8 years of MTBO, a personal account – part 3

As a last year junior I had mixed results, but my performances at the World Championships exceeded my expectation. Once I had a top 10 finish under my belt, I believed a top 6 finish was attainable in 2010. This was my first official year in the elite class, and the pressure was on to keep performing and raising my game.

After 2009, it was difficult to find the training balance I needed to perform at a higher level. Moving up to the elite class meant I was racing the likes of Michaela Gigon, Christine Schaffner, Hana Garde, Ksenia Chernyk, Marika Hara and Ingrid Stengard. Athletes in the red group come and go on a yearly basis, but these 6 had been there for years. They knew the game, and they were experienced. All had WOC medals under their belts and knew what they had to do to perform.

Every race I did, I found myself physically unable to maintain their pace for much more than a minute. I just couldn’t ride that fast. It was impressive to see the speed they could ride at and still be mentally in control of their orienteering.

World Cup, Long mass start final loop. Some tricky route choices and executions.

World Cup, Long mass start final loop. Some tricky route choices and executions.


Thanks my 2009 travels to WRE’s, a World Ranking change in the calculations and the introduction of a World Cup, I found myself starting the season with a WR position of 11th. I really wanted a red group place as it would always guarantee a start position in the final 10 at major events.

My pre-season got off to a great start. I took a couple of wins and the overall ‘cup’ at the Danish Training Camp held in Sweden. As a first year senior I was happy to be able to beat some big names despite having two poor races. One of those wins was on the same terrain as the World Cup middle race this year, and I look forward to racing there again.

World Cup middle race. Photo from MTBO Hungary (?)

World Cup middle race. Photo from MTBO Hungary (?)

2010 was ‘the year of the ash cloud’ with all flights in Europe grounded. This occurred in the week before the first World Cup in Hungary. As a result, two days before, I found myself filling up my credit card with train tickets for the epic journey to central Europe. Sheffield to London St Pancras. LSP to Brussels. Brussels to Frankfurt. Sleep for 5hrs in a dodgy Frankfurtian Youth Hostel close to the red light district. Frankfurt to Vienna. Vienna to Balaton. After all that, the small crew of GB representatives made their flights and arrived in Hungary!

The first two races did not go according to plan. What the ‘plan’ was, I do not know. But my results were sub-standard and little better than the year before in Hungary. The long mass start was heading for the same story, but a technical final loop meant I could orienteer and overtake a lot of athletes to finish in 7th, but still a good 5 minutes from 6th.

Taking 5th at the World Cup. Photo from J. Houlihan

Taking 5th at the World Cup. Photo from J. Houlihan

In Poland a month later, I was lucky to be the reserve for the red group. With one athlete missing, I was bumped up to ‘red group privilege’ and started 2nd to last. I was swiftly overtaken by Christine Schaffner and unable to hold on. At the end of the two hour race, I was exhausted and dehydrated and realised I wasn’t ready to take on the red group. I just didn’t have the speed and realised I would have to improve my fitness. The middle the next day was a different story altogether. Despite being overtaken by Michi Gigon, I rode strongly and took 5th. I was over the moon with that performance and chuffed to get a ‘not-quite-on-the-podium’ place. I also had ginger hair at this time due to an epic failure to go blonde. FYI more blonde dye on mousy-brown-gone-ginger just goes more orange …

World Cup Middle in Poland. My 5th place map.

World Cup Middle in Poland. My 5th place map.

At around this time I was wrapping up my University degree and heading back down south to start job hunting. I was glad to be finished at University and allowed myself some months to focus on WOC and the World Cup Final, before really dedicating myself to work. That dreaded four letter word. Work. I have the same feelings about w*rk as I do r*nning. That horrible three letter word that I try to avoid for more than 10 mins per week.

My World Ranking continued to stay at 11th, so I went into WOC in Portugal without the red group place I wanted. After my sprint performance, a disappointing 11th, I was actually ranked 10th in the world. Albeit for a day. The middle distance was ok, but lacking. I was ill for the long and didn’t race. Overall, it was disappointing, but I was burning the candle at both ends and really it’s no surprise I became sick. I wanted to do everything, and be everywhere with friends, and I spent zero hours resting between races. Bad idea.

Improving skills: track standing punch. Photo from MTBO Italy (?)

Improving skills: track standing punch. Photo from MTBO Italy (?)

The World Cup Final was in Italy, for the world’s longest sprint course! Apparently it poured with rain during my race, but I really don’t recall. I came 7th and was happy with that. A 10th the next day backed up a season of good top 10 results. In spite of this, I STILL only had a world ranking of 11th! I lacked those outstanding results the women above me had, as I was (and still am) a consistent racer.

'Preparations' in the city the day before weren't enough. Some stupid route choices and a really disappointing performance.

‘Preparations’ in the city the day before weren’t enough. Some stupid route choices and a really disappointing performance at the WOC sprint in 2010.

In some respects, 2010 was a good first season in the elite class, but in others it failed to meet the high standards I had set for myself. No top 6 place at WOC, the one race week that really matters, and no red group place. I spent a year borderlining and although had some reasonable performances, none of them were really outstanding. My fitness and performances didn’t change in 2011, but somehow my results were far worse, and that was difficult to make sense of considering I thought I was already working hard.

During the autumn I was invited by Hans Jørgen to work for the Norwegian/Swedish ski-o teams as their physio on a 10 day camp just after Xmas. I flew to Norway to find freezing -28°C weather, metres of snow, 5 hours of daylight, and the realisation my clothing was completely inadequate.

