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Progress happens outside of your comfort zone.
That was the phrase I repeated to myself again and again as I lined up for the Whiskey 50 marathon mountain-bike race last season. As a cross-country racer, my experience is primarily in shorter distances and races that last no more than two hours. The Whiskey 50, on the other hand, promised around four hours of tough racing at altitude with big climbs and unfamiliar trails.
Longer than any race I had done, the Whiskey 50 was sure to push my limits. To my surprise, I not only finished strong, but I enjoyed myself! I thrived on the mental and physical challenge of the longer format. Towards the end of the race I felt completely in the moment, pushing my hardest and finding my legs where I had expected to reach my limit. The interesting thing about comfort zones, however, is that they can grow — you just have to push.
At the time of that first marathon race, I couldn’t have imagined that less than a year later, I would be preparing for the hardest marathon mountain-bike stage race in the world, the Absa Cape Epic, held March 18-25 in South Africa. Instead of just one long day in the saddle, the Epic demands eight days of racing across South African desert in teams of two. To say the least, this race falls squarely outside of my comfort zone.
When my coach, Jim Miller, originally proposed the idea, I thought he was crazy, but the more I considered it, the more excited I became about the possibility of testing my limits at the highest level. Jim likes to set ridiculously big goals, but he is also a master at devising training plans to help me attack them. When Specialized offered me the opportunity to race the Epic with one of my heroes in the sport — my teammate Annika Langvad — I jumped at the chance.
With so many grueling stages and the challenge of the harsh South African environment, the Cape Epic requires extreme mental and physical preparation. Preparing for this race has been a chance to revisit and improve every small aspect of my approach, but with a renewed sense of motivation and excitement facing down a challenge that was in so many ways unknown.
With a beginner’s mindset, I was freed up to acknowledge my weaknesses and work harder than ever to prepare, without the self-imposed pressure I often associate with events where I have more familiar expectations. As my winter training began to pick up, I felt myself pushing harder than ever with the simple goal of finding my limits — and slowly pushing past them. Fortunately, after graduating from college last season, I had the freedom to work more deliberately on and off the bike, and to put a lot of my focus on recovery. Still, the challenge of the Epic loomed.
The idea of a Kate Epic started as a joke and a catchy hashtag, but I soon realized the idea held some practical application. Doing a massive training block to simulate some aspects of the Epic would give me a chance to push my body, to test nutrition protocols and mental strategies, and to learn a lot about how I react physically and mentally to this type of effort.
My entire village of support bought into the idea. My coach, Jim, put together a daunting schedule and encouraged me to treat it like a race. My mechanic, Brad Copeland, ensured my equipment was freshened up, including new shark spirit animal-name stickers to keep me on the attack. I worked closely with my nutritionist and sports psychologist to test every aspect of preparation and find strategies to get through the hardest stages. My family and friends rallied to make sure I stayed fed and motivated on long training rides. In the end, it took an effort from everyone on my team to support me through my hardest training block yet.
The routes and statistics of the eight Kate Epic stages are in the Strava links below. What these routes don’t show are the many snacks, naps, challenges, and triumphs that went into it each day. The statistics don’t show you that stage 7 included the hardest intervals I have ever done, or that I spent a little chunk of time lying in the dirt on the side of the road crying before I rallied and finished them. They don’t show the countless times I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish a stage, or the moment when I was so far beyond my limit I wondered how I would even make it home. But at the end of it all, I finished my silly little made-up competition and realized how far I am willing to push myself.
The Kate Epic was eight days of pushing beyond what I thought was possible. In the end, it showed me that when you are surrounded by the right people and trust in yourself and your process of preparation, almost anything is possible. This training block certainly pushed my comfort zone, and I can only imagine how much it will grow when I take on the Cape Epic next week.
Kate Epic Stats
33.5 hours of riding
545 miles/877 kilometres
52,300 feet/15,941 metres of climbing
Stage 1: 81.3 miles; 7,034 feet of elevation
Stage 2: 65.4 miles; 5,072 feet of elevation
Stage 3: 39.1 miles; 4,672 feet of elevation
Stage 4: 80.1 miles; 7,208 feet of elevation
Stage 5: 68.6 miles; 7,054 feet of elevation
Stage 6: 59.8 miles; 4,751 feet of elevation
Stage 7: 61 miles; 6,962 feet of elevation
Stage 8: 81.4 miles; 8,3999 feet of elevation
About the author
Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 U.S. national champion. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.