9 Days in Africa – Not to script but where’s the exit?

As most of you must be aware I have just returned from a 9 day mountain bike stage race in Africa, Joberg2C. At the pointy end of the race were a group of pros who were riding some insane times, even beating the organiser on a motorbike who set off early to open gates. Averaging 30kph over 5hrs on a MTB is never going to happen for me, or many of us I suspect!

I trained hard for this event and went with the intention of racing for my age group classification – now Veterans – how did that happen!

Training went so well this winter with a real purple patch back in February when the sun shone and I managed to clock 60hrs of quality training on the bike, plus twice weekly gym work. Intensity wise I kept things in check with most of my work focused on building endurance and developing strength endurance with a little top end work to just raise the ceiling a little. I did work with my MTB skills and had a few great sessions with a MTB coach which really honed some abilities that were vital in the event itself.

In the gym, I worked out 1-2-1 with a coach twice a week. Mondays, we focused on lower body using a few primary lifts but building weight, reducing repetitions and increasing intensity. Fridays, we worked on upper body strength. This is something that I have been reluctant doing in the past. I can build upper body bulk quite quickly but looking at the demands of 4-6hrs XC MTB riding for 9 back to back days, I recognised that good upper body strength and resilience would be vital. During the race, I never once had any upper body fatigue or any lower back issues. Others were suffering around me with plenty of taped up arms and requests for arm massages every evening in the physio tent!

In terms of preparation things were about as perfect as they could be. Training had been spot on, diet had been generally good with very stable weight and I felt strong and fresh. What could go wrong?

Bronchitis. That could go wrong!

I arrived in Joberg with a raw chest and mild fever feeling generally lousy for the first time in I don’t know how long. I really don’t get ill at all, so this was a first at an event and a shock! I went to the pharmacy and he confirmed bronchitis, gave me some antibiotics, some medicine and told me not to ride. This was just 24hrs before the race started. Not good.

No one is going to recommend riding with bronchitis and I am no exception, it really can be dangerous but……. where is the exit? I decided that I would start, see how I felt fully prepared to DNF.

To the start. 04:30am alarm, breakfast, cough up lungs, onto coach. I was whacked, slept the entire way and woke up after what seemed to be 5 minutes at the start line. I started the ride with a chest that was now so raw I could not cough because of pain. I hit the first hill after about 5km and thought ‘I am in trouble here’ only 895km to go…….

Starting a 900km race with bronchitis is not what I would recommend anyone does but where’s the exit? The exit is a plane home.

So, I did something else that I would never recommend and that is masked everything with ibuprofen. Not great for the kidneys apparently but where’s the exit?  It is this or a plane….

My racing plans in tatters I decided the only way I had any chance of getting  through this was to ride super easy, keep my heart rate down (although I daren’t wear a HRM) and crucially keep my breathing light. The cut off every day was 10hrs – I could walk half the daily route in 10hrs!!

I had 3.5 days of this, breathing mostly through my nose, actually having a great time, riding for pleasure, taking photos (you might have seen :-)), stopping at all the aid stations, taking in the views. What’s not to like?

On the 2nd half of day 4 I decided to have a go at probably the hilliest 50km of the race. It was a gravel ride stage so my roadie skills and hill climbing experience from Devon were perfectly suited to the course and I was feeling much improved. 50km, 2hrs 15mins 235w my legs felt AMAZING. My chest less so. Not really bad but taking the power over tempo pace was impossible. Next day I paid for it feeling lousy again and hacking the content of my lungs regularly.

So, day 5-9 were again riding for the sheer love of it. Pushing the pedals a little harder at times on stage 7 but by now the dust was also taking its toll on my inflamed respiratory system.  It was a really liberating experience, now with no expectations and no pressure. I was gutted but also grateful. I had used my head, managed a bad situation and turned it into something really positive. I was lucky.

During the whole preparation and participation of the event I learned a lot about myself, my training, how to manage illness and how to just love riding my bike and enjoying an incredible country.  What are the main take aways that can also benefit you guys?

  1. Grab training time when you can. February was an amazing month for weather. My plan did not say ride 60hrs but I took the opportunities and set myself up nicely. Be flexible.
  2. Training has to be specific to the demands of your event. I have been going on about this for years but for a hardcore race like this it is even more crucial. Even ill I was finishing each day in around half the time of the tail enders. It was amazing how badly some had prepared and suffered as a result. You may not have race ambitions but surely everyone wants to have an enjoyable ride?
  3. If you ride bikes, especially MTB’s – do gym work. Simples.
  4. Work on your skills – you can always learn something and improve no matter how good you think you are! Many thought they were better than they were….
  5. If you are ill at the start of a long endurance event like this, use your noggin and ride super easy and accept that you might have to DNF. It’s not ideal but it worked for me but I had to be super disciplined. I just reframed the challenge and set new priorities. Be flexible. Dont be a jerk.
  6. Riding easy, mainly in zone 1&2 lowers the physiological cost of the ride disproportionately to pushing into zone 3&4, and means that you can go again tomorrow and the day after. Riding generally easy for 9 back to back days was not that hard at that pace. When I prescribe easy rides in my training plans, this is why. So you can go hard tomorrow. Respect it. It works.

Now I am having a super easy week before I focus my attention to the Tour de Mont Blanc which is my main goal for the year. I feel more confident about this now having had a rather sick feeling about it every time I thought about it previously. If I can ride 9 days back to back ill and not feel like it was that tough then I know my endurance is rock solid. Now we focus on the performance, sharpening the saw as my coach puts it! I know it won’t always be fun but it will make me fast(er)!!

And remember, things don’t always go to plan, not even for me,  but it is how you react, how flexible you are, how able you are to reframe the challenge that will define your success.

All the best this summer and remember, the best time is a good time…….