CP 4 - The Transfagarasan, Romania
Day 9, High Tatras, Slovakia. After all I went through in the last two days, I was so happy to make the CP3 cut, especially that it was with only four minutes to spare! Words are not enough to express the relief, the satisfaction and pure joy I was feeling. I called my family and I could barely control my voice. As I entered the hotel at the top of the mountain, the rain started to fall and the fog covered the top. Perfect timing! I joined fellow riders in downing one beer and I was looking forward to not do anything for as long as it would be possible. Not long though, I realize I had to start making plans for CP 4. Most of the riders around me, were quite pessimistic about making it on time to next CP. My morale was high especially that the next CP is the one I was dreaming about since I signed up for the race. I was going to my home country, Romania. I also felt I found my racing mode and I was feeling more confident about my cycling skills. I arrived 203rd at CP1, 195th at CP 2 and now I was 133rd at CP 3. I was improving relatively to the field so my plan was to continue in this same pace. It then struck me that I had exactly 68 hours to cover almost 800 km. Realistically speaking, since it was already 5 PM and I was planning to go the nearest town and rest, I had around two days to do that distance. Shit, I started to feel the pressure. I grabbed my bike and headed down to Poprad for shower, pizza and sleep. By that time in the race, "headed down" meant cycling one hour in the cold and rain, but it felt like going next door to buy some beer, compared to the brutal days that I've been through. :))
Day 10, Slovakia. As I wake up, it is pouring down rain and the weather is cold. It's so hard to leave the comfort of the hotel but in the end, after postponing as much as I could, I man up and start cycling through the cold rain. It's a miserable day out but it's my first day of cycling in the rain so, I can't really complain that much. But wait, wouldn't this be a great time to have a flat? Yes, indeed. My first and only flat of the race so I can't really complain. But wait, what about the Garmin failing now? Yes, let's have that too. But I can't really complain because I have another Garmin back-up with me...NOT! Actually my Garmin stopped working, for reasons still not known, for the remainder of the race. I had to rely on my phone for navigation and that was such a big, big pain. The battery lasted a lot less than the Garmin and the device was so much harder to use while cycling. Oh well, another day at the office. I cycle all day long through Slovakia and in the evening I reach Hungary. My plan was to cover the distance between Slovakia and Romania in one day but I can't make it. I decide to stop one hour before the Romanian border for a quick nap.
Day 11, Hungary. I wake up absolutely f*cking tired and with no energy at all. It's amazing how my body reacts to this effort. Some days just feel easy and on others I feel like I'm not going to make any progress. As the days progress, I usually find my rhythm but the start of each day is a pain. I eat some rice I bought from a Chinese restaurant the night before in Slovakia and head on straight towards Romania. No time to waste. I have to cycle 500 km and 8.000 m elevation in 30 hours to make it on time. My family is planning to meet me at CP 4 so I'm super motivated to give everything. The fact that I'm now cycling on home territory also makes a huge difference. Just the simple fact that I recognize the places and names gives me such a comfortable feeling. It's like I'm being pulled towards the CP. I take no pictures, no useless brakes, nothing but cycling all the time.
