8 years of MTBO, a personal account – part 4

Part 4 of my personal MTBO history is difficult to write. It’s very recent history and many of the things I did in 2012 in terms of training, contributed massively to my recent performances. After only two months ‘back in training’ I was able to take WOC silver in the sprint. After another year, another silver, only this time in the middle distance. With one more year under my belt, I wonder what the future holds this time around.

There are some aspects of my training in 2012 that I still use. Others, I have developed. This part of my account will be as honest and open as possible. I promise not to lie, but I may also miss out some details that are relevant to my 2014 performances. While it will be the truth, it’s not the whole truth.

In mid May 2012, Hans Jørgen suggested I came to Norway for 2 months before the World Championships, and before I went to Sandhurst. WOC in Hungary was to be my last for several years, and as a result, under HJ’s watchful eye, I trained hard to make my final WOC a good one.

Perhaps the toughest thing I did in this year, was to start a diet. Not your average ‘lose weight’ diet, but to cut down on anything sugary; basically all my favourite foods! For 6 weeks I stopped eating cake, sweets, chocolate, chocolate spread, coke and all fizzy drinks, dessert, waffles, apple crumble, snack bars, ice cream, ice lollies … you get the picture. I rarely drink alcohol, so this was no issue to cut out. Of course, I did crave chocolate all the time, and often had to be dragged out of the sweet aisle in the supermarket before I started smelling the candy! In 2013, two runs of 6 weeks before major races. In 2014, from 1st Feb until 31st August. This year, I’m able to allow myself very occasional treats and a) not feel guilty, and b) not crave sweet foods. I’m not saying this diet is the reason for my recent performances, but it contributes in a small way to my mental confidence before a race.

 

Riding out of the start in the sprint. 40°C and sunny. Lovely!

Riding out of the start in the sprint. 40°C and sunny. Lovely! Photo from R. Schumacher

I spent many hours in mid May 2012 sussing out which terrains would be which distances, based on information from the bulletin and I thought the sprint race was on the terrain used in 2009 for the WRE. Despite disastrous races back then, things had changed and I was able to use my experiences and race notes to help form my race plan in the days leading up to the race.

What I understood was that I would need to brush up on my foot-o skills in order to succeed in the race, so I registered to coach on the Regional Junior Squads tours in Scotland in the weeks before WOC. I’ve done them many times in the past and knew the score. Lots of early mornings, lots of control hanging, and lots of running. I believe in looking outside the box when it comes to mental training for orienteering. If a race is more suited to foot-o skills, I’ll do more foot-o. The same principle can be applied to foot-o sprints; fast navigation and quick route choice making is a pre-requisite of MTBO and Ski-O, so relevant training can be gained there too for foot-orienteers.

I spent two months travelling with HJ to Boden (mapping), Finland (tech training) and training in Norway. I even rode the Swedish Champs races, which after a year of no orienteering, were fairly disastrous. We had a great time, but one of the most memorable training sessions, was a ride around Brandbu we did soon after I arrived. We rode for 3 hours, I had a heart rate that rarely dropped below z3 (160bpm). It was hilly and cloudy. He dragged me through a windblown forest under the pretense ‘it’s my favourite forest’. We had a fight. I got a headache. We now laugh at the experience because I rode so slowly, but yet worked so hard. In the years since then HJ regularly compares my speed to that session. ‘You’re biking fast today’. ‘Faster than when I first came to Norway you mean?’ I respond. ‘Yeh’ he replies. And so we fall about laughing at how utterly sh*t I was.

Having been put off having a coach, I was reluctant to allow HJ to set any kind of training plan for me. But I acknowledged that I had no idea how to taper, and allowed him to plan that for me. Based on scientific studies, he set out a 6 week taper plan, that I should follow to the letter (unless I was sick or too exhausted). It follows a well documented training principle, but adapted specifically for tapering. I like a high volume of training, and the principles in the plan made sense. Ever felt tired and sluggish after a rest day?

For two months I trained hard. 75hrs per month. I started a 4 minute maximum HR interval session (that evolved quickly and has since been ridden for the last two years) which has since had it’s record (distance) smashed again and again. The original session was an evolution of the 4x4x(4-6) session I did in preceeding years, every day before a major race.

Such a volume of training mixed with the right kind of intervals worked, and I went into WOC 2012 in my best shape ever. I was persuaded to buy a new bike, a decision that HJ now regrets as it has fuelled my passion for all things bike, and I’ve had a new bike each year since … (I’ve just been informed I can have a carbon fibre 11kg fat bike this winter, bringing our fb collection up to 3!)

