After a random conversation with my husband, I signed up for Ragbrai—an acronym for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, in the mid-western US. Over the course of a week, several thousand people get on their bikes and cover 468 miles (almost 750km), from one end of the state of Iowa to the other.

The periphery of Iowa is demarcated by two rivers, the Mississippi on the east and the Missouri on the west. As a rite of passage, riders dip the rear wheel into the Missouri when they start and their front wheel into the Mississippi when they finish.

Ragbrai was my first serious athletic outing after giving birth last year. At the start of the race, on 19 July, with minimal training, I was sure I was on the road to a massive disaster. By the end of it, I knew I had it in me to conquer any challenge.

Day 1

We started at Sioux City, with our first stop being Storm Lake, around 75 miles away. The elevation profile read that the first day had the most climbing, nearly 3,900ft, on a course that looked jagged. By 10am, the temperatures had climbed steadily. My bike seemed to be dragging along and I had hardly ridden 35 miles, with plenty of stops for coffee and water. Around 2pm, it seemed my bike was not moving forward at all. I pulled off to the side and took a look at my gears. They seemed fine. I drank some water and decided to pull out. I had to wait for a sag wagon so I sat down on a boulder by the side of the road. It was incredibly hot, with not a spot of shade in sight. After what seemed like 45 minutes of waiting, I decided to get back and ride a little further. When I tried to clip in, I noticed the tar had melted from the road and stuck to my cleats, making it impossible for me to use my shoes. I always pack a pair of running shoes, so I pulled out those, wore them and started riding again. After what seemed like many hours and many more stops, I pulled into Storm Lake well past 5pm. I was disheartened and thought about what a poor decision signing up for Ragbrai had been.

Day 2

There were nearly 15,000 riders, starting from the age of eight-plus (riding with their parents), and we all woke up to a nice little rainstorm. There was a lot of traffic and noise where our campsite was. I would soon find out that Ragbrai was a huge party, for some. We were headed towards Fort Dodge, another 68 miles from Storm Lake, of flattish riding.

Considering the glaciers that came down through Iowa, also many moons ago, we were riding through terrain that required a good set of climbing legs to constantly shift out of the seat to ride over whatever incline we were faced with. I had an easier second day but it also took me around 7 hours to cover the distance, with only about an hour in stops for lunch and refuelling. Early next morning, one of my new friends told me that he had pumped up my tyres—they had very little air in them, according to him. I had also fixed my aerobars as the terrain got flatter in the days that followed.

Day 3

I had another 73 miles on tap, heading towards a town called Eldora. I had packed all my nutrition and I wanted to get out of the heat as quickly as I could.

Stopping only for breakfast, and to refill on coffee and water, I rode into Eldora within 5 hours. I was surprised when I sat down to eat lunch at the final destination. I thought that the air in the tyres had made a big difference. The aerobars had not helped, though, because my lower back was in bad shape postpartum. Since there was almost always no way to get a full meal at dinner, our campsites often being far away from civilization and the shuttles packed and infrequent, I packed half a sandwich away for dinner that night.

Day 4

It was the shortest day at 58 miles, heading to the big city Cedar Falls. I started off feeling good, but less than 20 miles later my back was in a bad way. I felt unable to continue beyond the halfway point and I had to get off and take a 20-minute break to stretch my back. I sought medical assistance and they helped me find four tablets of baby Aspirin to take after lunch. I took the small dose of Aspirin and set off on what would turn out to be the most painful, slow and disorienting 30-odd miles I have ridden in a while.

I thought I had rejoiced too soon, with the legs feeling good the previous day. Obviously, the obnoxious (and clueless) client who met me three months after birth and said, “You have gained a lot of weight!" was, in fact, right. I was heavier than before. I was undertrained. I hated being undertrained. I love training. I love the preparation that goes into difficult goals. Races and events themselves are just icing on the cake.

That night, I remember my new circle of friends being surprised to hear I had not trained and still encouraging me to keep my head. One of them took me aside and said that I had survived more than half the ride and had made good time, whether or not I wanted to give myself credit.

Day 5

It was another 70 miles between Cedar Falls and Hiawatha. I was past the point of caring. I just wanted to ride my bike. Once I let go of my expectations, the magic started. I found myself in Hiawatha within 5 hours on the saddle, feeling strong.

Day 6

This was a humdinger in my books. While the start of the ride was overcast, the elevation indicated at around 2,900ft did not set us up for what was to come. We were riding to Coralville that day and had to pass Coralville Dam, just before entering the final town. Passing the dam made the riders feel good that they were only 6 miles away from the finish—but those 6 miles were a real test. There were some massive uphills on the menu and all of them seemed very steep. Many people had started to walk and I wondered if I would too—my mechanical luck had been really good thus far, barring the flat tyres in the first two days. I was intimidated that stronger riders than me seemed to eventually be walking. I was not feeling weak at all though, so I thought I should take this one hill at a time. On one of the flatter sections, I met an 11-year-old with a big smile. He was riding just one day but had an attitude so incandescent, it reminded me of my best friend. We chatted for a while and when we rolled into town, I had not cracked and was feeling just fine. A huge storm had been following us the whole way and just as I rolled into camp, I was caught in the downpour. I realized that night that I had only one more day to go. I couldn’t believe it. What I could not believe even more was that I had rolled in with the top 15% of riders on Days 5 and 6, my speed was increasing day by day.

Day 7

This was the fastest day for me. In under 4.5 hours, including stops for breakfast, water refills, the whole works, I covered the distance between Coralville and Davenport, which was another 70 miles, and dipped my front wheel in the Mississippi around 10.40am. The last day was mostly flat, with three sharp uphills at the very end. My average speed on the last day was nearly 17 miles per hour.

I have not told you about one of my best friends, Derek, who was instrumental in cultivating my love for long rides. On a 100-mile ride, Derek once had to put his hand on the small of my back to propel me uphill towards the end when I was struggling. I was not struggling when we approached Davenport, far from it. But a stranger did what Derek had done—he put his hand on the small of my back and gave me a little push up the second hill.

Many hours later, I was overcome with a feeling of great satisfaction. I had many doubts about starting such an event with my present fitness. I was shocked at being able to ride the whole thing with a massive pack on my back and in running shoes. I was most shocked to find out that the sceptics don’t matter. They never did, they never will. I had no apologies for my shortcomings. I had no regrets about being undertrained. I had finished strong and that was really all that mattered to me.

Anu Vaidyanathan is a long-course triathlete, the first Indian to compete in the Ironman and the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada.

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