Had no concept what I was signing up for when Ben proposed we do an 8 day mountain bike race in South Africa. Seemed like a good idea, despite not owning a mountain bike. Hey we’re fit triathletes, how hard can this shit be?
I was to get my first taste in Oman at the Trans Hajar (TH) 4 day race where I unceremoniously got my ass kicked. Sufficiently humbled, I went to Cape Town scared shitless and wondering if it was really possible that everything people said about the Epic being much harder than TH was possibly true. I can now add my second to that, Epic is in at least another league beyond the league above TH.
The Epic prologue. At TH I’d learned that you can’t redline a prologue and not feel it the next days of a stage race, so we worked hard but conservative for the first day. Thought we did well enough to come in the middle of the pack with a time of 1:45. First introduction to how stacked the field was that we were sitting 550th team out of 600; first time in my life to be bottom 10% in sport. Consoled ourselves that others had gone too hard and we weren’t too far off time-wise but the already existing fear began to deepen.
Day 2, Stage 1 (115km 2400m gain). The real welcome to the Cape Epic is always an 800 lb gorilla Stage 1 which is meant to weed people out with a 10hr15 cut off. To start things off wrong, I’d eaten something bad in Cape Town before the race which caused an unpleasant stomach and number 2 issues but with some spare wipes I hoped to get through. Maybe I was just intimidated…
To cut to the chase it was a bitch of a day! We were battling, pushing, bleeding, and puking our way around. I got in trouble with Ben early because I wasn’t eating…he can be stern when he wants so I did eat some. Real problems came at around 70k on a tricky quick decent, Ben went down hard in front of me. I pulled the bike off of him curled on his side with leg twitching and me thinking oh fuck we’re in trouble. Fortunately it seemed he’d been popped hard but bike and Ben while bloodied could keep moving. Ben got cleaned up at the last water stop but we had 30k to go and only 3 hrs left so I had to rush us out. This was about what we needed at our avg pace of 11kph. With 20k to go, Ben stops me and makes me eat a bag of chomps…I proceed to puke all over the trail…all can imagine the bonk from a 10 hr effort and no food for last 4 hrs of that. We were 8 hrs in and 2 to go with Bens limping along from crash and I’m not eating. The sun was not shinning on us, we were totally alone out there by now, it wasn’t fun and I was in hell! Somehow Ben dragged us to the finish line with less than 30 minutes till cutoff. We are now in 600th place out of 602. I think the guys behind us had finished without a chain and the other a broken frame…we had no such excuses, we were just bitched slapped by the Epic.
That night I’m texting coach with all seriousness, that Ben was out with a torn quad and that I wouldn’t likely finish. It was clear that with a black and blue ball the size of half a grapefruit developing on Bens quad he couldn’t ride. As for me, I couldn’t imagine or mentally cope with another over 45 hrs of what we had just endured.
With our struggle on Stage 1 and the weight of 6 more days like this, I was seriously shell shocked and desperately wanted an excuse to pull out. To add to my misery, it was pissing rain and freezing cold. I held out for a miracle that in the morning Ben would be able to walk and thus maybe keep riding with me. There was no way he could, so I had the chilling prospect of carrying on alone.
Stage 2 (only 85k 1800m) started freezing wet, feeling outgunned, unprepared, sorry for myself etc and obviously starting in the last of 8 waves. The Epic is done in pairs but if your partner pulls, you can still finish and get a finisher medal. To be honest a finish was far from my mind, I really only kept going because I had no choice but to. Piers had shared with me a quote from Alice in Wonderland…when White Rabbit asked how much further there was to go, the King said “You start at the beginning, and go on till the end. And then stop.” That had a lot of meaning for me then. To my surprise the downpour and mud didn’t bother me much once I was going and even managed to settle into a rhythm and got around. Still struggled to eat but treated nutrition like doing an 85% heart rate interval effort, unpleasant but you can make yourself do it over and over.
For stage 3 my stomach was recovered, though I’d learned to hate the boxes of nutrition that I’d brought, so I lived off the well stocked aid stations the rest of the week. (Note: anyone want mint, oatmeal or peanut butter pro bars? I’ve got unopened boxes of them for sale). A nice turn for this stage was that at the end I noticed others from my premium group looked like they hadn’t finished too long before I did. In fact while I was still last of the 4 teams in our premium upgrade group (premium mainly means u don’t sleep in a tent), I didn’t have the slowest ride time for the day…
Part of our premium package was a daily massage. 4 teams are grouped with a driver and physio. The order of massage each night is determined by who comes in first for the day amongst our group of 8 riders. I left in the last wave and riding shit meant I was last on the table every night, long after I wanted to be sleeping. I really was politely considered the team runt.
A breakthrough came on stage 4 about 4 hrs in, BAM up the road I see 2 punks (they were whiners and I’d already let them know it) from my group. I went by them Crowie style and not very Epic sportsman like (most everyone there is super chill), in total silence. Fuck it, I’d been kicked all week and finally a small victory…no way they were going to take me down, I was willing to throw all my chips in if they pushed as I was not going last for massage that night!
Guy, another rider staying at our same accommodation, had a partner who was struggling with an irregular heart rate. Ultimately Guy had to go solo as well, so when we came a crossed each other on the track we’d team up as fellow outcasts riding from the back of the pack. By stage 4 we settled in as adopted partners and had a great rhythm together all the way to the finish.
Stage 5 is the Queen stage and the temperature was up to 30. Some worried but it was dry heat and didn’t phase me at all, in desert we get used to drinking lots. My relative performance to the field just kept improving and to cap it off, I picked off 2 teams in my group that day, meant it was daylight out when I got my massage that day. Even better was the dinner table talk stopped being so damn condescending (they were actually cool, I just didn’t like that I sucked). They stopped advising me on how I should try this and that…as if I didn’t know how to ride a fucking bicycle but I couldn’t really blame them based on my first couple stages. Now I was picking them off, even when they had a 30 minute head start. On the hardest day, the Queen Stage 5, I’d finally arrived as a mountain biker.
The latter Stages of 5′ 6 and 7 I played the pick off game. As outcast riders you couldn’t advance to earlier start waves despite quicker times. So I was off the last wave every day. I was assigning points to first passing all the older and heavier riders, then the mixed chic/guy partners, then the German and Swiss bikers and finally guys who had ridden the Epic before (there is a number on your bib indicating how many Epics you’ve finished…mine will now have a 1 😉
I was really happy to find my legs and that I got a solid rhythm. It was a dramatic turn from the start of the week sitting in 600th place and being able to claw through the field to what would’ve been 470th. Not bad considering our start and lack of relative experience.
It was without comparison the hardest effort in a week of my life covering 55hrs in 8 days. I lost the plot early and was in hell. Hanging on was for no heroic reasons as I was shattered but had no other option but to keep pedaling…I wished I would miss the cutoff on many occasions so I could stop. I didn’t stop and eventually I found my rhythm.
It even turns out I was able to come through better than many who looked stronger than me at the beginning. I’m not a lover or surely I wasn’t of extreme endurance events just for the sake of saying I did it. Though when you get into your outer personal boundaries, in that scary space where you don’t think you can make it, you sometimes learn there is more in you than you realize.
Not to intimidate Jimmy but whatever hard I was before, I’m that +1 now.
Thanks to Ben who hung around after a very disappointing withdrawal and supported me every step. As always it’s great having the team support/pressure keeping you going even when you don’t want.