Run, bike, run.
The commas are important. In a duathlon, these represented the transitions. The briefest of pauses to swap shoes, to grab/replace bike, and probably not much else. Each of my stops were around 90 seconds. The quickest people were nearer 30 seconds per stop. Where did two entire minutes go? Those two minutes were the difference between a top 10 overall and my 15th place. There is no way I could have shaved off two minutes from my run. I may have been able to on the bike, but more on that in a bit. Two entire minutes?
The Grizedale Duathlon took place on a bitterly cold morning, starting from the Forestry Commission trail centre. We arrived early (Jenn was meeting her brother to go and have their own epic adventure on Coniston Old Man), and wandered through the huge complex of trail centre buildings to find registration. There has been a fair bit of development since I was last here (which, to be fair, was probably 15 years ago). Modern buildings sit within the forest, complementing the landscape really well. I can imagine lolling around on the grass after a summers bike ride, drinking tea and eating cake.
The transition area was small, cramped maybe. But, it was early, so I had a choice of where to rack up my bike. I went for as close to the exit as possible. I laid my MTB shoes out neatly, open and ready to be stepped into. I placed my helmet on top of them. I hung my gilet on my bike, aware that while I would be more than warm enough running, I could well cool down while on the bike. I sipped flat coke, I felt nervous. A different kind of nerves to what I have experienced previously. I had no doubt that I would finish it, no doubt that I would do reasonably well. No fear of the total exhaustion that 12hrs+ of racing brings. I did have fear of the intensity, fear of the pain, fear of the taste of blood at the back of my throat, fear of cramp. Fear of not finishing the race having given everything. Fear of wishing I had pushed harder, fear of what could have been.
I did my best to empty my mind of those thoughts. Matt Brown, @singlespeedmatt from twitter recognised my kit and bike and came to say hello. It was reassuring to see that someone else was stupid enough to attempt this on a singlespeed. Unfortunately, Matt is seriously fit, a good rider, and a good runner. He also works for Inov-8 and was sporting some spanky new shoes.
Time stretches and compresses before the start of the race. The hours before seem to drag, nerves mean watching checking on a regular basis. All I want to do is start. Then, at about 30 minutes to go, everything seems to change. I am focussed on last minute fettling. I am focussed. I am. I am taking of my warm layer. I am standing on the line. Near the front. I want to get away fast, I don’t want anyone in my way. I am.
Minutes to go, and they hang in the air, like a wave waiting to crash down. Seconds span hours of thought. Go. Run, a line through chaos. In front of chaos, clear. Passing runners in front of me, gradient increasing. My system hasn’t yet caught up with what I am asking it to do. The beauty of the first few hundred metres. Pain receptors start firing. My lungs start to try and wrestle control of my deliberate breathing pattern. Legs already want to slow down. Ignore it all. Just keep running.
I can’t keep this up.
Just keep running.
At the top of a dirt road, there is a sign pointing to the right. Straight up. I can’t keep this up. And I can’t. My pace drops, but so does everyone’s. The climb gets steeper. We burst through, and back onto fire road. Flat. Quick, again, then back into a jumble of rock and mud. Steep. Upwards. Top out, and drop like a stone. Legs full with blood and lactic struggle to move fluidly and react to the technical, rocky descent. I don’t flow, but I progress. I stay conservative, no wild jumps and leaps, just safe foot placements, and progress. Until, after an age, I pop out on to the farm track back to transition.
Kick running shoes off. Put helmet on. Pull cycling shoes on and try to do up ratchets. They won’t grab. The plastic teeth are so worn, there is no purchase left. Finally I get both shoes secure, grab my bike and pass through on to the bike course. CX style remount and start riding. As I set off, I see Matt arriving into transition. I was expecting him to pass me on the run, but give him a cheer, and wait to be passed later. The climbing starts immediately. Jelly legs push my singlespeed gear. This feels wrong, but the gradient is ok, the track smooth, I keep pushing, ignoring the alien feeling in my legs. I turn on to singletrack climb. Steeper, rockier and requiring strong pushes and attention to maintain momentum. It would have been a pleasure if I was fresher. Grit teeth. Keep going. Why, oh, why did I decided to do this on the singlespeed? I struggle to stay on top of the gear. The trail joins fireroad, and my legs are able turn at a faster pace. I drink, take on a gel, spin my legs as fast as they will go, get passed by people cruising by. Where I can, I tuck in and grab their wheel for a while. At some stage, I am aware that my seatpost is slipping. My legs are becoming more and more cramped, unable to stretch to an efficient pedalling position. Stop, get passed. Re-adjust. Go!
Often, when the trail turns rougher, and back into the rocky singletrack, I am able to catch and pass people again, the higher gear forcing me to maintain momentum. Dig in. The Kinesis FF29 is so fantastically capable. Despite the tiredness, despite my mind being focussed on the race, it affords me moments of pure joy as I carve a corner, or manual through a rock section. It feels like a precision instrument. A scalpel cutting through the trail, rather than a chainsaw chewing it up.
After a long descent, the trail points straight up. The path, cut into the woods is steep, and unmade. In the interests of energy conservation and keeping cramp at bay, I dismount and push up, running where I can. My legs scream. I continue. I’m passed. I continue. Back down. Traversing. Descent. I sense the end. Another gel. Keep riding. Christ it is cold. I can’t feel my hands.
I run through the transition process in my mind. Park bike. Remove shoes. Replace running shoes. Leave. Quick.
