Brutal & Beautiful
June 25, 2024

Brutal & Beautiful

I wanted to be alone. It sounds odd and of course in reality entering any race that lasts for four days with over 100 participants, you may say that’s hard to achieve. However my definition was different. I have spent a number of years going to races with friends and the InnerFight community. It was some sort of safety net. At least that was the narrative in my mind. Had I become soft? Had I always been soft? These were questions that I was asking myself. Something inside of me wanted a race where I knew no one, a race where everything was new to me. I wanted it to be hard on all levels, something maybe I had not felt for a while. I wanted no safety, I wanted to be alone. Alone to figure my own shit out, alone to learn, alone to grow. This was probably the hardest thing to process but I knew it was right as every-time I thought of it I got a feeling inside that I half liked and was half scared to death of.

The race has been run 3 times to date (now 4). When I saw some of the early coverage it sparked something inside me. I think I knew then I would race it one day. It’s almost like it spoke to me. And of course, as I do with these things I let them absorb me or I become obsessive whichever way you want to look at it. I read, I watch, I listen, I ask. I’m trying to figure it out. I’m curious. It feeds my dopamine.

In 2017 I set out to complete some big ultra cycling races. Early 2018 a truck, a brick wall and a fight for my life brought those dreams to an end. Or a momentary pause you could say. Although at the time the thought of riding was hard so I didn’t force it. I sold the bike I crashed on and although I got back on the turbo in a short period of time it took me close to 2 years to feel confident on my road bike again. I knew I would ride more in my life, I didn’t know when and I was cool with that, it would happen when it was ready.

2018 was also the year that served me my 30 marathons in 30 days, shortly after which I got the feels for a sub 3 marathon. At the start of 2020 the day before I tested positive for Covid I accidentally ran a 3:04. 2020 also sparked more of my curiosity around running leading to 3 consecutive annual pilgrimages to Iten with Tom and Rob to learn from the best and in the hope that the learning would deliver us all more speed across 42.2km, the same for our athletes.

In October 2023 I tried in Amsterdam but again returned to the start just past the 3 hour mark. I knew why, it was not the right day, but I knew the right day would come if I wanted it to.

Leaving Dubai on December 11th 2023 to spend what would become the final weeks of my mother’s life with her I packed my hand luggage, but also my bike. I knew why. It was my therapy, my release, my tool to create space to manage my mind during a very emotional period of my life. One day, ride long, the next day run, some days both, everything in between, with Mum. I had been there a few days and I remember calling Holly and saying. “There is a race in Kenya in June. I think I have to go to it. I have watched hours of coverage on it.” As she normally does she simply said “then enter it.” Her mindset and her intuition is just unreal, it’s almost like she can feel I need to do these things. She then asks the admin style questions of days and distance and how it fits into my calendar. “4 days 600km, should fit well.”

The first half of 2024 was shaping up to be quite the test of my adaptability if anything else. XTerra Triathlon Oman in Feb. Milan marathon at the start of April. XTerra Triathlon Greece end of April. Migration Gravel race Kenya, mid June. This variation excited me immensely. I had never tested myself nor had to coach someone across three such varied disciplines in such a short period of time.

Oman XTerra let me know that this format of triathlon was something I needed in my life, the Greece race confirmed this and wedged in between I unlocked 3 hours in Milan marathon in one of the greatest races of my life on so many levels.

Arriving back from 5 amazing days relaxing in Greece with Holly and dad after xTerra and my full focus was on the 7 weeks that stood between me and the start line in Kenya.

Since registering for the migration race the organisers also invited us to the Safari Gravel race just 3 days before the start of the migration race. The Safari race was a UCI gravel world champs qualifier which meant little to me other than it would be an epic 120km of racing in the iconic Hells Gates national park Naivasha.

I have raced a few road races in Europe as well as a fair bit of mountain bike races, but Kenya was going to take my gravel racing virginity and I was super happy for it to do so. All the new sensations. A new sport. A new bike. New levels of curiosity. New levels of geeekery. And of course more dopamine.

On the night of the eve of the race (welcome to Africa) we got a message that the race would start at 9 and not 8. Perfect I thought. We set off to ride the 12km from our hotel to the start village at 7:45 on a beautiful morning and as is standard in the area we passed a few Giraffes basking in the morning sun. Incredible.

