Saturday, April 27, 2013

Confessions of a 24 Hour Racer

I have a confession to make... I was absolutely terrified of last weekend's race, and it was for a number of reasons. To be honest though, (and this is something quite hard for me to say), I knew the main reason was because I was afraid of losing... And I know it's irrational and silly... But let's face it, I'm a competitive athlete and it's in my nature to want to win.

Before I go into the blow-by-blow of the race this weekend just past, I wanted to put some perspective behind the thought processes that have gone through my head since I returned home from Italy a year ago. And I don't think they are too dissimilar from many other athletes. I've spoken with so many athletes in the last year about the mental side of racing and so often I find we all have the same internal battles... We're all human, but we try to live up to this superhuman tag that is often thrust upon us, and I suppose that just comes with the territory. I'm a realistic person... I'm also harder on myself than any other person will ever be. I knew that Erin Green and Kim Hurst were racing this weekend (and they are both incredible riders!). I also knew I hadn't prepared well for the race in any way, shape or form (and I knew I should know better). I had only started structured training again a couple of months prior to the race, I didn't start preparing my gear until the last few days before the race, and I didn't even manage to truly get my head into the game until the day before. I was relying purely on my experience (and probably a bit of luck) to carry me through, and had the weather remained kind to us, maybe I would have gotten away with that!

This was the first 24 hour solo I had done since placing third at the 2012 WEMBO 24 hour solo world champs in Italy and I have, for the last year, struggled immensely with my headspace with regards to 24 hour racing. I find it really difficult to articulate how I have felt, and even more difficult to articulate it without making it sound like I am making excuses for a bad race... So straight up, I didn't have a great ride on the weekend, but having said that, I understand exactly why, and I couldn't honestly say that had I ridden a better race, that the result would have been any different... Erin and Kim both rode an exceptional race and fully deserved their placings.

It's scary to admit, but I didn't know if I even wanted to continue racing 24 hour solo up until this weekend just gone. I knew I didn't want to stop riding, but I didn't know exactly what I did want to do... I felt a bit lost. After last year's world champs in Italy, I had felt so good about my race that the thought of being anything less than 3rd in the world was paralysing, and I just didn't know where to start to build on that, or whether I should "quit while I'm ahead". Maybe I was afraid of reaching and failing, or maybe I was afraid of reaching, succeeding, and then having to set the bar higher again. My head was a mess. I was thoroughly enjoying doing the odd race here and there (and smashing out some great times!), and the odd cycle tour, and I was enjoying a mixture of new activities, like Yoga, meditation and squash, but my motivation to train and reach for anything beyond where I had gone previously seemed non-existent, and it was frustrating, to say the least. I must admit that I felt pressure... There was definitely pressure I put on myself, but I felt it from other corners, too, and I had to be so careful not to mistake the amazing support that people gave me for anything other than what it genuinely was. I found it hard to back myself, because I knew I wasn't training to the best of my ability, and so when others backed me, I felt like I was just letting them down.

