In this guest post Kevin Benkenstein reflects on his winning performance on the inaugural event of the Freedom Circuit
Freedom Circuit was a race of progress for me, the first time that I felt everything click in the way that I wanted, allowing me to paint the picture of the race that I imagined in my head. Sitting here a week and a bit later it still seems unreal that it all came together, but I am oh so happy that it did. These were the keys to that performance for me.
You do you
The first and most important thing for me was to just be myself. I was about to ride an event about which I had very little knowledge, other than that it would be hard, and before which there was a lot of noise, good and bad, from the side benches about what my potential performance could be. None of that mattered in reality and so I chose to focus on myself, my strengths and my performance. I knew what I have done in the past, what I was doing in my training rides and also, maybe most importantly, I knew what I had no experience of and so stopped worrying about it. I did what I am good at well and made the rest up as I went along, albeit with maximum effort.
Ignorance is bliss
Ultra-racing can be so unnecessarily complicated and it truly does not need to be. Endless pre-event research, route analysis, proposed timing splits, terrain knowledge, and so on and so on. I won't lie it tires me out and has over-complicated too many rides for me in the past. I rode Freedom Circuit almost blind, other than Chris's most helpful cheat list of food and water stops, and I tried not to overwhelm myself with information before the event. This allowed me the chance to let go of the unknown and focus on my next goal, staying in the moment.
Stay in the moment
When racing an ultra I have often fallen into the trap of 'saving myself' for later, also known as not doing what needs to be done now because I am scared of the hard work later on. I have become adamant that this is a fallacy, as the ebbs and flows of energy in an Ultra (not to mention all of the external uncontrollable factors) mean you never know if you're going to feel good when later comes. I decided that I would meet every challenge with maximum energy, which in Freedom Circuit generally meant finding a way to ride every climb/grass field/goat track/something else seemingly unrideable. By focusing on the challenge in front of me, not the one miles away, I was able to do my best in (almost) every moment and collect those best moments together to put forward a best performance. Saving yourself for later, I think, results in later never really coming around.
Always move forward, never quit
The two greatest lines of instruction that I have ever received were: 'Always do what needs to be done to keep moving forwards'; and 'We never quit Benky'. Both of these came with long discussions around what those lines mean but their essence is simple and seemed to be said out loud every time things got hard. There's always one thing that you can do to move further forward, at your best speed, and there's always another minute of effort left in your body when you feel like quitting (even just quitting a small task like riding down a hill past Glen Edward while falling asleep on the bike) and that knowledge kept me moving when things got extra hard.
Another pearl of wisdom that I remembered along the way: "Just ride 300km a day. It's so simple, I don't know why everyone doesn't do it." I remember saying that to myself a few times pre-race.
One step at a time
Not just a Pop song that was stuck in my head for many a kilometre, this is also something that I truly believe to be a key component of every long ride I do now. Ultra-distances tend to feel overwhelming, how does one actually contemplate riding 700km non-stop? Breaking these distances into smaller, more achievable, segments makes the journey that much easier. Focusing on a 40km stretch between water stops, or a portage section, or a series of climbs and ticking each of those off is far simpler than riding 700km, and once you've done enough of them you have ridden 700km, and so my Garmin never showed me how far we'd ridden as a whole, just how far since the last obstacle was completed. This keeps me in the moment, stops me thinking about how bloody far we have ridden or must still ride, and gives me an achievable goal to always move forwards towards. At 60km to go I added back my 'total distance' screen and focused on that goal, but for the 635km that preceded that I worried about the small tasks along the way that needed to be completed to earn the right to chase that final goal.
Racing an ultra can be distinctly not fun: The fatigue; The sleep monsters; The never stopping; The lack of human company; The hallucinating. To be honest I am not always sure why we sign up for those things, but I think it is because of the fun things.
I made a conscious effort to enjoy the parts that I love about riding and to take the time to appreciate them: I paused as I rode over the top of climbs to take in the view; I did hill intervals, challenging myself to ride a certain speed/power even when that speed/power was embarrassingly low; I sat on the grass and ate a bar and closed my eyes so that I could really listen to what was around me; I stopped to watch Eagles soar, pretending that I had half a clue what Eagle it was; I raced descents; I learned new riding skills; I smiled when I saw something that made me happy; I greeted everyone and spoke to them too, when the chance allowed. I also went on a group ride at 3am on the second morning with a bunch of imaginary friends, but that's another story. Ultra-racing really doesn't seem fun but when you make it so the experience is that much sweeter, and that was the biggest of the keys to my personal performance.
The Pursuit continues, but I am a big step closer to the rider I hope to become