My First Ultra Cycling Race – BikingMan Oman 2019
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”
Randers Bike Week, Denmark, August 2017 – 4 day stage race
I am kind of stripping myself of my victories here. At the same time, I don’t want to appear as if I am the champion of the world. There is always room for improvement when it comes to my racing skills and strength.
Admittedly, I did feel some sort of pride as I was lining up, in front of the remaining riders, in the leader’s jersey. At the end of the day, what I had done, was enough to get rewarded that yellow jersey, representing the current leader of the GC classification. At the same time, on the roads, I felt a significant sense of embarrassment.
I never came to the stage race in Randers to achieve any kind of result, I actually came only to practice my ‘racing skills’, some of which I have repeatedly proven have room for improvement. I also wanted to test my physical ability to race 4 days back to back. Only the week before I discovered I can climb Mt Ventoux 6 times in 4 days with no problems, but… I always stayed under threshold, because I didn’t want to waste any time on recovery. But how will my body react to 4 days repeatedly over threshold? I wanted to find out.
I am on my own again. Surprise! But actually, this time I didn’t mind so much ‘riding on my own’, because I just wanted to focus on what I came to practise. I was happy not to be held accountable to anyone. I had also been clever enough to book myself into the official race Motel (motel = motorway sleep over building), full of riders and teams, 99.5% male. Check, I am gonna be just fine here.
Here’s what happened, yellow jersey and all:
Stage 1 – 30 mins Criterium (15x 1.4K lap in Aars town: uphill on cobble stones, downhill on tarmac)
I had a 330K drive to the race destination, I am not exaggerating; I had the windscreen wipers on full power the entire way. It never stopped raining. 20 mins before my wave starts, I am sitting inside my mum’s small car, getting changed and pinning numbers on the front seat, with the windows fully steamed on the inside and hammered with rain on the outside. On a positive note, no one on the packed town centre supermarket parking, will be able to see that I am getting naked inside the car. Four turns. Cobblestone hill. Rain. Again and again and again. I ask myself once again: “Why are you doing this to yourself?” I always find a strong enough argument to get on with what I set out to do in the first place.
Unfortunately there are not enough female riders to form our own wave, let alone our own classification. Men or women, I don’t really mind, I just need to practise. Men over 60 and women are thrown into the same classification, however we are still not enough to form our own wave. We start all stages also with Men over 50 and Men D classification. Now we are enough for a good size peloton, however with a wide range of strength and ability. It’s my 4th Crit only, ever. I am here to practise everything that a Crit demands. Another aim of mine; postpone the DNF as far as possible (yes, in a stronger field on a 1.4K lap, of course I will get lapped and taken out, it’s just a matter of time),
Miraculously, the rain clouds slowly disappear during my 12 mins warm up (yes, I left it a little late. It was raining), and we took off, uphill, dry. Jeez, the gentlemen are GONE! Flying start, completely stretched out, I think I have lost all wheels (in front of me), already on the cobblestone uphill on lap 2. We don’t have cobble stones in Dubai. I have many things I want to practise, so I’d better get a move on with my practising. Some I have lost already; positioning, gone. It takes me 2-3 laps to settle in on the cobble stones, working out gearing, cadence and grip, what works best for me. Good practice. I am left on my own somewhere. Don’t take any risks Helle and ride as hard as possible to postpone the DNF. Just over 17 mins after start, I got pulled. It was inevitable. Two men over 50 had taken the lead, wiping out rider after rider. To my great surprise I got pulled ‘3rd last’ in my classification and to my even greater surprise, only one rider in my classification did not get pulled. A German gentleman earned the yellow jersey.
Stage 2 – 77K Hill Stage (5 laps, ca. 875m elev total)
I drive to the race destination, arrive ca. 1 hour before my start. I sit in my car, again, this time in between to fields, with the rain hammering down on the roof. I stay there. The weather forecast for today was: Rainbows (no joke! I watched it on TV). Rain and sun, all mixed up, wait for the rainbows. Yes, I am waiting, for the rain to stop. It’s on and off, like someone is playing with the control for the shower. It’s time to go, I manage to get a 12 mins warm up, on a hill, then it starts pouring again, I hide under a tent by the start line. Miraculously, the rain stops before we take to the start line.
