Hard work and hard knocks

Commonwealth Games hopeful Kerry McPhee writes for the Gazette as she counts down to the Glasgow event this summer. She charts the road to the top level and the sacrifices and challenges she’s faced along the way:

So where in the world am I writing this week’s column from?

Well as I write I am currently flying over the Pyrennees, in fact as I head home from Girona. I can’t think of any non-cliché ways of conveying the fact that I feel like I am currently ‘living the proverbial dream’.

From racing two Belgian classics to racing in Banyoles in the Catalan north of Spain to a week of mountain bike camp with Scottish Cycling, pretty cool three-weeks I would say! This week I’m going to reflect a bit on how I got to here as it would be easy to look in from the outside and think - wow she’s lucky jetting off all over the place! It didn’t happen overnight though and took a lot of graft and sacrifice.

I spent the best part of last year travelling to races around the UK, often finishing work on a Friday and driving to southern England and racing feeling completely tired from driving, working and the general stress that comes from racing and travelling on your own.

My results were just OK and not a reflection of my potential but started to improve when my sister Kirsty became my invaluable race support, taking on the driving and pit stop feeds despite having an even less flexible job than mine as a teacher.

Even when she moved to Aberdeen she drove down on a Friday after work to head down to Essex, getting back late on Sunday night to have to go onwards from Stirling to Aberdeen- what a legend! She is undoubtedly my number 1 Fan!

Your body doesn’t distinguish between physical, emotional or mental stress - stress is just stress, so having Kirsty at races helped enormously with keeping me as relaxed and race ready as possible. As an athlete, rest and recovery is crucial in allowing your body to adapt from hard training and is often the bit people get wrong (as I do) and end up going into race carrying a lot of fatigue.

I had no support from Scottish Cycling at this point and was desperately trying to prove that I had what it takes to be a top level cyclist. I didn’t feel I was owed anything by anyone and was happy to put in the hard work and prove that I could graft away at the scrappy end of the sport and work my way up. I’m fairly determined when I get my teeth into something!

I remember the first big European mountain bike race I went to in Switzerland, it was the week before the mountain bike World Championships and all the big names were there including current Olympic and World Champions. I signed myself up to this race knowing I would most likely be put to shame by these immense athletes but also knowing that for me to succeed I had to put myself up against the world’s best.

I firmly believe that winning on a Scottish level is a fantastic achievement but if we’re truly realistic about it, the talent pool is actually quite small and it would be easy to get comfortable on a domestic level. I love winning, but I am not prepared to race races just to win them, I want to race to learn from better athletes, develop myself physically and mentally and continue to put in the building blocks required to become world class.

The Swiss cup race was based in a big arena used for equestrian sports and had a big wide track round the outside. In the inside of the track, all the team vans, buses and tents were set up for all the athletes and I watched them all get looked after by their mechanics and team managers as I sat in the spectator stand filling my water bottles. I travelled on my own to this race and didn’t have anyone in the pits handing me bottles and I had nowhere to leave my stuff whilst I raced.

As the men’s race was underway I headed over to the pits and asked a few people if they would be willing to do my bottles for me, searching for the kindest looking face I could see. I then got myself ready and warmed up only to find a problem with my bike’s free-hub.

Not to worry I thought as I could see the Merida team in the arena with their big tent and thought that as my bike was a Merida they would maybe help me. It was very intimidating walking through the team tents and when I plucked up the courage to ask the mechanic for help he told me he was too busy with his athletes to even look!!

Then came the inevitable tears and the ‘what was I thinking coming out to such a big race’ train of thought as I trudged back to the stands with the spectators! I was able to pull myself together, tell myself I was in the best position with no pressure from a big team and had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain and the free-hub issue wasn’t going to stop me racing, just be a bit of a pain.

In the end the race actually went much better than I could have expected, finishing comfortably in the top 20 and although my phone got nicked out of my pocket whilst I competed, and it felt like everything was going against me before hand, it taught me that you have to put yourself in these uncomfortable positions sometimes if you want to achieve something great and you need to be prepared to put in the hard work and prove you want it and are willing to endure discomfort.

Other challenges have included turning up to a hotel to be told at midnight my room was given away (I slept in the car), booking a hire car for the wrong dates and not having enough money to get another one (nightmare and more tears), getting two-flat tyres on the way to an airport (I somehow made the flight after being rescued by a Spaniard with no English) and getting lost countless times abroad. All funny to look back at but not so funny at the time! Oh and have you ever seen a bike box? They are a nightmare to pack! You take the bike apart and build it again when you arrive at your destination. For some reason pedals and I don’t get on and I have spent many a late evening wrestling with the bike trying to get the pedals off and make the damn thing fit in its box!

Fast forward a few months and both road races in Belgium had a soigneour, physiologist, team manager, team car, team van and a mechanic!! In Banyoles for the mountain bike race, we had a mechanic in the pits with spare wheels and tools, a physiologist handing us our bottles from the second pit, the boss of Scottish Cycling shouting at us to chase down the person in front (hearing the boss man shout at you definitely made me bike harder!!) and the coach shouting even louder!

These aren’t my own personal support (that will come, haha!) but part of the support provided by Scottish Cycling in our preparation for the games. I could never have imagined that I would be in this situation even four-months ago! And I always have someone to remove the pedals for me-bonus!

The mountain bike race in Banyoles called Copa Catalana went well with a solid top 10. I was the second Brit home behind British Champion Lee Craigie.

I thought I would have to make a decision between whether I want to focus on road or mountain bike but feedback from the mountain bike coach is that I am still in the ‘ballpark’ for qualification and the road coach has asked me to race again with four-other potential team-mates in another Dutch race in a month.

So no decision anytime soon and we will see how the next few races pan out. Next stop is Italy on Thursday for a road race, then a mountain bike race in Essex and then Holland!