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Less than a week ago Juliana Buhring found herself in the remote Australian outback on her bike, struggling to breathe, her heart racing and her body puffing up. An alarmingly severe allergic reaction forced her to pull the pin on her dash across Australia in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race and to head back to Perth for medical help. For most people that is where the story would end. But Buhring isn’t most people.
She didn’t become the first woman to set a record for circumnavigating the globe by bike and the first woman to complete the Trans Am and Transcontinental by giving up when things go wrong. So why would she start now?
At 6am on Sunday morning, Buhring lined up at the start point of the 5,500 kilometre ultra-endurance race, a lighthouse in Fremantle, Western Australia to start the Indian Pacific Wheel Race for the second time. Eight days earlier she had lined up with 70 other racers; this time she was the only one setting out. That doesn’t mean Buhring won’t push herself to the edge of endurance to get to the finish as fast as she can; it will just be a race against the clock instead.
Before Buhring set out we spoke to her to find out what drives her to always find a way to keep going.
Even before the start of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, Buhring was following a rough path to the Australian ultra-endurance challenge. Less than three weeks before it kicked off she was in hospital getting six stitches in a big gash on her knee, which of course meant some time off the bike. That, however, was a quickly dismissed obstacle rather than a road block.
The rider who lives in Naples, Italy had raced the first Transcontinental Race across Europe in 2013 and the first Trans Am, which crosses America, in 2014 so she wasn’t about to miss out on riding the first Indian Pacific Wheel Race as well. She just made sure she packed some pain killers to keep the inflammation down and pain at bay.
Buhring lined up at the start of 5,500 kilometre race across Australia, ready to face the challenge as one of eight women in the field of 70 and one of the leading overall contenders. The 35-year-old knew better than most what she was in for, having ridden across Australia when she set her world record in 2012, and was bracing herself for the mentally sapping long stretches of remote outback roads.
“This race, of course physically it’s very gruelling, but it’s also mentally tough because you do have a lot of just desert and nothing to keep your brain going during those times,” Buhring told Ella CyclingTips. “When there’s not a lot to see and you’re suffering a lot and you are under the sun and what you’ve got ahead is just this endless flat road through a desert – that’s a real big challenge.”
But the challenge is the appeal and overcoming obstacles is what Buhring is so good at – after all, she has had more than her fair share of practice. Buhring grew up in the religious cult, The Children of God, was shuffled around the world, split from her family and lived as an ostracised independent thinker amongst a group where compliance was not negotiable.
Right from the start her cycling journey was also filled with hurdles. She threw herself into life, after the death of a man she loved, by chasing the world record for circumnavigating the globe by bike even though she had little cycling history. There were numerous hurdles during her world record attempt in 2012 – right from learning how to become a reasonable cyclist to last-minute rule changes, crashes and food poisoning. There have been plenty of setbacks in other races along the way, too.
“Well I’m so used to everything going wrong for me. I was kind of wondering when and what it would be this time … its the story of all my rides,” Buhring said, with a tone of acceptance rather than exasperation in her voice.
More often than not, she’ll find a way to get around the difficulties. Endurance racing is just one of those sports where your performance seems to be determined not by whether or not things go wrong, but how well you cope with them when they inevitably do. The top ultra-endurance riders are notorious for continuing on through minor injuries and unrelenting pain. Though, sometimes continuing on just isn’t an option and the Indy Pac, it turned out, would deliver one of those times for Buhring.
“I was completely blown up”
The trouble started on the second day as Buhring was heading into Norseman, 780km into the race. She pulled into the hospital to check on what was wrong and when the tests delivered a result of an irregular heartbeat and blood in her pee, it was nothing she considered too far out of the ordinary. She has a heart arrhythmia and thought the blood was likely from saddle sores.
So she continued on, but things got worse as she rode along one of the longest straight roads in the world through the Australian desert to the outback roadhouse of Caiguna, which was 1,150 kilometres into the race.
“By the time I got near Caiguna, I was completely blown up – my hands, my feet, my head – and it really, really felt like someone was pumping my head up like a hot air balloon. My skin was burning, I had a fever and I couldn’t breathe,” said Buhring. “I didn’t understand what it was, but I thought something was very seriously wrong so I’m going to stop here for the night then I woke up in the morning and it was even worse.”
It was then that she had a thought about what the culprit could be. She’d started taking the painkiller she’d been given for her knee after the second day, and had regularly been taking doses since. This felt much like the reaction she had when she found she was allergic to Ibuprofen, so the question was, could there be something in the pain-killers that was the problem?
Buhring was soon on the phone to her doctor, and it seemed the tablets were indeed the culprit so she arranged for the appropriate medication to be brought out to her and before long was feeling the relief of recovery.
