So, right when Mike and I got comfortable with winning, here we are out of the race. Pulling out of a stage and the race was interesting in itself, and really brought home to us what’s great about the Perskindol Swiss Epic, and our partnership. I want to tell the story of what went on, I mean, I’ve been blogging about our race and this is still part of it, isn’t it? On a personal note, I also want to get it straight in my own mind. I’ve never felt so disappointed in myself, and in many ways I’m still trying to work out ‘what happened’, just like everyone keeps asking me, so here goes…
Right before we turned the lights out on the evening of day three I started feeling sick but dismissed it as normal fatigue and tried to go to sleep. As the night crept on it got worse and worse – chills, stomach cramps, and incredible nausea such as I’ve never experienced. I’ll spare you the details, but I ended up lying on the tiles of the bathroom floor, unable to get up or even speak coherently. After a long time I started to call for Mike then, after a while, I just called for help. Yep, it was gastro! We’re not sure what set it off, but suspect I just ate or ingested something dodgy that, given the state of extreme physical stress everyone’s body is under, I just didn’t cope with. Unusual for me – my stomach is cast iron!
The worst of it wasn’t necessarily not being able to keep food down. I think that the lack of sleep and particularly the dehydration of a ‘night on the tiles’ took the biggest toll. I barely slept and couldn’t get fluids in, but in the morning my stomach was a bit better, although I could only eat a bit of apricot yoghurt at breakfast, of all things.
Under any other circumstances I would not have got on a bike after that, but I had trained for this race and this race only for three months. We had flown across the world. I had spent thousands of dollars, etc, etc. Mostly, however, we had the leader’s jerseys. We were winning! I always tell myself that the future is unwritten. There’s no point deciding what your fate might be and giving up, because you never, ever know – hell knows I’ve raced in awful states before. We kept quiet about my illness (it never happened!) and pasted smiles on our faces as we took to the start line.
And everything went great. We had a tremendous start, right up where we had been. We haven’t been pacing ourselves against the other mixed teams at all throughout the Swiss Epic, measuring ourselves instead by the elite women’s and masters’ men’s fields, and we knew we were where we wanted to be – where we usually rode. I noticed I was having a more trouble with my concentration and reflexes in the singletrack than was usual, even given the normal stage-race fatigue (I’ll say I’m a reasonably experienced stage racer, and I know how I should feel after four days), but shoved the worries to one side and trucked on. We careened down a huge road and singletrack descent into the valley below, where a 20km section of bike path and backroads into vicious winds followed. We secured a group, but I started to have trouble with balance and cognition. I was sucking down gels and sports drink like never before, but nothing seemed to help, and although the brutal 1400 vertical metre climb in the middle of the stage started really well for us, about half-way up my state really deteriorated in a way I’ve never, ever experienced in 15 years of bike racing. I dropped a gear, then another, then another, before I was grovelling up in the 30×42, Mike’s hand on my back. My head bobbed. My HR had dropped to recovery zone, and I had nothing, nothing at all. I started slurring my speech, wobbling, and eventually fell off. Mike was trying to get me to stop, but I just lay on the road for a minute, got back on, and tried again. Whenever he stopped pushing, I wobbled to a halt and lost balance. We climbed like this for about 8km.
When we finally reached the top of the road section at 2000m and the feed zone I ignored Mike’s appeal for some decision on our race and kept going. There followed some steep trail that I’d normally love to ride. Mike pushed my bike up while I grovelled up alone, remounted, pedalled a few strokes, then got off again. By the time we reached the immense descent back down to the valley, a super steep, rooty, twisty trail, I was cooked beyond reasonable doubt. I’d been hoping for something flowy or even some road, so I could get in a some recovery, but it was anything but. I struggled to control my bike and bounced and crashed and slid down for what seemed like an hour. We were four hours into the race, we had spent about 20 minutes on the side of the track in between bouts of pedalling, and finally a mixed team passed us. What a waste of a comfortable lead!
By the time we got to the valley even I knew we had to think seriously about what to do. I could not control my bike and I couldn’t pedal hard enough to get up a hill more than about 4% gradient, and there was 20km of very, very tough climbing ahead. I’d had eight or nine gels, a bar, a banana, and nearly three litres of water and sports drink. I was too weak to stand on my own but could push my bike along, so I kept walking on like this and ignored Mike’s pleas for some decision, breaking down again and again. ‘Maybe we can walk to the finish’ I said. ‘We’re walking 1/2km and hour and there’s 20km to go,’ says Mike. ‘I don’t think we’re going to get there by walking.’