Day 12, Romania. It's midnight now and I still have 180 km and 12 hours to go until the CP closes. Not to mention the epic Transfagarasan climb, which, in normal conditions, would take me 2 1/2 hours to do. I'm tired and hungry, and for the first time, I think I'm not going to make it on time. That thought starts creeping in my mind and it starts building on itself. I find excuses for myself and for others. I tell myself that I was so close, that I gave everything but it was just not meant to be. Oh well, at least I tried. I know I'll get over it as long as I just finish the race. I tell myself that I'll just cycle for a couple of hours more and then just get some much needed sleep. My thoughts are interrupted by some lights coming from the distance. I can't believe it. Another TCR rider. It's Lea. We met before at CP 3 and she struck me as an incredible tough girl. She looks pumped on caffeine and adrenaline. She's talking soooo fast and she's hyper excited. "Let's go man, we're going to make it. Come on!" I try to sympathise with her but I'm just depleted. I let her convince me to give it one more try and we start riding together for a while. WTF man, she's too strong for me and I can't seem to be able to keep her pace. She fades away in the distance but she did her job for me. I'm cycling again and I'm believing again. Lea, if you're reading this. I owe you CP 4, at least. Thank you! :) We meet again tens of kilometers ahead in a gas station. She's drinking massive amounts of Red Bull. I'm getting a triple espresso, some ice cream and continue to pedal again through the night. I enter a state of trance and continue to go through the km's, one after another. The sun comes up and I'm almost at the foot the climb. I know that if nothing stupid happens, I'm going to make it on time. And to think I almost quit 8 hours ago...I take on the Transfagarasan climb and it's a grueling effort. My legs are close to shutting down as I was already did 3.000 meters elevation in the past 12 hours. I make it to the top and I'm in heaven. I have never been so proud of myself! The CP is only 15 km downhill and it's there where my family is waiting for me. I fully enjoy the effortless downhill and when I see them...oh man, it's so hard to describe the mixed feelings. I knew I looked liked shit but I didn't want them to see how much I was suffering. I hugged Tudor, Laura and both my parents. Priceless! We had a lovely lunch together and after, just a couple of hours of break, I had to continue with my race. I was 103rd now and I had an ambition to arrive in Meteora in time for the finishers party, in four days time. I cycled another 80 km to Curtea de Arges, where I stopped for the night.
The Finish, Meteora, Greece
Day 13, Romania. I woke up surprisingly fresh considering I had hardly slept in the two nights before and, after a ridiculous big breakfast, I hit the road towards Bulgaria. I was relaxed and focused as I knew that if I were to keep a pace of 250 km a day, I would check my main objective when I started the race which was to make it to the finishers party. The heat wave was still strong in this part of Europe and the day was incredibly hot. In spite of that, I was feeling strong and I was doing good progress. I was already 300 km closer to the finish. I decided to sleep for a couple of hours and then continuing through the night as it was cooler. I went to sleep in a gas station on the Bulgarian border.
Day 14, Bulgaria. I woke up after three hours feeling horrible. My stomach was bloated and was hurting like hell. I felt dizzy too. I tried to eat something but I instantly became sick and threw up. That wasn't good. Not good at all. I climbed on my bike but it was a disaster. I couldn't keep my balance and I had zero power in my legs. I was so sure I had sun stroke but there was nowhere to hide. On that day, the temperature was going to be around 40 C in Bulgaria. I managed "to crawl" 30 km and make it to the first city in Bulgaria, in Vidin. I stopped at the first gas station I could find and threw up again. It was clear that I couldn't continue at that moment. I could barely walk straight. I went to the nearest park, and passed out for a couple of hours in the shade. When I woke up it was noon already and I was feeling worse. I didn't know what to do next...I went back to the gas station and bought some ice to put on my head convinced that I was suffering from sun stroke. I found it ironic, as the last time I had this was when I was a kid. I believed I was Sun trained! A nice lady saw me suffering like a dog and I somehow managed to communicate that I was ill. She took my to a pharmacy. While talking to the pharmacist I arrived at the conclusion that I had a virus. She gave me some medicine and recommended that I rest for 3 days, eat and drink well, stay indoors. Exactly the opposite that I was planning to do... I had to take the hardest decision in my whole TCR. Quitting was not an option for me. But neither was cycling on that day. I had to take the day off and try to recover. That meant I would miss the finishers party which I worked so hard for. I was devastated to say the least. I found a hotel, went to sleep and woke up the following day, 15 hours later.
Day 15, 16, 17, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia. I started day 15 feeling better psychically but still weak. I didn't have any apetitive for food but I knew that, in order to continue, I had to eat something. The only thing I could eat was toast with white cheese. And tea. Lots of tea. It was no more Coke, ice-cream, coffee, chocolate. No more meat. Just rice and vegetables.
