Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tour de Timor – the race where you gain more by getting less

Tour de Timor is a five day Mountain bike stage race in East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world. 

Although the race itself is a true challenge, don’t sign up based on the race itself. You get a lot more (or less, depending how you look at it) than that:

The race
The race entails five stages totalling 395km and 8200m of climbing. The surface ranges from smooth pavement to crater deep potholes to gravel to throw-you-of-your-bike rocky terrain to deep sandpits. But even as the most untalented mountain biker, I myself could handle the terrain. Although the race course is challenging, other factors make this an epic experience:

Dont get fooled, this was one of the smoothest roads we road on.

There was no lack of climbs

Camping of some sort was the theme for most stages. But don’t imagine a nice quiet camping area with a BBQ grill. Camping is done in or out of basic building blocks with livestock casually passing by. With the regular bark or cock-a-doodle-doo during night time, you were ensured that breakfast and lunch have not gone missing yet. 

In the background was our accommodation. Everyone is getting ready for the next stage.

Cleaning facilities
The Timorese wash tradition entails a scoop and a bucket full of water. Throw the water with the scoop over your head and you got your shower. The water quality ranged from see-thru liquid to microbiological aquariums. For the most part, the dirt on my body outweighed the dirt in the water bucket. 

If you are gluten-free, lactose intolerant, wheat allergic and paleo, you are in luck, because Tour de Timor provides almost for every type of diet. Having rice and meat served every day all day, you can be ensured that you will not accidentally get milk, wheat or any other Western intolerances from this diet. Just don’t mind the occasional diarrhoea or stomach cramp.

If you are looking for big crowds cheering you on, you came to the right place. Children of all age will never leave you wondering if you took the wrong way. 

Spectators everywhere, not just at the finish line.

The best of all were the fellow riders though. As you might be able to read through the sarcasm in the previous lines, we went through a lot of ups and downs. Sharing the glory, the pain, the suffering, fatigue and the joy of accomplishment with this great group of people made this experience very special. We grew together as a group, got to know each other’s habits, food schedule, blisters, and other pains (I spare the details but the other riders know what I am talking about). 

Tour de Timor is not just a mountain bike race – it is an experience of a very poor country and what comes with it – lack of clean water, cleaning facilities, variety of food and sleep quality add to the strain of body and mind on top of the race itself. By getting pushed out of my comfort zone on so many levels, I gained so much more out of this experience than just fitness. 

I want to thank the fellow riders, the med team and the fantastic support team for sharing this incredible experience with me!

Many thanks to River City Cycle for providing me with an awesome Salsa El Mariachi for this race.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The start into an exciting ultra-endurance season: 700km in 36 hours in Mallee, Victoria

I am back to where I belong!!

After a four month flirt with triathlon (this might deserve its own blog post at some point), I am back to ultra-endurance racing. With plenty of space in Australia, there is no shortage of long rides!

To test my current endurance I decided to do the Audax 600km Mallee ride and 5 days beforehand I signed up. 

My preparation? Well….does a 200km ride two weeks prior count, my longest ride in a year?  

I decided to let the problems come as they occur.  The good thing when you haven’t done such a long ride in a while (this would be my longest ever), is that you forgot what you need. I was assured I would remember very quickly.

A dinner with all the riders took place the evening before the ride. It was a humorous and chatty group ranging in age between 29 and 65. 
Topics were: Why should I get a recumbent bike, how long do Magpies charge at you, and watch out for kangaroos hopping out in front of your wheel.  

I also met the 29 year old Joel whose plan was to set a record. 

I was intrigued.

His plan was riding 1000km with a 30km/h average.
30km/h? That sounds reasonable if I sit on his wheel, I thought. 

“Hey Joel, do you mind if someone is sitting on your wheel?”
“No Monika, having company would be great!”
“What distance are you doing again?”
“One thousand kilometres, ….that is a lot….”

After a let’s-think-about-this-for-a-second moment, I changed my registration from a 600km to a 1000km ride. 

So I had 12 hours (and dont mind the time to sleep in there) to figure out food, riding route, water and everything else I don’t remember that I would need to get ready for. 

It never really sunk in what I just did – just casually adding another 400km to the ride.

My new plan…oh wait, I didn’t even have a plan before….so I guess now I got a plan which is stick with Joel as long as I can.

The morning off, Joel and I were off for the first of three loops. (All three loops ended at Hopetoun, the epicentre of homemade apple crisp with vanilla custard, lasagne and a warm oven.)

The first loop consisted of 360km. We hit the first 180km spot on, even a tad high averaging 32kmh. But then, we were facing 100, let me spell that out…one hundred kilometres of headwind! 

But Joel was determined to keep up the pace. Even in the backseat I felt the pain of the headwind. It was quite exhausting. 

After a 14 hours round trip, we made it back to Hopetoun at 8pm. I was considering my next move over the last hours and I decided I want to get going as soon as possible; otherwise I wouldn’t get going at all. 

My legs were fried. The food too delicious. The oven nice and warm. So an extended stay at home base would be detrimental to the ride. I booked a hotel 100km up the road and planned on staying there the most crucial time during the night from 12am to 4am. Joel’s plan was to sleep now and get going at midnight. So we split.

Now I was alone on the roads of rural Victoria. 

