When training hasn't gone to plan: DO WHAT YOU CAN WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT
Heading home from Outback Cycling’s Easter in the Alice, I certainly didn’t forsee myself writing a blog post about the parts of success that aren’t linked directly to your physical form, but here I am.
As I reflected on the three days of racing, I thought about how I approached the stage race, and how experience and attitude can make up for shortcomings in form, in some situations.
Easter in the Alice is a 3-day stage race, historically run over the easter long weekend: hence the name. It’s been equal parts hard, fast racing and excellent leisure time, and has historically linked in with a round of the Australian XCM National series. With the National Series being replaced by the National Cup this year, OCEITA was reimagined as a marquee (top tier) XCO stage race composed of 3x40km flat-out stages.
Having extensive time off racing and training from the month of flu, and more recently TFCC tear (hand injury) and thumb ligament rupture, I was feeling less than confident leading into the event.
There was a short but strong field of elite women (just like every other mountain bike race in Australia I suppose…) lining up, and despite historically going well at Alice I wasn’t sure what to expect.
In the graph above you can see the big dive in blue (fitness) and ride in yellow (form) during my near month off with influenza A. You can see around mid april my blue CTL line was almost up to 60...
Like any stage race, the first stage really sets the scene for what’s possible and gives you an idea of where you’re at. In this case, it was a sharp 1:54 of Alice’s crunchiest trails. One of the more undulating stages, it started with a maximal effort to cross the sandy Todd followed by an almost instantaneous blow up. Briony passed me, pedalling in anger, and I latched onto her. About 8-9km into the singletrack, Bri made a very small technical error that we all make, probably every ride, and I came around her. She didn’t get back onto my wheel so I would for the first 20km or so of the race, catch glimpses of her as the trails wove their way around the landscape.
Under Pressure played on repeat in my head, as I focussed exactly what the task at hand: looking up, and around corners, and emphasising making every rocky, technical climb they threw at me. I hit a ‘new’ threshold (it was hot) of 184bpm and crossed the line solo a couple of minutes up on Briony who I knew would be flying in behind on the fast, pedally closing kilometres of the race.
I didn't sleep that night, typical for me during multi-day races, and despite an hour of yoga, trigger point and foam rolling and a swim, I just felt a bit flat.
The local intel on stage two advised a long section of fire-road 7-10km long as well as longer flowier trails. I had thought of a few plans for different scenarios. Get a good start, ride in front if feeling good. Feeling average or poor then ride with Bri or the front female rider and suck wheel. The aim was to not lose time.
Little sleep and less technical/flatter trails certainly aren’t my forte, but I also knew I had a small time buffer, so if I could just hang with Bri and ensure she didn’t make excessive time on me today, all would be good.
We rode in a group until about 14km where the long fireroad started and the two men in our crew quickly attacked off into the distance (great). Bri was looking back, having a short buffer over third, while I was just matching pace. At times it felt easy, but it wasn’t; it’s just the discomfort of racing can be minimised when working together.
I ate enough and drank enough and when Bri put down the power with around 13km to go a few times I made note to match it.
In the end Bri rolled me on the stage with her incredible sprint she’s been working on extensively, and I maintained the leader’s jersey with zero time loss, goal accomplished.
That night I was pretty wrecked, it’s one thing back to racing it’s another just randomly turning up to a stage race, I was thankful it wasn’t a marathon this year.
Staying with the amazing Andrea and Laurie (they’re absolute gems to put up with my shit again!), they definitely formed a huge part of the ‘athlete support’ network, feeding me amazing food and telling me to go to bed! A large dinner plus dessert (what a treat!) and I was dozing on the couch. I pounced on the chance to actually sleep.
The rude 0630 race start meant waking before 0500. But I was ready to race straight away. A quick brekky, coffee shots and some tunes for a couple of minutes before I headed off I had great vibes. Coming to the end of a stage race always feels pretty great, and this was no exception. The intel on this stage advised it was rockier and a little more relentless and undulating/hillier than the day prior.
I had a two minute lead and formulated a bunch of potential ways the event could transpire, knowing in the end there are so many variables you just have to race the race at hand. We started after a minute’s silence for Paul Darvo, a very important moment in the event, and we were off. I had a good start and was sitting in maybe 7th through the single track before dropping back to around 12th. I had no idea where Bri dog was but I was riding further up the pack than I had been the past few days. The benefit of being quite underdone during a race like this is sometimes ‘riding into it’.
