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OPINION

Reflections on my latest attempt the slay the Atlas Mountain Race... and what's next

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Rich Stoodley has had a good while to reflect on his second attempt at this beastly Moroccan ultra-distance race. Here's what went down

The last article I wrote was in preparation for a second attempt at the Atlas Mountain Race, explaining that even though I knew it was going to be extremely hard, I was more mentally and physically prepared, even investing in a whole new Scott Scale mountain bike to tackle the harsh terrain.

Nothing was going to stop me, but as I write this, even many weeks later, I hurt.

That hurt.

Not my muscles, not my sinews or joints. No blisters, no bruises. Maybe still a little saddle sore, but nothing to really complain about. No sleep deprivation, just slightly chapped lips and slightly sunburnt on one side.

My pain is deeper. It’s my pride and my heart, its knowing that I physically could have pedalled to the finish.

My pain is that I don’t write with tales of glory and determination, endurance or pushing my body to the limit. My pain is that I failed to reach the finish again … the second time in two years.

But this time, I did OK. This time it was being ill that held me back to the degree that finishing was easily on the cards, but I had lost so much time in the first three days.

I still can’t quite give a medical reason, as I recovered and felt great when the logistics of getting home, my flight, previously booked hotels and the location of my equipment made me take the lucid, but difficult decision to call it a day. With how I felt – physically sick, total exhaustion and not wanting to eat – I can only put this down to dehydration, sunstroke and heatstroke.

If I had felt this way at home I would simply have not got on a bike and just been off work and stayed in bed. I did, however, try to push on hoping that how I felt would pass within a few hours. I’m really proud to have smashed last year’s effort and managed 489 miles (787km) and 41,000 ft (12400m) of elevation and lasted an extra five days.

The gutting part was that by the time I started to feel human again, I had literally ran out of time to cover the last 300 miles. Missing the cut off times for Check Point 2, I would have been without any sort of backup, as well as missing my plane home!

Atlas mountain race 4 - Richard Stoodley

There was a delayed start by 24 hours too which threw me (and everyone else) a bit, but the ‘finisher’s party’ and return coach to Marrakesh could not be rearranged. So in effect, it did knock a day off the programme if you wanted to stick with your travel and hotel plans.

On the Friday, the day of registration, bike check and fitting trackers, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. No one had seen rain like it, and there were reports of flash floods and potential land slips which could have been life threatening in Morocco’s High Atlas. The start was eventually delayed just a few hours before we were due to set off.

The following day the sun came out. Being a glorious day, we expected the race to go ahead, but instead we were told the authorities had decided they would hold us in limbo indefinitely.

The chief organiser had approximately 230 riders assembled in front of him, most who had only had their cycling kit available for the last 24 hours as their ‘bags and belongings’ had already departed to Essaouira the previous day.

Then we got this news… the race was officially cancelled! But, he could not stop any of us setting off at 6.00 pm on our own individual ‘leisure’ ride on the route that happened to follow the Atlas Mountain Race. He also pointed out that although it was now definitely NOT a Race, there were a number of volunteers who would still be manning exactly the same check points along the way.

Unofficial… but away we went.

Atlas mountain race 5 - Richard Stoodley

We were rerouted along the two alternative and previously proposed amended routes, missing out the horrendous 2,650m off-road climb over the pass to Zerkten, and the infamous Old Mule Path down to Telouet and Check Point 1.

We may have been protected from the dangerous landslides or flash flooding streams, but we still had the mountain to cross. The detour added approximately 33km (21 miles) to the route and only about 625 ft (192m) less climbing. The wind was just horrendous.

I felt good at first and I was flying, possibly too much. This was possibly my first error, and I think I simply rode way too hard.  This might have been the start of getting dehydrated.

I tried to get some kip early, but with the cold and the condensation in my bivvy, I had an awful four hours’ sleep. I awoke miserable, in the dark, not feeling at all positive, even though this sleep was my original plan.

