Collyn Ahart and Rachel Fenton set out as a team to conquer the aptly named ABSA Cape Epic, an 8-day mountain bike stage race, hosted in South Africa.
Five days in, a lingering knee injury had come back to haunt Collyn meaning she had to make a tough decision, could she let herself quit, meaning Rachel would have to carry on alone? Collyn shares her agonising experience.
It’s really easy to write about an event in retrospect. You’ve done it. Accomplished something massive. You forget the pain and punishment. You forget the feelings of despair. But I want to tell you about what happens, 5 days into an 8-day mountain bike stage race, when you give up.
Standing on the edge of the shower, my knotted feet balanced at some effort on the slippery, mud-strewn metal floor, the blood pumping through the broken skin on my arm, swollen and throbbing.
As the water reached my skin I cried out.
Every drop burned. Little daggers ripped across my backside as golf-ball sized open saddle sores met with the shower. My right kneecap, swollen with tendonitis, pummeled for days across boulders and sandy hike-a-bike climbs, ached under the pressure of standing upright.
I leaned against the dirty shower wall. Tears poured down my cheeks and I started to sob under the pain. I keeled over to wipe the dirt off my legs, scrub clean the cuts on my left thigh. How much more of this could I take?
I made some terrible decisions coming into the Absa Cape Epic, or perhaps, no decisions, that were the ultimate rookie errors. Ironically, I wasn’t a rookie at this any more. I’d completed the race in 2012, 4 days solo, no less, after my partner crashed out with a dislocated shoulder and multiple broken ribs.
I arrived at the 2013 Epic with a stock seat, not my usual women’s specific cut out variety, and it had ripped my undercarriage to shreds. To counter this, I rode the last few days pushing a huge gear, trying to keep myself out of the saddle as much as possible. This put even more pressure on my already-sore knee.
A niggle in my right knee first reared its head while I was on training camp in Nice back in February. I’d spent a couple weeks pretty much completely off my bike, trying to rest it, going to physiotherapy, icing it and taking a course of ibuprofen to bring the swelling down. But this amount of time off the bike put a massive dent in my fitness.
I kept telling myself, if my knee can make it through the Prologue, it would make it through the race.
This kind of naivety is both necessary and foolish. And on that day, at the end of Stage 4, I cried. Why had I done this to myself? I was letting Rachel down, my partner, who, in all her kindness and strength had ridden beside me, encouraging me down every technical piece of single-track, up every impossibly steep climb. I wasn’t just failing myself. I felt like I was failing her.
Teamwork in a stage race like the Cape Epic is sometimes the only thing that keeps you going. Your team mate forgives you, encourages you, cries with you, and holds your hair when you throw up, suffering from the inevitable “stage race stomach", full of energy gels and dehydration. Your team mate becomes your best friend and your teacher.
Coming into the race, I knew Rachel was stronger and more technical than I was, but I didn’t realise just how much we needed each other throughout the race. Perhaps I more than she, but by the end of even the very first stage, we were connected far more than I could ever have imagined. And here, sobbing on the floor of the shower, I knew I was letting her down.
With every pedal-stroke, I didn’t know if I could take another. Every single turn of my knee sent a grinding spasm through my right calf and thigh, over-compensating for the sharp needles, rubbing, like sandpaper, against the inside of my patella.
That’s when I gave up. I just wasn’t strong enough to ignore the pain and keep going. I wasn’t a hero. I was a fool and a masochist. There would be no great finish-line triumph. No last-stage hurrah. I’d be just another failure.
My failure echoed around my brain, amplifying all the failures I’d felt in the last few months with work. Who says you’re capable of running a business, starting a brand, going at it alone? You’re a complete and total mess, you can’t finish what you start, those two half-written un-published books? Failure. Failure. Failure. Failure. You’re letting Rachel down just like you’ve let down everyone else. You can’t even finish the first ten kilometers of stage 5.
I put my foot down on the red dusty trail and a single tear slid down my cheek. I couldn’t do it anymore.
The thing about failure is it pushes you further than success ever will. After the 2012 race, I didn’t want to touch my bike. I coasted on my Cape Epic fitness well into June, doing as little training as I could. But even before I made it off the mountain in the back of the ambulance, I’d already resolved to get back on and try again.
There was nothing I wanted more than to be able to ride again, to train, not just to the fitness I’d found in February, but also to the fitness of great riders like Sally Bigham and Ariane Kleinhans.
Maybe I’d never be as fast as them, but I wanted to know the feeling of being unstoppable, of kicking along next to some of the fastest men. It wasn’t about beating others; it was about beating the demons in my own head.
Bouncing down the mountain in the ambulance, my backside aching with every rutted descent, all I could think about was riding and for the first time, knowing the meaning of failure.