Endurance cyclist Sarah Hammond on the hallucinations that take hold on the road. By Cindy MacDonald.


Unstoppable: Sarah Hammond, 36, endurance cyclist

At first I had no interest in Race to the Rock [a 2300-kilometre ride from Adelaide to Uluru] because I’d already locked myself into the Trans America, my first race of this format. The Trans Am is 6800 kilometres from coast to coast in the States – from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia. It’s one of the toughest races going around and I completed that in June, finishing sixth against an international field and guys as well.

The Trans Am was brutal on my body. When I got home I had no energy, but I started to recover quite quickly and get a little bit itchy seeing the hype building around Race to the Rock. About two weeks out I put the word out that if I could get some support getting a bike and the gear I’d throw myself into the ring. This race had another level of difficulty for me because it was all off-road – everything from gravel roads to rock beds to four-wheel-drive tracks – and I’m a roadie at heart. It was my third mountain bike race ever. Yeah, I don’t do things by half. It actually went a little bit better than planned. Twenty-five of us started but I was the only person to complete the original route. Some made it to Uluru, but they diverted.

The race really starts about three days in when people start to hurt. A lot of people enter these races because they’re an incredible rider, but they don’t know how to manage discomfort and pain and suffering and injuries. That’s when the whole mental side comes in. Because you can always turn your legs; it’s whether you can do that when everything in your head is telling you to stop.

There were moments when I had to stop and scream or cry and get a hold of myself. A lot of people will pull out or just say, “This is too hard, it’s not rideable.” Only if something snaps or breaks, then maybe I’ll pull out. It’s total suffering. It is. But for me it’s always predetermined – you need to finish; there’s no way out of this.

I’ve been riding seriously for about eight years now. I started just simply commuting. I now work in a couple of local cycling studios, so I guess I kind of live and breathe the sport these days. I enjoyed riding long-distance right from the start and I loved climbing. There’s just something that appeals to me about seeing how far I can push myself, physically and mentally. And people like Jesse Carlsson, the creator of Race to the Rock, are inspiring and motivating. He did the Trans America in 2015 and won. That’s where it all started for me. I thought, “I wonder if I can do that?”

So many people ask about the saddle! Yes, it’s an important factor because the saddle burn and discomfort in these rides is absolutely off the chart. It’s another reason why people may not complete these rides because the issues you might have – whether it’s saddle burn or sore knees – to anyone else it’s a totally normal reason to say I’m not going to do this, I’m going to go home. I guess I have the ability to torture myself more than most people.

Gender goes out the window in bikepacking races. It’s not male versus female; it’s rider versus rider. And women are generally more tolerant of pain. It comes down to the strongest of mind and body. It’s funny. I’ll go out on a training ride and I’ll pass a bunch of blokes and they’ll do everything in their power to get back past me. Sometimes I toy with them. I think, “Yeah, all right, but I’ll see you again in a few hundred metres.”

My family, when they watch some of the races, get a little bit worried at times. Not telling my father exactly what is going on is probably the best option. Less information is better for some people. To be honest, if you asked a medical professional to advise any of the racers on their condition a few days in, it would be like, “Stop.” You’re putting your body through hell.

Basically I ride until I have to sleep. By the last few days, you are really, really tired. That’s where you have to be careful because you can microsleep. That happened to me once in the US. I nodded off for about a second going down a mountain in Montana. I was like, “Whoa, okay”, but I couldn’t stop because I knew it was also bear country. I’m like, “Oh my God, do I fall asleep on the bike or do I get eaten by bears?”

I had some bad hallucinations in the last couple of days of Race to the Rock – the trees on the side of the road looked like animals and they were just launching themselves onto the road. It’s bizarre. But that’s where people who are prepared to endure more get over the line quicker. Race to the Rock took me about eight days and six hours. Even when I knew I had such a huge lead it didn’t mean I was going to take a full night’s sleep. You still want to get the job done.

It’s a funny feeling when you finish because your body goes out of survival mode and everything becomes very disorientated. You just basically turn to jelly and you start bumping into things. Your body is, “Thank God!” Then you just eat and eat and sleep for a few days.

I have a big American bulldog, Flex. He is the other most important part of my life, so I’m always very happy to come home to him.

The next big race is another concoction of Jesse’s next March – the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race – from Fremantle, Western Australia, to the Sydney Opera House. We’re hoping to attract a lot of international attention for this one. That’ll be my next target. Unfortunately there’s no prizemoney with these things. You get nothing but the glory.


1 . This week’s highlights…

• Horseracing: Cox Plate Day

Saturday, 12.10pm (AEDT) first race, Moonee Valley, Melbourne

• Cricket: Cricket Australia XI v South Africa, two-day tour match

Saturday and Sunday, 2pm (ACDT), Adelaide Oval

• Soccer: A-League – Adelaide United v Melbourne Victory

Saturday, 7.20pm (ACDT), Coopers Stadium, Adelaide

• V8 Supercars: Gold Coast 600

Sunday, 2.25pm (AEST), Gold Coast street circuit

• Motorsport: Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix

Sunday, 4pm (AEDT), Phillip Island, Victoria

• Tennis: WTA Finals

October 23-30, Singapore

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2016 as "Unstoppable".

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Cindy MacDonald is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.

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