A race with a fixed route it’s unsupported and contained only one single-stage. Which is 1150 km… From Marrakesh, through the Moroccan Atlas and the Anti-Atlas to Agadir. Quinda shares her experience with us…
Text by Quinda Verheul, drawings by Chiara Terraneo.
Atlas Mountain Race 2020 is the first bike race I’ve ever participated in. I’ve been cycling for roughly four years, and really only six months off road; pretty green then. While signing up for this race, I was aware that I was throwing myself into a serious challenge.
While I am changing positions on the couch, slowly regaining some strength, things start to sink in. It’s not the challenging 20 km descents in the middle of the night that seemed to be the hardest part, it was the unexpected strange body sensations that I had to push through, and that kept me from showing my actual potential.
Day one, I did what I planned and arrived at CP1 a few hours before midnight. Afterwards I continued on for a few hours more until my body told me it had had enough of the rocky roads and dictated rest. This first night, together with another racer, was punctuated with restless sleep, cramps, and a sore back. I related this to a tough first day and perhaps some food I had eaten, or maybe just adjusting the rhythm of an ultra-race.
Around four in the morning, I was done trying to sleep and stuffed my sleeping bag into my handlebar roll, got myself dressed, and took off. The other racer had already left our bivvy spot. When I set off, I misstepped, immediately lost balance, and got myself a proper bruise on my right thigh… perfect! I struggled through the rest of the night waiting for the sun to come over the horizon with barking dogs in the distance. This would be a recurring theme throughout the race; I never really did get used to those listless stray dogs.
When the sky slowly became brighter, I got butterflies in my stomach. This would happen every day in the race, sunrise is probably my favourite moment in the day, as if my energy is replenished by the rising sun. This first morning I noticed that somehow my legs were heavy, and not as strong as usual. This was further reinforced when a friend of mine overtook me. Which was fine, but I had a hard time holding on to his pace, which during training rides back in the Netherlands is generally not as much of a struggle. I did not eat much the previous day, did not feel like eating because of the cramps and figured this all caused my tired legs. As the day continued, my cramps worsened together with my lower back slowly fading as well. I pulled through thinking this would pass. While everyone struggled through the hike-a-bike through a dry riverbed section I bumped into Kilian again, he had gotten a few flats.
At the next resupply, still thinking the cramps were caused by food, I searched out some pills to help, but a few hours later I figured it out. I got my period. Things fell in place but also left some questions. I wasn’t due to have my period until at least after the race. Sure it changes, I’m not on birth control, and also it changes from month to month, but I had not expected this. This all got me thinking, how well do I actually know my body? Do I listen well enough to its limits, or am I pushing too far? All of this racing stuff is new to me, but I’ve not experienced other situations where my body was telling me so intensely to rest. I’ve almost always pulled through in one way or another, as if I did not accept to be fragile, did not want to be broken, or did not want to be the one complaining. If I would be an outsider and looking at myself I’d probably be handling the situations differently, yet I’m not, I can’t, and I’m here now.
All the female racers received an email from Nelson today. One of the others had scratched due to unwanted male behaviour in the local community during the first section of the race. The message from Nelson made me emotional. I think mostly because he was so sincere in his tone and the willingness to protect us, but also the fact it is even necessary to protect the women in this race. As a female cyclist, I just want to be human and be treated as a human, I prefer to not be female nor be one of the boys, I just want to be me riding this race.
Later on, I find myself getting dressed in the dark, ready to take off, when another rider rolls up. I asked Konstantin if we could ride together, at least for a bit, for the company but also for the secure feeling. I enjoy the company during the nighttime. Underway we get to know each other and end up talking about all sorts of things, but also my experiences so far, especially in relation to Nelsons email. I’m relieved at how sensitive Konstantin reacts to the situation of all the women racers, and I thank him for that. The rest of the week I’m happily surprised how empathic the ultra-racing community is as a whole, and how warm and generous all the male riders react to the differences in our realities.
That same night Konstantin shared the idea of sleeping in a hotel, this thought had not crossed my mind, but truthfully a hotel seemed perfect given my situation. I did not bring my menstruation cup, and also did not get the chance to even look for tampons and figured I had another bib short, so I will just wash it out every day and change, staying in a hotel would be a comfortable place to start this daily process. Perhaps this sounds gross, but it’s my clothes, and I decided that I don’t care and this will probably also give the least irritation, especially given the fact I’m not a big fan of riding with tampons or a cup. The shower in the hotel after the long day dealing with cramps, and the heaviest day cycling, was all I could focus on. Once arriving where the hotel was, we jumped over and ordered food next door, and while they were busy preparing the food, I got the hotel room lined up. The hotel owner was overly concerned about my fatigue and quickly became too intimate with his concern, stroking my cheek and squeezing me into a sort of hug, as if he was my best friend… or a lover. I felt he crossed a line. Though I was tired, hungry, needed a shower and rest and figured the doors all could get locked and by making a point here would cause an unwanted scene, so I shrugged myself out of it and went back to Dave an Konstantin for a well deserved plate with veggies, omelette and köfte.
