So you’ve read it before. You’ve heard it before. Heck, you may have even said it before. Cycling is all about mental toughness. Racing cyclists train their mind to push the body to work beyond the point of comfort. It’s the hidden motor inside your head that will either make you quit long before your body is really ready to give up, or will keep you going long past when your body says it’s time to quit. I’ve even written about it in my previous blogs… in fact I’m pretty sure that’s the key theme for all my epic rides.
Because we’ve all been there. That really tough ride when we wanted to give up. When we thought that the legs were shot, that everything hurt, that it was too hot/cold/windy/rainy, that nothing was going right… Then the last 1-2km before the end we got that second wind, finished the ride strong, and looked back at it thinking “well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” Those are the rides where it’s mental, not physical, that gets you through. Late in 2017 SBS Insight produced a show called “Pushing the Limits” which explored this topic, interviewing ultra endurance athletes, and discussing the punishment they (we) put our bodies through when doing rides that some people describe as just plain crazy (and that’s when they’re being nice). How to push the limit. How to motivate yourself when your body is screaming at you to stop.
But what happens when it is, indeed, time to stop?
This blog isn’t meant as a pity post. Far from it actually. It’s about me learning about, well, where my limits are. And how I learn and grow as a cyclist. It might not make sense to you and that’s just fine. You may not agree with me, and that’s great too. Because it’s only through getting things wrong that I learn how to get things slightly less wrong the next time.
The Warby Classic
The Warburton Lake Mountain Classic is a recreational cycle ride organised by Audax Australia. The ride features five mountainously beautiful options to Lake Mountain & Donna Buang. Previously you could choose from the 200km, 155 & 120km rides using sealed roads, or the 145km & 125km rides which include 15km of gravel, mostly on Acheron Way. This year they upped the gravel from 15km up to 53km on the 130km and 150km mixed terrain, and introduced a new 200km mixed terrain ride that included 85km (yes, 85!!) of gravel.
Last year I rode the 150km sealed option, and struggled on the last climb up to Donna Buang. This year I am in far better shape, both physically and mentally, so thought I’d have a crack at the 200km mixed terrain version with my compadre in crazy, Martin Grannas. Joining the madness was David Mast, Dan Hale, and D’Wayne Saunders (who all rode Marty’s Wonderful Wombat 100 the weekend before).
Yes, the weekend before. And that ride felt pretty brutal as well. I knew I was running low on reserves, so took a much needed rest week, riding just once so that I could test out the new tyres on the CX. I still was feeling very run down and very fatigued, but figured I’d feel better on the day once we got going.
Check your lights, and here we go
Rocking up to the start at 6am felt pretty darn early, and with a ride brief from ride organiser Dave Harrington (and a light check for the mixed terrain 200s – we had 16 hours to complete the ride) we were off like a rocket… that then fizzled out like a sad firecracker. Oooh the legs were hurting already, so it was time to put on the game face and just ride it out. Sometimes it takes me ages to warm up (anywhere from 2-3 hours) so I was hoping that by the time we hit the start of the main climb up to Reefton I’d settle in. After 20 or so km we rounded the corner up to the first major climb and off shot Marty, with Dan and Masty close on his heals. D’Wayne went to stand up to shoot off after them, and then gave me a look over his shoulder. Settle in boyo, I said, it’s a 40km climb. I remember him just looking at me, hoping that his ears had deceived him. Yes, 40 km. But there’s a downhill in the middle… (for about 2km, then back up we go). So we found a pace that suited us both and ticked over the kms.
We ran into the boys (because they had stopped) for the picturesque spot and we all pulled in to take in the view. And I tried to look calm, cool, and composed… when really I just wanted to hang over the handlebars already and roll back down the hill.
And then off we rode again, stopping at the half way mark up to Lake Mountain.
Once we hit the turnoff for Lake Mountain my legs indeed start to feel better, but it was still quite the slog up to the top. I’ll put it this way: last year it took me 38 minutes to reach the top. This year it took 1 hour. I’d love to say that it was because last year I was on the roadie and this year I took the CX, but that’s still an awful big gap between the times…
At the top of Lake Mountain we got our brevet’s stamped and had a chance to refuel.
Donning all the warm clothes and wind breaking gear we had, we flew back down the mountain. And when we say flew I mean flew back down (I took 30 minutes off my descent time from last year. Disc brakes, fatter tyres, and a year’s worth of riding certainly paid off). Then a quick right hand turn and we were on the road again… until we hit gravel.
Oooh, that first hit of gravel really punched us in the face! As soon as we turned off the road and onto the gravel, we immediately hit 14% with fist sized rocks that felt like skittles under the tyres. Tommy’s Bend Rd was certainly a surprise, and gave us a small and not so subtle clue what we were going to be in for for the next few hours. There aren’t a lot of pictures of the rougher terrain as it was just not possible to stop and take pictures. We were either descending some mad tracks filled with mud and ruts, or trying to gain a little bit of speed so we could climb our guts out on the next pinch up. But here are a few shots I did manage to grab:
It was incredibly scenic, but I must admit my eyeballs felt like they were shaking in my head so it was difficult to really take in the views. On top of all that, the disc brakes weren’t quite tight enough, so in order to get any sort of decent braking done I had to get into the drops. Which is super fun on the road… but made me feel like a mad CX woman on the trails.
