Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cape Epic Wrap-Up... The Good, The Bad and The Lessons

It's been a couple of weeks now since I finished the eight day sufferfest of the Cape Epic in South Africa, but I still feel like I'm in the thick of the race. I still wake up in the morning and my mind and my body reminds me of racing. I still haven't fully processed my achievement of finishing, and with a pleasing result, might I add, arguably the most gruelling mountain bike stage race in the world. As I play the eight days over in my head, they become a blur of waking up early, mass buffet meals, sleeping in tents, smashing myself, holding onto John's bag up hills and crossing finish lines. I find it difficult, in retrospect, to remember which day correlated to which gruelling stage. I do, however, remember some of the really awesome things of the race, the things that challenged me most and what I learned from it.

- Feeling smashed at the end of each day from leaving it all out on the track.
- The sense of pride I felt whenever I heard the announcer say "Megan and John from team Mitre 10 Mega - Yeti who are here all the way from New Zealand!"... Hell yeah!
- Having such an amazing team behind us. Huge kudos goes out to Mitre 10 MEGA, Yeti Cycles NZ, Oli at Roadworks, Adidas Eyewear, Camelbak, Blox Apparel and Ayup Lights. Thanks team! I hope we made you proud!
- John's camelbak strap and rear left pocket... My special towing places...
- Coming 13th in an international field of over 60 mixed teams, a lot of them professional.

- Our three top ten stage finishes in our category.
- The cameraderie among riders throughout the event... Sharing tables with different people at dinner each evening, talking smack in the massage tent, chatting with tent village neighbours, riders who would push me up a hill or onto the back of a bunch just to give John a rest... I'll miss them all... What a great bunch of dudes and gals.
- The amazing support we recieved from spectators along the course the whole eight days. Kids from the local villages running alongside us offering apples, or slapping our hands as we rode past, people who had hauled sculptures and signs to the tops of mountains to greet us as we crested our biggest climbs, people who crowded the street in front of us and shouted encouragement as we rode through the narrow path remaining once all the spectators had crammed themselves in. What an incredible experience.
- Having John Randal as a teammate. This guy was a machine, towing me up climbs and on to the back of bunches throughout the race, cutting the wind and setting good pace. I reckon the reason I was so smashed at the end was from trying to keep up with him. It was great to have someone to push me and as a result, I'm sure we went much faster as a team than I would have as an individual. We had our share of disagreements and awkward moments throughout the week, but that doesn't detract from the fact that we completed one of the most gruelling races in the world with a very plausible result.

- Waking up at 5am every morning to a live bagpipe performance. How random. A live African Drumming troupe may have been more traditional, but who am I to complain about a free live performance and not having to set an alarm clock?
- Our shower block... Those grimy, industrial semi-trailer shower blocks were the first port of call after finishing a stage... And they had amusing little cyclist jokes stickered to the walls of each shower "you know you are addicted to cycling when....."
- The massage tent. Who can argue with a tent full of good-looking, educated young ladies who are waiting to massage away your aches and pains at the end of a hard days riding... The only thing missing was the beer.
- The Go Pro Copter... a little robot helicopter launched above the field at the start line to take Go Pro footage of the start... In fact, helicopters in general were pretty cool... I haven't been in too many races where the action is televised around the world from a chopper.
- The views! Whenever I remembered to look up in between leg-numbing pedal strokes, there was a pretty good chance my eyes would be treated to a delicious feast of scorched mountains bordered by vinyards and coastlines... Magic!

- The food... OK, so by the end, I was pretty sick of buffet meals, but I must admit that we ate pretty bloody well for the week, and the team that worked for the catering company were such a good bunch of dudes... For some reason, they seemed to remember me each night "I saw you at waterpoint two today and you looked tired... You must eat more" they would say, heaping up my plate with pasta... Okay, won't argue with that!
- The sunset and moonshine over tent village... What a cool sight!
- Water stops... Little oasis that were dotted along the track sporting a morning tea better than your Grandmas. My favourite was the fruit cake and I took an unusual liking to drinking Coke over the week of the race, too. Damn that was good!
- Volunteers... They always seemed to be smiling, and I am sure they got less sleep than I did throughout the week.
- Riding my bike in South Africa!!! Yeeeew!
- Oak Valley singletrack. What a pleasure this was to ride. Flowy, fast lovingly cut singletrack. Such a treat to throw in amongst the brutality of a long day of racing.