Starting to feel rough, I actually arrived at CP1 a full four hours faster than the previous year, but I was so tired. I not only needed food, but another nap of 90 mins. Already the delays were starting to accumulate…

The funny thing was, that on each of the first three full days, I felt really good in the morning, but just started to really tire and feel totally drained and exhausted by mid-afternoon. As I rolled in to a pre-planned stopping place, I was actually feeling so bad I was ready to quit. Something was definitely wrong, I hadn’t even got as far as last year.

Atlas mountain race - Richard Stoodley

The same thing happened for the following two days and nights, with this total exhaustion overwhelming me by late afternoon. The extra sleep that I needed to take just took the event and any chance of a finish within the time limit away from me.

I stopped in a hotel one night and wasted even more time, as well as feeling the needs for multiple short power naps throughout the days. I was at one point physically sick too, and that lasted several hours.

With return logistics in mind, I set off with the target of getting to Tagmout, a large town with the opportunity to find a bus or transport of some kind to the finish. The section after this was called the Old Colonial Road, an infamous section and notoriously difficult.

As I rolled into town, I realised that I now felt ok. In face I felt great, and the Old Colonial Road just had to be done.

As I was out of the time limits, I thought that I could bivvy in the wilderness if need be as I was two days from the end, but by bus or taxi it would be just a matter of hours. This 40-mile section is just so awesome, with an 18 mile climb only broken by the total destruction of this rough road in two places, where you need to carry your bike about 40ft down and up a literal cliff face.

Atlas mountain race 10 - Richard Stoodley

I was dreading it, but I smashed it.  I was not only feeling good and better, but actually riding well. If only I had not lost all that time.

At the end of the Old Colonial Road is another large-ish town called Issafn, and that is where I caught up with two female riders who were also scratching. So, a fantastic meal, great company and amazing hospitality from the restaurant’s owner who insisted we stay at his house ended my 2024 Atlas Mountain Race, with the ‘Ride of Shame’ being an eight-hour journey by taxi then a bus to the finish in Essaouira.

The full yard-by-yard report can be found on my website here, but I am so proud of how far I got under the circumstances. I certainly saw some sights and landscapes and met new friends. I would not have missed that for the world!

So, where does that leave me? It certainly leaves me knowing that with all things being equal, I could have completed this epic event. I wouldn’t have won, in fact I wasn’t even competitive, but to me the target was simply to finish under my own steam.

My kit was simply awesome. The Tailfin luggage was just brilliant and reliable, the WTB 29” x 2.1” Nano tyres did not even have a mark on them and my Gorewear clothing was second to none. Equally, my Water-To-Go filter bottle was a life saver.

So, the answer to the obvious question of will I go back once again… it’s a resounding YES. Of course I’m going back! I love the event, the terrain, the culture, the cuisine, the people and the feeling of being out there alone. 2025, bring it on. I hope, even though I will be pushing 64, that I will finally be able to write from a position of elation and achievement from crossing that line.

Plans for the rest of 2024

Well it’s a long time until February 2025, so I needed to set myself a goal that will push me to my limits. To do this, I’ve decided on a solo trip to ‘nip over’ to the headquarters of WTB (Wilderness Trail Bikes) to thank them for sponsoring me with their excellent tyres, saddles and equipment. The only problem is that their HQ is in Mill Valley near San Fransisco!

So on 1st August, I’m off on a solo, unsupported, off-road epic going east to west across the USA from New York, and aiming to top 5000 miles. I will also be setting up a page to raise funds for charity, and I’ll be posting final details on my website and Instagram pages soon. Wish me luck!

'Rapid' Rich Stoodley is a 63 year old 'normal rider'.

Although he's only been riding for 12 years after a very late start and is no athlete, he pushes himself beyond his limits on HillClimbs, long distance rides and ultra races. 

For Rich, encouraging and inspiring other (especially older) riders to push themselves beyond their limits is what drives him. 

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Miller | 3 weeks ago
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Strange about your unexpected fatigue, although cycling through the atlas mountains would explain it for me, hope you get to the bottom of it. Enjoy your US trip!

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