Tuesday, 10 October 2017

An epic adventure in the Indian Himalayas ; the Hero MTB Himalayas

12 months ago I moved to Edinburgh, I started a new job to re-focus on my veterinary career. 12 months ago I was told I should let go of any racing aspirations for 2017 to save myself from irreversible nerve damage caused by a vertebral fracture in my lower back. 12 months ago I tried to let go of my dreams and live a more settled and less chaotic crazy life. But as the months passed late last year and the days got darker, my feet got more itchy and my being more restless. Until I stumbled up on this magic race high in the Indian Himalayas which radiated adventure and needed a huge dose of resilience in order to complete. It was exactly what I needed and the race lived up to its reputation in every possible way. The journey to get to the start line working together with my Physio and my coach Rab, getting through the highs and the lows was rewarded with the completion of the Hero MTB Himalayas stage race. Which ended up being so much more than just the icing on the cake.
Final preparations at Edinburgh airport before leaving all familiarity behind
The race organiser Ashish Sood had an ability to connect people in such a way that long life friendships were made and incredible experiences shared they would be treasured for many years to come. Never had I felt more compassion from people I barely knew when things did not go according to plan and never had I felt more supported on the days that my legs could show what they were capable off, by fellow riders. A true family feeling was created.

a tight group was quickly formed
The unpredictability of the course with moving objects in the form of donkeys, cows, children, people, cars, trucks, motorbikes and the possibility of them jumping out at you at any particularly point in time required a focus which could never fade over the 60-90km long days in 30 degrees heat. It added an extra dimension to the race which was adventurous in nature and attracted a certain type of people. I have never raced a race where my brain had to process so many different impressions simultaneously leaving me exhausted at times. The beauty of the mountains, its people, their way of living hidden far away on the rooftop of the world. Magic is a word which sprang to mind so many times whilst racing through the Indian Himalayas.
can never escape from my passion for horses!

Nothing really could have prepared me for how it all ended up unfolding. And although the first 4 days were the hardest days mentally and physically I have had for a long time, the pain and suffering I endured was more than worth the finishers medal I received crossing the finish line on the last stage. It has given me a slightly strange feeling of pride and satisfaction still in need of processing for a few more days to come. 

what was supposed to be an easy 1 hour spin post travel turned into a 4 hour epic with Karen and Lucy

I had been a bit anxious a few days before the trip to India as it had been a long time since I had ventured out by myself to do something this adventurous so far away from anything familiar. But as things always have a way of working out I caught up with fellow veterinarian Lucy Coldwell upon arrival who in turn knew the Ozzie girls, Chrissy, Eve and Karen and it was not long before we had created our own little Himalayan family adding members along the way. It always felt a bit like coming home when you surrounded yourself with like minded people with a similar out look on life.
The beautiful colours of India
In typical Indian style nothing would run on time in the following days and we never really knew what was going on but somehow everything always fell into place. So before we even set off racing, the stories already started to unravel; Lucy lost her bike in her travels which magically appeared early morning at the race hotel. Thomas Engelsgjerd (Norwegian Thomas) his bike broke during travel so he rebuild Ashish’s bike to fit him as best as possible being a good 10cm taller in height than Ashish. It caused for entertainment during the whole race when not much was left of the bike towards the final stages, but this did not seem to slow him down that much! Thomas deserved legendary status for riding an ill fitting bike as well as he did though the brutal stages and coming 2nd overall! Catherine Williamson had trouble locating her luggage and arrived  empty handed 5 minutes before (a last minute added) prologue through the city of Shimlah. Eve’s shocks on her bike were in constant lock down and Karen’s breaks decided to hug the rotars causing the wheels to be stuck. None of these small set backs seemed to faze anyone, almost as if this was part of racing the Hero MTB Himalayas and it would all work out anyway. There was the plan and there was what happened. And no one seemed concerned the two did not match! 

navigating through Indian traffic required skill in itself!

