Thursday, February 20, 2014

Making Peace With The Past - Finally Some Insight on My 2013 World Champs Experience

­­­­­­­­­­­­It's been months now since WEMBO 24 hour solo World Championships. I still haven't managed to sit down and write about it... My assumption that things would “quieten down” was completely unfounded and I found myself working on all those “responsible” things that adults do that I should have been doing and mixing that in with bouts of procrastination on the trails in the sunshine after work. In fact, I haven't really written about anything... And that has haunted me, day in and day out, like a monster lurking in the shadows of my mind. Without penning my thoughts, there appears to still be unfinished business with my most recent world championships experience, and I sincerely hope that in writing about it now, I can put it to rest and move onto the next thing (whatever that may be!) with energy and enthusiasm.
My training and preparation up to race day was good. In fact, generally, I had a blast... Climbing mountains and having wicked adventures on my bike with good people. I'll admit that the final month before the race, my training became a little disjointed as the pressures of work, training and life in general encroached on my rest time. The week before world champs, I became quite sick... In fact, sick enough that I had to take a couple of days off work. It was stressful, and the thought of missing out on the one event I had been training for all year was entirely unfathomable... I was 100% invested... But I felt good in my head, and I have always staunchly believed that your body is merely a vehicle for the mind to achieve what it so desires.
Finally arriving in Canberra was a relief, especially with my best buddy Sarah by my side as support crew. I felt nervous and excited, but surprisingly calm. I was intent to not let anything phase me, despite my patience being tested on a number of occasions. Such occasions included replacing my rear brake calliper the day before the race (achieved by bribing the mechanic with beer), darting from Stromlo to the airport to pick up my bro-in-law, then back to Stromlo again to pick up my bike, running out of money (I mean completely broke and maxed out credit card) on the second day we were there (thank God for my best buddy and prize money) and appeasing my parents, who (God bless them) just wanted to go out and boogey with their daughter the night before the race.
It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge that there are people who went a long way for me for this one race. Mum and Dad braved the long drive up from central Victoria to Canberra and then hung out in the cold and dark at the top of the hill to cheer for me each lap. My brother-in-law, Dan, was kindly volunteered for support duties by my sister and flew into Canberra especially for the race (Dan is a physio and gives excellent massages, by the way!). My good mate Sarah travelled all the way from NZ with me to take on the thankless task of supporting me for the race. Kashi at Yeti NZ had made arrangements for me to have a second bike for the year, pretty much identical to my race bike, which was a privilege few riders get without spending copious amounts of money. Andrew at AyUp lights had sent me out new lights which matched my bike. Mark at Adidas Eyewear had decked me out with new eyewear for the race (which was also put to good use by the support crew when I swapped out glasses!). And Bryce at Cycletech had sorted out sexy new wheels for my Ninja. I think it would be fair to say that I felt I was going into the race not only racing for myself, but also for those people who believed in me. I wanted to be able to write about the experience after and be proud of what I had achieved.

This is where I begin to struggle… I wasn’t necessarily proud of what I achieved that weekend… Not remotely… I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t get a good result, and I felt nothing afterwards except a sense of relief that it was over.
When I arrived at the track on race day, my belly full of two breakfasts from the morning, I plugged my ears with some tunes and strolled casually to the pit that my crew had set up so lovingly. My bikes were lined up, and all my food laid out. It had been some time since I had been amongst this but it felt familiar, like a home I never left. I got on my bike and did some cruisy warm-up laps of the starting circuit. I bumped into people I hadn’t seen in years, including people I used to rock climb with who were also now bikers… But it occurred to me that I could count on one hand the number of people who had been doing this 24 hour solo gig for as long as me. I was part of the furniture here, and it made me feel kinda proud to be a “veteran” of sorts on the scene.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was there to stand on the podium… At a bare minimum, top 5. And the expectation I placed on myself was founded in my result from last year in Italy, when I came 3rd. I’d been shy about broadcasting my own expectations of myself but the people who mattered knew where I wanted to be, and those who asked politely would be privy to the information, too. So there I stood on the start line, in my moment of truth.
