I woke up yesterday morning insisting that I was not going to race the Highland Fling. I’d had no sleep. I was clearly getting tonsillitis (again). I still had Croc Trophy saddle sores that refused to heal. I hadn’t ridden my bike for a fortnight. I’d dropped from the elite 110km race to the 55km event the day before but that wasn’t enough. I was sick and tired of racing and I wanted out of there. I would take the train back to Sydney, I announced, and enjoy scenic views of the Southern Highlands from the comfort of a Countrylink carriage.
But first I’d see my teammates off at the start line, and maybe go for a short spin up the road.
In support of my plan I sulked in the foetal position for 25 minutes, eschewed my heartburn medication (without it I get severe reflux while racing), ate two handfuls of blueberries for breakfast, threw on some kit and freewheeled to the event village, where I was immediately doorstopped for an interview and photos by the smiling, trusting Peta Stewart and Erica Galea.
‘We know you’re tired Imogen, but what are you looking forward to today?’
What could I say? I’m looking forward to going home? I’m looking forward to getting back in my pyjamas? I’m looking forward to a good cry? I did the only thing a true competitor would do: I lied.
I delivered the worst interview in the history of amateur sport, mumbling something about the shiny-sun weather, then wandered off feeling confused. The next step in my plan had been to call my mother and tell her that, in spite of her weeks-old plans (involving several cancellations and reschedulings) to come to Bundanoon to watch the race with (wait for it) my father, there was no reason to. Unless of course they wanted to pick me up. Then there was the fact that my Godmother, who I haven’t seen for a decade, was also coming along. If I couldn’t fess up to the media ladies, how was I going to tell them? The truth was I couldn’t, I’ve wanted them to come and watch me race forever, and it was time for a new plan.
I did a quick inventory of the contents of my pockets, which contained enough spares for the race but the same amount of food as my stomach – nil. I had left my Magellan heart rate monitor strap at the YHA, but racing on feel would be fine. Mike gave me one gel, I bought two others, along with a breakfast of coffee and banana bread (how long could this race take, after all!?), beheaded my lip balm and used it for chamois cream and hey presto! Saddle sores, imminent tonsillitis, inevitable heartburn – forget you. I am race ready!
The start was manageable, especially after surviving several starts with the elite men at the Croc, but I watched helplessly as Trek rider Michelle Ainsworth, accompanied by one of the strong men, sailed to the front of the first group. I knew that was the last we’d see of her, but I managed to stick in the second group for a while knowing there were a couple of girls just behind me, including young Sara Mills, who’s practically a neighbour in the northern suburbs of Sydney.
I dropped back on the climbs and Sara and I started fighting a bit for position. I ended up with a gap before finding myself alone on dreaded-endless-fireroads and she passed me in a group with another lady dressed in purple kit, who absolutely rocketed on the flats (I later found out that ‘lady-in-purple’ is Rebecca Hoschke, a pro triathlete and 2013 Australian Ironman Champion – no wonder she could TT). Getting caught annoyed me a great deal and I battled to stay with them, begging for something technical to come along to sort us out. The only thing on offer was a short section of bumpy four-wheel-drive track but I took it, and we pretty much joined back up. I hoped we could remain so until the feed zone, which was 5km away.
A few seconds later, young Sara rode up to me, upset that she’d dropped a bottle and, as I had two at the feed zone I gave her mine and told her to keep it, then I took the golden opportunity to put on my best ‘I got this’ face and settled in for some good solid mentoring.
I ordered Sara to sit on my wheel. I instructed her to fill up her bottle at the water station, I shared observations on the track and weather conditions. I dispensed my favourite racing advice that one should never panic. Just before the feed zone we rode with lady-in-purple and she told me she had no idea what she was doing. Still, before I could open my mouth to invite her into the mentorship fold, she disappeared up the gravel road towards Bundanoon. Sara, meanwhile, failing to notice the water station a metre to her right, jumped on her bike and chased, leaving me to fly the flag of reason and sense, gulping some water and taking another huge 800ml bottle for the ride home before taking off after them.
After catching up to Sara I did a bit more mentoring and we secured a good wheel. I’d done the race two years ago and seemed to remember that almost all the ride back to Bundanoon was techy singletrack, which I was dying for – if there’s one thing I suck at, it’s open fire road – and my plan was to catch lady-in-purple Rebecca Hoschke in the techy bits with my grasshopper Sara, then we could go full Lord of the Flies and turn against one another for the line. Easy.
Unfortunately my memory of the Highland Fling course was like most of my recollections of painful past events: highly embellished and entirely inaccurate. The final 25km actually features about 3km of singletrack, broken into tiny chunks by grassy hills over bumpy paddocks, which is reached, after the feed zone we’d just departed, by 10kms of open, hilly fire road.
So it’s probably fortunate that at 35km, quite suddenly, everything stopped working. I had the painful experience of watching my mentee Sara pull a turn that turned into pulling away, then I got to watch myself floundering, unable to hang on. I put on my bravest you go, save yourself, I’ll hold them off face then, as soon as Sara was out of range, pushed the clutch in and reversed my way through the half-flinging field for about an hour and forty-five minutes.
Physically I was having a lot of problems, the heartburn had started up with a vengeance, the different brand of gels I’d bought failed to hit the spot, and I’d got one all over my glove so that it was cementing itself to my grip so solidly and so incessantly that I tried stopping and rubbing my hand in the dirt. I hadn’t had enough breakfast (race mornings for me are usually an excuse to line up a smorgasbord of my favourite foods and devour them all), my saddle sores were achieving hot coal ratings, and after a full year’s racing and travelling, I was Just. Plain. Tired.
The last 15km took an absolute age. I sobbed and swore, spat on my superglued glove, stuffed up some easy singletrack, and sobbed some more. I was happy to ride the A-line up the last techy climb easily, but unhappy to finish in fourth, way off the pace I’d been setting for the first half of the race.
But it all went away when I saw Mum (florals) and Dad (Panama hat) waving and shouting when I crossed the line. Sara was so grateful I’d given her the water and that was another lovely part of the race – being able to help someone out – and something I’ve been more and more interested in this year. As soon as an MTBA coaching course I can attend pops up, I’m there.
Mum, Dad, my Godmother, Godfather and I had an amazing afternoon. After hiding the fact that I really do want my family to occasionally watch a race, my advice to any unsupported MTBing mentees out there is to just ask. Pick a race close to home and tell your relatives to come along. Mine had a lovely day and may qualify for promotion to bottle holders next time.
It’s the end of a long year. The Fling track is hard, harder than ever, with a lot of fire road and a million ways to slow you down when you think you should be going fast – grass, creek crossings, corrugations, rocks, and bumps made by hooves. There’s a twinge of guilt with racing the half distance, but I was glad to be able to watch the Elite racers cross the line – Brendan Johnston in first, Mark Tupalski in second, and Andrew Blair in third for the men, and the wonderful women – Peta Mullens winning, followed by Rebecca Locke, then Lucy Bechtel in third.
Any mentee in my situation would have been sternly advised not to race. It was stupid to. I was in a terrible state, and I’ll need extra time off now before I can begin preparing for next year (and I want it to be a good one), but I have no regrets whatsoever. Seeing Mum and Dad there when I crossed the line was one of the highlights of the season, and a memory I’ll hold forever.
Full results can be found on RaceTec.