Park bike. Remove shoes. I can’t feel the buckles, but no problem. Replace running shoes. Jam left foot in. Try and wriggle the heel cup up. I can’t feel anything, I can see my fingers are where they should be though, and eventually the shoes slides into place. Repeat the tortuous process on my right foot. Ignore the pangs of cramp in my abdominal muscles. Just try and relax. Stand up. Breathe. Go. I know what is to come. I hit the first climb, like a slow motion replay of my first lap. Gravity has grown stronger over the course of the last 90 minutes. My legs no longer have the power to push onwards. I simply move one in front of the other. Despite this, I am making up places. Onto the proper steep stuff. I can no longer maintain a run. Quick, long strides replace my shuffle, and still I progress. I can hear myself breathing. Gone is the controlled two breaths in, one breath out. It is replaced by a ragged sucking in of any available oxygen molecules in my vicinity. Groan.
Despite slower progress than the first lap, the climb seems to pass more quickly. I start descending, cautiously initially, but keen to keep those behind me at bay, and aware that others are not far in front of me. I will have nothing left when I cross the line. Powerful strides, quick paces, jumbled legs. This is no game of chess; I am not plotting a line, just the best place to plant my next foot strike. Reactive. Switch off head. I can hear the person in front of me. I am faster than him. I am gaining. I am running out of time. I will have nothing left when I cross the line.
I am a projectile shot out of the bottom of the trail, on to the track. He is in front of me. I can only hear my breathing. I’m sprinting. Not like at the start. There is no semblance of control, no reserve of energy. This is my last gasp. I’m alongside him. 20 metres to go. I accelerate.
I have nothing left when I cross the line.
It turns out I was racing for 15th place. This isn’t the glory of the podium. I’m not even that bothered that I came 15th instead of 16th. But, I absolutely had to feel like I had given everything. I would not have been satisfied if I sat up. I’d like to think that I would have sprinted as hard if there was no one in front. I had to give it everything. In the end I held Matt off – he finished about 6 minutes after me, after an over-the-bars on the bike stage robbed him some time. Still a strong effort, especially given a super-stiff gearing choice.
So, a few days down the line, I look back. I can pick points that I would like to have gone better. Yes, my transitions could have been a bit smoother. No, singlespeeding was not the fastest option. Yes, if I’d have checked my bike more thoroughly I might have noticed that my seatpost clamp wasn’t as tight as it should be. But, most importantly, I have learnt to give it everything in a shorter race. My ability to work at an intense level for a “short” (I know 2.5hrs isn’t short) length of time is improving. Ironically, I won’t be doing many short races for the rest of the year. But, it is nice to know I can.
I like watching films about cycling. It has been a very long time since I’ve seen one that has grabbed me by the heart like this one does. I can almost taste the thin, dry mountain air. It instills a deep longing within me to want to be there. Share their experience. Brilliant.
Spots in front of my eyes. Halos of white around multi-coloured pits of black. Tunnel vision. It doesn’t matter, I know where I’m going.
Rasping acid lungs, struggling to find a rhythm. Any consistent pattern of breath will do. I’m fighting a losing battle to bail out the carbon dioxide coursing through my veins. There isn’t long to go in the strange personal race between oxygen debt and my front door. I love, hate, love ending on short climb. Today I might not bother sprinting for home. I might sit up now and cruise in. It’s not a race. I’ve done the hard work over the last few hours. This is just an unnecessary flourish. I stand up on the pedals.
Small muscles and tendons that rarely get to make themselves known are complaining, but that fades in comparison to the familiar deep, dark, creeping, all consuming ache in my thighs. Veins and arteries stand proud under taut skin, stained with road grime, salt and god knows what. The leather lace that is permanently knotted around my right wrist looks like it has been dyed black.
All sound has become white noise. The left-hand earphone is swinging from my helmet strap, penduluming in time with my faltering cadence. I’m too tired to replace it. I’m not listening anyway. And who cares, I’m nearly home. When I set off this morning, I savoured the sound of 110psi rolling over newly laid tarmac. The same tyres have seen potholes, wet autumn leaves, a cheeky bit of gravel and a variety of surfaces in between. My world has shrunk to a patch of land less than an inch wide and infinitely long. Except I’m near the end for today.
With one last, pathetic pedal stroke I pass the finish line outside my house and continue to roll, grabbing handfuls of gears, soft pedalling down the gentle slope, before conducting an awkward u-turn and barely spinning the pedals back to my door. I conduct an equally graceless dismount and fumble blindly for the door key, safely zipped away in a back pocket. Ineffectual, numb hands paw at the lock and door handle.
I peel off damp layers with the flexibility of a toy robot. Each layer is discarded on the short walk to the kitchen. Helmet, gloves, shoes, socks, jersey, vest. Bib straps are peeled off each shoulder and left to hang. Legs are borderline cramping.
Water tastes beautifully pure after hours of sticky energy drinks and gels. I sit down on the kitchen chair and observe my body steadily beginning to relax.
I’ve finished my own personal race for the day. It’s never enough though.
I only got round to cleaning my cyclocross bike and taking this race number off this weekend. The number is splattered with mud, and will stay that way. It is from the Scotland Coast to Coast.
The race was a bit special for me. The result was better than I hoped for, but more than that, I rediscovered a forgotten part of me. A deep level of determination, thriving on exhaustion, enjoying the pain. I remembered why I do this, and made up my mind to do more.
I’ve made and broken too many promises to myself in the last few years. I’ll be keeping this one.
- Work out one of them training plan thingamies
- Ride my bike lots
- Oh… get a suitable endurance race bike built up. Light, fast, suspension, big wheels?
- Write some reviews
- Ask some companies very nicely if I can borrow some kit
- Have fun
- Write about it