The question that I keep mulling over is 'would I do it again?'.
It took a day or so to be able to even think about doing it again. And I think there’s two possible answers (both of which are yes!).
Either do it slower, and take more time to appreciate it. I did lots of appreciating, but there was also lots that I whizzed past. If I went for this approach, given I wouldn’t be racing, it would probably make more sense to do it in the summer when the daylight is longer. If anyone reading this wants to do it then I think it would be amazing trip, and I’m very happy to share my routes.
Or try to do it inside GC, which leads to the inevitable question….
Could I do it faster?
This is a long one, but I'm hoping these learnings are food for thought for anyone in a similar position of considering their first ultra race, of areas they can work on in advance.
Distance per day
For me, far, far harder than the physical side, was the self-sufficiency factor. As a self-supported race you're not allowed to pre book any accommodation, so each day you need to make a call on where you think you can get to and by when, and find somewhere to stay which will still be open when you expect to get there. And I think this is where I lost time, my biggest fear was getting to my destination, and not finding anywhere to stay.
I'd got an emergency bivvy bag, but never having bivvied before, and with temperatures regularly dipping down below 5 degrees, (and those who know me will know I'm not the best in the cold, regularly getting numb, blue fingers in the middle of summer) I wasn't keen to test it out. So I panic-booked somewhere that I knew I could definitely get to before it shut.
And for the first few days at least, I'm pretty sure that if I'd been a bit more confident to take a risk, or spent a bit longer looking for places with late check in, I could have kept going for another 50km or so each day.
Of course I don't know the impact this would have had later on in the race, yes I felt fine, but would I still have felt like that the following day, with another 50k in my legs and a good few hours less sleep (and probably nowhere open to buy food for the evening or next morning when I stopped)? And could I keep that going day after day? Or would it have been a false economy, and I'd end up slowing by the end. There were plenty of people who would ride much later into the night than me, but then they’d start later the next day. For my head, and despite how much better I’ve got at night riding, it was better to start early and know it would (eventually) get light, rather than keep riding deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Should I have bivvied? A lot of the people at the pointy end of the race bivvied a fair bit (and a lot didn't, and a lot who did scratched) and I think when you're experienced, can spot a good place, and have the right kit (and probably it's not October), it can save time. But speaking to a lot of the people I was riding with (at the less pointy end!) it was often a false economy (in terms of time, it does definitely save money!). People slept badly then ended up making poor decisions or had to sleep early/ in the day, the next day. Plus, given how much of an issue saddle sores are on this type of race, for me a chance to wash me and my shorts every day was invaluable.
Another key factor is how much time I spent on non-essential tasks, both in the hotel (where faff time could be sleep time or ride time) and during the day.
My non moving time each day was about 2-3 hours. I got better at speedy food buying as I went but could still improve. I focussed on nutrition rather than just calories and this definitely slowed me down in the short term (rather than just buying a pizza in the evening I'd try and find a supermarket and get some protein, and some sort of veg). Arguably this sped up recovery so helped maintain speed, and in the context of a daily diet which often revolved around not much more than coffee, pan au chocolate and Snickers, I could feel my body wimpering for something green, but for a 1 week race I should probably learn to just accept what there is.
I definitely faff too much during the day. There was a day where I was bunny hopping the same people. It was a hilly day and I’m light so comparatively riding faster, but they’d constantly over-take me whilst I put layers on or took them off at the side of the road. I’m not sure I could change this, I’ve experimented with a million different layer options, but I’ve got a very inefficient internal thermostat and I am usually either shivering with cold or dripping with sweat, whilst others haven’t noticed a temperature change.
For a much hotter ride, I would have followed my own advice on heat acclimation training, and sometimes I just need to push through. But heat, dehydration, and the cold, are all big determinants of performance, so some of the time that would be a false economy. I could definitely improve on studying the course profile so I know when it’s a 30 minute descent and I need to wrap up so I can still feel my hands by the bottom, or a 10 minute one where I just need to grin and bear it.
Plus because I’m pretty short and so have a small bike, there’s very little clearance between front and back wheels and the bags I was using. The lovely people from Apidura had attached an additional strap to my seat pack to help lift it up a bit more, but every time I got anything in or out of either bag, it took quite a while to get it set up properly again so it wasn’t rubbing. If I do this again, I definitely need to improve on my luggage options (it’s less about how much I was carrying, and more about the ‘girth’ of the bag), and maybe get some 650b wheels.
And I could have minimised hotel faff – I’d definitely have had more sleep if I'd spent less time doing Insta updates, but I can't quantify how much stronger I felt for all the support I was getting from friends online. Plus, as someone with a useless memory, it really helped me capture the memories. Other than in moment of weakness checking on Hector (see below), I didnt really follow the race online at the time, as I think that could have led to hours of ‘wasted’ time.
