About a month ago, I read a quote that went along the lines of this (can't remember where I read it, but it stuck with me): If you succeed 51% of the time, then you will be a massive success in life. If you succeed 70% of the time, then you are probably a failure. You aren't taking enough risks. It stuck with me because it's so easy to get caught up in only wanting success - only good days - only hardships that are easily conquered. And of course we get caught up in that, nobody wants to fail! As I reflect on the 2017 Cape Epic, I've tried to keep that in mind as I come to terms with not finishing. (Oh, sorry - spoiler alert)
And it begins Upon arrival, where again the Westin Cape Town treated us like royalty, I took the luxury of relaxing for 3 days before getting out on the bike. Myself and Coleman went on a couple easy spins, where my legs and energy levels left a lot to be desired. I badly wanted to panic, but I figured everything would come around when the race started. I chalked up the fatigue to the first few rides after a longer break off the bike.
Prologue day rolled around, a 30 km day with 750 m of vertical. Temps were hot, but our 8 am start allowed us to avoid the 35 degree high on the day.
Coming into the finish on prologue day
My legs didn't feel great, my heartrate was spiking more than usual, but overall I hadn't expected to feel great. Sometimes, ignorance can be bliss - unfortunately, this time around I knew what to expect! We finished the prologue, showered up, and hopped on the 2 hour transport to the race village in Hermanus.
Stage 1 Stage 1 was a proper 'how do you do' Cape Epic intro - 103 km, 2300 m of vertical, and sky high temps. The day got rolling, and I felt pretty good. The trails were smooth and quick, and temperatures were manageable. It wasn't until the afternoon, as we hit the major climb of the day, that temperatures started to sore. The climb was loose and steep, with some grades around 20%. It was a hike-a-bike with no shade, and temperatures spiked to 42! Hot! After cresting, I looked forward to a nice easy coast back down, but that was not in the cards. The trail down the opposite side was steep, dusty, loose and rocky. It was a brake - squealing crawl of a descent that was not fun, and took far longer to complete than expected. We were back on flat ground, but our average speed was dropping rapidly. The heat was taking its toll on both of us. The time cut of 9.5 hours became something we had to worry about. The last aid station came at 30 km to go, and it's where we got our first glimpse of the havoc heat was playing. The med-tent was full of riders with zombie-like expressions, many of them attached to IV drips. We kept on motoring, aware of the time cut baring down, but we were circling the drain... The last 15 km were a true slog, some of the toughest kilometers I've ever pedalled due to the heat. The trail side started to imitate a war-zone, with bodies laying limp in the side. Some conscious, some eyes-closed with a teammate hovering over them, others being attended to by medics and ambulances. I lost count, but we must have passed at least 20 riders on the side of the trails and roads as we came to the finish. The stage was completed for us with around 15 minutes to spare, yet as we sat, completely knackered in the recovery tent, I started to think how I could be spared the difficulty of continuing if we hadn't made the cut-off. I'd never experienced 42 degrees before, let alone experience it while trying to crest steep climbs and challenging terrain. I wasn't in a good space mentally - the fact that I even considered wishing I missed the time cut caused some alarm, but I kept the thoughts to myself. I knew negative thoughts would come and go, just like my legs would come and go on the bike throughout a stage. I went through the usual motions of Post-Stage routine: force feeding, showering, force feeding some more, massage, and sleep. Restless sleep as it would turn out. The low overnight was 26, and even with the tent door open all night, I don't think the temp inside dropped much past 30.
Tent village. Or more like tent city, there are a LOT of tents waiting in each race village destination!
Adding to my restless sleep was the fear and stress of the next day - almost a duplicate in distance and elevation, with 102 km and 2350m of vertical on tap. That in itself was okay, but temperatures were forecast to be hotter, and more humid!
