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Article posted: 08/08/2013

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No matter how much experience you have, things can always go wrong on event day. In his latest  blog, Nikalas Cook looks at how to mitigate the effects of mishaps and even tantrums on event day.

Last year in my build up to the World Long Course Duathlon Championships at Powerman Zofingen in Switzerland, the HellRider off-road duathlon had was a valuable stepping stone event. Unlike any other run/bike event in the multi-sport racing calendar, it’s devilishly simple, a 5 km trail run lap followed by a 8 km mountain bike lap and repeat to see how many you can do in eight hours.

Last year I’d managed to come second in the solo category but, with a change of venue to the Hambledon Estate near Henley on Thames and a solid training block, I hoped to move up a step on the podium.

As it turned out it was a day of mixed fortunes for me but, like any event, especially a training event building to your main goal, as long as lessons are learned and carried forwards, it will always be worthwhile. As you’ll see, I got some things right and some things wrong and there are always lessons to learn.

In the days leading up to the race, work had been fairly full-on and my wife and her mother were about the head off to America on holiday. My mother-in-law then fell ill, meaning a couple of stressful days when their trip was in doubt. This didn’t put me in the best state of mind pre-race and, as I made the hour drive to the event early on race morning, I felt distracted and not especially motivated.

Lesson 1: Shield yourself from pre-event stress

A combination of family, work and other life stressors can easily leave you feeling distracted and feeling unfocussed about your event. This isn’t necessarily too much of an issue if it’s a training event but, if it’s your main goal for the year, you don’t want all of your hard work in training going to waste because your mind wasn’t in the right place. Try to give yourself a few days buffer before your target event where your only focus is it. Plan ahead, arrange time off work and childcare and talk honestly to friends, family, employees and bosses about how important the event is to you. They hopefully will have seen the hours you’ve put in, will realise it’s a once or twice a year event and be sympathetic to giving you some space. Remove unnecessary stress if you’re having to travel to your event. Book travel and accommodation well ahead of time, making sure you arrive for flights early to allow time for checking in your bike and consider factoring in a buffer day at your destination and source out local bike shops in case you have any problems.

Despite a very poor weather forecast, the rain held off while I was setting up in transition and, after a quick race briefing, I was ready for the 1000 start. I still felt slightly distracted but, based on last year’s race, I had a clear plan in mind. I quickly identified the previous year’s winner Iain Payne on the line and, with him having got a bit of a jump on me on the first run last year, I vowed to keep him close. My tactics were to go reasonably hard on the first run to get clear of traffic for the bike and then to settle into a steadier tempo. Looking over my shoulder after the first couple of hundred meters, I could see Iain sat just behind me and it was obvious he had the same race plan.

The first kilometer of the run was fairly flat but it then ramped up into the first climb. Iain and I alternately pushed the pace and, although we were only minutes into eight hours of racing, we were running hard. It was a game of bluff and double bluff that continued for the whole of the first run and it was only on the third and final climb that I was able to open up a small gap. With just over 5 km run and 150 m climbed, I tackled the steep downhill into transition with Iain snapping closely at my heels.

Lesson 2: Plan and execute

You should always have a clear plan in mind about how to tackle your event. For any endurance event, including sportives, the two key factors are pacing and fueling. For pacing, whether you’re using power or heart rate, you should know from your training exactly what you’re capable of and you should stick religiously to those limits. Too many people make the mistake of thinking they’ll get a miraculous lift on their big day and overcook it early on. Similarly with fueling, this should have been practiced and perfected in training. Consider whether you aim to be self-sufficient, carry your own fuel and just rely on feed stations for water. If you’re planning to use the feed stations to take on food, have you checked out the products they’ll be supplying and checked in training if they agree with you?

A woeful transition on my part let him take the lead but, as long as I remained on the same lap as him, because of the race rules, I was in with a shout. As long as you finish whatever lap you’re on before the 8-hour mark passes, even if it’s 7:59:59, you can head out onto another lap and, if two competitors finish on the same number of laps, the fastest competitor over that lap wins. I reckoned if we finished on a bike, Iain would have the edge but, in a head to head run, I was confident I could topple him.

Lesson 3: Train for all aspects of performance

In multi-sport races such as triathlons and duathlons, transition is known as the extra discipline and races are often won or lost due to it. In sportives, many riders focus on too narrowly on climbing fitness and ignore other more technical aspects of riding that can save serious amounts of time and energy. Nervous descending, poor handling skills and a lack of confidence riding in a group can easily lose you all the time you’ve gained with your uphill prowess. Work on the skills in training, ride with more experienced riders or join a club to pick up tips and you’ll become a faster and more rounded rider

I didn’t worry me too much then to see him pull away and, having gulped down the first of many gels, I slotted into my long distance diesel race pace. The bike lap opened up with a grassy slog, before a fast descent and then the biggest climb of the lap. I spun a low gear and kept my heart rate steady. Even at this early stage of the 7.5 km / 180 m lap, it was obviously a tougher proposition than last year’s course and, with some tight unsurfaced singletrack sections, definitely more technical. Riding well, I was confident Iain wouldn’t be pulling too much time out on me and that I was consolidating my second place. I then heard the sickening hiss that every cyclist dreads, I’d punctured my front tyre. Fortunately, within a few rotations, the sealant did it’s job and, crossing my fingers that it’d hold for the rest of the race, I pressed on. Driving hard through a flat section though, I missed a way-marker and, it was only when I came across a marshal I’d passed early on in the lap, I realised I gone wrong.

