Dorien Cramer tells us about her Steppenwolf - 500km ultra gravel
Hockey, floor ball or running. Dorien Cramer loved sports from an early age. After some cycle-touring holidays she realised that cycling was her passion. Particularly fully self supported long distance riding in the wild. This is sufficient reason to ride from Berlin to Usedom, in the Netherlands, and back. Dorien shares the preparation and mental strength needed to survive Steppenwolf.
Steppenwolf is a 550 kilometer route on which the participants plan their own food an accommodation. The route is revealed a few days in advance. This allows participants the opportunity to plan the best places to stop and how they are going to tackle the route in general. Steppen wolf is known for being an inclusive event. Both hardcore gravel racers and amateurs are welcome but 25% of participants will fail to finish.
Preparation is half of the work
Dorien trained for this event with help from her coach Sjoerd Jansman for four months. She filled her free time with no fewer than six days of training per week. Five days on the bike and one day strength training to accelerate progress. The training rides were up to 7 hours long. These rides were achievable with snacks on the bike and a large recovery meal. Dorien found that with a combination of real food such as bread, fruit and muesli with some gels she could maintain her energy reserves during training.
Dorien did not prepare a full eating plan for the Steppenwolf, she simply made sure that she combined solid foods and Kalkman Energy Bites or gels. Solid food meant bread and bananas on the way and fries in the evening. She brought porridge to start the second day with the idea of providing a simple energy source with some bulk to reduce the risk of an upset stomach.
As the event got closer more 'problems' arose. The intense training programme was causing aches and pains to develop. One day of strength training was proving insufficient to balance her stronger legs and general fitness. Pain in the elbows and back occurred and a consultation with the physiotherapist brought bad news. They recommended pausing the training in order to give the body time to recover. Although Dorien could see the logic in this, she chose to ignore the advice and continue with the programme. Steppenwolf was just around the corner and she didn't want to give up after months of preparation.
The final weeks before the event are the most important. Testing needs be carried out on the bike, all the equipment selected and the sleeping places determined, as much as possible. Because Dorien was a first time participant she asked some experienced experts for advice. For example, she contacted a former soldier to find out what the event feels like and how to deal with being at the limit.
Mind over matter
You can prepare everything down to the last detail but there is always the unexpected. Unfortunately, this was also the case for Dorien. After the first 150 kilometers she began feeling unwell. Despite the nutritional plan she had made to provide enough energy and keep her digestion functional. This is something that is difficult to train for. Her legs were still strong but the intestines were another story. Dorien chose to eat a large meal with the hope of restoring normality. Unfortunately, this idea backfired and she was forced to finish the race at a slower pace than hoped for. The plan to cycle through the night was no longer feasible and the situation became very challenging. After feeling broken on the bike she decided to spend a night in a hiker's hut and recover.
'It was a blind spot for me. I didn't see this as a real risk. Being overtired and lacking energy was a bigger risk for me,' recounts Dorien. However, giving up was not an option and, despite the setback, she managed to complete the race within four days. The pressure of the training programme ensured that she was also mentally prepared for the big event. Ultimately the experience has made her stronger.
Despite the setback, Dorien says she enjoyed the process. The fine line between enjoying torturing yourself and taking it too far was a driving factor in wanting to keep going. The feeling of progress gave her motivation to get on that bike every day and cover the necessary kilometers. She sees the Steppenwolf as a learning opportunity to apply to the next event. In the near future she will begin to prepare for a triathlon and then possibly take on another gravel ultra.