I also washed my clothes every evening, and whilst this was more pleasant for all concerned, other than shorts, I could wash everything else less. I also foam rolled every night (I use the roller as a mangle to squeeze out the wet clothes between towels). I know most will think this is mad, but the roller was pretty small and weighed very little, and it didn’t take me any more time because I would have hand squeezed the clothes otherwise (and I’m not sure my hands were up to this after 5000m of descending) but if I was washing less clothes I’d have to decide if I would still make time to roll so much. I was amazed how well my body held up during the week, and I don’t know if this would still have been the case without rolling.
(Whilst this will be less relevant for most people, considering how you keep in contact with friends and family is a big issue. Many I spoke to ended up in tears whenever they spoke to their family, or spent a lot of their time worrying about the stress their race was causing others. So it's definitely worth thinking through how you deal with these things, and speaking to family about it, in advance.)
So back to the self-sufficiency element. My partner, Hector, was also racing. We’d decided from the outset that we would not be riding as a pair, we wanted our own experience, and whilst we generally ride well together, riding together means you’re riding as slow as the slowest rider, with him often slower up the hills, and me and my multiple faffs.
I’m so glad I had the experience of riding solo. I’m pretty new to long distance riding and I realised I’ve rarely ridden by myself, and there’s something very special about going on your own adventure. At its best I absolutely loved it, and the feeling of freedom it gave me, at its worse, it scared the crap out of me. Either way it’s the hardest thing I’ve done and I’m proud of myself for doing it. Plus it made me up my game in terms of bike maintenance before we went rather than relying on him for the tricky stuff.
As an added bonus, the fact that we were both doing it meant in the weeks leading up, when my thoughts pretty much revolved around the race, waking up at 4am in a cold sweat, panicking about my choice of lights or whether my route would ever get me out of Andorra, we both completely understood what the other was on about.
But it was also the hardest part of the race, when I wasn’t worrying about whether I’d find a hotel that was open, I was worrying about him (despite the fact he’s a very capable and sensible rider). Generally he’d ride late into the night, so whilst I was meant to be getting the benefit of an early night, I couldn’t help myself checking on the tracker to see if he’d stopped for the night (and if he had, was that because he was in a hotel or lying in a ditch?). It also meant we didn’t really get to speak / text each other because most of the time one of us was riding.
And the lack of sleep and general stress of the event meant when I did bump into him, I’d often end up with a quick burst of hysterical crying or laughter. It’s quite hard to control your emotions and breathing when you’re already out of breath riding up a hill, so his mildly amusing leg warmers collapsed around his ankles, nearly made me fall off my bike with hysterical laughter. (Apologies to the other riders around who must have thought I’d completely lost it) (no apologies needed for Hector, he was used to it!).
On day 5, I realised, that unless I was prepared to really push it and ride through the night for the next 2 days (which I wasn’t, having already had to stop and sleep on a tiny verge at the side of the road because I couldn’t keep my eyes open) I wasn’t going to make it inside GC (General Contention, a 7 day limit that meant I needed to arrive by 6am the following Friday).
And if I wasn’t in GC I didn’t need to stick to the rules of riding alone (you can ride officially as a pair, but otherwise you must ride alone. When we bumped into each other up we’d ride together for quick catch up, as I would with other riders on the road, but then deliberately separate out).
So I rode the hardest I rode all week to try and make up the 70km between us. There was a long parcours ahead so I had to catch him before he finished it if I wanted to know where he’d be. ‘Luckily’ he was having a bad day and finally I chased him down just by the end of the parcours (more tears). I didn’t want to share my thoughts about GC because I didn’t want to demotivate him if he was still going for it, but after a while he said he was thinking exactly the same, so we let Lost Dot know we had decided to ride together.
In physical terms this didn’t change anything, we decided not to draft, and still carried all our own kit (one of the advantages of riding as a pair from the beginning is sharing some kit). A few times we filled each other’s water bottles or ordered food for the other one, but that was about it.
But for me the psychological benefit was immense. I was no longer worrying about him, I was far less stressed about where to sleep - even if we couldn’t find a hotel I knew we’d be ok together, and there were more options anyway as our hotel budget had gone up based on sharing a room.
On the day we had to cross the Peyresourde at night with a freezing, hours-long descent in the pitch black and pouring rain, with hardly any visibility through the raindrops on my glasses, I don’t know how I’d have done it without him. I was terrified and right on the edge of saying I couldn’t carry on (I don’t know what I think I’d have done instead!) but he stayed with me at my ridiculously slow descending speed (generously saying that he wouldn’t have gone much faster in those conditions) which gave me the confidence to keep going. I’m not sure what I’d have done without him, I guess I’d have had to stop much earlier before it got dark. Or maybe I’d have found I’m capable of more than I think. That was the one night I did go onto Trackleaders (the online tracking) to make sure those also crossing over that night got down ok, I hated/ was in awe, to think of anyone doing that by themselves.