Lesson 4: Know the rules and know the course

The ideal for any event is to have done a course recce beforehand. Even if you just target key climbs or tricky to navigate sections, it’ll always be time well spent. If a course recce isn’t practical or possible, do as much research beforehand as possible about the route. Look for information online such as course profiles, first hand reports from previous years and post messages on cycling forums asking for hints and tips. If you use a GPS, check to see if there’s a .gpx file of the route available and make sure it’s successfully downloaded to your device. Check what marshaling and route markings there will be, especially if there are different distance options on offer. Make sure you’re aware of all rules and regulations that apply to your event. This includes ID you might need for signing on and mandatory kit that you might have to carry.

Kicking myself, I turned around and rode hard in the opposite direction. I was livid at myself for having been so stupid and, by having added an extra 2 km to the lap, undone all the good work of the first run. I rode the rest of the lap angry but, by the time I’d been through transition and headed out for my second run, I’d calmed myself down, reasoned it was a long day when anything could happen and just got on with the job.

My navigational mishap had dropped me to fourth place but I was confident I’d still be able to reel in some time, stay on the same lap as Iain and be in with a chance of the win. I felt strong on the second run and rode off for my second bike lap with renewed confidence, energy and a determination to go the right way. After just 2 km though I heard that sickening hiss again, this time from my rear tyre and this time far more serious. A flint had gashed a massive rip in my sidewall. It was too big to patch on the trail, so I couldn’t even put and tube in and, after a major meltdown in the forest, I was faced with a 5 km trail run in bike shoes and pushing a bike.

Lesson 5: Be prepared for the worst

Having ridden in the Chilterns before I should had known about the flints and not have gambled on thin sidewall lightweight tyres. Fortunately I had packed a spare pair of wheels, with beefier tyres, that survived the rest of the race and salvaged the day for me. Obviously, in most events, a spare set of wheels isn’t an option but you should make sure you have the tools and the knowledge to deal with most minor mechanical mishaps. Try all kit before race day. By the side of the road as the pack rides away from you isn’t the time to use your new CO2 inflator for the first time. Prevention is better than cure though so make sure your bike is properly prepared before your big event. Dress appropriately to the conditions but, especially for long and mountainous rides, expect sudden and unpredictable changes. It’s perfectly possible on high cols to be climbing in the hot sun but, in less than an hour, be descending in temperatures close to zero with snow banks flanking you.

My day had gone from bad to catastrophic. I did some mental sums while running and reckoned that, with my diversion on the first lap and now this, Iain would have been able to pull a lap ahead. I’d lose more time in transition swapping my spare wheels in and, as my cleats dug painfully into the balls of my feet with every stride, I decided to quit once I got back into transition.

Fortunately my long suffering wife had arrived with the good news that her mother was well and that their trip was going ahead. After I’d had another mini meltdown and thrown some kit around I felt much happier and she persuaded me to at least head out for another run lap, calm down and make a decision then. I’d dropped to ninth place but, as the run went on, the pressure of racing lifted and I decided to make the best of a bad job, use it as a solid training day and just plough on. In that run I moved back up to eighth, a strong and incident free third bike saw me retake second spot but, with Iain still putting in consistent laps, my only hope was for him to have some sort of mishap.

Lesson 6: Keep calm and be prepared to adjust your goals

Mishaps do happen and are unfortunately unavoidable in a sport that requires a sometimes temperamental piece of engineering and a rubber clad cushion of air to maintain forward progress. It’s understandably gutting if, after months of training and preparation, your ambitions are shattered by a stupid mistake or a mechanical malfunction but try to keep things in perspective. Have a rant, vent your anger but then try to rationally assess your situation. In the grand scheme of a 7 or 8 hour sportive, the time lost to a puncture is fractional and, even if it’s something more serious that loses more significant time, you might as well get in some decent training out of the day if nothing else. Lower your goals, accept what has happened and try to enjoy the rest of the day. A DNF will feel like a truly wasted effort but at least if you cross the finishing line, you’ll have those miles in your legs and can put them towards a new main goal.

As the race panned out, on each lap Iain was taking a bit of time out of me on the bike and in transition and I was taking about the same back from him on each run. This status quo remained and, as I headed out on my eighth and final bike lap, I knew only Iain and I had done that many but that he’d be logging a running lap of honour to take the win. With that in mind, I cruised round my final bike lap with a friend who was riding easy with the 3 man team win in the bag, began my recovery easy and reflected on a real roller coaster of a race.

Lesson 7: Recovery starts when you cross the line

Or, in this case, a lap beforehand. It’s essential, especially if the event is a training exercise building towards you main goal, that you think about your post event routine and recovery beforehand. You’ll be extremely tired crossing the line and, unless all of your recovery kit is to hand, it’s easy to let your routine slip. This will affect how you recover from the event, the fitness gains from it and how quickly you can return to full training. A post-race kit bag will ensure you kick start your recovery optimally. If the event was your main goal, take some time-out to fully appreciate what you’ve achieved. You’ll often feel inspired, super fit and desperate to start planning for and training towards your next challenge. However this is often post-event euphoria masking deep fatigue and it’s important to schedule in down time or risk burning out, overtraining syndrome or injury. Your friends and family will probably appreciate some you time too. Use the time to look back over your training and the event and to assess what went right and what could be improved upon. Ease yourself back into training gently, recharge your batteries and decide on your next goal.

I learned a lot about myself, some new lessons and reinforced a few old ones but was proud that I’d dug in and carried on. It’d been a great day’s training and, with 8 run (41.6 km / 1272 m) and 8 bike (60.3 km / 1564 m) laps, my legs had certainly been put through the mill.

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