Silver Lining

Longer than usual. This is 24 hour racing ya know!

Watching a race unfold that you have imagined yourself competing in for 15 months is a slightly surreal feeling. When I first found out that the WEMBO World 24 Hour Solo Championships were being held in Canberra, I wanted to be there. Not just to make the startline. To contest for the title. Some would consider that a little foolhardy, having never done a 24 hour solo event in my life before. But, I was confident we could do it. Some would consider that a little overconfident, having never done a 24 hour solo event in my life before. But, they didn't know how much we were putting into it. What we lacked in experience, we would make up for in preparation.

While reading "Better Than Winning" by Ben Gathercole (a book we picked up in Canberra - it's in the shops there cos he's a local lad - that I'd highly recommend reading), I came across a sentence that really resonated for me.

"All the professional coaches out there have a few things in common: a work ethic and a passion for their sport like no other."

A big chunk of the silver medal I won just over a week ago, was earned by my support crew and in particular my coach. She has an incredible work ethic and truck loads of passion for mountain biking. It's incredible to think back to the initial goal setting we did for 2013. How invested we both were on getting everything dialled. To make me able to ride as far as I possibly could in 24 hours. In the hope that, on that day, my best was better than anyone else's best.

Part of the preparation was learning as much as possible about 24 hour racing. A decent place for me to start to get a grip on what was involved (equipped with cuppa tea in hand) were the blogs of the current World Champions. Until race day in Canberra, I had never seen Jason English, but I'd heard a lot (and read a lot, fuelled by tea) about him. The guy is known as one of the best ultra-endurance athletes ever. Watching him fly by at various intervals in the race, I could see why. He never looked stretched! He just kept knocking out lap after lap, incredibly consistently and with enough poise to "check in" with fellow racers and chat about how their own races were going. Bad ass racer and all round nice guy.

Flick back to pre-race, I came across this on Jase's blog and took great inspiration from it. Particularly, after the mutual respect I had felt at the pointy end of some of the races leading up to the race on Aussie soil.

"I was asked if I would be disappointed if I didn't win the National Champs for the 5th time in a row. I was convinced I wouldn't be as I had prepared well for the race. If someone was to beat me then they too must have worked hard and would be a deserving winner."

Epic battles create deserving winners. Canberra was my third epic battle of this season. In fact, I've almost had one for each season of the season!

Autumn was a ding dong affair with fellow World 24 Hour Solo Champs competitor, Erin Greene. Erin is a bad ass who never gives in. I'm more stubborn than most. The end result was a gruelling women's race taken to the 25th hour of racing, in which the leading two riders overall were both chicks. We were the only riders to go out for a sixteenth lap. And we both did it cos we knew the other one would.

Winter was exchanged temporarily for a Northern hemisphere summer. It was deliberately planned that way and sadly only lasted three weeks. Coach decided the way to improve my technical riding was to do some racing on technical terrain. Canada is the best place in the world for that so we made the trip to British Columbia Bike Race. Wendy Simms is a bad ass who never gives in (there's a pattern emerging). The end result was a gruelling women's stage race, where I raced every day like a single day XCO hit out in the fight for a stage win. That week ranks as my most favourite week of racing a bicycle in my life ever. I was pulling out my best riding. And a heap of Canadians loved it that I rocked it on a Hard Eddie.

Spring. The big daddy of race days, World 24 Hour Solo Champs. Probably the best value for money race you'll ever ride. As long as you finish. You guessed it...Jess Douglas is a bad ass who never gives in. There were several other bad ass chicks on the start line, including Erin. We'd anticipated Erin and Jess would be out the front at the start. I was pleased to be in their company. We were shredding the trails and on the opening lap caught a heap of the fellas on the descent. It was all going as I'd imagined. I guess that was the surreal bit. It was like something I'd imagined was unfolding in front of me.

Then something that I'd not imagined unfolded. Suddenly, on lap three, it felt hot. Really, really hot. I'd started to notice it on the climb and figured it would get better once we started descending again. It didn't. The last time I felt that weak on the bike was that sixteenth lap in Rotorua, racing against Erin. I looked down at my Garmin, "2:31:something". WTF? Another 21 and a half hours feeling like this? I was ready to bang out. Pizza and an early night seemed like a much more sensible option. I backed off the pace to survive. And inevitably got caught. Leading bunch to sixth in half a lap. My race was unravelling. This was definitely not what I had imagined.

