Chasing the Butterflies

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Words by Nic Learmonth | Images by Various

When Jessica Douglas decided to emerge from retirement just 12 weeks out from the WEMBO World 24-Hour Solo Championships in Italy last May, she didn’t leave herself much time to pack her bags, much less start the usual preparations for the physical and mental ordeal of 24hr racing.

Some say a comeback is harder than doing something for the first time.  Jessica Douglas proved it can be done.

Nevertheless, Jess felt confident in her decision to defend her 2010 title. [private]

‘It just felt so right,’ she said later.

But Jess’s support crew husband Norm had some reservations: ‘When she started talking about coming back, I was dubious. I wanted her to convince me. I wanted to make sure she was doing it for the right reasons.’

That might seem unjustly harsh – especially in the light of Jess’s performance when she got to Finale Ligure – but Norm had seen better than anyone the toll this form of racing had had on Jess.

Burning out

In 2010, Jess was on fire. In her capacity to push herself for the duration of each race, particularly in the small hours, and from one event to the next, she was relentless. Always ready to accept challenges head-on, Jess calls the small hours of a 24hr, that dark, cold time just before dawn, ‘my time’.

‘I can use my strengths then,’ she grins. ‘It’s like a nine-hour mediation.’

She won the 2010 National Solo 24-Hour in April, and the 24 Hours of Adrenalin World Solo Championships at Mt Stromlo, Canberra in October.

The emotions and toll of winning the World Solo 24 Hour Championships went far deeper than the media saw.

With a track record like that, Jess’s decision to retire from 24hr racing part-way through the 2011 National Solo 24-Hour in Stromlo was a surprise to many, though not to Norm.

‘I was disappointed,’ he said, ‘But I could see it coming.

‘In one 12-month period, Jess did five 24hr solo races, which was nuts. That’s why she burnt out.’

After winning the 2010 Worlds, Jess felt ‘depressed’ and ‘emotionally exhausted’.

‘When I raced at the Aussie Champs, I had no background motivation. I was going through the motions but I wasn’t engaged.

‘I had crashes, I was falling asleep on the bike.’

Just over halfway through, and knowing this decision would hurt, Jess pulled out of the race and retired from 24hr racing. For good.

‘I wasn’t inspired,’ Jess reflects. ‘When you feel that way and you come under pressure, what are you going to do?’

Retirement (from 24hr racing, at least)

In the year that followed, Jess rode in ‘anything and everything’.

‘I wasn’t sure what I would enjoy,’ said Jess. ‘I looked for events that were about a place and the people, that offered an experience as well as a race.’

They included some of Australia’s most iconic destination events: the Croc Trophy (from Cairns to Cooktown), the Bike Buller Festival, the Ingkerreke Commercial Mountainbike Enduro in Alice Springs and Tasmania’s Wildside.

The face says it all.  It’s a tough sport and only the (mentally) strongest survive.

‘I went to some awesome races,’ she grins.

‘But they never gave me the butterflies that I got in 24hr racing. It’s a process – it’s like a mini-holiday. You don’t get that so much in these other races.’

The decision

The hunger to race 24hr solo was back.

Jess was hesitant, but with an invitation to attend the newly formed WEMBO’s 24-Hour Solo World Championships in Italy, as part of her 2010 World Champ prize-winnings, she had to make a decision.

CORC and WEMBO spokesperson Russ Baker, a good mate of Jess’s, observed from the sidelines.

‘She had the bug again,’ Russ said. ‘And there was unfinished business.’

Jess sat down with Norm to thrash the matter out.

‘Her reasons for returning were very different,’ recalls Norm. ‘And once she made the full commitment, I was psyched. I love this sport.’

‘I think Jess came to the realisation that what she is good at is hurting, so she is really good at that form of mountain biking. (Though she realises now that if she tries to train the house down, she’ll get disgruntled and burn out.)

‘But it’s not just about winning – she wants to give back to the sport,’ said Norm.

‘She has a different racing mindset. It was “I must win”; now it’s “I’ll do all these things and hopefully get a good result.”’

Jess agrees: ‘I made a deal with myself to relax and enjoy the process.’

‘When I finally made the decision, I had butterflies in my stomach.

‘I felt quite excited – it turned out I did want to go through all that pain, all that adversity of doing the race. I have that ability, and I realised I don’t have to be afraid of it. It’s part of me.’

Racing solo for 24 hours takes a very special kind of person.

The 2012 WEMBO World 24-Hour Solo Championships in Finale Ligure, Italy

 

‘The World Champs in Italy felt like a second child,’ says Jess. ‘I knew what to do. I felt incredibly calm.’

‘The technical course suited her,’ said Norm. ‘All the climbs were short and punchy and technical. When we saw that we knew there was a good chance of her winning.’

That’s not to say the race was a cake walk. The course was physically demanding, as Norm was quick to point out, and Jess met her match in Brit rider Rickie Cotter.

The win, and very proud Aussie.  Jessica has always flown the flag with pride and as always it sits on her shoulder as she crosses the line.

Jess and Norm are both full of praise for Rickie, who kept the pressure on as she and Jess broke away from the rest of the field.

‘Rickie put in a great performance,’ said Norm. ‘We could never quite break her.’

Their close racing kept everyone on their toes and inspired some jokey comaradrie between the support crews.

‘It was pouring with rain and Jess had the lead,’ laughs Norm, ‘I went over to them and said “When’s that bloody Rickie Cotter gonna give up?” And they said “Never!” and I said “Well let’s get going then!”’

Sometime around the ninth hour, Jess finally got a lead on Rickie, though not enough to relax.

But she focused on small goals and congratulated herself constantly for achieving them. This new mantra worked well.

‘The hours went so quick. I only thought about winning right near the end.’

Even after the long tussle with Rickie, through rain and an increasingly sloppy track, Jess had the foresight to stop at the pits to get Norm to drap her Australian flag over her shoulders before riding across the finishline.

In the footage of the end of the race Jess looks cold and tired – and content.

‘I felt like I was coming home,’ she says.

So will she be returning to her old 24hr circuit?

‘The plan is not to. Twenty-four-hour racing puts such a strain on your life, your relationships. It needs to be special; one special event that you’re willing to put all your energy into.’

Closer to home

Some six months later, Jess’s commitment to giving back to the sport took a new turn when she and Norm opened a bike shop café in their hometown, the Victorian mountain bike paradise Forrest, some 160 kilometres south-west of Melbourne. Called the Corner Store, this new project is a real gift to visiting mountain bikers, who until then faced a long haul to get spare parts if Forrest got the better of their steed.

Always ready to take on a new challenge, Jess upped the ante at this year’s Forrest Festival when she dived back behind the counter in the Corner Store between race stages to help out in the smoothies-coffee-and-yum-yums production line.

New life, new challenges and yes, still racing.

When we caught up with Jess, on the Sunday evening of the festival, she was still at the Corner Store, still in her riding gear.

‘I like to see if the impossible can be achieved,’ she laughs.

‘Opening up the Corner Store is a totally new challenge.

‘I could say it’s been like a 24-hour race, but I have to wake up to it every day – it’s not over and done with in a day, it’s a lot of hard work.

‘But the rewards are incredible. It’s not just about earning money, it’s about the people I meet, the commitments I’ve made and the things I can do for other people. We want people to come to the Corner Store and really enjoy the experience.

‘So in that sense, opening up the Corner Store and extending our kitchen in to a business is an extension of the racing and our MTBSkills.com, it’s just another part of who I am.’ [/private]

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