HJ taught me to XC ski. Classic first. My first ski tour resulted in maximum HR for 2 hours in the night, as he coaxed me up a big hill. But what goes up must come down. And down I did. Crash after crash. I woke up the next morning unable to move. The irony being that the physio needed a physio to get out of bed. I had strained a hip flexor, and had DOMS of an unbelievable scale. It took 6 days to recover. By the end of the week I was ‘encouraged’ to take part in a ski-o sprint race. I was last. With about triple the winners time. Or more.

By the time early 2011 came around I was working in a Leisure Centre, both as receptionist and physiotherapist. I had set up my own company which gave me more freedom of work hours. In this way I could manage my own timetable and fund my sport, without being so overworked I found it hard to fit in the training hours.

I also had a coach at this time, but had problems with the training zones being set too low for my fitness at the time. As a result the vast majority of my training was too easy and slow with my HR climbing excessively on the hills. Even now, when my fitness is leaps and bounds ahead of 2011, I struggle to maintain such a low HR. It felt wrong at the time, but I had to trust my coach and never really verbalised my concerns.

World Cup 2011 sprint. Some mistakes, a mechanical problem and 'hayfever' led to a substandard race.

World Cup 2011 sprint. Some mistakes, a mechanical problem and ‘hayfever’ led to a substandard race.

I travelled from the Denmark TC to Austria and then on to Hungary. Mid week, I started to get a very sore throat, but put it down to the travelling and sudden change in season. Winter in Denmark to late spring in Austria meant a rapid change in pollen count. I don’t suffer from hayfever, but I put it down to this so I could race. It got worse, but by the World Cup sprint 2 days later, I thought it should be ok. Not only did I have a mechanical issue in the race but I pushed hard which meant my immune system was then unable to fight ‘Hungarian Vampire Virus’. I took a disappointing 9th, 2 minutes down. I woke up that night to get a drink and when I looked in the mirror my lips were so cracked they were bleeding. Hence the name I gave my illness!! I stayed in bed for the next two races and limped home to England feeling very unwell.

The next World Cup round was in Sweden and the first time the Scandinavian country had hosted a major event. I was looking forward to it, but I had some bike issues in the days before the race that were stressful to solve. Nowadays I would just whack some carbon paste on the seatpost, but back then a slipping down seatpost was a mystery. Even changing tyres was immensely stressful. I was coming the realisation that I needed to either upgrade all my bike parts, or get a new bike. The trouble was with the financial aspect and neither was viable if I wanted to race abroad. I had the freedom to work as I pleased but the knock-on effect was reduced income.

Riding in the beautiful Rattvik forests. Photo from J. Houlihan

Riding in the beautiful Rattvik forests. Photo from J. Houlihan

In Sweden it rained. I was feeling assertive before the middle race, but once out the start gate I couldn’t even work out where I was or which direction I was heading. I suddenly lacked all aggression and unwittingly dawdled around the course making mistakes left and right. I took my lowest World Cup result to date, a 21st. I commented after ‘it can’t get worse’. And then it did. A 25th in the long distance mass start and I was left wondering where I had gone wrong. I felt I had no speed in either race, and that I was riding with athletes in the mass start who I had previously been faster than. I was going backwards, and was starting to realise that maybe all my super low HR training wasn’t the best for me. But it was difficult to voice these concerns with any meaning with WOC just a few weeks away.

At around this time, I knew I would also only have the finances to attend either WOC or EOC. With EOC in Russia and added expense of visa’s, I opted to miss that event. It was to be the first time I would miss a major competition and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but having had a poor season helped me to make the choice.

Relay spectator loop stairs. Photo from D. Maroffsy

Relay spectator loop stairs. Photo from D. Marosffy

The World Championships were in Italy around Vicenza. It was hot. 41°C most days, and hilly. I hoped for better results that the previous event, but it was hope and dreams. The quality training wasn’t there to back it up. I took a 19th in the long (an epic 2.5hrs of racing and later suffering), and 17th in the sprint. I couldn’t finish the middle distance as I had a freehub problem to the first control and was unable to pedal. In the relay I had my best performance for a while and took 3rd on the first leg.

wherewouldyouride? MTBO WOC 2011 in Italy.

#wherewouldyouride? MTBO WOC 2011 in Italy.

After this event, I realised something had to change. I had decided to apply to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to become an army officer. A full time career that I had been thinking about for years. It was a job that would suit me well. I dropped my coach and took a year long break from MTBO starting in September 2011.

I was invited by Hans Jørgen to join the Norwegians in Ramsau, Austria for a two week high altitude camp. I was the chef and physio. I had no bike, and spent my days running up the mountains, making the trip to ‘Guttenberghaus’ 5 times. At 2000m high, it was a 1000m ascent from our accommodation, and the round trip took about 2.5 hrs. I drank from mountain springs and was treated to spectacular views. It was during this trip that HJ and I started our relationship, and I had never been happier. We kept it on the ‘down-low’ until just after xmas that year when I went out to Norway for another week long skiing trip, and in fact didn’t announce it on facebook until a year later!

My training during this break consisted of doing what I wanted. I was running a lot, even though it was boring to be out a long time, because for Sandhurst I had to run. I dithered around a lot, but had a goal to achieve, and getting a place at Sandhurst is far from easy. I studied. I prepared. And I got in! With my place confirmed, I decided to go to WOC 2012 in Hungary for what could be my last WOC for some years.

I made a snap decision to go to Norway/Sweden for two months to travel with Hans Jørgen. He put me on the right training path, encouraged and motivated me. I was completely in awe of him and his countless JWOC and EOC ski-o medals (and his one WOC relay medal). To achieve so consistently was something I have always strived to achieve, and not succeeded. My eyes were opened to how training should be done, and I learnt a lot in those two months.

In Part 4 of my personal account, I will cover ‘the WOC years’ with my first WOC medal, and then my second and striving to be the best.




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