Covering 690 odd off-road kilometres and 15,000 metres ofclimbing over 7 days is not something to take lightly. Throw some brutallyrugged and challenging terrain, general cumulative fatigue and the possibilityof injury / mechanical issues into the mix and a few 8-10 hour days in thesaddle are not too abstract a reality.
Now the prospect of spending that amount of time in thesaddle for 7 days in a row is about as exciting as broccoli. Yes, not very.
So to avoid it becoming a reality, you have to prepareadequately and for an event like the Epic, that preparation needs to be all themore thorough.
Key elements of a multi-day ultra-endurance MTB event toaddress so that you line up on race day feeling that you can actually finishthe thing are the following:
1.Physical preparation – ensuring that you havethe required level of aerobic fitness and physical strength.
2.Bike skills – being able to handle your bike competentlyover the rough terrain
3.Gear – most importantly your bike and how it isset up, but then also gear that will help you get point 1 above right (ie.static trainer, bike computers, power meters) and clothing.
4.Nutrition – what you eat on a daily basis sothat you have enough energy to train hard when you need to, as well as what youeat / drink while you are out on a long ride to maintain the required energylevels and hydration
So shoo. Quite a lot to consider.
Thankfully having prep’d for a few events in the past andhaving mates that have done the Epic, tackling each of these items is a littleeasier than it might be if I were starting from scratch.
There are training programs and then there are trainingprograms.
When I ran my first marathon in London in 2008, my traininginvolved putting on my running shoes and trying to 2-3 times a week with alonger run on the weekend. And following that method seemed to work for me, butto no great effect.
Then as I ran more and got more interested in the sport, Iheard and read about the benefits of training according to heart rate.Basically you strap a heart rate monitor around your chest, which sends yourheart rate reading to a watch on your wrist. Instead of just running for the sake of it, each run is structured sothat at certain points in the run, for defined periods of time, you ensure yourheart rate is at a certain prescribed level and you increase / decrease yourlevel of exertion to achieve that.
Training using this more ‘scientific’ method is far moreefficient and as a result has massive benefits for the athlete, which I feltwhen training in this way for my 2nd Comrades Marathon.
In cycling terms, heart rate is efficient, but an even moreefficient method of training is power-based training. In very simplistic terms,Power, measured in Watts, determines how hard you are pushing (or how muchforce you are exerting) on the pedals.
So the more “scientific” training programs are based onWatts and the trainer instructs the cyclist in a session to vary the level ofexertion during a training program to achieve certain results.
To do this accurately and understand what the cyclist is capableof, the trainer needs to have them perform a test to establish a metric calledFunctional Threshold Power. This is the Power level (in Watts), that a cyclistshould be able to maintain for an hour of cycling.
The FTP test, if done correctly, is a bit of a killer thatpushes you to the point where you think you are going to either vomit or passout.
Sibusiso and I have taken on a trainer named Jaco Ferreira,who came very highly recommended from my brother, who was trained by Jaco forthis year’s ABSA Cape Epic. A very accomplished rider himself, having finished5 ABSA Cape Epic’s, and runner (I noticed a picture of the finish line of theOld Mutual Two Oceans Marathon in a brilliant time of 3h56 on his wall), heworks out of the High Performance Centre in Pretoria.
After a few conversations on the phone, we booked our FTPtests for Friday the 23rd of September. Sibusiso was coming throughto Joburg for some work and drove straight to Jaco in Pretoria to do his testearly in the morning. Sibs hadn’t trained with power or done an FTP test beforeand I didn’t dare tell him he was going to have to bust his balls as hard as hecould. When I followed up with him later that day, he seemed pretty chilledabout it, as he is about most things and it didn’t seem to hurt him as badly asI was preparing myself to be hurt later that day.
There are a few ways the test can be conducted in order toascertain FTP and THANKFULLY the method that Jaco had me follow that afternoonwas probably the most “friendly” (if I can call it that) of the 3 I’ve had tofollow.
It still hurt really badly, don’t get me wrong, just lessthan the last I remember where I had to get off the bike, lie on the floor andcollect myself for about 10 minutes.
But the whole experience was a lekker one. Jaco has anincredibly friendly, energetic and positive demeanour and the way he explainseverything is detailed enough that you can understand it but thoughtful in thedelivery. He did during our time together, highlight the magnitude of the taskat hand and that the Epic was a very big race not to be taken lightly. Duringrace week we’d be riding for a very minimum of 40 hours over the 7 stages sowhile a 20 hour training week would feel tough, we must be aware that that wasonly half of what would be required of us in that race week.
And after the test – the magic number was 243watts. It’sdown on the 249 I was in December last year, but having taken if a lot easiersince the completion of the Iron Man 70.3 in Durban with Team Purple Group inJune this year, I know it’s a good base to start from.
Jaco was amazed at how similar Sibusiso and I were in avariety of different metrics, with many of them being within 5% of one another.
So armed with our FTP’s, Jaco had our first trainingschedule out that Sunday. At this point in time a typical training week lookslike the one below and Jaco pointed out that it’s not too challenging at themoment because it would ramp up substantially in December and January.
