It was Ian, my good friend and coach, who, at the end of the race described watching me “peel back the mental layers” as I delved deeper and deeper to find the inner strength to finish what turned out to be the most rewarding and intoxicating blend of euphoria, fatigue, disbelief, belief, adrenaline, excitement, despair concentrated into the most intense 31.5 hours of my life.
I am talking about the ‘Race Across The Alps’, a non-stop 525km ride across 14 alpine passes spanning the borders of Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Entry is through demonstrating sufficient endurance event experience, and so 8 months earlier, in November, armed with a clutch of Ironman finishes and a few marathons I obtained a place in the race. As with my entry into Triathlon, where my first race was an Ironman distance event, I wanted my first proper cycle race to be something special. It took several coffees with Ian before we settled on the Race Across the Alps as a suitably ridiculous challenge. Race entry is limited to 50 athletes each year of which 40% never make it to the finish line. This year was no exception with a number of world class and world champion ultra distance athletes dropping out. The odds were hugely stacked against me – just the right sort of challenge then!
As a participant in long distance triathlon, where the bike leg is 112 miles, one can be lulled into the false sense of security of thinking you are a cyclist. But it only takes a few rides with proper cyclists to realize that there is a lot to learn. And so began 8 months of training to prepare me for the challenge.
Working in the field of behavioural change and group work that I do and having worked with companies around the world at all levels I thought I had witnessed the best of what team work had to offer in some of outstanding groups of people I have had the honour to work with. But the bar was raised by those who got me through this race. The unsung hero is Helene, my wife, who maintained the ‘business as usual’ home life whilst I would head out for a night ride when most people were contemplating their second glass of wine on a Friday evening, me returning just in time for breakfast; or coped with juggling Chlöe’s dance lessons Brownie events and sleepovers whilst I did 9, 10 and 12 hour back to back rides on a Saturday and Sunday. Without this support, getting to the start line was never an option let alone getting to the finish. With it, anything was and is possible.
But this is about the race not the training. The heroes of the moment were my support crew of Ian Mayhew, Nigel Harrison and Jeremy Whittaker. I would love to claim I brought my team building and facilitation skills to bear, or, I used the experience of managing a business to get the best from the team. It would be a lie. These three were self motivated, focused on success and very well prepared. Everything they did was oriented around me – this clear, and direct focus dispatched any potential issue between them as irrelevant in terms of the end goal. The outcome of this was a team spirit filled with humour, zest and zeal and devoid of argument.
As a team I expected we would have all the maps sorted and the nutrition and hydration organized in the car; knowing which bits of kit would be needed when; practicing handing over food and drink and carrying out running repairs. This was my ideal. As it turned out it was greatly exceeded. What I hadn’t anticipated from the crew, was in the latter stages of the race, having suffered problems holding down food and drink and my body aching with 24 hours of fatigue that they would take it in turns to run next to me up the passes, encouraging me in the relentless effort of grinding the pedals around and around for hour after hour. Nigel was doing this in at least 28oC in jeans and fashion trainers – but he insisted on taking his turn. Or when having descended from the top of a mountain pass into sub zero wind chill that brought me to a grinding halt, shivering so hard I couldn’t hold my bike in a straight line, they smothered me with warmth, brewed coffee to restore feeling and once more encouraged me on my way; or when they gently and kindly helped me back onto the bike when with eyes closing whilst riding I had to stop for five minutes to get it together again. To have experienced three people so selflessly focused on the success of someone else purely on altruistic grounds was humbling. It is an experience that will live with me for ever more. They cannot even begin to know the power of their effect on me. It was ineffable. Gentlemen, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I struggle to comprehend or come to terms with the generosity of spirit that had Paul Wharton and Andy Cauldwell call me at three in the morning , encouraging me on, with them knowing this would be a low point. Or had John and Tom, my stepsons and others sending text messages in a similar vein. The sound of friendly voices interrupting the music on my phone was reinvigorating and energizing. Whilst a few people called me direct, so many more called the support team for updates, or to update the team on other people’s times to help them work what how best to support me. I am struggling to come to terms with such generosity of spirit and what we had done to deserve it. I remain at a loss for words to describe the impact it has had. In my mind, my team had expanded beyond the close group working with me on the race to an extended team of support. Each and everyone of the people who sent me an encouraging message however sent played an integral part in getting to the finish line.