300 or so people with their bikes stood in the start funnel at 8:45 as we received a very short and to the point race briefing. Just the way they should be. Surprisingly bang on 9am the race kicked off. It was carnage from the get go. Everyone fighting for position, people hitting the deck left and right, dust for days and the beauty of the unexpected surfaces that gravel racing brings. Of course all the good intentions of starting a race like this “easy” are straight out the window and you are deep in the red pretty much straight away, it feels unreal.

Tight turns, soft sand, washed out roads, short climbs and fast flats kept us in the red for the first two hours before the race settled down a bit and we moved into some longer climbs. Longer climbs that brought longer descents. Some on tar, others on the mayhem gravel. I thought to myself “if this is what gravel racing is all about then we are in for one hell of a ride.”

The only expectation that I put on myself was to ride as hard as I could. Of course the natural instinct is to try and beat everyone around you, bike racing doesn’t always reward that specially in the early and mid parts of the race, if you are smart and organised you can work well together to make good progress, yep even on gravel when often being on someone’s wheel means pure dust instead of oxygen but it’s worth it.

The field was stacked with strong riders. A pro men’s and pro women’s international and African field was backed up with a number of super experienced and strong riders. This after all was a UCI event. I felt like a kid at a new school, taking it all in but really having no clue how anything worked aside form that if I peddled I kept going forward.

My GPS told me the last climb was staring and it was 6km long. I figured from the summit we would be pretty much down hill to the finish so I didn’t need my legs anymore. Best I empty them in this 6km. As I did I passed a fair few people, the looks on their faces said it all. Everyone had gone balls to the wall in this race. We were all suffering and when the gravel got over 15% and washed away we were all pushing our bikes. It was unreal.

“Send it” I thought to myself as I crossed the summit. Game on. Race to the finish…..smash! As I tried to pick myself up off the dust I knew I had fallen well. My helmet was wrapped around my face, my glasses broken and it was hard to breath. I had been here before but I knew it was not so bad, it was also my right side not my left. I focussed on my breaths, straightened out my helmet and got back on the bike. Way too much adrenaline to stop and nothing anyone could do to help anyway, I needed to get to the finish and I needed to get there as fast as I could, so I peddled as hard as I could as I passed the 10km to go sign!

Bang I’m at the finish. Could not be happier but also could not be more destroyed. I found some shade, got off my bike and sat down. “Ouch that hurts” I thought as I took a minute. Someone let me know I had a gash in my nose and suggested I went to the medical tent which I eventually did. I learnt that in Naivash town you can get an x ray for USD10. “That gives me something to do tomorrow I thought.”

As the day came to a close and the adrenaline dissipated the discomfort arrived. I knew I was not in great shape but I also knew I needed to ride it out. Of course when you are in pain and can not sleep the mind races. The Migration race starts on Tuesday morning and here I am all banged up on Saturday night. Maybe I should just go home, maybe I should just book into a hotel and relax for the week. These and many possible scenarios racing round in my head. None of them resonating as all I wanted to do was be ok and race again.

The hospital was 35km away. How else would I get there but ride? I figured it would be a good test to see if I can hold the bike. After a relaxed breakfast ,a guy “Rob” (who was also racing) and I headed out on our bikes to the hospital. I mean hospital may not be the right word but Frankston knew how to drive the x ray machine and that’s all the mattered. Right side lung contusion was the official report. The x ray films were not overly clear but what was clear was a few of my ribs did not look like the others or like they should, they were broken. After some shall we call it “whatsapp doctoring” we decided that riding was not overly dangerous however crashing badly again would be.

The game had changed. If I wanted to experience this great race (which of course I did) then I would have to take it easy and downgrade from the 600km race to the 450km race. Holly quickly reminded me that this was a great result given the amount of training I had put into preparing for the race.

In training and in life specificity always wins if you want to get better at things. I had been riding my bike between 400-500km a week and as much as possible on gravel. Whilst I was still a rookie I was a fitter and more adapted rookie from the preparation I had done. It was good, I felt good. Aside from the physical adaptions, riding your bike that much gives you a lot of time and space to be alone with your thoughts. Something I absolutely love. It lets me put myself in some sort of order in a world of increasing chaos and speed.

Sunday was better but it was still mentally not easy. We go through emotions and we should not block them. I had highs and lows, with my pain also. The bottom line, I would be on the bus to the Masai Mara at 7am tomorrow morning. The adventure was in full swing.

