In part 1 of this guide to endurance events we looked at the types of events that were available. In part 2 we look at how to approach an event to get the most out of it – what do you need to do in terms of training and preparation? Well ideally of course you will have started your training around five years ago, riding hundreds of miles a week to build basic stamina. After a winter in the sun at altitude you will be carrying no spare fat and will now be decamping to the UK with your mechanic, physio, nutritionist and manager to sweep away all-comers in endurance events up and down the country. Alternatively, you already know that its far too late for all that and your biggest worry might be whether you’ve got enough pairs of cycling shorts for a change before every leg at Red Bull next week. If you fall into the first category then we can’t help you – but we don’t think you do.
In the words of Dirty Harry “A man’s gotta know his limitations” and the best way to do that is to get in some practice rides over the distances, or maybe more importantly the length of time that you are going to have to race for. Doing a quick first lap or first hour is of no comfort 6, 12 or even 24 hours later when you have totally blown it and just can’t summon the energy to push the pedals any more. If you have been out and ridden to exhaustion, felt what its like to bonk and learned to recognise the signs that cramp is coming on, you will be able to manage your ride much better during events. Alternatively if you’ve never felt any of those things then you probably think that it’s the taking part that counts.
So first of all, get out there and ride, you’ve still got time to get a six hour ride in this weekend before Red Bull. And if the weather is shit… do it anyway. And while you are out there, just imagine all of the other competitors who aren’t. And if you feel a bit miserable, just be thankful that you aren’t training to do a really hard race…
Earlier this year, Andy Heading won the Iditabike Impossible, 1100 miles up the Iditarod sled trail in Alaska. It took him 26 days. Before he entered the big one, he had already done the ‘short’ 350 mile version of the race. With that experience he knew that he would have to do some serious training, not just to get fit, but to get used to the discomfort, the equipment, and to learn to pace himself for a long, long ride.
Along with riding partner, multiple Polaris winner Alan Sheldon, Andy did an overnight 180 mile ride every other weekend last winter. Leaving at about 10 pm they would ride 95 miles from Matlock to a relative’s house on the East coast. After a quick breakfast they’d head back. Because they were trying to simulate the discomfort of the real event, with the need to eat regularly, they stopped on the way (regardless of weather) to make a cup of tea. Andy also tried to acclimatise himself to periods of little sleep by going out and doing all night hikes on weekday evenings, sleeping outdoors for a couple of hours and then going to work as normal! Come the event he found that in many respects he had already suffered worse conditions on some of his Peak District rides, because of the wet, than he did in Alaska. Based on his experience, his advice to any endurance competitor would be to try and simulate as near as possible the kind of effort that will be required for the event.
OK, so lets just imagine that you’ve gone out there to do that 6 hour ride and found that after 3 hours you were knackered (it could happen!). Now you know your limitations and maybe you’re a little disappointed. That’s no reason to psyche yourself out, or let yourself be psyched out by the opposition – you have acquired some valuable information and you can use it to achieve a better performance on the day than you would do otherwise.
Before an event (even a non-competitive one) we all look around at the other competitors for those tell tale signs: shaved legs, matching kit, muscles with some definition, esoteric kit (new esoteric kit rather than a Kirk Revolution). These are all potential indicators that they might be better riders than us. In the racing world the pecking order is probably easier to establish, but in endurance events normal rules do not apply. OK, so Elite category racers are still likely to do pretty well in an endurance event (unless, possibly, it includes navigation), but in the middle orders all bets are off. Many of these people do not know how hard they can push themselves over a long distance. Armed with the knowledge of what you can reasonably achieve you have an advantage if you use that information to pace yourself.
If ever there was a time to race your own race then the endurance race is it. The normal sports rider ‘go flat out till your lungs collapse then hang on’ approach just won’t work when you’ve got to hang on for another 4 or 5 hours. In endurance racing there is no room for pride. When you are overhauled by some bearded gent in plus-fours, on an AlpineStars e-stay do not try to chase him down if there is still over half the race to go and you are already feeling tired. Maybe he is putting on a show and will shortly buckle… or maybe he won’t. Either way, try and ride your own race.
Of course that might be easier said than done and even the experts don’t always judge it right. Aiden Leheup, again with Alan Sheldon, took part in the 8 day Transalp stage race last year, coming 6th overall in the Masters. Aiden said that despite their best intentions of pacing themselves over the week, once the race started their competitive instincts got the better of them. For the first five days he felt strong but then the race started to take its toll leaving him feeling that he was simply hanging on. Of course they still did pretty well and being an early finisher each day had advantages, like getting them nearer to the front of the food queue. But even so, a slightly lower pace early on might have paid off later.
Well we’ve gone on about pre-event training and pacing for long enough. In the best tradition of all those women’s lifestyle mags we’ve covered ‘how to make a difference in two weeks’ and ‘how to make a difference in one week’, so lets get onto ‘how to make a difference in two days’.
First of all, in two days you’ve got time to make sure that you are hydrated and that (straining at the limits of our knowledge of human biology here) you have as much of the limited availability muscle glycogen that you need for high intensity exercise available as possible. Because even in an evenly paced endurance event, those high intensity overtaking manoeuvres and little bursts of energy whenever you are in sight of the spectators will deplete valuable reserves. So with two or three days to go, cut down on exercise and eat lots of carbs (past, rice, spuds etc.) whilst also cutting down on fat. Munch a few energy bars and the odd malt loaf between meals just to make sure that you are loading up on carbs and drink plenty water too. All of this is pretty standard advice but it works. If you want an explanation of how it works then you could do worse than to look at The Competitive Runner’s Handbook by Bob & Shelly-Lynn Florence Glover (you guessed it – they’re American). The book is aimed at long distance runners, but a lot of the advice is good for endurance riders too.
As we’re talking food, drinking sports drinks, or eating energy gels is good during the event (and just before) as they boost blood sugar and stop you from losing it mentally as well as physically. But in really long events there is nothing quite like real food, which apart from anything else keeps your moral up. Jam sandwiches are great, or for a savoury kick to how about Marmite. Just don’t start eating hard to digest stuff like cheese and meat, and don’t try using energy foods for the first time on the day of the race. Some people don’t get on with different energy foods and drinks, so make sure the one you plan to use doesn’t make you gag before you line up at the start.
Finally, having covered training, mental approach and food, the only thing left in our sphere of influence is equipment. Nicki Davies has won both Womens and Mixed categories in Polaris, has placed highly in Transalp and has taken part in multi-day adventure races such as the Southern Traverse in New Zealand and Adrenalin Rush in Ireland, which her team won after 86 hours of almost non stop activity. Whilst she is fantastically strong physically, she really emphasises the importance, prior to an event, of making sure that all of her gear works. She also arrives in plenty time to go through any sign on procedures and to find out what is going on in terms of start times, course layout etc. Finally she was also happy to point out that there is evidence to show that women are actually better suited to ultra endurance events than men, but I guess those of us who aren’t women will just have to live with that handicap.