- Sketchy, loose, rocky descents... Not any one in particular... There were heaps of these descents and it was great fun letting the breaks go and sliding down them with reckless abandon. We made up time on a lot of these descents.
- Descending muddy singletrack like a technical maestro on stage 5, hollering the whole way... It made me just a little bit homesick.
- Shaking Burry Stander and Christoph Sauser's hands at the finish line.
- The Ninja... My Yeti ASR5C didn't skip a beat the whole week. The perfect machine for the race.
- That feeling each night that I had ridden so hard that I could ride no more... Then somehow doing that again the next day.
- The Absa riders lounge, which shelled out free softdrink, sports drink, water and icecreams to riders while we bummed around watching their TV and playing on their internet at the end of the day.
- Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter. I am rather pleased with how well I looked after my bum for the week, and as crude as it sounds, it is probably one of the most important things. My saddle sores were carefully tended to each evening in my tent and then a couple of handful scoops of bum butter each morning just before setting off to the start chute seemed to keep them at bay.
- The "Keepers of the Portaloos"... These ladies were up at the crack of dawn with all the riders, organising and directing the huge queues. They had morning toilet time down to a fine art, directing our sleepy bodies to the next available lavatory with amazing cheerfulness, and even giving the loos a scrub and replenishing the toilet paper in between uses. Pillars of the community of tent village!
- The chain lube guys at the water points... They stood there, can in hand waiting for us without fail at every water point for us to lube-and-go. The were never hard to miss. They would stand at the exit to the water point, holding their can in the air yelling out "CHAIN LUBE". Brilliant!
- The finish line at the end of each day...
- Earning that finishers medal and jersey at the end of 8 hard days of racing.

- When the bagpipe man misses the memo about our last day starting at 8.30am and not 7am... His 5am chimings were not so well-recieved on that last day.
- Crash number one on day three. Crashing into your own teammate at about 35km an hour leaves a lot to be desired. Doing this on a gravel road is even worse. My left elbow and left knee will don the scars from this accident forevermore and the bruising on my left hip and shoulder has only just gone down enough for me to sleep on. The scab on my elbow continued to weep the entire week through flexing of my arm, mixed with dirt, mixed with showering. I was told the crash looked spectacular from behind... For some reason, I didn't get a lot of comfort from this.
- Crash number two on day eight. Launching yourself over your handlebars whilst bunny-hopping foot-wide ditches at 30km an hour also leaves a lot to be desired. I remember lying on the side of the trail curled in a ball yelling out the "F" word repeatedly at the top of my lungs. I was sure at the time that it was a race-ender for me. I remember lying there trying to figure out how I would get myself to the finish line with a broken collar bone so we could finish the race, then I realised, to my amazement, that everything was still functional. Upon further inspection at the finish line, I had ripped the skin off my right elbow now, sprained both wrists, bruised the bone on the palm of my left hand, corked my entire right thigh to black (so much so that my foot was swollen, too) and aqcuired some whiplash when my head hit the ground. I wasn't sure whether to be thankful that I fell on the opposite side to accident one, or whether I would have been better off having a side left to sleep on. I don't think anyone saw this accident from behind... what a waste of a good crash!
- Snorers in tent village...
- The bitter cold and driving rain on stage five of the race. You know you are cold when your fingers and toes go numb for hours on end and when your chattering teeth can be heard over the chain slapping against the stay on the descents.

