If there’s no good reason not to, why the hell not? Right?
When the opportunity to join an all-women Red Bull Timelaps team came up, I didn’t need much convincing. Eight weeks to go. That’s enough time to prepare...?
Having taken a long break from cycling, I had only really got back into it about seven months before. I had worked my way up to longer distances in that short time, so I felt confident.
Six weeks to go: Injury gained
Unfortunately, the increased mileage took its toll on my body. The result? A wobbly knee and piercing pain right through my groin and the top of my kneecap.
An appointment with the physio revealed that my pelvis had slipped out of alignment and that my scoliosis has flared again causing my knee to rock and my hip to rotate. This had caused my hamstring to lock.
All cycling to cease for the foreseeable future.
Five weeks to go: Injury sustained
After a week of yoga, Pilates, and most importantly rest, hip rotation has improved. My foot is flattening, hamstring is loosening, and the pain is dissipating.
I’m given the all clear to cycle my short commute, plus a weekly 20 to 30 km ride. Not quite the mega mileage I was getting used to, but I needed to be firing on all cylinders for the main event.
Two weeks to go: Injury maintained
The regime of stretching and resting is paying off. One 20km and one 40km ride each week is achievable, but my knee isn’t as strong as it was before, and my back muscles tighten up towards the end of a ride. I feel that my fitness has depleted significantly.
One week to go: Just go for it
All injuries have been deemed mechanical and, although it is uncomfortable, riding with the pain is not doing major damage (however, it is noted that after a significant amount there is the possibility of pulling my hamstring) – on the basis that I don’t go as fast as I can I should be able to participate with my team in the Red Bull Timelaps race.
Shift number one: 15:00 – 17:00
I headed out feeling good. The sun was still up and radiating warmth.
I’d judged my outfit perfectly for the conditions. The short sleeve merino base layer was just enough, and a skull cap and gloves provided insulation for my extremities.
My dhb Aeron Women's Polartec Alpha Gilet, which has a windproof outer shell and a lovely fluffy lining, protected me from the bitter headwind on part of the course.
The marshals and the other riders constantly offered words of support and I was smiling the whole way around. Fun, exhilarating and slightly emotional
Pulling into the pit area to hand over to my teammate, I looked forward to grabbing some warm food before heading to our camper van for a nap.
Shift number two: 23:00 – 01:00
The night shift.
Since I’d retreated into my sleeping bag, the outside temperature had plummeted from 8 degrees Celsius to 0 with a wind chill of –4.
I'd thankfully missed the rain, but my fellow teammates had returned damp and shivering. As I emerged from my cosy cocoon, I began to appreciate just how cold it was. Sickeningly cold. I struggled to eat before it was time to head back out on the course.
Huddled alone under our gazebo in the pit area, I waited to relieve my teammate who had been riding the previous two-hour block.
Looking at the wet tarmac, I felt justified in my decision to switch my slick road tyres to ones with more grip. Feeling slight apprehension, I was off into the night.
Apprehension turned to astonishment. I was utterly blown away by the course. The lights absolutely astounded me, making me feel very emotional. A previously unremarkable section of woodland had taken on a magical atmosphere, bathed in twinkling lights. It still gets me in the throat!
The astonishment was short-lived as I realised that my injury was creeping up once again. My left knee started to wobble so I concentrated on pedalling with my right leg to relieve the stress as my central back muscles clenched and spasmed.
I survived the remainder of my shift by tucking in behind a slower rider. Rolling back to the pits, I wondered how I would survive another two hours.
The final shift: 06:00 – 08:00
Exhausted. Shivering. Sick to my stomach. I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag at 04:30 and kitted up for the last round, fumbling zips with icy hands.
Just as I was leaving the camper van, my teammate Hannah was returning, shaken having taken a fall. I wrapped my blanket around her and headed out, worrying about the fate that awaited me.
Other teams didn’t look much better than us. Fatigue was setting in and the cold conditions had forced some riders to abandon.
It was still dark, so I focused on seeing the beautifully lit-up forest a final time and the exhilarating descent past the lake.
Two laps in and I was still struggling to warm up. Exhaustion had set in; my knee was aching, and I had lost whatever physical stamina and mental energy I might have had at the start.
I was losing hope when I spotted a friend by his Team Wiggle kit. It was his last lap so he was happy for me to hang onto his wheel for a bit of a break, and some company.
As we hit a climb, I fell back. I hadn’t been able to face eating when I’d got up and now the intense hunger pangs were catching up with me. I made an unscheduled pit-stop. Wolfed down some brownies, and disappeared back into the woods with my bike.
Feeling a renewed energy, I completed two more laps, crying on the last one with pride, joy and relief. The supportive chants from the marshals rang in my ears, and I thanked them all for their kindness as I went around.
Ascending the last hill on my last lap I felt a shooting pain through my hamstring. Thank goodness I would be crossing the finish for a final time.
Limping back into the pit area, I plopped myself into a chair and had a little chuckle to myself. I was finally done.
What did I learn?
This race is not for the fainthearted and if you are not driven, you will not make it through the night. In fact, we heard that even some of the more experienced riders had been forced to quit by the weather conditions.
You need to have the fitness and stamina to carry on. This race is a test of all your abilities, emotional as well as physical. At times you feel very alone and isolated, although between shifts on the course you have a team to keep you motivated.
The right kit is essential. Having learnt about the importance of winter kit through trial and error, I made all the right choices to keep warm on the bike. The cold only became a problem between rides, particularly as I was slightly clammy from the effort. Having additional clean, dry clothes to change into was a real boost for morale and vital to keep warm.
I learnt the hard way about the need to eat regularly. I always struggle with nutrition as I get extremely nervous and can’t eat. However, this was an error of judgement on my part and meant I had to come off the course to eat.
Sleep when you can. You want to be there for your teammates and bedtime is not at 4pm in the afternoon, but you have lost a lot of energy and calories. Sleep is essential for muscle recovery and it was probably the thing I did best in my non-cycling times.
My Heroes at the Time Laps
You need a team of strong people (both in body and mind) to pull everyone through and support each other. I had all of this and more, and they were as close to me as my family for a short moment in time.
It was easy to decide what item of clothing stood out for me. Although all my other kit performed as planned, this one did that and beyond, saving me from wind chill and a cold torso. I never felt ready to ride unless I was wearing it and it’ll be hard to give up come summer time (even though I won’t need it)!
I love my bike. I love it like a friend and a rock. Although it is just an object it is always there when I need it and it always helps me through the struggles. It is reliable and just absolutely perfect. I changed my tyres before the race to Schwalbe CX Comp Cyclocross tyres, meaning I had greater grip and traction. This made it easier to go off the road when other racers came too close and gave me the extra confidence I needed on the descents.
I am so proud of myself for competing the Red Bull Timelaps. I am proud even though I completed lower than my usual standards and abilities. Receiving my participation medal was more of an honour than receiving any other award where I have placed. I truly showed myself that I am finally an athlete.
In my kit bag
The weather forecast for Red Bull Timelaps: cold but dry and sunny in the daytime with a chance of rain overnight. Knowing how my internal temperature reacts to the cold, I packed more winter clothes than summer with plenty of options to layer up. I made sure there were multiples of key items like bib tights, socks, base layers and jerseys so that I could change out of cold, wet kit between shifts on the course.