Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Making the impossible possible

The South Downs Double is an ultra-endurance challenge. 200 miles, 22000 feet of climbing, 90% off road – these are the bare statistics. And yet they don’t really capture the severity of it: there are very few “free” miles of smooth flat riding; climbs come at you regularly, each one “granny ring severe”; there are sections that are bone jarringly rough; there are approximately 95 gates to negotiate each way; and it’s easy to get lost, especially at night.

How do you prepare for this sort of challenge? I can only say what worked for me, a 50 year old with a young family and all the time constraints that brings, but with the advantage of working from home and living next door to the South Downs.

This was a tip from a good friend – make your goal public, tell family and friends what you intend to do. This has two effects: it makes the whole thing more real and it makes it much more difficult to back out! This is exactly what I did in October 2012, I told people that I was going for the South Downs Double in 2013 and that my preparation was about to start.

I also used the ride to raise money for a charity, Parkinson’s UK. My father has lived with the disease for many years and this was an ideal opportunity to support an organisation that has done so much good work for so many Parkinson’s sufferers.

Training plan
I’m no expert, I’ve never raced mountain bikes and I had very little training experience to fall back on. I couldn’t afford a personal coach or anything like that so I simply did piles of research to try and uncover the most effective training plan for me.

I found loads of advice saying that you needed hours and hours of long steady rides to build up the necessary endurance. This worried me, I don’t have the time to do long rides regularly (my weekends are stuffed full with family activities) and I also find too much of this sort of riding a little bit dull.

I kept on looking, hoping that I’d find a different approach. Eventually, I came across an article that talked about the effectiveness of high intensity training, even for ultra-endurance events. Short, sharp intervals that focused on raising VO2 max and lactic threshold levels – I didn’t really understand the words but this certainly looked like the right approach for me.

Re-invigorated by this discovery, I created a training plan that was wrapped around high intensity interval work right from the start. I should add that, in adopting this approach, I made the assumption that I was already reasonably fit and wasn’t going to keel over with a heart attack half way through my first training session.

In practice, this meant that I did an average of 8 hours training per week over the 9 months, just over 300 hours in total. Over the winter, I focused almost entirely on interval work with much of this done on the road on my mountain bike. The weather was awful most of the time and I could train much more effectively on predictable roads rather than deep Hampshire mud. 

Every ride had a purpose. I relied entirely on heart rate as a means of measuring effort during intervals, I used a Garmin Forerunner and recorded every session adding notes about the weather, what I ate, what I wore, how I felt, how the bike felt and so on. This proved immensely valuable both as a means of assessing my improving fitness and also as a reference point when planning longer rides.

The super high intensity VO2 max sessions were the ones that I looked forward to least, they hurt and it took a lot of motivation to complete them. I mixed it up by doing some sessions on the flat and others up steep technical climbs; I found that this helped to distract me from the pain.

All work and no play..?
It wasn’t all heads down training; every so often I’d take off the HRM and just go for a ride, blast through the woods, session some jumps. This would refresh me and remind me what I love most about mountain biking. I also ran regularly over the winter months, this fitted in with my high intensity approach and provided some variety. I came to enjoy the running a lot but stopped entirely in March to focus on bike work only.

I was also lucky that I remained, for the most part, injury and illness free. I included one or two sessions of core strength work every week (about 30 minutes each session), did plenty of stretching and worked with a really good sports massage therapist http://louwalker.com/. This all helped but I still regard myself as fortunate not to have the back/knee/neck problems that a lot of my biking friends suffer.

I knew I was getting fitter over the winter even if I didn’t have a particularly scientific way of measuring the change. I felt increasingly strong on my regular Monday night ride with mates, I was able to do intervals at higher intensities for longer and I was maintaining higher average speeds at lower heart rates on the road.

But I was still anxious about whether this training approach would help me when the rides got bigger. My plan was to start including progressively longer out and back rides along the South Downs Way every 2 to 3 weeks from March onwards (my longest training ride over the winter was 3.5 hours). I managed a 60 miler from Winchester to just beyond South Harting and back at the start of March, this went well but then the weather closed in again.

I continued to focus on shorter, interval based rides as the rain came down for the next few weeks. It wasn’t until the end of April that I had the opportunity to do another long ride on the SDW. This time I drove over to Botolphs near Shoreham and rode the 80 mile return trip to Eastbourne. It was a lovely day but the ride was tough. This is a part of the South Downs Way that I know least well, I’d forgotten how many big climbs there were and I felt fairly beaten up at the end of it.
In retrospect, it was an immensely valuable experience. It taught me a lot about pacing, feeding and navigation; it also became clear from this ride that I needed to change my bike! I’d done all the training so far on my Whyte 905, a bike that I love and that is perfect for 95% of the riding I normally do. However, it was a little too harsh for my ageing bones after more than 4-5 hours on board; I needed something that would be a bit easier on my body.

It didn’t take long for me to work out that a 29er was probably the best option. I ruled out full suspension because of budget constraints; I tested various bikes but eventually bought a Canyon Yellowstone AL6.9 online as it seemed such ridiculously good value for a well-specced and relatively light bike. It was a bit of a risk but I knew it was a good decision the first time I rode it, the fit felt just right.

Armed with the new bike, I was ready for my next big training ride. It was nearly the end of May before I got the opportunity to go and, with the June window for my double attempt looming, this also turned out to be my last long ride. I decided to ride out to Botolphs and back from Winchester, this would mean that I’d effectively covered the Double in two long training rides, one of 80 miles and the other 120 miles.

It was a good ride despite getting two punctures in the first 30 miles. I covered the 120 miles in just under 13 hours, this included a leisurely stop at Botolphs and a fair bit of bike adjusting along the way.  I even had enough left in my legs to push hard for the 20 miles from the top of Butser Hill back to Winchester. This ride had a mood altering effect, all of a sudden I felt ready; after all, how hard could it be to cover the extra 80 miles? 

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