- Being sick on day 5. Apparently I was yellow on the start line.
- Struggling to eat my breakfast only to look outside and see another rider vomiting outside the door of the mess tent. I took one more look at my fork full of scrambled egg and put it back in its place on the plate.
- Losing my appetite, especially at breakfast.
- Hitting the wall, lights out, at any given moment along the way. It was super important to stay well-fuelled and well-hydrated.
- Getting dropped by the bunch.
- The mess I seemed to be capable of making in my tent from a race bag that was so well-organised with ziploc bags.
- Caledon race village... Far too much walking...
- The 4000 rand (NZD $600) that I will miss after the service to bring my bike back up to scratch after the race... New XTR drivetrain, front and rear shock service, new bushings and sleeves and a bunch of other work... It came as no surprise after 800km of harsh terrain... The Ninja was flawless!
- Lack of sleep and that expressionless stare...
- Steep, loose climbs... Mental note... Must find somewhere near home to train on these for future events!
- Hike-a-bike... my legs are far too short for that sort of carry-on! I love my parents but I am slightly annoyed to have inherited their midget legs.
- Feeling the urge to cry all the time... What a huge emotional rollercoaster!
- Having either the organiser's "hype up songs" from the start line or something by Lady Gaga stuck in my head all day, every day... WTF?
- Post-race illness! How frustrating! I just want to spin my legs out, honest!

In amongst all the highs and lows of completing the longest stage race I have ever done (and arguably the hardest in the world), there were things that challenged me well beyond being just good or bad or indifferent. I suppose with any event like this, the opportunity for self-development is huge. You learn more about yourself, and more about your teammate in that 8 days than you would in a lifetime. There were things that challenged me as part of the Cape Epic that I had not forseen, and I doubt I would have forseen with any amount of preparation. Lessons that only had relevance or could only be seen in the context of the event itself. After years of racing crazy endurance events, there was a lot of this stuff I expected to encounter... Injuries, accidents, mechanicals, loss of appetite, lack of sleep, crook gut and nerves. But probably the most prevalent of these lessons was that of team dynamics in a mixed team environment.

I hadn't done a lot of team racing in this sort of format event, where you are with your teammate the whole way (in fact, come to think of it, I hadn't done any. This was a first for me). It's very different to racing a laps race where you race as a team but contribute individual efforts. In the Cape Epic, John and I were living in tents next door to each other, we ate together and had to stay within two minutes of each other while we were racing. Everything that each of us did over those eight days would likely impact the other in one way or another.

One thing I think we neglected to address sufficiently before the race was the issue of mixed team dynamics. I'm not sure if we didn't address it because we didn't forsee it as a problem, or maybe we just didn't know how to address it, or maybe we were unsure of how that dynamic would play out in a team sense until we actually placed ourselves in that situation. It is inevitable in a mixed team that you will have one team member who is substantially stronger than the other, physically. Without a solid plan of how to "even out" this strength, two things generally happen... The weaker team member get frustrated that they can't keep up, and the stronger team member gets frustrated that the other team member is slower. Whilst the specifics of these challenges are now not really all that relevant, the more I speak to experienced mixed teams post-Epic, the more I wish we had addressed this strength difference up front. Sure, we had discussed John carrying extra gear and my drink bottles, but there was more to it than that. Mixed racing is a whole different ball game. I can't speak for John, but if I'm being entirely honest, I felt like the weakest link over the week of the Epic. I felt frustrated that I couldn't keep up with John, I felt like I was working my guts out and contributing nothing to our result, I felt like I couldn't do the right thing by John the whole week and that he resented me for it. It was hard emotionally. It was also hard on my pride and it was hard physically. That I am a stubborn bitch probably didn't help matters much, either... It was neither of our faults, and I think we did exceptionally well for our first foray into mixed racing, but it was a huge step sideways into something that was far more complicated than simply completing a bike race, and I don't think we fully appreciated this until we were right in the thick of it.

