Total Distance: 381km
Total Climbing: 929m
Total riding time: 14:17
Knock knock knock….. Knock knock knock.
Somehow the insistent knocking woke me from a deep, deep sleep. Go away I shouted at the imagined concierge, wondering why they would want to wake me just as I had gone to bed.
Knock knock knock.
What the… I looked at my phone. 03:50. How was it nearly 4am already. I got out of bed and went to the door. It was Carl. He was supposed to have left but he’d locked himself out of the room whilst putting bags onto his bike. At this point I could have throttled him there in the hallway. Then realisation dawned. It was time to get ready and go cycling. Carl grabbed his last things and set off down the hallway. He would have a good 30 minutes on me. I walked back to the bed. OH THAT HURTS. Legs like wooden planks sent shivers of fatigue and soreness rocketing up to the brain. So this is what it feels like to get up the morning after your longest ride ever, it hurts, your legs are so stiff you can barely bend over to pick your clothes off the floor. I got dressed as quickly as I could, thankful that I’d decided to bring the spare pair of cycling shorts. Whilst nothing was terminal there was definitely the signs of extreme chaffing going on. More Sudocrem was applied.
It was dark as I made my way outside the hotel at 4:43am. Time to get the legs turning I slowly headed down the back road to Izki. It was pitch black with no street lights to show the way. I just had the gentle thrum of the tyres to keep me company.
Checking the tracking app that morning in the hotel room was another stark reminder of how quickly things can change in a race like this. Overnight I’d been in 3rd place. I figured the worse case scenario was seventh and that was highly unlikely as surely everyone else had stopped. Not only had Bastian, Jason, Rodney and Josh not stopped but also Juliana, Paul and Jaques had descended Jebel Shams in the dark and kept on riding. I can’t imagine the guts it needs to descend Jebel Shams in the dark. With Carl having left 40 minutes ahead of me I was now down in 9th place behind Rafique and Carl and with Jaques hot on my heals. They were the only ones who had descended over night so the rest were due to make a dawn start from the hotel at the top of the mountain which gave me at least a 5 hour gap to them. The thing is you don’t just start putting the hammer down and chasing. There were still 600km to go. Getting the pace right is so important.
Once at Izki I came off the pitch black back road and onto the main road I had driven down with my wife, Laura, not 3 weeks earlier. It showed the value of recon as the recommended route deviated round a back road, the same distance but 200m more of climbing whereas I now had a flat run all the way to the coast some 240km away.
I think this was actually the part I was looking forward to the most. Not because it was great riding or mountains everywhere but because it was today that I felt I would find the real ultra endurance experience. Mile after mile of road, nothing to distract or disturb from the rhythm of the pedals and the tyres and the road. This was the essence of the challenge. How do you mentally cope with the enormity of it all. I briefly reached for my headphones but then put them back. I would leave them packed away all day. I wanted to feel that experience undiluted by the distraction of music.
Time and distance start to lose their traditional sense. 90 minutes passes in a flash and it’s time to stop for some food. It’s 06:15 and a garage is the only thing open. I have coffee and ice cream because I can. I’m now heading out away from all sign of civilisation with just the occasional car passing by. Sun pokes it’s head above the haze and I’m once again amazed by the beauty of the place. Minutes turn to hours as the sun reaches into the sky and the heat starts to crank up. This is what I was hoping for. Heat takes time to acclimatise to. Living in Dubai a few of us were used to the scorching heat. I hoped that others would slow in the relentless heat.
Sunrise near Izki
The route today was going to be straight forward until within about 20km of the coast when I knew that another potential shortcut could play to my advantage. The organisers had put it on the gravel route but I knew that this one was all tarmac and would shave 15km off the distance. Still 150km to go to that point.
The day before I’d started to do a few Facebook Live video’s from on the road. The response from back home in both Dubai and the UK had been amazing so every couple of hours or at the major stops I would get online and provide a few updates. Getting connected back to the people watching your little blue dot was such a rush. All my friends were not only watching me but also everyone else and giving me a stream of updates on how I was doing compared to the other riders. It felt like we were really creating a spectacle, albeit slower than a 5 day test match!
I passed Carl asleep on the side of the road. That was short lived as after another food stop I got back on my bike has he flashed past. I chased him down and passed him and counted down the miles to the next check point. At this point I reckoned I was in 8th place with Rafiqque about 30 minutes up the road from me and Juliana a further 2 hours ahead. 2 hours seemed like a lifetime away but 30 minutes might shrink when the short cut to the coast was taken.
