About a month ago I made it to the finish in Sidi Rabat after cycling 1145 km through the enchanted desert landscape of Morocco. There, I did it, my first ultra race with endless curves through the remarkable dusty terrain of the Moroccan mountains.
It seems strange to dream back to the isolated moments riding towards those indefinite horizons, while worldwide we all isolate ourselves and practice social distancing. Encountering other riders brought such joy as now we approach it with caution. But why not have a good read and let you dream along with me, taking you on a ride and sharing some lessons I learned along the way.
In preparation for the Atlas Mountain Race I was sure that I had no idea what I’ll be throwing myself into, every detail would be an experience. So I often found myself dreaming through all possible scenarios. Preparing for the worst and thinking the days would be so long, yet in reality learnt the contrary, days felt short, the nights long and overall it was over in a fart. While dreaming back to the memories I feel like I never find enough words to describe the experiences .
As the days to the start of the race became more close I found myself becoming hesitant. Did I prepare enough, had I made enough hours on the bike and would my skills get me through the rough terrain? Meeting other racers got me all wobbly thinking everyone seemed so cool, well prepared, yet so kind and apparently with similar concerns, how odd! It was easy to make new friends and felt quickly at home in this new community of strangers, that all have one thing in common, riding bikes.
It’s day one, close to 9 am and we are all waiting for Nelson Trees to give the sign, I’m among something like 180 participants that all seem to be just as nervous as I am. With what little I knew about ultra races, although with as much prep as possible, there will inevitably be surprises out there, good and bad, ready to be tackled with determination and a bunch of laughter. Nelson’s voice wakes the crowd with a countdown, butterflies in my stomach, and off we go racing towards the Atlas Mountains protected by a police escort through the streets of Marrakech. All the climbing on day one is tough, but I made it before sunset to the summit. Getting to the summit before sunset was rather important as the trail on the hike down was pretty difficult, and would be made more so in the dark. I was glad I made it and sang happily while hiking down towards CP1.
The first night I pushed on, until even my bones felt sore. Deep in the night I found a nice looking flat spot about 50 km after CP 1 and unpacked my sleeping cave and crawled in; I’ll be longing for this comfortable burrito the coming days. I couldn’t catch much sleep that night, my body felt sore especially my back, and I had stomach cramps that had me running out of my sleeping bag several times that night. I guessed a long day in the saddle, plus some exotic Moroccan food caused my new uncomfortable body sensations, and didn’t think further of it. At around 4am I was done and packed my sleep system to ride off into darkness again. Riding in the dark is ok, but not my favorite part. Although the millions of stars are something to only gasp upon when surrounded by your bundle of light facing the grey yellowish looking road ahead, it can be pretty boring, suffering in silence with the hailing dogs in the distance. That first morning felt long, my sore body, stomach cramps, and fear of barking dogs got me in a tense grip of the handlebars, holding on to the bike. Little did I know about the growing relationship with my bike at that particular point. After a couple of hours the sky slowly started to lighten up.
The sunrise makes up for everything and problems disappear as if they never existed. The morning light brings such a sensation with an overwhelming feeling of joy and energy. This remarkable feeling at sunrise, will repeat itself the following days.
The second day had a solid first obstacle in store for me. Although filled with new energy riding that dusty road going up and down the dried river beds, I became confused with my bodily sensations (read stomach cramps, heavy legs and lack of appetite). I wondered, what caused it? This all got me thinking, how well do I actually know my body? Do I listen well enough to its limits, or am I pushing too far? All of this racing stuff is new to me, but I haven’t experienced other situations where my body was telling me so intensely to rest. I’ve almost always pulled through in one way or another, as if I do not accept to be fragile, don’t want to be broken, and don’t want to be the one complaining.
But there it was, presented to me, I had my period, although I was not due until after the race.
I’m not on birth control and apparently it is common among athletes within harsh situations like an ultra race to get their period. Knowing what was going on with my body brought a certain comfort, at least now I could put things in place and had an idea how of to handle my bodily sensations. The coming days I would futz around with baby wipes and switching bibs. Washing my bib out in the river and drying it in the desert sun while fluttering on my aerobar. Trying to not waste more time. I wasn’t ashamed, though telling other riders felt a little bad. I was surprised how empathetic this community reacted, and that is really empowering in this sort of situation. Sometimes getting the burdens you face off your chest gives you space to breathe.
EVERFLOWING AND INTERCHANGING
The memories of days 3, 4 and 5 are a blur, not sure when or what happened exactly. The sun rises, sun sets, days pass by, filled with dust, rocks and sand. Omelettes are eaten, dogs are chased or did they chase me? Memories of endless horizons, skies with a smiling galaxy and canyons full of lush greens. Where the grass is crisp and firm, complementing the burnt and rusty colored surroundings. Receiving cheerful messages from friends and unknown fans, broke my sunglasses when I accidentally stepped on them, but found a replacement on the trail. Found a yoghurt drink in the middle of the night on the track while descending to CP2 in the dark; so good! My bike feels so awake, happy and ready to go any moment of the day. My relationship with my bicycle grew into new dimensions. I’m so grateful for this beast that accompanies me through each struggle without complaining. I feel emotionally connected, in love I’d say.. The sensations are sometimes so overwhelming that I want to cry. My legs do what they have to do and keep repeating to make circles.
Note: This text and the drawing were provided to us by Quinda and we decided to split it into three parts due to its length.
The amazing photos were taken by Jonathan Hines, Lian van Leeuwen and Quinda Verheul.