Finding my way
I know the country a little, especially its rocky singletracks and dusty trails, but I spend my evenings studying in minute detail the paths that Nelson has chosen for us. Maps and topography remotely via Strava are my main tools for checking out the terrain. I trust my Garmin, which I’ll be able to recharge thanks to an external battery pack. Most of the racers, and especially those with an eye on the leaderboard, leave with an emergency GPS device. I can’t afford another one, and I choose to rely instead on my mobile phone – with the GPX route loaded into the app – if my GPS fails. (As it turns out I don’t need it – beginner’s luck perhaps.) Given I’ll often be riding at night on unmarked paths, I decide on two front lighting systems, a main one and a back-up, both rechargeable via USB from the same battery. And given that we’ll rarely be on roads, a little red LED will do the job at the rear.
About the bike
I opt for a simple, tough hardtail MTB, with a suspension fork with 100mm of travel, for long days in the saddle, and Jones handlebars – more comfortable than classic flat bars – to save my back. Plus the most durable tires possible, to withstand Moroccan trails – set-up tubeless, of course, for protection from the region’s thorny plants. It’s a bike I’ve already ridden in a stage race through similar terrain: I know it will be versatile and comfortable.
I’m a novice at this type of racing, so I decide I prefer to be safe rather than sorry. My plan: I want to be able to sleep anywhere. I opt for an ultralight tent (700g / 1.55lb) that’s easy to put up (five poles and a groundsheet). It will protect me from the wind at altitude if ever I’m too tired to descend to sleep in a valley. I also leave with a lightweight duvet that’s good to 6ºC (43F) and weighs 660g (1.45lb), and a liner (400g / 0.88lb) that will in theory give me 5ºC (9ºF) more. I complete my night set-up with a lightweight air mattress (400g / 0.88lb) to protect myself from the stony ground. That’s already more than 2kg (4.5lb) to strap to my bike just for the sleep system! Talking with riders after the race, I understand how difficult it is to rest and recover if you’re not warm and comfortable, so I think that I made a good choice for my first race – but I know that I can optimise it next time around.
I decide not to take a change of clothes, just a thermal top for sleeping in the dry, a mini quilted sleeveless gilet for getting going in the middle of the night, and I find a waterproof jacket that’s lined for warmth but very light (270g / 0.6lbs), breathable and compact. Since the organizers have provided an obligatory kit list, I complete my load with legwarmers and two pairs of waterproof insulating gloves. At the last minute I add an ultralight long-sleeved top to protect myself from the sun – I won’t regret it.
Food and spares
I take two freeze-dried meals and two portions of muesli, so to be self sufficient and be able to eat and warm up in critical moments I have to also take a mess tin and a spirit burner to heat water. If I were setting off for this race again tomorrow I’d know that this isn’t essential kit, but it reassured me. Now I know the region better, and my nutritional needs when long-distance riding, I know that I can meet these needs in local shops. I’m learning from my mistakes, and these ones weigh 1.3kg (2.9lbs). A first aid kit and a comprehensive toolkit (tubeless repair, puncture kit, chainbreaker, gear cables – no concessions here, as I will certainly not see a bike shop on the course) complete my equipment.
I do quite a few long all-terrain rides, road and gravel, when the weather allows, along with specific home-trainer sessions indoors. And because the race is made up of long, repeated efforts, I try to do blocks of several days in a row, a few weeks before, stringing efforts back to back despite the fatigue – sometimes on the bike, running at other times. I know that for ultras physical training is essential, but if it’s not accompanied by mental strength it is useless. I know I’ll have tricky moments, pain, low morale, be questioning why I’m there, and that it’ll be in these moments of doubt that the desire to abandon will be sharpest. I’ll need clear answers, and to be able to react quickly, ignoring physical and mental anguish to keep going. Always keep going.
Passing the test
Then I embark on several weeks of testing. I test everything! How things are arranged and balanced on the bike on long rides in the mud of the Seine-et-Marne region. I get used to riding a bike that weighs around 24kg (53lb). On top of the equipment, I have to count on carrying several litres of water, in order to be autonomous on several sections where it won’t be possible to restock – I might have to ride 98km (60 mi) without going through a village. So I decide I’ll take up to 4 litres (1 gallon) of water: two containers on the fork and two big bottles fixed to the saddle, which will also stop the saddlebag from swinging when standing on the pedals.