Sonya Looney: Up all night at the WEMBO 24-hour world’s

The road to a world title is long, winding — and dark

Event Race Coverage
Rocking the WEMBO rainbow stripes. Photo by Kathryn McInerney

Rocking the WEMBO rainbow stripes (click to enlarge). Photo by Kathryn McInerney

“I made lunch, did a 2.5-hour ride, went home, had a night out with friends, slept, got up and made breakfast and realized ‘wow…she’s STILL racing!’”

My friend sent me this message while I was racing the World Endurance Mountain Bike Organization 24 Hour Solo World Championships. I finally read it when the race was over. I was so tired, it was excruciating to move my eyes in their sockets, but I couldn’t stop reading all the messages. I had been awake for 34 hours straight and raced my bike for 24 of them. My body ached, but my back was a wreck. I could not sit or stand up without the help of my husband. Two of my fingers were numb and I did not want to move. I knew I’d feel better in a day or two. My discomfort would be only temporary; what I achieved would stay with me for the rest of my life. I won!

A tired, relieved smile at the end of the race. Photo by Russ Baker

A tired, relieved smile at the end of the race (click to enlarge). Photo by Russ Baker

Five days ago, I finished the last of the preparation for my trip to the WEMBO World Championships in Weaverville, California. There was something appealing about packing my car and driving. Most of my races required a trip to the airport, scrutinizing over every pound in my suitcase. Packing for a 24 hour race was no small task; I needed a spare bike, spare drivetrain, spare tires, my entire Topeak toolcase, a case of spare light batteries, every nutrition item I owned from GU and The Feed, and an assortment of cycling clothing to survive any weather condition.

The 16-hour solo drive was a great time to relax and gather my thoughts. As I drove down the road, I was suddenly overwhelmed and covered in goosebumps. We go through our lives day to day making incremental changes toward our goals. Marginal gains (or losses) sometimes go undetected until you take a step back and see how far you’ve come. It hit me like a ton of bricks; I was a real professional mountain biker, driving to California to try to win my first WEMBO World Championship.

This was the first year in my career that my job was to manage my own sponsorships, create fun content, and race my bike. I had worked hard for 10 years to get to where I am today and I am actually living my dream. I get so busy that sometimes I forget to stop and appreciate what I’m doing, how hard I’ve worked, and also how fortunate I am.

I had two days in the car to harness my energy. A quick stop in Bend, Oregon, for a day helped break up my journey. I admittedly spent it at breweries diving into the tasting room at Deschutes to get my fill of tap room exclusives like their XXVII Black Butte Imperial Porter and the very sessionable and tangy Piquante. I also went to a Bend Beer IPA judging contest with DeFeet’s Paul Willerton at Pine Tavern, an institution in Bend!

Visiting the Deschutes Pub in Bend is always a treat with special beer on tap you can’t always find in the bottle! I also consumed several of their soft pretzels. Photo by Sonya Looney

Visiting the Deschutes Pub in Bend is always a treat with special beer on tap you can’t always find in the bottle! I also consumed several of their soft pretzels (click to enlarge). Photo by Sonya Looney

The WEMBO (World Endurance Mountain Bike Organization) 24 Hour World Championship, headed by Australian Russ Baker, took place in the small town of Weaverville in Northern California. There were flags lining the streets, one for each competitor and the country they were from. There were cheerful signs on the main drag in the shop windows and no matter where you went, locals would smile and ask if we were here for the race. Rarely have I seen a town so involved and welcoming.

The course featured a 13.2-mile loop with 1600 feet of elevation gain per lap; 85 percent of the climbing punished you in the first 3 miles of the loop. The course was simple – 4.7 miles of forest road and a rolling 8.5-mile singletrack descent featuring narrow sidehill trails.

Weaverville and the Chamber of Commerce were very welcoming. Photo by Matt Ewonus

Weaverville and the Chamber of Commerce were very welcoming (click to enlarge). Photo by Matt Ewonus

Race Director Vic Armijo nailed it in terms of organization. A dirt high school track with a freshly cut grass field was soon overtaken by racers and their pit crews. A small city was erected and the town was buzzing. I rode the course once trying to conserve my energy and get over my cold.

I was nervous about the race. I wasn’t nervous about the course or my fitness, but about logistics. I had won a lot of 24 hour races on teams: three national titles either as a co-ed duo or with a women’s team. But riding solo would be different. I had won the Vapor Trail, a 125-mile loop in the backcountry of Colorado that started at 10 p.m. but that was my only experience riding all night without stopping. A loop format and having race support was foreign to me as a point-to-point stage racer.

My pit crew was a powerhouse party of one — my husband, Matt Ewonus. It was also his first time supporting in this capacity. As we learned later, most pit crews consist of 2-3 people. There were a lot of things that could go wrong. What if I didn’t pace myself properly? What if I spent too much time in the pit? What if I miscalculated my nutrition and got sick? What was I actually supposed to eat? What if I lost vision (a common problem)? What if my misshapen feet hurt so bad that I couldn’t continue?

Profile of 3 laps. View more at Photo by Sonya Looney

Profile of 3 laps. View more at (click to enlarge) Photo by Sonya Looney

Sometimes after 100 milers, I can barely walk because my bunions hurt so bad; what would it be like after 24 hours? I was anxious and dreading the pain and discomfort I’d have to endure.

I had to cut off all doubts, create a strategy for Matt and I, and just ride my bike. The procession of horses, police cars, and even an old mustang led us to the first mile of the race.

I watched fellow competitor Christy Olson pass me like I was standing still up the first climb and disappear. I’ll admit that it shook my confidence a little bit. I knew I had to ride my own race and that the first climb was no indication of how the next 24 hours would go. I rode the first descent like an animal, passing most of the people who blew by me on the climb including Christy but by lap 2, she effortlessly passed me again up the climb. Her strength impressed me. I saw her again on the descent and by lap 3, she never caught back up to me.

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About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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