Saturday, May 26, 2012

Riding Onto The Podium At World Champs

I'm sure it still hasn't sunk in yet. For years, I have gazed, starry-eyed and tired after 24 hour solo world champs races at those climbing onto the podium and wished I had a better race, that I was a better rider. The podium no longer eludes me now. I thought it would be a relief, but far from it. Climbing onto that third step of the podium at 24 Hour Solo World Champs last weekend has served only as a carrot, dangling above that top step, daring me to step up and take a bite.

Saturday morning was a nervous affair for me. The race didn't start until 1pm so I slept as late as I could manage, then stuffed down a huge breakfast sitting in the breakfast room with my headphones in so as not to be distracted or aggitated by the going-ons around me. Rene picked me up at 10am to deliver me to the race village for our 11.30am breifing. My local support crew was lined up and ready to rock... Matteo was in charge, Rene was our team photographer, Vojtek as mechanic and Mike and Bobby along to help out with all the other bits and pieces. I would like to take the opportunity right now to say what a fantastic job these guys did. Especially comnsidering they hadn't done support for a 24 hour solo rider before. They were right on top of it. It takes a special person to put that much faith in a stranger, but to find a group of these people... Well, I got pretty damn lucky... I sat in the pit area that had been constructed by Matteo and my crew and populated with tools, spare clothes, lights and copius amounts of food and drink. I felt nervous... And when I saw the photos later, I looked nervous, too. One of the difficult things about 24 hour racing is that you can arrive at world champs having not raced against any of your competitors for a year. It's not like a world cup series where you have the opportunity to test yourself against your rivals before the main event... You generally go into a 24 hour world champs a bit blind, so it's hard to know exactly how your own form stacks up against that of your competitors... Yet here I was backing myself for a podium finish, which seemed a bit crazy.

We stood on the start line, the gun went off, and we were running our le mans start. My original plan had been to try and stick with Jessica Douglas, current world champ, for as long as I could and roll with it from there. I'm not a strong runner, though, and the le mans start saw me stuck in trail congestion behind slower riders with nowhere to pass once I got on my bike. It drove me nuts. I could imagine Jess and the other girls gaining precious second upon precious second on me with a clearer run of the track. So from the start, I was chasing. That's one of the other things with 24 hour racing. You generally start with good intentions of following a pre-determined plan, but the dynamic nature of such a long race requires a degree of flexibility to stay on track if things don't go exactly as planned... Maybe that's why I like it, too... You have to remain alert and think on your feet. So I kept pushing on as best I could, picking off riders as the trail opened up and allowed space to do so. I would give it a few laps and see where I was sitting to decide how I would tackle the next 22 hours after that. It was raining for the race start, something I hadn't really counted on. I had been riding in 30 degree heat for the last two months and I was actually hoping for a scorcher of a weekend. As it turned out, we had some short downpours throughout the weekend, but it was otherwise pretty good weather for riding, and the rain probably kept the dust down a bit, too.

The course was a figure 8 format which allowed feeding twice a lap. The thing that was confusing was that we started the race on the second half of the course (essentially doing a half lap for our start loop) but for the whole race, as far as feeding and timing for our team was concerned, it felt like the start of the course (my head really struggled to comprehend this in the later stages of the race as I was trying to figure out how many more laps I could squeeze in). That first loop (or was it the second loop?) of the course was the part that I enjoyed least. There were some nasty, nasty climbs (one which I didn't ride in the entire race, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one!) and apart from the one lovely view we saw over the marina, there wasn't much to look at. The other half of the course felt like it had more flow, the climbs were more interesting, the trail was fun and the views were stunning (so you can imagine how I felt at the end of the race when I realised I had to finish on the loop that we had started on, essentially doing the nasty loop an extra time!)

