700km. 7,000m. 50 hours.

“I’m really worried about getting heat stroke,” Sally concedes as we share some pre-race drinks and food. I am concerned for her. She’s Irish and we all know our northern friends are much more at home in wind and rain than in searing 40-degree heat. I, on the other hand, am an expat Australian woman and have done a lot of training in my hometown of Barcelona over the past few years. It gets quite hot in Catalonia. And you know what they say about it raining mainly on the plain in Spain! We can all agree there’s not much flat on the coast!

In the end, Sally seems completely undeterred by the weather conditions during the race. She rockets through the route in less than 31 hours – the fifth person and the first woman to reach the finish line. Even writing this now, I’m still in awe of her achievement. And as it happens, the person who really needed to be worried about the weather was me.

Sally McHugh (L) and me at registration. Photo by Cesc Maymó.

Friday at 6pm we ride. Almost 50 of us – but only me and two other women – have signed up for what might be referred to as a ‘sprint’ or a ‘short’ ride in the ultraendurance cycling scene. If you tell people outside of this world, however, that you’ll attempt to briefly ride 700km between Madrid and Barcelona, accumulating 7,000m of elevation in the process, within a time limit of 50 hours, they think you’re mad. They’re probably right.

PedAlma. If you speak Spanish, the race name conjures up the words ‘pedal’ and ‘alma’ (soul) and even the first syllable of Spain’s capital city. The sound rolls off the tongue pleasingly, as if prepping you for a carefree undulating ride across a large part of Iberia. Many of us have driven or caught trains between the two major cities. Most of us think it’s a sterile, arid landscape in the middle, a no-(wo)man’s land joining two rich centres. Most of us are wrong.

My Canyon ready for adventure. I take my little koala as a reminder of my daughter. Photo by Cesc Maymó.

While in the race, I do a lot of my riding at night. Still, during the daylight hours, I move from wide gusty expanses to tree-dotted slopes. At the brisk of dawn, smooth serpentine tarmac leads me through what could easily be mistaken for an enchanted forest. I keep expecting a fairy or gnome to wander into my path.

Later, I wind my bike Sparrow through an interminable verdant valley flanked by towering cliff faces. My steadfast companion through this majestic canyon is the crystalline water of the Mesa River. I crisscross it for hours as I make my way east. Snakes sun themselves in the middle of the road, slithering out of view as I pedal closer. A doe and her two fawns dart back and forth uncertainly, then scamper and disappear. Every so often, a village appears out of thin air. Locals meander along the main road joining these remote settlements and appear bewildered that a stranger should be using this almost carless highway.

I inch up inclines beneath dozens of grandiose wind turbines. The statuesque structures shroud me in momentary shadow as their blades flick past steadily and incessantly.

Smile for the camera. Photo by Cesc Maymó.

I ride at night-time for a second time, sharing a stretch of the course with three other riders. We chat or stay silent. For half an hour, we rest on the side of a desolate highway. A car spots our lopsided bikes and four supine figures. The driver is concerned enough to shine his headlights towards us. I mutter that we’re OK. I wonder what he makes of this odd scene. Perhaps he thinks he’s come across an awful accident or some kind of strange cult?

Under moonlight, I’m working my way along a difficult uphill section. I assume the other three riders are right behind. It turns out two of them have stopped. Now a duo, Jordi and I continue onwards and ever upwards, both intent on making our next target – Mequinenza, an Aragonese river town right on the border of Catalonia. Jordi pulls away but his rear red light guides me up seven kilometres of the most gruelling terrain. Chris Thomas, the second-fastest rider, later dubs it ‘purgatory’. I don’t disagree with him.

Dawn breaks once again as we cross the Segre River. A short rest on a hotel couch and we’re off again. A low arched bridge leads us to the most divine coffee and croissant I’ve ever tasted. I will kick myself for the rest of the day that I didn’t purchase all of the pastries on offer at the small bar. Jordi’s croissant must be spiked with go-faster juice because soon I can’t keep up with his pace. That’s OK, though. It’s the nature of these races. I prefer finishing alone anyway. And finish, I do.

