The Cape Epic: Preparation is an epic task
Purple Group’s Justin Pearse and legendary mountaineer Sibusiso Vilane (pictured above) will be riding the exceptionally challenging Cape Epic mountain bike race in the Western Cape in March 2017. The super-fit duo will be sponsored by Purple Group, which is one of CN&CO’s clients. Here’s a comprehensive look into the preparation that’s required for a race of this calibre.
By Justin Pearse
Covering close to 700 off-road kilometres with 15 000 metres of climbing in seven days – on a bicycle!! – is not something to take lightly. Throw in some brutally rugged and challenging terrain, general cumulative fatigue and the possibility of injury or mechanical issues, and you have the Cape Epic.
Now the prospect of spending that amount of time in the saddle for seven days in a row is about as exciting as broccoli. Yes, not very.
So to avoid it becoming a reality, you have to prepare adequately and for an event like the Epic, that preparation needs to be all the more thorough.
Here are some of the key elements of a multi-day ultra-endurance MTB event that will help you to get ready for race day:
- Physical preparation – aerobic fitness and physical strength
- Bike skills – being able to handle your bike competently over the rough terrain
- Equipment – your bike and how it’s set up, as well as gear that will help you get point-1 above right (i.e. static trainer, bike computers, power meters) and clothing
- Nutrition – what you eat and drink on a daily basis to provide the energy you need to train hard; also, what you eat and drink while you’re out on a long ride to maintain the required hydration and energy levels
So – sjoe – quite a lot to consider!
Thankfully, having prepped for a few events in the past, and having mates who have done the Epic, tackling each of these items is a little easier than it might be if I were starting from scratch.
There are training programmes and then there are training programmes.
When I ran my first marathon in London in 2008, my training involved putting on my running shoes and running two or three times a week, with a longer run on the weekend. That method seemed to work for me, but to no great effect.
Then, as I ran more and got more interested in the sport, I heard and read about the benefits of training according to heart rate. Basically, you strap a heart rate monitor around your chest, which sends your heart rate reading to a watch on your wrist. Instead of just running for the sake of it, each run is structured so that at certain points in the run, for defined periods of time, you ensure your heart rate is at a certain prescribed level and you increase or decrease your level of exertion to achieve that.
Training using this more “scientific” method is far more efficient and has massive benefits for the athlete. I felt these when I trained this way for my second Comrades Marathon.
In cycling terms, heart rate is efficient, but an even more efficient method of training is power-based training. In very simplistic terms, power, measured in watts, determines how hard you are pushing (or how much force you are exerting) on the pedals.
So the more “scientific” training programmes are based on watts and the trainer instructs the cyclist in a session to vary the level of exertion during a training programme to achieve certain results.
To do this accurately and understand what the cyclist is capable of, the trainer needs to have him or her perform a test to establish a metric called functional threshold power (FTP). This is the power level in watts that a cyclist should be able to maintain for an hour of cycling.
The FTP test, if done correctly, is a bit of a killer that pushes you to the point where you think you are going to either vomit or pass out.
Sibus and I have taken on a trainer named Jaco Ferreira, who came very highly recommended from my brother Rob, who was trained by Jaco for the 2016 Abase Cape Epic (which took place in March). A highly accomplished rider (he has finished five Cape Epics) and runner (I noticed a picture of the finish line of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon in a brilliant time of 3h56 on his wall), Jaco works out of the High Performance Centre in Pretoria.
After a few conversations on the phone, we booked our FTP tests for Friday 23 September. Sibusiso was coming through to Joburg for some work and drove straight to Jaco in Pretoria to do his test early in the morning. Sibs hadn’t trained with power or done an FTP test before and I didn’t dare tell him he was going to have to bust his balls as hard as he could. When I followed up with him later that day, he seemed pretty chilled about it – as he is about most things – and it didn’t seem to hurt him as badly as I was preparing myself to be hurt later that day.
There are a few ways the test can be conducted in order to ascertain FTP and THANKFULLY the method that Jaco had me follow that afternoon was probably the most “friendly” (if I can call it that) of the three I’ve had to follow. It still hurt really badly, don’t get me wrong, just less than the last one I remember, where I had to get off the bike, lie on the floor and collect myself for about 10 minutes.
The whole experience was a lekker one. Jaco has an incredibly friendly, energetic and positive demeanour and the way he explains everything is detailed enough that you can understand it but thoughtful in the delivery. He did highlight the magnitude of the task at hand and that the Epic was a very big race not to be taken lightly. During race week we’d be riding for an absolute minimum of 40 hours over the seven stages; so while a 20 hour training week would feel tough, we should be aware that this is only half of what will be required of us in race week.
The magic number in my test was 243W – down on the 249W I was in December last year. However, I’ve taken things a lot easier since the completion of the Iron Man 70.3 in Durban with Team Purple Group in June this year, so I know it’s a good base to start from.
Jaco was amazed at how similar Sibusiso and I were in a variety of different metrics, with many of them being within 5% of one another.