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If you haven’t tried a fat bike, you should. If you don’t own one, you should. Riding one at WOC in Poland was considered due to the excellent terrain eating abilities!

Riding a new bike was bliss. I hadn’t realised what I was missing out on. New technologies, lighter frames, stiffer wheels, smoother and faster shifting. Wow, it was fast. I even bit the bullet and went tubeless.

When I went to Scotland for two weeks, I was waking up every morning at 6.30. I would either go MTB’ing for 90 mins, or do 30 mins of core strength. I was either at breakfast really early, or really late. Early was preferred. With so many teenagers, the chances are one of them is sick! Early meant getting first choice of lunch food too! I would then run all day, followed by some evening training; short biking usually.

The day of the sprint race in Hungary dawned hot and sunny. My race routine since has been based on what I did back then, because it helps focus my mind and legs. My preparations for the sprint race had been good, and I felt nervous but focussed while warming up. I had a solid race plan, each time I felt too nervous I ran through it, asking myself what each point meant. Everything in the race went as planned, and I finished with a massive 2 minute lead. I knew it was a good race, but I also knew I had made a couple of mistakes, and slowed at the end in order not to make more mistakes. I thought one or two people might go faster, and in the end it was only Christine Schaffner who bettered my time.

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European Champion of the middle distance 2013

In the middle race the next day, I was on track for a repeat performance, until I took an unmapped track (indistinct in the terrain). I should have had the confidence to continue just some 50m more. I floundered around in the woods, and eventually I resurfaced on the other side. But then, I took a valley at high speed, in the wrong gear. My attempt to downshift failed and twisted my front mech out of line. From then on, I only had a 28tooth ring, and a lot of noise. I wasn’t the only one to have a problem here. Part of the challenge of MTBO is reading the terrain quickly and instinctively, and knowing when to shift gears, or not. A combination of the two things meant I dropped from about 2nd place to 25th.

I then had two days to prepare for the long distance, a race that hadn’t even appeared on my radar until my middle distance failure. My lack of preparation meant I made some silly route choice mistakes, but I rode fast and despite suffering at the end (of a short 80 minute race) I finished 9th. A personal best in the long. I was happy.

I ended my season there. I had no focus for the World Cup Final in Estonia in September, and pushed back my Sandhurst start date to January, in order to spend more time with HJ. We went to Estonia, and I performed poorly. No preparation, no focus, no training. But it allowed me to see the terrain type for the coming 2013 WOC, and to get that all important experience somewhere new. It allowed me to put down the groundwork for race plans and route choice decision making.

In 2013 I decided to focus on the sprint and middle races at EOC and WOC. I felt the long distance was still a bit beyond my physical ability, and I didn’t want to overstretch myself mentally by trying to do too much.

The work I did in mid 2012 became the base for the 2013 training. I upped my monthly hours to around 80 per month. Not a big increase, but enough considering I was doing it for 12 months rather than just 2. I also had my first full winter of XC skiing. I choose to spend more time skating rather than classic, as I felt the style suited my legs better. I was roped into starting Ski-O and had many bad experiences. All too often I finished in tears, either from being out so long, crashing too much or being pushed off the small track by overenthusiastic men who wouldn’t wait for me to feel stable enough to pull over. Once I stop, it takes a long time to get going again. It sucked. I hated being so rubbish. But in April, I rode a Falun time trial I created and took 6 minutes out of my ‘post-WOC and two weeks of rest’ time, and understood that the skiing was doing  me some good.

Swedish

Swedish Sprint Champs. Only one good route choice to 13, but would you take it?

In June I was really ready to race. We raced in Denmark first, before going north to the Swedish Champs where I won my first (and only) SM gold in the sprint. It was an awesome race, until I made a mistake. I pulled back the time, and messed up again. I won by just a second. The next two races were less good. I had no idea how to handle that kind of terrain, but with the focus on EOC a week or so later, I wasn’t too worried.

At one point we didn’t think we would make it that far, after missing several ferries and driving the length of Sweden to make the 4th. But once there, it was nice to settle down and get everything ready to race. A last minute change to the sprint race location unnerved me. When unnerved, I’m fidgety, scatty and obsessive. With no old maps available, there was nothing I could do but forget everything and start afresh. I was going to have to wing it.

Knowing the challenges of the terrain is important. Knowing how to handle them is another matter altogether ...

Knowing the challenges of the terrain is important. Knowing how to handle them is another matter altogether … (ignore the course, consider the track network)

A good sprint race was marred by a closed gate. Rearranging races at short notice is hard, and the organisers sadly forgot to make a road out of bounds that then became the best route choice. Until athletes reached the gate. Some climbed the 2m high fence. Others threw their bikes over and wiggled underneath. I returned the way I had come. The race was declared void and a re-race would be organised on the rest day. I was grateful not to have a relay team so I was still ensured a recovery day.

