An analysis of failure
When we fail, it isn’t always possible to pinpoint the exact thing that went wrong. However, we can look at everything that happened and use it as a lesson to improve.
As you all know, I barely stayed in the World Cycle Race for one week. After six months of planning, training, raising funds and getting excited about seeing the world again, my journey stopped abruptly and I wasn’t able to get back on the road. I had acute tendonitis on both achilles tendons, but more than that, my ankles had swollen to twice their size. I couldn’t pedal without excruciating pain, clicking out of the pedals was almost the worst part, only surpassed by going up hills. Unfortunately, none of this can be avoided when cycling. Furthermore, I didn’t have the means or possibility to get ice and decent rest every day, I had barely been making it to bed before 11pm every day, mostly I didn’t reach my accommodation until the late evening. I’m sure other people, other cyclists, aren’t fazed by tendonitis, but I simply couldn’t take the pain anymore – and I was worried about permanent damage.
I’ve had problems with the right ankle, which was and is worse, before. In 2012, I traveled around the world. As part of that six month long trip I did a lot of hiking. I hadn’t had problems until hiking for four days through the Grand Canyon, where on day three my right ankle started to hurt quite a lot and turned blue on the inside. It was rapidly swelling up and I was slowing our group of four down. Luckily one of them stayed behind me the whole time, keeping me company, but it still wasn’t much fun. I switched from my hiking boots to Five Fingers which made it better for a while (and yes, my hiking boots were well worn-in, tried and tested over many other hiking trails) but I was extremely relieved when I made it out of the Canyon the next day (and promptly burst into tears). Upon arrival a friend got me a cold Coke and I hobbled into the car.
See, that’s the thing. I got into the car. I was able to rest up a bit after this. We went on to Zion Canyon and I took it easier for a few days, doing fairly light hiking and icing my ankle frequently. We did two hikes in rivers (The Subway and The Narrows) which helped a lot.
But I was always able to stop and rest for the rest of the day. I didn’t have this possibility on this trip.
I never got that ankle checked out because I didn’t think anything of it. The problem never really returned. I switched to lightweight hiking shoes for the remainder of the trip and never had problems again, not while hiking up Cotopaxi and not while doing the Abel Tasman Coast Track entirely in Five Fingers with a 15kg backpack.
So I didn’t figure it would be a weak point for cycling.
I had only started cycling in August of last year. At first, I rode a horribly outdated (but beautiful) steel bike that belongs to my Dad and which made my fingers go numb but got me into cycling. When I bought my current road bike I had a fitting in a shop. I thought that’s good enough. That, combined with just testing and trying, sufficed to find a very comfortable position. I never had problems with my feet while training. Not over short and punchy distances, not over long distances, and not on crazy hill repeats with Juliana in Naples. On the contrary, my body had started to adapt.
On top of the cycling I trained with a brilliant personal trainer and my muscles were (and are) actually quite strong, especially the posterior chain. Right to the end I improved my performances on the Deadlift, Squat and Bench press (okay, no legs involved there) and scored high on the Functional Movement Screen.
So what did it? Why did I have to stop?
A few things came together. First, an apparently dodgy ankle. I’m working on finding out exactly what’s wrong with it. Second, I didn’t cycle enough in the weeks leading up to the race. It was cold, I was too focused on sorting out everything else (immunizations, funding, logistics, arrangements for our apartment while I’m gone,…) and doing all kinds of things.
Third, the first days in the race didn’t actually go very much to plan.
On my second day, everything that could go wrong eventually did.
I got up and there was no one at the hotel, thus no breakfast. I grabbed two croissants from a bakery but couldn’t find any coffee. I eventually saw a McDonald’s upon leaving Calais but I didn’t want to stop again after just starting out. I completely forgot that it was Sunday and I was in France. This was my first big mistake. I didn’t carry any food, wanting to just rely on roadside stops. Generally, this actually works perfectly fine in Europe. But not on a Sunday in France. My Garmin sent me through beautiful small villages and there was nothing, nothing at all. I didn’t find food for almost six hours, burning almost 4000kcal in the meantime on top of my normal metabolic rate of about 1600kcal. So I had burned almost 6000kcal already and only eaten less than 1000kcal. Even with my fat reserves – even at less than 20% body fat I’m not exactly “thin” – this doesn’t work. By the time I found food I basically stumbled around. I could no longer put in any effort on the bike.
In the meantime, I had also had mechanical problems. I was trying to adjust my seat position a TINY bit and the screw broke. After much consideration (losing about an hour) I did manage to fix it with part of a latex glove and some zip ties, but I wasn’t able to fix the seatpost in my usual position, it was slightly higher. I rode in this higher position for about 200km more.
