When I first started this blog almost five years ago, I promised myself one thing: that it wouldn’t degenerate into a narrow, self-absorbed search for validation like so many athlete blogs invariably do.
With this post, I’m shamelessly abandoning that conviction. This will be introspective and self-indulgent – but hopefully, something inspirational and resonant for someone, somewhere: someone else riding through the darkness.
It is a story of four quartets.
Act 1: Beware the Darkness
The beginning of every 24 hour race is always one marked by a small degree of distraction and self-delusion. The mountain and the trails are a blank canvas, through which tyre tracks slowly, progressively stamp a story in the hours to follow. The first 6 hours of racing are an act of denial – often of suicidal pace, of red mist descending – or of unnecessary jumps and skids – somehow oblivious to the racing to follow. As a mirror to the theme of this post – it is the sunshine before the darkness falls – a time to enjoy on its own merits, ride fast, have fun, put safety third.
And yet, the opening act is dwarfed by the veiling shadow of the race to come. A shadow that falls somewhere between effort and endurance, between pleasure and pain, between mental invincibility and infinite frailty.
Perhaps TS Eliot put it best:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
The shadow is, perhaps, an apt description of the illness known as depression – the debilitating veil that shrouds the experience of life from the living of life. It falls unbidden somewhere between emotion and response – it infiltrates the mind and spreads like a stagnant miasma. It is destructive to human relations and self-reinforcing.
My lead-up week to the Scott 24 this year could be safely described as “sub-optimal”. Between a little bout of flu, a lower back spasm that led to extremely grumpy glutes, and an abundance of “opportunities to shine” at work, I was happy to take the approach of just laughing it off.
However, things soon looked up – with some emergency last minute physio miracles from Physiosport, I went from practically immobilised and unable to sleep to reasonably fluent motion in 24 hours. The flu faded somewhat, and the start-line rolled up.
I had great support co-habitating in the pits next to Sam Moffit (in his strapping bright pink Liv marquee), with Doug, Sonja and Phil keeping both of us running smoothly the whole race. Likewise, I was fortunate enough to have help from great friends – from theSeb – whose Divide adventures I am still in awe of, from Millhund hurling bottles, advice, food and heckling all night, Eliza dashing in the pits between course director duties, my parents doing 11pm pizza runs, and Phill and Phil arriving in the morning to keep me moving at speed – the support was abundant, and reason enough to push through for 24 hours. You guys were amazing!
To add to this, the prospect of a thrilling race was afoot, on a cracking Stromlo course taking in the best of the best – the solid chug of the trunk climb, with gentle switchbacks, rock gardens and stunning vistas over Canberra leading into the classic Wedgetail and Skyline descent out over the Brindabellas, before taking in the rockier chutes of Slant Six and Breakout before the final downhill run home. 12.5km, about 250vm ascent, but at high speed, and with plenty of fun.
Added to this were some good racers: Sam Moffit, increasingly fast Onya Super Chugger; Andy Lloyd, the former moto racer with amazing power and superb technical skill; Shane Roberts – the winner of many Victorian endurance races and a highly credentialed racer; Tobias Lestrell – the Swedish speedster winning just about every discipline on a mountain bike out there – and, of course – Jason English. Jason was backing up from winning the WEMBO championships in California just 5 days prior – a task seemingly impossible to anyone but Jason. To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised he hasn’t been abducted by a military dictatorship looking for the secret formula to super-human soldiers.
Appropriately, the start began with the very speedy Tobias deciding that 300W seemed like a sustainable climbing tempo. I dabbled with this for about 2 minutes before deciding that a) I wasn’t fit enough to go that fast and b) if I tried to hold that pace, Mount Stromlo would soon be a smoking crater from the remnants of a patented-megaton-Ed-explosion.
As I am mentally still reeling from the fallout of my many previous explosions, I decided in this instance – especially with the flu – to play the conservative card – after all, in the age of an ascendant Malcolm Turnbull, it’s cool to be conservative.
I was surprised to notice that, on the very next lap, Jason soon shot off up the road – perhaps trying to wake himself up – but going uncharacteristically hard early on. Andy Lloyd soon followed. What followed of the titanic battle of these three riders over the next 16 hours – I can only picture fragments from the gossip on track, but the pace was alarming.
Beware the darkness, I told myself. On every climb I’d look for the pace I wanted to push, and then back off another notch to manage a hot, sunny day. Because between the emotion and the reaction, the shadows lengthen in the growing darkness.
Act II: Into the Darkness
The Darkness is where the enormity of the race becomes real. The time when the distance between expectation and reality becomes real – when endurance and discipline become the tasks at hand. It is the slip into the shadow – the distance of the hope on the horizon, the interminability of the deep night ahead – picking lines through the dusty darkness.