Time is not a high priority in Africa and the more time I spend here the more I like their approach to it for the most part. We were due to leave at 7, we left at 7:390 (not bad) it was supposed to be a 6 hour transfer, it was 9 (also not bad.) The bumps and potholes along the way were a constant reminder of my condition, at times quite painful but for the most part made me smile.

The day before a race / adventure of this magnitude is mayhem at the first camp, it always is and always will be. People are excited, fresh and in this case it seemed that many had new bikes. The advice of test your kit not reaching some people it seems. I love it though. I love everything about it. Watching people get excited, stressed, confused, nervous, anxious. You can see everything at races like this and it continues to feed my curiosity of humanity. At the same time my emotions were still up and down. I wanted to “race” or better put, ride as hard as possible. This thought had been circulating my mind since Sunday and many times I had come to the conclusion that I could ride, as hard as possible given my condition but it would not be the hard as possible I had programmed myself for. The concept was easy, resetting the dial was the challenge. Of course I didn’t want to do anymore damage so staying upright was also on my mind, sounds simple but in this type of race it is more challenging.

I was a bad person, I borrowed a pillow from the hotel in Naivasha to enhance my sleeping comfort. Am happy to report that it stayed with me all week and worked great. Am not so happy to report that I was unable to return it. Night one sleep under canvas was better than expected and better than the previous two nights, big win.

Nervous. Yes I was nervous the morning of stage 1. I did not want to crash as I knew it would not be good. I also didn’t know how 110km on gravel was going to feel. I was relaxed  though as I had brought my own coffee and oats for every morning to make sure I started the day well. Was I worrying about things that hadn’t happened? Maybe but as I sat and drank my coffee it was more a case of preparing my mind for the day ahead. I knew I was excited, very excited.

Just like in Saturdays race the start line was carnage. People pushing for meters which would mean very little once the race got underway. Dust everywhere for the first 5km and everyone sizing up the uneven surface, some inspecting it closer than others. Things soon thinned out as a climb turned into single track which then turned into a 2km mud bath. Amazing. People losing their shit left and right. Everyone’s bike wheels were totally locked up with mud. I knew there was a reason I had done plenty of “hike a biking” with my mountain bike. I was perfectly prepared. Thick mud in my bike and thick mud in my shoes and up my socks. What a start to the race.

We alternated between seriously rutted gravel roads, single track, washed out roads, tail wind, head wind and plenty of cross winds. Some up and some down. We even got some tarmac in the back half of the race. Was pretty awesome. I rode most of the day with a couple of Aussie guys who were keen to stop for 20-30 mins at the two aid stations which suited me perfectly. Just over 6 hours and 117km from the start we crossed the finish line at our new home for the night.

This is  first ultra race I have done where there are cold drinks at the finish line, hot showers and enough tents for one each. Was I in the right place? Certainly a level up from other races I had done. I didn’t hate it. There was even hot water to wash my riding kit. Don’t get carried away though there was still plenty of mud and the fresh water didn’t look so fresh but absolutely no complaints. Oh and they were serving hot food when I arrived and then a hot evening meal. Don’t worry I still had my biltong and tuna in my tent and sat on my chair which I take everywhere with me.

Blow up mattress (of course I took my own), insert ear plugs, give thanks for my pillow and lights out. Finding a position on a camp mattress is not easy, today it was harder, but given the circumstances I was in my sleeping bag for 9 hours and woke up feeling better than yesterday. Another massive win which ensured no nerves today.

If the formula works don’t mess with it. Coffee and oats. A few messages to Holly as she was headed to Australia today. I was ready for the day. Today’s menu was 81km with 1500m of climbing. It kicked off with 15km relatively smooth gravel road and a tail wind. Was this even real? The dust on the morning sun would have made a great shot. Getting my go pro out at these speeds on this surface was not super smart but I managed in places.

Everyone seemed to be way more chipper today thanks to the average speed being up. I managed to get into a pack of 8 riders which on this surface is probably as much placebo as real benefit as I find myself looking ahead for the road but focussing on the wheel in front of me at the same time. Not easy. One thing was for sure. I was more confident. The pain was similar to yesterday but my confidence higher which made for a nice ride.

