Emma Rhymer | HIDDEN VALE 24HR: APRIL 2021
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Over the weekend of April 10-11, I raced the Merida24hr at Hidden Vale, my third solo 24hr, after an 18 month break due to “the year that was” in 2020. True to form my nerves kicked in for a week or so beforehand, but as we departed on Friday I was filled with excitement and grinning happily to myself. This excitement continued to build along the drive, while setting up camp & during my sighting lap with Russell Worthington. It was great to catch up with so many likeminded people & we settled in for a relaxed evening of swapping stories over large bowls of pasta. Quite simply, I was back in my happy place after far too long a gap.
After a restless night’s sleep, the action was quickly underway on Saturday morning with the kids’ 24-minute race beginning at 10am. If you ever decide to watch a live mountain bike race, I reckon this is the one! Fuelled on jelly snakes & Gatorade, this was serious stuff & the older kids emulated their heroes – throwing empty bottles to their pit crew, pouring sticky Gatorade over their heads & pushing to get another lap in before their cut off time. The younger U7 racers were just happy to ride some challenging features & I was especially stoked to watch Alice Prust compete in her very first mountain bike race. The youngest kids, meanwhile, were either trying to maintain momentum on balance bikes, getting distracted by grasshoppers, or trying to keep their fancy tutus clean. Yup, even for 3-year olds race attire is a serious affair! And then it was my turn.
Adrenalin kicked in as we manoeuvred to the start line, but I knew I was capable of riding for the full 24hrs & was quietly confident of achieving my kilometre goal. I set off relatively slowly (or so I thought at the time) & focussed on keeping my heart rate low. The camaraderie of the other racers was amazing & I enjoyed the cheerful banter out on course. Having Dylan’s company during the 4hr race was great fun, although I didn’t fully appreciate his reservations (or heed his warnings) about how tough the course would prove to be. A 35oC day with high humidity would also prove to be quite energy-sapping after a week of cool days.

As the 4hr concluded & the track cleared I settled into my rhythm & into my own headspace, enjoying the cooler temperatures as the shadows lengthened. Within a few hours, however, I noticed that my pace was dropping & I was in danger of not making my personal kilometre target for the race. Now, I have been warned on several occasions that our inner demons can emerge in a 24hr race, & this was the race when mine did exactly that. I just hadn’t realised they would be brave enough to emerge before midnight.

At first they whispered, under the guise of being helpful; “look at your average speed dropping, maybe you need to reassess your goals.” Then their voices became louder, more insistent; “you’re so slow already, imagine how slow you’ll be by the end”, “look at how fast that rider is & they still look so fresh”. Then finally, shouting inside my head “just admit it, you’re not good enough to reach your goal.” At this stage my laps were nudging 2-hours each, & I was in a very low place when I returned to pit lane. A longer stop while I had a much-needed hug from Dylan, reassurances that I was in fact only a lap or so behind the elites & some warm pasta helped immensely. Upping my Infinit intake & taking emergency jellybeans with me from then on also proved wise, given the long gaps between pit stops. There’s nothing quite like a hug and a sugar hit to help raise my spirits.

From then on I was better able to remain “in the moment”, which I now realise is key for me. The forest is different at night & I enjoy the company of the nocturnal creatures. This included more cane toads than I remembered from 2019 & fewer ground spiders, perhaps as a result of the cane toads? I missed their emerald sheen as this was one of my favourite memories from 2 years ago – until I ran into a thick pocket of them at about 2am, shining in my lights along the trail. I also saw possums, a huge centipede, one mouse, a pale green tree frog & several snakes overnight, including 3 (!) on one lap. I wasn’t game to ride close to them, but they were in no hurry to move off the trail and out of my way! I decided that one advantage of travelling so slowly is that I do get to take it all in. Admittedly I also had some low moments overnight: my bike computer died & lost all my data (& if it’s not on Strava…), the mount on my handlebar light broke going over rough ground & I crept home (even by my standards) with just my helmet light showing the way. A big shout out to Trent West for stopping to help me pick up the pieces. At times my self-doubts started to whisper again, but I was able to keep plodding along, keep eating jellybeans & keep enjoying myself. Reminding myself of the fable about the tortoise & the hare, I decided I’m definitely the tortoise rather than the hare!

After more than 10 hours of darkness & almost imperceptibly at first, I finally noticed the sky begin to lighten. Then the birds started to call, announcing the beginning of a new day – kookaburras first, then the other species in turn. Tiny wrens & finches flittered about the track. The clouds in the sky turned to fluffy pink marshmallows & the kangaroos sleepily emerged into the morning light. I had another longer stop for breakfast, enjoying a hot coffee & porridge with brown sugar before setting off again in genuinely high spirits. I timed this next lap perfectly, riding alone along the eastern escarpment as the sun rose over the horizon & the light turned golden. Simply breathtaking.

With “only” 6 hours left I continued to plod along, not fast but not stopping either. My body hurt but I enjoyed the company of the other riders, & the encouragement I received from so many of them meant an awful lot. Sensing my raised spirits but conscious of my long lap times, Dylan asked me to promise I wouldn’t head out for a final lap if I came in with minutes to spare. I admit it was an easy promise to both make & keep when I finished my 13th lap after 23 hours & 48 minutes. A physically & mentally demanding race, at 240-odd kilometres I was done.

I didn’t end up meeting my 260-kilometre target but I finished close enough to it that, for now at least, those inner demons have quietened. There have been some big lessons learnt in this race, particularly that “it aint over till it’s over.” Despite all of my self-doubts, my result placed me first in my age category & second female overall (although about 55km behind the incredibly strong Rebecca Stone). I also placed 12th out of all the solo competitors & only 8 competitors rode more laps than I did. Jessica Douglas has wisely reminded me about the dangers of comparison, but it is nice to know that I ultimately wasn’t as far off the mark as I’d feared.

Once again, my sincere thanks to iRidebikes in Toowoomba for all they do, both in terms of looking after my bikes and also encouraging and supporting me. It was great to see so many iRide jerseys out on course, in each of the 24-minute, the 4hr and the 24hr races. As the saying goes “it takes a village”, & I’d like to sincerely thank Jessica Douglas, Dylan Cooper, Tarryn Richardson & (of course) Dylan Rhymer for all they do behind the scenes. After a few days of reflection time, the fire in my belly is burning bright & the goal to improve before my next 24hr is already strong. I may be as slow as a tortoise but I’ve decided I can at least aim to be as slow as a FAST tortoise!!

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