UNFINISHED BUSINESS – BikingMan Corsica 2019.
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:
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!
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 🙂