We were gifted a 16km climb with some +15% parts which was a treat and really tested my quite aggressive gearing and that I had done my low gear work. There were no feet down on the climb which was a win. I saved those for the carnage single track descent. The early part of which I managed to save a big crash by giving myself a small one which was a relief. We traded mud for stagnant water and cow shit to wade through. Interesting experience but not one I will be searching out too often that’s for sure.

What was supposed to be 81km ended up being 86km for me as I decided not to have the map on my screen at a key point. A relatively easy 4:30 in the saddle unscathed. 50% of the way there. Today’s finish line / camp is our home for the next two nights and is the most basic. This is where the experience begins. People are tired form hard riding. We are all dirty. Some stink more than others. Some are confused by the “long drop”. It’s great to watch.

As we wait for our dinner the heavens open and within minutes everything is wet. Now the game really has changed. We are in our own tents at this camp too which means I don’t have to manage someone else’s bad admin. I can focus on my own. The rain persists through the night with only minor infiltration into my tent. I consider this a good result.

Stage 3 was a 7:30am start . Given I was in my sleeping bag at 8pm I thought it was only acceptable to get up at 5:44 for my morning relaxing. I was managing to wash my riding kit and get it dry daily. On day 1 I also washed my shoes. However with the number of stream, river, water crossings we had by the end of stage 2 I had made a decision that wet shoes were part of this race. I mean yes it’s a bit uncomfortable putting them on wet and muddy but a quick wipe of my hands on my bib shorts and two minutes later my socks are wet through and I have forgotten about it. A footnote here. I use one pair of socks the whole week. Rockay running socks. They were epic. I was tempted to donate them to a local rider but it was too hard to part with them.

Today was 96km with 1,400m of elevation. To be honest there was still limited wildlife. Either that or I missed it trying not to hit another rock and crash. Speaking of crashing, sleep last night due to my injuries was poor, the worst so far. I was however not tired so I did not think too much of it. There were some great flowy and quite smooth sections to today’s ride which was super nice. And of course there was the standard bumps, head winds and absolute mayhem to deal with. At one stage I genuinely thought it was all over as a motorbike tried to take me head on.

I rode the first 45km with a group that started about 8 strong but then dwindled to just a couple of us. My legs were feeling good and my lungs were giving me a bit more capacity so I took off and raced myself to the finish. I do not regret it one bit but on the finish line I was cooked and stayed that way for a few hours.

4 hours 20 minutes in the saddle means I got back to the camp as lunch was being served. I went full Uni life and mixed in a bag of drywoers and a tin of tuna to up the protein content. Holly would not have been happy with my culinary skills but desperate times call for desperate measures. It got more desperate later in the day and at 7:30 with no sign of the dinner being anywhere near ready I made a call to have two shawarmas and a burger with chips for dinner. Not my go to pre race diner but needs must. 8:15 and I was in bed thinking about the 160km stage that tomorrow would bring. I was as I am sure you may guess, very excited.

I used my camp mattress again tonight to try and get some better sleep. It was marginally successful. The conclusion I came to was that the tent was on a slope. Lights out for 9 hours.

The final day of these events is always interesting. People know they are close to a real shower and a proper meal but in this case 25% of the race remains and a lot can happen. Many take the start line with the attitude “I just want to get this done”. I think that’s an awful shame and a bit of a waste. Some people are conscious about their rank on the leader board and want one final chance to “give it a nudge”. No matter how you look at it, today like any final day of a stage race needs respect and strength both mentally and physically. You still have work to do.

As I prepared my bag and put my lycra on for one final time my breathing was very laboured. I would normally put it down to being above 2000 meters elevation but this was different, it was painful, moving was painful. In my head by day 4 I would feel better than the previous 3 days, at 7am this was absolutely not the case. I had a game plan that I had come up with the night before which was to ride easy for the first 100km and see how life was treating me.

30 minutes in everything was hard. Each rock shook my rib cadge and even the slightest climb left me gasping. There were two things that could happen I thought to myself. This could either remain for the next 6 plus hours or things will get better. I knew a number of the riders I had been riding with for the last few days were up the road. At the same time riders that I had been ahead of the last few days were passing me. Neither phased me, a little bit to my surprise. I just kept peddling, looking for a feeling, believing it would get better one pedal stroke at a time. It did.

