Unfinished Business – a predominant reason to take on my 2nd Unsupported Ultra cycling race. Since BikingMan Oman in February, instead of being satisfied by actually completing 1,000km in one go and then closing that book, I had been haunted by the thoughts of ‘I can do better’.
So here we are, 8 weeks later, in Corsica, where the 2nd race of the BikingMan Sprint Ultra World Series is taking place. It’s a mission of BikingMan to take riders to unique, adventurous and epic locations across the world, the majority of the places where you probably wouldn’t for a split second think of taking your bike. And here they certainly don’t fail. What a fantastic opportunity to explore random places in the world, while being united with fascinating and inspiring people from all walks of life, all joining together to complete these extreme cycling challenges, each at their own pace and for their own personal reasons.
I always had Corsica and Sardinia on my bucket list of places to visit, but this was the chance to actually do a loop on two wheels around the island of Corsica, ‘I’m in’.
Corsica, also known as ‘The Mountain in the Sea’, nothing flat and nothing straight. Like seriously nothing. The highest peak on Corsica, Monte Cinto, rises 2,706m above sea level.
BIKINGMAN CORSICA – Course and Profile
Just under 700km, with just under 13,000m of climbing.
THE DAY BEFORE – and last minute changes
We arrive at the start /finish campsite the day before. I have mixed feelings and priorities between catching up with the wonderful BikingMan riders, organizers and volunteers – and the slightly stressful preparation of getting bike, bags, food, maps etc. organized, loaded and ready. Do not forget anything! I also made a last minute decision to remove my aero bars from my bike. Why? Because the majority of the other riders didn’t have them fitted, especially the top guys. I copy the top guys. Watch the best. Learn from the best. Could be risky removing the position of relaxation while riding, but I have to be ambitious and confident; if they can do it, so can I.
My strategy is yet again to test myself, push limits and learn about my mental and physical capabilities. It is entirely a personal challenge. But I want to push myself further than in Oman. The course profile on Corsica is more demanding. I am confident I will have to step up another level.
From my first ultra experience in Oman, I also want to try and minimize ‘waste time’ (which is probably anything that brings pleasure).
I am also pretty certain that for the first time I have to sleep. I mean 13,000m elevation, that’s a lot of physical exertion. But once again I don’t have a plan. I have never before put myself through a challenge of this size. I will go with the flow and listen to my body’s signals. Ultra is hard to plan, anything can happen. My strategy: keep calm and keep pedaling. And deal with practical or physical obstacles and barriers as they emerge. Remember to eat and drink. And don’t stop unless it’s really necessary.
START TO CP1 – 180km / 4,150m elevation
We set off from the campsite in the dark at 5am and head pretty much straight out to a climb. I hadn’t really studied the route map. Why? Because it is non stop ascending and descending for 700km. When it goes up, keep pedaling and when it goes down, keep pedaling. That’s all I needed to know for myself. The first climb is longer than I expected and I find myself digging deep to stay near the front, closing in on max heart rate. This is not how ultra is done. I surrender and let go. Relax Helle, there are still 690km to go. It is dusk with lightly drizzling rain when I reach the top of this first climb, alone at the time, somewhere in between all the other riders, and I look forward to flying down the first ascend. I take off downhill, ‘Bib bib’ (Off course!). Argghh, hammer the breaks and turn around. How could I miss ‘the right road’?? Okay, enough. Two mistakes in the first hour. Concentrate Helle! I got on the right descent and I quickly realized how cold it was. I was shivering heading down the other side. This was also my first introduction to the mountain / forest roads of Corsica; half broken, half patched up, narrow rollercoaster roads, left right left right left right. 100% concentration required.
I feel good. I push on through the day, maybe I push too much, I am willing to take the risk and test myself. I am here to test myself anyway, so let’s go. I am actually freezing most of the day, it’s around 7 degrees Celsius descending from the peaks, but of course the body heats up on the climbs. I didn’t care to change clothes. I remained too cold on the descents and too hot on the ascents. Overheating on some body parts actually felt quite good after being too cold. I reach CP1 as the female leader (and 29th overall) in 9 hrs 24mins after an interesting first day in the mountainous forests, dodging road traffic in forms of cows, pigs and a near head-on collision with a massive hairy donkey. But I must also say I was WOW’ed by the Corsican forest terrains and the snow topped mountains in the distance. Gorgeous landscape. I had stopped only a few times to refill my water bottles, learning that there are pretty much nowhere to refuel and restock, only the odd water fountain, but you gotta keep your eyes open.