Stage 1; 68km 1700hm

After a lot of anticipation, an awareness ride through town, random interviews with the Indian Television, a brutal prologue of 5 minutes  including riding down slippery steps in the middle of town which no one took seriously, it was finally time to start the first stage of the race. A 67km ride with 1700m of ascend starting with a leisurely untimed 11km out of town before turning into a insanely rough descend which was a warning to the MTB Himalayas virgins for what was to come in the week ahead. 

Before we were allowed to set off the list of riders was called out one by one to tick off who was present. Jersey number one, jersey number two.., jersey number two... last call jersey number two.. all the way up to Jersey number 90. This ended up being a daily ritual which would be repeated at every start of the stage causing for quite a lot of laughs! I will hear the guys voice yelling out the numbers in my sleep for a while to come!!

ready to start!
I felt strong on the first day, happy racing in the top third of the pack with Eve, Chrissy and Rafael soaking up the experience riding solidly but none of us taking it too seriously. I was in a good head space comfortably tackling the climbs and descends, happy to be riding in good company. Some of the single track was brutally gnarly with no space for errors and steep cliffs lurking at us whilst riding over tyre wide single trail. I was loving it riding better technically than I had done for a long time!
Most of the technical riding was conquered when somehow I managed to ride my front wheel of a narrow concrete ledge and summersaulted into a rocky ravine. I hit the sharp rocks hard and heard Eve screaming who was riding behind me. “I am ok, I am ok!” I yelled back checking all my limbs which seemed to be all in one piece albeit badly bruised and scratched. I was leaning against the vertical face hanging on for dear life to my bike. When I looked below an angry river was a long way down waiting to swallow me! I was lucky I was not on my own and with the help of 3 people I climbed back up to safety. 

some real sketchy downhill with slippery steps and drops

 I had hit the rocks hard but all I wanted was to continue, to keep going, I was worried that if I would sit down, I would not be able to get up again. I could hear the voices of Eve and Chrissy as if they were miles away whilst they were standing right next to me. And I could not see clearly. My vision would come in and out like a zoom on a photo camera. “I am ok, I am ok” I kept on repeating, “lets keep on riding” I mumbled checking if my bike was still functional. I recognised my own state of overdrive which I turned to when things went wrong. “just keep moving forward” the survival mechanism I was accustomed to. The rest of the stage turned into a bit of a blur as I was fighting dizziness, head aches, the heat, and my legs seemed powerless. I reluctantly watched the girls ride away from me on the final 17km climb. I did not expect having to dig this deep so early in the race and when I finally reached the finish line I nearly collapsed. Not a good start. Lucy forced me to get nutrition down and everyone showed concern. It felt really nice to have such a solid support network around me. Corinne the Physio at the camp fixed my wounds and I felt as good as new crawling into my tent that night. Or so I made myself believe! 

we ended up riding part of the course on our pre race spin

Stage 2; 90km 2100hm
woke up a couple of times through the night feeling very nauseas and struggled eating any food at breakfast. I was not the only one not feeling 100% as Lucy’s stomach had also been in protest and she stood on the start line loaded up with imodium. I decided to ride as easy as I could and stuck early on with the lovely Marketta from the Czech Republic (but living in Spain). I was feeling very average which did not improve by a short detour after we  manage to miss one of the arrows! But I was in entertaining company the whole day so it was just a matter of ticking of the km’s. The climbs were brutally hot and rough and the descents needing 100% focus to survive them in one piece. The technical stuff did excite me, putting in practice all I learned of Rab over the last 12 months and I managed to stay on the bike when other people jumped off and walked. It was a buzzing feeling.  I realised on stage 2 I had never done anything quite this extreme, dodging honking car’s on the fast down hills and avoiding frontal collisions with random cows showing up out of nowhere. It was an adventure in every possible way!

