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
A long processional led us to the start. Photo by Matt Ewonus

A long processional led us to the start (click to enlarge). Photo by Matt Ewonus

I was surprised with how mentally fragile I was during those first 3 laps. Mental strength is normally a non-issue for me, but with a WEMBO World Championship on the line, I was stressed. I had to hold my lead for many, many hours and not make mistakes. I knew that there were high caliber women behind me, riding only 1-2 minutes slower per lap. My racing style is to command the race from the start line, but being in lead is place of vulnerability where you have everything to lose. Oddly, I wanted to quit and I was thinking of any excuse to do so, but all the while knowing there was no way in hell I would actually quit.

It was only when I had assessed a 10 minute lead (8 hours into the race) that I was able to relax and have fun. I didn’t say a word to Matt in the pit except for what I needed until nightfall, which is strange for me.

The night was my favorite part of the race; we had nearly 12 hours of darkness. My Light and Motion system was flawless although I could have been more efficient with battery changes. I changed them too frequently due to unwarranted paranoia that I would run out of battery unexpectedly! I was running a small, lightweight light on my head called the Stella and a wide beam light on my handlebar called the Seca.

The mental battle is a large part of endurance racing. Photo by Jon Peterson

The mental battle is a large part of endurance racing (click to enlarge). Photo by Jon Peterson

The darkness was fun because it was a challenge – your vision is limited, depth perception changes, and the world becomes shades of grey and the night sky. The cool breeze was refreshing. I loved seeing people on the course. Because there were all levels of ability, I would lap riders. It helped me to see them. Some laps, it took every ounce of energy left, but I would cheer for them and say something fun and positive. I know it helped them, but it also made me feel happy.

The power of positivity is potent. Matt was tireless through the night. He flawlessly executed our plan and I also managed to stay as steady as a metronome through the night.

Staying focused, steady, and motivated is the key to steady night laps. Photo by Russ Baker

Staying focused, steady, and motivated is the key to steady night laps (click to enlarge). Photo by Russ Baker

It was strange how exact I had sections of the course, and the pacing seemed easy. It was during the night that I truly won the race. My competitors had some very good night laps, but here and there, they would drop 5+ minutes per lap due to a problem of some kind. I thought that I’d get bored riding in circles for 24 hours. I was grumpy about it, but it ended up being a blast. The darkness changed how I viewed the trail. I worked on being faster through the corners and would look forward to sections of trail. Focusing on the technical aspects and finer points kept me focused and motivated.

The thing that surprised me most is that I didn’t need much caffeine. I only had 2 Red Bulls during the entire race! Some of the gels I had in the beginning of the race was caffeinated, but my drink mix had no caffeine.

Having a nutrition plan, great support crew, and an organized pit are important for a 24 hour race. Photo by Russ Baker

Having a nutrition plan, great support crew, and an organized pit are important for a 24 hour race (click to enlarge). Photo by Russ Baker

My nutrition program was simple. Here is what I ate:

  • 8 GU Roctane Gels, 6 GU Salted Caramel Gels
  • 7 bottles of GU Roctane drink mix; Grape flavor
  • 3 bottles of water with GU Hydration Drink Tabs
  • 9 bottles of straight water
  • 5 Strawberry Pop Tarts (eaten one per lap at night)
  • Lots of small cups of Miso Soup
  • 1.5 almond butter and honey sandwiches
  • 10 Cheez-Its
  • 10 Wheat Thins
  • 2 handfuls of Haribo Sour Bears
  • 1 Rodeo Labs Just Beet It bar
  • 1.5 Taos Mountain Energy Caramel Pecan Bars
  • 1 small coke
  • 8 Mint Newman-Os
  • 2 packages of GU Chews
  • 1 Pancake with syrup
I bought a smorgasbord of food to choose from. Photo by Sonya Looney

I bought a smorgasbord of food to choose from (click to enlarge). Photo by Sonya Looney

It was my first crack at a 24 Solo nutrition plan, but I had some good advice. The general consensus was:

  • Don’t eat too many gels
  • Eat real food
  • Try soup
  • Bring odd items that you know you like, but haven’t had in awhile
  • Be careful not to eat too much
  • Sub electrolyte tabs (I used the GU Drink Tabs) for sports drink to give your stomach a break from sugar

I was impatient once the sun creeped over the horizon at 7 a.m. I didn’t feel revitalized like I had in the past with sunrises in races. Instead, that anxious feeling came back; the feeling that I had worked hard for 19 hours and had something to lose. I decided to slow the descent down in order to reduce any risks of crashing or mechanicals. My body was also starting to show signs of wear.

When the sun comes up, you start trying to calculate how many laps you have to go. Photo by Russ Baker

When the sun comes up, you start trying to calculate how many laps you have to go (click to enlarge). Photo by Russ Baker

I came through the start/finish for the last time at 11:50 a.m. after riding 18 laps, 23 hours and 50 minutes, 237.6 miles, and 28,800 feet of climbing. I had the option to go out for lap 19, but I didn’t need to. Part of me really wanted to go for extra credit and do a 19th lap, but I knew there would be some risk involved and I decided it wasn’t necessary. As I got off my bike, I was unable to stand up straight. I had not gotten off my bike since the race started except to take two bathroom breaks. I felt totally spent but so happy.

Jason English won his 6th World Title. Photo by Russ Baker

Jason English won his 6th World Title (click to enlarge). Photo by Russ Baker

Then it hit me – I had done it. After nearly 24 hours of racing, I was the new WEMBO 2015 World Champion. It didn’t seem real, and it still doesn’t. It was just like my thoughts during my drive to California. It happened incrementally; one lap at a time just like my cycling career; determined effort, having a plan, being okay with ups and downs, having great support (my husband), and great partners and sponsors.

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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