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.