When you set out to complete something as big as Cape Epic, you train – endlessly – to reach the finish line victorious. But no amount of training can help you prepare for the moment when you realize that the finish line will never come.
If you’ve been following Bud and I these past weeks you know that we were forced to abandon Cape Epic last week, just 4 days into 8 days of racing. The reason was straightforward: we didn’t make the UCI time cut. Bud had a nasty and detrimental crash on the previous day and we were holding each other up as best you can when you have to balance independently on your bicycles. Even still, we wiggled through expanses of sand, rattled over ball-bearing sized rocks and barreled down treacherous rocky descents in extreme heat. We’d climbed – exposed – in the late afternoon sun, and trailed through the dust kicked up over the hills as we rolled the course with the other 1000 competitors in this grueling challenge. By the time we reached the finish line, our bodies and minds were starving and thirsty. We were relieved to be home at last, and then ultimately crushed.
The other, minute details about what happened out there that day, (and the days prior) aren’t truly important. We all knew that the race would be ridiculously hot (and by this I mean a mind-bending, brain melting hot.) We were aware it was terribly brutal to climb and descend these over these distances and mentally challenging to keep your brain focused on finding safe lines over the course so many hours into riding. We knew – with each pedal stroke – there was the possibility of an accident; crashing is part of racing and so are gashes, wounds, bruises and sores. Incidents. Injuries. We expected those to be part of our experience, and for every rider at the Epic, they were. The wounds that are difficult to anticipate and harder to heal, are emotional; we went to Cape Epic to make a statement to ourselves and the world about the empowerment of women on bicycles, and to inspire others to attempt what they perceived to be impossible by achieving what we thought was impossible. Our friends, family and tremendous sponsors had given us all the support in the world. My teammate gave the Epic everything she she felt she could. But as we stood, sobbing in the finish chute listening to the news, watching race officials clip the numbers from our bikes to decommission our entry, I felt an overwhelming bubbling within me; the finish line was never going to come for us, and I felt I had more to give to get us there.
In that moment, despite the discomfort and swelling Bud was experiencing from her crash -and though my heart was aching- I felt unscathed. My legs were strong. I didn’t have a shred of the deep down exhaustion I had expected by this mid-point in the race. Still in my filthy kit from the day, my mind was already excited to see what the next stage would hold. I was craving the pings of fear coming from a technical new trail, and the scenery we were soaking up as we made our way through the desert. Instead of feeling numb to the ride, accepting of the pain, I was still uttering little cheers to myself on the course when I’d make it up a loose climb past a line up of men walking their bikes, and my smile would spread when I ripped a corner that made me nervous, or found a line with a little fear behind it.
I had stockpiled my strength for this point — the midway where I knew things would get dark. But I felt light.
I had saved up the grit I knew I would need to tackle each day forward gracefully – and perhaps slowly – but successfully, for our team.
My heart was broken, but rather than feeling depleted I felt full to the brim with frustration, sadness, pent-up energy and enthusiasm to finish what we started. To ride every mile of this mission. While everyone around me wanted to drink a beer and rest up for the coming day, all I wanted to do was get back on my bike, ride into the desert and scream.
I ran to the commissar and begged him to let me start the stage the following morning, but he was unwilling to bend the rules: in this race, a UCI team that finishes together, over the time limit, is unable to continue together, or separately as independent riders. If we had we parted ways – abandoned one another on the course – we could have continued separately the following day. But this was never going to happen – we didn’t come to South Africa to finish this race alone. My teammate was withdrawing, so I was automatically withdrawn, unable to continue as an outcast rider, uninvited to mount my bike on the course the next day. Though I knew he didn’t care, I told him – sniveling and teary – just how healthy I felt. How sad I was. How all I wanted to do was ride my bike and didn’t he know that there were only a few of us women left? And didn’t he want us to ride if we felt fit to do so anyway? Didn’t he know what we’d been through, all the support we had to finish this thing?
