Race morning started with a lie in, a little exercise and then a long lazy breakfast alongside the “Swiss Miss” herself, Renata Bucher, and our respective best friends and boyfriends kindly supporting us. We sat on the veranda of our beautiful home-stay that overlooked Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and even Mont Blanc was glittering in the distance; it was set to be a perfect day of racing and it was important to cherish these rare moments of peace and quiet before the storm that was to hit later in the day at 2pm.
This is a classic French middle distance road triathlon race (1.9km swim • 93km bike • 21km run) which formerly hosted Ironman France. It was superbly well run and is a perfect race for friends and family to come and support; my mum came and she had a lovely time!
What images spring to mind when you think of the Czech Republic? My first image was a fair haired Czech smoking and drinking a large beer! Thankfully, my second image was a talented Czech athlete that I’d met at the 2006 World Duahtlon Champs in Newfoundland and which sparked me to look into the Xterra Czech race further. Soon enough I’d found out that the Czech Republic was in fact one of the first countries to host an Xterra and that it was a race not to be missed.
Alpe d’Huez village is located high in the Oisan Alpes at 1869 metres above sea level. It is spectacular. I was lucky (or some might say unlucky) enough to be racing up it in one of the toughest triathlons in the world – the Alpe d’Huez long distance triathlon.
The Brizzle team (9 of us in all) flew to Olibia, Sardinia to compete at the well established and notoriously tough Xterra Italy, which this year was to host the European Xterra Championships.
The Saipan Sports Festival transforms the island into a triathlete’s dream where track, jungle and ocean become the trampled terrain of the world’s top off-road triathletes. I was crowned XTERRA World Age-Group Champion 2008, and was inspired to step up to pro level by my coach, Julie Dibens (the reigning World XTERRA and 70.3 champion) and together with the support of my key sponsors including Trek, Torq, Schwalbe and Profeet, I was able to cut my teeth on the tropical island tracks and discover what all the fuss was about.
‘The toughest mountain bike multi-day stage race on the planet;’ la Ruta de los Conquistadores truly lives up to its reputation. It was the hardest 4 days of my life. Now in its 12th year, the race was inspired by a Spanish conquistador (conqueror) who journeyed through Costa Rica’s treacherous landscape from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. The route snakes its way through magnificent mountain ranges, traverses active volcanoes and delves deep into luscious tropical rainforest. What better way to experience the country in all its glory? I’d hoped for challenge, adventure and knockout scenery; I was rewarded with all this and so much more…
Date: 11-14th November 2009
Cumulative time: 27hours, 21 mins, 37 secs
Bike – Trek Top Fuel
Food – rice & beans (yuk), Torq bars and drinks
Tyres – Schwalbe nobby nic (2.1 front, 1.8 rear)
STAGE 1 – muddy, hot & long
Probably the most epic day I have ever had riding my bike. For me, it was almost 9 hours of pedalling, hiking, scrambling and swimming (!) from Jaco on the Pacific Coast to the capital city of San Jose in the centre. The 108km stage began with a 2 hour ascent. We left the darkness of Jaco behind us and climbed up into the hot, humid heights of the rainforest. The terrain was unlike anything I have ever encountered. The climbs were unrelenting and it was a constant struggle to keep my heart rate down low enough to last the distance. The humidity was stifling and after 2 hours of hard work I reached the top – I was rewarded with a stunning view of the Costa Rican rainforest. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and made the exhausting slog to get there all the more worthwhile. However, with 25 hours still to go there was no time to waste sightseeing and we descended deep into the rainforest once more. The recent rains had been the worst for many years so it was a battle to get to the top of the next huge climb. Knee-deep mud meant this became a gruelling 2 hour hike-a-bike. Few mountain bikers would be accustomed to meeting such a challenge and it broke the wills of many. In fact this particular challenge so early on stage 1 stretched out the field and established the pecking order almost to the finish line. With my main sport being Xterra (off-road triathlon), I couldn’t have enjoyed the challenge more! Despite the huge exertion to get to the top I was barely at the half way point, and still had a long (but smooth) road climb to go …followed by more treacherous ascents and descents across multiple waist deep river crossings. My Trek TF bike coped well with the conditions so I continued to pedal on to finish the first stage, overjoyed, exhausted but fortunately unscarred and ready for the stages to come.
