Monday, 22 January 2018

And here is to the fools who dream

I remember vividly the last day I spent in Belgium, before I jumped on a plane and started a new life in New Zealand. I was twenty years old and there was a heat wave at the time. I travelled to the Ardennes to enjoy the local rivers for a swim with my sister and a few close friends. I did not want the day to end. On the way home Tanita Tikaram was singing "little sister leaving town" at full capacity through the loud speakers of my fathers green Saab convertible. I was holding tight to my sisters hand and tears were running down our faces. Up to then my sister and I had not been apart for more than 2 weeks at a time. My decision to leave half way through my veterinary degree to the unknown on the other side of the world was not made from a secure, loving and safe place. I was simply running away from sad complicated stories which were my childhood. I was running away from darkness in search of a happy future. I have always had a strong intuitive compass for where I needed to head, seeking opportunities where ever and whenever I could find them. Selfishly sometimes. I still remember vividly how I felt the months leading into making the decision to leave. Feeling trapped, stuck, suffocating in negativity. The realisation that I did not want to live my life like that. That it was simply not enough, that I wanted more. The anxiety, the turbulent waterfall of thoughts, the fear of losing my way in all the sadness, all the grieve, all the pain which was beyond my control. New Zealand became my dream and New Zealand became a reality.

I finished my veterinary degree in NZ and worked with some of the best race horses, a dream had become a reality
Through my journey I have learned that if I really wanted something it was achievable but it did require a huge amount of hard work and trust that it would all work out somehow. Where all those years ago the alternative of staying in Belgium felt unbearable, it never felt like bravery leaving everything behind and changing course. As I have become older it has become harder to take that leap of faith and chase dreams and opportunities although it might have appeared to the outside world that things came easy. Having had no safety net in the form of family, I have always felt huge responsibility for every action I took. When I messed up, it was entirely up to me to bounce back on my feet. Things are a bit more secure now and I know I have people around me who will have my back when things go wrong. Still I hardly ever make big decisions on an impulse.

I developed my passion for sport and outdoors in NZ's beautiful playgrounds
The last couple of years I have lost my way a bit it seems. Where I shared an equal amount of passion for my job as an equine veterinarian and my sporting pursuits, I had lost both whilst overcoming obstacles which were presented to me. Wether these were real obstacles such as injury or a fabric of my own imagination such as the inability to see progress. The more I started to fight reality the cloudier it got in my head.
searching for my own path

I am not sure where my inherent drive comes from but I have always wanted to really love my life, I have always wanted to love my job and the path I chose to be on. Live my passion. I never wanted to just exist, I wanted to live. After having had my fair share of ugly,  I wanted to go in search of beauty. Breath taking experiences, moments of true happiness, moments where every cell in your body would come alive. I wanted a life with all of that. I wanted the possibility to truly feel and not get numbed by the expectations of society. And the more people were insinuating that feeling miserable in your day to day life was all part of it, that work was just work, that what I wanted did not exist, that I would never be happy wherever I ended up, the more I started to fight my surroundings. Feeling like I felt so many years ago, trapped in a world I did not fit in, following a path which was not mine. Urging for freedom, the freedom to dream.

Mountains wherever they are feel like home to me
Following your dream, living your passions, leaving 9-5 jobs, its all so cliche nowadays with people all over social media doing exactly that. Or is it? Staying true to my dreams has been no easy road. All my life my drive has steered me in different directions, sometimes not knowing if I was coming or going. I have lost my way more than once in the process. I have also been criticised for the choices I have made, criticised for who I am in subtle, passive aggressive ways. I have always been foreign in every sense of the word. Truth is, I don't know how to be anyone else, neither do I want to. Even if it takes me a life time to figure it all out, I will keep going, I will keep searching, I will keep exploring, I will keep dreaming.
A combo of bikes, mountains and horses and I am as happy as can be

