Excitement at the top!
"If you can catch Neil, you'll be fifth overall!," John said as I stuffed some more food in my mouth and gulped it down with water. He was talking about Neil Melville, my friend Julie's husband who apparently had just come through the start area ahead of me. I felt a twinge of renewed excitement. "Now we're really racing!' I thought. We were around 22 hours (I'm really guessing - it's all a blur to me!) into the 24-hour race and I had been through so many low points I thought I couldn't do one more lap. But with this information, I felt a surge. I hopped back on my bike and set out for another grueling lap.
Pushing my limits
This is the second year in a row for the Umm Jurn 24-hour race. I won it last year; my competition quickly died off when one racer - my friend and fellow adventurer Ceren - had a mechanical, and the other woman went home for the night for a proper sleep before coming back in the morning to squeeze in a few more laps.
I pushed myself last year, but without any real incentive to keep going beyond the 240km I achieved. I knew I had won in my category, so while it was a really tough race and I put in a massive effort for myself, I still had something left in the tank when it was all over.
This year was very different. Having just come from completing my first ultra-endurance race - Bikingman, a 1050km self-supported race around Oman - I felt fitter than ever, but more importantly, I had met people who raised my standards for long-distance cycling.
I am now also connected to some of the strongest women cyclists in the world through social media - women like Naomi Freireich, who is the British 24-hour mountain bike champion. These experiences and social connections have elevated my thinking about what it means to test my limits. Seeing what these other athletes are doing, and racing in the same races as some of them has inspired me like nothing before.
The race course
This year's course involved a 7km route including rocky, hard-packed sections; soft squishy sandy bits; three fun forest parts with singletrack (some flowy and some very choppy with big dips to interrupt your rhythm and make you pedal hard in between); a tricky narrow ridge on which you got to channel your inner Danny Macaskill(!); some short hills; some headwind; and a little bit of road at the end to bring you home on smooth tarmac. There was wildlife like I have never seen (or heard!) in Qatar: sheep, hedgehogs, peacocks, bunnies, birds of all types, lizards, and I think I even saw a bat!
It's hard to describe the highs and lows of a 24-hour race. It is unlike anything else - and with this short, punchy course, it is a far cry from the world of endurance road cycling. I would say it was harder than my recent experience of Bikingman Oman, but it's like comparing apples and oranges. In all seriousness, I think the pain I felt this weekend was the worst I have ever felt on the bike.
Top ten finish?
Somewhere during the night, while on a quick refuelling and rest stop, it was suggested to me that I was likely in the top 10 overall and could move up if I kept going as I was. Entering this race, it was important to me to beat my own record, but I hadn't really thought too much about my overall standing. Now, thinking of a top ten finish, I was really motivated to push myself towards that new goal.
I played games with myself, once daylight returned I started to play a game called “Pretend it’s yesterday!” In which I basically just tried to imagine that it was the day before and we had just started. However, once I realized my right thumb was no longer working to shift gears, that one became a bit more difficult to win!
In the morning when John told me I was just behind Neil - now in 5th position - I was astounded! I hadn't seen many others out on the course during the night, but I still had no idea of my position until they got the timing system working again and John informed me. As I stuffed some more food down, I remounted my bike, now wincing in pain. It took a few pedal strokes on the bumpy start to get the wheels turning again, every push of the pedals bringing new pain until I again found a tolerable position on the saddle.
Suddenly, I was picking up speed again and getting energy with every turn of the cranks.
As I passed the guys at checkpoint #3 - just after the sand trap - I sang my number loudly: "Number thiiiirtyoooooonnnnnne," I sang smiling. Those guys were like a jolt of sugar throughout the night. Each time I passed, they cheered me on, repeated my race number, and shouted encouragement all while smiling and clapping. It was unbelievable the difference this made to me. I looked forward to them each lap around.
Another checkpoint I always looked forward to was the one in the first forest section where there were two men and a little boy sitting under a concrete roof just before the ramp that leads to a fun flowy section in the trees. One of them would ask for my number each time (I hadn't realized my number plate was covered in mud!) and when I sang out (or grunted or whispered or cried out) #31, he would say, "#31! Alllll dee best!" in an Indian English accent. Every single time. I loved it.
The other checkpoints were also supportive - shouting encouragement, showing their support and, in some cases, their surprise that a woman was still going. It fuelled me.
In the end, I chased Neil for two more laps before stopping. He had slept an hour and said it had done him a world of good. It was obvious - he was on fire for the final laps and I simply could not catch up to him. I had buried myself to see what I could do, and I left it all out there on the course.
I have zero regrets, as I know I pushed beyond what I would have done if all the circumstances had not gone as they did. My bike was perfect, my husband was wonderful, my friends gave me strength and food and moral support, and the volunteers and staff clapped and cheered giving me huge boosts of energy throughout the grueling 24 hours.
I also used all my strategies from my coaching practice - looking for reasons to celebrate the little wins along the way, and reminding myself of my bigger purpose. I looked down at my Bikingman wristband from time to time throughout the race and reminded myself that Juliana, Nora and Renette would still be out here giving it all they had if they were here. These things all inspired me to keep going.
What can I learn?
I was very prepared this year in many ways. My bike setup is constantly improving as I begin to gain awareness of where my pains are and where I can make adjustments. I love my Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt, and I recently switched out my saddle for a Fabric like the one on my Mason gravel bike.