Some of the best single track I ever ridden
My head did not seem to be 100% and I went through stages where my vision got so blurred everything would go black. I could not stomach any of the gels taking up all the space in my jersey pockets and I tried to consume as much water as I possibly could to stay hydrated but I reached the camp site completely and utterly empty which got me really worried.
I realised my tumble of the ledge into the ravine had caused some sort of shut down in my body causing severe headaches, dizziness and nausea with a lack power in my legs. It did seem to come and go however and I wanted to race so badly that I decided I would just keep riding and hope for the best. It was easy to let go of all what went wrong during the day at camp post race when we were consuming loads of good food chatting away in great company. 
Barefoot guy

As the race went on we were getting to know some of the legends of this race. There was a guy nicknamed "barefoot guy" as he rode barefeet and not only that, before setting off from Shimlah he had already 2100km in his legs riding to the start all the way from Sangli. Barefoot guy had raced 12 editions of the Hero MTB Himalayas giving him proper legendary status and being as modest as they come not really aware of the magnitude of his own inner strength being able to do this.Another rider who was not aware she was making history was the lovely Indian rider Poonam Rana, the first Indian female ever participating in the race, setting a great example showing what females are capable off in a man dominated society. She absolutely kicked ass! 
Stage 3; 77km 3100hm

Jersey number 37A, Jersey number 37B...

I don’t think I have ever reached the lows I reached mentally on stage 3. The race started with a 45km long climb to an altitude over 3000m. There was no hiding from anything on this course. After the first 5kms I already managed to vomit up my breakfast and nothing I ate or drank stayed down. Looking back I should have pulled out and that thought entered my brain almost every km of the way but stubbornly I refused. My body had nothing to give, it was in a state of shutdown and I was fighting it every step and every move.  When I got lost with 15kms of climbing to go, adding another 10km climb I mentally broke in a million pieces. I knew I was now so far back, it was just me against the course. And so I battled on, getting off and on the bike, crawling up the massive mountain counting down the meters (kms were too long in my mind). The altitude cooled my broken body and at times I felt a little better making up a bit of ground. But no nutrition would stay in my stomach and I knew that this was an extremely bad thing. When I finally reached the top, I felt a bit more positive that I made it this far. I picked up the pace a little on the descend. But it turned into what seemed like hours of bone shaking rough gravel road slaloming through traffic who would seem to have it in for you. I felt like I was in a pacman game having to avoid the big gaping mouths of upcoming traffic. And as the kms disappeared underneath me during this brutal stage, I faded every second into a deeper state of fatigue. I reached one of the last feed stations and asked how far I had to go, “10kms” I was told. “only 2kms uphill” and then down. I could do that I thought. I looked at my watch and calculated that I should reach camp after 8 hours of riding. How I managed to ride the last 10kms in over two hours I really do not know. Suddenly my brain stopped functioning and I could simply not ride my bike anymore, I kept on jumping off the bike and walking. If you could even call it that. I simply lost the strength to turn over the pedals. I started talking to myself “keep moving, keep moving” “one foot in front of the other” I was walking as if I was drunk not being able to focus on going in a straight line wobbling all over the place. Every now and then I improved again and could ride for a few meters but this 10km was the longest 10km I had ever ridden. I lost the ability to react to the traffic and I thought I would actually get hit but somehow felt I could do nothing about that. I would try and stare the driver into submission which did seem to work.
Endlessly long climbs
Then suddenly it got dark and I could not control the panic arising in my head. I could not spot a camp site near by even though I had to be close. It was now getting too dangerous to ride so I tried to make myself visible to the traffic by yelling and jumping up and down like a possessed person whenever a car or truck headed towards me. I stopped to ask some of the locals if I was heading the right way since I could not spot the white arrows on the road anymore, and within a few seconds I was surrounded by what felt like a thousand men staring at me. I panicked and possibly hit one of the guys trying to get out of the way. I started to cry almost uncontrollably, imagining the men chasing me down like a witch hunt. My imagination got the better of me. I could hear laughter all around me as if I was in some kind of horror movie. I had visions of disappearing deep in to the Indian Himalayas never to be found EVER again. And as I sobbed my way down the hill (now back on the bike) suddenly it appeared in front of me, out of nowhere. The campsite. People surrounding me when I stopped. I was asked my race number. I had to sign in. All the normal routine things I had to do for the last 3 days and it had a strange calming effect on me! The organisers were worried, asking me if I needed medical help, asking me what was wrong. But I could not talk just cry, out of relief that I was safe, and out of absolute fatigue. All my fears of the day rolled down my face in the form of tears. And then Chrissy and Eve appeared followed by Lucy and `Catherine all showing concern and worry. I was hugged warm by Frederic. I was given hot water, warm clothes and food. After a day of hell in solitude I was surrounded again by a bunch of truly remarkable people around me cracking jokes to cheer me up and making me feel like a hero. It was overwhelming how special this felt.
local stray dogs making himself at home in Norwegian Thomasses tent
Lucky we had a rest day after stage 3 which was spent doing absolutely nothing. The camp was situated next to a beautiful small village in the middle of the mountain and we went to a local school to promote cycling which was a nice break from the race routine. I felt pretty broken and the thought of 5 more stages ahead was a little difficult to bare so I tried to live in the moment and not think about the days to come.