Stage 2 aka I'm Melting I awoke to the usual bagpipe wakeup call, and begrudgingly started the morning routine (coffee run to Woolies, lay out the gear and clothing for the day, force down breakfast, make peanut butter protein sandwiches, more coffee from Woolies). When I turned on my phone, there it was - a text from Cape Epic that immediately boosted my mood and brought me back to firmly believing I could make it to the finish. For the first time in the Epic's 14 year history, they were shortening a stage. Race doctors warned that there would be substantial risk to rider safety due to increasing temperatures and humidity. 40 km was chopped off the route, and all of a sudden I felt some confidence in being able to make the finish line. "How bad can 60 km be - we'll be done before the heat of the day" I thought to myself. 8 am we rolled off the line, and already it was warm, a sticky humid thickness in the air. The amended cutoff time was 6 hours, and about halfway through the 60 km day, I didn't even consider how much time was left, we had plenty. During stage 1, while my spirits had yet to melt away from the scorching heat, I had joked with Coleman - "42 degrees is nothing. You haven't lived until you've ridden at the same temperature as you are years old." During stage 2, that was no longer funny (because Coleman is old). The wheels came off... The climbs remaining weren't terribly challenging, but the 45 degree sun and complete lack of shade were. Yes, 45 degrees with no shade or shelter to hide in. Turning over the pedals became increasingly challenging, even on flat ground. We tried to push the pace at times, and the time cut started looming. I watched the kilometers tick by and did the math - it was going to be tight! One last short, steep climb loomed before a downhill to flat finish. As the grade kicked, I got off to walk, leaning on my bike heavily to keep myself upright. My vision started to go blurry, and the blackness started creeping into my peripherals. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I do believe I was close to passing out, the seconds to the time cut the only motivator keeping me going. Coleman had gone up the trail, out of view, to salvage his own race as there was only 10 minutes to go. As I came down the other side, dodging rocks and ruts at a speed that was probably unwise due to the tunnel vision I was experiencing, I caught sight of Coleman. And the finish line. We rolled across the line with 3 minutes to spare to the cutoff. I wanted to melt into a puddle, and as we sat under some shade, I told Coleman there was a zero-chance I could start the next day. I was close to asking for medical help, and couldn't fathom starting Stage 3.
Coerced into taking a quick photo with Marius Hurter before searching for shade.
We hopped on the shuttle to take us to the original finishing destination of Greyton, giving me some time to reflect on the day. On one hand, I was pushing myself close to a point of needing medical attention. On the other hand, I had trained harder than ever before, traveled all that way, and had countless friends and family at home cheering us on and sending well wishes. So I decided to use a trick my Dad has used on me more than a few times at 24 Hour events - act as if you're going to go out and ride again. Eat like you're going to fuel another ride. Prep the bike and gear as if you are going out again. Even if the whole time you tell yourself there is no way of hopping back on the bike. So I took a beeline to the med tent, getting fluid levels and blood tests done. Core temp was high and potassium levels a touch low, but I was cleared to continue on. Then it was through the regular Post-Stage routine.
Coleman joined me for a little bit of medical expertise after getting knackered in the heat.
And wouldn't you know it, by the late evening I decided I was going to ride again. I was coming around by staying out of the sun and drinking lots, and I didn't feel half bad anymore. The forecast called for one more day of heat, followed by a dip to high's in the mid to upper 20s! I had it in my head that I just needed to get through one more day.
One More Day I had another restless sleep in a hot tent, interrupted a few times by some stomach distress that I will spare you the details of. And before I knew it, I was kitted up and on the start line for Stage 3, something I thought was not going to happen just 12 hours earlier. Stage 3 was a shorter day - only 82 km on tap, so I had hopes it would go by quickly. And much of the day did, but about two-thirds of the way through, my stomach troubles started to come back. We were 10 km from an aid station and I needed a toilet in an emergent manner. It may have been the longest 10 km I have ever ridden, but I miraculously made it, ditched my bike, and sprinted for the Portapotties. (Glamorous bike racing life... )
At least the views didn't suck...