In terms of how we rode together, usually I’m faster up and he’s faster down, so we average out together, but by the end of the week I was riding into fatigue, whereas Hector, who does far more long distance riding than me, was riding into form, so I think he got the worst end of the deal, especially on the rainy day across six Cols which was an ongoing series of costume changes for me.
But generally we rode well together. In the end I was incredibly lucky to get the best of both worlds, I had my experience of riding alone, and know I can do it, but also got to share some of the most amazing and intense experiences of my life, with the person who I would most want to share them with. I didn’t feel like I’d ‘let myself down’ by pairing up but didn’t feel guilty to the other women in the race, and contacted those who finished behind me, to let them know that in the non official, out of GC, finishing order, they were a place higher because I’d not kept to the rules.
Going into the race, one of the things I was most worried about was my fitness and ability to last til the end. But ironically, especially as a triathlon coach, when I first wrote this I forgot to include training because I’m not sure I’d have changed a lot. I’d trained fairly hard with structured intervals up until my Ironman race in the summer that year. After the Ironman my training changed focus to the TCR and I prioritised long rides, with a 400 – 600km ride (over a weekend) about once a month.
As well as the actual training, these were essential for checking out kit over that distance, practicing quick fuelling stops and what I preferred eating, and (actually I found one one of the most significant bits, maybe because I dont drive) training my brain to keep concentrating and decision making for that many hours. I found that by the end of the 600, the bits that hurt the worst were saddle sores and my arms. I couldn’t change much on the saddle sores, although I think you do ‘toughen up’, but added a lot more upper body work into my strength training which seemed to help (which is just as well because 5000m of descending is pretty tough on the hands and arms, especially when going at a snails pace in the rain).
One of my biggest issues was that I had no experience riding in the dark. Living in London until recently, there isn’t a lot of actual darkness, and as someone who only started long distance riding recently, and being normal (until recently!), I’d avoid doing long rides into the night. I don’t drive, so wasn’t even used to driving in the dark.
Now I live in Woking it’s a lot easier to find dark roads, and I started choosing longer, less well-lit routes when I was coaching outside of Woking in the evenings. Hector and I started doing a hill training loop, including a short off-road stretch, in the evenings (our kind of date night!). I found it really hard at first, especially when it was raining and I nearly ground to a halt trying to see past the oncoming cars illuminating the rain on my glasses. But coupled with decent lights, I was amazed how quickly I grew in confidence, and by the time of the race I’d almost stopped noticing the dark.
For someone reading this, thinking “well she’s a coach, she must be really fit, I couldn’t do that" I’d say that my base fitness definitely helped, and (relatively) short structured intervals on the turbo, are the most efficient way to build that fitness, but that would have been irrelevant without the ability to spend long days in the saddle, and the right mental approach.
You definitely wouldn’t want to go into something like this without a good few long weekend (or longer) rides in the bank. And if planning to ride solo, at least some of these training rides should be alone (this was quite a big jump for me, so I chose to repeat a 400 that me and Hector had already done together, to make it less intimidating, but deliberately left late, after a short time trial, so my legs would be more tired and more of it would be in the dark). Audax’s are another great way to get the training in without having to worry about designing a route, and with the boost of other riders around.
Of course, you can always do more, and if I’d managed my time a bit better, or started training before the Ironman was out of the way, with more regular solo long rides and Audax’s year-round, rather than just specifically in the build-up, it would all have helped. I should have done more midweek training rather than let the time I spent researching kit and routes get out of hand, driven by panic. And ideally I’d have added a third day to these weekend rides but this didn’t work with my work commitments. But based on experience, I was pretty sure that I would be fit enough to get me through by the time of the race, and I was.
Probably the bigger advantage of my triathlon racing experience was what it has taught me about mental resilience. Whilst it sounds like I was an emotional wreck, weeping my way around the Pyranees, the mini-melt downs only happened when I saw Hector, I felt ok most of the rest of the time - I guess the relief of seeing him meant I let my guard down. But considering what a leap into the unknown this was for me, and how many people I heard considering or actually scratching, I think I handled the mental side pretty well. I have a whole host of sports psychology tips and tools to get through tough races, and other than the ‘Night of the Dark Mountain’ they served me well.
Racing or riding
The other big factor was that I (deliberately) didn’t have my ‘race head’ on. When I got to the first checkpoint and found I was quite well placed among the females, I was pretty surprised, because my goal had only ever been to make it back to Biarritz (we’d booked our trains back on the Tuesday because we weren’t confident we’d be there before then). For a bit, my race hackles pricked up, and I thought about racing, but I quickly patted them back down again. I was here to enjoy the experience and get as much out of it as I could, and I didnt want to blur that by worrying about competing. I confirmed this again at another check point, getting there just as another female rider was leaving. I stopped and deliberately decided to book a hotel at a fairly conservative distance from there, to reinforce my decision.
