2021 Cullinan2Tonteldoos - Sarah Hills race report
OH my word!!! I can't believe what I just did 😂.
They warned me that some of the gravel roads would be rocky. But never could I have imagined what I was getting myself into! In preparation for Unbound200 I decided to put my big girl pants on and jump into this event on my gravel bike.
It was the longest single stage event I had ever participated in, and the first time I had raced an ultra event solo. The combination of nerves and excitement was overwhelming!!
The race started steady, and within the first 15km a solid group had formed. The course was rolling and fun. In sections it got a bit frantic with those who knew what aspects of the course was coming up, and people would attack from the sides of the pelaton to make it into the jeep track first. At 37km I got caught out and pushed to the back of the group forcing me to fight to stay in the group as best as possible. The yo-yoing of the group was too hard for me to jump back on, and as soon as we hit a big patch of sand 10km later I was done for.
My heart sank. 45km into a 260km race and I found myself time trialing to try get back on the bunch. My mind went into panic mode... "did I prepare enough?" "how will I survive Unbound!?" "oh my gosh I am so slow!!!" 😂. In hindsight now it's funny to think about how brutal we are on ourselves. After 10km of chasing I decided to look back and see if a group was catching me. With a heavy heart, I sat up and waited.
It was a mixed team that I linked on to. They were keeping their female rider in the bunch and as I sat recovering in the back of their wheels, I looked around and made a decision that I was not out of this race. I helped their female rider out by pushing her back in the bunch and just keeping her motivated with statements like "you can do this", "squeeze now just over the hill", "well done that was a good effort"! ". At the same time I realized I was not only talking to her, but talking to myself. My head space got stronger and as another rider caught us, I thanked the mixed team and jumped onto his wheel.
There was never a moment in this race where I felt 'out of the game'. I pushed as hard as I could, working with the smaller groups and catching those who had burned their matches earlier.
At Waterpoint 3 I felt strong, and I knew the 3000m of climbing was waiting for me. I began climbing alone getting a head start on the stronger group I was with. As they caught me we accelerated and skipped Waterpoint 4. I remember looking down at my bottles and deciding to risk skipping the point to stay with my bunch. We were catching people like flies!
We hit a rough section of sand and corrugations and I fell off the back of the group. Similar to the beginning I fought hard to stay with them but this time dehydration got the best of me. I was left in the scorching heat with a new shift in goal: make it to Waterpoint 5.
I arrived at the Waterpoint shriveled and teary. I saw some friends who had decided to abandon and decided there to step into a new gear and push on. I ate and drank until I couldn't fit anything more in me and confidently pedalled on.
5km later I hit the next climb and my legs instantly cramped 😂. The piercing feeling made me instantly stop. In absolute "no man's land" I just screatched outloud in pain! I rushed to get out some anti cramp pills and shoved 4 down my throat as well as finishing an entire bottle of electrolyte mix. This guy caught me as I was standing there and asked if I was alright. I said "ya I just got bit by something" and laughed. As I got back on the bike I pedalled through the cramps just yelling "yiiiikkkkkkeessss" every time my legs would stiffen up. 20 minutes later I caught him. He had stopped on the side of the road too!! We took one look at each other and burst out laughing. We both knew exactly what was going on 😂🤣.
I waited for him as he got back in his bike and we continued all the way through to WP6 together.
At this stage, I was dehydrated, my muscles ached from cramping, my light had broken off my handlebars down a gnarly descent, my hands were numb from the shuddering and the 8hrs of racing I had done, but I was still in it. I was determined to finish strong!!
We turned the corner and the final climb showed up on our Garmins. Never in my life have I ever seen "17km and 1037m climbing" 🙈. I knew the final climb was going to be hard, but when I saw this river of water rushing down the mountain I knew I was in for a world of pain.
There was a strung out line of men on and off their bikes attempting to ride this climb. I could hear gasps, moans and sigh's as I passed each one of them. It had poured with rain about an hour before and we were fighting mud, rocks and rivers for hours. I committed to staying on the pedals and just inching my way through this climb as best as I could. About 3km from the top this ice cold head wind struck and my whole body just froze. It felt like torture, but my purpose to riding strong, feeling strong, believing that I was strong was all that I held onto. As I got over the top and saw the 5km to the finish sign I just yelled as loud as I could. I was so alone yet I felt like I had just accomplished a massive life milestone.
The final 5km were not all downhill, with a deadly finish at the top of the estate 2100m above sea level.
I gave it my all and came through the finish line in pieces. I loved it, the suffering, the hardships, the lessons and the accomplishment of simply just finishing. 2nd place overall women, 1st Senior women to cross the line and 14th place overall. The top 20 positions got a gold medal on the line, and as I received it I burst into tears of joy. I couldn't believe I made top 20 after being dropped 37km into a 260km race. To me... This was everything. #LivCOMMITTED
BSc Exercise Science - Sports Nutrition
BA - Sports Psychology
Sarah currently races for an international UCI accredited team called Liv Factory Racing, and enjoys cross country, marathon, gravel and stage racing all around the world. Her most remarkable achievements of 2019 inlcude her wins at Trans Baviaans, as well as the African Leaders Jersey at the ABSA Cape Epic, Joberg2C, and Cape Pioneer as well as placing 26th at World Marathon Champs hosted in Grachen, Switzerland. Despite the 2020 season being put on hold due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Sarah is looking forward to racing a full international season starting with the XCO World Cup Series in Albstadt, Germany. Get in touch for personalized coaching and follow her season on Instagram @sarahhillrsa.