If popular culture is to believed, it’s that the mid teens to early 20s should be the golden days of life, bathed in endless summer, infinite opportunities, and a world of naieve invincibility, hope and fun. Somewhere in the midst of this time, the shadow fell for me, and the age of golden summer is painted in my memory in sombre, darker tones.
Moving into the dark of night, I was grateful for the cooler weather and easier conditions to ride in. The alarming news was the rapidity with which the gap was growing to the three leaders – over twenty minutes up the road and with no signs of slowing down. I supposed, that relying on others slowing down may have been a poor strategy when the three riders up the road have such excellent endurance pedigree.
Instead, I decided to focus on what I could – settling into rhythms on the climb every lap, controlling exertion, conserving energy and picking smooth lines on the descent down Stromlo.
But – as much as this relies on disciplined simple thinking – with the increasing hours, the nature of the task changed. Where previously the climb was loathed in the heat for the effort and the physical stress, now it became the easy part – and the rough braking ruts of the Luge and Breakout became the tests of endurance every lap, as suspension stiffened under the dust load.
Taking in a hefty dose of trite racing philosophy, it was time for patience. Control what you can control. The rest is fate – you can do nothing about it – so there’s no point stressing about it. The laps ticked by in a flurry of concentration. It’s like a nice big equation. The key is abstraction into manageable parts with an ordered relationship. As overwhelming as the overall picture may be, the moment is everything. Midnight rolled around – and the real acts of the race began.
Act III: The Black of Night
The shadow lies in the search for meaning to the madness. In the hope of something something mystical, redeeming. Something to break the suffocating banality of the malcontent mind. The forsaking of the present moment for a happiness that is always intangible by merit of its own contingent definition.
It is the idea of something transcendental – some love, some intellectual experience that blasts the mediocrity of modern life. Many have plunged deep into the depths of ultra-endurance in the search of emotional answers, or something that could transcend and alleviate personal baggage.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t transcend your demons in a mystical flight of self-realisation. You take your demons and your weaknesses out there with you, and they beat you down at your weakest point. You cannot run from your own shadow.
The deep hours between midnight and dawn are so often referred to as the “witching hours” that break so many racers, between sleep deprivation, pain, bonking, or the sheer weight of the cold, unending night. Some would say it’s when the race really starts.
Moving into the witching hours, I was firmly embracing my fatalistic mood. Fourth would be OK. Ride safely, ride conservatively, look after the body. But, somewhere between this, the cracks in the mental outlook slipped through. It took only some innocuous incidents – a loose bottle cage and some batteries slipping off the frame – and the demons of doubt and weakness slipped into my mind – and then I succumbed to pain.
The problems were arising from contact points – sore wrists and hands swelling into blood blisters from braking ruts on the descent, and a bum that was slowly being burnt to a crisp from bracing through the rough terrain. I caught the problem too late, slathered on chamois creme, and hoped.
Once you start thinking about pain, it sucks you in – an eternally self-consuming spiral. A black hole slowly spinning, annihilating matter into a singularity of suffering from which light cannot hope to escape. As the chasms open in your mindset, the demons worm their way into your mind. Every weakness, every bitterness, every self-justified failing. I sulked on failed relationships, on the mediocrity of having plateaued in an athletic career, and on the hard and reluctant decisions this year to sacrifice riding ambitions at the alter of corporate servitude. My race was falling apart, and I realised with a degree of desperation that I’d have to break the spiral.
There is no transcendental experience in the dark of night. Society has normalised the transcendence of reality by recreational substance abuse, and a world of cute consumerism. Bike racing deals with cold, hard absolutes – just a test of the will against the magnitude of the task. There is no running from the darkness – it must be dealt with, respected, turned into an ally.
I focussed on breaking the pain cycle to liberate my breathing, heart-rate and focus from the parasympathetic pain response. Match the breaths to the pedal stroke – cadence is everything. Find the rhythm in the track.
And, as much as vortices can be destructive, they can also be liberating. With focus on the legs came the realisation that my legs were still in great shape. My fluid levels were excellent, my heart rate was good, my stomach was excellent, and my night-nutrition of pizza, bananas and sandwiches from the Super Support Crew was leaving the perfect balance of carbohydrate in the blood. So many things were going very, very well. I chatted and heckled everyone I could find on the track to improve the spirits and push on.
Perhaps things going well really just coincided with the consumption of caffeine and a tiny bit of ibuprofen – but either way, I carefully layered strength upon strength, and focussed on a sustainable pace and the challenge ahead. Miraculously, I’d soon passed Lloydy – wearing out from his phenomenal efforts stretching Jason to the limit, and was pushing for the dawn.
And thus, the horror of the witching hours is transmutated from the great enemy to a secret ally. The same things that can beat you down can make you strong if you perservere. Once you get through it, the darkness can be your friend.