Monday – break
Tuesday – 1 – 1.5 hour cycle with power between 138 and 188Watts with 8 – 10 30 second bursts as hard as you can
Wednesday – easy run and strength training
Thursday – 1 – 1.5 hour cycle with power between 138 and 188Watts, and then 3 x 10 minute intervals at between 224 – 254 watts.
Friday – break
Saturday – 3-4 hour ride
Sunday – 1-2 hour ride
The greatest thing about training programs for me – despitethe obvious fitness benefits – is that you know exactly what you need to doevery day and provided you can keep ticking the sessions off day by day, youknow that you should be alright when you line up on race day.
When there’s a range, I’m trying to stick to the moredifficult / longer hours of that particular range. My mantra – the more painand fatigue I can endure now (in small chunks), the more I’ll be able to takeduring the race.
So far (09/11/16), I’m up to date.
In addition to fitness, bike skills are critical in order tonavigate the tough terrain we’ll need to ride over in March. And they’reintrinsically linked to fitness in the sense that in addition to ensuring youdon’t fall off the bike and injure yourself, the smoother and more relaxed youcan keep you position on the bike while doing so, the less energy you need toexpend on the non-pedalling element of cycling.
My brother (yes again) had done a skills course with awell-known character in the SA MTB community in the form of Sean Badenhorst,the editor of Tread magazine. Rob found the improvement it made in his confidencein not falling off the bike as well as his ability to move fast over tough partsof the course, had been huge.
After a bit of investigation, some cyclists whose opinions Itrust, recommended a lady named Nicolle who teaches from the PWC Bike Park onMain Road opposite the Dimension Data Campus. So I booked Sibs and I in on theSaturday after the FNB Run the City 10km race that morning.
We checked in and were introduced to Nicolle, a petite ladywith a delightful Dutch accent. She ran Sibs and I through what we were goingto do that day, as well as an explanation of how important solid bike skillswere to good riding, particularly for an event like the Epic.
We then headed off to a little technical area, where overthe course of a few different demonstrations, Nicolle explained to us the“neutral position” a cyclist needs to assume on the bike.
In the last demonstration, which involved Nicolle holdingthe handle bars and swaying the bike from side to side, it was particularlynoticeable how easily the bike could move freely below you without causing anyinstability. When testing the stance a little later on one of the bike parktracks, it felt amazing how you could really let the bike do its own thingbeneath you, with just a tiny bit of guidance and direction needed.
I got to try the stance over 3 days at the Isuzu 3 TowersMTB race the next weekend and I definitely felt a lot faster and more confidenton the rough stuff.
As with anything, practice makes perfect and Nicolleemphasised the important of practice so that your bike is eventually a bit ofan extension of your body. One practice drill requires learning to stand on thebike, with your feet clipped into the pedals, with the bike completelystationery. You may well have chuckled at a cyclist balancing like that at atraffic light, waiting for it to change, and wondered “how the hell do they dothat?”. Well that’s what we need to learn how to do.
I also told Nicolle I have to learn how to do a wheeliebefore the Epic so that, energy levels permitting, I can wheelie over thefinish line of each stage. Thankfully she said she can, if I practice what sheteaches, so I’ll be practicing my drills bedonerd over the coming months.
Cycling is unfortunately bloody expensive. There is no wayof getting around it. Unlike running where you can slap on a half-decent pairof shoes and head out the door, a basic cycling setup requires:
A half-decent bike
Cycling shorts – essential to preserve the crown-jewels andavoid saddle sores
A bike computer – to tell you how far you’ve gone, whatspeed you’ve done, what your heartrate and power readings are
Sunglasses – to protect you from the sun and stop your eyeswatering
Cycling shoes – that can have cleats screwed onto them sothat you can “attach” your feet to the pedals
Helmet – to protect your head when you crash
Cycling gloves – to avoid blisters on your hands and savethem in case of a wipeout
A tyre pump – to pump your tyres before each ride
Tube – to replace a puncturedtube on a ride
Tyre Levers – to get the tube outfrom under the tyre
Bomb – little CO2 canister toinflate your replacement tyre
Bomb head – to connect thecanister to the tyre when inflating
Ass Magic (love the name) – orother brand of chamois cream to apply to your derriere to provide a barrierbetween it and your seat and in so doing keep it protected on a ride
Fark – a lot to remember. Every time I forget somethingimportant on a ride I endeavour to put together a checklist to ensure I don’tforget anything. 4 years on. No list. Still forgetting things. Just yesterday Irode away from my car at the start of a 4 hour MTB ride without my gloves. Notsuch a biggie on the road. Big deal on Mountain bike.
And the kit above is the relatively easy kit in the sensethat you buy it, put it on and go. The more complex kit, like a power meter,can be really expensive and require the determination of a whole lot of weirdinformation about the bike specifications to ensure that a particular kind ofpower metre will fit the bike. When I bought mine 2 years ago I thought I knewa decent amount about bikes, but after some incredibly confusing conversationsabout cranksets, bottom brackets and bolt circle diameters I realised there wasstill as shedload I needed to learn.