I suppose that in a nutshell, the lesson is that in any team environment, the entire team only performs well if each component of that team has exerted themselves to their full capacity on any given day. What this means is that as a leader, or as a team unit, we have to figure out how we move the additional strength and skills of one member and transfer these to another member temporarily (hopefully in the process, helping that team member to improve their skill or strength in that area). This also requires making sure we have a full understanding of exactly what each team member has to contribute and in what quantities. To be honest, I still don't understand this in its entirety, and whilst John and I worked out ways of doing this as we raced, I am sure there is still much more to learn from it. Would I have been in a better position to use John's additional strength if I had trained particular areas of my own strengths that I otherwise wouldn't have paid much attention to in training (maybe things like sprinting onto the back of a bunch, or practising hike-a-bike)? Ironically, the fact that I am so small probably made me a more suitable partner to tow. How do we use a team's collective strengths to counter their collective weaknesses? It's pretty interesting stuff, and the effects are exaggerated in a mixed team environment.

What makes this lesson even cooler is that it is something that directly translates into my personal life, my work life and my racing. How do we address differences in strength, differences in expectations and differences in the ways we view achievements when we are working with a team (whether it be one person or a whole group of people)? I'm certainly no expert yet, but I find it incredibly interesting, and it is definately something that needs to be discussed, as a team, before venturing into the unknown.

I must admit that I am quietly pleased right now to not be sleeping in a tent and waking up at 5am every morning to pull on my jersey and shorts and smother my rear end with chamois cream before lining up amongst 1200 other cyclists to fight to hold onto the bunch for yet another day. I am, however, convinced that I am having stage race withdrawals. I miss walking past tent village neighbours and just getting that vague nod that says "yeah, I know what you mean". I miss having a sense of purpose each and every day... Something to achieve. I miss the urgency of racing. Being on the ball and forcing my body through yet another day that I thought I couldn't (I sometimes wonder just how long I could have pushed my body along).

I'm really proud of what John and I achieved as a team. I am so grateful that he was there to drag me up hills, to encourage me to dig that bit deeper, to remind me to eat more. The moments when he commended me on my riding skills or how strong I looked on a particular section or on a day really meant a lot to me. I am also proud of myself for my tenacity, the hard work I put into preparing for and completing the race, my ability to line up each day and thrash myself all over again and for being able to take such awesome wisdom and learning from the event, which is invaluable to me not only as a rider, but in the general game of life. More than anything else, though, I was so proud to cross the finish line in Lorensford as team Mitre 10 MEGA - Yeti NZ holding John's hand. It was one hell of a ride, and I hope that along the way we have inspired, and continue to inspire and make proud our followers and sponsors.

For now, my focus shifts to 24 Hour Solo World Champs in Italy in May, then beyond that is a whole new world cracked open and made possible by my learnings from the Cape Epic. How exciting!


  1. You have every right to be proud, Megan! I don't think there would have been many, if any, riders out there that worked as hard as you did during the event, and probably not that many who worked as hard in training beforehand either. I really hope it stands you in very good stead for your race in Italy.

  2. Great stuff, Megan. It was indeed inspiring, and I for one am very proud to have been involved in your efforts. Congratulations again on a fine Cape Epic. Cheers, Oli

  3. Legend!
    Im just some random stranger that stumbled on sifters blog a long while back, and therefore yours...
    I waited for every report you made during the race, and even though i dont have the foggiest idea who either of you are - its still been inspiring stuff. Kiwis kicking ass on the world stage! The way you wrote openly, and honestly about the race and how you both worked together is really appreciated. Its spurred me into planning some missions, and Id be stoked to get through them half as well as you've smashed the Epic.
    Good Luck in Italy, and thanks again for sharing your awesome adventure!

  4. wow!!! I think your lessons about dealing with stronger riders is relevant also to non-mixed teams... its the cruel beauty of these team races and its the element that I feel is missing from normal racing. I had both sides of this story in the Cape Epic... once I was the strong one, once the weaker one. And without a doubt being the weaker one is the hardest to deal with. Can't wait to hear about the 24hr solo next month.. go girl!!!