“Don’t be so hard on yourself”
A sentence I have heard many times in my life, not only in sport but also in professional and personal circumstances. High expectations are something I also carried in my day to day life. In a way I believed it made people reach for the stars and in my opinion that was not a bad thing. On the other hand it also created a lot of disappointment when those expectations were not met. The last 12 months had been hard and I talked a lot to Nico about what he thought I could expect from myself in my current situation. He kept on reinforcing that I was really tough and strong. Training in Scottish conditions, often in the dark during the winter, or in the most terrible weather conditions simply because I couldn’t choose when I did my training, I had to do it when I could around my job. Working 40-50hr work week as a veterinarian which was both mentally and physically demanding and racing at elite level. I should be proud he said. I often felt I was making excuses for myself taking all these factors into account but slowly I started to realise they were not excuses, they were facts.
On the road the Belgium
When I was travelling to Belgium to race the Roc D’Ardenne I decided to go into the race with my eyes wide open:
1. I had not raced an event over an 1 hour long since last Summer.
2. I would be racing against proper professional cyclists.
3. At the end of the day I was a triathlete and juggled my training hours between swimming, running and riding and the majority of these girls were mountain bikers only concentrating their training solely on the bike.
4. I was recovering from a back injury.
5. I was a full time veterinarian with a very expensive time-consuming hobby.
With this in mind my only goal in the race was to stay positive, keep on riding hard, and finishing the race strong. Nico and I settled for a heart rate I would stick to and he wanted me to ride the last 20km faster than the rest of the race (“faster than anyone else” his exact words were!!)
A top 20 finish meant automatic qualification into the UCI MTB Marathon World Champs, a goal which made me smile. “I will try,” I thought to myself “but if it doesn’t happen that’s ok too”.
Michael and my Uncle Aede travelled with me to Houffalize as support crew to help me with my drink bottles and keeping me up to date with where I was in the field during the race. As we drove into the event center Michael sighed “oh wow”, yes a little bigger than the races he had seen in Scotland! This race was placed right in the heart of the Ardennes with easy access from Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands attracting thousands of top riders over the weekend. Races like this always got me excited, the atmosphere was buzzing. Professional team tents set up left, right and centre and bikes everywhere. Cycling heaven. I registered and went for a spin on my bike whilst Aede and Michael went to check out the 5 aid stations so they knew where to go on race day. I felt relaxed and rested and rode part of the course. For some reason in my mind I thought this was going to be a non-technical fast course but after only riding 5kms I realised how very wrong I was!! There was heaps of single track and with the wet weather, the course had become very muddy in places and sticky slow, it was going to be a long day out!
Race morning arrived and I was ready. I proudly wore my super cool Flare jersey which felt comfortable, light and airy the whole race. Thank you Hannah! I always got intimidated seeing the other girls getting ready for the start and at World cup level this was no exception.
I started the race shockingly changing gears very abruptly and my chain came off!! No!! I had to sprint to get back to the pack. Lactic already and 5hrs to go… The course started with a steep climb and I got into a rhythm whilst keeping an eye on my heart rate. I felt great. The first 30kms were awesome, although mid pack I felt I was actually in the race, I was riding with a few girls quite comfortably and I was enjoying every minute of it. The course was awesome, constantly changing, steep ups and technical downs involving mud, roots and rocks – this was a proper MTB course. For a marathon it was hard to get into a rhythm though but I loved it nevertheless. After the first 30km I saw Michael and Aede for my first bottle change over, they decided to stand right at a hairpin corner, I had to come to a complete halt to change the bottles. Not the way I had imagined it. Michael later said to me that he thought that I would stop have something to eat, a quick chat and go again… Hmmm no.
The next 30kms were mentally a bit tougher, I had dropped a couple of girls and I was now on my own, I kept to my heart rate but it was so much easier to ride hard with direct competition. In my head I broke the race down in 10kms segments and with the ever changing course you had to be 100% focused all the time which made it feel like it went really fast. The elite men were now on course which was a little intimidating as they did not slow down to pass no matter how narrow or wide the track.
I rolled into aid station 4 where Michael and Aede were awaiting me, 20kms to go, I was on the home straight. Bottle changeover went a bit smoother now Michael knew there was no stopping and as I carried on he yelled at me “You are 21st with 1min up on 20th”
“what now? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!” “this is not happening” I thought to myself, I am not going to miss out on Worlds by 1 minute!” Something changed in me and I became super aggressive, I started to race really, really hard. I had nothing to lose.
“1 minute is a big margin to try to make up in 20kms after already 62kms in the legs” I was having a conversation in my head “FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS” I was breathing hard and my heart rate was as high as I ever had it. To my surprise the 20th placed girl came in sight with 15kms to go. A massive steep climb appeared in front of us. She got off the bike, I didn’t. “I have to ride it” I thought “not getting off the bike” and I started yelling at the people who were walking “RIDER, RIDER” we were now sharing the track with riders from the shorter races. My legs were on fire, my lungs were burning. “not getting off the bike” I repeatedly said to myself. “A GAUCHE!!!” I heard a voice behind me screaming and suddenly everyone jumped out of the way and I stormed up the hill with my new made friend behind me yelling at people to get out of the way. I asked if he wanted to pass when the hill was levelling out. “keep going” he said. The path widened and he passed me without sticking elbows in my ribs which was a pleasant change from the other guys.
I followed him at high speed, a sudden left turn and down a chute, holy crap! It was too late now and I followed the guy in front of me, people were walking down everywhere whilst I was hanging off the back of my bike slipping and sliding praying I would not crash, I was on a high. Over a tight bridge and back up a hill. The guy looked back and when he saw I was still there he gave me a huge smile. 5kms to go, surely we would head back into Houffalize on a nice fire trail soon. Wishful thinking, steep climbs kept on appearing and I was on a mission. My alter ego had taken over, super aggressive, yelling at people to get out of my way. 2kms to go, where was the nice firetrail back into Houffalize??? No way, up the Enduro track?? seriously!!
I was forced to get off the bike because of people walking, I started running pushing the bike up the hill elbowing people, “out of my way!!” I heard one of the organisers cheering me on
“C’est finis pour toi!!”
Finis? yes please!! 1kms to go, where was the bloody easy road into the finish I imagined??!!! Down a steep windy muddy slippery track. I rode like a true Euro, my foot was off the pedal and slid around the corners. There it was!! 200m of tarmac into the finish, I heard Michael and Aede yelling my name and I sprinted. Finished. 83kms, 2200m of climbing. I looked up the results screen, 18th!!!! I did it, I did it, I did it!!
I was so happy, most of all because at no point did I falter during the race, sure I made lots of technical mistakes, dropped my chain a couple of times, not knowing the course I took a wrong line and ended stuck in the mud and many more stupid time-wasting mistakes, but mentally and physically I did not have one negative moment in the whole 5hrs. Even when Michael told me I was in 21st place I stayed positive and stepped it up another level and rode myself to 18th, taking 8min off the girl who was in 18th place with 20kms to go! I had not felt this good in a race since 2013 and it was a great feeling. Top 20 might not sound that great to people who don’t know the sport, but for me, at this level, in this race, after the last 12 months I had, I could not be happier. My 8th MTB Marathon in my racing career and although it was not my best placing by any means, it was my best executed MTB marathon race to date in the toughest field of elite women I have ever raced
At the pointy end Alice Pirard from Belgium won the race, in front of Milena Landtwing from Switzerland and Ann-Kathrin Hellstern from Germany. Massive thanks to the organisers and all the supporters on course especially Michael, Aede, Theo and Suzanne for making this such a memorable day!
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