Dancing with the local school children

Stage 4 90km 2100hm

In the morning of stage 4 I could not eat any food, I was really worried about the day ahead and did not know if I could mentally pull myself through another day of physically feeling so broken. Trying to fight back my tears it was Karen who very kindly simplified my thoughts for me. I knew that if I did not start I would feel worse than the physical battle to the finish line would make me feel. Not riding would cause me more pain than riding so I lined up. Mentally prepared for a long day on my own. I even packed a head torch and borrowed Karen's camel bag so I was well prepared for the worst case scenario. I cant emphasise enough how friendly and supportive everybody was, people going out of their way to make me feel better which was very much appreciated! 
The stage started with another long steep climb but to my excitement I found myself in a little group of Portuguese riders and found a bit of power in my body. It was an awesome feeling which put me immediately in a good frame of mind and I could actually enjoy the scenery and riding my bike. 
The mosts spectacular views I have ever witnessed 
It was nice to be able to take in my surroundings and I appreciated how much work the race organisers must have put in designing this course for us. We were taken through such cool little streets at the back of villages including steps and rocky single trail making every km of the race interesting. We were cheered on by local children high fiving us along the way. I was determined never to miss a white arrow painted on the roads ever again which directed us through the crazy Indian wilderness!! At the last feed station I decided to cool off a little with the dizziness and nausea returning and sat down until I could see and focus properly again. I still could not manage much more than small zips of water but I spotted a toasted cheese sandwich at the feed station and forced one down which made me feel instantly better. The last part of stage 4 I really enjoyed riding. My legs had returned and I was smashing the cool single track through the forest which made me finish stage 4 on a high with something left in the tank. I reached camp very happy, hoping I had turned the corner.

Discussing the adventures of the day with the lovely Marketta

Stage 5 and 6 (92km, 2000hm and 57km 1700hm)

In stages 5 and 6 I started to trust my body a bit more that it would not fall apart like it had in the earlier stages. I still could not eat any food during the stages but I tried to eat as much as I could before and after the races. Stage 5 will be remembered for an evil hike your bike section in the final 9kms making it one of the more brutally long stages of the week. But finishing at a University campus meant there was ice cream! Stage 6 was called heaven’s ridge. It included another 35km long climb at high altitude with such beautiful exposed views which I will remember for ever. I rode a big part of the course with Eve which was really nice. Although it was a tough hot stage, the scenery was like chicken soup for the soul and I felt a little bit stronger once again which added to my confidence. The campsite after stage 6 was located in a quirky beautiful little mountain village with a spectacular clear blue river running through it known for its trout. Ashish took us on a little ride along the river side  which was breathtakingly beautiful. This was followed by drinking real local masala tea, eating momo’s and spicy ginger soup and soaking up the spirit of the village. The peacefulness and tranquility of our post race stroll was rudely swapped for an all night local festival which played loud Indian music till deep into the morning hours. 

