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.
I rolled up to the start line just before 3AM with my normal race excitement and nervousness. The start was lined with photographers under the Red Bull banner. It seemed like very few racers compared to other mass starts I’ve been in, and I'm still not sure of the exact number. Just before the gun, I heard someone asking, "Where's Jenn? Has anyone seen Jenn?" I looked to find Juliana Buhring giving me a thumbs up, "Have fun!" she said enthusiastically.
"Ride safe!," I responded, still somewhat bewildered at the fact that the first and fastest woman to cycle the world unsupported was cheering me on in a real live race in which she was also racing. I have read her book and watched over and over again the ultra cycling films she's in, so was more than a bit starstruck upon finding her in the bike-build area the day before, let alone now cheering for me at the start. She is the most down-to-earth person, so it made it easy to just have a chat like normal people, but it was a real Forrest Gump moment for me - the seemingly random places I find myself! I sometimes think if you strung my life events together side by side, it would be the most random collection that you would wonder if they all belonged to the same life.
We started as a group with some heading right, some left, and others quickly darting under the overpass ahead. I was immediately swept up in the adrenaline of the race and averaged a good 26kph in the first few hours. This was in part aided by the largest pack of wild dogs I have ever seen in my life (I actually thought they were sheep at first!), as well as a large transport truck bearing down on me blaring its horn as if I were in the wrong lane...which I wasn’t - I was already as far right in the shoulder as possible. I was even further from being in harm’s way after the truck scared me into launching myself off the main road and onto the embankment down to a side road, catching my hand and helmet on some conveniently placed spiky bushes. Two more strays later, and my heart rate was spiking again. Weirdly, I thought about my coach’s disappointment when he would later see my stats in Training Peaks and shake his head wondering why I had set off so hard at the start of the longest race of my life.
I slowed a bit just to bring my heart rate back down to a more comfortable zone two as Paul Mellon's tail light grew smaller and smaller. I eagerly anticipated the right turn near Al Rustaq to head towards the mountains. Little did I know the worst was yet to come. A strong headwind awaited all of the riders, but as I struggled against the elements and the sun heated up, the theme of my inner thoughts was one of utter failure and self-defeat. Everyone else has long gone, I thought, feeling sorry for myself only a few hours into the race. My throat tightened as I indulged my inner victim. But not for long, as I soon encountered Andre(as) - a German rider - at a shop along the long never ending highway between Al Rustaq and Ibri.
Andre(as) was chipper and told me he had just videoed himself for his kids. He said he had seen my slow blinking backlight and followed it like a comforting heartbeat. I felt buoyed by the fact that I had actually passed someone and was in fact not last. I wasn’t sure why it mattered so much, but there was a clear sense of not wanting to be left behind. I often get a panicky feeling when faster riders pull away from me. I wonder if it has something to do with being a little sister. Chasing my older brother into neighbourhood adventures and getting left behind was a common theme of my childhood. I suspect that feeling of not being able to keep up has propelled me into the most bizarre of situations - including this one.
I set off as soon as I was ready. I did not want to ride with anyone else - the rules are clear, plus I just wanted this to be an experience for me alone. Andre(as) caught up to me as I was scrutinizing my gps which was indicating an off-road turn. I couldn’t decide if I should stay on the main road and didn’t want to take the time to look at the bigger map on my phone, so as he came up behind me, we both went up the dirt road. It turned out to be a total time-waster, but the most fun I had that entire day. It was proper gravel and gave me a tiny sense of adventure that I could not seem to find on that long straight highway in the terrible headwind.
I thought about texting the Bikingman organizers to thank them for that little gravel reprieve, but thought I should probably spend less time on my phone and more time pedalling. I sped ahead of Andre(as) on my gravel bike, which seemed to want to play on all the turns and slight undulations. I wished for a little suspension on the corrugation, but otherwise, was smiling the whole way back to the main road where it was impossibly even more windy than when I had detoured offroad.
I was soon grinding my shoes into the pedals, trying to get every watt out of my tired legs. I stopped briefly near a stand of palm trees to film my despair so I could somehow share my pain with others, thinking it might lift my spirits to articulate what I was going through. I managed to stop myself from crying here, but you can hear the emotion in my voice.
The next time I saw Andre(as), he pulled up as I was leaving a small shop and he told me the leaders were on Jebel Shams. I was shocked and excited and baffled all at once. I had not been watching the dots while riding, and while impressed at this superhuman feat, it also sent me into deep despair at my own snail’s pace. I had set out just to finish, but suddenly, I was embarrassed by my position. The day’s adversity was starting to take its toll and I was mentally destroyed. And the worst was yet to come.
When I finally found a roadside restaurant after the first electronic checkpoint, I wasn’t even hungry. I forced some biryani and chicken into my mouth while simultaneously leaving as much food on the table in front of me as I was consuming. I felt sick and unable to eat. I downed a mango smoothie the whole time thinking the ice was probably made with unfiltered water and I was destined to be sick from it. I checked Whatsapp for some social connection to the outside world only to see that my friends Ceren and Perrine had already taken a happy photo of themselves at this very restaurant nearly TWO HOURS earlier. I felt like I had been riding backwards. Andre(as) caught up to me once again but I passed him while he was topping up his tires at a gas station near the restaurant.