STAGE 2 – climbing and even more climbing
Following the longest day I’ve ever had in the saddle during stage 1, this was another unbelievable day of yet more climbing and descending – the elevation profile looked more like a cardiogram graph than a bike race! The first ascent, merely 2 kilometres from the start line, took riders from 800 meters up to 1400 meters above sea level within 8 kilometres. Not even the pro-men could manage to ride the steepest climbs which reached an agonising 40% gradient in places. My calves screamed at me to stop on these hike-a-bike sections but I knew I had to push through the burning sensation if I was to maintain my day 1 position. The descents were just as tricky, the rains having cut 2-foot deep crevices in the trail. With just a few inches to ride on, I did my best to slip, slide and slither my way down the mountain, whilst pretending to still be in control of my TF. I was amazed by the support from the Costa Ricans who were strewn along many of the steepest sections of the trail and at the aid stations. It gave me a fantastic boost of energy when I rode past their roaring cheers and kept me smiling all the way to the finish line.
STAGE 3 – up the volcanoes and down again
I was truly in the pain box by day 3, the first 2 days having taken their toll on my body, which was begging me not to get back on the bike. I didn’t listen, and without any hesitation I threw myself into the third stage. When you have trained for so long and put in so many hours on the turbo to reach this point, you can’t let a few aching muscles hold you back! However, unlike the first two days, stage 3 seemed much simpler – straight up for 4 hours and straight down for another 2. We climbed to Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, reaching a height of close to 3400 meters above sea level. I took it on as a time trial to the top; 4 hours on the very edge of my aerobic zone, pushing, panting and peddling my way up. Heavy mist throughout the day was my saving grace, keeping my body temperature down and minimizing fluid loss. I was able to hold on and maintain a good pace. From the crater I began the seemingly never-ending descent that I’d been warned was to come. I kept focused and picked my way down boulder fields and steep and muddy tracks, despite the severe pins and needles that attacked my hands and arms. It was an enormous relief to get to the bottom and over the finish line to complete yet another gruelling day.
STAGE 4 – rain and rail roads
Looking at the profile, you’d be forgiven for thinking that stage 4 was a couple of climbs and then a coast all the way to the beach. No such luck. Stage 4 was as challenging as the previous days. Despite the torrential rain, the first hour or two went by pretty quickly and by now I was used to the type of terrain. The hard part came when the rail roads began: sleeper after sleeper, mile upon mile of riding of continuous jarring. I double flatted, and having learnt my lesson I will remember to ride tubeless next time. The 6 bridge river crossings ranged from 25 foot to a daunting 200 foot long. Hauling my bike across these, over the raging swollen flood waters below, I felt like I was in one of the characteristic and instantly recognizable photos of La Ruta. One slip and you’d be gone. So many thoughts rush through your head when you’re balancing with one leg on one sleeper stretching over the gaping hole left by missing sleepers. You have to put these thoughts aside and focus on the job at hand; getting to the other side, to the end of the rail road and to the end of the race. I felt proud to have made it this far, and was relieved that the finish line was in sight.
I was left with an overwhelming sense of pride and satisfaction – not only did I finish, I crossed the line 84th overall and 3rd woman. But this was so much more than a bike race. It was an amazing opportunity to traverse one of the most beautiful countries in the world, travel through spectacular and varied landscapes, experience the local culture and meet like-minded, adventurous and enthusiastic people from all over the world. The pain definitely was temporary but the memories I have of Costa Rica (plus a few scars!) will stay with me forever! I was pushed to my limit and I am proud that the famous La Ruta didn’t manage to conquer me. Would she conquer you? Why not step up to the challenge….?!
My win in the female 25-29 age group at the World Xterra Championships in Maui put me on top of the podium, albeit with a broken nose, alongside the other GB medallists and also my room-mates, Peter Hawkins and Llewellyn Holmes, as well as Julie Dibens who did it for GB once again!