A relaxing post stage ride with Ashish, Cory and Lucy

although noisy camp 6 was my favourite camp site of all

Stage 7 ; 90km 2100hm
Although I lined up at the start line with may be 2-3 hours of sleep in my body this ended up my favourite stage of all. It was a truly special day. For the first time since crashing on day 1 I almost felt normal. “Strong Nienke is back” Marketta laughed as we formed a little group and motored up the first climb. The course took us high into the mountains once again, following donkey trails passing the most remote little farms with endless views. Part of the challenge today was avoiding collisions with the donkeys going up the trails, groups of goats, cows and locals walking up with big packs of grass on their backs preparing for winter. I rode with Chrissy and Eve the whole day and it was just magic cruising down the endless descents together. I was in my happy place and felt I had so much more to give if I wanted to but after all the battles during the week I was perfectly comfortable just riding my bike and enjoying every minute of it with the girls. 

Chicken soup for the soul
beating the heat together with Chrissy 

Stage 8; 57km 1700hm

It was a strange sensation lining up on the start for the last time. I knew now that unless my bike would fall apart I was going to make it to the finish line and this made me very happy. Chrissy and I made a pact to ride together and I am so happy we did because the last stage was another brutal one. It was incredibly hot and the long endless climbs were replaced for shorter really steep climbs which followed one after the other, after the other after the other. I was an angry person on stage 8 and I probably have never sworn so much in one day. Physically I was fine but mentally I had reached my limit and I wanted it to be over. It was really nice to have Chrissy with me as we reached low points at different times of the stage and pushed each other through it. There was a 5km steep rough gravel climb which had no real purpose and caused a bit of an anti-climax at the finish line. Chrissy and I felt a bit empty, took a few pictures and decided to find the race hotel which was still about 8kms away. For someone who ALWAYS gets lost, I am proud to say that Chrissy and I were the only riders who managed to find the hotel without too much trouble!

Chrissy and I at the finish 

And then it was over. Just like that. I was utterly broken, physically and mentally I had nothing more to give. What a journey it had been. I will remember this trip for so many different reasons for many many years to come and I hold a special place in my heart for all the people I shared this experience with. A huge thanks to Ashish and the organisers for organising what almost seemed the impossible and doing such a good job in creating a family feeling amongst all riders. The food was incredible and somehow everything always ended up working out. I would highly recommend this race for anyone who is in for an adventure, it is one for the bucket list for sure and you will come home a so much more richer human being than you were before. To repeat so well what was said in one of the Hero MTB Himalaya promo video's "the end of one of adventure is only the beginning of another"A huge thanks to everyone who made this happen for me, it has been an incredible journey which will be difficult to match in future!

"you must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself" Pema Chodron

Nothing is ever uneventful in India, after 14hrs taxi drive back with American Thomas and a few of the organisers, which included a delicious local Indian breakfast Ashish was kind enough to offer his house for a shower and some relaxation before jumping on a plane home

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The road less travelled

 I have done some big things in my life. Swapping hemispheres on my own at the age of 20, finishing a veterinary degree in a foreign language, taking a leap of faith and swapping hemispheres once again returning to Europe to race pro for a season in 2013 to name a few. I never really truly felt the size of the impact of these decisions until someone would say to me “That is huge”.
I am very independent, to the point that I have been asked at what (low) point I would actually reach out and ask for help. My independency has isolated me a lot, although I am someone who grabs every opportunity presented to me when I want something, most goals I have pursued on my own. Supporting my own dreams and aspirations. Financially, physically and mentally.
I am a few days away from jumping on a plane to ride the MTB Hero Himalayas stage race in India. 8 days of riding, 650kms, 17.000m of ascend through the beautiful Indian side of the mountain range. I have dreamt of doing something like this for a while. And now, for the first time whilst working towards something big, what I am about to do actually feels huge. When in the scheme of things I have probably done bigger things!

when I was allowed to ride over winter it felt like magic

The last few days I have felt the fittest, strongest and most confident I have felt in the last three years. Where previously my seasons were cut short in the summer, year after year due to injury and fatigue, this season I am still improving with leaps and bounces. Improvement is what I strive for. I am someone who likes to keep moving forward whether that is in my job, sport or as a person. I want to keep on progressing into a better version of myself. And this year, after so many setbacks and disappointments I am slowly starting to move forward again. At every level. This is a great feeling.

