Last year the TransAtlanticWay was my first long-distance bikepacking race and thus a steep learning curve. With low expectations I managed to finish in a week and just over 11 hours: first woman and third overall. With this experience I felt pretty smug, thinking that I had some time-saving tips up my sleeve, such as using caffeine tablets to reduce time wasted on coffee stops, spying out places to sleep on Google Streetview, and chewing gum to stave off sleep.
The first day of this year’s race was just incredible fun. A neutralised start quickly turned into a speedy group ride, and when I got to the front I saw that a powerful women, Charlotte, was leading the group with all the men (and me) trying to draft behind her. No one wanted to take a shot on the front but I felt I should, so I decided to ride next to her. We smiled at each other and I knew it was going to be a great race!
The rain started around lunchtime – and oh man what rain it was! The roads on the way to Derry were flooded and my bottom bracket disappeared under the water. The air smelled fresh, and my hands became wrinkly as if I’d been in the bath too long. But I loved feeling the hard raindrops on my skin. I was in my element.
I stopped to sleep just after 350km. The next day included two of the major climbs, and with my close ratio racing cassette (won’t make that mistake again!) I was forced to walk up Glengesh Pass. That’s when I noticed that something wasn't quite right with my knees. Throughout the day I experienced pain on the outside of my knees (caused by the iliotibial band) and by the end of the day I could not put down any power at all.
I spent the night outside a petrol station. It was very wet and windy and I struggled to sleep.
The next morning it became apparent that my knee pains were a serious problem. I looked into solutions. I was riding in brand new shoes so I started changing my cleat position every 1-2 hours, with no success. I tried insoles, even unseized my seat post to move it down, but nothing worked.
The wind was starting to pick up and the going was slow. Heading towards Achill Island, I realised that unweighted pedal strokes caused such severe stabbing pain, even after all my adjustments, and it started to dawn on me that I was not going to be able to finish the race. I had to scratch.
I really battled with myself to get to the point of scratching after everything having gone so well before. But I had committed the cardinal sin of riding with new equipment without testing it or breaking it in. Never again!
Failure is never easy to deal with but I felt almost lucky to have such an obvious reason to scratch: no matter how much I wanted to continue, the decision was out of my hands. I physically couldn’t go on. I think this helped me to get over it quite quickly. Coming from a background in psychology, I realised that I went through several ‘Stages of Scratching’, similar to the ‘Stages of Grief’:
1. I was still in denial. ‘Is it really that bad or is my mind just playing tricks on me so I can stop and have full nights sleep again?’
2. Frustration and anger. ‘How could I have been so silly to race in new shoes?’
3. Sadness. ‘I worked towards this race for a long time and it’s over.’
4. Acceptance. ‘My race is now a holiday and I am going to enjoy it. Ireland is beautiful!’
Ultimately, I learned that I am quite resilient. I managed to turn potential glory into valuable experience, and started becoming a dot-watching fan of all those still out on the course. I made a concerted effort to cheer folk on and ended my trip on a real high!