One hour of sleep, hallucinations, and the Thursday Murder Club - how Cynthia Frazier conquered the Across Andes ultra-race
What does it take to be the fastest woman to complete a 1000km ultra-race?
The air was still warm despite the warm Chilean sun having set, and only the sound of gravel crunching under the tyres can be heard. The taste of salt and dirt after a long day on the tracks sits on the tongue. Eyes heavy, keeping sleep at bay. But it’s too much. Ten kilometres from the Across Andes finish line Cynthia Frazier pulls over, slumps on the floor, and sets her alarm for four minutes, just enough sleep to give her the power to get back to base camp.
Sleep deprivation is key when you are in a 1,000km-long gravel race across the Andes, and one that Frazier has mastered. In a record-breaking 68 hours and 40 minutes she took to complete the race, she had one hour of sleep. But that is what it takes to be the first woman to cross the finish line in a gruelling ultra-cycling race.
“Towards the end I was seeing Christmas nutcrackers in my peripheral vision,” Frazier says. “Every time I would look to my right or left, they were there. It was wild, and very bizarre, but I had heard of people hallucinating during ultras, however, this was my first time experiencing it.
“I crossed the finish line at 1:30am after having tackled a huge climb and very technical descent in the dark. There was 10 other people there who cheered me over the line, handed me a beer and a big bowl of pasta. I was so happy to be there.”
Not many people would be daring enough to sign up to a race of this length but Frazier says modestly her race was “nothing crazy, but it's crazy how much happens in that space of time when not sleeping.”
Being pushed to your limits, it’s not just the body that is being tested but the mind. When you are in the middle of Chile's Araucania region, enduring hundreds of miles with only yourself to rely on, the smallest of hiccups can make or break your emotions.
“I needed actual food, not just gels or bars,” Frazier says. “It was Sunday night in this small town, so it was hard to find anything that was really open that served food. I finally found a pizza place where I ordered pizza and french fries. They took forever. I was there for at least 20 to 25 minutes, which was a huge bummer because I had worked super hard to get an advantage to that point. It was only after that amount of time I realised they did not get my pizza order, and I was just ordering french fries.
Read more: The lure, the training, and the hardship of the Transcontinental Race
“I finally got them, and I just stuffed them into my bag and left because I was furious over the time I had lost. I had [phone] service for two minutes, so I called my husband for some words of encouragement. It was definitely one of the lowest points of the race because I felt I had failed in my aim of trying to improve my time at checkpoints, and this was only the first one.
“I didn’t even end up eating the french fries. They sat in my bag for 12 hours and then I only ate half of them.”
Whether it’s a half box of cold french fries, electrolyte gels, bananas, three litres of coke, or a family-sized bag of Doritos, Frazier has found that being able to resupply and eat actual food is essential for her mind and body. Oh, and listening to Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club audiobook when times are really testing.
“It's so much easier to ride through the day without having to use tactics that distract your mind. You can take in the beautiful landscape around you and all the cool experiences such as riding on a black sand beach and cycling around a volcano,” Frazier says.
“It's the nights that are the hardest mentally for me. You can't see anything, it gets colder, and fatigue begins in creep into your body. I am always on the lookout for nice looking bus stops where I can have a quick nap but during the night, when there is nothing but a gravel track ahead, that can be hard. That is when I will use the audiobook – during those real low spots.”
Night and day Frazier rode to make it to the finish line. Despite being a woman, alone in a country that is unfamiliar to her, she felt completely safe. “The Chilean people are so kind,” she says. “They would literally give you the shirt off their back.
“I found a crack in my 3T bike just before starting the race – someone had backed into it with their car. Basically, I needed to get a new frame within 24 hours, and we worked with some people from Chile and my sponsor 3T, who was able to get a frame from a distributor in Santiago. Then another bike shop put the bottom bracket on, and somebody else flew with it to the race the next day and put it together at the bike shop where the race was starting. Every single person went out of their way to help me so I could get my bike fixed ahead of the start, and that’s just the way the Chileans are.
“People were so kind and willing to help during my whole trip in Chile. Not once did I feel unsafe, despite being a foreigner.”
Even with a stressful 24 hours, Frazier felt no nerves when faced head-on with this monumental distance. “When I get to the start line, it is actually really peaceful. You spend so much time preparing. Getting your bike ready, getting your body ready, getting your mind ready, you’re learning about the route, it’s just non-stop. Then when you finally get there, there’s nothing else to prepare other than just ride.”
Frazier is not new to the ultra-gravel scene. She is one of nine racers that make up Velocio’s Exploro elite women’s gravel team and has suffered several brutal distances over the past year. So far, she’s completed Badland's and Unbound XL, as well as some local ultras in her home region of Virginia in America.
Read more: In the Spanish Badland's with Fernewee
In terms of preparing for each race, she has kept the ball rolling – as one race ends, the preparation for the next begins. From her previous experience, she now knows what she’s carrying on her bike, how long her headlamp will last on which setting, and how many batteries to bring for how many days. Preparation for Frazier is now learning the routes and the training itself, rather than preparation of her kit.
There has been a rise in women's cycling over the past few years, and despite the ultra-gravel scene only just starting to gain traction with a wider audience, the number of women signing up for these events has been continually growing. Women made up 20% of the start line at the Across Andes race, a first for this event.
“I was speechless,” says Frazier. “That is unheard of for an ultra race. Most of the racers were from Santiago, and their culture is very close-knit, so one person signs up, then says to another and they sign up. I think that is why there were so many women, but there were also five women who had travelled from around the world, and that is significant.”
Not only was Frazier the first woman across the finish line, but she also beat the 2021 women's and men’s time by over 14 hours. On the second day of the race, she knew she was in the lead by 60km for the women’s race, but did not know her enormous lead from the previous year's records.
“The 2022 course was the same, but I think there was more competition this year which pushed everyone. But I was so excited to know that I had beaten the men’s record. I have brothers, and I’ve always been competitive with them, but to know I had beat the women’s and men’s time was really special for me.”
Confessing that she wanted a time of 60 hours or less, Frazier reflects on where she could have cut back time if it wasn't for the many cultural experiences she was getting to enjoy.
One thing about taking part in an ultra race is being immersed in a completely new culture and being able to see a new country without being your typical tourist. Frazier notes not being able to leave checkpoint three where she was hosted by an indigenous tribe who baked fresh bread. “I was the first woman there, so they all wanted a picture with me and then we just sat around the fire eating bread,” says Frazier. “It was such a cool experience, and I probably spent longer there than I should have, but you’ll never get to experience that anywhere else and that's the unique thing about events like this.”
In the face of sleep deprivation, hallucinations, bus shelter naps, and old french fries, Frazier is not a person who accepts this as her limit. Always on the lookout for new adventures, she has signed up for the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco next year – a self-supporting 1300km mountain bike race.
It’s not just her love for pushing the boundaries that keeps Frazier hungry for more, but it's the community that keeps her coming back. “I feel like you have to be a little bit crazy or insane to do these races, so I feel at home with these people.”