Not too long ago, I had dinner with Jess and Norm Douglas and I spoke to Jess about my predicament. I spoke to her about how I felt the pressure to be what people expected me to be, and to be what I expected of myself, and I'm of no false aspersions that this is even more difficult for high profile athletes. I am afraid that there will come a time when people don’t find me inspiring anymore, and she said something very interesting to me. She said “Megan, you need to show people you are human… Because when someone is human, and has a hard time like everyone else, and then they still do extraordinary things, that’s what is really inspiring for people”. It’s true, I’ve had what I would describe as a hard year (although I am not arrogant enough to think that there aren’t people out there who have it harder than me… And I am, in fact, very lucky). I arrived home from my trip overseas last year on such an amazing high. Then I met who I thought would be the partner I would spend the rest of my life with. I really didn’t think things could get much better than that. I felt, for some reason, that I had made it to where I wanted to be in life. I knew that it simply didn’t get any better than this and that I would be able to ride that high forevermore because I deserved it. I had worked hard… 
In hindsight, it was such a na├»ve and arrogant thing to think. It’s just not how life works. Things change and it’s impossible to continue feeding that high with the same fuel. I was right, things don’t get any better than that… They just get different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But coming from such a high made everything “different” seem like such hard work. In the last year, it had seemed like the castle I had built for myself came crashing down around me, wall by wall, whilst I tried to rebuild it at the same time, brick by brick... I just couldn't keep up. I found myself searching for meaning in what I did and I had no idea where to look for it when I wasn't getting it on my bike. When my partner and I broke up, it reiterated for me just how difficult it can be to sustain a relationship as a competitive athlete... It's not the first time I have been told that I am an "amazing, focused, talented person, with a positive energy and the ability to strive for things and get things done, but everything seems to revolve around your training". It was nearly uncanny how similar it had been to previous break-ups. What do people expect??? That you get that good at something by going to the pub every night and sleeping in every morning??? In hindsight, it probably also explained why my training had suffered during my relationship with that person, and it would come as no surprise that my training and racing seems to be far more successful when I am happily single! It made me increasingly wary of the relationships I form with people. There are some things that mean so much to me that I shouldn't be compromising on them for anyone, and as selfish as it sounds, I suppose that means that if someone likes who you are, they also need to like how you have become that person, too. If that means you train 20 hours a week and get up at 4am each morning, then that's just how things are. 

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things I wish I had done differently. I stop short of calling them regrets, but I’ve found my head clouded with hypotheticals… What if I had done this differently? What if I had just backed off and let things run their course of their own accord? I found myself chasing that feeling I’d had last year when I arrived home, which was really quite foolish. As my Yoga teacher would say “you never jump in the same river twice”. I found myself searching for lifelines to pull myself out of the rut I was falling into and re-energising myself. 

I'm not perfect, I harbor thoughts of self doubt, I get anxious and nervous, I get heartbroken and tired, and sometimes, I find it hard to get the motivation to train... But I'm still out there doing amazing things and having amazing adventures. Just like anyone else can choose to do... And an ordinary person doing extraordinary things is way cooler than an extraordinary person doing ordinary things, right? So leading up to 24 hours of NDuro on the weekend, I was battling all sorts of demons in my head. In fact, I even considered whether I wanted to do it at all... I wanted so badly to just be able to ride and not worry about the result, but I knew that wasn't realistic for me and my competitive spirit. I wanted so badly to show up and not have anyone mention I was ranked third in the world. I found it so hard to be doing a local race where people knew who I was when really, I just wanted to blend in and ride my guts out to see what I could do. There seems to be the general assumption that because I came third at world champs last year, that I can just rock up and punch out a win in one of these things... Nothing could be further from the truth. I just didn't feel "ready", but I knew I needed to face up to it. I knew that by the end of the race, I would have a clearer picture in my head as to which direction I wanted to take my racing.

So I decided to just work with what I had at that point in time and ride the hardest I could, and that would have to do... The weather forecast for the weekend wasn't looking brilliant, and throughout the course of the last couple of weeks, I had managed to string together a wicked support crew (Rich and Ruthy, you guys are amazing!). In terms of mental preparation, I hardly even thought about the race until pretty much the day before. I suppose this could have been of benefit to me... There's a lot to be said for wasting nervous energy!

I arrived at the start line the morning of the race. The weather was holding off and I actually felt pretty good. Ra had done a great job with the event and the race village and there was certainly no shortage of vibe with him around. He is a great man with a big heart doing great things for our sport! The women's solo field was packed to the rafters with quality riders, which I was stoked with, but I knew it also meant this would be no easy day at the office! With a relatively small field and a good stretch of fire trail at the start of the course, we managed to convince Ra to flag the le mans start for a mass start on the bike, with the solo riders setting off before the teams. I wasn't surprised to see Erin Greene lead out the entire field at a stiff pace. I knew from previous experience racing Erin that if I lost her at the start, chances were I wouldn't see her again, so I took her wheel as best I could and followed suit. The pace was hot... In fact, too hot for a 24 hour, but I pushed it out knowing that it would ease off, and I wasn't "maxing out" so I was comfortable to do so. This move left Kim a fair way back, which, at the time, didn't make much sense to me... But when I looked at her lap times later and how consistent they were, it definitely made more sense. I had a huge amount of respect for the fact that she decided to trust her own pace as opposed to following us.

