A guest post by Nienke Oostra, my team mate in the Atlas Mountain Race October 2023. Nienke’s account of our journey together does an amazing job of explaining not only all the highs and lows of this particular adventure, but also the feelings and emotions that answer our “why” we do and love these unsupported ultra races, when they are undeniably nothing other than a multi-day sleep deprived sufferfest.
Being Nienke’s first race of this kind, her story is viewing the sport through a fresh set of eyes, and reading it reminded me that maybe after a number of years doing ultras, some of the things I class as pretty ‘normal’, are in fact a little bit ‘bonkers’ when you say it out loud.a
Whilst I am writing this my hands still feel numb and tingly and now and then I lose control over the effort I am typing at, knocking things off my desk in the process. I keep on changing position on my chair to relieve the saddle sores on my bum. My feet are as tingly as my hands and my vision is somewhat blurred fighting off the fatigue from last week. Yet my mind is buzzing, my heart is filled with joy, my passion for racing has returned in a way I never thought it could and I am patiently awaiting Nelson’s news of a new race next year in Greece.
When Katie asked me to join her on this adventure for the 2020 edition we had ambitious plans. With my racing background, I would help her get into race mode. With a practice bike packing trip planned, Katie would teach me all about logistics, strategies and fast transitions to get us riding at the pointy end of the field of the Atlas Mountain race. Covid happened however and all our well-intended ideas went out of the window. Life got in the way and before we knew it it was two weeks before heading to Morocco and we had still never ridden together.
I found Katie on the internet. She had a brilliant kit list for the Silk Road Mountain race and I contacted her for some advice for my Nepal expedition where I was traversing the high Himalayas from West to East by bike in 2019. Where other big female names in the bikepacking community had ignored my messages, Katie responded with openness and enthusiasm. She was happy to share her endless experiences as an adventurer with me, in such a passionate way it resonated. I trusted her instantly. And with that instant trust, we developed a friendship which was based on honesty and transparency which quickly turned her into one of my favourite people.
This winter was the first winter in many years that my turbo trainer collected a layer of dust and my bikes had not seen the light of day. Instead, I had thrown myself into my first season of ski Alpinism racing and I used all my spare hours around work to improve my skills on skis. When the days started to get longer and the snow left the mountains, my motivation to get on the bike was lacking and instead, I filled my summer with ultra mountain running events and used the bike as my recovery.
Because the Atlas Mountain race had been postponed so many times I had not given it any thought. I was a little bit overconfident, I knew on paper I was a stronger rider than Katie and with her summer being taken up by her guiding qualification I felt no urgency to train for it. Oh boy did I misjudge the strength required to simply complete these types of events before the tireless snail eats you up and spits you out! Although my legs, heart and lungs were never under enormous amounts of pressure, my hands, feet, arms, neck, back and most of all my brain were challenged in a way they had never been challenged before.
Arriving in Morocco a few days before the race we were sucked into a false sense of security. We got a few rides in, checked our kit and recovered from life in the fast lane. I shared a room with Belgium super mum Katrien Desmet and after 5 minutes it felt like we had known each other for years. Katrien did us all proud finishing 3rd female with saddle sores so bad they needed surgery post-race!
Just before Katie and I rolled out onto this epic adventure I was told these types of races could break friendships. And as the first two days unfolded it became clear that our strengths as a pair were not in any way suited to each other. Where my natural endurance pace and mountain bike skills were more advanced than Katie’s, she could ride for literally hours on end without needing a mental break and her efficiency off the bike was second to none. Simply put, we were slowing each other down.
I had never ridden my bike for longer than 15 hours, ever. I had no experience with night riding or sleep deprivation (other than my experiences as a veterinarian on duty). I could not keep my mind occupied because I was not used to the slower riding pace. My inefficiency off the bike meant I had only time to either eat something or do the million little jobs needing doing to keep things organised, not both at once as Katie could. Trying to keep up with her flawless routine made me feel continuously rushed.