He stood his ground. And Bud + I returned to our tents, weeping – together and separately – for the rest of the night until the the whine of the bagpipes played to wake up the riders the next morning, (And then, I cried loudly. Because, come on, bagpipes?!) I was beside myself, and unsure of what to do about it; I wasn’t sad because we’d withdrawn, or because I felt cheated. I sobbed, fearful that all we’d come to accomplish here in South Africa had been for not.
The next morning, we packed our bags, left the race and returned to Cape Town where we were both able to start some much-needed recovery. We explored the city, walked on the beach, drank wine, and tried to begin digesting all the emotions that had been wrapped up in the previous weeks. Then we flew home. The first thing I did was leap on my bike and crush up into the mountains until my lungs and legs burned. I climbed until breathless heaves of tears streamed down my face. Gutting myself on a bicycle didn’t bring satisfaction of finishing the Epic to me, but it did help me to realize that this project – this race -was one of the most powerful experiences I’ll ever have, with or without the finish line. In fact, I’m quite certain that those lessons about the sweet effed up mysteries of life, about partnerships, about success and about the perspective of seeing success in all of your perceived failures (if you look through the lens correctly) has only be polished and burned into my being.
At some point in time during our travels, the thought occurred to me that wherever we go, whatever we do/say/think plants a seed; within us, within someone else, or in a place to be found. We rarely have the opportunity to sit and watch the entire plant grow from seed to stem, but we likely can see or feel the sprout take hold. We were in South Africa sprinkling little seeds of change and inspiration, and in turn little seeds from these people, this place and this experience were planting in us.
We set out to race Cape Epic to breathe meaning into our lives in a time that life where we felt powerless. We were never going to see the finish line of that transformation – from powerless to powerful. Because renewed self-growth just keeps growing. Riding Cape Epic was merely going to plant a seed of strength within us.
We poured our energy and support into empowering other women on bicycles in this region of the planet where discrepancy of wealth is debilitating and bicycles make a world of difference. We were never going to be able to see just how those bicycles we donated in those communities sprout universal change for women everywhere in one fell swoop — this was just a seed of change we were planting.
The smiles on the faces of the children in Kayamandi – the joy they had upon ringing the bike bells and chasing the wheels through the street – planted a seed of hope in me that we were making a real – but small – difference in this community, and in the world.
Bombing down the tricky descents and learning to ignore the fear planted a seed in me that I can trust myself to follow my instincts, wherever they lead me.
And crossing that finish line with Bud, on our last stage – despite the frustration, stress, and heartbreak we were both feeling – planted a seed in me that reminds me that we’re not alone. We’re never alone, and the grace and strength we need to move through the world is a renewable resource that we replenish by leaning on one another. I’m thankful to have had her out there and for us to have this experience together.
As the race slips into the distance, I’m recalling more than just the burst of the starting gun, the sounds of pain and shredding tires on the course and instead the the sounds of bicycles tinkering around the soccer fields as the recipients learned to ride them. The overwhelming screams of joy that surrounded us as we rode through the township, heroes on two wheeled machines. And with these recollections I know that not finishing the race isn’t the end of the world, and in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter. We were able to raise awareness and support for this incredible project -not because we were going to win Cape Epic – but because we were out to challenge ourselves, step into our own unknown, and grow a little while doing it. And oh, did we.
Thanks too, to the photography + videography team from Trek (specifically Jeff Kennel) for the photography you see in this post. It was beyond amazing to work with you all.
In the months to come, there will be more from Epic Everyday. (It is not beyond us to plot another adventure of epic proportions. Ahem.) In the meantime, you can still order jerseys to support our cause, and to donate directly to Qhubeka/World Bicycle Relief through our donation page. And, before you know it a powerful movie from Trek Bikes showcasing our experience – and the empowerment of women on bicycles – will be ready for your viewing pleasure. I can’t wait to see our adventure in this light.
Onward, and upward. And endlessly, thanks for following. : ) xo – L