Not without help though. Over the last 12 months I have had to fight the temptation of jumping on a plane and finding a new destination to hide many times. “Leaving” had been my survival mechanism for so long now and something I had become very good at. It gave me a false sense of security that I was moving forward. Because in reality it was running away from something rather than moving toward something I was doing. 

Lately I have been very lucky to have some really good people around me, who listened, who understood, who were patient, who helped me out, who did not judge. It was not only my body which needed to recover from the abuse I had put it through over the years, but it was also my mind. And as I was working weekly with my physio to repair the broken pieces in my body, I was working with my coach Rab to re-gain my strength and fitness, day after day after day. And as I was ticking off the boxes with such small tiny improvements they felt like I was standing still, my mind had to learn how to be patient, how to be quiet, how to be positive and  how to believe in the process.
Lucky to have this in my backyard

In my 4 years of racing at elite level, this past year has been the greatest learning curve of all. I will be racing in India next week and it feels huge. Knowing where I have come from this year, knowing what the process has been, knowing the ups and downs involved and the fact that I kept going regardless, means for me that whatever happens in the Himalayas, getting to the start line already feels like a success.
A big thanks to the people who  got me through the turbulence this year; physio David Ryan for working so hard with a very stubborn athlete! Coach Rab Wardell from Dirtschool for listening, advising, supporting, keeping me in line and for always staying so positive even when I wasn't! (Not just my coach, also my shrink!) James McCallum from Whatsyourmeta, for guiding me through the final weeks, answering my million questions and keeping me positive. Sandy Wallace Cycling for being so supportive and keeping my bike(s) in order and ashmei for making me looks stylish on the bike. Big Bobble Hats for being the coolest sponsor I have ever had, we are going into our 3rd winter together!!
Naomi, Jantiene, Karin and Sarah (through correspondence!) for being the best friends I could ever wish for, supporting, inspiring,  accepting and believing in me. Last but not least my Michael who rides this roller coaster life of mine with me, for giving me the freedom to do what I love doing and always being there when things fall apart. I could not chase my dreams without any of you!

                                 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"

A moment with Michael

Podium with Karin in the Grandraid Adventure race earlier this year whilst giggling from beginning to end

Jantiene and I on our 2 day mountain bike expedition this Summer, what a blast!

Naomi and I on one of our many rides together facing whatever Scottish weather would throw at us

Working with James McCallum at Whatsyourmeta ; pain cave

                                        going into my 3rd winter with the coolest sponsor ever!
My support dream team, Michael and Fynn

Podium at Glentress 7 with SWC team mate Zara Mair

house filled with drying ashmei gear

Catching up with Sarah at the Engadine bike Giro in Switzerland

success is not always defined by winning

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The GrandRaid MTB Marathon;Racing against the flow

The GrandRaid MTB Marathon, a race I have wanted to do for such a long time, the jewel amongst the MTB marathons. The one for the bucket list. And this year I was on the start list.  After a tough 12 months I made it. The route taking riders from Verbier to Grimentz, 125kms with 5000m of elevation gain. Having limited races this year due to injury, this was going to be one of the two big adventures this season. 

Bikes, mountains and horses, my perfect world

I had done everything right by the race, I had taken a full week off work so I had time to properly recover and prepare. I arrived in Verbier the Wednesday beforehand to leave plenty of room for organisation and rest. I felt that my body had been getting stronger with increasing power numbers over the last 4 weeks. And I was more prepared than I ever was with a breakdown of the climbs taped on the top tube of my bike and a nutrition plan carefully worked out. BRING.IT.ON

When I arrived in Verbier I discovered to my excitement that there was an international horse show going on at the same time. Since I was travelling by myself this was the perfect way to waste some time, watching horses and get reconnected with one of my old passions. 