The course was awesome. I'd had quite a bit of input into the course early on in the organisation of the event, and the figure of 8 format was the most important thing to me, as it gave solo riders the opportunity to feed more often. It also gave teams the opportunity to "share" the longer lap, and was more entertaining for supporters and spectators. The original course design had been a little different, with a lot more climbing and less fire trail, but the requirement to shift the race village to the Wairiki timber school (ironically, because of the fire ban!) meant that the course needed adjustment. I owe Ra an apology because I know I was initially quite hard on him for the changes that were made to the course, but considering the conditions we ended up riding in, and then racing the course myself, I think he did a great job... And the facilities that were available to us at the timber school were so much better than if we had placed the race village elsewhere in the forest. I have a huge amount of respect for Ra and I know he put his heart and soul into making this 24 hour race happen. We rely so much on dedicated event organisers like him for our sport to grow. So basically, we headed from the race village at the timber school, up Poplar avenue, onto Whare Flat Road and across to Pondy New, Rollercoaster, Old Chevy and Yellow Brick Road before returning to the race village to head out on the second loop which went through Ball and Chain, up Nice Road, Chinese Menu, Be Rude Not To and then Mad If You Don't to round out the lap.

I rode that first lap pretty hot, and as I came through the race village after the first half lap, I was sitting maybe 20 seconds down on Erin. It was at this point that my brand new support crew got their first real taste of 24 hour racing... I remember flying through the feed zone and seeing them standing there. They had my bottle and my food, but they didn't look very ready for me... I yelled out "bottle!"... I got a bit closer and they still didn't have my bottle out... "BOTTLE!" I yelled again... Then when I was nearly on top of them "CAN I HAVE MY FRIGGIN BOTTLE!!!!!" I'm pretty sure the entire race village heard me. Rich stuck out a hand with a bottle attached and I snatched it from his clutches just in time to zoom off on my next loop. I felt horrible about it... I certainly hadn't meant to yell at them, but I was going way too fast to stop safely and and get it from them, and I didn't want to lose touch with Erin... Needless to say, they had my bottle ready next lap! Sorry guys!!!

The next few laps went very well for me. I managed to stay within a reasonable margin from Erin, losing maybe 45 seconds a lap on her, which I was comfortable with for the time being. I felt good and I was enjoying myself. My feeding was going really well and I wasn't stopping. The gap back to Kim continued to grow and stretched out to about 20 minutes at one stage.  I made a conscious effort to not let my foot off the gas and keep pushing so I didn't lose Erin. I felt comfortable, and to be honest, a little relieved... In my head, I was thinking "yup, I DO want to keep doing this... I like this... It's where I belong"... It was the question I had being trying to answer for myself for the last six months, and it became clear to me while I was out on the track. I wonder in hindsight if it was that point when I kind of felt like I had achieved what I wanted to for that particular race, and maybe I let myself feel too comfortable in that knowledge.

I sat in second place until some time around midnight, when Kim caught me, but the turning point in my race came a bit earlier than that, and it was a direct result of my poor preparation. I got to my first night lap and the plan was to come through the pits, swap bikes and helmets and be on my way with my lights on. I was very flattered by Ra's commentary (and his skin colored body suit at the end of the race!), but it was kinda weird to feel like everyone was watching my every move when I came through the feedzone. I felt like I had to be on my best behavior... And we all knew THAT wasn't going to happen!!! My bike change for lights on went very smoothly... I reckon I was on my way within 60 seconds... But when I got out on course, the bike just didn't feel right. I knew it was nothing wrong with the bike... Black Betty has exactly the same frame as The Ninja... But I had obviously not invested enough time in setting her up properly. As late as the night before the race, I was still changing handlebars and adjusting shock pressures. When I got on Black Betty that evening, she was the picture of a gorgeous bike... Stunning, brand new... I was looking forward so much to her being an integral part of my race plan... But for some reason, it felt like I was pedaling a bathtub uphill, and it drained so much of my energy. I lost about ten minutes that lap.