After a tough past 18 months I have been given a great new job opportunity in which I hope to rekindle with my passion for equine veterinary medicine in an environment better suited to me. Different working hours means creating more time to pursue my passion for sports and outdoor adventures in an attempt to combine the two in a way I have not been brave enough to try before. It is very exciting and scary at the same time. And although it is not how I wanted things to turn out 18 months ago when I made the decision to work for the University (which was a dream in itself), having made the choice to leave has liberated me from a version of myself I really started to dislike. You try, you fail, you learn, you move on. There is no such thing as wasted experiences.
lucky that the most important men in my life share my passion
I feel very lucky that I have people in my life who often give me that final little nudge I need in order to have courage, to take a leap of faith, to trust it will all be ok. My sister has been there all my life always knowing what to say when I fall silent. My partner Michael who just sticks by me no matter what. And friends spread all over the world, Karen Holmes, Karin, Jantiene, Suus, Naomi to name a few, who inspire me on a daily basis to be strong, keep my head held high and march on, to show the grit needed to create a path of my own. Here is to all of you, here is to the ones who dream.
                                                 "And here is to the fools who dream
                                                  Crazy as they may seem
                                                  Here is to the hearts that break
                                                  Here is to the mess we make" Lalaland

There is no better feeling than living your passion even if its just for a day

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Starting 2018; What’s next?

After I returned from my incredible journey in the Indian Himalayas a few people asked me the question “what’s next?”
Racing the Hero MTB Himalayas and the challenges I was faced with at the time made it one of my most extreme adventures to date. It was a bit of adjusting afterwards when I returned to "normal life". Spending almost 3 weeks pushing my limits on the rooftop of the world, it was all about the here and now, living in the moment, nothing else really mattered.
Incredible experience racing the Himalayas
When I spoke to my coach Rab planning the next 12 months, he said to me “can you please choose something a little less extreme for 2018” but I am pretty sure he knew that that was never going to happen!!
I have always been a true racer at heart, not to beat people, not to stand on the podium but to search for my own limits, to find out how deep I could really go. And then try and go that little further the next time. Being injured for close to two years and struggling with a body which simply did not cooperate, that mindset had changed a little. And the desire to race everything and anything I could find had been lost in my recovery period.

After been given the ok to run again in November I very ambitiously entered a duathlon which was my last great performance for an overall female win two years ago. Being held in January my multiple layers of ashmei clothing was neatly packed away in my gear bag and my bike was ready to go. But when my alarm went off very early in the morning, I felt sick to the stomach. This was not a bug I had inconveniently caught pre-race but it was simply anxiety. The last couple of years I had raced and trained with continuous pain, pushing every day. The thought of dragging myself through 3 hours of discomfort racing other people made me feel sick (even though my body was on the road to recovery). So I turned off my alarm, rolled over and woke up 2 hours later. It was a glorious winter’s day and although part of me regretted not standing on the start line it felt like the best decision when I took my dog Fynn (who was very happy) to explore some new trails high in the hills near Peebles. I ended up running for 2 hours which after only managing 40-60min in the last 2 months and almost nothing in the last 18 months this was a huge improvement. And with running fitness slightly lacking, I showed myself I was still quite happy to suffer. Just not always with the clock ticking .
 running in the hills with dog Fynn after 18 months of being injured

So with the racing spirit slightly lost what’s next for me in 2018?

 Offroad Finnmark 27thJuly- 4th August

Last year I met Naomi Freireich for a coffee to see if I could convince her to race Offroad-Finmark with me. Although it did not fit in her schedule last year and I was probably too injured to give that one a proper crack, Naomi and I got on like a house on fire and have been riding and racing together ever since. When she suggested a few months back that we should do it in 2018, I jumped at it. 700kms in a maximum of 5 days in the North of Norway and no women’s team who have reached the finish line to date, this felt like the perfect challenge for both of us.
A week after meeting we went on our first (of many) MTB adventure together
The ride : Dolomites 16th-21st September
Not long after I entered Offroad Finmark I got an email from StrongHer if I was interested in being part of the StrongHer team and ride 900km in the Dolomites with 15.000 meters of ascend in 6 days. Although I had done one road cycling race in my whole sporting career, this was a no brainer. I already did a lot of road cycling for my MTB events and although new to stage racing, I was hooked on multiday adventures with the scenery to match! On top of that, being part of the StrongHer team it meant encouraging other women to join us in the challenge which I really enjoyed doing.  I sincerely hope I can inspire anyone, especially women, through my writing and shared experiences to get on bikes and sign up for The Ride or a similar adventure. Don't die wondering.  
Racing on the skinny tires will be a new challenge
The Yak Attack 3rd-15th November
I fell head over heels in love with the Indian Himalayas last year and would love to go back to the Nepalese side this time. I still have to find a way to do work it out financially and being able to get the right amount of time off from my job. But having met the lovely organisers Corinne and Phil I have no doubt it will be another experience which will be engraved in my soul and something I do not want to miss.