At CP1 I set myself a target of 1 hour. I have 1 hour to take rest and get myself sorted to get back on the road ‘fresh’. In this time I manage to freshen and crème up, charge devices, eat a hot meal, drink a hot tea and get a massage. Rest not so much. I don’t really talk to any of the other riders either. I don’t really have (or make) time. I stay focused on my one hour target. After the massage, mainly on my lower back and neck, I slip into my ice cold wet jersey and carry on. I never really manage to get fully warm in that one hour.
CP1 to CP2 –140km / 2,380m elevation
To be quite honest, I don’t actually remember the details of this section. Perhaps I was getting tired. Perhaps I was cold. I don’t have any footage or pictures either from this section and that means only one thing; I didn’t have the capacity to take my phone out. One thing to note about this terrain, is that it requires 100% concentration. Eyes on the road. Eyes on the GPS. Always being alert. Non stop bike handling, changing and reacting, left, right, up, down, break, turn… repeat. Fiddling with a phone; reading messages, checking the tracker, posting videos while cycling? Forget it! It is simply too energy consuming, too risky. I stop once in a shop of rare occurrence to stock up on chocolate, biscuits, Haribos and coke.
I reach CP2 still as the female leader (and now 26th overall) at 11pm after being on the road for a total of 18 hours (having covered now total 320km and 6,530m elevation). I am very cold.
I know I need a good rest. But I don’t know how much. I notice there are a fair amount of male riders sleeping at CP2 and the men arriving, while I am eating my hot meal, are all going to sleep…. Hmmm….
I consider two possible scenarios 1) These guys are clever taking some rest, I should probably do the same 2) Do I really want to sleep? Or do I want to get a head start and head out into the night pushing myself to my limits?
I take a good long 2-2 ½ hours rest, incl. 20-30 mins rest lying down on a mattress, but I am too afraid to close my eyes. It’s unknown. I never practiced sleeping in the middle of a ride. I don’t know how I will feel if I close my eyes. I don’t even know if I will wake up again. I am too afraid to sleep. I check the tracker, it is a race after all. The positioning of the other riders will help me decide what I want to do. Eleonora, female rider in 2nd position is around 80-100km behind, I could easily take a good nap and cut down on the time spent riding in the dark and cold and still get a head start out of CP2. I count the male riders on the course in front of me. 14 male riders.
CP2 to CP3 – 190km / 3,550m elevation
But I can’t help myself. I get ambitious and stubborn. I have to go. It’s past midnight. It’s cold. I wrap up in all clothes I have brought with me (which is not a lot by the way). At approximately 01:30 I head into the dark and cold night. It’s pitch black. After only minutes of riding, my legs are burning, Garmin says 12%, 13%, 14%. Ah that’s why. I am on a steep climb. Can’t see a damn thing. I head down a long descent, I go as fast as possible. I can’t see more than 3 meters ahead in the dark. I use my Garmin GPS route to foresee the sharpness of the bends and I literally break according to the route displayed on my Garmin, rather than looking at the shape of the road.
So this is pretty much how the entire night goes. I can’t see a damn thing. It’s around 5 degrees average all night, the coldest 5 degrees I have ever experienced (lowest temperature recorded on my device is 3C) . I am freezing all night. On all descends I pray for the next climb to appear, I’d rather do the work and stay warm-ish. Fingers and toes, forget it, freezing no matter what.
I roll through the night time darkness. There is nothing pleasant about it. No opportunity to stop ever presents itself. There is nowhere to get warm, nothing open, no bathrooms, I also only find one water fountain the entire night. Luckily I didn’t drink much in the cold. There really is no option other than to ride on. Even if I did want to stop and rest. I could not. If I stopped I would get more cold.
In the early dark morning hours, I reach the sea side. I hear the waves crushing into the shore. It sounds wonderful, I can’t see anything. I pass something that could potentially be exceptionally beautiful. I am riding on a narrow snaking cliff road, the rock formations around me look different, could be spectacular. I have a feeling this is a place not to miss. I totally missed it. I can’t even tell you where I was. I never even paid attention to any names along the way. I just followed the route on my GPS and the road in front of me.