Checkpoint 2 was at the Oriental Nights guesthouse. Rolling through the driveway there was no one there. Was I really in the right place? I started to become convinced I’d gone wrong. Or was it the heat. It was now 13:30 and the mercury had crept over 30 degrees. Luckily Dolle came out of the entrance to welcome me. A tired kind of autopilot kicked in. Out with the charging plug and battery. Everything on to charge. Get the signature on my survival map to say I’d passed the checkpoint. Eat food, lots of it. Then eat some more food. Carl came in as I was wolfing down my second portion. We both looked somewhat cooked under the sun. Position on the road felt important so I rushed my food and got back on the bike first. The heat was relentless.
More straight road all the way down towards the coast. I’d love to be able to say I thought long and hard about the problems of the day or my role in the universe. I found I didn’t really think at all. It’s almost like an extended mindfulness session. You focus on the sights and sounds around you, the turning of the pedals.
The best coffee in Oman
My next target was the cafe that Laura and I had stopped at a few weeks earlier. This guy makes the best coffee in Oman. Not really hard when everywhere sells instant with sweet milk but this coffee was really good. A sharp kick of caffeine to wake you up and send you down the road. Then the news came in the next time I checked the tracker and Facebook. Bastian, the current leader, had been disqualified from the race for drafting a car containing his mum and sister. This was a shock to the system. Even if he had only been drafting for a few minutes due to extreme fatigue as he’d stated it felt like he was going against the rules having the car there in the first place. Every other ride had travelled across the world by themselves, arrived in Muscat with just them and their bike, ready to take on a personal challenge. To have your family there even if along side and not drafting seems to go against the ethos of the event. Where for him the long dark nights battling only his own loneliness.
Crunch time was upon me. I was at the left turn for the last major shortcut I could take. It was approaching 15:00. From the tracker it looked like I would be able to overtake Raffique and come out somewhere behind Juliana. I was just hoping for a little tail wind as it had gradually been shifting round in front of me.
Heading to the coast
Again I got the sense of elation I had on the first day. Taking positive choices about the route gave me a sense of being in control of my race, playing it with my mind as well as my legs. Plus it was stunning scenery as I rode through sand dunes and small villages on the way to the sea. I hit the coast around 5pm. It’s the humidity you feel first. The moisture starts dripping from your arms and your bike as the heat seems to rise. 20km further on and I arrived at the final electronic checkpoint. Time to have some food and exchange a bit of banter with the local kids. They seem fascinated by my dishevelled state. I think I looked awful by now but was too tired to care. With stiff legs and swollen knees I was really struggling.
The next two hours up the coast were ones I’d like to forget but will live long in the memory. Darkness falls quickly in this part of the world and soon it was like I was riding through a sensory deprivation tank, my mental fatigue amplifying my thoughts. I had considered riding through the night straight to the finish but didn’t think I had the mental strength to carry on. The lights at the turn at Turtle Beach took an age to reach me. Turning left it was as if my legs had finally said enough is enough. I almost crawled into a cafe feeling dead and defeated. I accepted that riding through the night was not an option in my current state so ordered some food and then got onto booking.com to find a hotel for the night in Sur, the next big town up the road. With a burger, chips and coke swiftly consumed I checked the tracker for one last time before heading off again. Raffique was literally just round the corner. I politely told the cafe owner that his next customer would be here in five minutes and set off into the night.
It’s funny how making the decision to stay in a hotel then lifts a weight from your shoulders and the focus can return to the pedals. Having now eaten I was rejuvenated, reborn, and I found power from somewhere. This was now a delight again as the long flat roads through the desert and coast had given way to rolling terrain on the clifftops. Before long the lights of Sur blinked in the distance. I was just on the verge of changing my plan and pushing on through the night when my front light started indicating low battery. I knew my spare battery pack was empty so I had no more than 1 hour of light left. No where near enough to get me through to the finish. Maybe the mental tiredness was still there as I readily accepted the need to stop again, have a few hours of sleep and recharge all my lights. Checking into the hotel I looked at my messages, just one from Sarah urging me to get up early and finish before 9am as she had an important meeting and she wouldn’t be able to concentrate until I’d finished. I still couldn’t quite grasp how much people had been sucked into this race even though they were not pedalling. I fell fast asleep the minute my head hit the pillow.