the time making the kilometres tick by even faster, in my opinion. Furthermore, as you pass the 10K and halfway mark, you get frequently surprised by the utterly breath taking French Alpine mountain range behind Ventoux. The temptation to stop is as great as when you pass the ice cream shop on a warm summer day; however I resisted. And I promise you, no need to stop along the way, just take in what you can while continuously pedalling towards the top, because by far the greatest view of the French Alps in the distance, is from the very top. As you turn around the bend with 2K to the summit, that EPIC tower appears before your eyes for the very first time, standing tall, close and visible (under a blue sky at least). Boom! Suddenly it’s there, so close. WOW! I am pretty certain that no matter what it took to get to that 19K mark, what went through your mind in the last 1hr 45mins and how loud your legs might have been screaming at you; it’s already forgotten. And even better, anything can be concurred in only 2K.
For me personally, I felt good. I stuck to my plan, climbed steadily with average watt output a little over target. Completely blown away by occasional peeps through the trees over the mountain range. Minimal wind and warm sunshine. It’s only midday as I reach the summit. Body, legs and mind feeling completely normal. Another day, another mountain – as some would say. No drama. No problems. But that was EPIC!
Let’s do it again!
SUMMIT TWO (via Bedoin) – 21K @ 7.6% (max 12%) and 1640m elevation – 1hr 50mins
The descent from the summit to Bedoin town is one of my favourites ever! There are almost no switch backs and there are both longer straight and steeper sections and perfectly proportioned bends to really get some none-nerve wracking and truly exhilarating speed going. You can take on almost the entire 21K downhill without breaking hard and without breaking much. It’s A-MAZING!
Quick coffee in Bedoin, where it’s almost too hot to sit in the sun – and up I go again. As I pass through the first 6K in the open landscape, the tower seems so far away. My Garmin is a bit frozen and doesn’t record either gradient, elevation or temperature. As I climb through the uncompromising 9-10K middle section I am quite happy to be unaware, visually, of the gradients on the climb. While physically, does it really matter? For every pedal stroke I will get closer to the summit, no matter how steep or how long it is. The last 6K of the climb from this side is that EPIC bald part. The gradient drops a bit, the view of Provence appears and the tower is now within reach. It is truly EPIC! I reach the summit for the 2nd time today feeling nothing, but happiness. Again I was pretty much on target with my watt output, only a little over target again. Time has no relevance today. Only power. I can do this again, of course I can. It’s only the middle of the afternoon. It is still warm and sunny, with only very little wind. Would I even consider ‘just’ climbing up twice on a day like this? Never. When it’s in my head, it will be completed.
Let’s do it again!
SUMMIT THREE (via Sault) – 26K @ 4.5% (max 11%) and 1,220m elevation – 1hr 45mins
There’s some work to be done on the descent to Sault. Quick coffee stop in the warm sun – and off I go again. The first few Ks run through the open lavender fields. Two days ago I was being bashed around by the wind here. Today is much calmer. Let’s put it this way, I can now feel my legs. They are not fatiqued, but I can feel them. I have long forgotten about my saddle sores; it’s like they never existed. My neck muscles are starting to feel a little tender. I strategically left the Sault side to last as it is the easiest. Not too much pressure on the legs; just keep pedalling. It is also the least exciting side. There is not much to see really. Most of the road is hidden away by trees and mountain side. Every now and again the view over the landscape towards the Nice area appears. It’s nothing to write home about. There is some false flat the last few Ks before reaching the bald part, it feels really good to collect some speed here. Hello! There it is again, the bald part and the tower. I am still feeling good. It is now around 5pm and I have surpassed the crazy busy window of cycling enthusiasts moving up and down the mountain side. I pretty much have that EPIC road to myself. I am still feeling good. I have no problems reaching the summit for the 3rd and final time this afternoon. I am a little under target with my power output on this final ascent, no surprise there really (and also, I am of course already planning a ‘recovery ride to the summit’ tomorrow).
My unofficial Mt Ventoux Triple Whammy… Done!
Just because it was a nice day for it 🙂
For once, there were no obstacles on my way. I never felt any mental or physical fatigue. I just wanted to ride my bike all day. I thoroughly enjoyed every pedal stroke. I am even convinced I smiled all the way. I never had any doubt if I was capable or not; of course I am capable. It was a beautiful warm and sunny day; not too hot and not too windy. I just took one climb at the time. Standing at the summit for the final time, I smiled to myself; honestly I am still not tired, luckily, as I still have around 40K home….
And sure enough I did the next day summit Mt Ventoux (via Malaucine) for the 6th and final time, in 4 days total.
