Writing about my preparation to take on the ETU Cross Triathlon European Championships made it clear how important the journey is to a particular goal, the race or event in itself lacks meaning in isolation. The race in question was last Saturday so I now have the benefit of hindsight and a good few days letting the dust settle (or rather, for the last traces of mud to be washed away) to review and take stock.
I arrived in the mountains just North of Lac Leman on the Swiss-French border a couple of days before the race to orientate myself, get used to the terrain and to take the opportunity to practise the swim, bike and run courses. The two days ahead of the race were extremely hot and humid – the Alps were experiencing the hottest weather in the whole of France with temperatures as high as 34 degrees C so I tried to do my recces late in the day to avoid the worst of the heat. The lake was warm (ish – for a mountain-fed lake at 1000m altitude) and clear and the bike and run courses were moderate – there were a few short sections of the bike course that were quite steep or technical but most of it was rideable with plenty of gentle cross-country and only a few muddy sections.
A bit of rain can really change the nature of a mountain bike trail. A lot of rain and a lot of tyres and footprints turn an unremarkable woodland path or alpine meadow into a sticky yet slippery obstacle that traps your tyres one moment and unexpectedly throws them sideways the next. An obstacle that goes on for miles. I’ve ridden a lot of mud like that before and I know that actually, against the odds, it isn’t always impossible to pass across it. But it slows you down a lot and adds a lot of unpredictability. Maybe I haven’t ridden it enough yet to love it, but based on my experience to date, I have to say, I’m not a fan.
The hot weather in the days prior to the race came to an ominous end as the race briefing the evening before was promptly followed by claps of thunder and torrential rain. That night we were woken by the most extreme lightening storm I have ever seen, with lightening bolts so frequent it was almost like the valley was being lit by a strobe. The road outside our chalet turned into a stream and the rain hammered down onto its corrugated metal shell.
I was grateful for the cooler air on race day morning, it had stopped raining and the sky was the kind of low-contrast grey that improves the visibility going in and out of the woods. The race start wasn’t until 2pm as the juniors and Xterra Light entrants had raced a single-lap version of the course earlier in the day but this meant the inevitable emulsifying of mud and water under hundreds of tyres began before we even started our swim.
After being prepared for changes to the start time due to forecast thunder and lightening, we were pleased to begin at the 2pm as planned under the grey but dry sky. The elite men and women set off a minute apart from each other and then the vast swathes of age-groupers waded into the milky-churned up water to the start line waiting for the gun a few minutes later. Spotting the pros dolphin-diving their way to water deep enough to begin swimming, I decided to put this skill learned in the familiar waters of London Fields Lido into action until I was about waist-deep and I started turning over my arms. I don’t know if it saved me any precious effort or time but it was fun and was good to be able to use the same techniques as the elite field when people around me were attempting to run in water up to their thighs.
The swim course was s single 1500m lap, about 750m in a straight line to the first buoy, then back in a narrow triangle shape via another buoy closer to the lake shoreline. It was a fairly large bunch start so there was the usual chaos of clashing arms, ankles being grabbed and seeing other goggled-faces turning to breathe a few inches from your own. I seemed to be swimming up the group slightly so I was a little annoyed at myself for not starting slightly further forward, but before I got to the first buoy I found myself swimming with similarly paced athletes and having a choice of feet to follow. I started to notice a sweet smell and wondered if it was the residue of swimmers sun cream or perfume leaching into the water, but it became smokey and I realised it reminded me of the rose- or cedarwood campfires that London house-boaters sometimes burn along the canals where I run in Hackney.
As we approached the two buoys I noticed the water was full of white-capped heads bobbing above the water; and wide, rib-threatening breaststroke-kicking legs just beneath and I reassured myself that I must have done more triathlons or had more open water practise than the people around me as I desperately tried to maintain my speed without breaking my stroke as I corkscrew turned around the buoys. Spotting the second buoy was difficult and I noticed the splashing around me was now not only caused by the other swimmers but also the rain that had made everything seem very misty. Shortly the scent of smokey rosewood again served as a marker that I was on the way back and before I knew it the swim exit was in sight.
I pulled my wetsuit down to my waist as I stumbled out of the water and ran across the grass to transition. Lots of puddles had formed that weren’t there before but they felt warm as my bare feet splashed through them. Transition wasn’t especially boggy as expected, although I realised my shoes, towel and helmet were all soaked. Having just been in lake though, I wasn’t too bothered and went through the drill; wetsuit legs off, bike shoes on (off road triathlon and mountain bike shoes dictated that this step would happen in the transition zone), race belt on, helmet on, grab bike, go! And off I went on the bike course.
I soon realised the brutal climb I’d practised two days before was actually the return route and the ‘out’ route only took in about half the first hill, so I was grateful that the first part was a lot less lung-bursting than I had prepared for. This was the point, though, that I started to understand the frowns of the other competitors when discussing the extensive cow fields in the first part of the course. On a dry day, this would have made a fairly easy, if slightly grassy and slow, warm up but it became the part of the course I most dreaded. Several kilometres of slow, slippery, rutted gunge. Everyone around me seemed to be struggling and I put in some good efforts on the first few hills, changing to an easy gear, getting my weight low over the front of the bike and trying to maintain traction as far up as I could before losing the back wheel or people in front of me stopping. On the worst part of a wide, off-camber thick mud-field my back wheel made a sudden left exit from underneath me and I was flipped onto the ground and my front wheel twisted sideways so my handlebars landed square on my kneecap. Ouch. Another rider passing shouted to check I was okay, “oui, il y a pas de problème” I shouted back cheerfully before realising my knee was quite sore. A few native-language expletives to overcome the initial pain and I tried to assess the best way to cross the quagmire, determined not to lose too much time. The ‘cow field’ section went on for another few kilometres before a short section of tarmac gave way to the more technical trails in the woods.
