In this article elite endurance athlete Dom Irvine gives us a different perspective into his LEJOG training.
My journey into ultra endurance started out to see whether as a rather ordinary cyclist I could do some extraordinary things. As our third attempt on the end to end tandem record looms, whatever the outcome, it will close the chapter on a 5 year project. Through the gloss and the spin about the rides ridden and the training tales there are some hard uncomfortable truths about what it has taken to get this far. I’ve written much about the joys of long distance riding. But here’s the flip side.
To get yourself into a position where a regular weekend set of training rides exceeds 300 miles requires an unreasonable approach to life. Almost everything becomes secondary to the training plan. For example, I’ll ride for 3 or 4 hours before watching my daughter play hockey and then head out and do a few more hours. The next day I will probably miss one of her games as I do a much longer all-day ride. If we are going to see friends for the weekend, I’ll ride and my wife will drive. Holidays are planned in places where it’s possible to train before we head off sightseeing. My colleagues have got used to me demanding meetings are held in places within riding distance that have changing facilities.
And you’d think being married to someone whose very fit and healthy would have it’s obvious benefits. But in reality by 10pm I’m dead to the world. There’s no cup of tea in bed and the chance for a gossip because some hours before I will have left the house to nail another training ride.
Something’s always broken
I’ve just looked at my training log. In the last 4 weeks the average hours per week is just under 23. That’s 23 hours of moving time, it excludes anytime the bike is stationary (e.g. at junctions etc) and excludes getting ready to train and washing and changing afterwards. With that training load, kit wears out. There is always something broken, breaking or very worn requiring swapping or replacing. It is time consuming and expensive.
More than the bike
If only it were just the training. Ultra distance often involves support crews. These have to be recruited and all the logistics relating to their needs also needs to be sorted. This will include accommodation, food, transport etc. Then there’s the PR work – people have invested a lot of time, effort and money into me and they deserve good copy and support in return.
Begrudging a good time
Saturday night with friends? No thank you. Firstly I’ve got an early start in the morning and whilst I don’t need much sleep I do need some. I’ll have a glass of wine occasionally, maybe once every couple of months – hardly party time behaviour. And the last thing I want to be confronted with is a plate of delicious food – I have enough trouble maintaining my body fat percentage in single digits without the temptation of some culinary delight.
Some days the sessions my coach sets me are so hard I will sit staring at the bike for 10 minutes before I can bring myself to start. For the rest of the day I will be thinking about the next session – psyching myself to do it. Other times, riding for hours is delightful – unless it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale – the relentless soaking from passing vehicles begins to pall after a few hours. And then sometimes I’m so shattered I will fall asleep at random moments.
Gone are the days of the nice social ride. Every minute of every ride has a plan set out by the coach. That pleasant Sunday morning spin with a coffee stop simply doesn’t fit in. Long steady rides are about a relentlessly consistent effort – no attacking the hills or mixing it up with the group. Intervals are simply antisocial. Bizarrely, no-one wants to ride with you because ‘you’ll be too fast’. This simply isn’t true but perception is reality. Even when they do join me for a ride, they are so determined to do their share, they kill themselves setting a ridiculous pace and then they blow up and struggle round the rest of the ride hating every minute of it. This is despite all my protestations to relax and take it easy.
It’s an obsession
I knew I’d lost the plot when I was sat in a meeting at work with clients and not paying attention. Instead I was figuring out when I was going to fit in all the sessions my coach wanted me to do. My bluff was called when someone thought I had been taking notes and asked if I would be good enough to send everyone a copy. Sometimes work has become a distraction in the way of training.
And then there’s work
Around all of this there is the day job. In my case running a management development business and all the activities this entails to ensure a thriving business. To fit both work and training in I no longer watch any TV. I’m either working, training or doing something with the family. If I have a rest day planned, I still get up at 5am and work instead to create the space for training on other days. My work means I travel the world. Jet lag makes it very difficult to train. It’s also time consuming working out where to train when traveling.
Ultimately, the thing being an ultra distance requires you to be is selfish. It relies on a tremendous level of support from my wife, family, friends and sponsors. It requires them to be tolerant, supportive and forgiving. It means having to deal with someone who is almost always tired. Whilst this, seemingly, is what it takes to train for a record attempt, it nonetheless leaves a deep guilty feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. At some point, balance will have to be restored. I remain deeply humbled by the support I have received.
Given all this – why bother? It has been one of the most rewarding things in which I have been involved. It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve learnt so much about myself. I’ve had to come to terms with limitations mentally and physically and also been surprised at where my strengths lie. There is an indescribable pleasure that comes from a significant change in performance as a result of years of sustained effort. And as one progresses, there are whole new areas of knowledge to acquire. When added to the joy of cycling long distances sometimes seemingly with no-effort the combination is addictive.
Whatever happens during our next attempt, as Euripides instructed, I have left no stone unturned in my quest as an ordinary bloke to do something extraordinary. Whether we break the record or not – the experience of the last few years will stay with me forever. So if you too fancy stepping up to ultra distance, then go for it. But do so with your eyes wide open at the sacrifices required and the impact on others.