I refused to budge and our stand-off had us perched on the side of a ledge-like terrace trail beside some vineyards, a storm approaching, for another 20 minutes. Something we might be able to laugh about one day. Every single team that passed us – from the Flow category to our competitors in the mixed teams – asked were we okay? Did we need anything? And would I like some salt? Finally I gave in and we began an agonising little descent back to the last marshal point against the flow of the race, again asked a million times if we were okay by other riders. I stopped about four times and tried to go back the other way… maybe I could…? But I couldn’t.
When we reached the marshal she made a phone call. Within two minutes Daniel, a Swiss bike guide from Bern who was helping out at the race arrived in his shiny white van, packed our bikes in, and drove us up the hill to Grachen. On the way we suffered the ignominy of driving past the teams we’d been racing against, then the teams we’d been racing with, climbing to the finish.
It was pure agony.
With characteristic efficiency we were withdrawn from the race in about five minutes and were checked into our hotel. I collapsed asleep on the bed for an hour-and-a-half. And that was that.
I’ve pulled out of races before, even big races, but I’ve never had the experience of pulling out of a race I was winning. Ever. Add to that the fact that this was one of the biggest races I’ve ever entered, one of the most I’ve ever invested in, AND beyond a doubt the most enjoyable, best organised, and fun. I know we had a comfortable lead and if we’d just been able to make it to the finish line, well, we might have clawed our way back onto the podium. I’ve gone over and over this in my head, but the truth is I knew it just as well when I was falling over on the side of the track as I do now: that if I could have kept going I would have.
Still, let’s just say there were a few tears, and a night punctuated by vivid nightmares which, when I woke up, did not seem as horrible as reality. Everyone loves a winner, and we aren’t winners anymore. We’re the team that pulled out. The team that couldn’t make it.
I’m finding it hard to express how hard I tried, how much I pushed, so I’m just going to tell the story and leave it at that. But there is a point, and I’ve only reached it a couple of times, where no amount of willpower can make a body pedal up a mountain, and I was way beyond it on Thursday. The only comfort I can take is that next time I’m hurting, I’ll know just how much this body can suffer! Problem is though, that when you stop the mental suffering begins. As soon as we got in that van I started feeling exactly as bad as I’d been afraid of feeling…
So instead, what I keep trying to tell myself is this: We are safe and we are well. I’ll be back on my bike (whatever was wrong with my stomach was a one-off). It wasn’t safe for me to keep going and the consequences could have been dire – there was some tricky trail ahead with massive drops on one side… I’ve got the form of my life and I want to salvage some of it for when I get home. More than anything I know I’ve got an incredible life-and-sport partner and that he’ll always put me first. Mike was not concerned about abandoning the race, the win, the title, the publicity for his team and our sponsors (all things I couldn’t bear to let go of)… All he cared about was me. What a guy.
Yesterday we sat out the stage so I could get enough nourishment in to safely ride again. So we went and watched the start waves set off for what’s probably the toughest stage of the race – 88km and 3100m climbing. It was really nice to see everyone, and the racers I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know – from pros to Flow riders and all through the field – were so kind and genuinely sorry that we were out. I was so happy to cheer them on as they set out in cold temperatures for a punishing ride.
The Swiss Epic is huge. It’s the best of the best. Toughest days on the bike, amazing facilities, attentive and available staff, luxurious hotels, great food, top pros, unbelievable trails, everything perfectly timed and organised… All this is great, true. It’s fantastic. But I want to make one thing clear. The biggest achievement of this race is its atmosphere. There’s applause on the startline every morning for the men playing their Alpenhorns. We’ve got to know amazing people from across the world, from Denmark to Costa Rica. The vibe is universally friendly and supportive. This is what makes the Swiss Epic a very, very serious contender for the best race in the world, and nothing’s brought that home to me as much as pulling out could have.
So we talked it out over apfelstrudel yesterday (yep, my appetite returned!). We want to come back. We want to come back from all the way on the other side of the world faster, better equipped, and we want to come back with one goal… to win – and we’re already trying to work out how to make it happen.
Today we’re starting at the very back, but we’re going to ride like demons to Zermatt. We’re going to make sure we finish on a high.