My preparation for the race couldn’t have been better. I’d managed to squeeze in a bit of time off between changing jobs and spent September honing my mountain bike skills in the adventure lovers paradise that is Whistler, Canada. In September, I competed in some of the toughest mountain bike and trail running races I’ve ever done and was crowned Whistler’s Queen of Pain!
I arrived in Hawaii early to watch my best buddy Chrissie in the Ironman. Of course the little superstar won again which spurred me on even more for the Xterra. Although I did pick up sinusitis from the vog (volcanic fog) on Kona but I followed Chrissie’s advice to the letter and quickly got better so arrived on Maui fighting fit and ready to race.
I probably got a little too excited on my first training ride and slashed my tyres on some sharp volcanic rock. Thank goodness it happened then rather than race day, as it would have been game over. The long walk back to the car made me realise the truth behind the stories about needing the luck of the Hawaiian gods! Next stop, the bike shop to stock up with new tyres, slime, tubes and CO2 to make sure, no matter what, I would finish!
Race morning was hot, hot, hot. I set up transition as normal except with the addition of some bike gloves and a Camelback and a swanky new pair of Oakley sunglasses. At least I looked the part – Chrissie’s little pink number from TYR and a go faster blueseventy point zero three swim skin! I had no excuse and had to do the business! It was a beach start with around 600 pros, age groupers and the physically challenged all hitting the water at the same time. Needless to say the swim/drown to the first buoy was like a Friday night pub brawl – but it still didn’t feel as intense and manic as it does in normal standard distance triathlons – maybe mountain bikers are more chilled and relaxed – and I managed to escape from the water into T1 relatively unscathed!
Once on my sturdy steed, I felt full of beans but I tried not to get too carried away, as I knew the heat might take it out of me. Although the scenery was absolutely amazing, this was more than outweighed by the pain of the bike course. Brutal doesn’t come close to describing it. It’s torture. You can’t pre-ride the course so you have no idea what’s coming next and the bumping and jolting on the volcanic rock is relentless. This was adventure and challenge at its very best – and I loved it!
We’d all been warned about the long, sharp thorns that can pierce your tyre in a pedal stroke and unfortunately I picked up some about half way through. To my horror air started hissing out my back tyre but fortunately the slime sealed it. The Hawaiian puncture gods were smiling on me! Others weren’t so fortunate and many struggled with tubes or resorted to biking back on their rim. Stolz, last year’s winner, was no exception.
The final descent into T2 was fast and furious. I was feeling strong but I felt cramp coming on in my quads. Not a nice feeling when you know you have over an hour of hilly trail running to do over rough volcanic rock, sand and forest in over 30 degree heat. As soon as my feet touched the ground both legs spasmed, argh! I ran at a snail’s pace for the first five minutes and then, thank goodness, my running legs came back and I had no problems after that. Well, not with my legs anyway, more with my nose… I was ducking and diving up and over the fallen trees in ‘Spooky Forest’ and all of a sudden, bang! I’d collided head-on with a tree trunk, I’d broken my nose and I was flat on my back on the trail seeing stars. I managed to scramble up and after a few awkward, dizzy steps I was back on the trail and running home.
I didn’t realise I’d won until the finishing straight when my friends were cheering me on. Despite feeling utterly beaten up, it was such a fantastic feeling to cross the finish line and complete my first Xterra World Champs, as the 25-29 age group winner.
The legendary fancy dress Halloween after-party didn’t disappoint. All the pros and amateurs had fun sharing stories and dancing the night away! Arriving back into cold, wet London was a bit of a come-down from Hawaii so next year can’t come soon enough! A big thank you to the BRAT Club for first introducing me to triathlon and for giving me never ending help and support, Chrissie for all the freebies and for encouraging me to have a go at Xterra, to Mark Bender at Six Physio for fixing me after I broke my sternum last year and also to the Sigma Sport boys in Hampton Wick for helping me out this year!
Report published on tri247 here