Meet my friend Penny Barker . In 2017, Penny aims to become the fastest British solo female to complete the world’s toughest bike race - Race Across America (RAAM). Penny is by no means a stranger to setting and achieving goals – as a former Management Consultant with EY, a practising Veterinary Surgeon, Marathoner, Triathlete and now extreme cyclist, here she explains the nature of her new goal and her top tips for others who want to achieve their own goals.
In 2011 I watched a documentary on Race Across America (RAAM), considered by many to be the world’s toughest bicycle race. It involves cycling 3,080 miles coast-to-coast across America from Oceanside, California to Annapolis in Maryland. Solo racers have just 12 days to finish. Racers must cross two deserts, traverse three major mountain ranges, and suffer the plains of Kansas, hopefully missing the odd tornado!
Racers falling asleep whilst pedaling, losing the ability to hold their heads up due to neck fatigue and suffering hallucinations as they attempted to reach the finish line. The “Did Not Finish” (DNF) rate for solo cyclists is over 50%. To-date more people have summited Mount Everest than have completed solo RAAM. Wolfgang Fasching, an explorer and racer who has conquered both said “Everest is more dangerous, but RAAM is tougher”. I was hooked. RAAM became a dream and something I wanted to do. The question was “How?” Aside from the training aspect, RAAM is a huge logistical undertaking, since all racers require a support crew with at least two vehicles – all at considerable expense.
At the time of watching the documentary I was far from an endurance cyclist. In fact, in 2010, my racing came to an abrupt halt when I tore the cartilage in my left hip and had to undergo surgery and a long period of rehabilitation. In 2013 I finally turned my dream into a goal by setting a deadline. I decided to complete solo RAAM in 2017 and become the fastest British solo woman to do so. All solo racers have to qualify for RAAM through one of the official qualifying races. I set myself a 3-year plan for RAAM; 2015 Race Around Ireland, 2016 Race Across the West and finally RAAM in 2017.
Having successfully completed Race Across the West in June, my training and preparation for RAAM is well underway. Everyone has different thoughts on how to go about achieving goals, but here are my top tips:
1) Understand your motivation
This is really important, particularly when the going gets tough. You need to understand exactly why you are trying to achieve this goal. Make sure the goal is your own and not something that has been imposed on you by others (a well-meaning “you should do this”) or something you feel obligated to do because everyone else is doing it. Remember it’s never about proving things to other people… if you think that, the only person you are actually trying to prove it to is yourself. Ask yourself:
• How does the thought of achieving it make you feel?
• What will change for you when you achieve the goal?
• How will you feel if you don’t achieve it?
• How bad do you want it? In your darkest moments, this is the question you will be forced to answer
My motivation for RAAM is to have an adventure. I want to see America in a completely different way, challenge myself to my physical and mental limit and see if I have what it takes to finish. While I am raising money for charity along the way, this is an added bonus rather than the primary reason for doing it.
2) Be realistic
Many things are achievable with unlimited time and money, but few of us have this luxury. Be realistic about your current position and where you need to get to and set your goal deadline based on reality. This might need to take in several elements such as fitness, funding and logistics. Depending on your risk appetite, build in some contingency. Whilst a goal that stretches you is good, adding unnecessary stress to ourselves (and potentially our loved ones) doesn’t create an environment that will set you up for success. Take into account current commitments in your life; what would you be willing to give up to create more time or money?
3) Dissect the elephant
There’s an old saying about not trying to eat a whole elephant. I take that one step further and dissect the elephant into very small pieces (maybe it’s the vet in me!) Our team motto is “no stone unturned” and we look at every detail to see how we can make me faster and keep me on the bike for longer. I have different bikes for different terrains, specific hydration and cooling strategies for the desert, a treatment plan to keep my body in shape, a sleep strategy - you name it, we’ve probably considered it! Look at every angle and consider every risk. As well as enabling you to react appropriately when a situation does occur, it also builds confidence.
4) Build a support network
Surround yourself with positive people who understand you and support you. If there are people in your life who are negative about your goal, or your ability to achieve it, then spend less time with them as they will drain your mental energy. It also helps to have support from people who have either achieved what you are trying to do or something similar. My cycling coach is an ultra-runner and triathlete, while my sports therapist is also an ultra-runner. They both understand how mentally and physically exhausting RAAM preparation is. They also know when I need some tough love, a non-judgemental ear or some words of encouragement.
5) Remember to recharge
Whilst pursuit of your goal is important, so is time away from it. For athletes, it is recovery time that allows muscles to adapt and make you stronger, but it’s not just the body that needs time to recover; it’s also the mind. It is all too easy to neglect friends, family and ourselves as we devote all our spare time and energy in pursuit of our goal, whether it be setting up a business or some physical endeavour. Allow yourself to take quality time out to relax, reconnect and recharge both mentally and physically.
6) Keep focused on the goal
Learn from setbacks and then move on. I was horribly disappointed not to complete the Race Around Ireland due to neck injury. I took a few days to mope, eat chocolate digestives and let the reality of the DNF sink in. I then set about learning the relevant lessons with my crew and planning success for Race Across the West (RAW). Having completed RAW we took time to celebrate but are now focused on the final, and hardest, part of the RAAM adventure.
Penny's mission is to inspire others to believe in themselves and achieve their goals. For more information about her please visit her website.