Dusk arrives and the picture perfect rocky shoreline finally appears before my tired eyes. Tired because I have been going now for 25-26 hours and tired because 100% concentration from my eyes had been required, especially through the night. Although daylight approaches and the sun emerges too, I am cold to the bone and it doesn’t change much in daylight. I can’t do anything but keep riding. The route takes me away from the shoreline and along some fields and these fields take me on to yet another climb. It’s around 8am and the cars passing by are not frequent, but pretty regular. I need the bathroom. Like I really need the bathroom. I also have a feeling my period has arrived in the early morning hours. It is not great timing. It is not pleasant. I really need to stop and get organized. I am riding along fields. No trees. No big rocks. No nothing. I keep pedaling. I need just one tree to appear, just something I can hide behind. Finally I find a small gravel pathway leading a few meters down below from the road. I hope I can hide enough. The dirt road basically become my bathroom. This is maybe the part we don’t talk so openly about. I’ll spare you for the details this time, but this is the reality of ultra cycling, we have to deal with whatever is available, or in some cases we have to deal with nothing being available. This is as far from glamorous as it can be. I feel better after ‘organizing myself’, relieved and I head up the climb.
I am moving upwards with about 8km/h, that’s too slow, I am basically not moving, I know what is happening, I have bonked. I have to stop in the middle of the climb, get off the bike and sit down. It’s not working, I am empty. I have almost 10,000m elevation in my legs, never been here before. I have now been riding for around 8 hours in the cold night since leaving CP2 and only filled my water bottles once. I have been rationing on water too. I take out electrolytes and salt and add it to my last drops of water. I empty my packet of Haribos and have another 5 degree Snickers, hard as a brick, it gives me zero satisfaction. Back on the bike. I can’t sit there on the middle of the climb and wait for what? Keep moving forward. I make it to the top and down the descent. I pedal straight into a Spar Supermarket at 9:30am, first shop I see open in maybe 12-14 hours. I have completely bonked. And I have totally underestimated how much energy it takes to stay warm. I have been cold pretty much non-stop for 28 hours. How many calories did I actually burn climbing and freezing all night? I raid the shop and sit on the tarmac in the sun to warm up. 2 cokes, the entire pack of chocolate biscuits and a block of chocolate. All in. I need to feed my muscles.
50km to CP3. I can do that. At some point I am riding along a tree lined uneven road surface, I feel the vibration through my stiff road bike frame, my whole body is aching. BikingMan always have something up their sleeve, they throw in little surprises, and at the moment in time, I am sure we are all cursing. They do this, so we have ‘something special to talk about when we reflect and share our stories from the course, our most memorable moments’. It’s working. This time they put CP3 on the top of a 5km climb, with a steep ramp leading to the actual check point facility. I bet the organizers are all laughing while us riders are swearing. I make it to CP3, after being on the road for just under 31 hours total, still leading the female race and arriving in 17th place overall. I have now covered total 510km and over 10,000m elevation. I am still watching my resting time. I am not too strict, but I am watching the clock.
CP3 to Finish –180km / 2,550m elevation
The home stretch, supposedly the ‘easiest’ section. I leave CP3 at 1pm in the afternoon. Nothing is easy by now. My target is to ride as little time as possible in the cold and dark. And certainly to avoid riding through the night, also to avoid the appearance of hallucinations. I am not sure I can ever recover properly from hitting the wall after the night. I have to just plot along to the finish line with whatever is left in the tank at whatever speed is possible. As long as I keep pedaling, I will eventually reach the finish line, right? Keep going until it’s done.
I have to pass 3 longer climbs on this final section. It’s a beautiful sunny day at least. We even reach 24 degrees Celsius. I have been cold to the bone and around the back of my neck for so many hours, that I keep pretty much all my clothes on; on some parts of my body, I never really get warm and on others I am overheating. I ride high up on the cliff side overlooking the azure blue ocean, simply breath taking. I don’t have extra capacity to take my phone out. I always try my best to share my journey live on social media, but I simply didn’t have any more capacity at this time; anything but pedaling and staring at the road, takes too much energy.
Before the last of the three climbs, we are being diverted to loop around a cap. The road down to sea level is complete broken. I ride a stiff road bike frame with carbon deep rim wheels and 25mm tires pumped to 100psi. I hammer down the broken road, I just need to finish this section as fast as possible! I am close to crying. Every part of my body hurts as the vibrations hammer through my tired body, and I also realize I have a banging head ache. Final climb of the course. I climb up to the exact same point that took me down. Typical BikingMan; adding an extra challenge, adding to the list of memorable moments, for great story telling. Admittedly, it is pretty gorgeous. I feel a bit jealous of those not racing and actually enjoying these spectacular areas of Corsica. I just wanted to get home, to avoid too much darkness and to put an end to this ache.