The hotel owner got me two towels, which I appreciated a lot. Got myself a proper long very hot shower and wrapped myself in some musty wool blankets. I set an alarm for 1,5 hour sleep so I could catch up with Jenny and sank in a whirl of weird dreams.
This is a race and you are still tired, and that’s probably how you’ll be for the whole week. Almost like a mantra; don’t pay attention to those signs, get up, eat some food. Get warm and set off to race.
While preparing my bike, I stole some water from behind the counter of the hotel and a bit of bread and returned to darkness and barking dogs. Almost right away I bumped into Kilian again, out there riding in the night and spent an hour with him, until my body decided to empty the contents of my stomach; I vomited. I was not sure there was anything to throw up, and started dry heaving, and shivering. Also, somehow, I got blisters in my mouth and swollen lips. Kilian suggested that maybe this was an allergic reaction and with the gagging that there might be something else going on. Later on I would just settle on dehydration. Which makes sense riding 20 hours and drinking maybe 5 liters and not resting and during the day it’s 30+ degrees while having your period.
Around sunrise I got up, ate an orange which stung my mouth, but at the same time seemed to be all I wanted to eat. My face was a bit swollen, not the kind when you wake up from camping. More serious like allergic reaction, serious. I drank water and finished the orange and headed over to the next town to resupply and decided today would be a slow day, but that I did want to go on. At this point, I couldn’t be bothered worrying about riding fast. My chance to be fast was last night and now what was most important is to listen to the signs my body is giving me. I was not having enough rest and taking care of myself and that resulted in this state.
The days are a bit of a blur, after the incident in and after the town, it became very warm. I took it easy, but my body acted strange and showed me that it had no desire being in the heat. When I would stop in the shade, I got cold quite quickly. I made sure to rest a few times along the trail, and once in a town. Especially in town I noticed the people looking at me from a distance, never sure if they were worried or not appreciative of me resting in the town with bare legs… Eventually I got on my way.
As the day wore on, I eventually made it up to the peak of a climb, it turned dark, and I was back hiking under the stars. Getting to that point seemed to have taken forever, and I was far from the only one hiking to the summit. After topping out and starting to head downhill I began searching for a place to bivvy. Sleeping up top would put me in town the following morning, and although my water was almost gone, this made sense to me, because everything in the town would be shut this late in any case.
I peeled myself out of my bib shorts. I prefer to sleep in just my down pants, if not just to allow everything to heal and get some air. I constructed a sort of pad with some napkins I had brought along, it’s probably not my favourite to share with the internet, but it was my reality in that moment. Also, it’s really the only option I had, so let’s talk about it. Maybe some people would have been more prepared, but I was not, so I did what I could. Laying down, and falling into sleep, my knees screaming in pain, I slipped into a race filled dream.
The napkin construction worked out well. During the night I didn’t bleed as much. I think this is because of my body position. Around four in the night I got packed and got myself ready for a 20km descent in the dark. Probably one of the most beautiful parts of the route, but I missed that out completely descending in the darkness. Around sunrise I arrived in the village and found a shop. Once the sun was up and things were warming up, I changed my clothes and washed out my bibs in a river.
Wherever you are even in the middle of nowhere, it seems like you are always watched. I could not find any tampons at the kiosk and after two shops I could not be bothered to look for them anymore. At this point, I couldn’t have been more thankful to have brought two bib shorts with me, something I had considered not doing earlier. Additionally baby wipes were a sort of saviour, and the hopeful shower, which came true a few times during the race.
Having your period is not something you randomly share, but I did a few times. Kilian knew about it as he found me having cramps during the second day. I also shared it with some other riders when they asked how it was going so far. It is my first race ever and I have no idea how a race will look like in the future without having your period. I wasn’t due until the last day or even after. I had not prepared by bringing anything like tampons or pads as I had thought that in case something would happen I would figure it out at that point. Perhaps, and I’m not sure how, but I guess I would have raced differently without my period.
I think the race developed differently in some parts because of how low energy I was, and how slow I had to ride. All of the sensations I was experiencing were new to me, and I was often not sure how to react. Later in the race I started to find my rhythm which meant I could start making decent forward progress. In the future, I think I would bring a few tampons, even if it would only be for the first days, or during night time and perhaps have a pantie at night. In talking to other female racers, I began to understand the hormone changes I experienced, as well as learn about the changes other women experience during the race.
Being tough and willing to do this type of race, and be part of this community, I wonder if it has something to do with proving to myself and to others that I’m just as strong, just “one of the boys”. Or do I want to prove that I am different? Or maybe I’m just stepping out of the normal social expectations. I know at least a part of it is an interest in ultra-cycling, so there’s that. I love bikepacking, and this race may have been just enough “racing” mixed into my bikepacking. I made it to the finish in seven days. Though I’m sure I could have been faster, if I can smooth out some of the ups and downs. I was happy to be cruising around in the mountains and am excited to get back to it.
I want to mention that all the male riders I met have been beyond supportive and empathetic towards me. Though no one offered chocolate. Can’t blame them though…