In the first couple of days, I developed ulcers in my mouth and sores on my lips from lack of proper nutrition. My saddle sores were bubbling through my shorts leaving crusty muck on my bike seat. I lost power in my hands and my fingers start to feel funny. My feet were a mess and my calves were already covered in cuts and bruises. We endured deafening thunderstorms all around us whilst hiking down a boulder-covered donkey trail in the pitch black on our first day. We slept under a ledge of a building surrounded by barking dogs to hide from the rain because we decided not to take the outer cover off the little tent we shared. We came across a Czech rider in the early morning hours who had lost everything (except his sense of humour) in heavy river floods. Only to be found again by fellow riders a few km’s lower down. We were not even 300kms in and my brain was blown. How on earth would I last for another 900kms???
At 2am on the third day, I was not coping and Katie and I had an honest chat. We had to reset our goals. The question “what are we here for” was simply answered by “to have an adventure”, and as a pair we needed to start functioning like one. From there on in, so we did.
Where I tried to ride at a pace to keep Katie insight and motivate her to stay on my wheel and follow my lines, Katie would fit in extra breaks or let me stare in the distance for 10 minutes if she felt I needed it. I started to get the hang of getting things done quicker when we were stopping to get food, and Katie pushed herself to ride terrain she would probably normally walk. Including smashing one of the more technical descents with a locked fork! I loved looking back and seeing her smile when she nailed a trail section. As a mountain biker, I highly enjoyed the more technical parts of the race. Even when I misjudged the weight on my bike due to the added bags, causing a few landings onto unfortunate surfaces like cactus plants or badly situated sharp rocks. Adding a few extra scars to my already battered-looking legs.
Other things felt naturally in tune between Katie and I. Overall we were upbeat with only some short-lived teary moments. We shared our love for the breathtaking surroundings or saw the humour in the same situations. Our toilet stops did not cause much interruption and when feeling hot or cold, we got rid of or applied layers of clothing in a synchronised matter and we snacked when one of us felt hungry. When the rear shock on my bike started to malfunction so did Katie’s knees. We lost a bit of momentum during this time having to regularly pump some life into both of them. Strangely Katie’s knees and my rear shock recovered miraculously later in the race or maybe there were more urgent issues needing attention making these less of a concern.
I loved the early mornings (or rather middle of the night), passing riders cuddled up in their bivvies on the side of the trail surrounded by their bikes. We covered a lot of ground during these peaceful hours, moving forward under beautiful star-filled skies and moonlight shadows. All before the heat, dusty dry air and relentless headwinds would rob us of our energy. The sunrises were breathtaking, as were the sunsets, moments which would damper the pain of our aching bodies and tired minds. We would spend hours in silence, listening to music, singing out loud or chatting about anything and everything under the sun and we would continue to do so in no particular order. The long stretches with no supplies or water were frightening at times so we had to stay astute, having to think about where we needed to be at what hour of the day. The route was unforgiving with hourly long climbs, rough rocky, body-destroying technical descents, tough hike-a-bikes and mind-numbing endless miles of straight roads which felt like riding through a preheated oven. We felt welcomed by local people and children who run at a blistering pace trying to keep up with us.
Encounters with fellow athletes along the course turned into little treats of smiles, laughter, funny stories and the comfort of shared hardship. They were the moments we were looking forward to the most. There were the checkpoints which turned into little gatherings of riders sharing their experiences which felt like a breath of fresh air. Also having pancakes and other things to eat there rather than the countless omelettes en route was also a big bonus!
With roughly 300kms left to go my neck started to feel funny. I struggled to keep my head up and used my shoulders to give my neck added support. As a consequence, my back started to spasm. Katie had told me about this condition as she had experienced it during one of her races. As a vet it closely resembled Swimmers Tail in dogs, where the tail muscles are so fatigued from swimming, the tail goes flaccid. Needless to say, a neck going flaccid whilst riding a bike was less than ideal. Katie helped me tie my helmet to my backpack so I could lean into my helmet and relieve my neck muscles. To do so I had to make my backpack heavier to hold it in place, which caused immediate strain on my spine. This was also less than ideal. On top of this, we had one of the toughest parts of the course still ahead of us. Strangely not once did I think about quitting, wholeheartedly I wanted to finish. I would keep riding until I could not go any further. Katie and I did not discuss the potential consequences and we stayed positive. “We will see,” she said to me when I asked questions about her neck experience rather than worrying me with the hypothesis.