The male rider behind me, Corsican resident Seb, catch up with me at the top of this climb and we kind off descend together and head together on to the last 40km section towards the finish line. We watch the sun set in the distance and it starts to get cold again.
Seb pushes on, I simply can’t squeeze enough out of my tank to stay by his side, even on the reasonably flat sections. I have nothing left, I have only just enough to survive the last 30km. Reaching Bastia, a main port of Corsica, 10km before the finish line, one speed bump after the other covers the road. At this point there isn’t one part of my body that doesn’t hurt. I know exactly the consequences of hitting a speed bump. I scream out loud to help myself get distracted and to exhale through the painful vibration through my cold, aching body; every muscle, every joint, every bone, every old injury, every brain cell. I howl crossing every speed bump, while crying in between. Tears flying. Pedaling and sobbing the last 10km to the finish line. I can’t take anymore. Two things are going through my mind 1) I have never been waiting this hard to cross a finish line, I am literally at the edge of my limits 2) If this wasn’t the end of the course, I would have refused to continue without rest and warming up. I couldn’t take the pain any longer.
EMOTIONLESS FINISH – 690km / 12,600m elevation
I reach the finish line at 11pm after 41 hours on the course. On the final day I was aiming to finish UNDER 40 hours, but I was so empty I was riding snail pace through the final section. As I roll on to the red carpet, I can hardly clip out. EVERYTHING HURTS. I am so relieved to be home, and to put an end to this pain. Cold blooded, literally speaking. I don’t care much about celebrating, eating or anything else. I am the first female rider back to camp and I lost only one place since CP3 and finish 18th overall (of around 70 riders). I couldn’t think of anything but getting in a hot shower and straight to bed and finally close my eyes after almost 2 days straight awake.
PAIN BY CHOICE
There are many times along the way of my ultra races where I envy those riders enjoying the ride, enjoying the landscape, enjoying exploring new areas and countries, sampling local cuisine and meeting local people.
But I can’t. I haven’t learnt to enjoy that part of racing yet. I am racing myself, hard. I race myself to the ground, even when I have no immediate competition. I am my own biggest competition. I go hard against myself. I choose to push through the pain. I choose pain.
I am still new to ultra racing. I am not smart. I don’t think it’s smart to choose pain. I realize I have quite a large mental and physical capacity. I have only learnt this about myself this year through my two BikingMan Sprint Ultra Races. I can shut down emotions and eliminate fear. I can ride through pain. But I am not a smart ultra racer… yet.
I am not sure. I need to make some decisions. Is ultra racing something I want to do? I am not content with ‘just completing’. If I choose to do ultra racing more long term, then I want to put in the investments to become better. Set higher goals. Become more structured. Become more clever. To push my limits further. And very importantly, I have to learn to enjoy the journey as well. Let’s see what comes next….
Some interesting facts from my race
- I didn’t train for Corsica; in fact the 3 weeks leading up to Corsica I had an extra big load in my daytime job and I nearly cancelled the travel due to exhaustion.
- 4 weeks before Corsica I completed an Everesting in rain and cold. I didn’t want to jinx myself, but I was certain I was put through such misery in preparation for Corsica. It kept me strong.
- I raced through Corsica with only just the most basic measures; time, distance, elevation, grade, temperature and time of the day. No power. No heart rate. No performance measures. I performed by feeling – and will power.
- I carried 3 dry ham and cheese sandwiches and 3 rock hard Snickers all the way around the island. I just couldn’t face eating them, even through times of low energy and struggle.
- I started getting lower back discomfort after only one hour. It continued for all 41 hours.
- I had prepared some epic music playlists, however the course and profile required full concentration the entire way. I never listened to music.
BikingMan Sprint Ultra World Series
If you are interested in participating, either as a first time ultra rider or as an experienced ultra racer, BikingMan has another three epic ultra races on their 2019 calendar:
- BikingMan Peru / Incadivide – 14 August 2019
- BikingMan Portugal – 23 September 2019
- BikingMan Taiwan – 4 November 2019
More info below: