Covid-19 Comeback: My RAD 400 Experience

The westerly gale socks me. I tuck low into the aerobars and concentrate on forcing power through my legs. Dig in.

Just a few more kilometres, I promise myself.

I should be approaching Denmark’s west coast, but under an overcast night sky, the midnight darkness swallows me whole. An inky landscape reveals few hints to my whereabouts, however the steady marching progress of my navigational track indicates that I’m due to butt up against the ocean any minute now. 200 kilometres into the Race Around Denmark (RAD) 400 Experience, a—no surprise—400-kilometre loop that begins in a quiet bay north of Aarhus on Jutland’s east coast and takes riders across the peninsula and back again, and my stamina is faltering. Grasses whip and snap along the narrow road like the skirts of frenzied hula dancers; the masts of wind turbines tower ominously overhead like metallic tree trunks in a robot planet. Somewhere past the realm of my bike lights, I conjure the sea: white-water frothing against sheer stony cliffs.

“Keep at it,” I whisper, heaving my weight behind the pedals. Yet even as I increase my power, I acknowledge the slow creep of fatigue: the toll of riding 200-plus kilometres into a roaring headwind. If something doesn’t change soon, my wheels will grind to a halt.

Just then, I glance up: lights. Red lights beaming down from high in the sky. The coast, I realize. I’ve arrived.

Minutes later, I am tearing south on the narrow strip of land between Nissum Fjord and the sea at 40 km/hour with cheek-splitting grin, the wind finally at my back. 

Big Plans

I signed up for RAD Extreme 1600—an ultra-distance race chasing the shore around nearly the entire landmass of Denmark—in 2019, back before sourdough bread and cocktails over Zoom were trending. After two years of deferring my race entry due to Covid-19 related travel restrictions, I’m excited to finally compete.

And then three weeks before the 2022 race kicks off, I catch Covid-19 on training camp in Mallorca. 

At first, there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll be good to go in time for the event. I’m vaccinated and boosted, plus I only test positive for six days, which leaves more than two weeks to get my legs (and lungs) back.

From Mallorca, I fly to Switzerland to stay with friends near Lake Geneva. I return to training and diligently track my recovery, relieved that each day feels better than the last. Yet, it becomes obvious that my incremental improvements don’t put me on track to recover by race day. As much as I long to compete, I know that unless I’m at 100%, the prospect of rolling up to the start line of a self-supported multi-day event spells certain disaster. 

One week out from the RAD 1600 Extreme, I email the race director, Uggi, to request yet again—the third year in a row—a deferral in my registration. But since I’d already booked my flight (and evidently haven’t smartened up enough to spring for non-medical related-travel insurance) I board the plane to Denmark anyway. I have friends I look forward to visiting, and memories of mouth-watering deserts from my brief time through in 2019 during the NorthCape4000. 

Though I’ve reconciled myself with not participating, Uggi’s closing words from our last email exchange continue to interrupt my thoughts as I piece together my bicycle in Morten’s kitchen outside the village of Mønsted:

We do have a 400 km event if you decide you want a shorter race experience in Denmark.

The Start line

The RAD 400 Experience departs three days after the 1600 km race I’d initially signed up for. While that may not sound like a lot, those extra 72 hours are enough for me to tip the scales from “still recovering” to “race ready”. Still, aside from Morten, I don’t tell a soul. I don’t invite friends or family to follow my dot online, and I definitely don’t snap any pre-race selfies. I just show up at the start line, ready to roll. 

Right from the 4:00 pm depart, I knew the wind would be my biggest foe. There are only a handful of other RAD 400 Experience racers (both supported—with follow vehicles—and unsupported like me) and I don’t have cell data to check the tracker anyways. Once I reach the west coast, however, the wind should be behind me for the return trip. In the meantime, the sky brews dark overhead. My ears fill with noise: thrashing flags, flattened grasses, and overhead branches whomping under the weight of the wind.

“Just please, no rain,” I pray to the weather gods.

I’d spent the previous hours drying out my gear from the downpour I’d been caught in on the way over, a 100 km trip from Mønsted to the start line that I should have undertaken by public transportation, yet foolishly opted to pedal. While I was equipped with rain gear—arm and leg warmers, gloves, shoe covers, and a waterproof jacket that for some inexplicable reason I wasn’t wearing when the skies opened up earlier—I knew these would only stave of the wet indefinitely. In addition to accumulating pointless fatigue in my legs and arriving at the start line shivering with cold, I also had the bad luck of puncturing one of my brand-new tubeless tires on the ride over: a mean gash that I plugged with two darts, but still didn’t quite trust to hold.

Miraculously, my plea for dry skies is answered. Yet if fairy tales and Disney movies have taught me anything, it’s that in world of wishes, nothing comes without a cost. As hours roll by, the gusts continued to intensify. I take brief respite in the climbs and wooded areas, where varied terrain and tree cover softens the blow. Mostly, I hover low in the aerobars and focus on churning out consistent watts, glancing up from my head unit now and then to witness hillsides of emerald-green crops interrupted by sun-gold canola. With loads of separated bike path, gently rolling hills, and idyllic countryside, Denmark is simply a nice place to ride a bike (though I could do without the constant wind).

Long-Distance Fuelling 

I pull into the gas station in Stoholm at 8:45 pm. With the entire night ahead of me—and 275 kilometres remaining—this one stop needs to count. I tally an inventory of everything I need, from bottle refills to Snickers bars to something cold and caffeinated to drink, applauding myself for sticking to my power targets and staying on the bike. But I’m jarred from my self-congratulatory reverie when I reach for the convenience store door to find it stuck. I pull again—nothing. The door doesn’t budge. A weight drops in my chest and those happy, cheery thoughts vanish quicker than snorkellers after a shark warning. I hustle from one side of the glass storefront to the other, craning my neck to see past the aisles until I spot two women in yellow shirts conversing behind the cash register. I rap my knuckles against the glass until I catch their attention, then motion toward the door. Still no change in expression. I race back to the door and give it another tug as I point toward my imaginary watch—”The sign says open!” One of the cashiers strides over to opens the door to the inside—toward her—eyeing me as though I’m some kind hungry (albeit harmless) critter.

“Thanks,” I say. An ear-to-ear smile masking my inward cringe—can’t even open a door, Meaghan? Really? Then, because I’m Canadian, “Sorry for banging on the glass.”

She nods, accepting my apology before returning to the cash register. After a quick trip through the aisles, I meet her there to ring up my items.

“Can I use fill my bottles somewhere?” I ask.

Travelling light while also carrying sufficient nutrition poses unique challenges. According to Strava, I burned more than 10,000 calories over my 14+ hour effort—imagine how many buffet trips that is! And as if fuelling extended self-supported adventures isn’t difficult enough, the RAD 400 Experience levelled up the challenge by starting late in the day (which meant the shops would soon be closed) and following a route that avoided larger centres with shops almost altogether. Water wasn’t even reliable: I’d heard from touring cyclists that churches often had taps and washrooms, yet another finisher I spoke with mentioned visiting ten churches before he located a water source. Glad I didn’t waste my time looking.

Outside of that single convenience store stop, I had to rely on whatever fit into my top tube bag, jersey pockets, and two 1-litre water bottles. Besides the armload of cold drinks and candy bars I consumed at the gas station, my fuelling staples were F2C Nutrition Glyco-DuranceKeto-Durance, and Haribo gummy bears. I started out with a Glyco-Durance super bottle containing 10 servings (25 grams of carbs/100 calories a serving = 250 carbs/1,000 calories a bottle) and packed 10 more servings of dry powder to mix a second power bottle at the gas station. I also replenished my gummy bear supply (8 calories/bear, in case you were wondering).

How does a keto-product mix with my otherwise carb-centric fuelling strategy? Keto-Durance activates your body to start producing its own ketones from your fat stores in just 15 minutes, and unlike other exogenous ketone products, Keto-Durance is designed to be used in a high carb fuelling program and does not require you to be in clinical ketosis to see the advantages of duel fuelling your body. This products falls into F2C’s endurance range, and really shines during long efforts because it’s light, packable, and opens up options for fuelling—especially useful in events like the RAD 400 Experience when there’s limited resupply, if or your gut simply can’t handle all those carbs.