One of my key takeaways from this year's race is that I need to learn more about nutrition. My nutrition strategy was literally a dog's breakfast! I just told myself I needed to eat - something! anything! - rather than actually plan what and when and how much. My stomach felt terrible from very early on, and this seriously affected me - my physical strength, my mental state, and lessened my desire to eat or drink more. This is a huge problem in a 24-hour race when all of these little mistakes add up.
When I asked the overall winner - Morgan Pilley - about nutrition, he said it's important to prepare a wide variety of foods because you don't always know what you're going to feel like eating in the moment. It's so true. I had brought soup, dates, dried apricots, nuts, rice pudding, energy bars, etc. And in the end, all I wanted was a sandwich! Which I didn't bring.
With some other new gear choices and perhaps getting a bit more serious about my training for next year, I think I can push myself even harder to challenge my personal best a little bit further still.
As always, thank you to my coach, Szymon Wasiak, for my training plans and for spending time to get to know how things are going with me. I have improved so much with your support and guidance.
Thanks to Rasen Adventure and SC Outdoor for making this event possible. I am always grateful for the events we have here. The sport is growing all the time in Qatar, and I am so proud to be a part of it.
It was hard to rest right away. I had a quick shower and was immediately desperate to be in the company of other people. One very surprising thing I learned about myself on this journey is that I am a very social creature! I can picture some of you thinking that's not really shocker as I am slightly extroverted, but I really love my alone time and thought I was going to love the isolation and alone time involved in ultra endurance cycling. In fact, whenever I had the chance, I was talking people's heads off! Even if they didn't understand a word I was saying! I still enjoyed the solitude, but it made me crave conversation especially by the end of it.
Final push to the finish
I hit the road after stocking up at the service station next to the hotel. There would be a number of stations along the way to Muscat, but as I was leaving at 10PM to cycle through the night, I was expecting them to be closed. I ensured I had extra water and snacks, and going on only two hours of sleep with a dodgy tummy, I pedalled slowly as I started up the slight incline out of Muscat.
I was starting to get used to night cycling, and enjoyed the lighter traffic and the focus that comes with your limited view of the surroundings. I could still make out the profile of the mountains around me, but I wasn't missing the view - all I cared about now was making it to the finish.
Whenever I thought of the finish, my mind immediately went to all the things that could go wrong along the way. I pushed those thoughts aside and focused on pedalling and breathing. I purposely left my iPod off, and instead enjoyed the relative silence of the night.
Day Four begins from CP3
I woke excited to don my clean kit at around 2:15AM, long before my alarm was to go off. The momentum of being more than halfway to the finish has hit me and I simply cannot sleep. I snapped a photo of myself looking nervous before leaving.
Part Three: Nizwa to Oriental Nights Rest House (CP3)
188.2km total distance
9:21 moving time
11:01 total elapsed time
The cavalry are here
Three Omani police officers - one man in a thobe, and a man and woman in uniform stood stiffly on the steps as I approached the Oriental Nights Rest House - more significantly known to us riders as manned checkpoint #2.
I was wrecked and as I pushed my bike over the camel grid, Axel - one of the founders of Bikingman - came jogging out to greet me, helping push my bike the last few meters towards the building and the officers. "They're here for you," he said, to which I immediately laughed at what I thought was a joke.
It was only then it all came rushing back to me. The events of the day replayed in split seconds and a sinking feeling replaced the relief I had felt at finally being able to dismount my bike after a long hard day on a sketchy road shared with traffic and not quite enough room to call it a shoulder.
Part Two: Bahla to Jebel Shams to Nizwa
171.57km total distance
10:29 moving time
16:01 Total elapsed time
A beautiful morning for a bike ride
I woke up after only four hours of sleep feeling wide awake an hour before my alarm was to ring. I quickly dressed and scarfed down a chocolate croissant and some dates. I clumsily made my way down the hall and back down the stairs, trying and failing to be stealthy; conscious of not wanting to wake anyone else who might be still sleeping but managing all the stealth of the proverbial bull in a china shop.
I set off for Jebel Shams - the main event within the main event, and the moment many had been talking about since we registered. It was a quiet morning and I enjoyed the silence as I rode all alone. My bright light illuminated more than enough of the road in front of me, even with a packet of Oreos bungeed onto my front pack slightly obstructing it.
With each pedal stroke, I felt happier and happier. On the mostly straight road to Al Hamra - the last town with services before Jebel Shams - I felt a positive energy for the day ahead. “I’m doing this!” I thought excitedly. Compared to the previous night’s desperation, I felt positively refreshed. It's incredible what a shower and a snooze can do for one's outlook.
I arrived in Al Hamra shortly after sunrise. I stopped for more water and made a new friend, for whom I seriously considered making space in my luggage.
Part One: Al Nahda Resort to Bahla
291.87km total distance
16:35 moving time
20:23 total elapsed time
General mood: Totally shattered
The night before the race, we were encouraged to sleep on the floor of a large conference room. Finding a spot, I instantly regretted my decision to check out of my hotel room which was just steps away from this common space. The thin mattress was covered in a sheet of plastic and every time I or anyone else moved, there was a rustling of plastic. Already in my race kit, I settled in for a night with very little sleep - about 2 hours max. I awoke from my restless slumber hot and sweaty from the heat generated between my sleeping bag, me dressed in my cycling clothes, and the plastic mattress. Off to a great start.