I did not set out to be the first. If I’m completely honest, I only realised several months after the second race that I was indeed the first to complete both. But when I look back, there’s a lot to be said for it- whilst the honor of having both under my belt is a wonderful one, the completion says more about me as a person and my journey as an athlete than anything else.
This journey started back in 2014, when a friend highlighted the Craft Trans Alp MTB race as an enticing option to consider for the following year. Starting in Ruhpolding, the race would span 625km, cover 19,286m of elevation and would be a joint effort as a pairs entry to the finish line in Lake Garda. It would be the longest race I’d completed (putting a new meaning to endurance for me personally) and also due to its nature, the first adventure style race I had competed in. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that this would be the beginning of a transition from traditional racing into adventure challenges. This wasn’t about racing anymore, it was about pushing myself to my limits and proving that I was capable. It also had the additional dimension of seeing first hand what multi-day races actually felt like as an athlete- something which has since become invaluable in my work.
As this race was supported, my racing partner and I had the benefit of a support crew, a wonderful team of friends and family who would set up camp, complete bike maintenance and support with meals etc. This obviously eased a good amount of pressure from us both and allowed us to really focus on the job in hand, leaving time at the beginning and end of each day for nutrition, personal hygiene tasks and recovery. On the downside, my brain works best when I’m in control of everything. Relying on someone else to have things prepped for you (however much you trust them) is not something that sits easily with me and can lead to more stress if I’m not in the right frame of mind. This experience has since become pretty valuable to my work- as I now coach so many athletes who do events that require support from others, support crew management is an integral part of race prep and keeps both athlete and supporters in a much happier place!
Now if I’m being totally honest, my training for TransAlp MTB back in 2014/5 was not great. The focus wasn’t there, I was probably a little complacent and man did I suffer. I suffered above and beyond what I knew was possible and had MANY moments where I genuinely didn’t think I could finish the race. I have a photo of me mid race- I’ve stopped cycling and I’m hunched over my handle bars, the pain I’m in clearly visible by my stance. My racing partner is stood next to me, in deep conversation as he pulls me from the depths of the hole I’ve managed to find myself in. The sad irony is, is that my racing partner never made it to the finish line- Ollie crashed on day 5 and with a broken collar bone, was unable to continue. I finished the race alone, joining up with an existing pair at the start of each day for safety, but soon pedaling along on my own for the last 2 days.
As with all challenges, the TransAlp race gave me as much as it took from me. The suffering taught me a lot (train harder Jon!) but I wouldn’t have traded the route for anything. 7 days of alpine views, beasty climbs and wild descents, winding through tiny villages not even knowing which country you were in and a race which was impressively well organised.
The Gore-tex Transalpine running race starts in Fischen, winding up and down 14,860m of elevation before finishing 247km later in Sulden. It was 2017 when a very good friend and I decided to enter and immediately my mind frame allowed me to focus on training much better. Not only was the process much more enjoyable, but the training was more relevant and therefore effective. It meant that when I got to the race start, I was already in a good place- not cocky, but confident that I’d put the graft in and therefore was statistically more likely to see the results I wanted.
Unlike the MTB, this race was more independent. The race provided accommodation (mostly school halls and on one occasion a building that seemed far too closely to resemble a WW2 prisoner of war camp facility for my liking) and meals along with decent aid stations which meant that the need for a support crew just wasn’t there. The distinct lack of “kit” also made the logistics of this race much easier to work with- no bike maintenance to contend with, no flat tyres, helmets or spares. As far as I can remember, I only had 1 moment of doubt during the race itself and despite my race partner not finishing once again (if I ever ask you to join me in a paired event maybe consider the stats before agreeing- my track record appears to be somewhat questionable) I finished this race stronger than I have most others.
Whilst these events varied in so many ways, there were some considerable similarities. I felt lucky to be able to run or ride from one alpine village to the next, taking in the scenery with like-minded athletes and seeing so many places that I would have otherwise gone straight past. Borders of countries merge together, time can almost stand still and you have no choice but to live in the now. But most days leave you wondering how you’re going to get up the next day and start over. You push your body to the limit over and over again and getting up in the morning is more a battle of will than anything else. And this is where my natural way of thinking and processing comes into its own. My mind that demands process and routine (not always a positive) can happily submerge itself into a required list of tasks each morning and evening which I find practically soothing. Getting the practical stuff well practised means it can be ticked off without so much effort and most importantly, helps the following day to flow smoothly. Thinking about the small things is also a huge part of this… where am I sleeping? Do I need ear buds or an eye mask? Will I have damp kit? Do I have the ability to sort this myself with a washing line? Do I need to eat at a certain time? Will that be provided or do I need to have it ready? Do I need quiet time post race each day? Can I find places in advance so I can have that time that I need?
As a coach, I focus on this topic a lot. It’s important. These things that seem small can become huge and ultimately ruin your race or adventure challenge. If you don’t have these nuances dialled, things can become very stressful as your level of fatigue increases. Seemingly simple tasks can become hard work and this can just add to the existing lack of energy levels. I feel that as a coach, having hands on experience alongside a coaching mindset enables me to apply this information to each athlete. I know that not everyone works like me and things that work for me won’t work for others. But I can combine the knowledge I have with the needs of an athlete to get the results. This area for me as a coach and a person brings me the most joy, looking at these details and how they impact our challenges and how we can best manage them- whether that’s from an athlete taking on the Tour Divide, rowing the Atlantic, skiing to the South Pole or running 60K in the Scottish Highlands. The fun I get setting the physical, the psychological and then the little things in motion is amazing, I believe that the mix of my personal experience, the experience of individuals I work with, sports science, sports psychology allows me to produce the product to fit with my clients and their adventure/endurance goals. It is so important to be able to build a plan that is so specific to an individual’s goal while factoring in their lifestyle demands, this is one of the biggest areas of praise I receive from my clients- how I can work sessions into their already demanding schedules.
For me personally when I reflect on my personal events/challenges, I not only feel great about completing them but I feel just as good about how much I learn that I can later use within my coaching. It’s a regular reminder that I am in the right job.
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