Being the rockier, more fun trails today, when I found myself with a local rider I settled to climb at his smidgeon slower pace trading this off for his excellent local lines, in the end surely it was a quicker move than overtaking and having him yoyo-ing up to me on the descents. After the feedzone, we caught number 9 again, and the three of us yo-yoed around until the last fireroad. I had a few shoulder checks throughout the race but was mindful to keep focussed on where I was going. Unlike the day prior which saw multiple fatigue-related errors, I had a pretty clean run, only once running off the trail at the end of a trippy dark LSD-like tunnel.
In the end I had a substantial lead and was surprised and excited to win my second consecutive Easter in the Alice stage race.
But race reports are boring, what made this a little more interesting? Well, my CTL (chronic training load) was a pretty low 57 at the time of the event (!!!). Essentially I had been riding, but since the flu dropped me down to 40 (from 90) with a huge amount of time off, then being off the bike with the TFCC injury, it was all just a bit of riding, not training. On paper I shouldn’t have won compared to the many women out there, but some brain hacks and experience served me well.
We talk about pre-race rituals in sport with an almost superstitious inflexibility, however I had found over the years that while a template of a pre-race plan is good, the inability to waver from it at any cost is quite prohibitive. In my case, a pre-race plan starts the day prior with recovery from pre-ride spin and bike prep. Then bottle preparation, getting your race equipment ready (including spares) and kit good to go.
The morning of the event is a little more straightforward, preferably I give myself 2hrs prior to race to get up, get dressed and eat, and have two shots of coffee. Social scrolling is allowed on the provision that I am aware of what’s going on in my head and if i’m feeling stressed then I stop immediately and listen to music. Warm up depends on temperature, location and length of race but I do it en route, drop an emergency bottle in the feed bin, then continue, trying to check out the start/finish if possible. From there it’s lining up and….go time. Afterwards, a cool down spin or short commute after the race is important between stages.
Have a plan
Sometimes the plan can involve others, but the most important thing is that your plan relates to what your goal is an executing your own strategy. ‘Ride your own race’ is a great saying that is pretty important in mountain biking. For example, my plan in stage one was to merely go hard and see how I was feeling, have a good crack at day one then reassess. From here we had established what was going on in a general sense and I could decide how to conduct my racing on days 2/3. While you can ride with others, it’s important to look at the end goal for yourself and decide if where you’re sitting in the race an your level of exertion etc is wise or not.
Use your strengths
Before the race I was pretty sure I didn’t have any strengths anymore (hah!), but I soon reminded myself that this was bollocks and of course I had strengths: a mind of steel (on the occasions when I can get myself to that zone not always—> that’s an important distinction), good skills on more technical rocky sections, moderate race craft and more developed pacing skills in my old age (hah!). Knowing your strengths mean that you can know when to unleash them, and if you know your competitors’ strengths then that’s even better. Briony was my main competitor and is ridiculously fit, driven and skilled, so it came down to making good decisions at the right time.
Laser like focus
Getting involved in everyone else’s junk is bad news when racing. When you’re alone, pedalling hard into direct sunlight and you are feeling like you’re dying, the difference between sitting up and continuing on the attack is focus. There are many ways you can look at improving your focus and using your head during a race for good rather than bad, but in the end what works for me personally is being positive, keeping the eyes up on the trail and keeping task orientated with technical features, pedalling where possible, and ensuring that hydration and nutrition is attended to. Everything else is like white noise at this point.
Recover like a pro
For a fun multi day stage race like this compared to something like world champs, the theory of recovery as a key concern is the same…the execution perhaps a little more relaxed. The things you can control for recovery that are very important for backing up for multiple days include: eating straight after the race, injury management, cold water immersion (if possible), follow up meals and protein, stretching/yoga/foam rolling and relaxation/anxiety management. It sounds pretty difficult, but really if you have a protein shake or milkshake after the race, then some lunch, go for a swim, get a bit bendy and read a book/watch some telly/meditate, then you’re covering all the bases.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is strong, even when racing. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know…you know? In turn, imposter syndrome is rife even among experienced racers. Through you may have concerns about your race fitness, ability, skills, the best approach in the face of nerves is bravery. Being outwardly confident when inwardly a bit nervous is a great life skill, especially when racing. Give it a go, what can go wrong?
DAY 1: 40km, 1hr 56, AVG HR 181, Max HR 193, hrTSS 182
DAY 2: 40km, 1hr 53, AVG HR 176, Max HR 188, hrTSS 152
DAY 3: 40km, 1hr 51, AVG HR 171, Max HR 185, hrTSS 142