Around 7pm I finally found real, hot food and was barely able to eat it. I was shivering and it was dark. The town I was in was still about 45km from where I had booked a hotel, but there was no way I would make it. I had been struggling against a head wind all day, rode in a different position and was cold.
Unfortunately, the town didn’t have any hotels and the next town, 15km away which may have had a hotel was straight up a hill (I found out the next day that it would have been about 400 more meters of climbing). Luckily, I was carrying camping gear! I started in the direction of the town at first but had to call it quits on the climb. Defeated, I descended and found a campground that was technically closed. I set up camp behind some uninhabited mobile homes and went to sleep. It rained all night. Since I didn’t wake up from it I couldn’t re-tighten the guy lines and woke up with the wet inner tent hanging into my face. Lovely.
Of course this meant my down sleeping bag was also wet. I packed up, found the campground owner and paid for my night there. Then I fought my way to the next town, stumbled into a McDonald’s and had coffee and breakfast. In the meantime my boyfriend had found a bike shop in Amiens (another 30km) and considering that I had wet camping gear and the weather forecast had more strong headwinds in store I decided to call it a day in Amiens and redo my route there.
The local bike shop fixed my bike – I now have a bomb-proof seatpost clamp on there, it may not be pretty, but it’ll take the strain – while I had coffee and booked a hotel. I checked in, unpacked everything, had a much needed shower and ate A LOT of food. My spirits were quite high.
The next day I did 205km from Amiens to Reims.
It was too much. I was very sore by the end of the day and couldn’t walk down stairs anymore. This should have been a warning sign. It was a great day though and I don’t really regret it.
Over the next days, the climbing never let up and I never once had a tailwind, only headwinds, all the freakin’ time.
So let’s recap. I’m relatively new to cycling. I didn’t cycle enough in the weeks before the race. It was quite cold (around 0 to 5 degrees in the mornings, going up to about 11 to 14 during the day eventually, but with strong winds), there was a strong headwind. My seat position was messed up because of a mechanical problem. I didn’t get enough rest or food and I pushed too hard in the first days. All of this together eventually led to the catastrophe.
Am I disappointed, angry, sad? Yes. Also embarrassed and frustrated.
But above all, I don’t regret a single turn of the pedals. I said before the race that if I broke my leg within the first week, it would still have been worth it.
And I stand by that. It was worth it. From the moment of deciding to do it to the moment of deciding to scratch, it was worth it. I have met so many great people, I have never been fitter and more athletic in my life and I’ve finally found a sport that I truly love. Cycling has made me a happier person, and all this in only half a year!
The whole experience also made me realize what a great life I have. I’ve been battling with finding my passion, finding a job, finding something that makes me feel worthy. I thought everyone else had it all just because they have a job. The grass is always greener on the other side, and having failed to complete my Master’s degree (by my own volition though) I thought that this would be the ultimate end. I failed again. I can’t get anything right, eh?
But it isn’t so. I keep trying. I keep getting back up from disaster and I haven’t given up.
While I may not have found a cool job, I have everything else. A beautiful home. Family and friends who love me. A healthy relationship in which we’ve now lived together for almost four years. A ton of experience abroad, friends all over the world. An awesome “timeshare horse” with a great community. And I live in a great city, too!
Basically, that is more than most people have. I should feel fortunate and I do. This did play a role in stopping I admit. I had a life to return to. A place to call home. I didn’t have unlimited time for this race – not because I had restraints from an employer or such, but because it isn’t a life I actually WANT to be away from for more than I need to.
So in the end, everything will have happened for a reason. I still love cycling and I think there are great races in my future. I decided to still do a long-distance race this year, the Trans Am in June. This means I’ll have done at least one leg of the World Cycle Race. I am also aiming to cycle 20.000km this year. It may be a lot less than what I would’ve done, but it is still a lot of cycling in a year! Maybe I’ll do even more, who knows.
To all my sponsors big and small I would like to say Thank You. Your money wasn’t wasted. It enabled me to go as far as I did. Buying kit and covering cost for visa fees and logistics swallowed up a lot of the funds and in the end, I actually had to start using my own savings before the end of the first week, so you can rest assured I’m not going around spending your money on something else now.
Without your help, I’d have never made it to the starting line.
I would also like to thank everyone who encouraged me to do it, everyone who posted on my page and told me to go on, everyone who simply clicked “Like” and showed me that people care. You were a huge boost to my morale.
A special thanks goes to Juliana Buhring. I would have never signed up for the race if she hadn’t encouraged me to. Her guidance and help was most relevant and imported. I hate to think that I’ve disappointed her, but I know she understands. I look forward to racing with her soon and I’m just happy to have gained a new friend.