A note on failing and puzzles too.
*This is a long one, so if you only have a few minutes scroll to the last section.
When I started putting my race calendar together early this year the event I was the most excited for was The Traka, a 360k adventure ride through the gravel roads of Girona, Spain. It would be a lot of firsts for me and that was just the motivation I needed early in the season. Last year was also a lot of new experiences but in a different way, it felt like there was more external pressure, more eyes, more expectations...for every single race....for 7 months. I hadn't felt truly excited to race in quite some time.
This season has felt different, in a really positive way. I found the excitement and love in what I get to do again. That's not to say it isn't full of challenges and heartbreak, but the feeling of looking forward to an event versus dreading it has given me more motivation than I've ever had before. That motivation, the desire to do something you love that also happens to be the way you earn a living, well, it's everything.
I knew I was up against a lot outside of the actual race with this one. The Traka came just one week after the Lifetime Grand Prix Series opener in California which meant 3 flights (1 international) in one week! This is where preparation is everything. Dylan and I started packing weeks before, a full on week of Sea Otter trade show plus XC MTB race shenanigans straight into an international ultra-endurance gravel event...shit got real. Luckily I assembled an amazing crew of friends to make the voyage out to Girona. Alex Roszko (photographer/race support), Ben Kraushaar (video/constant entertainment), Dylan Stucki (video/photo/mechanic/race support/emotional support animal).
I think my excitement for the event was only amplified by the energy of others, everyone we met had the same buzz for this race and that is something really special. It felt a lot more laid back than my other events but still kept that high performance component. Our goofy crew helped me calm the nerves the days leading up to the race. We mostly spent time doing group rides, staving off jet-lag (unsuccessfully), bopping around the Old Town Girona on bikes, e-scooters and mostly by foot. The nerves only showed up on race day morning. There is nothing like sleeping for 4 hours before an all day event!
Here is the TLDR section (AKA race recap)
I'm not going to go into a blow by blow recap of this ride. Literally no one wants to read about all of the things that happen over 15 1/2 hours of racing. So here is the skinny:
I had a stellar start, I felt great going into the first aid station and was with Amity (the eventual winner) who'd caught up to me before we hit aid 1.
Around hour 5 I realized I had made an error. I didn't know the section between aid 1 and 2 would be as slow and exposed as it was. These races require knowledge and if you don't have that crucial intel on the course you have to make your best guess. My plan left me running out of both food and water on a critical section, a lot of climbing, which is normally where I excel. Instead, I bonked. So Amity rode away, and I knew that was it. I'll get into the emotions later.
When you bonk, aka, run your body out of calories/energy, it's going to be a struggle to recover from that. Anything you put into your stomach wants to get out of your stomach, so it's a mini battle taking place inside of you while you're trying to stay on a bicycle...and moving forward through space and time. A lot is happening. Now I know though, I can endure nausea for 15.5 hours! Fighting the urge to barf with every sip of water, thought of sugar, nothing felt good but I had for force it down. Even writing this I feel a bit green!
I felt the win slip away, when I knew I needed to take care of my body if I wanted to finish. I had to sit. I had to try to eat something. So I did something I've never done in a race, I hung my bike and sat down.
The rest of the day I spent sipping water from my pack, eating one potato chip at a time from my top tube back and then trying to eat as much as I could at the aid stations along the way. It wasn't a fast method, but it just might get me to the finish.
All I wanted to do at that point was finish, ideally under the 16hr mark which was the previous women's record. I did both of those things.
The final 15k were absolutely magical. It was fully raining, 100% dark and my riding buddy Sam and I only had one light between the two of us. We were ripping through a densely wooded, slippery single track section where frogs were bouncing across the trail left and right. It looked like some Star Wars action scene with the rain drops in the light. Eventually the lead moto hopped in behind us filming the final part of the ride to the finish. It was an epic entourage and one I'll never forget.
I crossed the line with relief, disappointment and joy as I learned that I had also beaten the previous record. Friends, media and race support swarmed in and I had to make my brain form sentences again as I recalled my experience out there.
I learned my eye looked really gross so they made me go to the medic to get it cleaned out, then I got to go practice Spanish in a few hospitals. Eventually I got to go to bed after a 1:30am Domino's dinner in a van and some medicated eyedrops. I will live to blink another day!
Here is the good stuff
This race was one of the longest days of my life, excluding some fun times in college with all night dance parties, however, the sensations are similar. Your feet hurt and you didn't drink enough water. You lose track of space and time. The only thing reminding me as to what I was doing was my Wahoo, I would look down and see numbers and little arrows and then I would just keep pedaling. Occasionally a turn. Often a wrong turn followed by a U-turn. The day melted into the night before and the one after. Sleep wasn't a "thing" for me on this trip for some reason, I never got over the jet lag. But now I can say I've stayed up for 20+ hours 3 times in a week! It's actually concerning that I'm able to somewhat function still.
Feelings always arise in the days after the race. The highs, the lows, the joy and also grief. It's all there. Mostly, for me, I felt failure. I was truly disappointed that I'd missed the win. That with one error it slipped away. Those were the raw emotions. 2nd place felt like a loss. Yes, I was glad to have finished, yes, I know 2nd place in a larger field of women is a solid result, but I knew I had so much more.
I would say I finish most races and wonder if I could've done more, better, faster. You always wonder, could I have....and often I feel like no matter what even if one thing was done "better" something else easily could've shifted out of place. It's sort of like solving a puzzle, but the pieces are constantly in motion...and your'e timed...and you don't know what the final image is supposed to look like...and you have sweat in your eyes.
So of course, I finish a 15.5hr bike race and think, "I could've done x,y,z better and won". The reality is that it's not that simple. I did what I did on the day that I did it. The reality, again, is that there are 1,000,000 things that could've gone wrong and only a few things did. The reality is that out of everyone out there on a given day there is only one person who gets to win. The winner is the one who's both done the work and who has the luck. So why would we judge the value of an experience on one metric? A single win. Why would we say that every puzzle piece that day didn't fit, when a lot of them did. Perhaps it was just snapping that last one into place that we missed. All of those edge pieces, the tricky middle ones, even the corners, those pieces were all there and it took work to get there. You can still determine what that final image is, you can see it taking shape, you just have to have that little bit of magic to watch it all perfectly fit together.
When we do something that falls short of our goal, or maybe it's not even a goal, it's just a feeling of knowing we could've been better, you get to choose how to move forward. Sure, it feels really good to wallow, to find the excuses as legitimate as they may be, perhaps even speak of those things outwardly...but that's the easy choice. With that choice you'd be missing out on all of the good bits, the parts of the process where you get to see what you're really deeply made of. You get to ask yourself all of the hard questions and show up in important ways. You get to suck up your disappointment and turn it into true respect and gratitude towards your competition. You get to congratulate someone on their success and know that it wasn't at your expense but rather they got to have the day that was full of that magical feeling. You know that your day will be there and you would deserve that same treatment. THIS is what sport is.
My reality is that I had the privilege of attending this event, of riding my bike literally all day and a little night. I had an amazingly weird, talented and funny crew who made the entire trip successful in all ways. I got to ride in a stunningly beautiful place with people from all over the world. I had a lot stacked against me with this one but it's my job to deal with those things and to ride my bike, and I did it...in Spanish!