Words: Annie Ford
Photography: Callum Wood

A World Record: the pursuit of something you’re not even sure is possible. An opportunity to push your ability and ambition to the outer limit.

It started with a ridiculously pedally summer. After riding the length of New Zealand, towing a surfboard, my newfound fitness led me to climb over 10k vert – accidentally becoming the first woman to do so on an enduro bike. It was a summer of deleting limiting beliefs and digging deep. But I’m a downhiller at heart, and there was one last thing I had my eye on before the end of the season: take the same trusty bike – my Santa Cruz Nomad – and attempt to break a Downhill World Record.

After a little research, I learnt there was no Women’s World Record for vertical descending in 24 hours, only a men’s record. The minimum requirement to set the women’s record was 30,000 metres, or eight Aoraki/ Mount Cook’s. The Men’s World Record, held by two Germans in Schladming, stood at a mammoth 40,840 metres, or 10 Aoraki/Mount Cook’s. I felt sorry for my enduro bike already.

First hurdle: where? Nowhere in New Zealand – or Aussie – can you descend vertical metres as quickly (or as enjoyably) as you can at Coronet Peak. And it’s right in my backyard. Exposed, rough and – best of all – steep, the National Coronet DH Track was my lap of choice: four minutes up, four minutes down, with 419 metres vert gained each time. To set the women’s record, I’d need to do 72 laps.

I began mentally preparing for the sheer repetitiveness and volume of laps. What would it even feel like? No one knew. Ahh well, I guess that’s the whole concept behind a world record.

Second hurdle: the Nomad. I was about to do a season’s worth of riding in a single day. My poor, poor baby… Ben and KC from Vertigo Bikes came to the rescue. We replaced my handlebars with ultra-compliant carbon Title MTB bars, slid on RevGrips and installed Axxios vibration reduction. My SRAM/ RockShox setup was still mint and only needed a service. We rebuilt the wheels, threw on new tyres, and made everything super soft.

Third hurdle: sickness. How’s this for timing – two days before the attempt, I woke up unable to move. I was rolled by the only flu I’d ever had and couldn’t breathe without coughing. I organised the final days by texts rather than phone calls, so people couldn’t hear my voice – and couldn’t tell me not to do it. Sorry mum.

The day rolled in and I was sick as a dog. On the plus side, the weather looked clear for the first 12 hours, with rain forecast to increase. The plan was to kick off at 8pm on the 15th of March, knocking over the night laps while fresh. The Coronet chairlift was sped up to 100% and trucked along at five metres per second – almost too fast to remove our own bikes from the chair in front. The excitement was intense, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I’d never seen a chairlift move so fast. It was bloody happening.

Lap 1 was the most dangerous in my mind, simply because my excitement and energy was borderline ridiculous. “Pace yourself”. Find your lines, settle in. One done. My cheeks already hurt from smiling.

And so, it began. It was some of the most fun riding I’ve ever done. It felt like my mates and I had a private bike park with the speediest chairlift ever – it was ruinously good. The dirt was perfect, a million stars overhead. It didn’t seem real, and we kept looking at each other and bursting out laughing. Time was flying. The cold air attacked my lungs on the chairlift, and my cough became our constant companion. Ascending was harder than descending in those early hours.

For the first 20 laps, I set the pace by leading other riders. I soon learnt that following someone else, however, meant I had to think less. I soon had favourite riders to follow, especially if they showed me smoother lines. It wasn’t long before we could ride that track blindfolded. We knew every rock, every line.

Forty laps in – halfway to the women’s record – fatigue began to wear in. I had my first Red Bull ever, with a coffee chaser. Damn, I could never have foreseen the effect: infinite energy at 3am, a million words a minute. It lasted about five laps before a thick, solid wall was hit. My appetite plummeted, and all food became repulsive. I was on the verge of vomiting each and every time I ate, with food getting shaken up the instant I dropped in. Conversely, I couldn’t afford not to eat, with mandarins and boiled potatoes all I could keep down. Rather than looking for fast lines, I began looking for smooth lines.

Fifty laps in, I began double finger braking and sitting down while descending. Combined, I swear there’s no better feeling in the world. There were no more smooth lines, given I had created my own braking bumps throughout the night. The beginning of arm pump was setting in, an uncomfortable sensation I had sought while training, but never felt. Temperatures dropped, my fingers began to freeze, and braking became more and more difficult. Digging had begun.

A faint red glow lit up the mountain range across the valley, the beginning of an incredible sunrise. I’d just lived the fastest night in history. Those sunrise laps are burnt into my memory forever – a red sky above, lapping with mates in one of the most epic places on the planet. We stopped and stared, but only for a moment.

The Women’s World Record was hit at 9am, 13 hours into the ride, with a growing crowd to celebrate. Wow.