Night Shift

The terrain flattens out after Stoholm, cue for the wind to dial it up yet another notch. The subtle shift in cloud colour from porridge to mauve-grey hints toward the coming night, but it’s not until long after 10:00 pm that I actually need my front light to see. I feel like I am spinning through molasses, wading through mud. I glance over my shoulder, paranoid that any second, another rider will come ripping past me. How can I be so slow? And why didn’t I purchase international roaming data so that I could at least check the tracker? Convinced that my flat tire must be to blame, I hop off the bike to assess my tire pressure and notice that my rear—the one I repaired en route to the start—is losing air. 

I unclip my pump from the frame and screw the detachable hose onto the pump body. But then I hesitate, recalling how the last time I called my pump into action I accidentally unscrewed the value core, instantly deflating my tire. 

It can wait, I decide, imagining sealant everywhere; a worst-case scenario in which I lose the seal and end up stranded between villages in rural Denmark indefinitely (or until daybreak when the first bus comes around—they have fantastic public transportation here). Maybe I’ll find a pump at a train station.

Of course, I don’t locate a pump and my rear tire continues to leak air until sometime after midnight, when I remember the CO2 cartridges in my tool kit.

Jason Molina Lullabies

“Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws
Must be the big star about to fall”

— Jason Molina/Magnolia Electric Co’s Farewell Transmission

After an injection of CO2 to top up my tire, it’s smooth sailing to the finish. I’d been banking on an easier return trip—so long as the wind continued its onslaught from the west —but the reality is, for once, more blissful than I could have ever imagined. Perhaps it’s the well of gratitude just to be here after a bout of sickness—not merely riding, but pushing and challenging myself.

I listen to Jason Molina all the way back to Aarhus, his haunting, bluesy melodies the perfect accompaniment to the eerie night—for the first time, I can pop an earbud in without the breeze tearing it immediately from my face. I sing aloud, get lost in the lyrics but never fall off-course. Seemingly alone in the universe as I roll past hushed limestone churches, along narrow rural roads overhung by dark, arching foliage. With RAD’s small field of competitors, this race is so entirely difference the 8,000-plus crowd of my last event, the Mallorca 312; it’s also distinct from other bikepacking events I’ve participated in, where I have the ability to virtually check in on the field around me. Yet as I ghost through the night, I find a contentment in my solitude that enables me to pedal through the fatigue building in my legs, the insecurities that prevented me from announcing my participation beforehand. Soon, the sun’s first honeyed rays wink on the horizon, and I’m left wondering where the time went.

The only trouble comes from my front derailleur, which, in an act of unforgivable mutiny, decides to start dropping my chain for no good reason. Only a delicate hand can initiate a successful shift into the front big ring.Yet with everything else going my way, I really can’t complain. By the time I hit the home stretch at 6:00 am the sun is up in all its fiery glory, yesterday’s clouds nowhere to be seen. I maintain my momentum up and over the final few hills (like any race director worth their salt, Uggi threw a plot twist or two in at the end, just to keep things interesting), then bomb toward the coast like a bird of prey skydiving to scoop a fish from the bay.

Uggi and the first supported finisher, Mark, are present to greet me. One of Mark’s support crew members mentions how my dot appeared to be chasing Mark’s near the end, motivating Mark to work a little harder to hold onto his lead.

“Did you know you were close?” Mark asks.

“No,” I say, grinning. “Didn’t even check the tracker.”

Stats, Strava & A Note on gratitude

Kilometres: 402 

Calories burned: 10,191

Elevation: 2,958 metres

Avg weighted power: 191 watts

Avg speed: 28.7 km/hr

Finally, falling ill so far from home can be a scary experience. I’d be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge all those who helped me get through and recover from Covid-19. A heartfelt thanks to Brian & Stacey Welsh, Shu Pillanger, Morten Kjærsgaard, Nicolas Chernobilsky & family, and the incredible staff at the Duva Aparthotel Puerto Pollensa, Mallorca. I’m blessed to be surrounded by amazing people: from delivering meals and rapid antigen tests while I was in self-isolation to assisting me with transportation and providing a guest room once I was on the mend—I express my immense gratitude and thanks to you all. Also, to Uggi Kalden—RAD race director and an even more rad human being—for running a topnotch event and encouraging me to get in on the fun.