So what now?
With her plans for a fast dash across Australia now in tatters Buhring had a decision to make. Ultra-endurance athletes are notorious for their propensity to push their body beyond the point where others would stop. After all, in the type of racing where saddle sores on saddle sores are normal, knee pain is just something to be managed and swelling is par for the course. But there is a point where it goes beyond short-term pain management to jeopardising long-term health.
“When I could no longer breathe and my heart was racing too fast and I just physically was blowing out my body was blowing up and then I was like now it’s like either you want to kill yourself or you want to stop and find out what’s wrong,” said Buhring. “You’re always going to suffer but you can tell when you’re actually killing yourself compared to when you’ve just got pain you can work through.”
Buhring made the decision to get a lift back to Perth, hitching a ride in the normally dreaded road train, to get a comprehensive round of medical tests to see that she hadn’t done any damage and start again.
In theory when she was ready to restart she could have got a lift back to the point where she left the route but then her recovery time would be added into her total race time.
“I came to make a really good time so if I start from where I stopped I may as well cycle tour it,” said Buhring. “By the time I get to the finish line it would have been around 20 days and I could have done that relaxed, so what’s that point?,” asked Buhring. “I want to do it right and I want to know that I’ve done the absolute best and fastest time I can so I’m coming back to start again and I’m going to time-trial it.”
‘It really felt like I was on a treadmill’
Starting again – with the all-clear from her medical tests and no painkillers to ease her knee problems this time – does give Buhring a shot at a good time but it also carries one big disadvantage. Buhring is going to have to do that first 1,100 kilometres all over again, and those 1,100km contain one of the nastiest, most demoralising stretches of road in the entire race: the nearly 150 kilometre straight stretch of road across the Nullarbor, where there is pretty much nothing to see except desert and the seemingly never-ending dead-straight road disappearing off into the horizon.
“It just feels like it’s never going to end. If you are doing it into a head wind it really is the most depressing thing you can do,” she said. “Last time it really felt like I was just on a treadmill and I was never going to get out. I was feeling so ill when I did it too, so that was even worse, but maybe it’ll be better this time.”
She’ll soon find out as she has now ridden over 700 kilometres in 30 hours and is rapidly approaching that dreaded section of road. It’s time like these that Buhring uses some of the mental tricks she has accumulated over the years to distract herself, which revolve around trying to distract herself by focussing her mind elsewhere.
“I do that either through listening to an audiobook or I just put myself in different times and places, or in different memories … I get interesting ideas along the way or I think about good times I’ve had or what I’m going to do when I get to the next town,” said Buhring. “You find ways to distract yourself.”
And working out how to overcome these challenges and exactly what the body and mind is capable of overcoming is exactly what keeps Buhring coming back.
As Buhring heads into the outback again, the leaders of the race are passing through Melbourne, nearly 4,000 kilometres into their journey and just a few days from the end.
The rest of the field is strung out right across the country with some still working their way across the Nullabor, so she is bound to catch many of the riders that she initially started with eight days earlier. For many entrants to this race, it’s the first of its kind they have ever done as there hasn’t been a race like this across Australia before. Finishing in itself is a huge challenge.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the field, said Buhring, a big part of the appeal of endurance racing is pushing limits.
“There’s just the fascination with how far you can go physically and mentally and what we’re capable of,” Buhring said. “I think the more you push yourself, the more you want to push.
“It’s a curiosity about human limitation, or lack of any, and a mind-body connection … what it means to keep going when everything tells you to stop,” said Buhring. “When you push past that point you realise that actually we have this endless capability.”
Update: A rough start to the restart
Since we published the original article Buhring has had a few more challenges on the road. She flew through the first 1,000 kilometres in 48 hours but then things started to go wrong. The punctures kept coming, so much so that she ran out of tubes and when she tried to repair those tubes her patches kept failing.
Unfortunately this happened on the remote roads of Western Australia, where you can go over 100 kilometres without seeing any signs of civilisation, let alone a bike shop. So Buhring had to try and innovate to keep rolling along with what was at hand; so towels in the tyres it was.
That wasn’t great, but she limped into Caiguna, the place where she had to pull out last time. She ran into a chap at the bar who remembered her from the week before and when she told him the tale of her misadventures he came up with another solution. Foam in the tyres.
Not a stellar success either, but again it got her a bit further down the road until she managed to get some tubes, with the help of some trail angels. Looks like cyclists and truck drivers can get along.
Now she is back on the road, moving along at a good pace on her fourth day of riding, with over 1,400 kilometres down at the time this update was written.
To follow the Indy Pac in real-time, visit the live-tracking website MAProgress. To catch up on the many incredible stories coming out of the Indy Pac, be sure to follow the hashtag #IPWR on social media.