The weather and the mountains were absolutely stunning. It was hard to stick to the taper with fresh legs and so many beautiful trails to explore but I kept my riding to a bare minimum. If I have to blame something to the events that followed, it would be my bad sleeping habits with a lot of hours staring at the ceiling the two nights before the race. I did not feel very relaxed. Although I am someone who enjoys being in my own company, I wonder if too much time on my own before a race gets my mind on edge a little to much. With no distraction my thoughts spiral out of control sometimes.
The climbs broken down taped on the top tube
But with the weather being much better than predicted with a dry day ahead, I stood happily on the start line together with roughly 600 other excited riders, ready to get it done. The plan was to ride the first 60kms at an easy pace so I would have plenty left to give on the two big final ascends. The plan was to enjoy the scenery, to find flow and be in the moment, riding climb after climb after climb. None of this happened the way I wanted it. As I ticked of the climbs lined out on the top tube on my bike, I felt very uninspired. I missed having Jantiene by my side sharing the experience like we did in our two day MTB expedition. I missed the breath taking beautiful unspoilt scenery of the mountains we had shared in the Ecrines National Park. Most of the route was on tarmac or fire roads and I did not sense the magnificent power of the mountains which I loved so much. I wondered if I had been spoilt, riding in such amazing settings the last couple of months. The single track which were present between the long sections on the road were in such random unexpected places that I struggled riding it with any decency of a mountain biker, nothing seemed to flow.  My heart was just not in it and as I moved closer to the finish line, for me the race itself had already become a disappointment. 
The beauty of Verbier
I was on the final climb, and even the thought of almost being on the last descent did not fill me with joy. I was not moving with much speed or strength anymore but in my head with around 18kms to go I knew I was going to make it. But oh boy did I get that wrong. As the climb levelled out into a feeding zone with roughly 6-7kms of climbing to go someone told me to stop, cut the number plate of my bike and said I was done. Just like that. What now?! Not really comprehending what just happened "C'est finis" the man said. I looked around and there were about 8 riders with the same fate as me with another 4 still to be waited on. I did not make the final cut off time? I could not quite believe it. Anger, disappointment, sadness all at once took over my being. How was this possible? This had never happened before. "Not making the cut off time?!" I kept on repeating in my own head. How slow was I actually going?! 
Quickly my feeling of disappointment followed by a feeling of pure panic; my bag with my wallet in it was waiting for me at the finish line in Grimentz, and I had no idea how to get there. Heck I did not even know how to get back to Verbier. How would I get back? I was all by myself. "Have you got anyone in Grimentz?" I was asked. "No, no its just me" "all by myself " Suddenly I felt extremely sorry for myself. A scene out of Bridget Jones Diaries sprang to mind. My head was in chaos. After 9 and a bit hours on the bike my already very basic French had succumbed to next to nothing and in my attempt to ask "what the hell do we do now?!" I only got friendly smiley nods from the organisers not understanding a word of my French/English/Dutch ramblings.
How I imagined Tom having ridden the Grandraid

Like a knight in shining armour, a friendly fellow rider came to the rescue. Despite the fatigue of a long day in the saddle (I was actually picturing his bike to be a horse) he was still very capable to change from French to English and back without a blink of an eye. I am sure there was even some Spanish in there but that could have been due to the disoriented state I was in. Within seconds he sorted out my disarray of thoughts. The story was that we had to ride down to St Martin as a group and wait for a bus there which would take us back to Sion, from there I would be taken back to Grimentz where I had the opportunity to get my bag and from Grimentz back to Verbier. A total of 3-4 hours on the bus I was told. A sense of camaraderie had developed between us riders all defeated by the clock. When I looked around I would not have guessed any of them not being fit enough to complete the distance. This cut off time must have been tight I thought. 

I followed the guys down the long descent we had just battled our way up with a bleeding heart. It almost felt a bit surreal. I struggled to fight back the tears not quite understanding how this had happened. "I did not make the cut off time" kept on going through my head.