With the stomach pains gone, it was time to tackle the biggest climb of the day, UFO climb, which jutted up around 450 m in a short few km. It was at this point that I realized I had been too busy focusing on getting to a toilet before the aid station that I hadn't been eating. Coupled with the heat, force feeding through nausea was not an enjoyable task. On the climb, some pitches kicked above 20%, with concrete cinder blocks dug into the dirt for traction. My Garmin showed 41 degrees as I slowly walked up the seemingly endless pitches. The walls were closing in again, vision going blurry and black in spots. Coleman knew things weren't going well, and I watched him push on ahead, knowing perfectly well it would keep me moving to catch up. After what felt like an eternity, we crested the top, and started the Land Rover technical terrain of the day, a loose, bermed and flowy ribbon of singletrack that dropped the 450 m we had just climbed. As I picked my way through the first corner, I noticed Coleman had opened up quite a gap to me. My reflexes were slow, almost as if I was drunk (minus the unimpeded optimism that accompanies being drunk) and I didn't feel safe going any faster while looking through spotted blurry vision. The fact that Coleman gapped me out on a downhill said a lot about my condition at the time. Coleman is an incredibly talented cyclist EXCEPT when it comes to techy downhills. I can't think of one time in the history of riding with him where he has been able to open even a bike length between us on a downhill. Yet here I was with MANY bike lengths seperating us. Near the bottom, the trail widened out into a gravel road for the remainder of the descent. I took advantage of not having to touch the brakes - all I wanted was to get to the finish. It didn't help that I had some more - ahem - stomach problems brewing. We crossed the line, somewhere around 6.5 hours, and I again beelined it to the Portapotties. I oddly found myself feeling pretty optimistic about the next day. And oddly Coleman, usually ever-steady optimistic was talking like he was ready to pull the plug. I started into my routine, which now involved the med tent yet again. My temperature was again high, hydration not as good (but still satisfactory), but the doctor was concerned about my stomach issues. I had to do some pleading. Coleman wasn't around, and with him being in a bad mental space, I didn't want him to be burdened with worrying about me. So I asked the doctor to fudge the facts if Coleman showed up. My words were something along the lines of "I know if I'm so messed up its not safe to continue you have to say something, but if you're on the fence about how I'm doing, can you pretend to be more optimistic if my teammate comes around?" Of course her answer was no, they are professionals! Worth a shot though. She told me she would reconsider my current decision of starting if I continued to have stomach problems through the night, but technically, where my hydration levels and health sat currently, it was not at the threshold where they would force me to withdraw. And kindly, she didn't repeat any of the negative news when Coleman stopped by. Live to ride another day, I had it in my head that I would be on the start line for Stage 4's cooler forecasted temperatures. That night, I should have seen the writing on the wall though.. I couldn't force myself to eat the amount of calories I knew I needed to, and I made the decision to turn down the evening Post-race massage to instead turn in early and go to sleep.
Mornings with Tough Decisions My stomach troubles persisted overnight, and when the bagpipes started in the morning I awoke, dehydrated and still nauseous. I knew the way I had been degrading over the past few days, and overnight, that I had to drop out. I didn't want to end up in the hospital, and I also didn't want to ruin Coleman's chances of finishing by making him wait for me. Yet still I had the inner dialogue battle for about 15 minutes with myself, the kind of tough inner dialogue that rips you apart. And then I leaned over to the edge of Coleman's tent beside mine and let him know.
He didn't sound surprised, which meant I wasn't doing as good of a job as I thought in hiding my condition the night before. I took a tiny bit of solace in the fact that Coleman had come around - he was already getting his gear ready for the day, so he was riding. Read his Stage 4 through 7 reports in his blog.
As I sit here writing this, in a hostel on the first leg of an amazing European vacation, the emotion behind that decision to drop out still puts a damper on my mood. To go into that event in better shape than ever before, travel that far, and get through the hottest days only to pull the plug really gutted me. I knew that the countless supporters back home, friends, family and sponsors, would understand, but I couldn't help feeling like I'd let them down. But I'm likely my toughest critic, and I definitely let myself down, which is what bothers me the most. Guess I'm going to have to go back to South Africa to race the Epic again... Thank You's A BIG thanks and congratulations to Coleman is deserved. He patiently waited for me when I was riding at my worst, almost missing time cuts because of it. He then went on to crush stage times once I was gone, throwing down some amazing efforts to successfully finish. I also want to thank The Base by RVH for all their work for me on my prep. I know I hit the start line in the best shape I've ever been thanks to them, and I hadn't succumbed to a stomach bug, things would've evened much differently. Looking forward to getting back to the Base this summer, hungry to get back training! Then I can't forget to thank my superstar South African friends, Marius and Marilize. Marius was busy going through his own battles with the Cape Epic, yet still found time to chat with me and Coleman, give us tips and morale boosts, and just overall be an A+ guy. Then there's Marilize, who essentially became our team manager after helping us secure an entry. She dealt with all the headaches so we didn't have to, like transport to race venues, pre and post accomodation, and even helping arrange a last minute hotel room when I dropped out before the finish. And I know she hung on every last poorly tracked second of the race, both for our team and a handful of others. A true stress reliever that made Cape Town feel like home for us. And lastly, a huge thanks to everyone who followed along and passed along words of encouragement. I know we had a small, no scratch that, we had a large army of friends and family back home cheering us on. So to everyone above, thank you! I can't put into words how appreciative I am.
What's Next? And now, as I try to deal with the sting of failure, I'll keep coming back to that quote I started with. Because if you succeed 70% of the time, you aren't failing enough. As you may know, I'm now in the midst of an amazing 2 month European vacation sans bike, so you won't be hearing much from me on the cycling front for awhile. But I'm already itching to get back going... so until next time. Thanks for reading!