In the pits I had a whinge. My crew told me I'd come right. Just keep going. We'll get you right. I kept going. It took 3 hours to come right, but it did happen. I still don't quite know how those guys kept me going. Or how I kept myself going. And I have never ever felt so glad to see the sunset while riding.

The best thing about 24 hour racing is that tomorrow's another day. You can have a rubbish day the first, then a flyer the next and it all counts. Before heading to Canberra, I'd spoken to Jenn O'Connor Patterson, bad ass kiwi chick who I'd raced against in the motherland. By "raced against" I actually mean I could still see her just after the gun had gone (but not much longer after that). I'd like to think I'd give her a bit better run for her money nowadays (at least for a few more minutes, particularly now she has retired). She was fast on the XCO circuit and struck me as one tough cookie, which I'd always attributed to her clocking up a heap of 24 hour victories and a silver medal at the 24 Hours of Adrenaline in Canmore before smashing the shorter stuff. Anyhow, I figured she'd know what she was talking about.

Back to the race report. I felt awesome. It got hot. I didn't feel awesome anymore. I suffered. The sun went down. Then, I spent all night in some state of mantra. Jenn had recommended repeating a couple of affirmations at the same point each lap. My mantra soon changed from something pre-determined that probably sounded nice while I was stretching in the sunshine during a taper week to, "I'm not leaving without a medal to match my f***ing shoes". I don't even know what made me think about it. I'd bought myself a new pair of Sidi Dragons to race in in Aussie mainly cos the last time I raced in my old ones, I lost a toenail. They were bronze and black. They looked awesome. And a medal to match my shoes meant a spot on the podium. That was the absolute least I would settle for. Apparently, sometime around 1am I came flying into the pit saying, "I'm not leaving without a medal to match my f***ing shoes" and only Lisa had a clue what I was on about.

Generally speaking, gaps are quick to open and slow to close in 24 hour racing. Unless something happens to the person in front of you, like a mechanical failure or bodily malfunction, your opposition can keep rolling along at a decent pace. Jenn had warned me about it and Erin had already taught me about it. It took me hours to close the gap to 5th place. Back to the mantra. More food. Add another mantra, "food is your fuel". I spent the night entrenched in the idea of fuelling my body to the best of my ability so I could close the gaps in the morning. By dawn I would feel strong, the air would still be cool, and I could smash it to the end. And I wasn't leaving without a medal to match my f***ing shoes.

A mate of mine, Iain, had asked me to ride the dawn lap for him. Apparently, it's his favourite time to be out on his bike. It's my favourite time to be in bed, so I figured some extra motivation would be perfect. It worked wonders. My nocturnal pastime of saying stuff about medals and shoes with an expletive or two coupled with awesome fuelling and riding a lap for a mate, resulted in my 4th fastest lap time of the race! It was the first sub hour lap anyone in the women's elite field had clocked for a very long time. I'd been on the bike for 18 hours. I started to feel awesome again.

The rest is kind of a blur. I stuck it in the big ring and kept it there for the last 99 kilometres of a 384 kilometre race. I concentrated on riding as hard as I could. I knew I was catching people. I also knew I was running out of time. I couldn't believe it, but I actually wanted more time on the clock! Catching Liz Smith in the closing stages of the race got me to a medal position to match my shoes. Eliza Kwan wasn't far ahead. I caught her too. Jess held me off admirably. I reckon, common to all sports, is the fact that champions are those who are able to demonstrate resilience when under pressure. Jess she sure did that.

So, we went to win and didn't. But we came close. I can't say I'm disappointed. Like Jase said on his blog, I'd worked hard and was beaten by a deserving winner who had also worked hard. The way I rode that last six hours of racing isn't something I'll forget in a hurry. I guess the real silver lining from all three epic battles this season wasn't in the colour of the medal, but in discovering a whole heap of tenacity. I'm pretty sure it's here to stay.


Week 0: Le Mans

Daily routines. We all have one. Alarm clock. Shower (speedily). Eat. Drink tea. Rush to work. Squeeze in training. Drink coffee. Eat some more. Sometimes more work. Drink wine. Sleep. Repeat.

In hindsight, my daily routine has been somewhat time compressed for the last 12 weeks. Mainly due to the usual workload that winter's seasonal offerings brings coupled with long training rides for some race I'm doing this weekend, which involves a fairly long time in the saddle. I've been impressed with the ninja level of self discipline and determination I have developed to make it all fit (even be it snugly) into a 24-hour period. Not least due to the interesting celebration of Mother Nature's elements that is associated with doing it all in winter in Wellington.