As the trail became less congested, I was able to settle into a rhythm. My feeding was working really well... Bottle one half and food the second half. This meant I could ride straight past and grab one thing as opposed to having to fumble my way through grabbing numerous things. It allowed me to carry my speed through the feedzone, which in turn, conserved a lot of energy. I was polishing off a full bottle per lap (a little over an hour), which was perfect. We had a system worked out with my food where Matteo would put the food in a plastic cup and I would tip into my mouth whatever would fit and chew it through the feedzone, then put the rest in my back pocket. Drinking would happen on the longer fire trail sections for me, and eating would happen on hill crests, where I could shove some food in my mouth and then worry about chewing it on the descents where I could have both hands on the bars and I wasn't breathing so hard so I could swallow. It was perfect. I was an eating and drinking machine on the bike and I had a really good schedule going. Later in the race, I knew I would begin to feel less inclined to do these things so well, so I made a point to get it right early in the race. You get sick of eating and drinking late in the race. Functional eating is hard work when your stomach is shrinking, you feel sick and you don't feel like eating anything that is handed to you. The thing I got wrong, which was a mistake that I was really mad at myself for, was that the portion sizes I had directed my crew to put in the cups were a bit small (it's difficult to know when you are working with foods you are unfamiliar with), so as we rode on further into the race, I slowly moved into carbohydrate deficit, a mistake that I reckon cost me a good 30minutes later on.

The first 13 hours of my race went really well. I was clocking some very consistent laps and the gap between me and second place wasn't really getting much bigger. Even better was that first and second place were riding together, so I wasn't far off the pace. Late in the afternoon, I passed another female rider just before entering the feedzone. I was pretty excited, thinking I had maybe caught second, but on my next pass through, my crew informed me that she wasn't riding my category (elite). To her credit, she was riding a great race for an age-grouper, but I made a conscious decision that I was chasing second elite girl and trying to stay away from fourth elite girl. I essentially disregarded this rider from my results. She wasn't in my category and I wasn't racing her, so when she passed me again, I wasn't concerned by it and didn't chase her. After the race, though, she launched a protest to try and change her category (which is quite specifically strictly forbidden in the rules), which would have stripped me of my podium spot. It was a very stressful affair and, to be honest, very unpleasant. Obviously, had she been racing against me at the time, my tactical plan would have changed to accommodate that fact. I was very lucky the race director ruled against her request, but it could easily had gone the other way. It taught me a very important lesson... Regardless of who you are or are not racing against, if they are in front of you, chase them down and beat them...

Lights on was at 8pm. Up until then, I had only done one other very short stop for a chain lube, so I was pleased with that. My plan had been a five minute break for lights on and a five minute break for lights off. I shoved down some pasta and changed my shorts while my crew sorted out my lights and gave the bike a quick check over and lube (I was being very careful to look after my bottom after my saddle-sore incident last world champs). The stop was nine minutes long, but was necessary to do everything we needed to get done. Next year, I will definately use a two-bike setup. The amount of time I could save by having the lights ready to go on a helmet and spare bike is far too precious, not to mention that subsequent battery changes could also occur the same way, meaning I could just get off one bike and on the next and keep riding without stopping. The sunset was spectacular and provided some minor respite for the pain I was in. Those first few night laps went very well for me. The temperature was cool but not cold and I was able to find a very comfortable clothing combination in knee warmers and a vest with no arms. In hindsight, I should have attacked here and tried to punch out a couple of quick laps. I felt relatively good, all things considered.

My crew was doing an amazing job (and we were having fun, more importantly) and I was looking quite comfortably set for an elite World Champs podium as long as I kept moving. I kept telling myself that (out loud) and I liked the sound of it. The other thing I found really helpful when I was riding was telling myself "relax and focus"... It was like a mantra that I developed after a couple of sketchy moments when I nearly crashed. It's funny that relaxing and focusing seems like such a simple thing to remember, but after you have been riding for 12 hours, nothing is easy to remember! One thing I do remember quite vividly was riding through a dead silent timing tent and feedzone at about 1am singing "bicycle race" by Queen at the top of my lungs then recieving a round of applause... Awesome! We also had a collection of fantastic "quotes of the day", especially from Matteo... "I know you are feeling pain right now, but that is what you came to Italy for" and when I mentioned a knocking noise in my headset, "no, it's not there... Doesn't exist", and his trademark comment "would you like some candy?!" (this one generally followed a moment when he had pissed me off, like giving flowers to your girlfriend and asking for her forgiveness). We also had our fair share of language mishaps... Bobby thought I had asked for "ice cream" not "ass cream" (glad someone set that straight... Could have been a bit awkward) and peanut butter is now officially "penis butter" (best not to think about it).