As I rode through the feedzone out onto my next loop, I told my support crew that I wanted my other bike back. I really couldn't afford another lap that slow. I was getting tired and I couldn't pinpoint exactly what the problem was (I suspect it was a combination of suspension set-up, tyres and handlebars), so we made the call to run with just the one bike. I was so angry with myself for making such a novice mistake... I should have had that bike ready a month ago... I should have raced on it already and, worst case scenario, I should have worked out a "plan B" with my support crew in the event that we had to run with the one bike... I had done none of that. We were now going to have to stop for battery changes and chain lubes throughout the night. I headed out on The Ninja again and felt instantly better. But whilst I tried to remain upbeat, I couldn't help being disappointed in myself. My legs were feeling fatigued from trying to push the bike harder and maintain my speed, and Kim had taken a big chunk out of my lead on her in that last lap and was lapping more consistently than I knew I could now expect to do myself. Regardless, I kept pushing on, but there was something strange in my thought process which I found disturbing... For some reason, instead of pushing harder and trying to maintain and grow my lead, I felt like I was almost waiting for her to catch me. It wasn't a good headspace to be in, and I can't entirely explain it, but she did catch me, and when she did, I remember I was riding really slowly. It wasn't like I didn't have the energy or the legs to ride faster. It didn't make a lot of sense to me, but it's funny how it doesn't matter how many of these things I do, I still continue to learn.
The good thing was that I was fueling myself really well. On Friday evening, I had rung John at Pizza Library to see if he could do me a favor and drop off a couple of pizzas for me and my crew at the race the following night and he was more than happy to oblige... These pizzas aren't just any ordinary pizza, either... They are the freakin' best pizzas I have eaten since I left Italy! So you could just imagine my delight when a rolled up slice of hot pizza was pushed into my hand by my crew at about 9pm... This ended up being my staple diet for most of the race, combined with my super awesome risotto, which was stored in a ziploc bag, ready for the corner to be cut off so we could pipe it straight into my mouth, which worked a treat. I learned very early on not to let Ruthy pipe the risotto into my mouth because she got a little overzealous with it (or maybe she just thought my mouth was way bigger than that... It wouldn't be a difficult mistake to make!).

We had been extremely lucky with the weather all afternoon... It had held off nicely, despite forecasts telling us otherwise. Just after 11pm, I had stopped in at my pit to change my lights. With all the cloud cover, it had been a relatively mild evening, so I was still just in my jersey, shorts and a wind vest. There had been a sprinkling of rain, but it was more refreshing than anything else. Ruthy, being the caring, lovely gal that she is, tried to get me into my rain jacket. I told her that I didn't want it, then when she said "are you sure", I remember snapping back at her something along the lines of "Ruthy, I don't want my f#@king jacket ok?". I was still dark on myself for dropping so much time purely because I hadn't prepared well and I was struggling to let that go and just get on with it. I was also tired and hungry, which didn't help. I set off into the darkness and karma prevailed on my bad mood when right on 11.30pm, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour doused the whole forest (and every rider in it!). I couldn't help but have a giggle to myself that I should have taken my support crew's advice (still, after all these years, I never seem to learn that lesson!)... It started getting pretty cold about that time, and when I came through the feedzone, my crew pulled me off the bike, stripped me down and changed me into dry kit... Then put my rain jacket over the top of it!!!