So, armed with our FTPs, Jaco had our first training schedule out that Sunday. At this point in time a typical training week looks like the one below. Jaco pointed out that it’s not too challenging at the moment because it will ramp up substantially in December and January.
- Monday – break
- Tuesday – 1 to 1.5-hour cycle with power between 138W and 188W, including 8 to 10 30-second bursts, as hard as you can
- Wednesday – easy run and strength training
- Thursday – 1 to 1.5-hour cycle with power between 138W and 188W, and then 3 x 10-minute intervals at between 224W and 254W.
- Friday – break
- Saturday – 3 to 4-hour ride
- Sunday – 1 to 2-hour ride
The greatest thing about training programmes for me, despite the obvious fitness benefits, is that you know exactly what you need to do every day. Provided you can keep ticking the sessions off day by day, you know that you should be alright when you line up on race day.
When there’s a range, I’m trying to stick to the more difficult or longer hours of that particular range. My mantra – the more pain and fatigue I can endure now (in small chunks), the more I’ll be able to take during the race.
So far, I’m up to date.
In addition to fitness, bike skills are critical in order to navigate the tough terrain we’ll need to ride over in March. And they’re intrinsically linked to fitness. In addition to ensuring you don’t fall off the bike and injure yourself, the smoother and more relaxed you can keep you position on the bike while doing so, the less energy you need to expend on the non-pedalling element of cycling.
My brother Rob (same brother I mentioned earlier) did a skills course with Sean Badenhorst, editor of Tread magazine and a well-known character in the SA MTB community. Rob noticed a huge improvement in his confidence (that he wouldn’t fall off) as well as in his ability to move fast over tough parts of the course.
After a bit of investigation, some cyclists whose opinions I trust recommended a lady named Nicolle who teaches from the PWC Bike Park on Main Road opposite the Dimension Data Campus. So I booked Sibs and myself in on the Saturday after the FNB 10km Run the City.
We checked in and were introduced to Nicolle, a petite lady with a delightful Dutch accent. She ran Sibs and me through what we were going to do that day, and explained how important solid bike skills are for good riding, particularly for an event like the Epic.
We then headed off to a little technical area, where over the course of a few different demonstrations, Nicolle explained to us the “neutral position” a cyclist needs to assume on the bike.
In the last demonstration, which involved Nicolle holding the handle bars and swaying the bike from side to side, it was particularly noticeable how easily the bike could move freely below you without causing any instability. When testing the stance a little later on one of the bike park tracks, it felt amazing how you could really let the bike do its own thing beneath you, with just a tiny bit of guidance and direction needed.
I got to try the stance over three days at the Isuzu 3 Towers MTB race the next weekend and I definitely felt a lot faster and more confident on the rough stuff.
As with anything, practice makes perfect and Nicolle emphasised the important of practice so that your bike is eventually a bit of an extension of your body. One practice drill requires learning to stand on the bike, with your feet clipped into the pedals, with the bike completely stationery. You may well have chuckled at a cyclist balancing like that at a traffic light, waiting for it to change, and wondered “how the hell do they do that?”. Well that’s what we need to learn how to do.
I also told Nicolle I have to learn how to do a wheelie before the Epic so that, energy levels permitting, I can wheelie over the finish line of each stage. Thankfully she said she can, if I practice what she teaches, so I’ll be practicing my drills bedonderd over the coming months.
Cycling is unfortunately bloody expensive. There is no way of getting around it. Unlike running where you can slap on a half-decent pair of shoes and head out the door, a basic cycling setup requires:
- A half-decent bike
- Cycling shorts – essential to preserve the crown-jewels and avoid saddle sores
- A bike computer – to tell you how far you’ve gone, what speed you’ve done, what your heart rate and power readings are
- Sunglasses – to protect you from the sun and stop your eyes watering
- Cycling shoes – that can have cleats screwed onto them so that you can “attach” your feet to the pedals
- Helmet – to protect your head when you crash
- Cycling gloves – to avoid blisters on your hands and save them in case of a wipe-out
- A tyre pump – to pump your tyres before each ride
- Tube – to replace a punctured tube on a ride
- Tyre Levers – to get the tube out from under the tyre
- Bomb – little CO2 canister to inflate your replacement tyre
- Bomb head – to connect the canister to the tyre when inflating
- Ass Magic (love the name) – or other brand of chamois cream to apply to your derriere to provide a barrier between it and your seat and in so doing keep it protected on a ride
- Sun cream
- Nutrition (which is dealt with below)
Fark – a lot to remember. Every time I forget something important on a ride I endeavour to put together a checklist to ensure I don’t forget anything. Four years on. No list. Still forgetting things. Just yesterday I rode away from my car at the start of a four-hour MTB ride without my gloves. Not such a biggie on the road. BIG deal on mountain bike.
The kit mentioned above is relatively easy in the sense that you buy it, put it on and go. The more complex kit, like a power meter, can be way expensive and require a whole lot of weird information about your bike to ensure it’s compatible. When I bought mine two years ago I thought I knew a decent amount about bikes; but after some incredibly confusing conversations about cranksets, bottom brackets and bolt circle diameters I realised there was still as shedload I needed to learn.
