A “reflective” piece I wrote after the 2009 edition of Mountain Mayhem, a 24-hour mountain bike race.
Here are my post-event reflections on an event which took me out of my solitary cycling existence and pushed me into the cut and thrust of the biggest off-road event of the year. I apologise in advance for his self-centered navel-gazing!
As I’m writing this, it’s twenty-four hours on from the twenty-four hours of Mountain Mayhem and although I’m physically still feeling it, I’ve worked through the mental fallout and I’m ready to tell my tale.
It was only my second Mayhem and I’m just beginning to come to terms with some of the event’s unique characteristics. Foremost amongst them, for me at least, is the way the event plays with your mind. Riding in a team, as I did this year, is an up-and-down process of getting yourself up for a lap, turning on the concentration for an hour or so of intense riding and then attempting to wind down again.
Repeat this cycle every three or four hours for twenty-four hours, without the balm of sleep, and it’s not surprising that it’s the mind, not the body, which starts to give way as the hours slip by.
My third lap came just before 1am and I’d begun to doze when the time came to prepare to go out onto the course once more. Emerging from my tent, suddenly I was shaking with a mixture of tiredness and the evening chill. The prospect of another grueling lap when all I wanted to do was sleep produced a strong feeling of what could perhaps be described as dissonance: what I wanted to do (sleep) and what I needed to do (ride) were in direct conflict.
Ten minutes later, at the top of the first climb I was back into my rhythm and the tension of the moment had passed.
Fast-forward another four hours and I was experiencing the same problems in the cold early light of the second day. Again I was wrenched from the fingertips of sleep’s comforting embrace. Again I was shivering and cold and enveloped in what can only be described as despair. And again, once up and rolling, I was soon back in control.
Thankfully, my preparations for my final two laps – which came mid morning and at lunch time – were marked by greater resolve and more self-control. I guess there’s no mystery as to why the night laps saw me at my lowest. Who in their right mind would put themselves through an hour of hard physical work in the wee small hours, whilst dog-tired?
What interested and intrigued me more was the way that, once riding, the fears, the demons, the doubts and, indeed, the pain seemed to slip away. We like to think that our minds rule our bodies. In truth, the relationship between the intellectual and the physical is one of co-dependence. In the daylight hours, my mind seemed prepared to take a lead and the body followed. In the night, when by rights it should have been drifting in the abyss of sleep, my mind was incapable of giving direction to my thoughts, leaving me vulnerable to the random uncertainties and doubts which crowd in on the tired rider mid-event. Only when the physical process of riding intervened, swamping this irresistible negativity, did I regain some sort of feeling of control.
Some riders want to make the event even harder for themselves!
I can only wonder at the mental resolve of the soloists who put themselves through so much during the event. When you read soloists’ accounts of their experiences, it’s almost always the mental aspects of the event which they find the hardest. For all the cramping, the exhaustion and the saddle soreness, it’s still their mental strength which gets them through in the end.
Yet, there’s also a sense that much of the fulfillment that they derive from their endeavors comes from those mental uncertainties and in facing them down. They may well have conquered the physical and technical challenges of the course. They may also have beaten their rivals. But, most of all, it’s winning the deep, internal battle with their own weaknesses and doubts which perhaps produces the purest sense of achievement.
That’s just one of the joys of Mayhem. Whatever your standard, whatever your personal goals, it’s an opportunity to push yourself and explore the parts of your psyche that the modern world shields us from for much of the time.
There’s No “I” in Team
Cycling is essentially a solitary game. As I’ve already suggested, it’s an activity which enables you to challenge yourself, improve yourself and, if you’re lucky, learn a little bit more about yourself. But Mayhem really throws a spanner in the works by introducing a team element. As we’ve seen in recent weeks in the Tour Series Criteriums, the concept of team first and individual second can be alien to even elite cyclists.
(READ THIS PARAGRAPH WITH A CYNICAL SMILE ON YOUR FACE – I WAS FOOLED. WERE YOU? ) Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team employed unprecedented levels of teamwork and commitment to a central cause, enabling the American to dominate the Tour de France for seven years. Some in Road racing even questioned the fairness of the team’s approach and wondered at the selflessness of the eight riders who sweated their way round France every summer with just one goal in mind. Inside every racing cyclist there is an urge for personal glory.
So, as non-elite cyclists, team thoughts are alien to us for 364 days of the year. But Mayhem changes that if you’re part of a team. Last year, in my first Mayhem, I got an inkling of it. However, the hastily assembled team with which I rode actually fell apart somewhat during the event and I was left wondering what it would be like to ride within a team with a shared goal and shared determination to achieve it.
This was the basis of my Mayhem 2009 experience. Riding in the mixed category, we wanted to make the top ten, but knew that we’d have to ride to our full potential to even get close. We gave it everything: the mental ups and downs were tough, but I never came close to giving less than 100% because four other riders were working with me. In 2008, I’d happily given in to the suggestion that we stop riding for a couple of hours in the night because of worsening weather and on-course conditions. Fresh again on the second morning I’d ridden with renewed energy and enjoyed a couple of sunny laps of personal enjoyment and hadn’t really been bothered when we failed to have someone out on the course at 2pm, making our exclusion from the results inevitable. I finished the event happy, but with a slight sense of having missed out on something.
This year, backed by four similarly prepped team-mates, all working together and encouraging each other, the nature of that missing something became apparent. Suddenly, where I’d drifted through the 2008 event, I found myself driven along by a common sense of purpose and responsibility. I couldn’t let down my team-mates any more than they would let me down. We missed no change-overs: there was always someone waiting when you came into the transition area and every lap began with the motivational words of a team-mate ringing in your ears.
Team spirit is the key to success – even if your iron-on logos go a little awry!
Personal pains and individual levels of tiredness, though still challenging, were brushed aside by a desire not to let the team down and not to be seen to be the weak link. When doubts did crowd in – and all five of us had our dark moments – there was always someone on hand with a positive spin on the situation or a light-hearted quip to raise the spirits, or something as simple as a pat on the back.
But, be warned, there’s a down side to team riding. Despite achieving our target and despite a really positive experience of what a collective effort of will can achieve, the levels of commitment, both physical and mental, that the team environment demanded, left me drained. I found myself working far harder than I had the year before and I probably enjoyed the actual racing less. With commitment came responsibility and pressure, both quite stressful.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience. On balance, the scales of enjoyment tipped a little more in favour of the reflective post-event sifting of memories and satisfaction of a job well done and a little less in favour of the raw pleasure of racing the bike and enjoying the moment.