I manage to sit tight in the group during lap 1, through a couple of brutal hills and ridiculous amounts of water being sprayed around between the bikes, most of it I am certain, landing in my eyes. We go by luck, some of the puddles take up the entire road and they are filled with sharp stones. Some will get punctures, some will not. I struggle on the last long hill on lap 2. I have to see the group disappear just over the top. I get caught from behind by two male riders, we work hard together, chasing the group, not far in front of us. If they slow just a little we can catch them. They didn’t slow, but eventually they disappeared. Towards the end of lap 3, I discover a slow puncture and roll into the start area with a half flat tyre. There are bikes and wheels everywhere, but when I ask if I may borrow a wheel for 2 laps, all answers are something like “meh”. I am now walking around in muddy grass searching between wheels, for a wheel. Forget that then! I wait for the service car. I wait. I wait. I wait some more. Only when the race director, Bjarne, notices I am trouble, he quickly fetches me replacement wheel, a junior replacement wheel, better than nothing for sure. I can’t pedal downhill on the small cassette, but at least I have a wheel. I imagine I am now very far behind and I refocus on some of the things I wanted to practise and learn, one being testing my ability to race day after day after day. So there is only one thing to do there on my own: work hard! Don’t save any energy. I have 30K to go. I push. On the final lap I see a rider in my classification in the distance in front of me. Goal: chase and pass. I did.
As I reach the finish line, I get the news that the German gentleman in yellow had crashed out (he was okay, but didn’t finish the stage). To my surprise, I was now first in the GC classification and rewarded the yellow jersey for stage 3. Okay, I take the yellow jersey then, purely for fighting it out there on my own (in my personal view). As I drive back home, I have to stop; the rainbows are just incredible!
Stage 3 – 62K Road Race (with ca. 570m elev, hills, hills and more hills)
Ugh. Legs are in a little trouble. On day 3 already? Really? Could I still be affected by deep fatique from climbing Mt Ventoux 6 times a week ago? Or is that all I can take? I am not sure. But I am feeling. And I am learning. The weather is the same every day. All morning, it’s hard wind, some hard showers, some light showers, some clear skies. Apart from the consistent hard wind, it’s changing any minute. The start today is conveniently located outside the Motel. I line up at the front with the other 2 yellow jerseys and the one polkadot. I feel a quite ‘cool’ for a moment, the best of the bunch (or perhaps just the luckiest). The guys in yellow set the pace fast out of the start. We hit the first long hill. My legs! They are screaming at me up that long hill. I get passed one by one. I am still on the hill when I stop getting passed. I wave goodbye to the front. I also wave goodbye to the German gentleman, he is fast on the hills. I end up with 3-4 guys. The tables have turned; from feeling quite ‘cool’, to now feeling quite embarrassed riding around in the yellow jersey, behind the front group. Argh. Just keep fighting, Helle. I just don’t know if this is really all I can do? Or are those 50+ and D guys super super fast? Or am I fatiqued?I don’t know. There’s one very strong German guy, who came back from a flat, he did a lot work to get us round the laps. To my surprise, I had finished behind the front group fast enough to keep the yellow jersey into stage 4. Just! I am leading only with seconds. I jump on my bike to ride back the motel. I have a flat. Now? Pheew. Back at the Motel, I lie with my legs up against the wall. They are not very happy.
Stage 4 – 33K Circuit Race (8 laps of 4.2K, one long hill on every lap).
Same, same. Strong wind, some hard showers, some bright patches. Last stage. Let’s go. It appears to be colder today. I manage to get a pretty good 25 mins warm up. I line up at the front, in yellow. It’s pretty okay to be standing here at the front; however it is not cool to be riding at the back, in yellow. On the other hand, we are kind of meant to get dropped or let me paint it a little brighter; we are not meant to be able to finish at the front. After all, our classification, Women and Men 60+ are racing in a group of men qualified to be stronger and faster. Something would not be right if we all managed to finish together. Today, as any other day, my aim is to drop as late as possible. I am 100% certain I will lose my jersey on this final stage. I don’t think that helps much. The pace is a little more settled today. Maybe I am not the only rider with pretty tired legs. I sit in the group until the 3rd time we pass that long hill. I have to let them go on that hill. It is just a little bit too long. Once again we form a small chase group, but the front disappears. It’s a very short race today, just around one hour. I just want to go give everything I have. Apart from the hill, where we go ‘our own pace’, I take the front the majority of the time and hammer the flat sections. I want to finish off my legs. I felt a little less embarrassed today than yesterday, in the yellow jersey, as we lapped through the start and finish area 5 times, at least I was at the front hammering around the corner like it was depending on life or death. I might have been behind the front, but I went home hard. I also wanted to finish 2nd GC. I did.
It was quite an experience. I spent more time behind the peloton that I did in it, which was a shame, because that was one of the top things I wanted to practise. But I got to practise some other things and I always learn something new, both about racing and about myself; all in pretty awful Danish Summer weather. I had never in my life pictured that I would go as far as feeling embarrassment riding a yellow jersey; that was new on my learning curve. To be fair to myself though, there were more riders in my classification than there were space for on the podium. I didn’t get that jersey without having to fight. It was at the times where I could easily have let go, but chose to keep fighting, that I made my gains. They paid off; enough to earn the yellow jersey for two stages. And at the end of the final stage, I happily handed over that jersey to the rider who deserved it more than me, the better rider on hills, the German gentleman over 60 years old, who fought his way back to the top from a crash. Glückwunsch. Well deserved.