The starters gun went off, we ran to our bikes and then thrashed ourselves up the first fire trail. My legs felt sluggish and my heart rate was running high. It was nothing unusual… Just nerves, I guessed… And I assumed my body would settle into a rhythm over the first lap or two… But that pace off the start line was super hot… In fact, hot enough that I couldn’t hold the front bunch, and they disappeared up the first bit of single track without me. It wasn’t how I imagined it would pan out. In fact, it wasn’t how anyone I knew imagined it, but they were the cards I was dealt at the start of this race and I was going to have to work with that. I remember years ago speaking to my mate Andy Fellows after I had a shit day on the bike at the Red Centre Enduro in Alice Springs… He said to me, “sometimes, you are having a shit day, and you just have to say to yourself “well, that’s what I have to work with today””… For some reason, that conversation comes into my head a lot, and it came into my head at the start of that day. I vividly remember thinking “it’s ok Megan. You have 24 hours to do this. You have the experience to do this. Just let them blow each other up and reel them in later”… But they didn’t, and I never did. All I could do was ride around in circles chasing 6th or 7th place.
I rode through the day and as I did, my interest waned with my realisation that I was a long, long way off the pointy end. My feet swelled in my shoes from the heat until the pain was unbearable. Swapping shoes did nothing, massage did nothing, loosening the shoes did nothing, and neither did the Panadol. It wasn’t until the coolness of the evening set in that the pressure subsided and the pain throbbing through my feet and up my legs stopped. It wasn’t all bad… The trails at Stromlo are fast and good fun… The dry environment sucked all the moisture out of the dirt leaving us with a pea gravel surface that threatened to be our undoing if we didn’t pay constant attention. Mum and Dad sat in camp chairs at the top of the hill, wrapped in blankets ready to jump up and cheer “GO MEG!”every time I rode past. My partner was back home in NZ checking her phone every thirty seconds while she was at dinner with her mates to see how I was doing. I felt like I was letting down everyone around me. As an intelligent person, I knew that wasn’t true… But often emotions override what we know to be genuinely correct.
The coolness of the evening was welcoming… I had just spent the entire winter training in the early morning in sub zero temperatures and the heat of the day had not treated me well at all… I’ve been living away from Australia long enough now that I have acclimatised to New Zealand’s cooler temperatures and the heat of the day enveloped me and sucked the energy from my body.
While I was riding I felt numb... And completely detached from the experience... This wasn't what I was used to. I just wanted it to be over pretty much from the end of the first lap. I wasn’t angry, nor did I gain immense joy out of the experience. I took each moment as it came and lived in that moment… The moment I rode past a snake… The moment Dan helped alleviate the pressure on my feet… The moment Sarah put hot pizza in my hand… The moment my mum would come running alongside me in the dark after midnight at the top of that arsehole hill… The moment the sun set and the moment it rose, spreading it’s arms like fingers through a blue sky perfectly spotted with identical fluffy white clouds and hot air balloons. They were a series of beautiful moments in their own right, but for some reason felt disjointed as a complete experience when I tried to link them together. The trail was great fun and I thought about a lot of stuff while I was riding. I wouldn’t say I had a bad ride… But certainly not an exceptional one.
By the time I crossed the finish line, I had pretty much decided that this was the last 24 hour solo race that I was going to do (admittedly, my view of that has softened over time since the race). I was heartbroken. And when I write about it now, it still brings tears to my eyes. I’m not sure what made it so. Probably a combination of things… The fact that I had trained so hard and being so far off the pace, the thought that I may not want to do this again and realising that I would miss it dearly and wondering what I would fill that void with… The fact that I felt like I had let down all those people who supported and believed in me (although I know they would all vehemently deny that this was the case).
I suppose when someone is disappointed with a result, the first thing people try to do is console you by assuring you that had you enjoyed a more trouble-free day on the bike, the result would have been vastly different. Sure, there were things that didn’t go right… I was sick the week before, I had massive issues with painful swelling of my feet, I had sleep monsters and food issues… But if I am being honest with myself, there wasn’t four laps worth in there… Maybe two at best… And that would have elevated me, best scenario, to 5th place. I was well off the pace… And the even more heartbreaking thing was that I had no idea that would be the case.
I was glad that Jess Douglas won. If I couldn’t come up with the goods, then I’m glad she did. I have a huge amount of respect for that girl and I think in a lot of ways, we are very similar (she’s just a shitload faster than me), so I relate to Jess as a person. After the race, she wrote something on my facebook wall. It was a lovely gesture, and admittedly, made me cry (maybe I’m going soft in my old age); Megan - you are awesome. Results of this race today do not indicate your inner strength as you would hope. But everyone has their day in the sunshine. Yours will come with renewed purpose...and it need not be via racing....let’s talk soon! We love who you are and what you represent. It meant a lot coming from her.