We adjusted our plans and instead of riding through the night to the third and last checkpoint before the finish, we decided to add a few hours of sleep. I read that with 4 hours of sleep the neck could recover, so 3 hours simply had to do. Katie started to experience stomach issues and diarrhoea. I would see her tall figure fold in half due to cramps or she would run off the side of the trail for a toilet stop “I am ok” she would smile “this is quite normal for me”
When we set off Friday at 2am, we had still a lot of climbing and hike-a-bike sections to go. The plan was to ride all through Friday night to the finish line aiming to be there on Saturday before lunchtime. Well ahead of the virtual snail which was counted as the cut-off time. That morning I woke up in a world of pain. I knew this feeling all too well, I was experiencing a full-blown nerve pain flare-up and the left side of my body was not cooperating. Although it made me feel anxious, I had been here before and I needed to get it somewhat settled. My biggest worry was the lack of power in my legs which would happen when my muscles stopped firing properly during one of those flare-ups. When I looked over at Katie it gave me some comfort that she did not look her best either. Quietly we started moving forward towards checkpoint 3. We caught up to the boys, Dylan, Timo, and James, who we had been crossing all along the course. Seeing the little headlights in the distance, and hearing their voices and their laughter, gave me comfort during some of my darkest moments of the race.
Somehow we had made it to checkpoint 3 and the nerve pain in my legs and spine felt acceptable. My neck was holding its own. The weirdest thing was that I had absolutely no memory of the 1200m climb we did during those early morning hours! My mind had switched to survival mode during that time. We left the CP3 somewhat recharged with a spring in our step. We could now smell the finish line. The feeling of being so close yet we were still so far away.
Things started to unravel fast for me and I felt I was on borrowed time. Katie was battling her own race demons with gastro and at one point she stopped, grabbed her toothbrush and started brushing her teeth. I looked puzzled in her direction. “Resetting my brain” she smiled, “here” she said, offering me toothpaste, so I did the same. In tough moments like these, it was where Katie showed her experience, exactly knowing how to trick the mind into believing all is ok.
In the last 30kms the dreaded sand arrived, I had read about this part. We had to keep getting off and on the bike causing intense pain in my back and legs. I felt my power disappearing and I could barely hold my neck up. Katie was a superstar “I just have to keep going” I mumbled in tears during the final 10kms. She gave me a hug. She picked up the pace and I stuck to her wheel. I noticed her still suffering from stomach cramps and yet she never slowed in these final moments. Her mental strength had been incredible to experience first-hand. And in those difficult hours, my appreciation for her friendship grew by the bucket loads.
Suddenly we were crossing a road and I heard clapping and cheering. My vision was blurred, my body was shaking, I tried to smile. The finish line. We had made it. Against all odds. I tried to get off my bike but my legs gave way, I sank to the ground. Tears, a lot of tears. Katie’s arms were around me and she said something which made me laugh. So many emotions. I thought of the people who helped me recover from my injury over the years, especially Rab, he would have loved this. What an adventure. I felt so much gratitude, so much happiness, so much love for the people I had shared the last week with. A moment I will never forget.
Katie and I were the first female pair to have ever finished the Atlas Mountain Race. It was something which filled me with pride. Not because we were the strongest, fastest or most talented women out there, but because it was our teamwork which got us to succeed. Racing as a pair requires a whole different skill set. At the end of the day, we were just a couple of girls wanting to have fun and because of our positive attitude we got rewarded with the best reward of all; finishing over the finish line.
Before the Atlas race, I was not sure what I still wanted to achieve on the bike. I have however fallen head over heels in love with this style of racing. It has nothing to do with speed, wattage, power or pure physical talent but everything to do with attitude, positivity, intelligence and the ability to suffer in such a way it humbles you.
A huge thanks to the organisers, volunteers, photographers and everyone out there on the course who made this adventure one which is engraved in my heart forever.
By Nienke Oostra