I only decided, spontaneously, in the same week to give it a go, to hook onto someone else’s Everesting attempt. The timing wasn’t super great; I had family visiting and for personal reasons, at the same time, I felt rather emotionally drained. The night before, I confirmed my attendance and organized my bottles, fuel, clothing, lights and chargers to last me most of 20-24 hours. Honestly, I wasn’t much up for it and that was also why I didn’t tell a single soul that I was heading out to potentially complete one of cycling’s toughest challenges. I wanted a ‘bail’ option. I didn’t want any pressure. I gave myself permission to quit at any time.
What is Everesting?
It’s a simple concept, but a fiendishly difficult challenge to complete. Pick any climb, anywhere in the world and ride repeat after grinding repeat until you have notched up 8,848 elevation meters; the height of Mount Everest, in one activity. It is open to anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is not necessarily an organized event. All you need is a bike, a hill, a tracking device and a huge amount of determination.
The rules: One hill / One activity / No sleep / No time limit
Full Everesting rules here https://everesting.cc/
Weather forecast: RAIN
This is the Middle East, the likelihood of rain, is minimal. Although the UAE is made up from mainly desert, we are very fortunate to have some pretty epic mountain climbs too. The chosen climb for this Everesting challenge, was Jebel Jais, hosting the highest point in the UAE, at 1,934m above sea level, with the challenge segment at ca. 24km of 5.4% average gradient. To reach the height of Mount Everest, Jebel Jais had to be climbed just over 7 times.
6am start, right at dawn. It was miserable from the first ascent, wind pushing hard against the bike on certain sections. Followed by an even worse first descent, with rain hammering down; it felt like hail hitting face and skin, riding straight into the raindrops at high-ish speed. As I naively hadn’t respected the weather forecast, I arrived at the bottom of the first descent, in a thin soaked windbreaker and frozen fingers. Although not planned already, I had no choice but to make my first stop at my ‘base camp’. I was cold to the bone, soaked and shivering.
My planned ‘base camp’, was basically my car parked a few hundred meters before the start of the segment. It was my shelter and my fuel station. I changed to a rain jacket, then continued up on ascent number two, still with numb fingers and soaked shoes.The pure misery continued, although of course, as I started climbing again, I got warm and peeled off my layers. The final 4km to the top of the section and top of the mountain, is very exposed hence very windy. It takes a bit of courage and some decent bike handling skills to control the bike both up and down, but nothing more than I couldn’t handle. On the second descent, the roads were wet, but as we have good road conditions in the UAE, I didn’t want to lose time on the descents and it was so cold, I wanted to get down FAST. I nearly swallowed my heart! In one bend, three cars appeared fast on the road in front of me, with the one car coming straight towards me in the wrong lane. He was overtaking on a prohibited overtaking section. I had nowhere to go and no choice but to hit my breaks hard. My back end of the bike skidded left, right, left, right….. I envisaged: either losing control and crashing on the road in front of the car, or taking a hard right turn into the gravel and crashing into the mountain side, to avoid getting hit by the car. Miraculously, I managed to keep the bike upright and narrowly missed the car and the selfish, impatient, irresponsible driver. Breathe!
To bail or to continue?
Heading back to the car, I seriously considered bailing, it was just too miserable and clearly dangerous. It didn’t help by the fact that other riders on the mountain disappeared one by one. I got it! Why ride in miserable conditions, when most days are gorgeous and warm? But then I get stubborn! This is not a valid reason for quitting. A bit of rain shall not stop me. Holding on to the thought I would warm up when making my way up for the 3rd time, I headed back to the car to stuff more cheese sandwiches and snickers in my pockets. The weather must change. It must.
2,000m, 3,000m, 4,000m…. 5,000m. This was my crucial point. Final decision; go home or go all the way. Anything between 5,000m and 8,848m and it is not acceptable to quit; not in my head anyway, then it just turns into wasted effort.
No turning back
I am healthy, my bike is working and I still have more hydration and fuel in my car. I am pretty organized. Do I even have a valid reason for not completing? The answer is NO. I have no valid reason for not going through with it. Quitting would mean I would have to go back and do this to myself again. No thanks. I am doing it now. Now is now. And I am doing it! I know I can do it. I never doubted it. Of course I can climb until the target is reached. Yes, it’s miserable. Yes, it’s lonely. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s a mental struggle every time I need to start a new ascent. Yes, it’s hard on the legs, very hard. It’s A LOT of climbing, it’s beyond what I have ever done before. But ultimately, I believe in myself. I came to do it. I am not going home without it. One more factor to push me in the right direction; no woman has ever completed the Everesting Challenge in the Middle East (probably no one ever tried). I will be the first. Determination switch on. No turning back.