In the same way, I could have made GC. There was a cafe on day 5 where about six riders ended up (it was the only thing open for miles and miles around, and must have sold a month’s worth of patisserie offerings in a few hours). Whereas me and Hector had just concluded we were happily out of GC, about half the group were making plans to get to the finish on time. I thought given where they were at that stage, they were all mad. But I was very happy to be proved wrong by them all. Had we been prepared to really push it and ride through the night we could have as well, but again, (this time!) I was here to enjoy it.
One day maybe I’ll cover kit in a separate post for those who are interested, but I definitely had quite a lot of it! My bike weighs 10kg and with full kit on, including two water bottles, it was almost 20kg. And that’s pretty significant when you’re climbing close to 5000m a day. And you only weight abut 55kg. And I think this encapsulates my main issue in approaching this race – I went for safety/ comfort zone over weight/ speed. I had back ups for most key things (back up lights, back up power, back up bike parts, back up glasses, 4 different pairs of gloves (!)).
Even though this sounds ridiculous, for my first race I think this was probably the right decision. My head was definitely weaker than my body, and I was constantly worried about not getting to hotels on time. At least, had the worst happened, I knew I had back up lights and power, and I wore all the different gloves (3 at a time at one point). I didn’t use any of the spare bike kit, but it could have been invaluable, and other than the spare inner (which I would definitely take again and was overjoyed not to use), the spare derailleur hanger, brake pads and chain links weigh very little.
In fact the only big thing that I didn’t use was my down puffer jacket, and on the torturous, hours-long descent of the Pereysourde in the pitch black and pouring rain, pretty much the only thing keeping me going, other than the amazing Hector, was knowing that if one of us had a mechanical or crash, I had that extra layer in my bag (maybe if I’d opted for synthetic down or a larger rain coat, I’d have put it on, but whatever it was made of, once it was wet it would be pretty useless, so it felt more reassuring to know it was dry in my bag).
But many others managed with much less. If doing it again I’d need to get more comfortable with less ‘just in case’ options, and more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Given I stayed in hotels every night I could probably have cut down on the amount of charging capacity and back up light options. But I also think my body’s poor temperature regulation means I’m always going to carry more kit than others, or need to choose different races with less temperature extremes.
Route planning and info
I was pretty happy with my route. Compared with others, I often had a shorter route with less climbing and I hardly ever ended up on a road that I didn’t want to be on. I plan in RidewithGPS (mostly in car mode so that it’s not taking me off road where I dont want), sometimes using Komoot to compare 2 different options, and then check my route on Street View. I use the paid, but very cheap Plotaroute which gives me a split view of my route and Street View. I find its mapping functionality completing bemusing so I import from/ update to RWGPS, but find the split screen a lot easier than swapping between RWGPS and Street View.
The thing I need to improve on is how I store my route information. I had a spreadsheet with the mileage, towns with accommodation (compiled from Booking.com in advance, I could improve on this by more focus on hotels with late check-in, and remembering that even when ‘sold out’ on Booking.com they often still had rooms) and where there were food options,including opening times (by looking on Street View and Google maps in advance) and had a plan of where I hoped to get to each day based on this, but with enough information on the spreadsheet that I could change my plans as needed. Often I didn't use the information on the spreadsheet but the work I’d done to see where there were black holes in terms of food or accommodation was useful.
I need to find a better way to add in the climbing per section as this is a key factor in planning the day, to see what’s coming up and decide whether it’s worth layering up for a descent, and to judge whether I will make it to my planned hotel. Obviously this is possible by looking a route profiles but this doesn’t show me the other info at the same time and you’ve still got to work out where to chop up the routes (if they’re too big then Garmin often explodes).
Loved it, wouldn’t change a thing (except maybe wheel size), but that will be covered more in the kit blog (if I ever write it).
Could I go faster?
So in conclusion, yes I could definitely go faster. With a bit more confidence riding alone and bivvying, a bit more pre-planning to know where the late check-ins were, a bit less kit, and a bit more fitness, I could have got a bit further each day. And had my goal been to make it into GC from the beginning, then I would have been more prepared to push a bit harder and ride deeper into the night if needed, as we approached the deadline.
The biggest issue I would have is deciding whether to ride with Hector, and if I wasn't, then I need to sort out my own head, and trust him to get on with riding his bike, just like he always does, without worrying about him. And spend more time riding alone so that I didnt have a melt down when I saw him.
But overall, for my first race, I'm pretty happy with how everything went, had an amazing time, and there's very little that I would have changed.