Act IV: The Scars of Darkness
The dawn in a 24 hour race is often taken as the high point of the race – from the depths of a cold, interminable night where time distorts into a vast expanse, the landscape gradually lightens, the birds chime and chortle, and the beautiful glow stains the east for a stunning sunrise. The hope is palpable, and the air tingles with a renewed life and energy.
Yet this transition back into the radiant light of the day also illuminates some harsh realities: the scars of the night. Just how slow you really are riding. The team riders and 6+6 riding flying past and you crawl up a hill. The fact that everything hurts – you’ve invested all your energy into making it to dawn, and there are now five more hours to ride.
This holds up a mirror to dealing with the shadow. The overinvestment in the joy of a radiant dawn defined so much by its difference to the darkness – yet somehow not quite reconciled to the realities.
Many of my early 24 hour races were stung by equating dawn to the finish. By riding a wave of adrenaline and emotion through to 8am, then falling to pieces in a smouldering heap in the morning sun with hours left to ride.
This time, I was far more careful. Find the pace, and wind it back a notch. Be wary of the miles ahead. Drink, drink now – because it will be hot by midday. I was hoping my conservative race strategy would get me to the finish line in solid shape and focussed on keeping the task manageable.
Perhaps the better approach is not to divorce the final six hours from the long night – but to take a leaf from Jason English’s book, and view the whole race as preparation for its dying stages. And while my bum probably now resembled a raging conflagration and my hands were more blisters than skin, my legs were working well and my energy levels were excellent. I could dance slowly out of the saddle, climb sustainably, and then relax the legs on the descents.
Making darkness your ally can make you stronger for the day. You can never quite escape the shadow and always carry its memory and weight with you. But you can harness that memory and that experience to make you stronger.
With a few hours to go and having a lap up in 3rd place, I was looking forward to an easy finish to the race and rolling sustainable laps – and then the rumours started from the cheers in pit row. “Go for second!” people cheered to a very bemused Ed, who thought “bof, they’ve not checked the results” – but the cheers became more consistent. And then: “Tobias is cracking. Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll catch him before the end of the race”.
I was now faced with a dilemma. As much as the flood of adrenaline wanted to strike, I was mindful that I had three hours and over 50km yet to race – still a very respectable distance. I was mindful of quickly irrational pace at this point could lead to total annihilation. It was time to heed the lessons of the night – focus on what was going well, and ride sustainably and with discipline.
The catch came in the 11th hour with a violent spurt of adrenaline and a rather fast lap – and I couldn’t help but feel for Tobias, having raced with spirit and heart all night and then losing second in the final hour, yet greeting me with a friendly smile, waving me through and wishing me luck with a grace that can’t be easy to muster after so many hours in the shadow. Unlapping myself from a rampaging Jason, who clearly was feeling pretty fresh after dominating two consecutive 24 hour solos, the descent even featured wild jumps and skids in a very irresponsible fun after all that time on the bike.
All that remained was one final lap with a severely buckled body struggling under the heat – one more grind up the climb, and one more slow, cautious descent.
And all this reminds me what I love about racing 24s. A dramatic narrative played out against the intense, microcosm of a mountain bike spectacle. That reminds me of the strength I found in discovering mountain biking. The link between exercise and treatment of depression is well documented- whether a deeper physiological connection to genetic primacy, or simply the necessary functioning of the body – I found something tangible. Something where hard work would yield reward and return, where fun and adventure awaited at the doorstep.
Something where the strength is found both in yourself, and in others – in the camaraderie and spirit of fellow racers, and the amazing support given by friends in support in the pits, and a sense of shared community.
For all the suffering of 24 hours straight on the mountain bike, the allure was still there. The desire to jump into an experience that is overwhelmingly intense, demanding, requiring complete physical and mental control – to hold a very small mirror to life and live every moment of those 24 hours to the fullest.
To ride through the darkness, and out the other side.
There are some people I need to thank at this juncture:
- The Moffits – Doug, Sonja and Phil supporting Sam and myself through our crazy adventures – Sam finished an excellent 6th in a strong field after a week of spectacular anti-taper, and will surely write an even longer blog than this – but Doug, Sonja and Phil took me on as another demanding charge;
- Milly, Eliza, theSeb, Phill and Phil for some amazing support, cheering me on, and getting me through the hardest parts of the race – you all rock!
- The parentals for a pizza run, and putting up with a son far more interested in silly bike races than growing up
- Onya Bike Canberra: a team that balances support perfectly with a sense of fun and what racing should be about!
- Jason English – it’s an honour to race against a guy who’s not only a legend of the sport, but a legend of a bloke
And some sponsors for some awesome stuff that helps make this all happen:
- Maxxis for the excellent, bomb proof, grippy, set-and-forget Ardent Race tyres
- Hammer Nutrition – Endurolytes Extreme were key for me surviving the hot temperatures on course
- Giant Bikes – the Anthem was a perfect race bike – light, reliable, responsive, fun, and comfortable
Riding bikes is fun!