Last year when Queensland’s biggest and oldest MTB marathon, the Flight Centre Epic rolled around, I had recently returned from World XCM Championships and had had some time off. It had also been raining. The prospect of pedalling through thick black mud for five hours held little attraction for me, and Mike and I sat that dance out. This year, things have been very different. Lying in a hospital bed in March, realising that all my goals to race World XCM and World XCO Champs were gone, my husband and I agreed that the Epic, a National XCM Round, would be a good ‘comeback’ race to aim for… so that’s what I did.
We often see professional athletes get injured, disappear for a few months, then come back as if nothing had happened. I can tell you that a lot goes on in that time! With three months off the bike, I’d reached my lowest point of fitness since I started riding 15 years ago, and I could barely hang onto people doing a recovery spin. I’d also lost a lot of muscle and conditioning, so I was getting back pain and knee pain as secondary side effects from the broken pelvis. I had no confidence and mountain bike handling was a huge problem for my reconstructed shoulder (and my relentlessly anxious mind).
Over the next three months, my dismal power numbers grew by tiny, tiny increments every now and then—and nowhere near as often or by as much as I thought they would. I lay on the floor doing silly exercises, trying to get more movement in my left shoulder. I trudged in and out of the gym (I have never liked the gym!). I howled in frustration at an arm that refused to work properly, then taped it up and rode anyway and cried some more on the trails. I was an absolute pleasure to live and train with!
Having a short lead-up to a big and difficult marathon meant it was even more important than usual to have a solid race strategy and to pace myself. I had a pacing plan that had worked for me at Worlds and I wanted to replicate it as much as I could, but the Epic is longer and rougher and tougher, and I’d only done two rides over four hours since February… With the help of husband and coach I decided to ride conservatively for the first 52-kilometre loop, then see what I had left in the second, 40-kilometre loop that made up the 92-kilometre course.
I hadn’t actually completed a marathon since Worlds last year in June – more than a year – so I was nervous and excited on race day, just wondering if I could do it, and whether I’d be ‘in’ the race at all. My worries disappeared on the start line. I love seeing the other Elite girls and all things considered, I was happy just to be there. We basically started chatting at the call-up and didn’t even pause when the gun went off… the race only really got underway about 10 minutes later when we’d covered a few important topics and we hit the first big hill. I stayed up the front—my heart rate was high but I was aware of the more than 1,000 competitors starting behind us. I must have been doing okay because a number of the Elite women dropped back, and only four of us made it to the top together.
I wanted to get to the singletrack before the next wave of top masters men started to pass us. I rode like rubbish down the first singletrack descent and, hopelessly conscious of the fact that I was holding Peta Mullens up, I let Em Viotto pull away. I waved Peta through when we started climbing again and she took off after Em, while I simply sat up. We were about 20 minutes into the course. This is not the way I’d usually race but I’d promised myself to stick to the plan! I let a bunch of charging masters riders through then fell into a pace that felt very, very slow—down Devine, then up the 10 kilometres of climbing singletrack to the top of Skyfall.
I have to say, ‘racing’ like this is incredibly strange. My effort level was low enough that I could chat with the guys as I let them pass, relax, and actually just enjoy myself. I didn’t stress about anything (first time ever!), and even stopped to refill my bidon at one of the feed stations just so I could have an extra drink and a bit of a park up. Soon, like my coach had promised me, I was riding through a medieval battlefield of casualties—cramps, flats, crashes, vomiting—you name it, the Epic served it up. I plodded on through hot grassy paddocks and through rough, slow-going singletrack at a snail’s pace. I kept my heart-rate as low as possible up the climbs and tried to ride efficiently down flowing descents until I got to transition. My coach was having a bit of a break after cramping so he told me some splits: I wasn’t as far back as I’d thought. I swapped Camelbaks, grabbed six more gels, slugged down some coke and off I went, but different now. 40 kilometres to go meant race time!
Woohoo! I could go as hard as I liked now. I tried to hunt guys down and made a bit of a game of it. Every time I saw some poor fella in the distance I made it a mission to catch him—and not to let anyone catch me. Most of the time I was completely alone, my shoulder was killing and I was still riding rubbish on the descents, but I was happy to be able to unleash some effort, and felt great: positive, happy, just overjoyed to be riding my bike in the bush. After 20 kilometres I saw Em’s unmistakable red Trek jersey and shiny blue Shimano Sphyre shoes (I have the same ones). I was sorry to hear she’d had some gastro, but I passed and kept the pressure on. There were 20 kilometres to go and while I knew Peta was out of my range, I wanted to see how much time I could gain in the last hour or so’s racing.
The final two hours of the Epic represents the most zen stretch of time I’ve ever passed on a bike. I rode better than I had all day and felt a weird, quiet focus. It’s strange for me to race without emotion but that’s what it was like, just me, riding my bike, going through the motions, and it was amazing. I pushed all the way to the line and crossed it in 5:17, completely battered, but happy with my ride. I was 9 minutes down on Peta’s winning time, which isn’t great, but I’d ridden the fastest time on the second loop, competed in a National XCM race in a strong women’s field, and I made it!
The end of the beginning
The Epic to me was pretty symbolic. Even before I lined up to start, it represented the end of the beginning, a time to draw a line under the accident and the recovery period. Since I got back on the bike three months ago there have been two ‘mes’: the me from before the accident, who could do x and y (ride this drop, corner this fast, etc), and the me of after, who couldn’t anymore. Racing the Epic, and having a good race at the Epic was about proving to myself that I can work with what I’ve got, and if I can’t pump or throw the front wheel, and if I’m not as fit as I was or not as strong, I can still put a decent race together, even if it means a bit more thinking and planning and discipline. I came second in Elite women and 27th overall, and I couldn’t have asked for any more.
Mentally, I think I had one of the best races of my life out there. The atmosphere was incredible, my bike and gear and hydration and nutrition were perfect. The trails were tremendous, the support from friends and other riders, the competition from the other ladies, the encouragement, the facilities (showers, bike wash!) were just out of this world. Thanks to all, and I’ll definitely be back next year. (Unless I’m at XCM World Champs, of course). Most of all, the Epic has been a chance to draw a line under the whole accident thing, and I hope this is the last time I mention it in writing for a while.