This past weekend, I competed in my first UCI Marathon World Series event in Meda, Portugal, where I finished 10th. Whilst it was great to bag a Top 10 in my first one, I was in 5th place with about 50 minutes still to race before I bonked/hit the wall.
It’s always frustrating to finish lower than the highest point you found yourself in a race. In my defence, the race for me lasted 5h30m, which is longer than I ride, never mind race.
But, I’ve learnt some good lessons and the experience will really help when it comes time to race the UCI MTB Marathon World Championships.
Here are some of the lessons I learnt from this event. Hopefully they’ll help anyone riding a marathon-distance MTB race to prepare and race a little smarter.
1: BE COMFORTABLE RIDING HARD FROM THE START
I was a little surprised at the speed right from the gun, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Even though the race was 105km long, it’s still a race and no one wants to miss a group going away or give up positions.
This means for the first 20 minutes or so, the speed is high and you’re battling on every climb and descent.
This is therefore something that needs to be reflected in training. I would work on this specific ability by riding hard in the first portion of a long endurance ride.
This would simulate riding at a high intensity before settling into a sustainable pace, but also train the legs to continue to ride for long periods of time after a decent amount of hard riding initially.
2: BE SELECTIVE WHERE YOU USE YOUR ENERGY
This lesson applies when the speed is high at the start and once you settle into the race. Marathon races are typically in the range of 3.5 to 5.5 hours in length, and there is no way you can ride at a near maximal level for that entire duration.
So, you need to be smart about where you burn your matches or expend your limited supply of surges/hard race efforts. As mentioned above, it’s really easy to get carried away at the start and use up some of these efforts in the first 30 mins!
Always be analysing those around you and look to see who might be firing off too many shots too early. You have to weigh up whether a surge by another rider is worth following or whether it’s best to let them go now and reel them in later when they’re cooked.
Focusing on things like body language and estimating how hard they might be going will help you make the right call.
3: FUEL CONSISTENTLY
In retrospect, my biggest failing in this race was fuelling, and it’s what ultimately cost me 5 positions. The main reason was that I anticipated the race duration to be closer to 4.5 hours rather than 5.5 hours.
So, make sure you know roughly how the race will take for you and plan your nutrition accordingly.
With the fast paced start, group racing dynamics etc, it’s really easy to put off consuming a gel or drinking consistently. You must therefore be very disciplined when it comes to taking in energy.
Try to eat and drink right from the off and right until the end. I didn’t consume enough in the final 1.5 hours, and it cost me. Staying on top of your hydration is vitally important to stay feeling fresh and having the ability to concentrate on the often technical descents.
4: DRESS FOR THE CONDITIONS
When it comes to racing, we can often be too optimistic for our own good. This applies to nutrition as mentioned above, to mechanicals and also with the weather. Not being prepared for any of these can ruin a race, and in this particular World Series event, the weather was particularly bad.
It rained for about 4 hours of the 5.5 hours I was racing, and high winds made the 7-8 degree temperature quite chilly indeed. A lot of racers had nothing but a short sleeve jersey and shorts on, and were visibly suffering with the cold.
Always try to prepare for the worst and avoid being overly optimistic about things. You’ll be surprised how many things happen when you’re not prepared for them.