Training in Scottish conditions will be good practice for the icy conditions on the high passes of the Himalayas
These are my 3 main projects for 2018. I have always used other races to find form and fitness and together with my coach Rab we will put a schedule together which fits in with my day time job, keeps my body sound and will keep me mentally fresh to enjoy the process. I am lucky to be located in Scotland with lots of endurance races available over demanding hilly terrain which can prepare me for anything. Such as the Strathpuffer  The Dirty Reiver Selkirk MTB MarathonGlentress Seven to name a few. And may be an international MTB marathon such as the Roc D'Ardenne. On top of that Naomi and I have locked a weekend every month to prepare us for Offroad Finnmark and get used to our individual pace, mind set etc We are looking at riding Scottish classics such as Capital trail, Cape Wrath trail and others to be as tough as we can possibly be on that start line.
Fynn will benefit from my recovery!
With brand new shiny skis staring at me in my living room I am also planning to make the most of the Scottish winter months by exploring the snow-capped Cairngorms and Highlands whilst ski-touring including a little trip to the French Alps for some powder fix. And with my running legs coming back to me, dog Fynn will be spoiled stretching his legs over hilly trails in future.
Finding the love for skitouring 4 years ago in Chamonix
So my answer to the question what’s next? More of the same really, but with a more adventure focus rather than a competitive focus, with people who are likeminded, whilst still pushing my own boundaries wherever I can!  
 Here is to a jam-packed adventurous  2018!

                                              "One can make a day of any size"John Muir

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Drenthe 200; a hol-land of mud and a few days with close friends

I regularly get final year (veterinary) students out in practice with me who feel anxious about their future. They either have no idea what they want to do with their lives or they know what they want but have no idea how to achieve it. Or they feel like they have to be on this accelerated 10 year plan to reach their destination in time. The expectations of an academic environment. It leads to interesting conversations in the car when I tell them about my varied experiences. Having worked in lots of different fields of equine practice in several countries all over the world. Combining a driven career with passion for the outdoors, adventures and my racing pursuits seems to work as a huge eye opener. I love it when sharing my life stories can make students realise that their options are in fact endless. When I can see the realisation in their eyes that at no point in time the decisions they are making are final. I enjoy relieving some of the pressures these young veterinarians face and it is what gives me the most satisfaction in my job. Something which actually has nothing to do with veterinary medicine. The days leading into Christmas I could have used some of my own advise. Struggling with the lack of direction or goals in my life. Where in the past I easily escaped the gloomy days of the festive period, it seemed that with age my thoughts got darker with shortening of the days.

a white Boxing Day

I decided to break Christmas and New Year up with a 200km MTB race in the most Northern (and flattest) part of Holland. I thought this was an excellent idea to have something to focus on during a time I generally felt like hiding under a big rock. It was also a great opportunity to catch up with friends I had not seen for a while. I managed to talk my close friend Karin Sloove to do it with me. But oh boy was I wrong in thinking this was a good idea! After my adventure in the Himalayas I had no interest at all on focussing on a 200km MTB race on a cold dark winters day. And I did not do much, not to say NO, specific training for it. Lucky Karin had been busy preparing a move to Spain with her boyfriend Onno and not spent much time on the bike either. When we stood on the start line at 6am in the morning freezing our butts off we both had something like; "this seemed like such a good idea at the time" 

I left a beautiful white Scotland behind to spend some days in Holland
Quite quickly it became apparent this was not an adventure we had thought through properly. The course was so saturated with horrible sticky deep mud, there were sections which were simply unrideable. Within a couple of hours the bikes had accumulated so much dirt they were barely functioning. We also started at the back of the pack meaning that we were battling with hundreds of other riders stacked close together. This at times had a domino effect of crashing cyclists and in my case ended up in a head first dive into a very cold smelly ditch!! Although not ideal I could not stop laughing about the whole situation, my rescuer fishing me out of the water was wondering why I thought it was so funny which added to my amusement. Now wet and cold (at least my bike was a bit cleaner after the swim), the mud continued. 

