4Islands MTB Croatia: No Pain No Gain?

4Islands MTB Croatia is the fourth cycling stage race I have completed. It all started In 2016 when my husband Ken suggested going to South Africa for a nine-day mountain bike stage race to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We loved it! So we continued the tradition this year–in Croatia! This year’s event was shorter, but it was still quite challenging: 181 miles of riding and 20,177 feet of climbing over five days of racing on 4 different islands. Whew!

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Prologue–No Pain No Gain?

Prologue Video – route details and highlights video. Worth a scroll through for the beautiful scenery!

The race began with a short prologue, which was approximately eight miles and had just under 1000’ of climbing. It was a beautiful and technical course that started on a rock-strewn beach, then headed up into twisting single track with distracting views of the Adriatic sea. Once cresting the top, we descended loose technical downhills, traversed sheep trails, and ended with a sprint on the pavement.

Arriving a couple days before the race, we were able to pre-ride this course. As I headed up one of the steep climbs, I noticed a small sign on the left side of the trail: “No Pain No Gain.” Really? I thought. This saying is everywhere, even halfway around the world in Baška, Croatia. When are we going to move past this way of thinking? Do we need to keep reiterating this philosophy? Do we need to keep ingraining this mantra that encourages people to push through pain into injury?   

A few hours after our prologue pre-ride, we sat down to dinner in our yacht next to a male pairs team from Switzerland. Yes, we stayed in an amazing yacht, which we sailed from island to island each morning prior to our race start. It was such a luxury having all our stuff in one place, sleeping in a real bed, having our own bathroom, and merely going up one short flight of stairs to all our meals. In the other stage races we’ve done, our accommodations were small tents and air mattresses that sometimes leaked. At those events, our morning ritual would include cramming all our stuff into a large, heavy bag and lugging it to the van that would take it to our next location. We’d endure the cold and sometimes rain while eating, and we’d use the porta potties, shower trailers, and group sinks. So, being on a yacht felt a little more luxurious! We may be getting soft, but at 54, at least we’re still out there going for it! Most of the participants in this race were decades younger than us. And, there were surprisingly few women: there were only two female racers on our boat of about 30 people–both of us on mixed pairs teams.

Back to dinner on the yacht! As I turned to greet my fellow diner, I noticed he had a hat on. What did his hat say? You guessed it: “No Pain No Gain.” My first thoughts were, apparently this ideology has permeated Switzerland, too. Why is this saying following me?. . . My husband said seeing the phrase on his hat only hours after our pre-ride must be a sign, or a synchronicity. However, neither on the pre-ride nor during the race did Ken actually see the sign on the side of the trail . . .

On race day morning we lined up in the start chute. For the prologue, you have a designated start time. Each team starts separately, 30 seconds apart. This keeps the riders spaced out on the course, as there would be little room to pass on many of the single track sections. Your starting time for the prologue is based on your estimation of how long it will take you and your partner to ride the course. The riders must stay together or be separated by no more than two minutes. Prologue results are used to divide the teams into smaller groups called “waves” for the longer stages.

As we were lined up on the top of the ramp and were watching the counter click down, I heard the announcers call our team name, “The Pain Free Athlete.” This, naturally, was followed by sarcastic banter among the commentators who said, “There is no such thing!” Once again, the idea of “No Pain No Gain” was reinforced.

Know Pain Know Gain

Jane Fonda popularized the exercise motto “No Pain No Gain” in her 1982 workout videos. Yet, the origin of the phrase dates back to ancient Greek poets and playwrights as early as 750 BC. Even president Benjamin Franklin, writing under his pseudonym “Poor Richard,” wrote, “There are no gains, without pains…” in 1758. (Source: Wikipedia)

Despite the long history of this idea, it was Fonda’s application of these words to exercise that continues to be extolled and printed on signs and hats today. Industry standards and cultural shifts are slow to change. “No Pain No Gain” became popular over 40 years ago. I hope that the next popular trend in fitness, sports, and medicine is the idea of “Know Pain Know Gain.” If we understand and “know” our pain, “gains” will be made in our chronic pain epidemic. This is a focus of research in the field of pain science. By the way, I did pass my courses and received my certificate! I look forward to delving into this material more during my sabbatical and considering how to integrate it into my practice.

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Okay, enough of that. The teacher in me just can’t help myself and likes to include education with every post. Back to the race . . .

Race Stages 1-4

The four stages of the race averaged ~45 miles each with ~5000 feet of climbing. We had two good stages and two challenging stages that alternated every other day. We had challenges on stages 1 and 3 and good rides on stages 2 and 4. 