I decided to address the journal for the following three days together because they were all the same: a never ending struggle to stay in the saddle for as long as possible. I cycled from petrol station to petrol station, stopping every time to go the toilet. No need to go into too much detail. You get the picture. My rhythm dropped considerably, together with the hours I could pedale every day. I only had 700 km to go when the virus hit me and by day 17, I only finished 500 km. That's 160 km a day. My new objective was just to make it to the finish safe. The bonus was to make it before the finish line closed. I never felt so helpless and powerless in my life. The suffering was so real and constant that my mind blocked that part of the race. Even now it's just a blur and I don't know how I found the power to continue for three days in that state. Never retreat, never surrender. That's my mantra...
Day 18, Greece. I wake up at 5 am somewhere in the bushes close to the Greek border. It's the first night I sleep outside after the virus episode. It's also the first day when my appetite is back and I eat a huge ham and cheese sandwich and drink my first coffee. Tonight, at 11 pm the finishe line will close. I'm less than 170 km away from the finish and I know that I'll most probably make it on time. I decide to make most of this last day and be careful not to make anything stupid on this last stretch. The last three days were a nightmare and it feels so good not to worry about my body and just to be able to cycle. The views are amazing in northern Greece, a constant up and down through epic mountains and deep valleys. It's an important holiday today and the Greeks are celebrating at restaurants or barbecuing in their small villages. I spend most of the day crying and laughing at the same time. My family is waiting for me at the finish line and I know it's going to be an emotional moment. I try to clear myself before I meet them. :) I'm looking at my phone and it hits me: I'm 30 km away from the finish line... My mind can't really process that information. I hardly thought about the race as a whole because the distances just felt titanic. I took the race one day at a time, 100 km at a time. Only now I'm realizing what I'm just about to finish. 4000 km, 17 days, 19 hours, all alone. I cycled through Europe on a bike to explore the continent but I actually ended up exploring myself. The sight of Meteora takes my breath away. The suspended monasteries seem from another time. I could so relate to their solitude. I too was suspended in time, being there, but also in a paralel life.
I'm only 1 km from the finish line and my face is just a huge grin. I enter the hotel parking and I see my Tudor and Laura, Madalina, my sister, and Daniel, her boyfriend, waving the Romanian flag. I stop the bike for the last time and crash in their arms. I'm done. Since the last time we met at CP4, I lost a lot of weight. I look terrible but my soul is smiling. I grab my last stamp, the finisher T-Shirt and a beer. TCRNO5 checked. Out of the 250 riders that started in the solo category, 95 managed to finish on time and I was 94th in the end.
I spent a whole week in Greece with my family which was the best R&R I could get. My body and my mind took some time to readjust to the normal world. Here is what I noticed:
- I lost 9 kg mostly in the last 4 days. It took me one month to put that back.
- I ate around 3.000 kcal a day for the following first week
- I lost all manners during TCR and I was eating like a pig when I got back
- The palm of my hands continued to hurt for another three weeks
- I had panic attacks the first two nights. I woke up in the middle of the night not knowing where I was
Even though I was initially disappointed with the fact that I didn't make it in time for the finishers party, I'm now grateful I finished safe and sound. This was my first long distance cycling race so I'm humbled by the fact I finished it and I have learned so much about me and about cycling in the process.
I want to extend my congratulations to all the TCR participants. You're all heroes in my book! Also, a warm thought to Frank Simons family and to everybody who has lost someone dear in these cycling races. Stay strong and remember that you're not alone. A special thanks to Mike Hall who started all this madness and to his friends and family that decided to continue his legacy, even though they have been tested so badly this year. Much respect to you all.
In the end, I want to thank my dear family, my friends and the whole community here in Romania that supported me during the race. You all gave me the power to continue when I never thought I still could. I will always remember this feeling of closeness for the rest of my life.