Seeing my first Rwandan sunrise after setting off at 4.30am gave the ride we were all embarking on a grand and otherworldly atmosphere. A mist slowly being pushed by the breeze gave way for the sun to spill onto the valley and start sharing its light with us, giving the signal for the race to begin. The tranquil start somewhat eased me into the ride and just as the mist cleared and the valley opened up, the fears that stemmed from nervousness and uncertainty started to lift. Rwanda is by no means a flat country but the route to checkpoint 1 was kind, and in hindsight, fairly forgiving.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my first ultra race, and it would’ve been all too easy to become hypnotised by the metronomic cadence some of the other riders were tapping and end up pushing way too hard from the off. The discomfort that came from trying to visualise the thousand kilometres ahead of me as we rode a lap of the country was hard to shake; to say I was intimidated by what lay ahead and the pace with which some of the riders had set off with would be an understatement.
How do you relax when you’re nervous about something? Can you? Or, like me, does the adrenaline make your body throw the things it knows out the window? There are essential lessons you learn when you do longer and longer rides: eat before you’re hungry, don’t burn your matches too soon, break the ride down into sections. But this was different, right? This is a race, and that carries a weight to it which is loaded with expectations of your performance in relation to others, and whether you like it or not there will probably be some negative thoughts that start creeping in. It’s that fixation on the race that was throwing everything off.
Adjusting Your Race Rationale
To get through the days there needed to be some rationale of why I was there so I could see it for what it really was. I was planning on ‘type 2 fun’ - the one where you only appreciate an event afterwards, not during - but it was made very obvious extremely quickly that taking that approach meant I’d be robbing myself of being able to absorb the experience in the pursuit of riding a bike fast. After all, this was a holiday, as it was for nearly everyone who took part in the race. It wasn’t a head down approach that was needed, but a head up.
It was that engagement with the people and the country that got me round. It was very much a sensory overload: The excited cheers of children shouting ‘Mzungu mzungu!’ (white person) up the road to their neighbours and seeing kids emerge out of nowhere to relay the message, the often overwhelming smell of the incense-like smoke from the burning piles of shrubs and the bumps and ruts in the dirt roads reminding you of the heavy downpour that could turn your 30 degree sweat fest into a 20 degree mud slog in an instant.
Ride in the Moment
Where I’d grown up in the sport racing at Herne Hill Velodrome, or around the country on the road and cyclocross in the winter, every race was against something. That hyper focussed drive that top end racers have that make them so successful, I don’t think I have, and I went into this race thinking that this same competitive energy was going to be required to get that one up on someone. That’s where my apprehension stemmed from at the start and why I felt so at ease at the finish, because that wasn’t the case here. Instead, I got round by taking myself mentally out of the race and immersing myself in the pine forest at 3000m, into the perfect rows of tea radiating the warmth of the morning sun in Gisovu and into the orchestra of frogs in the climb up to Kinigi. I wasn’t against anything;I felt I was with everything.
It was so much easier to switch off from the distance I was traveling once I embraced that mindset - a lesson that’s stuck with me since getting back and has helped get me round the 60km rides that start feeling like 600km. It’s about appreciating what you’re doing, where you are and being able to see those in the context of each other. Whatever ride distance you next challenge yourself with, be that an ultra race or a 100km ride and wherever that takes you, remember to look up when your legs start to burn, not down.
Don’t miss taking in your surroundings because you think the pain cave is necessary: it’s not. You’ll probably end up falling into the justification that what you’re doing is ‘type 2’ fun that way. Instead, take it all in, be mindful and enjoy every minute of it - you’ll go further that way, especially if there’s a sunrise involved.