As I approached the 13 hour mark, I started struggling. I was so sore. The course was brutal. When you weren't climbing, you needed to pay attention to the descents if you didn't want to join the fish in the ocean 400m down the cliff. This is my standard "struggle zone" at this time. You realise you are half way there, but that it is still such along way to go, and that's a hard realisation to come to when you are alone, tired, sore and hungry in the middle of the night out in the forest on a bike. You would think after years of riding 24 hour races, I would have a plan for this time and I would be prepared for it, but I must admit, I still don't have it sussed out. It's hard to explain why because it seems such a simple thing to prepare for, but even with a plan, to execute a plan when you are in your darkest moment presents challenges in itself. My plan on this occasion was flat Coca Cola in my drink bottle and it worked a treat for a couple of laps until I started getting really bad acid reflux, which made it so hard to eat or drink anything at all (next time I need to carry some quick-eze!). I grovelled around a couple of laps and I remember very little of that time. I don't remember how I felt. My mind was numb and my legs just kept turning. This was the point when my carbohydrate deficit caught up with me. I remember I kept looking to the horizon just praying for a hint of dawn.

Finally, I saw the new day begin to dawn with a faint line across the horizon, but I still felt like crap. I arrived in the feedzone in a bad way. I'd had two or three terrible laps, then I vomited... It's never a good sign when you are sick during a race like this. It generally makes it very difficult to start feeding your body carbs again. My crew removed my lights and lubed my bike while I tried to manage some pasta. This was my longest stop of the whole race. I don't know how long it was. It didn't feel all that long, but I suspect it was longer than I thought. I watch the video of it now and see my eyes roll back in my head before I sit down and ask Matteo if I can close my eyes for five minutes and then he needs to wake me up. Five minutes later, he taps me on the leg and I jump up and say "i have to go", take my bike and roll off out of the feedzone. It never ceases to amaze me how much of a thrashing your body will let you give it if you really want to. Our body really is just a means of accomplishing what our mind sets out to achieve. Out on that lap, I saw possibly the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. The sun stretched out across the ocean below me, throwing shades of pink and orange across the sky, scattered through a smattering of clouds. It made me smile for the first time in hours. I often felt drops of water run down my face and I didn't know if it was sweat or tears. I was completely shattered.

My next pass through the feedzone, I was better... Not good, but better, and the lap after that, better still. My lap times were back up to a time nearly comparable with what I was riding the afternoon before! I couldn't help but wonder afterwards if I had forced myself to keep riding instead of stopping, or if I had forced myself to ride harder earlier if I may have moved into second place, but hypotheticals don't work in these situations. There are too many variables and those same actions may have produced other consequences. The race I rode was the race I rode and it got a good result for me as it was. Those last 6 hours for me were strong. I don't remember thinking about much. Fourth place had come dangerously close and was within 15 minutes of me at one stage (after I had been nearly a whole lap up the previous evening). I remember trying to work out how many laps I would have left to go, but I struggled to work it out, especially with the "half lap" equation thrown in there. It may sound funny, but a lot of the time when I am riding these long races, I do maths in my head to occupy my mind and keep myself alert, and I know that when I can't work out something as simple as how many laps to go that I must be really smashed. My knees had been giving me grief for the last three laps, especially my right knee. I forced my pedal strokes through the pain, promising myself "just this little pinch, then the pain will go". I had to bargain with myself to keep my legs turning (I wondered on a couple of occasions if I was potentially doing long term damage the pain was that intense). It eventually became evident to me that I may arrive back from my "last lap" in time for another. The finishing rule at 24 hour solo world champs is that you may start a lap before the 24 hour mark and it will count as long as it is completed within 26 hours.

I arrived at the end of my lap four minutes before the course was closed. I heard Jess Douglas yelling at me "do another lap Megs!"... "Der" I thought to myself "of course I'm doing another lap!"... I rode through the timing tent, which was packed with the media and riders who had finished. I hollered and made some ridiculous gesture with my hand like a cowboy, then set out on my last lap... Guess I was a bit caught up in the moment... That lap was really lonely... I had definately been the last rider out on course before it closed (although I was chuffed that the sweep rider never caught me). And whilst it wasn't really a slow lap, it certainly felt like it would never end. I would be lying if I didn't say there were moments that I was wondering if it was really a good idea. I was also a little worried I would arrive back and they would had done presentations without me and everyone would be gone (the stupid things that enter your head when you are that tired!). Finally, I entered the feedzone for the last time, and rolled around into the timezone in 25 hours and 34 minutes (because 24 hours wasn't enough... What a bloody nutter!). My crew, Matteo, Vojtek, Mike, Rene and Bobby were waiting to celebrate and the first thing I said when someone stuck a mic in my face was "I want a burger" (nice one Megan, really inspiring stuff!)... Then I was off to the race office for my drug test (actually the first drug test I havee ever done!). Third place elite female... I was stoked, but so, so tired. It was an amazing feeling to stand on my first world champs podium next to riders I really admired and had a lot of respect for. It was an honor... I could get used to this!