Looking ahead, I knew I was coming up to a 90 degree left turn which would be basically sending me in the opposite direction from the one we had taken earlier in the day - instead of a downward south-westerly slope, we would be heading east on a south easterly slope. I was elated - the tailwind would surely be amazing! I quietly hoped someone had made a Strava segment already. However, when I took the turn, it was directly into a cross-headwind. I made a severe frowny face and winced into the new windy conditions. I took a deep breath and muttered some choice words. The road seemed to go on forever.
By the time I was nearly 60km outside of the next town of Bahla, I was in a heap at the roadside, sobbing and looking through my frame bag for kleenex, my body depleted. I had passed a gas station on the left side of the highway and in my state - having already been pedalling for 10 or 12 hours or more, I have no idea - I stupidly thought there would be another one on the right side of the road since that’s how it works in North America. On this highway, there were long, uninterrupted guard rails lining the middle of the highway on both sides and I thought surely I don’t have to cross this with my heavy bike. But a few kilometres down the road and no sign of a complementary service station on the correct side meant I would have to turn back.
It was at this point I called John sobbing, “I’m rubbish. I can’t do this! We overestimated my a-a-a-bilitieeeeees” I wailed like a baby. John replied, “Jenn, I can’t hear what you’re saying. Take a breath and try it again. Slowly.” I started again with my self-pity, hoping for any comfort I could find, “I’m sooooo slow. I’ll never to get to the checkpoint tomorrow by 4PM...If I’m this slow on the FLATS how slow will I be going up a mountain???”
John was calming, “Jenn, eat a gel. Drink some water. And turn around and get yourself back to that petrol station for some food and a rest.” I took his advice. But not before realizing I had lost my sunglasses somewhere in the dark. I first backtracked to look for them, running into Jean Francois who generously helped me search for a bit, but I was searching at the wrong guardrail...everything was starting to look the same. I eventually found them by a different guardrail further back than I had remembered and then continued back in the direction of the gas station. I cursed while hoisting my loaded bike over the guardrails one at a time. I waited until no cars were coming, rode across the road and back down the road, lamenting that I was literally now riding backwards.
Arriving at the gas station, I lurched off the bike in the most ungraceful way possible, just wanting to get away from that saddle. I took an inordinate amount of time trying to decide what to eat which is not unreasonable given I don’t remember there being an actual menu. A lovely man stood in front of me suggesting various things until I heard him say kebab and I said, “yes one kebab, please.” I helped myself to several small bottles of water, some cola, and a Snickers bar while I waited.
Meanwhile, I called John again and immediately started crying. As I have established from my JoBerg2c experience last year, crying is my automatic reaction to anything that my body wants to save me from. As I cried and waited for my dinner, the other station attendants basically sat around watching me. A spectacle, I’m sure, a sobbing woman in my sweaty cycling kit with my terrible sunburn and dust covered bike.
Finally, after I had eaten and was finishing up my many drinks, the staff and customers started to ask me where I had come from. As I spoke, they all started to smile. They clarified a few times…”Muscat? You came from Muscat? Today?” Their incredulity gave me the fuel I needed. I remembered that what I was doing was not easy. It was difficult for a reason. This is not something just anyone can accomplish. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. That makes it special and it makes it meaningful. And, I thought somewhat ruefully, it was something I chose to do after all.
Before setting off, I noticed something twitch on the ground out of the corner of my eye. I looked to find an enormous black spider. I swear it had a forklift on the front of it - raised upside-down L-shaped appendages poised for attack. I’m not normally bothered by spiders, but then again, it’s not every day I see a large forklift type thing walking basically like a human across the pavement. At that moment, I thought to myself, “there is no way on earth I am stopping to sleep in my sleeping bag.” This meant I had to get myself to Bahla and another 60km or so down the road. I sighed and mounted my bike. I put on some music and thought of Mike Hall’s words, “It’s riding your bike, and then riding a bit more and then some more.”
And that is what I did until at last I reached the Jibreen Hotel 20 hours after starting out that morning. By far my longest time on the bike in one go. I celebrated that I had made it within the same calendar day, and amazingly right on plan (by distance, not time)! I checked myself in with some tears to convince the hotel manager to allow me to take my bike into my room (the joke was on me as I had to carry it up two flights of stairs), and set about boiling water for cup noodles.
Seemingly simultaneously, I showered whilst wolfing down two chocolate croissants, guzzling two cans of Pocari Sweat, repacking my frame bag and removing a few items that I now knew I wouldn’t need - a bike lock, some hand sanitizer (I had already overcome my very impractical germaphobia), a survival blanket and some gross uneaten cakes I had purchased earlier in a moment of desperation.
I devoured the messages of love and support and encouragement from my FaceBook feed from friends all over the world, and shed a few tears from the joy of it all. I charged my Wahoo Elemnt and my power bank while I slept soundly for about 4 hours. When I awoke, it was an hour before my alarm was to ring - a pattern that continued throughout the race...