It was a long, hard night... In total, we had about 13 hours of darkness, and it's quite sobering when you do a 24 hour race and realise you have more darkness hours than daylight hours. In addition to that, the rain continued to bucket down over the forest relentlessly, making conditions out on the track pretty treacherous in addition to our already weary bodies and minds. There were times when I couldn't see five metres in front of me. I actually began to wonder at one point if Ra would call us all in and pull up stumps for the night it got so heavy... But he knew we were a hard bunch, so we kept trudging our way through the forest in the darkness and mud. There were a lot of people who pulled the plug that evening and went to bed... And I don't blame them... It was bloody tough out there. I must say that to begin with, the rain was quite a treat... I love riding in the rain. It might sound corny, but it seems to cleanse the mind and make everything feel new and fresh... Well, that feeling wore off probably about half an hour after the torrential downpour started... It wasn't pleasant riding, but on the flip side of that, I wasn't too phased by it and I still felt that I had purpose and unfinished in 24 hour racing, which was a positive place to be in. It didn't stop me wanting to do it all over again.

There was no sunrise in the morning... The transition from night back into day was marked by the black sky turning grey and we could see the carnage on the trails as we continued to trudge around the course. I hadn't been doing so well and I was hideously disappointed with how badly my ride had deteriorated from the 12 hour mark onwards. I remember vividly the conversation I had with my crew at about 7am. I came into the pits, pulled up and got off my bike... I was pretty sure I had been lapped a couple of times by the leaders, but it was hard to tell with the information I had available to me. One of the things I have found in 24 hour racing is that it is so important to have the person in front and the person behind closely marked so you know what you are chasing and what you are running away from, and I hadn't been doing a good job of keeping track of that... And to be fair, I hadn't been asking the information of my support crew, either. Ruthy and Rich looked at me... There's a photo of me at this stage and I looked a right mess (I suppose that is to be expected!). I remember saying "you know guys, I don't do these things just to finish anymore... I do them to be competitive and to win... I'm not competitive right now and I just don't feel like there's a lot of dignity in continuing"... When I look at that statement now, it beggars belief, but at the time it made sense to me, and it was true... I was highly disappointed that I knew I was capable of being competitive and I had dropped right out of contention. Rich and Ruthy then did what any good, self-respecting support crew should do... They fed me, and put me back on my bike...

I don't remember the last time I cried at a race, but I cried then... There were probably a number of reasons I cried, but it didn't matter why... I actually found the emotion fed me energy I thought had long disappeared. I felt so aware of my shortcomings right now, but had also found new motivation to continue 24 hour racing... I just wanted to get this race over with and get back to the drawing board so I could do the next one true justice.

In the end, I pulled up in 3rd place, behind Erin and Kim who had locked themselves into a tight battle down to the last lap. I must admit I felt sad that I hadn't been a part of that. It was a plausible result, but I wasn't happy with how I rode. But that's racing... And 24 hours is a long time... If things worked out the way we expected them to all the time, life would be pretty boring. We would know what was awaiting us around every corner, and at the top of every climb. The beauty of life is the unexpected… And ironically, the unexpected can also be the hardest thing about life (and about racing).

I'm a big believer that some people come into your life, then leave without a trace, and some other people come into your life and change it forever. I am so undeniably blessed to have so many of the latter in my life... And I couldn't find a better example that weekend than Rich and Ruthy who gave up their weekend and their sleep to look after me in appalling conditions... I may not have had a particularly pleasing race, but it never ceases to amaze me that regardless of how long I keep doing this, I still seem to learn from it. I was also surprised, that regardless of the fact that I wasn't happy with how I rode, I still had a great time, and seemed to find myself within my racing again. I remember waking up the day after the race and thinking "wow, I miss this feeling of being completely and utterly spent". I also woke up from my slumber post-race with renewed motivation to train and race 24 hour solos... Something that has been frustratingly absent since I returned home from Italy last year. I'm looking forward to World Champs in Canberra in October, and have even been planning beyond that... For now, though, my focus is to find my feet and my rhythm within my training and preparation again and make sure that next race, I can honestly say I gave it everything I had!

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