But what of the race? The aching beauty of the alps never tires, and to spend over 30 hours in these glorious mountains was a joy. The crashing waterfalls of snowmelt; emerging through the tree line to the broad vista of expansive crags; the clanging of cowbells ringing through the valleys were uplifting sights and sounds. But nothing brought as much of a high as the descents. I am fortunate enough to have a friend, Rob Macculloch, who built me the perfect wheels for my riding style, weight and the route I was riding and in which I had complete confidence. Descending at its best is a spiritual experience where one is absolutely focused and in the moment. It’s as if time has stood still and the ground passes in slow motion. Descending is the rush of acceleration as you stamp on the pedals out of the saddle hands on the drops building speed as fast as you can to make the most of the gradient; the force of braking pushing you off the front of the seat towards the bars as the speed washes away before cranking the bike over to allow the g forces to guide you through the turn. Descending is about the buzz of overtaking a car to once again claim ownership of the racing line; it’s about passing another cyclist as if they were standing still; it’s about crouching low over the bars minimizing the drag to hit ever higher top speeds; it’s the crescendo of wind rushing past your ears and the sudden silence in the corners; it’s about the surprise change in road surface; or the need for a bunny hop to clear a savage pot hole. It’s the freedom than comes from relaxing, letting go of the brakes and going with the flow of the mountain. It provides as close an opportunity for embodiment as is possible in cycling. It’s the endorphin reward for the physical effort of riding up the hill.
Then there was the weather. It started sunny, became cloudy, rained, rained heavily, followed by torrential downpours. Added to this were flurries of snow showers on high ground, not forgetting the desperate headwind that fought to prevent us finishing at the end. But weather is joyous, all solved by the right clothing. Living in the UK, having trained through one of the hardest winters for many years, none of the weather was a shock. It was invigorating not least because I knew the impact would be greater on others who were use to more mellow and consistent climes. One sublime moment stands out in my mind of riding through the rain, in the dark, in the middle of the night with a mug of cappuccino in hand freshly prepared by the support crew – surreal.
No long distance race is without its problems. This time mine was nutrition. I had it so well planned. I argued with Ian over how much I should consume, when and what. We had a plan, it was good, it should have worked, but I let the side down. Within 50 miles I began to feel sick and started to retch. So we hatched a new plan, I tried that for a while, but a stop to vomit put paid to the new strategy. Time for plan c. This got us through to midnight after which it too failed. Plan d involved sucking on travel sweets. As they were in my mouth and not my stomach I didn’t vomit, instead I trickled the acidic sweet sugary liquid down my throat as they gradually melted. My mistaken belief that each sweet was probably good for at least 15g of carb gave me the mental reserves to press on. I was proud of managing to eat them right up until the point that it was kindly pointed out to me by the team at the end that my consumption of 7 sweets, constituted a total of 28g carbohydrate, and over 4.5 hours this was somewhat insufficient. Whilst I managed to consume an inadequacy of energy over the first 12.5 hours (58g of carbohydrates per hour), it was a banquet compared to the 152g of carbohydrate I consumed over the next 19.5 hours – a rather paltry 8g of carbohydrate per hour. Somewhat less than the 80g – 100g carbs/hr window I had wished to operate in. Let’s just say I’m thinner than when I started!
For the uninitiated, nutrition in ultra endurance racing is every bit as important as physical and mental preparation. These three elements come together to make success possible. Invariably, if one element is missing, it’s game over. It’s only the power of the mind that can get you through when things start to go wrong. Lacking energy leaves you feeling low, despondent with thoughts dominated by negativity. Rebuilding, or re-booting the mind becomes the imperative. You know you have to if you are going to finish. It is these lows that give ultra distance racing such tremendous highs. The ability to come through them and the rush of positive feeling when you do is an intense high. In every moment of desperation, there is a moment of insight, a moment of learning about yourself. This is the moment of truth when you discover the new depths of your inner reserves. It is the time when you discover how much you want to finish. For me, it was the moment I realized what team work truly means. It’s the moment that you have a responsibility to step up to the mark and respond to the clarion calls of the support crew. The selfless and emotional commitment they have made requires the same of you. With a bank of goodwill building up on the inbox on my phone and my voicemail; with the love and support from home and the help of the support crew, keeping going was a simple choice. As time wore on and I realized there was an outside chance I could do it, I gradually went in on myself further and further. No longer did I bother trying to ‘high 5’ the support crew as I rode past. Next to stop were the quick exchange of words, before finally abandoning any form of acknowledgement. My brain struggled with trying to do the simple maths of working out the average speed needed to make it in time, allowing for the hills yet to come and the ferocious head wind towards the end. But I had to do it. Every fibre of my being yearned to complete it. For every moment I went further into myself there was a growing sense of energy and excitement and buzz. I ached for the finish. And we did it.