At one point I thought the road names sounded a bit familiar, and upon looking at the Strava file later on I realised we were doing about 10km of the Hells500 Ol’Dirty (2017) Loop, but in reverse. For those that are familiar with what the Ol’ Dirty rides are about, this should give you an indication of what sort of tracks we were on (though with significantly less mud this time around thank goodness!).
I was starting to feel more shaken than stirred at this point. All the rocky descending meant a lot of hard work, and it was definitely taking its toll on me both physically and mentally. D’Wayne was also struggling, and had let us know on the climb up Acheron Way that he would be pulling the pin at the 130km mark. In my own head I was trying to come up with any reason why I shouldn’t join him. I was done, well beyond done, at this point. But after popping out at cement creek we got to descent into Warburton, and Marty and I swooped down the descent together, grinning like idiots, and my spirits lifted. Even if my legs didn’t.
Here comes the rain again
Heading into the pitstop at Warburton was like entering happiness. Dave and Anne Marie Harrigton always set up a great stop here, and with bubble and squeak from master chef Liz James and Ronnie McInnes’ amazing soup how could you go wrong? I felt absolutely terrible though, and tried to keep my brave face on, really hoping that a feed would bring me back to life. It had been a tough day so far, but at least it wasn’t raining…
And then it started raining.
Temperatures immediately dropped 10 degrees, and we all looked on in varying degrees of despair. D’Wayne looked very happy he’d made the call to pull out, and Masty was looking at me with a face that said “please say we’re stopping. Please call it now Tiff.” But with Marty looking on and asking if we were ‘Riding or Hiding?’ I said we would roll on. You’ll never know if you never try right? And I figured once we were wet, we couldn’t get any wetter. So onwards we rolled.
Lucky for me we had about 8km of flat rail trail at this point, and even if a lot of it was gravel, it was ‘nice gravel’ that felt just fine. I turned to Dan and said if the next 60kms could be like this I’d probably be able to make it. He grimaced and muttered something about rain making him angry and cranky. And onwards into the gloom we rolled.
That pitstop really seemed to really help and while I was wetter than a puddle I was at least warm. But 3km after the rail trail ended we hit Don Rd for our next climb. And I was stuffed. Marty kept stopping and waiting for me, and asking if I was okay. ‘Turtle Power,’ I whimpered. It’s all turtle power. But it really wasn’t. I’m sure that I was overtaken by an earthworm on my hour long slog up Don Rd. But if I could walk I could ride right? And if I was still pedalling I was still moving forward. Hills aren’t IN the way, hills ARE the way.
But not today
Today hills were in the way.
At the top of Don’s Rd Marty and Masty were waiting for me. I’m guessing Dan’s anger at the rain had finally taken its toll and he had rolled on, not wanting to wait any longer. Masty looked very concerned, and even Marty didn’t have any ‘right, let’s go’ words to give me. I think they knew I was done. I’d been riding on fumes from about Lake Mountain, and had just been mentally willing my body to push through. Downing a gel in a last ditch desperate effort to find anything that would keep me going, we rolled past the Donna Buang turnoff to do the climb to Nyora. As the boys pulled away from me the road just got darker and darker (and the rain heavier and heavier) my heart just sank. I’d used up everything. First with the body, then with the mind, and finally with the heart. I was done.
Pulling over on the side of the climb I just stood there, water pouring off my helmet and down my face. I didn’t know what to feel. I must have stood there for five minutes, just feeling numb. Then, clipping back into my pedals, I rolled back down the hill to wait for the boys at the bottom.
Not long after they rolled up. “You’re done aren’t you Tiff.” I just nodded. Masty gave me his car keys to take back to Warburton, and I headed back down Don Rd to the rail trail and back to shelter to wait at the finish. Arriving back at the pitstop it looked less like a checkpoint and more like and SES shelter. It had been a brutal day. Of the 12 of us who started the 200 mixed terrain, four had already pulled the pin at the 130km mark. A few of the 200 road riders had also stopped and turned back after hearing that the Donna Buang climb had essentially turned into a river and there were riders walking down instead of riding. Riders were huddled around the heater wrapped in heavy blankets, hugging hot water bottles and cupping soup in their hands. Dan rocked in, shivering and soaked to the bone. A bit later Marty and Masty returned, with Masty looking near hypothermic. The first Warby 200 mixed terrain had taken its toll.
Retrospective: What went wrong?
Simply put, I built up too much fatigue and eventually everything gave up. It had been a massive end to 2017, and with each event I did I could feel the exhaustion building. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive believer in a rest week. But in hindsight I probably needed to take rest weekS: plural, not singular. After Sydney-Melbourne I took a week off, then was back training for two weeks after. Then after my Everesting I went on holiday with my family… and ended up doing a little bit too much single track fun on the MTB to truely call it a rest week. Last week was the Wonderful Wombat… and then this week was when everything imploded.
So yes I’m disappointed I didn’t finish the first Warby 200 (mixed terrain). And sadly because of Audax rules I don’t even get brevet status for the 130km mixed that I did complete. Does this mean I’ve failed? If my metric by which I measure success on this ride was to complete the entire 200km then yes, I failed.
But I really don’t count this ride as a failure. It was a true test of my endurance limit, and now I know what it feels like to approach, and to hit, that endurance wall. Which feels a lot different from a hunger flat, from overtraining, and from just being tired from back to back rides.
So here’s what I did do. I hit my limit. And I’ll learn from this.