Having seen the times from the sprint race, and how amazingly fast some of the girls were, I spent the next morning trying to bat away the negative thoughts. A start position in the middle sandwiched between the two fastest women; Laurila and Hara, didn’t help. I was sure I would be caught. To this day I am impressed I had the mental strength to deal with that, and managed to have an almost perfect race. The early fast section was far easier than expected, but the latter technical section was what separated me from 2nd. I had a plan in place and stuck to it. Catching the 3 athletes who started in front helped to maintain focus as I knew it was a good race. Everything was controlled, and easy. Everything flowed and I had all the time I needed to make decisions. I took the gold by 2 minutes, and I was happy. Finally, my first major international win. It had been a long time coming.

With that confidence boost, I was ready for the re-sprint. Some good decisions early on meant I had a good position, but a stray bramble caught in my cassette meant I couldn’t pedal hard in 4 of the gears I needed, so I was dropping time to the two women I had caught. With the distraction, and failure to have a strong tactical plan, I made a fatal route choice error that cost me silver. I ended 4th, but it’s disappointing when you know you can perform better. It was enough to boost me into the red group in time for WOC in Estonia some months later.

I went to Czech for 5 days of racing, but was sick with a post-EOC cold. I had my training bike and struggled to match any of the other girls, especially those on 29’ers. I lacked motivation for the races, and was really there to get more experience in Czech terrain before 2015. A combination of the above factors meant I returned to Norway lacking confidence in myself and feared racing at WOC. How could I compete against the Flying Finns? They had so much more experience in Estonian terrain as I believed it was similar to many of their home terrains. I fretted about it for some weeks, until I decided to get a 29’er. Bigger wheels, less bumps, faster biking.

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Big wheels. Photo A.Douglas

Yes, a 29’er allows one to bike faster on a straight track, but in corners it is slow and sluggish to accelerate. It requires a different kind of riding style; less braking, more aggression. You can’t ride a 29 like a 26. I had to learn this. It’s only this year, since having trained on a 29 in all training sessions, that I am able to handle the bike more effectively and efficiently.

With a new bike, I had a new confidence. Now I could match the Finns. Now I could maybe even beat them. A gold medal was still a dream, but another medal was a realistic goal in the sprint and middle races.

I rode the first part of the sprint well, but just before the spectator control, I started to realise there was a problem. My bike was snaking along a little, but I had no punctures and couldn’t work it out. It got worse and worse until the point where I could hardly go around corners. Just making the finish was all I cared about. I took 5th place, and was gutted. I had been some seconds back from the winner at the spectator control and had lost so much time. I then found out later I had ridden through an OOB area and was DSQ’d. I was happy with this (although not with the organisers for failing to inform the athletes about the area correctly), as I felt the DSQ was better suited to my performance than the 5th place.

On my way to a silver in the middle. A happy performance but I was left wanting more. Photo ???

On my way to a silver in the middle. A happy performance but I was left wanting more. Photo (official WOC photographers)

For the middle the next day I was really ready to race. The quarantine was in the finish arena so for hours I could hear the times of athletes in the finish. Faster than the estimated winning times. Then it was my turn. I rode hard, I made good decisions, and it was only in the final half that I fatigued a little and lost the first place to a strong Marika. It was silver by 33 seconds and my best middle distance result. I was happy. It was a good race; mistake free with strong technical riding. Mostly.

With two recovery days before the long I was in a good position. The sprint failure had fired me up for the long, and again with no preparation or focus, I took 4th place. It was a fast fast race, full of straight fireroads and then technical controls. The pace changed quickly and being one step ahead was crucial. I made some mistakes, caused by feeling the need to take risks and then by having no plan. 4th was amazing, although Marika’s time some 5 minutes quicker was incredible. No one could match her. I did that day, what I hadn’t planned to do for some years. A not-quite-the-podium place in the long.

I spent September analysing and planning 2014. I developed my training plan to get stronger and faster. I highlighted my weaknesses and have spent a lot of time working on them. I got a fat bike and rode a lot in the winter when the snow was compact enough, and fell off a lot when it wasn’t.

Sadly, it is here I must end my personal account of my MTBO history, as 2014 is still going. It’s been a good season so far, with just 13 seconds in total lost to the best cumulative best time in 5 World Cup races. It’s been a good season, but not perfect or mistake free. I look forward to achieving the perfect races at WOC …

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