The forest trails were also treacherously slippery with thick mud, but there were odd interludes of rock and tree rooty-sections to provide some respite, and the fact that you can only see the trail for a short way ahead helps to break the challenge down into more manageable chunks. I was feeling a bit less confident about my ability to stay upright after my fall in the meadow and surrounded by some quite cautious other riders found doubts creeping in so tried to focus on some positive mantras that I’d gathered ahead of the race. I’d decided I needed to own the mud! I don’t know where the ownership angle went but my mantras seemed to be on the back foot and arguing back instead of owning the debate. Against the silenced thought that I really didn’t like the mud, I countered out loud “I love the mud,” over and over, and probably much to the bemusement of other competitors (“you don’t fool me” I guessed they’d be thinking). “I love when the tree roots are hidden just under it! I love the mud!”.
Despite my efforts at self-reassurance, the belief in my ability to keep the bike upright slowly chipped away with every skid and slip. As I approached the knarliest descent, a steep and narrow tree-flanked muddy descent with a stream at the bottom crossed via some wobbly boulders that were barely above the waterline I saw a stretcher at the bottom, apparently with a casualty awaiting rescue. As I picked my way down the slope with my bike beside me I discovered that sliding as if on a pair of skis or skates was the best way down. Up the other side was so steep it felt safer to carry my bike than to try to balance it pushing it up the hill. More thick slippery stuff at the top of this hill and then thankfully a path of well maintained hairpin bends down and up to slowly start the return loop.
Eventually I neared the turnaround point – the idea of doing the whole thing again was almost unthinkable but the encouragement and enthusiasm from supporters, my other half and the team of giant-cowbell ringers kept me smiling until I was into the first section of cow field again. “All you have to do is the same again” I told myself. I’d gone past caring about my time by this point and just wanted to finish. In one piece. I got slower and slower and less bold with my choice of lines. I cursed myself for becoming so risk-averse that tedium and frustration were starting to take over from adventure and felt angry for losing some of my mental fighting spirit.
Eventually I rolled into transition at the end of the bike course and was told “that’s it, the race has finished”. “Why?” I asked, “is it the time, or have there been too many accidents?” “Both” came the response. I realised later that the cut-off time had already been extended by about an hour due to the conditions, but after having a lot of accidents on both the bike and run course the organisers couldn’t continue to send people out onto the run course. It was past 7pm. A helicopter ambulance was landing just next to transition. People were stumbling around in foil blankets, their eyeballs looking bright white against their mud-covered faces. I felt relieved to be able to call it a day, but devastated to have not finished the race. I felt sure I could have stumbled around a 10 km loop that was at least half flat (you can imagine what the other half was like!), but it wasn’t to be. I racked my bike in transition, and with my bike shoes and helmet still on, waded into the lake where I’d swam 3 and a half hours before and submerged myself to try and dislodge the thick coating of mud that covered me from head to toe. I didn’t notice the cold. I didn’t feel especially hungry. I’ve never been close to missing a cut-off time in a race before and I didn’t know what to think or do.
Speaking to some of the other competitors, I started to realise that although it felt like a very personal and solitary battle, the experience was very much a collective one. From elites to age-group winners, people were talking about wanting to pull out and how the conditions were some of the worst they had seen. “Don’t make any decisions about future Xterra races based on this”, they urged me.
The next day I decided I didn’t want to look at my bike, let alone go for a gentle spin to help the legs recover. I felt I’d done so little continuous riding that it was not my body that needed to recover at all. For the first time in months I had what is really and truly a rest day. I finished a book that I’ve been reading in dribs and drabs for nearly a year and went for an evening stroll along the river Doubs before dinner. I decided Doubs was a cool name for a river. I tried to respond to my coach and close family who, seeing the reports and race results emerging had been trying to contact me since the race to find out what had happened.
Then, almost as if prompted by some supernatural messenger, I read an email from a friend and fellow triathlon coach recommending a podcast featuring sports psychologist David Galbraith. David sounded like he was analysing my race, from the initial plan, through to training and race day and said a lot of things that really resonated. We can choose what our goals are and provided we choose appropriately, we can succeed and find all the satisfaction and fulfilment that we need. He uses cake as a metaphor that is simple yet easy to lose sight of – when you eat a piece of cake, the appearance and taste of the icing are pretty inconsequential. Most people don’t eat cake because they like icing, they like the cake itself – it makes up a much bigger part of the end result and reflects the skill of the baker and quality of ingredients. You can even have really good cakes with no icing at all.
Staking all your chips on a single day, moment or race leaves a lot of your success to chance. When bike racing goes off road, there is so much unpredictability that the chances of getting the result you hope for are far from certain. With sport, the training is the challenge and the race or competition is the reward, or the icing on the cake. I’ve put a lot of work into my cake, I’ve learned new things and enjoyed watching the mixture come together over time. My attempt to ice it didn’t work so well this time but never mind. I’m looking forward to baking another one and who knows, the icing might come out really well next time. I’ll still have a cake at the end though and I’ll be grateful for every bite!