Nora and I have never met, our only connection is that we both participated in Bikingman Oman 2018, here is her highs and lows, her tips, her perspective about ultra cycling.
How and when did you get into cycling?
Nora - I started cycling about 4 years ago. In 2015 I had a desire to participate in triathlons and after finishing my first triathlon I developed more interest in the sport. Cycling didn't come easy, I had a lot of issues and as a result, I didn’t enjoy cycling during my first year participating in triathlons. But I already had registration for full Ironman, so had to go through this misery. Because of my nature, it took a long time to develop bike handling skills, like sipping from the bottle while riding, cornering and even stopping and 2 years to build up enough courage to cycle downhill, before when training in mountainous areas I would come down in the support car only.
Early on I only had 2 reasons why I enjoyed cycling - it had a low impact and it was much more refreshing than running in summer. Now there many reasons to jump on the bike and enjoy cycling.
Where do you ride mostly?
Nora - In the UAE, we have dedicated outdoor cycling tracks which we can use, I go there during the week. I also enjoy indoor cycling classes, which work for me when I don’t have enough time to train. On weekends I prefer to go outside of the city to the hills. It is time-consuming but I do enjoy cycling in those areas.
As you work full-time, how do you fit your training in, when and how often do you ride your bike?
Nora - I do 3 training rides a week. I also run and need other days for run sessions. I like indoor cycling when the weather is too hot, too windy or too dusty. On the weekend I try to add a long ride in the mountainous areas.
What do you enjoy about ultra-distance cycling?
Nora - When I did my first ultra-distance cycling race it was unknown territory and was really scary. I had no un-supported cycling experience, no idea where I will be able to refuel, no idea of what and how to carry everything I need on my bike to cycle multiple days in the row.
To this day each race continues to be surrounded by the unknown and you can never predict what might happen. So, each race offers me new lessons and new experiences. There is also an element of community, you meet amazing athletes who have so many achievements, who did or plan and to take on amazing challenges. It is really inspiring.
What was your first ultra-distance cycling event and how did you prepare for it?
Nora - I was still nervous when cycling alone on open roads before I entered my first ultra-distance cycling event, a 1000km single stage race at the end of February 2018 called Bikingman Oman. I signed up at the end of November 2017 and immediately increased the duration of my weekday training rides to about 2 to 3 hours. On weekends I did long all-day training rides with lots of climbs. The more I trained the less nervous tension I had when cycling alone on open roads, my confidence grew and I conquered my anxiety and fear.
What were your goal and strategy when you did your first ultra-distance cycling event?
Nora - My biggest fear was riding at night I had never done it and wasn't planning to try during the race. Initially, I planned to finish in 5 days and absolutely no riding at night, completing the 1000km race in 5 days meant riding 200km each day. As my training load increased, the all-day riding had an impact on my body, which brought disbelief in my ability to finish the race in 5 days.
Although I had doubts, my strategy remained as is - ride during the day and sleep during the night in a hotel. However, when I studied the route of the race I found that the distance between hotels was more than 200km. So, the plan started lean towards completing the race in 4 days, this seemed difficult, cycling 250km a day for 4 days! I booked the hotels along the course and only hoped to reach them as planned; unfortunately, I went too fast and completed the race in 3 days.
What bike and packing setup did you choose for the ride?
Nora - I only have one bicycle, it is a BMC Timemachine TMR02, which is a racing bike that has aero frame design, it has a very aggressive racing set up, many people describe the frame as stiff, rigid but I didn't know any better, I made the best of what I had and didn't change or add anything, not even using the clip on TT aero extension bars that I had.
For packing I chose a minimalist approach, never riding at night and sleeping in hotels meant I did not need a sleeping or tent and used just a seat pack which contained only the essentials that I needed for the race.
How did you reduce pre-race anxiety?
Nora - It is very easy to be hard on yourself before the race. For me, my agreement with myself was that I am ready to fail and not finish. I promised myself, that if at any point the race becomes unsafe and or exhausting to where I can no longer go beyond my limits and abilities that I will be pleased with my decision if and when I drop out. I think this agreement gave me a lot of comfort before the race.
What did you learn/discover about yourself when you did your first ultra-distance cycling event?
Nora - The first discovery was that I was a fighter. It is not easy to handle an extreme challenge for the first time. I had lots of aches and pains in my joints and muscles, but I kept going. The little voice inside my head was telling me to stop, to rest, but I ignored it and kept pedaling forward. This happens to many riders in an ultra-distance or adventure racing when their energy and motivation levels are at its lowest, when they are sleepy or in discomfort. I learnt that this is what ultra-distance cycling is all about, and these feelings can and will last for many many hours, maybe even days. It's a real fight with yourself where you have to decide to quit or keep moving.
I also learnt that I could not stick to the written plan. (If I ever do such events as a team that I might be a terrible teammate.) Sometimes I followed the plan and sometimes I didn't, but that is okay because ultra cycling is about being able to adapt to the race situation, the environment, the weather, etc.
You finished Bikingman Corsica 2018, did you use this experience to be better prepared for Bikingman Corsica 2019, what did you do?
Nora - Bikingman Corsica 2018 was a big learning curve. In 2018 I got lost and realized quite late that I got off course. It was too difficult to go back. I opted out to cut the route and re-join at the nearest point. This year, I looked at GPS every single time it beeped when I was off course. This is particularly frustrating as in mountains the route and the actual road was not 100% matching, so it used to take some time to be sure that I was going in the right direction.
I also knew where it was possible to get food and drink to refuel and make sure I have enough in reserve for the next stretch. Knowing this boosted my confidence and maintains motivation during the race.
I knew from last year that it could be difficult to find a hotel after a certain hour in the evening and chose to ride each evening until I could no more, it was truly a miracle that I could find hostels late in the evenings.
This year it was also an experimental year – I didn’t train as much as I think I should be training for ultra-distance racing. I trained only 3 times a week and increased the training volume only on my weekend rides. Mid-week training combined cycling with some running and yoga and kept wondering how it will feel during the race. Surprisingly, I felt better and didn't end up with severe injuries like last year.
What were the lowest moments during Bikingman Corsica 2019, how do you get through them?
Nora - There were quite a few difficult times during Bikingman Corsica 2019. It was cold during the early morning and late evenings in the mountains. The temperature would drop from 24-25 degrees to 0 degrees Celsius. I wasn't well prepared, didn't have enough clothes, my hands and legs where freezing and struggle to warm them up. Sometimes I would stop at villages I passed and search for an open coffee shop to warm up.
Another challenge I faced on day 2 when the bolt which holds the saddle to the seat post broke. It was a very difficult moment as I am not able to make any mechanical repairs on the bike and felt useless at the time but I was extremely lucky that it happened a few hundred meters from checkpoint. So, my first thought was to go to the checkpoint and find a bike shop but I found tools and a bolt at the checkpoint instead, another miracle!
Another moment I remember was day 3 when energy levels were low, I hardly ate on day 2, no dinner and no breakfast. So I had to walk many easy uphill sections. My only solution was frequent stops and motivating myself with thoughts: "what goes up must go down”, “it will be over soon”, “downhill is coming”, “no one will do it for you, just get over it”.
What advice would you give to someone participating in an ultra-distance cycling event for the first time?
Nora - Every race will throw you a new set of challenges and it is hard to prepare for what might or might not happen. My advice to those who plan first ultra-distance cycling is to plan, but don’t over-plan, prepare but don’t over-prepare, give nothing less than total effort and accept that failure is part of the experience. Don’t try to find a solution for every problem, challenge or issue before it happens.