I wasn’t even meant to take part. I had registered before the deadline to leave the option of participation open. But I had failed to read the rule book of the Danish Cycling Federation and therefore I was oblivious to the paragraph of ‘binding registration’. I decided against participation even before leaving Dubai and after extensive research, when I discovered the practical, logistical and financial efforts and implications of bringing two bikes from the Middle East to a faraway place in Jutland, Denmark, on a solo journey. I accepted and decided against it. And also I have only really started training more specifically on the TT bike four months ago, along with participation in only three ITT events locally during this time. I took off happily from Dubai with my road bike only.
I learnt about the rules of the ‘binding registration’ as well as the extortionate cancellation fee only 48 hours before the start of the ITT event. To be fair, the rules and regulations are there for a reason and I do take full responsibility for not reading them before submitting my registration. Done is done and I accept the consequences. Luckily the consequences were no worse than I was pretty much forced to take part in the ITT Nationals 2017. It could have been a lot worse really.
I considered my options carefully:
1) Roll down the ramp on my road bike, and then exit the course, accepting a DNF.
2) Perform a personal test on my road bike on the ITT course, and finish most likely as the only rider on a road bike and with a potentially ‘embarrassing time’.
3) Perform some sort of max power test, and then exit the course before the finish line, accepting a DNF and avoiding an ‘embarrassing time’.
4) Get hold of a TT bike? (not an easy task this close to the event)
Not yet having made a final decision 24 hours before ‘my start time’, miraculously my friend Svend appeared with an offer to compete on his TT bike. “Take my bike! I am there anyway acting as support for one of the girls. I’ll bring everything for you”, Svend almost demanded, “I have seen all the training you have done. You’ve got this”. The stars somehow aligned.
At the race destination, I met with Svend 2 hours before my start time. Svend pulled out his tool box and adjusted his bike set up as close as possible to my own bike measurements. Not one measurement was correct. But all were within a few centimeters deviation and as I made an easy roll on the bike to collect my start number and back again with a plastic bag in one hand, I decided “yes, it’s going to be okay, it fits okay for 28km”.
I changed back to my road bike and warmed up on the turbo trainer (supplied by Svend). I didn’t ride the TT bike again before I jumped onto it on the start ramp.
For those of you who do bike racing, you know it’s not an easy task to do alone: drive to destination, find your way, find parking in town via roads that are already closed off, and collect race number in one area and timing chip in another. Go to the loo (at least 3 times), change clothes, set up bike, find tools, buy water, get all stuff organised, eat and drink the right thing at the right time, don’t get too hot, don’t get too cold, warm up (not too early and not too late), stay warm and hydrated on the start line, but don’t carry too much stuff…. Clear the mind and get focused on the task ahead….; the list goes on, and it’s almost impossible to handle this solo and at the same time be fully focused, stress free and perfectly warm for the competition. I have been in this situation countless of times before when travelling alone for competitions. And every time when I have jumped on my bike stressed or cold, I have asked myself the same question: “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this?”.
And here I was again! On all borrowed equipment, set up right before the start of a small event called the Nationals, a competition between the best in the country.
With huge thanks to both Svend and my dear mother, who offered their support from their big hearts, I even managed to fit in a 30 mins warm up on the turbo trainer. Svend supplied the equipment, while my mother unofficially accepted the role as my race assistant. “Mum, I’m running out of water, can you please find some more. Mum, can you please find some tape or cable ties to fit my timing chip. Mum, can you please pull out my vaseline in the right pocket of my sports bag. Mum, can you please add electrolytes to my water bottle. Mum… Mum… Mum… Please… Please… Please…“. Bless my mum. It was her first time being support at a race and I was literally dishing out orders to a clueless helper, while turning my legs on the turbo trainer. It was either that – or start the ITT cold. I cannot thank my mother or Svend enough for their flexibility, patience and generosity.
On another positive note and under the circumstances I was probably the calmest I have been in a long time. No one had any expectations of me. But more importantly, I didn’t have any expectations of myself either. I was out swimming with the big fish, against all odds. The best I could do, was to give the best of myself, on someone else’s equipment. I came into the competition expecting to place last. I would be very happy if I achieved 2nd from the bottom. Let’s not forget I was lining up with the best in the country, incl. 7 World Tour riders.
To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at the route in detail (just to make it clear, I would never consider not studying the route under more controlled and competitive circumstances). I heard it was flat with 22 turns. Okay, let’s go! As there was no power meter on the bike, I just received one last minute advice from my faraway coach: “Don’t go too hard in the beginning – and then use your heart rate as a monitor”. I rolled down the ramp and maneuvered out of town behind my personal marshal motor bike. “Don’t go too hard!”… But what does that actually mean? How do you control that ‘feeling’, when you are supposed to give your all, over ca. 45 mins; you have fresh legs and the adrenaline is pumping? I wasn’t sure to be honest. I wasn’t sure of the exact feeling. But I knew I didn’t want to give ‘too little’. I lack experience of my self-awareness.