20 minutes out from the first water station I caught up to a big group of riders. I could tell they were hurting. Some vocalised it. Others remained silent. I didn’t even bother checking the distance the water station was at. My Garmin was set just to show me the route. It’s all I cared about. The single line to the end. I thought I may as well ride in this group for a bit as I knew we had not reached 100km yet. Perhaps we could help each other through, work as a group. I could have been with them for 30 minutes or two hours I am not super sure but when I turned around there were only three of us left. One of the guys was in trouble and the other guy said he would stay with him and I should press on. It felt a bit empty having worked with each other to get to where we were. I knew there was another rider up the road so I set out to catch him. As I came close I saw him stopped on the side of the road. He did not have the GPS file so I told him I did and let’s go together to which he agreed. Ironically his father owned the estate where Holly and I had gone on safari for our honeymoon in 2010. He was 7 then. We laughed and I told him if we go easy and be smart we will get to the finish fast. He told me we have 70km to go! 10km before my “reach 100km and see how I feel.”

I have absolutely never in my life rode a route with so much tail and crosswinds in our favour. For sure the strong winds blew in our face nicely from time to time but we were essentially traveling in the direction of the prevailing winds. Someone mentioned this in the camp this morning sharing a weather app image in the WhatsApp group. I wanted to believe them but only did when we were out on the course. It was unreal. We also got smooth gravel, wildebeest and a whole load of giraffes. Certain a day on the bike I will never forget.

As the gravel turned rough and seemed to stay that way I checked my Garmin for how long we had to go. 30km. “Lessssfuccckiiingggggoooo!” I thought to myself. I had fuelled the last 5 hours with a couple of stroopwaffles and 4 Walkers shortbread. Now it was time for a gel. Haaaa. We started passing riders and as we did we opened up the legs a bit to make sure they couldn’t jump on. I kept checking to make sure my young South African buddy was with me and he was. Tail wind, head wind, crosswind, up or down I didn’t much change my effort. I wanted to go no matter what. I knew the roads were rattling my ribs and from time to time I had to reset my breathing but the job at hand was more important, I had reached an amazing state of flow, it was beautiful and I knew I was there, I was smiling from the inside out.

Just over 6 hours after we rolled out from the start we crossed the final finish line. It was all over. I had stayed upright. I had not worsened my injuries. I had made it to the end. As is often the case at the end of a journey like this, thoughts and emotions run wild in the immediate aftermath. You start to unpack the blur, look for the learnings, understand the impact, you are often left with more questions than answers. The answers come slowly, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, this is not unpacking all your Christmas gifts before 6am on Christmas Day. The gifts these races deliver take time to arrive and are very precious.

As I sit here writing this 24 hours after the race how do I feel? Would I come back again? What do I think about winning the shorter race? Was it smart to race in my condition? How did I tolerate the pain? Was the pain real?

I told you so many questions. My summary is simple though. This life is totally unreal. It will challenge you. That’s what it is designed to do. Sometimes you will be relaxed, other times not so much. That’s the way it is supposed to be. Feelings come and feelings go, all for a reason. But when you get it right, that state of flow which took me just over 400km to enter into is like nothing I can ever put in to words.

Everything happens for a reason, the ways it is supposed to, if it didn’t it would have happened differently. And yes I got to be alone, plenty and it was beautiful.

In the hard times I thought a lot of mum, my suffering was insignificant compared to what she went through. I thought often of Dad and Holly and how they support me, at times it felt like they were with me. My family drives me, they always have and always will. Without them I am nothing and the more I go through this beautiful life the more I realise that.

Thanks for reading.

No Weakness



Phil Gould June 25, 2024 AT 04 pm

You’ll meet each other in the street in thirty years time, and there’ll just be a look, and you’ll know just how special some days in your life are. (Ian McGeechan, June 1997, Kings Park Durban)

    admin June 25, 2024 AT 04 pm

    Never forget it. Thanks for reading

Anthony June 26, 2024 AT 08 am

Incredible read Marcus , very inspiring.

    admin June 26, 2024 AT 08 am

    Thanks for taking the time to read it Anthony.

Scott Ragsdale July 3, 2024 AT 11 am

Another great achievement and such a cool adventure. Congratulations. Thanks for the inspiration.

    admin July 3, 2024 AT 11 am

    Thanks for taking the time to read it Scott. I appreciate it.

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