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Cory Wallace: behind the scenes on his Annapurna 24-hour challenge

The Canadian endurance racer talks about preparation, obstacles, and the difficulty of riding 24 hours solo and unsupported

Cory Wallace Annapurna

Altitude sickness, police checkpoints, 1,700-m descents by headlamp and getting lost in the dark on the final run-in to Benhi—Cory Wallace faced all these challenges during his recent solo, unsupported Annapurna 24-hour challenge. Kona’s endurance rider did end up riding within the 24-hour mark, by a narrow 3 minute margin, but not without a solid serving of excitement. From preparation leading up to the attempt, to how the ride went down, get into all the details of what Wallace is calling “one of the toughest rides [he’s] ever gone on.”

You’ve been overseas for a while now. Your schedule has included racing Yak Attack. What else have you been up to?

This trip started Sept. 26 as I headed to India for the nine-day MTB Himalaya stage races across the Himachal Pradesh. Following this a group of six of us stuck around Northern India for three weeks, hiking, exploring the area, and training at altitude to get ready for the Yak Attack in Nepal. On Oct. 24, I flew to Nepal and headed straight up to the mountain village of Manang at 3,500 m to acclimatize more before the Yak Attack, from Nov. 5-15. Between then and the Annapurna 24-hour challenge, there was a bit of planning to do, some resting from the previous months of traveling and racing, and I started to work on launching a coaching business that I hope to have going by the new year.

“In the last eight hours, I managed to eat three Cliff blocks and one greasy buffalo sausage from a roadside stand.”

This is more than just a record attempt. You’re also riding to raise funds for coaching and equipment support for Nepalese mountain bikers. How did this come about? What’s the plan for that? When does the GoFundMe campaign window close?

The idea for creating a Nepal Cycling Centre to give the local riders a hub to base their training out of in Kathmandu has been floating around for a while. Last year, we came up with this idea to try and ride the Annapurna Circuit in 24 hours and use it to kick off the fundraising for the cycling centre. We were unable to get it off the ground in time so we postponed it till 2017. Unfortunately, the other riders lost interest in the project as the thought of raising enough money for a cycling centre seemed daunting. I was still keen though and figured the fundraising would have to start somewhere, so I made the arrangements to give this project a crack this year. The goal was to raise enough money for one of the turbo trainers for the centre, which would cost around US$1,400. In the end this goal was passed and US$2,200 was raised. The GoFundMe campaign is closed on this one, but the ball is rolling now and we will be working on more projects in the future to keep the momentum going.

You have successfully broke the sub-24 hour mark. Is this a record for the loop? Was there a previous record?

I think most people are smarter and decide to ride the loop in seven to 10 days so they can enjoy the epic scenery. Speed-wise, there have been a couple runners do it right around the three day mark. I’m pretty sure this was the first attempt by someone to do it in under 24 hours.

Were there any standout moments, or parts of the trail? Any more enjoyable moments? Or were you just full-focus from start to finish? Any standout obstacle or moment of doubt along the way?

This record attempt wasn’t pretty by any means. I was estimating it would take 17-18 hours to complete the circuit. Following the start in Besishar at midnight, the first six hours were really cool going through the night with a full moon above. My pace stayed high until the village of Manang at the 90-km mark (9 hours). Going solo and unsupported meant a lot of time was spent stopping for water, buying food and getting permits checked at the police checkpoints. This was a slow process and killed any momentum. By the time I hit the base of the pass at 4,400 m, I was already a couple hours behind schedule and feeling the effects of the altitude. It would’ve been easy to call the 24-hour attempt off here but I decided to push on over the pass before dark. From 5,000 m to the top at 5,416 m, I was the only one on the trail as daylight was fading fast and I still had a epic 1,700-m vertical drop down a steep descent on the backside.

The farther I went up, the worse it got. Feeling nauseated, unable to eat anything, I had a pounding headache and was dizzy enough that anytime I’d try to mount my bike, I’d ride straight off the trail. I clearly had a bit of altitude sickness, which was a surprise as two weeks earlier I had no trouble racing over the pass during the Yak Attack. I guess gaining 4,600 m of elevation over the course of 13 hours was a bit strenuous on the body. Luckily, after a 15-minute break on top of the pass, most of the dizziness went away and I could safely descend down an amazing 12-km piece of singletrack to the village of Muktinath at 3,800 m just as darkness hit. At this point, I had been on the trail for 17 hours, but still had 100 km to go down a very rough jeep track. It was the longest 100 km of my life as the nausea and headache from the pass didn’t go away and my stomach couldn’t handle any more food. In the last eight hours, I managed to eat three Cliff blocks and one greasy buffalo sausage from a roadside stand. To top it off, my front suspension locked itself out coming down the pass, likely due to the huge pressure changes, and a good part of the road down Beni was on a riverbed with multiple options causing me to get lost eight to 10 times. What should’ve taken four hours took more than six and pushed the 24 hour attempt to the brink. The last 20 km, I really had to shut the mind off and turn the legs on to come in under 24 hours at 23:57 minutes.

There seems to be more attention to Nepal, and that region as a mountain biking destination, during the past couple years. You’ve been making the trip for a while now. Have you started seeing any changes with the increase traffic and attention?

Every year, there is more and more mountain bike traffic on the trails here. Nepal is truly a mountain biker’s paradise and every year more trails and routes are being discovered. At the same time, access into these regions is getting easier as more roads are developed as well. The local riders are also getting access to better bikes and their numbers are also skyrocketing. When I first came here in 2014, there was one competitive girl but now there are seven to eight and more are picking up the sport every day, which is exciting.

I know you’re still catching your breath, but what’s next? Any big racing, or other goals for the year?

Next up is a two to three week break from the bike to go trekking up in the Everest region. After that, I’ll start working on the base miles for next year by touring around Nepal. As far as racing goes, I’ll be looking to defend my world 24-hour title in Scotland as well as reclaiming the Canadian marathon title. Other than that, races like BCBR, the Epic Rides series and local classics like the Nimby 50 will hopefully be on the calendar.

Any final comments you’d like to add?

The Yak Attack and the MTB Worldwide organization deserve a lot of credit for all the support and help they have given to the Nepalese cycling scene. They were the backbone to this fundraising project and will no doubt be part of future ideas to help the local cycling scene here.