Just to make you aware that 22 turns, is 22 turns more than what we have on our UAE tracks; NAS, Al Qudra and Al Wathba, where we have zero turns. At home we put the hammer down from start to finish, that’s it. Get measured on raw power. I am not entirely sure how to turn a TT bike efficiently and safely. Again, I lack experience. I decided to take the same line as the motor bike in front of me through every turn. And I decided it would not be worth taking any risks and potentially causing damage to myself or my borrowed equipment. After ca. 10K, I realized and I had to accept that after all I had started too hard. Everything hurt and I was forced to take it down a notch. At this time I was on a long straight, but I only discovered I was on a long straight when I was far enough into it, to realize it was a long straight (lack of preparation). It was quite hard to swallow that I didn’t have full power down the straight (it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a difference to the bottom of the results list, but it would make a difference to my personal performance, judgement of effort and certainly confidence). I was overtaken too. In the UAE I haven’t yet been overtaken (by women). I was totally prepared to get overtaken going into this competition however, but I didn’t know how it would feel, until it happened. I definitely spent some time (and maybe also energy), seconds or minutes, I can’t remember, to deal with it mentally and emotionally. Also around the 10km mark, both my feet started to cramp, like serious pain in both my feet. I had simply tightened my shoes too hard. I don’t know what I was thinking when I was standing in line to the ramp. I always tighten my shoes before I take on a sprint for the finish line. Subconsciously, I tightened my shoes before jumping on the bike. Tight shoes for the best performance. Big mistake. The pain was almost unbearable. I spent a considerable amount of time weighing the two options: 1) loosen both shoes (consequence: a significant drop in speed and momentum) or 2) suck it up and continue riding in pain. I chose the first option as I was coming out of a turn and reached down on both sides. The shoe strings didn’t at all loosen enough. And I still took the loss of speed and momentum. Ah dammit. I’ll have to suck it up then. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling at all. In the Summer heat of Dubai riding dehydrated in 40+ degrees celcius, my feet cramp on a weekly basis. I had to continuously wiggle my toes for the rest of the ITT. Around 20K and 2/3 into the course, I decided to start picking back up again, hurt more and drive my heart rate higher. There was more technical navigation and another long straight along the way. I did the best I could until the finish line. As I came to a stop, I could hardly unclip from the pain in my feet and I had to take a few minutes on the side, before getting a normal feeling back in the feet and being able to walk again. Quite frankly, I had no idea how I performed. Without a power meter it’s also hard to tell. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the final result, in terms of ranking. If I could have had any form of ‘result’ I would have chosen to see my power profile.
As expected I finished last. Number 20 (of 23 starters and 20 finishers). But you know what? It was not a bad time at all! Under the circumstances, I am quite proud to say I am in the top 20 best time trialists in Denmark in 2017! And I am still in possession of US$ 300 (which would have been the penalty fee for cancelling) minus the penalty for the, also borrowed, non-club kit at US$ 45.
The icing on the cake, was after the event when I caught up with the rider (placing 2nd last) and her coach. Their positive attitude, laughter and healthy delight of beating my time and not placing last in the Nationals, really, it was priceless. Just for that enjoyment factor, I was happy to take the bottom spot in the ranks.
After completing ITT Nationals under these circumstances, again I tell myself “No more of this Helle. Come prepared, with the appropriate support and equipment – or stay away”. On the other hand, with the time and effort I put into my cycling, I am equally intrigued to witness what I am actually capable off, under the right circumstances.
Will I return next year? Right now I am thinking: “Probably not for the Elite Nationals. Definitely for the Masters Nationals! (if I can bring my own bike along)”. But I have a habit of throwing myself in the deep end. So who knows.
The day after, Svend earned his title as National Champion Para ITT.
Nothing won, nothing lost… But always an experience richer 🙂
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!
The biggest, or should I put it like this; the most important race and the finale of the UAE cycling season, was just around the corner. It’s not the hardest race due to its shorter distance of 75K and pretty much completely flat, but it is an important race to me as in previous years we have seen some rather generous prizes; prizes that potentially could make a significant difference to me.
My coach and I work with PE (rate of perceived exertion). I learn a lot about myself using PE. Especially during my max power tests.
The scale is 0-10. 0 being the easiest and 10 being the hardest thing I have ever done. I hit the wall!