Tapering is my new favorite thing. If only you didn't have to do the big block of training beforehand for it to have the desired effect. It's provided an opportunity to mix up the daily routine. Ditch the alarm clock. Shower (leisurely). Eat. Drink tea. Stretch. Enjoy training sessions in the sunshine. Eat some more. Drink wine. Sleep. You get the idea. It's what I imagine being a full time cyclist is like. I'm sure it's not actually at all representative but it's a nice idea.

Tomorrow, my daily routine will be in for another remix. After the predictable wake-shower-eat-drink tea sequence of events, I'll run to my bike and not get off it until sometime around midday on Sunday.

I'm not sure who came up with the idea of 24-hour mountain bike racing. I'm pretty sure it was born in the USA. But, I do have a vivid memory of Patrick Adams (the mastermind behind the UK's ever popular Mountain Mayhem and, at the time, my team manager) excitedly describing this race format he'd heard about in some far off land. I was sixteen years old. I sat wide-eyed and horrified that anyone would suggest riding for that length of time. In a team. Some time later, I found myself participating in a my first Mountain Mayhem as part of a military team. Some more time later, here we are on the eve of the World 24 Hour Solo Championships.

Whoever the brainchild was, they drew significant inspiration from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In fact, most 24-hour mountain bike events kick off with a "Le Mans start". Some lesser known other parallels are also quite striking.

Commonly known as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, Le Mans race teams have to balance speed against the cars' ability to run for 24 hours without sustaining mechanical damage to the car and manage the cars' consumables, primarily fuel. Replace "car"" with "rider"and that's not unlike the job we (Ricky, Lisa, Emily and I) have in store this weekend. Having lost a toenail at the first 24 hour event I raced back in April, I would like to add "not losing another toenail" to the list of things to avoid sustaining mechanical damage to. I'm sure Ricky has a much longer list of things he hopes I don't do to my bicycle.

Apparently, nowadays it is mandated that three drivers share each competing vehicle at Le Mans. Three riders each sharing the same bike sounds like a bloody good idea to me. As long as it's not at the same time. I'm sure I will reflect on that some more at some time around 2am on Sunday.

Le Mans is held near the height of the European summer in June, leading at times to very hot weather conditions for the drivers, particularly in closed roof vehicles. Not dissimilar to Aussie in October. Phew for ventilated helmets! No closed roof for me this weekend. Although that option would have been nice in Rotorua.

The car race begins in mid-afternoon, racing through the night and following morning before finishing at the same time the race started, the following day. Another tick. We kick off at midday on Saturday (2pm Auckland time and 2am London time, for those who wanna know). And, while Le Mans is a distance over six times longer than the Indianapolis 500 or 18 times longer than a Formula 1 Grand Prix, this weekend's efforts will be over eight times longer than Karapoti or 16 standard cross-country events.

Finally, back to where this roundabout comparison of mountain biking with car racing started, the race start. The Le Mans traditional starting format involved cars lined up in echelon along the length of the pits. Up to and including 1962, cars were lined up in order of engine capacity. The starting drivers stood on the opposite side of the front stretch. When the French flag dropped to signify the start, the drivers ran across the track, entered and started their cars without assistance, and drove away. By 1963, people were worried someone was gonna get squished so they stopped those shenanigans. You guessed it. On Saturday, our bikes will be lined up (in rider pecking order aka engine capacity) and I will gallop to my steed then ride away. Although, the only Tricolour involved will be the one being rocked by fellow elite chick, Mimi Guillot.

Back to the daily routine stuff. My usual one involves talking to people. Lots. The topic of sporting endeavors naturally crops up from time to time. Most people's response to a quick description of a 24 hour mountain bike race is, "Why the hell would you do that to yourself?". That's a totally understandable reaction that I am yet to find a concise answer to. But, I did have to smile recently when a patient replied, "Wow. I wish I loved my sport enough to do it for 24 hours". Amen, to that. A 24-hour celebration of an awesome sport.

So, Judgement Day is nearly here. Thanks to everyone who helped me get here and those who will help me through the next step. I imagine there is only one thing harder than racing a 24 hour event, that's crewing for one. Just like motorsport, it's a team effort.

There's a live results tracking service on the race website (at the bottom of the page here or a direct link here) if you fancy checking in at various times while enjoying a cup of tea to see what we're up to.

Over and out!