Day broke. The light changed everything; it felt like our laps now were on a different mountain, on a different day, on a different planet. Twelve of 24 hours down already, I started doing my fastest lap times, energised by being able to see, plus the women’s record – 72 laps, 30,000m – was getting close now. I got so excited I started doing features and pulling up for jumps again – a bad idea in hindsight, given every single impact cost me towards the end. The crew that had lapped all night with me needed to go to work, leaving me to continue lapping, alone now. This is how I usually ride, and I smiled to myself on the chairlift, absorbing the absurdity of it all. It gave me a chance to pause, feel. It’s then I realised I couldn’t feel my thumbs anymore. Nerve damage. Hopefully they come back someday.

I watched darkening clouds roll towards us from the south, it was no longer a race against time, but a race against rain. My support crew warned me I was a single lap away from the women’s record, that I was well ahead of time, that I should rest. The threatening rain decided for me – the perfect dirt wasn’t going to last much longer. The risk of injury would skyrocket if it got wet, so I’d only rest when I couldn’t continue riding non-stop.

The Women’s World Record was hit at 9am, 13 hours into the ride, with a growing crowd to celebrate. Wow. Eight Aoraki/Mount Cook’s. A new World Record holder. It wasn’t the plan, but, why not? Time to hunt down the men’s record. To celebrate, the support crew didn’t force me to eat that lap – a genuine and unexpected highlight. I began to realise eating was one of the hardest parts of the attempt.

Rain began to fall. Twenty more laps would break the Men’s World Record. Doable. Within reach. But, with fatigue and increasingly muddy conditions, 20 laps felt like 2000. I couldn’t afford mistakes, because my balance was rapidly deteriorating. I was double finger braking only now and sitting at every opportunity – which wasn’t often. My hands and forearms were noticeably swelling with each lap, their size clearly seen beneath my gloves and jumper. I slowed, could no longer jump, and began gritting my teeth with the pain of every braking bump or G-out. It was then that Brooke and Penny joined me – I harvested their high energy and stoke. More and more tourists joined the fray, filming and encouraging us from the sidelines, which meant even more energy for me to harvest.

The heavens opened with just ten laps to go, and the last few laps were indeed horseshit. No one wins a shootout with wet Coronet. Thick mud coated both my tyres, making balancing through tight switchbacks near impossible. The closer to 100 laps we came, the slower time seemed to go. I had a little tumble on the 98th lap, covering my gloves in cold mud. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for a response to the layover, just picked the bike up, wiped my hands, and carried on. The words “be patient, stay upright” were now on repeat in my head.

At the bottom of the 98th lap, I was told I’d just broken the official World Record. I was exhausted, wet, but grinning; and met with clapping from hardy spectators braving the rain. I felt relief, and impatience. I was solely focused on 100 laps. Nothing else mattered. Arbitrarily and shallowly, ‘98 laps of Coronet’ just doesn’t sound quite as good as 100. Righto, two more then.

Those last two laps were easily the diciest riding I’ve ever done. Every part of me was fatigued, my arms were massively pumped, my goggles were covered in rain, and the trail had become peanut butter. I especially dreaded the rock slab, where poor balance went head-to-head with high consequence features. Despite this, speed increased on the final lap with all pain forgotten, completely trumped by the excitement of finishing. Crazily, it was one of the fastest laps I’d ridden. On the home straight of the 100th lap, I saw the support crew, standing and waiting in the rain, smiles from ear to ear. It was done.

I dropped my bike at their feet and was showered in rain and beer. I had no words. Arms were wrapped around me, with friends and strangers joining in the celebrations. I cannot explain the feeling I had in my chest, the comradery of the crew, the soreness in my body. It’s an experience I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to surpass, but I’ll sure try.

Final figures: 100 laps. 42,085 metres descended. 18 hours and 53 minutes.

I dropped my bike at their feet and was showered in rain and beer. I had no words.

I went out chasing a number, but that turned out to be the least important part. The people, the focus, the beauty, the mind, the body, and the INCREDIBLE support. That’s what’s real.

I honestly cannot articulate my gratitude to those who made it up the mountain with me. I could not have done it without them. They brought fuel to the fire, timely playfulness, and brilliance to this giant ticking clock we call life. I’ll never forget it.

A special shout out to the incredible Coronet Peak team, who supported me every step of the way. To SRAM, Patagonia and Title MTB for getting epic adventures like this off the ground. To Ben Hildred, for your perseverance in getting me to eat, and holding me up physically and mentally when the going got really tough. To the riders, Mateo Verdier, Brooke Thompson, Piyush Chavan, Jess Blewitt, Baxter Maiwald, Brett Rheeder, Penny Rowson, Jake Byrne, Sam Evans and Jamie McKay, who shared the wild ride. To the witnesses, Robert Lyons, Robin Bush, Lena Florey, Iona Bruce and Paul Westbrook, who put in long shifts at ridiculous hours. And to Jonny Ashworth and Callum Wood, whose incredible talents captured the day perfectly.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #110

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