Karley Cunningham originally raced the BC Bike Race (BCBR) in 2008. Back then the BC Bike Race was a point-to-point race with much of the route following logging roads between the communities and partners were mandatory. It was Cunningham’s first endurance race and nothing went according to plan. As she puts it, “I had a terrible time the first time I did [the] BCBR — wrong teammate, wrong training, wrong nutrition, wrong bike. I could go on with the ‘wrong’ list, but you get the picture. It really made for a dreadful week.”
Riding with a partner for seven days can be an experience in itself, Cunningham says, “If you haven’t ridden together to the point of bonking, pure frustration, hitting the wall, and if you aren’t careful to work out your communication, specific needs, etc. you can set yourself up for some big surprises race week.”
With such a challenging time on her first try, I was surprised that Cunningham even wanted another attempt at the seven-day race. She replied, “It was time to rewrite the story.”
For her second try at the BC Bike Race, Cunningham revisited what went wrong to see what she could improve. She started with her training program. “Last time I hacked my training together from what I knew when I was racing pro-elite ‘back in the day’,” she said. (Cunningham is a former member of the Fly Gurlz, a women’s mountain bike race team that disbanded in 2009.)
This time, she decided to train by science and she started with a lactate threshold test to help set up her training zones. Her wife Elise—who had formerly worked as an exercise physiologist—was able to design a base-building program, which Cunnungham started in the fall. In January, she started to work with a coach and continued to take lactate threshold tests throughout her training to measure her improvements. The test results also helped her coach tweak her training plan.
Another change that was in Cunningham’s favour was the BC Bike Race was no longer a point-to-point race, it now focused on the best singletrack at each site.
“The reason we moved away from the point-to-point was based on Jeremy Grasby who kept pushing us to come to Cumberland for a whole day of good trails and not ride there on gravel roads to just taste the singletrack – we credit mostly Jeremy with this push,” says Andreas Hestler, Marketing Director and one of the founders of the BC Bike Race.
And partners are no longer mandatory. Hestler explains, “In the beginning we did more backcountry and we mandated teams for safety and because it was the industry standard – then along the way, about 2009 or 2010, we realized that the nature of the singletrack made it harder for teams to stay together and started to open the individual category. It was also as we moved to more ‘front-country’ race tracks that the team safety became a moot point – we were no longer in the ‘backcountry’.”
Cunningham decided to register as a solo rider for the 2015 BC Bike Race, “In my training for [the] BCBR, while I had some awesome training partners, I found that I really like my own company. I was a little worried that I would be out on the course all by myself and lonely since I’m not a fast rider, but I was surrounded by the same people each day that rode the same speed. We chatted, supported each other, checked on each other and cheered each other on. It was really fun!”
Everything leading up to the race went great for Cunningham. She felt that she had everything dialled this time and she had a good feeling when she started the first day of the race. However, there was one thing she couldn’t prepare for – the weather. Day 1 of the BC Bike Race was hot! The temperature soared upwards of 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit), a far cry from the Pacific Northwest’s usual low 20C (70F) at that time of year, and the heat affected several racers. Cunningham found herself teaming up with other riders for moral support, “I knew what was coming having pre-ridden the course, but still the heat beat me down pretty bad. Riders were dropping like flies and Matt Morrish and I made it through by encouraging [another] small group of…riders through to the second aid station who were also suffering.
“Despite that fact that we were both hurting, hot and tired, we somehow managed to hoot and holler our way through the last half of the Cumberland course. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun with a total stranger,” says Cunningham.
I didn’t see Cunningham again until Day 5 in North Vancouver. I waited for her at the top of Expresso in the Rocky Mountain Bicycles’ cheer zone. It was one of the shorter stages of the 2015 BC Bike Race — 39 kilometres with an elevation gain of 1,525 metres — and based on her times for the previous stages, I had a good idea of when to expect her to arrive. I also knew who was near her in the pack so I watched for them to predict when she would arrive. When I saw the riders she had ridden with throughout the week, but still no sign of Cunningham, I started to get concerned. Did the heat get to her or did she have a mechanical?
It wasn’t much longer before I saw her crest the hill. Cunningham is a Vancouver resident and although the North Vancouver trails were her training ground, that didn’t give her an advantage. She had taken a wrong turn earlier in the day when she went into “autopilot” and started riding the route she had used for her training. Having to backtrack when she realized she was off-course cost Cunningham precious time, but despite her mistake, she was still in good spirits. She was tired, but she knew she was on the home stretch to the finish line as she started to make her way down Expresso.
When I saw Cunningham on course again on Day 6 in Squamish she was still doing well, although the heat had started to catch up with her. The official temperature was 25C (77F) but it felt much hotter; she watched her hydration and electrolyte intake and paced herself so she didn’t overheat. As the week went on, Cunningham found that it took longer for her body to recover at the end of the day. The temperature on the course wasn’t helping.
Despite the heat, Cunningham’s second attempt at the BC Bike Race was a success. She managed to complete the week without any mechanicals, injuries, or major mishaps. And she was happy, much different from her experience in 2008.
“This time was still the one of the biggest physical challenges I’ve ever faced. No question each course is physically demanding in its own way. But this time, I got to the start line of each day feeling recovered and surprisingly fresh. Okay, maybe not Day 7 (laughs) but to be expected,” she says. “The change was the training and overall prep that I did.”
When I asked what her favourite memories from the week were and Cunningham replies, “Hands down the PEOPLE! So many amazing people from all over the world, who participate and volunteer; [and] walking off the ferry in Powell River to a hero’s welcome. The residents of Powell River were really amazing…so many locals there ringing cowbells and cheering to welcome us – there has been few times where I’ve felt that special and welcomed in my life, it actually brought tears to my eyes.”