It was quiet. Semi-dark, we had full moon. An occasional car passing. Nothingness. Very relaxing.

Except a few unnerving things like a dead bike computer, 10% phone battery and some gunshot noises that kept me on edge. 

Lets say, I wasn’t really enjoying the stars too much, instead I was constantly surveying my surroundings for deadly animals and everything else that could stand between me and the nice warm bed in the hotel up the road.

At 2am, after 460km and 20 hours of riding, I arrived at the hotel in Dimboola and I was sleep before hitting the pillow.

After a solid three hours sleep or rather nap, I was back on the road. 

The first two hours were rough. I couldn’t clip into my pedals, I couldn’t reach for my gels in my pocket, it was too dark, too cold, too windy, and everything else that would annoy me because I was not lying in a cosy, warm bed. 

But eventually, I faced realty and got settling into riding again. But there was one thing I totally missed. I forgot to eat breakfast!!!! Now I was out of food and starving. I had another 10km to go to the next town.

No way that I would leave the next town without food.
Minyip, the next town had two cafes, one shut-down hotel and gas station, one supermarket and one bank. I know this so well, because I rode this very strip of road 20 times up and down to find something open at 8am on a Sunday morning. Wishful thinking! 

Finally I came across another living creature. At 9am the supermarket opens, he said. I pondered whether to waste an hour on waiting or keep going and start bonking. 

I waited. Apparently, the supermarket is the biggest attraction on a Sunday morning at 9am because half of the town was in front of it eagerly awaiting its opening. 

After some curb-side-sandwich-assembly action I was off to the next town, 40km to go with a solid headwind. 

While cruising along from town to town, I was able to take in fully my surroundings.
Rural Victoria was a concoction of Iowa, Manitoba and Cyprus. Take the fields of Iowa, mix it with the pancake flatness of Canada’s Manitoba, throw some Cypriot flora in it and replace the Midwestern wild dogs with Magpies, and you got a pretty good picture of rural Victoria.

Now a word about those Magpies. I never looked out for birds so much in my life until now. Those birds are attacking cyclists if you are in their territory. Attacking meaning they are swooping from behind to either just stop short of your helmet or they actually hitting your helmet. 

The territory, so I learned, was 200m long. They will charge at you when you are in and leave you alone once you crossed that invisible border.  In short, it is basically a interval game where you have to sprint for a maximum of 200m and the Magpies decide when to sprint. I didn’t like the game but I played it about 20 times during my ride.

So the day went on with the second loop of 340km came to an end. The last 5km became a solid sprint effort as an entire Magpie community charged at me one kilometre after the other. 

After 700km and 36 hours of riding, it was the end of my ride due to time constraints and physiological reasons. I was ok with it as I rode 100km more than originally planned. It was a fantastic season starter for plenty of ultra-endurance events to come. I cant wait for the next one!

It was a great organized event thanks to Simon Watt and his crew who made this possible! Next up is Tour de Timor in two weeks – a 5 day Mountain bike stage race.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Open Water Swim and a missed shark attack....I think.

Every place has some culture-specific toughness...

In Minnesota, cyclists were their entire closet plus a snowboard mask to ride their fat bikes around the frozen lakes in -20 degrees.

In Europe, you casually ride few mountain passes in a day and just like that, you got 7000m of elevation in your pedals.
Col De Turini, France

Last Sunday, I found it in Melbourne. I knew that the Aussie are quite water-affine but wanting to swim in 10.5 degree water temperature in the ocean in the dark???? Isnt that a bit over the top?

Who worries about the sharks, deadly jellyfishes and all the other sudden-death-inducing monsters in the deep dark? Do I have to worry for everyone?

In any case, I had to sign up for this madness.

Three friends joined this event and the debate became not so much whether we are doing this 1km in freezing cold water. Nope. The 100% toughness score would be only awarded to the real-deal swimmers - the ones without wetsuit.

I was out. I joined the sissy category.

Please dont get fooled by the relaxed posture of these men and women. It was COLD! I had happily worn everything from picture above.

 So, the event started. Swimmers headed out to the first cone. I was still trying to assess chances getting bit, eaten, devoured by anything around me. I decided the meat around me would keep me safe for a while.

But another problem emerged. Although I have an entire two months of 25m-calm-heated-pool training in me, I could not really apply all learned to this choppy, dark, salty water without any tile-like bearing points five meters under me. It made me uneasy.

After a this-is-real-shit adjustment phase and a few comforting breast strokes, I decided to give this whole freestyle stroke a go.

Head in the water. After about 2 seconds and a heavy load of hyperventilated salt intake I decided breast stroke would do the trick.

On the way back to the awaiting crowd of worriers.

Apparently, breast stroke was seen as an emergency way of moving forward because in no-time I had a rescue kayaker on my side. And no one in sight! The sharks wouldnt eat that quickly, would they?

I dabbled with my grandmother breaststroke along the ocean. Where had I to go? The kayaker told me to target the blinking lights in the distance. But he didnt tell me which of the thousand ones he meant. Thanks to my fogged up goggles the number of blinking lights was limited.

The time passed. I think.
And eventually I felt the ground under my feet.

Fazit: Great event. A lot of stuff blinks from the ocean. Sharks do not like me. Wetsuit was a damn good idea!