I’m a ball player. Not an athlete. And certainly not an endurance athlete. So, at 45 years old and well into middle-age, how did I find myself riding Kenya’s Migration Gravel Race? A confluence of things.
During Covid, we found ourselves ‘stuck’ in the UK, a few thousand miles from our home in Kenya. To keep fit, I bought my first ‘adult’ bike. On the car-free Covid roads, I was able to explore the UK in a way I had never experienced before. And my love for cycling began.
On returning to Kenya, I bought a turbo trainer and began to explore levels of fitness I had never experienced before. And my love for fitness began.
I reached out to Jon at the end of 2022 with a desire to prepare the body with strength and stamina for ‘later’ life and adventure events. I identified Kenya’s MGR as the first such event.
For context… the race is nearly 700k with 8,000m of climbing over 4 days on Kenyan gravel. And as a semi-pro event of the international Gravel Earth Series… I had no business being there really. I’d ridden 100k+ on just a handful of occasions but never before on Kenyan gravel.
I arrive on the line as well prepared as I possibly can be. Feeling fitter and stronger than ever before but completely unsure of how I’ll fare. My sole goal is to finish.
Here, I encounter the first of many unforeseen physical and psychological challenges: imposter syndrome. On reflection, this leads me into an even more conservative frame of mind. I become exclusively fixed to this idea that I should focus on completing rather than competing. So, with my pacing planned inside the time cuts, my strategy is set. And off we go…
I make it through the first day quite comfortably, leaving plenty in the legs for the second stage: 180k with over 2,500m of climbing. I am quite literally one of the last to roll across the line. And as one of the last into camp, it leaves me with very little time to prepare for the following day and recover. There would be no downtime. No time to relax. I recognise that every moment (off the bike as well as on it) is going to be important and I’ll need to use it well.
As we set off on the second day, I am still firmly focused on finishing each stage. I am managing my pace to make the cutoffs. I am well inside the first one at 80k and have a couple more hours for the second one at 115k. I am riding within myself. I am confident I’ll get it done. And so… I am completely crushed when I miss the second cutoff by 10 minutes.
How could this have happened? With an hour to cover just 15k, I didn’t envisage any issues. I was riding to my plan. But the terrain had become hugely technical and navigating the less obvious routes had become time consuming too. I made technical and navigational mistakes. But the real mistake was my approach: I had become caught up in conserving energy. I was too careful.
As I am being driven back to camp, I am furious. I have failed in my sole objective of completing all stages. I am having a bit of a hissy fit. The sort that I haven’t had since I was a kid! I find myself wanting to ditch the rest of the race and go home. However, recognising that we were in deep bush on the Tanzanian border meant that getting back to Nairobi was completely impractical. Quitting wasn’t an option. The alternative… take out my frustration on the rest of the race. Throw caution to the wind. Forget about cutoffs and energy conservation. Go for it. Actually race!
I line up for the third stage determined to stay with the main bunch off the line. And although it breaks up after a couple of hours, I am riding with ambition. More focus. Pushing the pace rather than preserving energy. Attacking rather than defending. And I am having fun. A lot of fun!
I am not thinking about cutoffs. I am not worried about finishing. My legs and lungs are just fine. Finally, I am riding as I hoped I might be able to but I had been too conservative to try.
I carry this confidence into the final stage. At 190k, I am on the bike for nearly 9 hours. And over the course of the 4 stages, I have now progressed from the bottom of the 4th quartile to the top end of the 3rd. I am ‘in amongst it’ so to speak. On reflection: it is a massive shame that I missed the cutoff on Stage 2 but there is no doubt in my mind that it unshackled me. And from then on, I was able to ride with nothing to lose.
As I was on the way back home to Nairobi, I reflected on what I had learned and what I’d do differently.
- It seems that offroad events such as this engage the body and mind from start to finish. It’s full on. Every kilometer is earned. The body takes a beating. The wrists, feet and neck were points of particular pain throughout. There was just 20k of tarmac across the 4 stages. By the time we stood at the start line for the final stage, 20-25% of the field had retired. I was thankful for all the strength and conditioning work I had done in preparation.
- The terrain challenged my powers of concentration too. Spooked wildlife jumped out of the bushes and excited school kids ran in front and alongside us. Every moment required full concentration. It was exhausting mentally. For instance, I found music more of a hindrance than a help. I put away my headphones after the first couple of hours of riding on the first day. I never used them again. I needed all my senses. Total focus.
- I did a decent (but far from perfect) job with the nutrition on the bike. I craved sugar and caffeine. More and more caffeine towards the end of each stage. It helped me retain focus. I found myself stopping (obviously suboptimal) to unpack bars and gels. And when I look at my stopped-time relative to those immediately ahead of me, it was about an hour more. That’s a lot! I need a way to consume sugar and caffeine more easily.
- I was on the bike for around 30 hours. Enough time to experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings. What I came to realise is that: every time it got tough (and it didn’t matter how tough), it would eventually (without any change in effort or output) get easier again. Tough physical and psychological passages would come and every time they did… they would eventually pass. Just keep rolling I kept telling myself. And it worked.
- Between the stages – every moment off the bike needed to be well directed whether it be: eating, stretching, cleaning, sleeping, or checking and preparing the bike. Small routines helped. Jon encouraged me to establish what he calls a ‘bivy stretch’. I found 10-15 minutes of stretching before and after each ride helped me to recover better than I ever imagined possible.
- Nutrition off-the bike presented more challenges than I had anticipated. I had some shakes for recovery and a bag of nuts but I needed more. I had relied on the organisers to provide us with the necessary quantity and quality of food. They didn’t. I wanted food in a format that was super easy and fast to consume. I’ll be looking at pill-form substitutes and supplements for future events.
- My final learning relates to equipment. I opted for a drop bar gavel bike with a small suspension fork and seat post. This is advertised as a gravel race but knowing Kenyan ‘gravel’ as I do.. I was ready to be underbiked at times. In retrospect… this was a mistake. I felt underbiked nearly all of the time. What little speed I would have lost on the few sections that suited a drop bar would have been more than offset by the improved comfort, confidence and fun I would have found on a lightweight XC bike. The takeaway for a novice like me… if in doubt it’s better to be overbiked than underbiked.
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