Ultra runner Robbie Britton recently wrote a blog for PH about how he was preparing to swap his running trainers for clip-ins ahead of the 1600km-long TransPyrenees bike race.
In his latest blog, Robbie tells us how the race went...
Well that didn’t go to plan. After only 44 hours and 621km of the 1600km TransPyrenees ultra distance bicycle race I was out.
I didn’t even feel like I had given it my best, it was more like a soft knockout. I hit the canvas after just the first few punches, maybe more concerned about the tough times to come than how that moment felt.
This isn’t an article looking for sympathy or people to say “it wasn’t a failure” - it was, but that’s not a bad thing. The word failure comes with a hugely negative association, but it needn’t be that way. Failure offers an opportunity for learning, arguably even more so than success does.
Reflect, but don’t regret
Beyond the fact that beating yourself up over a past result is a waste of time and energy, if you’re not failing in your life then one might argue you’re not trying hard enough to push yourself anyway.
In hindsight entering the TransPyrenees as my first bike race wasn’t the smartest thing, but the decision to take part is still one I would take again. There are certain things I would do differently, that’s for sure, but taking part isn’t one of the mistakes.
Repeating your actions and expecting a different outcome isn’t clever, so reflecting on your failures is the way to improve, avoid the same errors again and become a stronger athlete going forward. The mistakes help you learn what doesn't work and here are the 3 lessons I learned from my TransPyrenees 'failure'...
Lesson 1 - Train specific
One of the biggest parts of the TransPyrenees was cycling during the night. The sun rose after 7.30am and set about 12-13 hours later. That’s a lot of cycling in the dark, up and down mountains, with gravel sections in there too.
How much night riding had I actually done in training? Some, but nowhere near the amount needed and not even one overnight ride. There’s only one way to get used to cycling down a mountainside at 3am in the morning and that’s doing it.
Image: Natalie White via Robbie Britton ©
When it came to the race, one of my biggest errors was my choice of kit for the night. The time invested in practising and building up experience was lacking in nocturnal activities and the cold was underestimated because of this.
Yes, it’s common sense that it will get really cold during the night at 2000m, but here’s the thing, common sense isn’t that common. As a runner it gets cold during the night, but you’re moving and generating a lot of your own heat. Sat on a push bike you’re just getting cold.
Without any windproof covers for my bottom half (stupid I know), my thermal leg warmers weren’t enough to stop me haemorrhaging warmth from my legs. The legs are a large part of my body, the biggest muscles I’ve got, and they just got colder and colder.
Stupidity aside, had I practised more night riding and big overnight rides then it’s less likely I would have made this mistake. So I’ve got a couple more planned before the next race and I’ve ordered some windproof leg warmers, which I've learned is not an area for an ultra distance cyclist to scrimp on.
Lesson 2 - Make quitting hard
When I stopped there were a few problems. The main lights on my bike had failed, due to the wiring from the dynamo, my GPS file had corrupted and the front derailleur wasn’t working since the first night (although thankfully stuck in the 34 instead of the 50).
All these little problems added up and were frustrating, but none of them should have stopped me. I had backup lights, backup navigation and who needs a big ring when you’re cycling in the Pyrenees for five days anyway. The cold was painful, but I’d survived worse.
So why did I stop? Because it was the easy option. My wonderful wife Nats had driven to Font Romeu just to cheer me on and snatch a cheeky kiss, and it was lovely to see her. The problem is that is gave me an easy option out.
Now I’m not blaming my wife, I made the decision to stop but it reminded me of a lesson my buddy Majell and I had learned when crewing Nats at the 330km Tor des Geants mountain race. Give someone the opportunity to get sympathy and they’ll tell you their world is going to end. Let them know there is an easy option to quit and they’re more likely to take it.
We’re all capable of physically dealing with a lot more than we can cope with mentally. It’s sport after all so we’e unlikely to drive ourselves to death just to get to a finish line, our 'Central Governor' will stop us long before that.
So by making sure the easy option is to quit, you’re going to push a bit closer to that limit. There was a survival bivi and liner on my bike I could hunker down in if there was a real emergency. There wasn’t any real danger, just hard times and the promise of more hard times to come.
Instead of putting on my backup light and cycling off into the night, I called my wife to tell her just how dangerous it was without my lights. I knew what I was doing. My mind was looking for a way out and if I had been stronger I would have cycled on.
Image: Natalie White via Robbie Britton ©
Lesson 3 - Sleep is a wonderful thing
Going into the race, sleep strategy was something I was looking forward to experimenting with. Just how far can you go on minimal sleep?
The answer is a looooong way. Off the back of one 15 minute sleep in a bus stop I then cycled over 600km, before having a 'proper sleep' in a hotel room in Font Romeu. I actually set an alarm for 90 minutes and woke up after about 60-70 minutes and felt fantastic.
Even though it was still only a tiny sleep it made such a huge difference. Going back I would take a similar break on night one too. Yes, I was able to keep going but after CP2 in Andorra I wasn’t really that efficient and poor decisions were made.
Wandering around La Massana, indecisive and not filling up my food stores when I should have, I cycled up the Col d’Ordino and stopped halfway up just to lie down. It didn’t help that a couple of day cyclists kept overtaking me and stopping, then re-overtaking me. That can mess with your head, but it was mainly down to me being exhausted.
The difference a 80-90 minute sleep could have made at this point might have seen me go straight over the col, but also helped me make better decisions in the shops, with my fuelling, and maybe even buy some extra leg covers for the night.
The tiredness was problematic and I did drift off to sleep on the climb up to Port de Cabus at 2600m, but I woke up as soon as I hit the gravel section. The fear of falling can do wonders for your alertness.
Yet it was my inexperience that meant I should have taken more sleep. If you’re a dialled in ultra distance cyclist, your kit is spot on, you know when and where to eat and you’re not chancing it in general, then maybe you can get by on less sleep. If I were running then I’d have known everything else was on point, almost on auto-pilot. But as a cyclist there's a lot lacking still.
Put me back on the bike...
There are certainly more lessons than these alone, like the fact you can loosen how tight your feet are clipped to the pedals, which might have saved a few embarrassing falls, one of which was into a massive nettle bush.
The fire has been lit though. Ultra-distance cycling is my kind of fun, if at times miserable, but a sport full of good people, personal challenges and beautiful landscapes.
They say you have to get straight back on the bike when you fall off - so, where’s the next race?