I remember arriving home from the race and seeing my partner at the airport. I’d imagined, up until the end of the race, that I would arrive home full of smiles and stoked with my result but it wasn’t to be on this occasion. We’d only been seeing each other barely a month and I was so grateful to have a hug, someone to hold my hand and some gentle words waiting for me at the other end of my journey. I think one of the hardest things about my result was having "that conversation" with every single person when I came home. Explaining how I was disappointed and then having them say "but 7th in the world is still good!" I appreciated the sentiment, but it truly made me cringe every time. I didn't spend six months getting up at 4am to train in the freezing cold then spend all that money on traveling to the event to come seventh. Then there was the awkward conversations with people who knew I would be disappointed, but didn't know whether it was the right thing to console me or avoid the topic.
I’ve often said to people that there are two types of people who race at a high level… Those who work hard, and those who are naturally talented. I work exceptionally hard, but I wouldn’t call myself a naturally talented rider by any stretch of the imagination. I suppose where it gets really tough is when you come up against people who are both naturally talented and work hard, and it inevitably happens.
I find it difficult to articulate how I felt about my experience last year, and especially so because I really do love to put a positive spin on any challenges that are thrown my way. But to be blunt about it, I was disappointed with my result at World Champs. I returned home a broken soul. I analysed in my head everything I could have done differently, or should have done differently. And as time has worn on, nothing changes my disappointment. In fact, I don't think I have ever been so disappointed by a race result. In my mind, there was no provision for anything shy of 5th place, and I guess mentally, you have to do that to back yourself, but you set yourself up for a very hard fall... In reality, only one person can win... And unfortunately, someone has to come seventh. That's the brutal reality of racing... And despite the fact that I wasn't unhappy with how I rode, on that day, my best was only worth seventh place. In all truthfulness though, as much as it hurts, I think I would rather that than to not care about it at all.
I've been thinking hard about what I want to do moving forward. From a pragmatic perspective, I know in my heart I was well off the pace, and it was gutting for me that I was surprised by this... There were things that didn't go right, but if I'm being honest with myself, I doubt there was four laps worth in there. I rode 323km over the 24 hours, and a couple of years ago, that sort of distance would have bagged me a title... But riders have gotten faster and the competition more fierce and I feel like I have been caught unawares and unprepared for the change in pace. It shouldn't have come as a surprise when I remember three or four years ago, hearing my mate, Andy Fellows describe the pace of the men's field as "a 24 hour cross country race". It was only a matter of time until the same happened with the women's field, and I can't begrudge the competition of that. It's great for the sport to see such a high quality field. I just can't help but feel I am flailing behind and wondering if I have the energy and time to work harder than I did this year to bridge that gap. Furthermore, after 9 years of riding 24 hour races, it's becoming cost prohibitive to travel around the world racing bikes off my own back.
On the flip side of that, racing bikes for 24 hours is what has defined me on so many levels for such a long period of time and I am very wary of the gaping hole it would leave in my life if I decided not to continue. As sad as it may sound, I feel like riding my bike for 24 hours is the only thing that makes me an extraordinary person, and the only thing that makes me interesting. It has played a significant role in moulding who I am as a person today, and whilst I am sure some other adventure would come along and continue to condition my spirit in other ways, it's nearly unfathomable for me... Not to mention that I love doing it... I love that feeling at the end of being totally spent. I love seeing the sunset and the sunrise on the bike in the space of one day, I love the physical challenge, the mental challenge and the tactical side of it. I love the people I meet and the experiences it delivers to me.
So if I was to make a sensible, intellectual decision, in a pragmatic sense, I would stop participating in 24 hour races... But such decisions aren't so easily pigeon-holed when there is emotion and history involved. There has been a lot of talk recently about the next world champs in Scotland in October this year, and I have decided that I won’t be attending… Amongst other considerations, I simply just can’t afford it, and I know that come October, I will be watching everyone else’s progress and feeling my own heart ache, but it was a decision that had to be made for me to continue to enjoy living in the moment right now. For now, I have made the decision to compete in 24 Hours of NDuro in Rotorua in April (check it out here... It'll be wicked!). In the meantime, I’m enjoying hitting the trails for fun, heading out for crazy adventures, digging in the garden and playing with my dogs. It’s a relief to write again and share my experience so candidly with everyone who reads my blog. What I do know is that regardless of what I do, I can count on the fact that there will always be adventures to be had, and I can only trust that takes me to more wonderful places for more amazing experiences, whether it involves racing bikes for 24 hours or not.