May be too much time on my own before the race got me a bit wired

Down in St Martin it was a long wait for the bus which we spend hugging the last little bit of the afternoon sunshine to keep warm. We were now left with about 8 of us. It was almost a funny sight. Tired defeated bodies and a whole lot of expensive bikes spread out on the ground at the bus station. Although at first I felt like hiding under a big solid rock and separated myself slightly from the group, I decided to approach my new friend the multilingual knight and another rider from the UK who had joined his company. As always in these type of situations, connections are made so easily with shared experiences and soon we could all laugh about the adventures of the day. Albeit with a bit of cynicism on my behalf. 
When the bus arrived we were informed that all riders going to Verbier had to join the bus from Sion to Grimentz. Which very selfishly was great for me since my two new made friends had to join me on what ended up being a 5 hour long bus journey. You could not make this up if you tried! 
Relaxing before the race
After two hours speaking English we discovered that the knight and I could speak Dutch since he was from Belgium. And he eventually got a name as well, Tom. Not as knight like as I imagined his name to be such as Rodrigo or Bertrand. Fatigue can do strange things with your imagination!

When we finally arrived in Grimentz navigating windy roads with scary side drops and a very blaze bus driver (in my opinion) we were told there was another bus taking us to Verbier (when earlier we had been told the same bus and driver was taking us) and all the bikes needed to come out of the trailer again. When you are tired simple things like this feel like a huge ordeal!

This ended up in favour of me since I still needed to get my bag which I was told was on the other side of the village from where the bus was. When we walked up to where the other riders were joining us direction Verbier, my new made Belgium friend had multiplied by 6 being reunited with his mates who all kindly made sure the bus waited whilst I sprinted on my bike (felt like a sprint but looked probably more like slomow) up the hill (felt like a mountain) in search for my bag. The event village had a strange deserted feel to it and I struggled finding any sober organisers who could tell me where I could find my bag. Until suddenly I spotted it, laying lonely in the bag zone waiting for my arrival. Another surreal experience, it was almost as if I was dreaming all of this.

I rushed back to the bus going faster downhill than I had done all day only to find my new Belgium friends waving enthusiastically once they spotted me whilst saving my bike a place on the trailer of the bus. What a life savers.  Tom had travelled to Verbier with 4 other athlete friends, who did manage to finish the race. Turned out that they knew a lot of athletes I knew, had done a lot of similar races and were also Xterra fans which created food for conversation and friendly banter. Connecting with people who share the same passion, the very reason why I love racing so much.
Travelling with a bike bag in Swiss is always a challenge when using the small elavators

We arrived back in Verbier  around 11pm a good 6 hours after we had been told to get off our bikes. Tom and his friends had made the disappointment of not finishing the race a whole lot easier for me, making me laugh and the bus journey go a lot faster. They will probably never know how much I appreciated their help and company. As uninspiring the race ended up being, the journey back made more than up for it
Racing  has always been about the people, here with MTBmarathon team mate Will and Sam on top of Ventoux for the 3rd time in one day. Friendships made for life

I am a month away from racing in the Himalayas and this race combined with the Engadine Giro experience has given me a massive knock in my confidence which I did not really need. I am not entirely sure what went wrong on Saturday and I will have to find a way to figure it out. To me it feels like it was a combination of not having found my race speed, not having paid attention to the cut off times and not having found inspiration to dig deep during the race. To cut it short, I felt mentally empty most of the 10 hours experience. Flat is the word to describe it, ironically it being such a hilly race!
The hardest part I find is that I am not just letting myself down but also the people who believe in me. Coach Rab, my Sandy Wallace team mates and mechanics who are always there to offer last minute advise and bike maintenance,  my ashmei sponsors and team mates. Although I do race purely for my own enjoyment, some day I would like to prove that I am not just a fraud and that I am actually able to do what I set out to do. 

No doubt I will ponder over this for a few more days to come because I can rationalise it over and over again, whatever way I look at it, it still ended up a huge disappointment. The goal was the finish line. 

"Figure out for yourself what you want to be really good at, know that you'll never really satisfy yourself that you have made it and accept that that's okay" Robert B Reich