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Breaking the Limits: From Zero to Conquering an Ultra Cycling Event in 3 Months

By Megan Flottorp

If you’re a casual cyclist who has ever wondered whether or not you have what it takes to tackle an endurance event, you’ll love the wild story of Dawn Barnable. From a complete newbie to an ultra-cyclist in just over three months, her story reminds us all that anything is possible with hard work, determination, and a lot of pedal power.

Dawn’s journey started like many of ours. She had ridden a bike growing up and enjoyed cycling for various commuting and leisure pursuits. It wasn’t until being inspired by a friend’s endurance accomplishment, though, that she set herself the goal of completing the Transcontinental—an annual, self-supported, ultra-distance cycling race across Europe. It is one of the world’s toughest ultra-endurance races, with distances between 3,200 and 4,200 km.

Despite being athletic, Dawn had never cycled seriously before. Nevertheless, she decided that what she lacked in experience, she would make up for in determination.

So as we all get geared up for a full summer of riding ahead, we were delighted to have the chance to chat with her about finding inspiration for a big challenge, how to push through the tough times, and the advice she has for the ultra-distance-curious.

Thanks for joining us, Dawn! So, for starters, you must explain to readers what made you go from not owning a bike to doing a 3000 km race.

Haha, well, basically, my friend Chris had just returned from an endurance event, and I was so blown away by how excited and jubilant he seemed. It completely sparked my interest. It is hard to explain; initially, you can’t really comprehend what an endurance race entails. I could just see that my friend was so joyful and on a total high.

I wanted to experience that for myself, and started considering whether or not it might be the big physical challenge I had been looking for. I have always been sporty but had never really pushed myself like that, and I knew I was capable of more.

So, one night when we were all at a BBQ, I asked him if he thought I could do something like that. He didn’t hesitate and said, “Of course, you could. If you trained.” That was basically all the reassurance I needed. Ok, I thought, I am going to do this. I decided to complete the Transcontinental in 2018, and that is where my story with cycling really gets started.

Dawn Barnable
Dawn at the Bikingman Taiwan. © Bikingman – David Styv

That’s pretty wild, and although our readers already know that your mission was successful, I’d like to delve deeper into your training structure. Can you tell us more about how you structured your training and how you kept yourself motivated during the process?

Well, considering that I did not even have a bike at the time, it started slow. I was slacking about getting a bike and a coach. Eventually, though, I signed up for a shorter race (1000 km), and that is how things took off.

Once I got into it, my training structure was straightforward and guided mainly by my belief that, when forced to do something, I know I can rise to the occasion. I started with shorter rides and gradually increased my distance as I got stronger and more confident on the bike. I would tell myself that if I could do 50 miles, I could do 70, and if I could do 100, I could do 200, etc. I just kept pushing myself to go further.

As for motivation, it’s essential to have a goal in mind and to break it down into smaller, achievable milestones. For me, my goal was to complete the Transcontinental Race, but I came to realise that I couldn’t just jump into it without any experience. So, I signed up for shorter races along the way, like the Biking Man Oman 1000 km, which gave me the confidence I needed—mentally and physically.

Of course, having a support system was also crucial. My friend Chris was always there to support me and was super patient in answering my one million questions. And during the races, the interactions with other riders were largely positive and kept me going.


You mentioned that completing your first race was a humbling experience. What challenges did you face along the way, and how did you overcome them?

Oh, there were many challenges! In the beginning, I didn’t even have a bike computer and was not used to being clipped in, so I had some embarrassing instances like falling on my side trying to unclip, etc.

Looking back, it is pretty crazy. I have since completed other events and faced way more demanding conditions—like riding solo through remote sections of the jungle in Rwanda at 3 am and feeling like the last woman in the universe, haha. But in those moments, it was the same feeling I had when walking up the gravel section at my first race; I kept moving forward and relied on my desire to reach my goal.

As cliche as it sounds, the most important thing is to believe in yourself and stay mindful of why you are there. Of course, I also had to learn to embrace the discomfort and push through the pain. Cycling is not easy, but I knew that the feeling of accomplishment at the end would be worth it. And it always was.

You have completed several races now. What is it that keeps you coming back to cycling?

As I said, I was always athletic and had dabbled in different sports, but something about cycling just spoke to me. The solitude satisfies my introverted side, and I love the feeling of freedom and independence. On training rides, I savour the time alone. Cycling is like meditation for me, and the quiet solitude of the long rides allows me to clear my mind and focus on the present moment. It has also helped me build confidence. I trust that I can break things down and figure out what I’m afraid of and what could go wrong. I have become a lot more self-reliant.

That sounds very empowering! You must feel unstoppable on two wheels these days. Have you ever dealt with people trying to intimidate you or shake your confidence?

There have definitely been people who’ve tried to intimidate me, especially as a woman. You need to have the confidence to ignore them. I would tell myself that I am just going to go out and have fun and not let others’ negativity impact me.

However, I should also say that the endurance cycling community is some of the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met. I’ve found my tribe and feel in good company focusing on distance and adventures. Everyone has different objectives, and that is ok.

It’s about finding what you’re passionate about and enjoying it. I also really love endurance events because it is about the journey and the accomplishment rather than winning. There is no podium at the end, and there is as much respect for those at the back of the pack as at the pointy end.

Love it. Thanks so much for your time, Dawn! To conclude, do you have any final advice for someone considering taking on an endurance race?

My advice would be to start small and build up gradually. As in, believe in yourself but don’t be reckless. Make sure you’re mentally and physically ready for whatever might happen during the race. Being able to take care of yourself is super important. Remember to plan your route carefully and have a backup plan, just in case. You never know what kind of surprises might pop up, so it’s good to prepare yourself by reading about other people’s experiences and ensuring you are familiar with basic mechanics. Because, at the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to figure things out on your own.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice, and find a supportive community of riders who can encourage and inspire you. Enjoy having the beginner’s mindset and be open to new experiences. Finally, know that luck does play a role, and anything can happen during a race. Just focus on finding your style, and your people, and enjoying the journey.

If you want to learn more about how Dawn continues to explore the world of ultra cycling, check out her podcast The Mettleset. Joined by her co-host, Afshan Ahmed, the pair talk with weekly by guests who range from record- and boundary–breaking athletes, world-class explorers, community sports leaders and pro athletes at every stage of their career.