If you have ever considered the solo category while looking at a 24 hour mountain bike race brochure and thought to yourself, “That looks like fun! But could I do it?” then you have already answered your own question, at least from the mental preparation standpoint. The type of person who considers the “fun” aspect of solo 24 hour racing is already more than halfway to fully appreciating the emotional experience.
As there are already multitudes of training manuals, articles, and even books currently available explaining the mechanics and tactics of physical training for such an event, this article will focus on what I consider an equally important aspect of solo endurance racing - the mental and emotional rollercoaster associated with it. I will leave the physical training plans and programs to coaches and trainers who are much more qualified to handle them, and instead simply give you a bird’s eye view, as it were, of what 24 hour solo racing is like from the mind of a Jane Average Athlete.
I think to fully appreciate solo endurance racing, one must be prepared mentally as well as physically, not only for the challenges associated with it, but also for the sheer joy and enhanced sense of awe at your own capabilities that such an accomplishment brings. Success at solo endurance racing is so much more than simply winning first place. In fact, at my third solo 24 hour race (I have now done 6, with more on the schedule), at the 24 Hours of Snowshoe in West Virginia, I had the tremendous honor of meeting the father of solo endurance bike racing himself, Mr. John Stamstad. He told me that he felt sad for racers who would be satisfied with nothing less than first place. His opinion was that by considering anything less than first place in an endurance event as defeat was to terribly limit your capacity for joy. After all, success is relative, and generally there can only be one first place winner in a category. True, it is commendable to strive for first and we all ultimately do, but you have to remember that a solo 24 hour bike race is an incredible challenge which is an invaluable learning experience and achievement, even just to finish, and you should never diminish that accomplishment simply because someone else happened to have a better day than you at this particular time.
Having also competed in regular cross-country and downhill bike races as well, I can tell you that I have found nothing in the bike racing world that compares with the range of emotions and life experiences of endurance events. I will always remember my first one especially, because even though I jumped into it totally unprepared (other than having completed several 12 hour events, which are quite different) I still found it be a profound experience in far more avenues than just cycling.
I have always been a big television fanatic, and the Ironman Triathlon documentaries amazed me. I could never figure out why those folks who were far behind the elite athletes and came in very close to (and usually including) last place almost always crossed the finish line in joyous tears, collapsing in overwhelming joy and even ecstasy as they crossed the line. I mean, they didn’t win anything, right? However, as I crossed the finish line at my first 24 hour solo race (in last place) I discovered that I, too, was in tears (and NOT from sorrow), and I also collapsed to my knees. In fact, I had to be helped to my campsite by my husband and support crew because I was so overcome with the magnitude of what I had just accomplished that I could not even walk. It was a most profound moment in my life, particularly as someone who had never been a very athletic or competitive person, to realize the restrictive boundaries I had crossed. So many preconceived notions about my abilities had been dispelled in a mere 24 hours.
For anyone considering doing a 24 hour bike race solo, I urge you to value it for all it can bring you, and not consider it just another bike race. It is an experience like no other, and can have a profound impact on your total life, if you let it. I would hope that you would relish every single moment of the event, such as the excitement of the race start, the sunshine in the afternoon, or the cool water droplets on your face should it happen to rain during your event. Take the time to notice the vibrant colors of the sky as the sun drops below the horizon. Listen to the incredible sounds of life exhibited by night creatures when the bulk of humanity is sleeping. Feel the deep darkness, and let the despair of midnight envelop you, knowing that the sun will rise again. Note the ever present spectators who line the course in the depths of night (just for you), and appreciate and thank them for their presence and the cheery light of encouragement they provide to help you through the darkness. Riding a 24 hour race solo gives you an unmatched opportunity to suffer through the chilling depths of night, to be rewarded by warm rejuvenation when the sun once again stretches its brilliant fingers out across the sky to breathe new life into you. The birds once again begin to sing, dewdrops reflect rainbows of color all across the trail, and somehow your feet and back do not seem to hurt as much as they did just a few short hours ago.
Take this opportunity to unlock your inner child and be amazed - at yourself. Consider the strength of your muscles, the capacity of your mind, the wondrous being that you are to have taken this one day and really LIVED, to have stretched your limits and overcome every mental obstacle and to have every negative voice that said you can’t, replying with “yes, I can”. This is not just riding, not just racing; this is truly living, my friend. On this leg of life’s journey, you meet many other solo riders. They become like family to you, as you will have shared something so wonderful, so terribly painful, so powerful and overwhelming that only they can truly understand. Treasure these friendships, as these are people who will laugh with you, cry with you, encourage you when you are afraid, and celebrate your success.
But also be prepared for the misery, the pain, and the solitude that accompanies solo endurance racing. Bask in these things, truly and deeply experience them, knowing that they, like all of life, are temporary. Yes, your feet, back and neck will hurt. Your hands will develop blisters and become sore. You will have periods of feeling totally defeated, but you will survive, and you will be the stronger for having persevered. By allowing yourself to be enveloped by these seemingly negative aspects of endurance racing, you will be opening yourself up to more fully experiencing the joy. You will encounter the full range of human emotion during these 24 hours. There will be times you will want to cry, scream, laugh, or sing; so go ahead and cry, scream, laugh, and sing. I can promise you that you will not be the only one.
Remember, you do not HAVE to ride your bike for 24 hours; you GET to ride your bike for 24 hours. It is a privilege, not a chore. It is the chance to live an entire lifetime in a single day. What an incredible and amazing thing! And when the race is over, relive and relish the experience as often as you like. But do try not to get caught up in whether you won or lost. In a solo 24 hour race, there are no losers. In the immortal words of Manuel Diotte, “Winning is not always finishing first. Sometimes winning is simply finishing.”