Enter the Darkness
By 5,000m of elevation, and riding 100km uphill and 100km downhill, dusk is upon me, just after 18:30. Here comes the darkness, it will be a long, dark and lonely night. The rain stopped a long time ago, the temperatures a bit milder and the wind on the mountain side much less aggressive. I can do this.
By 21:10pm coming down from the top again, I just missed the last food truck, at the 20km viewing point and plateau. It was open on the way up, but closed on the way down. Damn. I had calculated, that to get me through the night, I would need more ‘real food’. I was running out of home made sandwiches. One last truck was in the process of closing, he had only tea, small bags of crisps and cup noodles. Argh, give me all. I sought shelter from the cold wind, warmed up a bit from the boiling water. But that was it. There was no nutrition in that food. Too bad. I have to manage on my own fuel. I will.
By around midnight, going up, again, Jani Brajkovic, former pro rider, came down the mountain side, for the last time. Mission complete. As the only other lonely soul out there, Jani had completed the challenge in around 19 hrs. Now there was only myself left. I still had another 2 ascents to complete.
The loneliness of Ultra
It was a very long and lonely night. I was also going slower and slower, and my fuel stops became more inefficient and more time consuming, as I was fumbling around in the back of my car in the darkness, warming up and organizing my re-fuel. As I was ascending for the last time past 3am, all lights on the mountain got turned off. All. And there was no one around. No one. On the way up thunder and lightning started to roar and flash in the distance. Oh no. Please don’t come closer. As I reached the open area, 4 km from the top, the flashes were cutting sharp and came too close. I stopped. The wind pulling me while standing still. I had clocked up ca. 8,600m. I was so close. But not done. I doubted my safety. I pulled out my phone and googled: How likely is it to get hit by a lightning on the top of a mountain? Apparently in the Rocky Mountains it happens a lot. I decided I HAD to complete my challenge. Admittedly, I was frightened. I turned my lights off, swerved to the wrong side of the road and crept up along the mountain wall to blend in with mountain. I couldn’t get to the top (and down again) fast enough. I as reached the top, I had logged 8,818m. Argh, I am still not done. An unexpected loud roaring thunder appeared right above me. Then the rain came. Pouring. It rained hard. I couldn’t see much on the descent. I had also lost my gloves at some point in the night (probably while pulling out a survival snickers), I couldn’t feel my fingers either. I had to check and check again during the descent that my fingers were actually wrapped around the breaks. At the same time I knew I would be able to finish the challenge in under 24 hours, if I got down fast. With the rain came dawn, coming close to 6am. I turned around quick at the segment start, and started my 8th ascent. I needed only 30m elevation more to reach the target of 8,848m. That would be done quick and it was now light. I climbed 1km, 2km, 3km, 4km… The ‘total ascent’ figure on my Garmin didn’t change, it was stuck at 8,818m. No no no no no no! My Garmin 520 Edge took A LOT of water from the downpour and roads splashing on the final descent. It must have frozen. I had no choice but to continue climbing and praying the meters would start to tick. I HAD to reach the Everesting target, otherwise this misery would have been for nothing. Time was moving past 24 hours. Okay what to do. 5km, 6km… elevation meters started to increase again. My target was 9,000m elevation (just to be 100% I had officially covered 8,848m on the actual segment). I reached my target 1/3 of the way up the mountain, after climbing just under 8km up again, for less than 200m extra elevation. Okay, but it’s done! MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
We couldn’t have chosen a worse day. It was pure misery, with unusual winds, rain and just freezing cold on the descents. I continuously kept motivated by reminding myself, that the challenge was made harder by the miserable conditions, and that I would grow stronger from staying with this battle till the end. There was no need to complete a grueling cycling challenge like this, in worse conditions than standard. We could choose any other day. But now was now. I was there. I had started it. And I completed it.
Why do an Everesting?
Honestly, I don’t really know. I just decided to do it. And I saw it through. I get stubborn. When I have it in my head and when I set out to do it, I don’t stop till it’s done. Even my self-approved bail out option didn’t work and the weather misery couldn’t stop me. I think the key is that I believe in myself and my abilities. I know I am physically healthy and I trust that I am strong. The ability to overcome or remove fear contributes too. And so does the sheer determination to complete the mission. The way I looked at it: after all, it is nothing more than to keep going up and down the very same road until the height of Mount Everest has been reached. It is achievable.
Power to the women
Only 175 women world wide have officially completed the Everesting challenge. That accounts for 5% all completions. You can check the Everesting Hall of Fame, to see who completed in your area.