The World 24 Hour Time Trial Championships were my last hope to somewhat redeem my 2016 season after a DVT in summer meant I only competed at 3 events in the whole year and spent many hours indoor on my turbo. Everything went to plan during the cooler first 12 hours of the race but then it struck me what racing in the desert during a heat wave can do to you… and how underprepared I was…
Chris and I flew out to Los Angeles 3 days before the race. Thanks to an upgrade to BA business class (big thanks to my fantastic Born to Bike teamie Cat and her husband James!) and my Isobar Compression socks I had no worries about another DVT. And thanks to the kind loan of a Scicon Aerocomfort Triathlon bike bag by Alan and Vicky (and lots of bubble wrap and foam), I had little to worry about my bike and no stress rebuilding the bike on the other end either. The 2.5-hour queue for passport control was a bit testing as was the nasty landlady who threatened to call the police as we arrived at the apartment of my sister’s colleague and refused our stay there because ‘we were Europeans and would have bed bugs’ … Unbelievable but soon forgotten thanks to the help of some great new friends.
We arrived in Borrego Springs late on Wednesday, leaving some time on Thursday to check out the course and start the race on Friday at 6 pm feeling well rested and no longer jet-lagged. It was nice to replace cold London for sunny California, but while I had factored in the jet-lag (poor Cat raced while having only arrived late on Thursday night), had managed to arrange spare wheels, extra bottles and CO2 canisters with the kind help of California-based fellow 24-hour racers and thought I had planned for racing in the desert, I hadn’t quite anticipated a heat wave or how dry the air would be..
My plan was to wear my Camelbak Racebak vest, which has served me well during many UK races, and fill it with extra water during the night and ice during the hotter hours of the day (which I could then drink as it melted). I also had a normal bottle on my frame and one behind the saddle. I had given Chris a list of what drinks, food, clothing and equipment I wanted and when during the race, but much of that strategy soon went out of the window.
I thought that during the cooler night hours I would drink one 800 ml bottle every two laps, but because the air was so dry and the temperatures a lot higher than anticipated, I went through a bottle each lap. The Solo knee coolers I wore kept me warm enough at night and cool enough during the day whilst giving some UV protection too. But the Assos arm coolers (or what I thought were arm coolers), turned out to be a lot thicker than expected (my fault for not testing them properly before the race). Interestingly I was warm enough all night long just wearing those arm and leg coolers, my ALE bib shorts (best bib shorts ever!) and my thin white summer jersey. I had prepared a down gilet as an extra layer for the night, but never needed it. It must have been that Camelbak vest I was wearing underneath my kit as I saw many other racers with multiple night layers and some even with full on winter coats.
I absolutely loved the first 12 to 13 hours of the race. I was on schedule for the target I had set myself, everything felt smooth and easy. I enjoyed being in my own little bubble in the dark, armed with my bright Exposure lights, not faced by any incline in the road (probably because I cannot see it as clearly), not bothered about any snot hanging off my chin (nobody would notice). It reminds me of those nights cycling back home after a night out with friends during my teenage years, when you just feel like you are flying effortlessly, invincible and free.
I wish I could have held onto that feeling, but as morning broke and the temperatures started to rise into the high 30s I slowly lost my head. They say you cannot win a race alone, which is definitely true for a race of this format, but you can certainly lose it alone. On hindsight, there are many things I would do differently next time, but I guess sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes. I had planned to stop to fill the vest with ice once the temperatures would go into the 30s at midday, but that happened a lot sooner than forecast and I eventually stopped for ice after 19 hours of racing when I already had too much heat exhaustion and possibly a heat stroke. I remember at some point calling out to Chris ‘ice next lap’, but I should have stopped earlier as my last 2 laps were slower than slow. Everything hurt. I couldn’t see properly anymore. I was disoriented, no longer sweating, yet bursting with heat. I couldn’t get my heart rate above 60% or my power over 100 watt anymore. I was grunting from pain and exhaustion with every pedal stroke and all I could think of was just making it back to the pit area safely (as no support crew is allowed on the course). Whereas the plan was to come in for new bottles etc. every one or two laps, Chris reckoned I stayed out for 4 laps by then. I cannot remember any of it.
I just about managed to make my way back into the pit area and shouted out for help. Now this is one of the reasons why I love the long distance racing scene so much. As soon as I shouted out, there were numerous people helping me off my bike and bringing me bags of ice to cool my core down. After 20 minutes of chilling I tried to rejoin the race, but I couldn’t even clip in. When I climbed off the bike after 19 hours I still had a lead of 51 minutes on Seana Hogan, the eventual winner of this race (and RAAM legend!). Theoretically, I could have still turned things around after even resting for up to an hour. But there is no such thing as a virtual win or a great first half of a race and what ifs can only be tested at the next race. At the time, I made the decision to quit. If it hadn’t been for my DVT this summer and generally being more aware of my health or if it hadn’t been Chris supporting me (and me thus being less worried about ruining another holiday for my husband by hospitalising myself after a race), perhaps I would have continued. I guess it was also the shock of experiencing heat exhaustion/stroke for the first time. Hopefully next time I can avoid it or if it does happen I can react to it in a different way, but this time quitting felt like the right decision. Surprisingly it was only after more than 40 minutes of sitting in the shade with ice bags on my groin, belly, chest, neck etc. that I finally felt a little chilly.
So, what would I do differently next time? So many things, but ultimately it comes down to Seana’s advice of ‘racing optimally’ and adjusting not just my clothing, nutrition or cooling methods, but also my pacing to the extreme conditions and accepting that drop in performance during the hottest hours (it affects even the best), to then be able to pick it up again nearer the end of the day. I’m still such a novice and still have so much to learn. This was only my second solo 24-hour. Luckily, aged 37, I am somewhat of a youngster in the world of ultra-cycling, so I still have many years to improve and enjoy.
I have a long list of things I would change for next time: some heat training, arriving several days earlier for desert acclimatisation, no longer wearing that Camelbak vest which is too thick, using ice packs on my core and ice cubes in my drinks earlier during the race, spraying water in my face, using neck cooling wraps, adjusting my pacing during the hottest hours, asking Chris to do more of the thinking for me, reassessing my nutrition, raising the front end of my bike for a bit more comfort … the list goes on and on. Sod’s law will have it that next time it will be unusually cold and windy for Borrego Springs, but at least I am used to dealing with that!
I realise that this blog describes the race like a failure, but I shouldn’t forget to mention that I still won my age category (30-39 years) and came third overall with 360 miles, only 9 miles short of silver, despite quitting 5 hours early. I’m very happy with how the race went for about 16-17 hours and excited by what I may be capable of next time when I come back a little wiser and a bit better prepared.
The course consisted of 2 loops – an 18-mile main loop and a 4-mile finishing loop (used during the last 90 minutes). Whilst the race was held on open roads, there was virtually no traffic. The course was relatively flat, but the surface was pretty draining and called for 25mm tyres. A far cry from traffic assisted racing on smooth UK dual carriage ways and plenty of interesting sculptures and mad desert scenery to keep us entertained.
Bye Nessie, hopefully see you next year to finish what I started… For now it is back to training in cold, wet and windy London, dreaming of more cycling adventures in the sun.
PS: a big thanks to Chris and James for superb crewing, family and friends (old and new) for your kind messages of support and RAAM and the fantastic international ultra-cycling community for making it such a great event.