After racing Sudety MTB Challenge as a mixed pair, Mike and I had spent some time training in Livigno (pasta, altitude, trails, bikewash. Oh, and freezing rain), then travelled to Grindewald in Switzerland to write about MTB tourism in the area for Australian Mountain Bike magazine and race the Eiger Bike Challenge, a famous Swiss marathon that this year was also the Swiss Marathon MTB Champs. We chose just to do the 55km medium distance and use it as a chance to expose ourselves to Euro marathon racing (long long climbs, getting mobbed on descents, “achtung!”, mud) and gain some confidence before Grand Raid, a behemoth of a race, with 5025m of climbing in 125km, just one week later. Grand Raid is particularly important because it’s part of the UCI Marathon Series, and so if I come in the top 20 Elite Women, I’ll automatically qualify for Marathon MTB World Champs next year, which is my goal.
The 55km Eiger Bike looked easy in comparison, and even not much harder than our Aussie races. Although there’s 2600m of climbing, it’s short, and the race is mostly on paved roads and gravel, with some techy descending.
I’d had a bit of gastro in Livigno, which I like to call ‘crazy bum’. I’m not sure where I picked it up but it could have been from:
1. Enthusiastically filling my bidon in any stream I came across because it was ‘freshly melted snow’.
2. Something lurking in our 2-star hotel’s salad buffet.
3. My new penchant for storing yoghurt on the balcony (in the shade of course), in the absence of any fridge.
4. Gleeful open-mouthed descents through paddocks full of wet cow manure.
Any of these.
I’d also picked up a slight cold, and with the terrible weather in Livigno, had managed to develop hypothermia twice in one week. Then the day before Eiger Bike, Mike and I decided to spend the dreadfully wet morning above the clouds, hiking over a glacier in inappropriate footwear at 3600m between the region’s highest peaks… So my preparation was ideal.
On race day the weather was perfect, but dreadfully cold. We started up a ’10 kilometre’ climb that I’d practised the day before. I had a great start, and even led for a couple of kms, then the eventual winner passed me, and I sat in second, pushing big ring, with a bunch of men, for quite some time, until I found myself, quite suddenly, in excruciating pain.
I Know myself well enough to know when I’m blowing up, and it definitely wasn’t that. This pain was like nothing I’ve experienced before, like someone had put my seat post down 10cm overnight to trick me. Cramps up my hamstrings and calves, and in my hip flexors. I was making noises like Hollywood actresses do when they’re depicting childbirth in a romantic comedy, and the only way I could keep going was to bash out pedal five strokes out of the saddle to relieve the pressure on my muscles, then creep forward in the saddle while I counted to 70, or until the pain got too much, then heave myself up again. My heart rate dropped to the 140s. I usually race between 175 and 185bpm and cruise at 160. That’s not a good day. Was it the gastro? The cold? The snow hike? Had I eaten too much Nutella for breakfast? Surely not that!
Riders flooded past me. First I was back with the Masters racers, nothing unusual about that, then the bandanna crew, then the 26” bikes. Then the older guys with moustaches, the heavy breathers, the chatterers, then a guy on flat pedals passed me. During this time, too, no fewer than 27 women also rode over me. And I couldn’t do a thing about it.
When I reached the 10km mark I looked up and saw multi-coloured caterpillars of riders creeping up switchback after switchback above me and I let out a sob. The 10km climb was actually a 15km climb with a feedzone 5km from the top. Silly me. At least I’d arrived somewhere: that tough place in a race where you just have to assess what you’re capable of. I knew I was a bit sick and that A-race Grand Raid was a week away… in the big scheme of things, this 55km climbfest was only important for the experience. I looked up at the sheer face of the Eiger (The Ogre in English), and thought of all the stories I’d read during our tourist activities that week of climbers who, so obsessed with achieving their goal of reaching the summit that they ignored injury and bad weather, and died for their determination. Was the mountain trying to tell me something? Was it folly to keep going myself?
I decided that as long as I was okay to pedal, I’d just do a pace that I could manage, and damn well get to the end. I’m not going to go into every corner (there weren’t many) and climb (lots of these) of the race, but will summarise to say that I came much better, and spent the second half passing riders on flat pedals, chatterers, heavy breathers, and mustachios. I even passed a couple of women. I rode most of the achingly steep climb up to Bort with colourful crowds cheering me on, while other racers walked, and some just had a sit down. I finished pretty miserable, and, quick as a a plot development in a Codral commercial – found I had a chesty cough, then Mike and I jumped in the car and drove to our next location, Zermatt.
Men, whether team managers or fiancés, want to make everything better. Mike spent the car and train trip trying to help me find a positive ‘takeaway’. I frankly couldn’t. It hasn’t been a great year for me physically or psychologically, in spite of how things may look on Facebook…
Racing, as I’ve got to know it, is not like a vending machine, where you put a coin in a slot, choose what you want (maybe what you deserve), and it falls into your hand in a fair and predictable transaction.
Rather, racing’s starting to seem like feeding a poker machine. I feel like I’m sitting in a dark, noisy room, putting the coins in – the resources – pulling the handle, and hoping that my aces will come up – the right training, the right course, the right nutrition, the right preparation. Every now and then I get a small payout, and I play on, but now I wonder how long before I should walk away, and spend my resources: my time, money, energy, and other’s time and money and energy – somewhere that gives me a safer return on my investment? The fact is, in real life, I’ve never even touched a pokie. I’m not a gambler at heart.
Grand Raid’s an intimidating race, and already it’s just hours away. I had wanted to race it hard, now I fear I’m going to have to go out so conservatively that I’ll be out the back before we’re out of the start chute.
But, like a gambling addict, this week I’ve been checking behind the cushions, under the car seat, in the bottom of my handbag. I’ve been begging, stashing, and making withdrawals to get a little pile of coins together to put into Grand Raid.
In gorgeous Zermatt, then on arrival in Verbier yesterday, I did baggy-shorted enduro riding (lift assisted!), coughed ferociously, and ate well. Even if my confidence in my body is shot to pieces, my technical skills are better than ever. The weather’s glorious, and I’m again in love with riding my bike.
And of course my metaphor only goes so far. No matter what a gamble racing is in terms of results, there’s always the intrinsic reward of memory-making experiences and sights, good friends, copious pasta (chased by tiramisù), and the achievement of doing something you profoundly doubted you could.