Occasionally we were rewarded with some cool flowy single trail but these were few and far between. Things went from bad to worse when my eye became the target for an aggressive clump of dirt which caused a strange glaze over my pupil. It made me see in different fields of vision, as if I was cross eyed. I could not see any depth anymore which was not great when trying to navigate through mud, mud and more mud. 

We were making great progress in the field though and riding strong in the top 10 of the female field. But after the half way point we started to seriously think about what it was worth finishing this race. We were looking at 14 hours on the bike in soul destroying conditions. Physically I felt absolutely fine and where in the past I would have battled through, this time I felt like I had nothing left to prove. On top of that, after having raced over the most spectacular courses all over the world with the Himalayas freshly ingrained in my brain, this course for me was simply uninspiring and with lack of views or exciting descents I felt somewhat bored. When Karin suggested to call it quits I had no hesitations. My eye was getting worse and it had now started to pour down in temperatures close to zero celcius, freezing us to the core. After a good 7-8 hours and over 115kms of riding, we found ourselves happy in Onno's (absolute legend for supporting us) warm car on the way back to the comfort of our little rental house in the forest. 

Best racing buddy
It was an interesting experience for me not to make it to the finish line but not to feel bad about it and actually being quite satisfied about the performance to that point. Karin felt exactly the same way which made for a relaxing post race dinner with lots of laughs, planning adventures and conversations about dreams and aspirations I felt so at home in. How I had missed this.

I spent the following days with some key people in my life. Being shown some really cool Dutch MTB trails (they do exist!!) drinking hot chocolate and chatting the day away with a close friend in a cosy pub whilst the snow fell outside. The realisation I did have somewhere I could go home to whilst staying with my lovely uncle Aede and Aunty Gerby. And last but not least spending 24 hours with one the few people who has known me since I was 9 years old, my best friend Suzanne, leaving absolutely no secrets between us. We chatted till deep in the night like teenagers until I had to leave for my flight at 4am.

Where normally my mental batteries got charged through adventures and wilderness, this time my batteries were charged through spending time with people who were dear to me. 

And as I travelled back to Scotland I came to the realisation that for me the truth of my happiness always falls back to the same thing. No matter what age or stage of my life I am at, I believe that chasing opportunities and aspirations should always be endless. As cliche as it sounds, when people ask me “why?" I immediately think “why not?” And although this view often gets perceived as a lack of commitment or an inability to settle, I never see it this way. Wanting the freedom to dream, to challenge myself and to keep on evolving into a richer bettered version of myself is fundamentally who I want to be and what inspires me and makes me happy. How to engage to this on a daily basis I have not figured out just yet. 

So here is to a healthy, happy 2018, to endless amount of adventures and inspiring experiences accompanied by the loving people who share this roller coaster life of mine with me. 

                     "it's the possibility of a dream come true that makes life interesting" Paolo Coelho
My best moments of 2017

Catching up with one of my Uni friends Karen in the snow

New York with Michael 

MTB adventures in Utah

Catching up with my sister after 5 years 

Meeting Naomi together with Michael, Charlie and Rachel

Bike love!

Grandraid Nisramont with Karin, an absolute surprise podium!! 

My backyard

Surprising myself with a 7th female overall on the skinny tires in the tour the Borders

many adventures with Naomi

The Engadine Bike giro in Switzerland, catching up with the lovely Sarah Riley

Surprise podium in Glentress 7, solo female

exploring Scotland

3rd year being sponsored by big bobble hats

Karin joining me on a MTB leaders course in Scotland

the Himalaya Bunch, what a dream come true

riding 650km, climbing 17.000m in the Indian Himalayas

2 day MTB expedition with Jantiene

Riding the French Alps

My favourite adventure buddy

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