Stage 1 – Island KRK

Stage 1 – route details and highlights video.

On stage 1, Ken overdid it a bit and ran out of energy near the end. In these races Ken works extra hard because there are times when he is pushing me to keep us together. This is a common tactic in mixed pairs racing. Being excited for our first stage and feeling fresh, it can be hard to gauge your efforts, and he overreached. The heat was also a factor, and he also made a nutritional error (lack of salt) that compounded his bonk (hitting the wall/no energy). As he stood by his bike, I watched his quad muscle spasm. Wow! I attempted pushing him but that was short lived. Once we reached the last aid station, he fueled up and recovered somewhat. However, by the time we crossed the line, we had tumbled from 8th place to somewhere near the back of the pack. 

Stage 2 – Island RAB

Stage 2 – route details and highlights video.

This was our favorite stage! The race started on a ferry boat and ended winding through the narrow streets of Rab, going down stairs, and moving under AND through old church towers. It was amazing!

On the advice of the race sweeper (last rider on course) who is also a local guide, we took a walk through the city after dinner. As we wandered, we stumbled upon the ruins of the St. John the Evangelist 5th century church and monastery. Quite the sight in the moonlight! Walking slowly on foot instead of rolling quickly on wheels gave us a new perspective on the city. We could truly appreciate the soaring bell towers, cannons pointing at the water, tall stone walls, wood doors aged by the sea, and so much more. Onto Cres for stage 3.

Stage 3 – Island CRES

Stage 3 – route details and highlights video.

During this stage, I was the one who had the challenge. Most of the trails/shepard paths we were riding consisted of limestone. This sedimentary rock that’s formed in the ocean can be surprisingly sharp. I referred to it as tire-eating stones upon getting a flat on a long, tricky downhill. It was so disappointing because we were riding strong and I thought I was negotiating the terrain with great skill at high speed.

Since it is hard to notice a flat when you are bouncing down a trail, I didn’t feel the loss of tire pressure until I hit the pavement at the bottom. Upon hitting the smooth surface, the back of my bike swerved around and was hard to control. We pulled over near a house, and Ken quickly went to work trying to repair the tire. The homeowner was out watching the race and seemed quite interested in us, talking and talking, asking questions, taking photos . . . I could just feel Ken’s annoyance with the chatter and the uncooperative tire. Things weren’t looking good. The tire wouldn’t hold much air. He thought maybe I had cracked the rim (where the tire mounts to the wheel), and if that were the case, there’d be nothing he could do to fix it. We thought we might not be able to finish . . .

Fortunately, before we’d left, my excellent mechanic Michael at Bike Fiend in Moab, UT had suggested putting an insert into my tire. Imagine a foam snake encircling my wheel. This would provide some stability and should prevent further damage to the rim. Also fortuitous was the fact that Michael had told me a story shortly before we left about how he had flatted and rode his insert successfully to a race win. This gave me confidence that I could push on to the next aid in about 10 km where there would be mechanics who might be able to help.

We slowly made it to the aid. I had to ride carefully through more rocky terrain. The good news was that I had not damaged the rim! However, I had blown out the stem (the valve where the air goes in) on the tire, which is why it wouldn’t hold air. Nicely, the folks at the aid had a tire and got me rolling. The bad news was the mechanic had mounted the tire in the wrong direction (tires roll optimally one way). In addition, it was probably the most expensive tire I’ve ever purchased. But it was totally worth it – we finished the stage!

Stage 4 – Island Mali Lošinj

Stage 4 – route details and highlights video.

Almost done! After stage 3 we were happy to be on the start line for the last day. This stage was a shorter one but still had some good climbing, including a long 25% grade section. Ouch! I’m happy and still a bit stunned to say that I rode it all! That would have never happened without the encouragement and occasional push from my hubby. Thanks, Ken!

This stage probably had the most riding along boardwalks on the sea and would have been our favorite except for the unrideable, uphill, rocky sections at the end. Such a bummer to finish a beautiful stage race with the worst terrain of all five days. Enough already! By this point, you just want some easy riding to the finish. We finally got it and cruised to the finish to pick up our medals.

Full Race Recap video.

There you have it. Another stage race finished!


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About the Author


Jessica uses an integrative approach to help you overcome chronic pain. She believes in treating the whole person utilizing the biopsychosocial approach to healing. Her offerings include posture therapy, online exercise classes, pain science education, and individual or group wellness coaching. She is certified by the Postural Restoration Institute® (PRI), Egoscue University®, National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Council on Exercise (ACE) and Wellcoaches.