Anyway, with the help of a few cycling boffs, I managed to get a power meter mounted on my bike and have been using it as an excellent training tool ever since.
Sibusiso didn’t have any means of recording power, and I was reminded when trying to work out how best to organise that for him, how complex it could be. Did we fit a power meter on a bike and then get him a trainer? Did we get a trainer that could read power itself?
Many, many considerations and a lot of chats later led to a final and thankfully rather simple solution, in retrospect, that killed two birds with one stone. We found a trainer called a Wahoo Kickr Snap that can do all sorts of clever things that bring an extra element of fun and variety into what can be an incredibly boring pastime. (A trainer, in this instance, is a piece of equipment that makes it possible to ride a bicycle while it remains stationary. It’s a stand that you mount your bike on with a roller under the back wheel.) My trainer badly needed upgrading and in order to be able to understand how it worked and write intelligently about it, I took delivery of a Kickr Snap last week. Having ridden it a few times, you can feel the quality and I haven’t even started to tap into the fun features (mentioned above), which I’ll describe in another article.
So aside from some (hopefully snazzy and stylish) Emperor Asset Management kit that my colleague Josh Nuttall is working on for us, our gear is now sorted and proper ‘scientific’ training can commence at full speed.
Finally – the fuel your body needs to keep you going over 6 to 10 hours, is a crucial component to ensure you make it through the week. Getting it wrong and not having enough nutrition on one day, can prove disastrous in finishing that day or the race.
There is nothing worse than bonking in an event. And before those of you with a dirty mind think the worst, bonking is a term used in endurance sports to describe a condition of sudden fatigue and loss of energy. It’s a collapse of the entire system – body and form, brain and soul – that literally brings you to a halt.
An article in Runner’s World entitled “The Science Behind Bonking” outlines the various forms it can take:
“Consider the muscle-glycogen bonk, where the brain works fine but the legs up and quit. Then there’s the blood-glucose bonk, where the legs work fine but the brain up and quits. Let’s not forget the everything bonk, a sorry stewpot of dehydration, training errors, gastric problems, and nutrition gaffes.
“And then there’s the little-purple-men bonk. “After about 20-K, I started to see little purple men running up and down the sides of these cliffs,” says Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D., who wears hats as both a leading sports nutrition researcher and an endurance athlete. “I knew it was an hallucination, but I stopped in the middle of the race to look at them anyway,” he says. “It was kind of crazy.”
I’ve had first-hand and rather spectacular experience of bonking in my second Comrades Marathon. Going nicely at about the 65km mark, feeling comfortable and on track for a sub-nine-hour (my goal), it very suddenly felt a lot more comfortable running with my eyes closed.
That mere fact should have raised alarm bells but it didn’t. It rather bizarrely seemed pretty sensible. I mean – why not? After a long period of sporadically passing in and out of a dream like state, most of the time caused by stumbling in the road or having another runner run into the back of me, I realised something was wrong and started boshing as much Coca-Cola as I could at every stand.
Looking at the data from my watch afterwards, there was a distinct period of about 45 minutes where my speed came down significantly and my heart rate wasn’t what it should be. Thankfully the “little red ambulance” did the trick and I was thankful that I managed to finish.
So nutrition is important. My Iron Man race of 2014 led me to the discovery of an amazing brand called Hammer Nutrition and its product called Perpetuem. It’s a powder that you mix with water, measuring the number of scoops according to the length of the event and what your body weight is. You can cram six or seven hours’ worth of food into one cycling water bottle without making it too thick to drink. I’ve trialled it successfully many times. It works a treat. I plan to supplement that with a bit of solid food along the way, but it’s reassuring knowing that just the one water bottle on my bike is all the nutrition I’m likely to need for the day.
Jaco did inform me though, that if we were out for longer than six or seven hours, we would need to be consuming protein and proper food as a means of getting nutrition for the next day as it would be almost impossible to replace the calorie loss of a full day in the saddle in the time between completing the stage and the next morning. No matter how hard you eat.
Then of course there’s water, too. The rough rule (according to Professor Tim Noakes – and unlike the current hubbub about the low-carb high-fat diet, this theory is scientifically proven and agreed on) – listen to your body. It’s the best governor of thirst. If you feel thirsty, drink. If not, don’t worry. If it’s hotter than normal, drink a bit more in between feelings of thirst. Don’t drink too much. The dangers of over-hydration – a condition called hypernatremia – are often more severe than those of dehydration.
There’s a lot to consider before a race like the Epic to ensure you get there in the right physical shape and understand your gear and your body, how they work, and what you’ll need to ensure they get you through the race.
I suppose if it was easy, it probably wouldn’t be such a challenge or so highly oversubscribed.
While it can sometimes be a bit of a headache to get through, as long as Sibs and I are following our programme, ticking off each training session day by day, and getting used to the requirements of racing in terms of gear, nutrition and bike skills, we should be ready come Sunday, 19 March 2017.