Swollen body parts, saddle sores, nerve damage, sleep deprivation and dehydration are all part of the fun for Sarah who puts her body on the line in ultra-endurance riding.
SBS Insight
21 Nov 2017 - 6:45 PM  UPDATED 21 Nov 2017 - 6:50 PM

I have ridden hundreds of kilometres through heavy rainfall on unsealed desert roads. I've slowly picked my way through heavy, sticky mud, being careful not to destroy my bike. I've had to wade across a chest-deep river at 3am to keep moving forward. I've crashed countless times leaving my knees and elbows raw.

Unsupported racing is as hard as it gets. You need to carry all you need to survive. Water, food, tools, clothing, sleeping gear etc. You have no support car, no first aid, no massage at the end of a long day. Every day is determined by your agenda with no set starting or finishing times.

The first person to reach the finish line under their own steam wins. You can't ride with other racers, you can't accept outside help or reach out for help online.

It's you, the bike, and the road.

In this style of racing, riders spend up to 20 hours a day pedalling their bike, sleeping very little. All while managing the daily pains, niggles, strains and mental battles that the body goes through.

Body parts become swollen, saddle sores develop that require pain killers, nerve damage through the hands from pressure on the handle bars, strained muscles, sore knees and an aching back. Sleep deprivation, sunburn, dehydration, constipation, urinary infections, nose bleeds.

I don't shower or use motels when I race. It's time wasted I need to stay ahead of my competitors. 

Most nights I roll out a bivvy and sleep off course for safety. I bring one set of clothes. Everything's on the clock.

I'm a perfectionist in many ways. I won't do something unless it's done really well. I don't take failure well.

So why do I do it? These races have given me somewhere that I feel I can get the most out of my body, mind and the sport I'm so crazy about.

But explaining to people the motivation to compete in these races isn't all that simple.

I've drawn many parallels between hardships in my younger years and the mental strength I needed to come out the other side. It's that same drive that pushes me on the bike some days. It's something I've acquired and fine-tuned simply through the path my life has taken.

It's partly why I do these races. Racing provides an outlet for me to channel any of that obsessive behaviour that has done me more bad than good in the past.

It also gives me the ability to not feel I need to fit in with what is expected of me back home. Out there when racing it doesn't matter how I look, how I behave, what I earn or how I dress. It's about riding my bike and leaving all that behind.

I want to feel challenged, have new experiences and face the things that scare me.

I'm most comfortable when I'm alone on the road.

I'm prepared to hurt. I am driven to seek out adventure and to step out of my normal life. I want to feel challenged, have new experiences and face the things that scare me.

It's always about testing the limits; how you manage that is up to you. It's easy to allow negative thoughts in, telling you to quit or turn back. You need to make a decision from the beginning to finish these races. It's non-negotiable. The pain and suffering won't end if you quit – it will last forever. The only remedy is the finish line.

The real race begins when everything starts to hurt. The body is more resilient than most people think. It's amazing how far we can push ourselves with the correct mindset.

My focus is to keep making good decisions when I race. We are responsible for our own well-being. We decide how each adventure ends.

The recovery from these races can be just as difficult as the race itself.

The body is suddenly allowed to recoup, and in doing so pretty much stops functioning efficiently for some time. When racing you are in "get to the finish line" mode, you ignore all the alarms your body is setting off. When the race is over your body suddenly, and on command, just lets go.

I suffer greatly from nerve damage in my hands, so day-to-day stuff like using a pen or doing up a button can be a pain in the arse.

I get dizzy often, feel disoriented and can lose balance. A little like vertigo.

You lose a lot of weight in these races. The body chews through fat supplies and then muscle. Growing back muscle can hurt, it's uncomfortable for a short time. The body loses strength for a few months too.

It's like cycling with a flat tyre.

Then the bouts of depression kick in. Highs and lows even post-race. Some days you wake up wanting to go straight back to bed.

But it's all part of the recovery.

I recognise the post-race niggles now and can manage it better having experience. The fog eventually clears, and you start hunting down the next race.

I love riding my bike, that's the one thing that ties all this together. That will never change.

A version of this originally appeared on Daily Life.