We were all sitting round the dinner table on the second last night of the Terra Australis Stage Race when Fenz put it out there: "You should do the Australian 24-hour Solo Nationals!"
The seed was planted, I weighed the do-ability of it... the main positive was that it was during the school holidays, plenty of time to prepare and then also recover, but was I prepared to put myself through all that sustained pain and mental battering?
For some reason the answer was yes?!?! I embraced the opportunity to gain yet again another "experience" and have a crack at different discipline of mountain bike racing.
We travelled up the Hume to Canberra and upon arrival made ourselves comfortable in the Torq team pit area. We had an amazing set up. Dean had towed along the Caravan, which provides some real luxuries; microwave, couches, beds, stereo system, fridge and of course a toilet! Not that I would be spending much time in the caravan over the next 24 hours.
Throughout the last four years, Stromlo has been a constant in my mountain bike racing experience. In the past, I had raced numerous cross country nationals, a World Cup race and a memorable world championship.
It felt nice to be returning to familiar turf to attempt something altogether different!
I had two teammates who were also competing; Mark Fenner - the evil instigator- and newly signed Scotty Chancellor, who is well known for his talent and results within 24-hour racing.
We were the three crazy ones; Fenz, Me, Scotty.
I felt blessed to have an exceptionally dedicated and passionate support crew. They would be relied upon hugely during the course of the race. Dean is the owner of Torq Nutrition and the and manager of the team. Dan is my wonderful partner. Dave is Dan's enthusiastic and excitable Dad who kept my bikes ticking along perfectly with his attention to detail and skills with the tools. Kerry is Dan's proud Mum who provided continious encouragement great photographic talent and precise timing skills and Angus is one of Mark Fenner's good mates who helped get all my nutrition requirements just right.
My race strategy? I basically had no idea with it being my first 24hr race. The plan was to ride conservatively so that I could complete the monster. The longest time I had spent on the bike was a seven-hour training ride, so it was going to be interesting.
My main competition would be Jess Douglas. She is the current World Champion and had ridden a heaps of 24hr races, she has fierce determination and knows how to win in this discipline, so yes I was nervous and felt like a small fry.
Racing Jess Douglas, current world champion
The gun went off at 12:03, just after the men's category were sent off. Jess immediately assumed her position at the front of the race and dictated the pace. Being fresh, rested and feeling tip top, it was really hard to hold myself back and take it easy. Jess continued to pull away from me, keen to get a gap, I chose not to respond, it was going to be a very very long race and I needed to conserve everywhere I could.
The other girls behind me had dropped off, and I was left riding my own race with no one else around. I would get the time gaps given to me each time I came through the pits. Jess continued to increase her lead steadily by about 30seconds per lap. So this was how a world champion races a 24hr race. I just couldn't match it!
We got through to dusk and the lights went on to my bike, I felt a bit of a lift, simply with the change from light to dark and felt I was riding smoothly and consistently. I was conscious of maximising any positive sensations as from here on in it would become more about my mental state than my physical capabilities.
My race was tracking well, my lap times were super consistent, I was eating and hydrating well and I felt pretty good considering I was now in unknown territory. I was working in 6-hour blocks and the second block coming up to midnight I had planned a treat; a quick wash and a change of clothes.
I got to midnight and the gap between Jess and I gradually started to break down, I was now gaining 30 seconds a lap, so there no time for my planned treat. Things were really starting to happen.
I had now reduced what was once a nine-minute gap down to four minutes, I was pumped, but Jess remained illusive and was nowhere to be seen. Finally at 1:30 am after 13 and a half hours of racing, I came up behind her on the singletrack. I was blown away, I had actually caught the world champ!
I made my pass on the fireroad and instantly all my pain was forgotten. I felt like I was pedalling on air, it was the most amazing feeling. I made an effort to remain consistent and gave myself the goal of gradually opening up the gap in the next three laps, to give myself a buffer.
I got to 3:30 am and had my planned first hit of caffine, (It was about at this point that Dan told me Jess had gone to the showers to clean up and assess her situation). This carried me through for another two hours of feeling great both mentally and physically. I was so surprised and impressed that I was feeling so great at a point in the race where I should be feeling the worst.
From 1:00 am 'til dawn are known as the "witching hours". With the long slog through the dark and the coldest part of the night, I just kept telling myself that when I got to dawn I could expect another positive sensation with the growing light, being able to see the track again and the fact that there would only be six more hours of racing to knock off.
The coming of the new day
I did my "dawn lap" with a feeling of contentment, but started to crash and burn. My body ached everywhere from the repeated battering of the rocks and undulations.
Jess had since pulled out, opting to not complete the race which left me way out in front now with nearly three laps up on Anne, who was in second place. These were all massive positives and it was looking good to take out the title, but I now found myself experiencing my lowest point in the race.
It was decided that I would jump off the bike, have my planned wash and change of clothes and a hot meal of gnocchi with pasta sauce. Being off the bike was great, but I could hardly walk and was really hurting all over.
After a fresh change of clothes and hot food, I was not so motivated to get back on the bike.
After a lap, I said to Dean, " You need to figure out how much longer I need to stay on the bike in order to secure the win, because I am done!" I was thinking that because I was three laps up, perhaps I could stop at 10:30 am. I had so much time up that second place could not overtake me in the time remaining.
I was devastated to learn that in order to finish you had to cross the line after 12 noon. I couldn't pull up early even though I had a substantial lead. So the plan was to do another lap, then have a sit out for 40 minutes then get back on and complete two final laps in order to cross the line after the all important 12 o'clock.
Getting going again
The final two laps were the hardest both mentally and physically. I no longer had any strength to push the pedals and I was not even moving fast enough to keep warm. Although I knew it was only two laps and I was done, it was so hard mentally knowing that I was so close. I so badly wanted to curl into a little ball and let the earth swallow me up.
But eventually, I crossed the finish line, done and dusted.
Winning the national title gains you automatic selection to the world championships, and the question was asked of me: " So do you think you'll continue racing 24s and compete at the Worlds?"
I answered with a "It's not a good question to be asking me at this point in time!"
24-hour racing has provided me with a rich and unique experience, in which I feel like I have been stripped to my very being and learnt so much about my constitution as person.
I loved that it was an experience for our group of people and not just myself as a competitor. My pit crew lived through it with me - the highs, the lows, the lack of sleep and of course, the elation of winning. Many thanks to my crew!
The only UCI-registered mountain bike team in Australia, the TORQ Performance Nutrition team features some of Australia's top racers and future stars, including current national and Oceania Champion Dan McConnell
For 2011-2012, TORQ racers are targeting the Australian Mountain Bike National Series, National Championships and Oceania Continental Championships. The team's top priority is racing Olympic distance cross country events, but it is also mixing things up with some short track, marathon and endurance events - and maybe even some road races.
Some members will head abroad for the World Cups - an important part of Australian national team selection process for the 2011 World Championships. In the past two years, the team has grown to include some new faces with some great results to back them up.
McConnell, who represented Australia at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, is perhaps the team's most well-known member. Mark Fenner, Brenton Jones, Mark Tupalski, Luke Fetch, Robbie Hucker, Jenni King, Katherine O'Shea, Joanna Wall and Becky Mates are also on the roster. Members take turns writing diary entries.
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