For the technically minded
I am not genetically predisposed to be a great athlete, nor do I have the mental discipline of podium finishers. I am prepared to work hard. If this sounds like you then get yourself a coach. I have worked with Ian Mayhew of www.gearsandtears.com for a few years now. It is testament to Ian’s schedule that I went from being a triathlete to an ultra distance cyclist in one go in 8 months. Ian also coached me to a new PB in Ironman the previous year.
Work commitments meant I could only train in the UK for the event, and there are no hills of the length of alpine passes. I did not realize how smart Ian’s plan was until after the event and how the combined sessions created ideal training for the physical and mental stresses of the race. My longest ride in training was 198 miles. My hardest rides in training were back to back rides in the Yorkshire Dales riding over the steepest roads back to back I could find. The longest training session in terms of time was a 180 mile ride to watch the Tour of Flanders on my single speed with Rob Macculloch. Excluding the taper, I averaged 19 hours and 15 minutes of training per week. This started as around 15 hours per week and rose to a peak of 26 hours. Included in the sessions were what turned out to be essential night rides. On one occasion I rode from 9pm to 6am. I also rode a host of other long distance late night rides.
I hate gyms and hate training inside. All my training was done outside on the roads with the exception of core body work. For this I went to the climbing wall once or twice a week and did a one hour bouldering session which provided invaluable arm strength for controlled fast descending.
We communicated between rider and support team using two way radios. We sourced very small and light devices. These worked very well and enabled us to keep in touch and allowed the crew to prepare in advance what I needed. We also had a back up of mobile phones. I use my phone as my MP3 player and it was set to interrupt the music and auto answer enabling me to talk without letting go of the handle bars. On descents or other critical places I simply ignored the call and rode on. This worked well but with places with no signal, the two way radios were more reliable.
I used a GPS device on my bike with the route loaded on. I created the route from the race handbook provided at the start. A second GPS device with the same route was used in the support car. Nigel created a comprehensive guide of the route, specific town maps, a spreadsheet of the towns we would pass through, the average gradient of each section of road and the time I needed to be passing through each point based on completing the race in 30hrs. This was supplemented by a print out of the GPS route file at varying level of details depending on the section of the route and complexity of the junctions. Finally the car we hired had a GPS system in which provided an overview of exactly where we were.
Ian was right (again) in that he encouraged me to take far more than I thought necessary and we used nearly everything. The dramatic changes in weather required regular changes of kit to either keep cool / warm / dry. I had:
- 3 X bib shorts
- 2 X tights
- Leg warmers
- Arm warmers
- 2 X short sleeve tops
- 2 X long sleeve tops
- 1 X Windproof gilet
- 1 X Fleece and windproof gilet
- 3 X pairs socks
- 2 X pairs fingerless gloves
- 1 X fleece gloves
- 1 X lobster mitts
- 1 X waterproof jacket
- 1 X waterproof trousers
If you are wondering how do you stop your bum hurting – go worship at the altar of chamois crème. These products are smeared onto the pad in your shorts and produce a heavenly comfort that lasts for hours. I supplemented chamois crème with my favourite anti friction product “Brave Soldier”. Liberally smeared over the parts that matter this meant I got to the end with little more than slight soreness.
I rode a Ritchey Break-Away Ti frame with a mix of dura ace and ultegra finishing kit. Seat post and stem were Thompson and the bars and bottle cages were Planet X. My preferred saddle is a Fizik Gobi. I used a compact chainset (50:34) and a Marchioso cassette with ratios spanning from 12:30). My wheels were built by Rob Macculloch and were 32 hole Open Pro Ceramic rims with Hope hubs with the bearings replaced for Boca ceramic bearings. The drive side nipples on the wheels were brass and the non drive side alloy (that’s how much attention to detail Rob puts into his wheels). I used Michelin Open Pro Race 3 tyres. At night I used an Exposure Race light 2.5w LED with the backup (which I ended up having to use) being a Hope 1w LED. The support car carried comprehensive spares for the bike as well as a first aid kit and track pump.
Honestly, I practiced with all the food I took with me – but it didn’t work. I went from bars and gels and energy drink, to resorting to cheese sandwiches and water, then crisps and finally boiled sweets. Nutritionally the race was not a success. I consumed only 30% of the energy I should have taken in.