Another hot day awaits through Catalonia’s never-ending hills. Grapevines fan out as far as the eye can see. When I pay attention again, fruit trees have replaced olive groves. Fields of poppies dance in the wind as I crawl to the penultimate checkpoint. In training, I rode the last 200km of the route, so I assume they’ll be easier. They’re not. Better the devil you know, though, or something.

About 40km from the end, three riders who I’ve been leapfrogging suddenly also gain their cycling wings and zoom off into the distance. I can’t muster the strength required to keep them in my sights. I know I’ll make it before the 50-hour cut-off – just – so I keep pedalling at my slower rhythm.

When I arrive at Plaza España, I hear cheering before I see the gathered crowd. My husband, who is also my coach, and daughter are there, as are my parents and a group of female cyclists. Chris and Sally, long finished, also welcome me home. Having all of these people present means so much, but there’s something extra special about being clapped over the line by fellow riders. They know what every…single…kilometre…feels…like.

The PedAlma organisers snap pictures and offer me a finisher’s medal. I’ve made it with about half an hour to spare before the clock stops ticking. I’m the last participant to make it before the 50 hours are up. I feel relieved and hungry. But there’s also that niggling feeling in the back of my mind.

I could have done it faster.

Making it just in time! Photo by Pau Buera.

Back to the weather.

This is my second ultraendurance race and I think I’m just as addicted to the planning as the doing. My mum has become my wingwoman. She takes me to races, has volunteered, and helps me decide on my final kit. Hours before the start of PedAlma, we check the weather carefully. A small chance of an isolated thunderstorm but mainly it’ll be hot, hot, hot. “No need for this neatly packed bag of wet-weather gear then,” we reason. I leave it off the bike, opting for a light wind jacket instead.

60km into the race, I am completely surrounded by ominous grey clouds and bright flashes of light. I have no time to count the seconds between lightning bolt and thunderclap. Sight and sound merge to create a cacophony for the senses. If I weren’t on my bicycle in a sprawling open field, I’d be marvelling at nature’s beauty. The hairs on my arms prick up as the spectacle rages on and on. I make it to a bus stop in the village of Armuña de Tajuña as the heavens open. When preparing for the race, I’d chuckled at the town’s comical-sounding name. “Serves me right for laughing at it,” I think.

I pause for over an hour and wonder what to do. While the electric storm abates, the pouring rain intensifies. Eventually I decide I must keep going, despite knowing I’ll be soaked through in minutes. I think about my grocery bag of warm waterproof gear sitting patiently in my mother’s hotel room back in Madrid. I imagine it extending its handles toward me in a warm embrace, eagerly imploring me to make use of its contents.

By the time I arrive at Checkpoint 1, in Cifuentes, which is 125km from the beginning, I am hypothermic. My body shakes non-stop. My chest rises and falls violently. My teeth chatter and my hands can’t grip. My brain feels spacey and I can’t think straight. I quiver under a space blanket in the foyer of a bank for several hours and consider quitting. I know my original strategy to finish in 40 hours is now impossible. But as the shivering and rain finally subside, I realise I can still make it to the end in under 50.

Feeling pretty sorry for myself. Note to sorry self – ALWAYS bring a rain jacket! Photo by Pau Buera.

After a visit from a drunken reveller shouting at me and wondering if I’ve eaten – I politely decline his barked offer – and the local police scratching their heads at the peculiar sight of a cyclist camped in a bank at 3am, I consider my options. I could quit. But I know I won’t be able to live with myself. Or I could just keep going. To be honest, it’s a no-brainer. Resting in a bank is about as comfortable as it sounds. Not very.

So I stand up, put on my damp clothes, wheel my bike out onto the street and ride off into the night towards my next checkpoint. And hope that it doesn’t start raining again.

If I can do this, so can you! Photo by Pau Buera.


6 replies on “PedAlma”

M’has emocionat llegint-te, ets molt gran, enhorabona per la cursa i pels resultats!!👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

Simplemente increíble la fortaleza y la pasión.. Como a pesar de todo cruzaste la meta!! Felicidades!!!!

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