Anyway, with the help of a few cycling boffs, I managed toget a power meter mounted on my bike and have been using it as an excellenttraining tool ever since.
Sibusiso didn’t have any means of recording power, and I wasreminded when trying to work out how best to organise that for him, how complexit could be. Did we fit a power meter on a bike and then get him a trainer? Didwe get a trainer that could read power itself?
Many many considerations and a lot of chats later led to afinal and thankfully rather simple solution (in retrospect) that killed 2proverbial birds with one stone. And that solution comes in the form of a Trainercalled a Wahoo Kickr Snap that can do all sorts of clever things that bring anextra element of fun and variety into what can be an incredibly boring pastime.
My trainer badly needed upgrading and in order to be able tounderstand how it worked and write intelligently about it, I took delivery of aKickr Snap last week. Having ridden it a few times, you can feel the qualityand I haven’t even begun to tap into the fun features (mentioned above) whichI’ll describe in another article.
So aside from some (hopefully snazzy and stylish) Emperorbranded kit that Josh is working on for us, our Gear is now sorted and proper‘scientific’ training can commence at full speed.
Finally – the fuel your body needs to keep you going over6-10 hours, is a crucial component to ensure you make it through the week.Getting it wrong and not having enough nutrition on one day, can provedisastrous in finishing that day or the race.
There is nothing worse than bonking in an event. And beforethose of you with a dirty mind think the worst, Bonking is a term used inendurance sports to describe a condition of sudden fatigue and loss of energy.It’s a collapse of the entire system: body and form, brains and soul, thatliterally brings you to a halt.
An article in Runners World called “TheScience Behind Bonking” outlines the various forms it can take:
“Considerthe muscle-glycogen bonk, where the brain works fine but the legs up and quit.Then there’s the blood-glucose bonk, where the legs work fine but the brain upand quits. Let’s not forget the everything bonk, a sorry stewpot of dehydration,training errors, gastric problems, and nutrition gaffes.
“Andthen there’s the little-purple-men bonk. “After about 20-K, I started tosee little purple men running up and down the sides of these cliffs,” saysMark Tarnopolsky, M.D., who wears hats as both a leading sports nutritionresearcher and an endurance athlete. “I knew it was an hallucination, butI stopped in the middle of the race to look at them anyway,” he says.”It was kind of crazy.”
I’ve had first-hand and rather spectacular experience ofbonking in my 2nd Comrades Marathon. Going nicely at about 65km’s,feeling comfortable and on track for a sub-9 hour (my goal), it very suddenlyfelt a lot more comfortable running with my eyes closed.
That mere fact should have raised alarm bells but it didn’t.It rather bizarrely seemed pretty sensible. I mean – why not? After a longperiod of sporadically passing in and out of a dream like state, most of thetime caused by stumbling in the road or having another runner run into the backof me, I realised something was wrong and started boshing as much Coca-cola asI could at every stand.
Looking at the data from my watch afterwards, there was adistinct period of about 45 minutes where my speed came down significantly andmy heart rate wasn’t what it should be. Thankfully the ‘little red ambulance’did the trick and I was thankful that I managed to finish.
So nutrition is important. My Iron Man race of 2014 led meto the discovery of an amazing brand called Hammer Nutrition and their productcalled Perpetuem. It’s a powder that you mix with water, measuring the numberof scoops according to the length of the event and what your body weight is.But you can cram approximately 6-7 hours’ worth of food into one cycling waterbottle without making it too thick to drink.
And I’ve trialled it successfully many times since. It worksa treat. I plan to supplement that with a bit of solid food along the way, butit’s reassuring knowing that just the one water bottle on my bike is all thenutrition I’m likely to need for the day.
Jaco did inform me though, that if we were out for longerthan 6-7 hours, we would need to be consuming protein and proper food as ameans of getting nutrition for the next day as it would be almost impossible toreplace the calorie loss of a full day in the saddle in the time betweencompleting the stage and the next morning. No matter how hard you ate.
Then of course there’s water too. The rough rule (accordingto Professor Tim Noakes – and unlike the current hubbub about the Low-carbhigh-fat diet this theory is scientifically proven and agreed on) – listen toyour body. It’s the best governor of thirst. If you feel thirsty, drink. Ifnot, don’t worry. If it’s hotter than normal, drink a bit more in-betweenfeelings of thirst. Don’t drink too much. The dangers of over-hydration – acondition called Hypernatremia– are often more severe than those of dehydration.
So in summary, there’s a lot to consider before a race likethe Epic to ensure you get there in the right physical shape and understandyour gear and body and how they work and what you’ll need to ensure they getthrough the race.
I suppose if it was easy, it probably wouldn’t be such achallenge and so highly oversubscribed.
While it can sometimes be a bit of a headache to getthrough, as long as Sibs and I are following our program, ticking off eachtraining session day by day, and getting used to the requirements of racing interms of gear, nutrition and bike skills, we should be ready come Sunday March19.