Emma Rhymer | MERIDA HIDDEN VALE 24HR – APRIL 2022
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Driving to the Merida 24-hr, Dylan and I discussed my goals for the upcoming race. I’m a kilometre-focussed rider, always keen to improve the distance I can ride in 24 hours, but Dylan and I admitted that this was not likely to be a race where I set a new PB. Life had been incredibly busy (and rewarding) over the preceding months with work, study, and family, but I hadn’t been sleeping well and was feeling quite run down. Anna Beck had adjusted my training program to accommodate “life”, but I’d still missed some key sessions and this was also weighing on my mind. As such, Dylan and I agreed that this race required a different focus to my previous 24-hr races, with an emphasis on efficiency and fatigue management rather than maximum kilometres.

Team meeting and carb loading…

Regardless, I was excited to race! It felt good to arrive at Hidden Vale and set up camp while simultaneously catching up with the other racers and their support crews. Dylan and I set off on a reccie lap and I felt comfortable riding the few “A line” options I’d avoided in 2021 – a nice way of seeing progress. Content, we settled into camp and enjoyed some intensive carb loading before retiring early (yes, pit crew need carb loading too). When we woke, Hidden Vale was a hive of activity. There were racers arriving, parents trying to keep up with toddlers on balance bikes and kids everywhere warming up for their 10am race start. A few nerves crept in as we carried out our last-minute preparations, but they dissipated as I made my way to the start line and mingled amongst many familiar faces. I deliberately placed myself well back in the field and, as per our plan, set off steadily once the race began.

I’m in there somewhere! (Photo credit Dylan Rhymer)

As the fast 24-hr riders took off out of sight and the 4-hr riders surged around me, however, my pace quickened just a little. I felt comfortable and was riding well within myself, but Dylan reminded me to take it easy as I set off on my second lap. And again on my third lap. “You’re going too fast” he told me, which I found ironic given I was racing, but I knew he was right. I kept an eye on my heart rate and settled into a more sustainable pace, chatting with the riders around me. At this point Jason English lapped me for the first time, with Toowoomba’s Clinton Haywood and Trent West following close behind.

Still smiling! (Photo credit: Element Photo & Video Productions)

As day turned to night, I pulled up to scoff some pasta while Dylan sorted out my lights; I felt good in myself and set off refreshed. My next lap went well, but by 10pm a deep fatigue had set in. This was a quite different fatigue to what I’ve experienced in previous races, and I can only put it down to the underlying tiredness I carried into the race. My bike was also struggling after battling through some deep mud patches and had begun making disconcerting noises. I pulled into the pit and broke my rule of ‘no sitting down’ as I collapsed into one of our camp chairs with a hot soup. I felt totally spent but quitting didn’t enter my head. I was, however, quietly concerned that I felt this exhausted so early on in the race. But the lowest point is often when the magic happens…

Starting to struggle… (Photo credit: Element Photo & Video Productions)

No, I didn’t magically recover, jump out of the chair, and race off on my next lap. Unfortunately. Instead, I slumped there as Dylan changed my lights and began inspecting my bike for damage. (Thankfully there wasn’t any, just a lot of mud.) Ken, our pit lane neighbour, hoisted it onto their bike stand, prepared a bucket of hot soapy water for Dylan to clean the mud-encrusted drive chain and then offered us his favourite chain wax to put over our regular lube. Wayne Thompson – himself no stranger to suffering – read my mood well and knew exactly what to say to buoy my spirits. Olivia Nendick, racing in Elite, came over to see how I was going. Dylan gave me a hug, and I set off again as other crews and many of the team riders waiting in pit lane cheered me on my way. That amazing support and encouragement from everyone is, for me, the magic of 24-hr racing. (Thank you.)

My drive chain was now clean and quiet, and I settled into the rhythm of pedalling through the night. Slowly but surely, I felt good again; my mood lifted and I enjoyed riding in the cool air. As nocturnal creatures scuttled about, I smiled at the sight of several bandicoots hopping through the undergrowth and one brush-tailed phascogale jumping from branch to branch. Sadly, though, I only saw a couple of spiders on the trail this year unlike the hundreds that had captivated me in 2019, shining like emeralds in my lights – and I wondered if this was a result of the many cane toads I had to dodge (there were none in 2019). As the horizon started to lighten and the kookaburras – always the first to rise – noisily welcomed the dawn, Jason English lapped me again. As I turned onto Plane Sailing the sky turned orange, then burned bright pink as the sky opened out in front of me. It was a spectacular sunrise and I struggled to keep my eyes on the trail.

Back in my happy place! (Photo credit: Element Photo & Video Productions)

I paused for breakfast and a coffee at the start of the next lap and my energy levels rose with the sun. The end was in sight with ‘only’ 6 hours to go and I was keen to keep moving. I was slow, but I was moving. Jason English passed me again (and again) with a quick hello and word of encouragement each time. Clinton and Trent doggedly remained on his wheel, and although the gap varied from lap to lap, they continued to chase him down. They were pushing him and he, in turn, was testing them. It was a privilege to watch their battle unfold from my position out on course, and I remain in awe of their respective power, tenacity, and grit.

Watching the battle unfold… (Photo credit: Element Photo & Video Productions)

For me the battle was internal, fighting my underlying fatigue in order to keep moving, and remaining positive when it just felt hard. I won this battle and firmly believe I have come away a stronger racer as a result. Admittedly, my final average speed wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for and my stopping time was longer than I’d wanted, but I am content that this was my best effort on the day. I rode 241.71km and climbed 3897vm in a moving time of 21:18:05, equalling the same number of laps that I rode in 2021 and placing second in my category behind the super-strong Laura Dunstan.

Podium shot with Laura Dunstan (1st) and Sami Dale (3rd) (Photo credit: Hidden Vale Adventure Park)

A massive thank you to my “village” who enabled this achievement: to i-Ride bikes in Toowoomba for their continued encouragement and advice; to Grit Coaching  for a training plan that works (and adapts to accommodate life’s many curve balls); to Ride Technics for skills coaching that has allowed me to better take advantage of “free momentum” on the trail; to Mountain Bike Coaching Australia for an endurance-specific S&C program; and to Dietitian Approved for a fuelling plan that has stood the test of time. My biggest thanks of all, though, go to my husband Dylan Rhymer for his unwavering support of my 24-hr racing and the considerable training it requires, as well as for everything he does as my one-man support crew at races.
Yes, I’m already counting down to the next one….

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