Houffalize – A Marathon in Preparation

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I’d hoped this story would be more triumph than tragedy where I could use my favourite, “I love it when a plan comes together” line as I saw my hard work come to fruition around the rolling hills of Belgium in the Rod d’Ardenne marathon. But nooo, I had to get sick the week before the race. It really is frustrating being a human sometimes. Although, robots probably get viruses to.

This adventure began last year when I found out the 3 Epic Marathon in Auronzo Italy would play host to the Marathon Mountain Bike World Championships for 2018. Now, I race cross county and I love cross country racing. An hour and a half at full gas is to me rather exciting. But for some reason a few years ago the 3 Epic caught my eye. The pictures coming out of the race were amazing, or rather duly, ‘epic’.

3Epic XCM World Championships mountain bike marathonmtb

This start line will have each nation’s best in September 2018.

Epic views of the Tri Cime di Laverado, three massive weathered peaks in the Dolomite range were shown along with riders lapping the Lago di Misurina, a pristine lake nestled high in the mountains. Racing aside, it seemed an awesome place to ride a mountain bike, but I’ve never been able to line up my calendar to race it. Then the World Championships announcement was made. To be able to race at the highest level on a course like that would be amazing.

Mixing Marathons with XCO

It was and still is an exciting goal for me to aim for and trying to piece together an XCO season and while qualifying for an XCM race is a tough but fun challenge. I’ve raced Australian marathons in the past, but I’ve never focused on one so never really had any results to speak of. They usually fall outside my XCO season and are either training or ‘adventure’ races.

Over in Europe though, I have raced some marathon stage races like the Alpen Tour Trophy last year and the Trans Schwarzwald previously. Both were only training races for my XCO racing but I did have some good experiences, particularly on the first stages, that left me wondering what I could do with some more focused training under my belt.

Sebastian Jayne XCM goal
So, for this year I am aiming to find out. First thing to consider would be how I would actually qualify for the World Champs. The ‘easiest’ way to do that would be to get a top 20 at a UCI MTB Marathon series race. This would give me direct entry into the world champs without having to stress about selections and criteria. The next piece of the puzzle would be finding a race that I could target without unduly affecting my cross-country racing.

Sebastian Jayne XCM goal

XCO training is very dedicated – mixing marathons in can be a hard balance.

Marathon racing comes in many shapes and forms from something like the Kitzalp marathon with multiple 30-40min steady climbs over 4:30hrs to the Roc d’Ardenne at the other end of the spectrum. Checking out other rider’s races at the Roc from previous years showed it would either be around 3:30hr race in the dry or 4:30 in the wet. This time would be made up by climbing many short and steep climbs that rarely extend over 6min long and descend technical single trails or farm roads.

Hans Becking’s race in 2017.

Given this explosive mixture of ingredients it seemed to be a perfect match to my XCO training. My specific XCO training would cross over nicely to the punchy race and being on the shorter side meant I wouldn’t have to spend too much time pushing my endurance capacity out to be able to handle the time. We’ll take a pause here on the narrative of my racing to have a look at some sessions I put together over the summer to increase my endurance capacity.

To race for a top 20 at the Roc d’Ardenne I knew I would have to have a normalised average power of around 85-95% of threshold. This average would be made up of multiple high force climbing efforts above threshold for up to 6min with the rest of the time spent at or just under 80% of threshold as I rode along the valley floor or across the top of the climbs.

Sebastian Jayne XCM prep

Getting it done.

The underlying base tempo work was done late last year in preparation for the Tour of Bright road race. The Stage 1, Gaps loop, includes a nice mix of flat and rolling roads with a couple of bigger climbs. Not too specific to Roc d’Ardenne but the time spent at around 80% was very valuable. There were several very similar sessions all designed to extend the amount of time I could spend at that power range.

Gaps Loop training

Before I left for Europe was the time to be a lot more specific with the tempo sessions. I picked an out and back route that goes through the pine planation’s of Bright and featured the ingredient list of the Roc. Over the sessions my goal was to go out hard and make it as far back as I could. The first time I did the session I barely made it half way back but by the final session, which is below, I had to add an extra climb at the end.

The session showed I had made a lot of improvements and had almost made it to 3hrs at 90%. I wasn’t too fussed that I didn’t make it over the 3hr mark as it was in a training week with still a few weeks to go until the race. I was confident with an easier pre-race week and the more explosive efforts to come I would handle the race distance even if it was wet and a bit longer. The specific sessions like this also help with confidence by giving me an opportunity to test tyre pressures and nutrition over the race distance.

Race Simulation.

Ok, back to the narrative of my racing. All seems to have gone well with my training and preparation. The hard work was done and all that was left was to race. It would have been great if it was that simple. On the Monday before the race Mum unfortunately picked up a bug right before our 12-hour car drive from the UK to Belgium. There wasn’t much we could do and by Wednesday afternoon after my first training session on the course I started feeling sick also. Yep, I was gutted.

I often get sick travelling over to Europe on the flying germ tube so this year we came over four weeks early in hope that if I did get sick I would still have a few weeks of training before my first race. What a great plan on paper. To get sick after all that expense the week before hurt a lot. I had hoped that the illness would pass as another had done the week before when I caught something from Dad. Yep, it’s been a great trip so far. But alas by Sunday I had deteriorated, and it was obvious I had a bad flu and I was out of the race. I was gutted as I really think I would have got a top 20.

All set to race…

So, what now? Carry on.

The plan B for qualifying isn’t quite as neat nor pretty as the one for Roc d’Ardenne. It’s the Sella Ronda Hero. It’s probably one of the hardest marathon races in existence that tests riders with many long climbs at steep gradients averaging over 12% around the Dolomite range in Italy. I had planned on riding the Hero but only as experience for the World Champs as they both have similar characteristics. I suppose it is fitting that to qualify for a race like the World Championships, I’ll need to race and not just ride one of the toughest tests on a mountain bike.

Sellaronda Hero XCM Italian Dolomites

Time to go to Italy.

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