Jess Douglas took her second world champs, and certainly deserved it. She told me after that going out on that last lap as I did was a real reflection of the sort of person I am... Never give up... It meant a lot to me coming from her, and I'd like to think that what she said is so true. I can confidently say that the positive attitude I carried into the race was 90% of the result, and my support crew the rest... My body was simply doing what my head told it to do. I get asked so often why I like 24 hour racing and to be honest, it's hard to give a response. I really like riding my bike, as every other rider does, but I suppose it is the dynamic nature of the sport that draws me in. No two races are ever the same. The combination of physical ability, mental toughness and tactics swings sharply towards the "top four inches" compared to a great deal of other sports. I'm still in search of that elusive "perfect race" and I think that's what keeps me coming back. Or maybe I just like being a hard woman. Whatever it is, I have no doubt I will be lining up at WEMBO world champs again next year in Canberra, much wiser from this years experience and ready to battle for that top step. I also like the fact that what I do seems to inspire people. I hope my result this year has made my supporters proud (it has made me proud!), I hope it inspires people and I really (REALLY) hope it can be leveraged and put to good use to raise the profile of 24 hour racing (and endurance biking in general) in New Zealand. Currently, we don't have a WEMBO qualifier in our country and I sincerely believe that if we did, and Kiwis had the opportunity to experience 24 hour racing at it's best, then that would help the sport grow, and that would be something very special for me to watch and be a part of.

For now, though, I am on my way back to New Zealand and back to work. Winter will be spent having fun on the bike, whilst enjoying some other outdoor pursuits and I will certainly jump into a few local races before ramping up my training again in Summer for next years world champs (so for those of you who have been enjoying my blog, stay tuned because there are still some cool adventures to be had!). I'm coming back a very different person from the one who left. The experiences I have had, the things I have seen and the people I have met (you know who you are) have had a very profound influence on me over the last two months. I feel so very lucky for the opportunity, and certainly, it would be remiss of me to not mention Mitre 10 MEGA, Yeti Cycles NZ, Adidas Eyewear, Ayup Lights, Oli at Roadworks, Camelbak, Pedal Pushers Bike Shop and Blox Apparel who have helped make this trip a reality for me, not to mention my sadistic coach Sadie! People say that there is no such thing as luck... That if you want something, then you make it happen... It is so true, but it sure helps to have the input of some willing parties! Thanks for your support everyone! What an amazing adventure we have all had together!


  1. Top stuff, Megan! So good to finally read your report of this great result for you. If I may be so bold, John Randal probably deserves a mention too - even if the Cape Epic wasn't much fun I'm sure it all helped prepare you physically and mentally for this great achievement. On my own behalf, I'm very proud to have helped in a small way. Cheers, Oli

    1. Thanks Oli! I'm not sure where you got the idea I didn't think Cape Epic was fun though! it had it's own sadistic kind of joy and I learned a lot from it ;). Yes, it certainly was part of a fantastic lead-up and prep, and there were definitely a lot of people who were part of the final equation in this result, yourself and John included!

  2. that is by far your best blog since you departed! seriously great read and one that I have been definitely looking forward to. Congrats on an absolute kick ass effort Megan.

  3. Great story Megan... well done on an awesome result.
    Can't wait to catch up again.

  4. Engrossing read, incredible effort, fantastic result.......Megan, you are a star!!

  5. Great read. There is footage of you on the WEMBO website official video with your team getting you ready for another lap and you coming thru transition doing arm pumps. Well done. Ive enjoyed keeping up with your adventure.

  6. Superb result! and I agree a great read, a real insight into the mind of a solo endurance rider!

  7. Looking for inspiration for Finale 2017 it was a great read.