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It’s difficult to say exactly how it began.
There was no epiphany, no line drawn in the sand. There wasn’t even a point of no return, because bailing out was always an option. There was only the want. I wanted to get fit – very fit – and I figured that taking on a massive physical challenge would be a good way to do it. I wasn’t wrong, but I also couldn’t guess how little I knew.
I was prepared to up the stakes. Year after year, I had failed to make my fitness resolutions stick. Training regularly, shedding weight, becoming more athletic – somehow these things always eluded me. Exercise was perpetually out-prioritised by something more pressing. Now I wanted to slam my fitness goals down on the table, and make them real. I wanted a major endurance race with a reputation to fear. For anyone else, it might have been the Comrades Marathon or an Ironman triathlon, but for me it was the Absa Cape Epic, the toughest mountain bike stage race there is. If I wanted to overhaul my life, I reasoned, if I wanted to trade in what I had for something I’d always hoped I could be, this was my chance.
But how do you convert a sedentary existence into a highly active one? It sounds straightforward, but unfortunately it’s not a matter of flicking a switch. I was no longer in my twenties, with time on my hands. I had a job, a girlfriend, bills to pay. I was a solid citizen. Too solid, in fact. Weighing in at 93kg, with a cheerful beer habit and a piddling threshold power output, I was, as elite cycling coach Ian Rodger diplomatically put it, “de-trained”.
This was a problem. For the average guy, the Cape Epic is off the charts. Literally. It’s officially graded as Hors Categorie (beyond categorisation), which pegs it one level below an event like the Tour de France. But obviously it’s not beyond an amateur’s reach: the number who finish every year testify to that. But it is very, very difficult. Consider the conditions: rough, rocky, sandy trails at the back end of a Cape summer. And the numbers: eight days, 700km and 15 650 vertical metres. Leave the prologue out of it and you’re looking at an average of 100 kilometres and 2 150 metres of climbing per day, for seven days straight. That’s some serious riding.
To emphasise the point, a middle-aged Irish gent named Stephen Roche told me: “I don’t know anybody who could sign up for the Epic and just ride it, even one day of it, without preparing. You’d be eliminated.” Such was the opinion of the last man to win the Tour de France, the Tour of Italy and the Tour of Spain all in the same year.
The physics of going faster on a bicycle is not rocket science: more strength and less weight equals more speed. But as an Epic novice, not only did I not know how fit I needed to be in order to survive the race, I also had no idea of how reach that level of conditioning.
“It is very important for anyone who is in the race for the first time to know what to expect,” warned Jaroslav Kulhavy, who like me, would be making his Epic debut on a specialised Epic dual-suspension bike. (Unlike me, Kulhavy was the reigning Olympic cross-country champion, and would go on to win the Epic with the vastly experienced Christoph Sauser.)
Any time you’re asking your body to push new limits, the quickest way to maximise your training time, minimise mistakes and prevent injury is to consult the experts. The Comrades, Ironman, the Epic, or any other endurance challenge demands as much mentally as it does physically, and the more information you have about what lies ahead, the better. Training, diet and equipment advice are the three boxes you need to tick; one-off professional consultations and getting your hands on the right literature will avoid breaking the bank.
Coach Ian Rodger was my go-to guy to sketch out the new reality I was so keen to embrace. “In the real world of non-professional athletes,” he said, “training is lower in the hierarchy than work and relationships and it’s subjected to all kinds of unforeseen squeezes. But it really does mean re-organising your life around the riding. When you’re doing six hours in the saddle on both days of the weekend, you’re pretty much owned by your bike. When you get home from rides that long, there’s not much more than three things on your mind – wash, eat and sleep.”
“At the very least, you’re going to have to be 85kg,” he continued, pinching my spare flesh between thumb and forefinger. “With controlled eating and high volume riding, you can easily lose 2kg per month, without any noticeable deprivation. And as you’ll be doing a 40-hour riding week at the Epic, you need a good number of 20-hour training weeks to be in shape. You really should be shooting for a minimum of 12 hours per week from now on, as well as a lot of off-road riding for the strength needed to grind up the climbs.”
Twelve hours of riding doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re starting from as slack a base as I was, it’s not that easy to nail those sessions without backsliding into procrastination and shirking. And 20 hours? It sounds insane: two four-hour rides on the weekend, and four three-hour rides after work during the week! Six out of seven days is a lot of exercise in anyone’s language, and to carve out that kind of training time week after week, I had to have better control of my life. Which is to say – considering the unpredictability of variables like work, relationships and just life – it was my discipline that needed attention.
The truth is that talk is cheap, and the price of changing habits is high. Time management is critical to free up long hours for training, so learn to love routine. Relationships become a juggling act: no-one can tackle a big race without an emotional support structure, but family and friends have to understand that for a couple of months they’re not going to see as much of you as they might like. If keeping a training diary doesn’t come naturally, force yourself to record your data: as the weeks tick by, the only way to gauge any progress will be to reference your training notes. And keep an open mind. Runners are liable to end up taping their nipples. Wetsuits will need lube, and cycling shorts love chamois cream. Humble pie will feature prominently in every first-timer’s diet.
Heft a sack of potatoes. Even a small one; say, 5kg. Feel gravity trying to tug it from your grasp. Now imagine strapping that to your back as you grovel uphill. But to jettison sack-loads of fat, first you need to understand the kilojoule question.
“Eat regular meals and healthy snacks throughout the day,” advised Rowena Visagie, a dietician at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. “To control blood sugar levels and prevent sugar cravings, don’t leave long gaps between eating. And fill up on plenty of vegetables and salad at lunch and supper – these are low in kilojoules and high in fibre, which will help you feel fuller, and the micronutrients will boost your immune system.”
Apart from getting the nutrition right to fuel the training, the second part of the equation involves stripping excess kilojoules away. That means saying goodbye to chocolate, the odd biscuit, and chips – and when the craving for chocolate became unbearable, I turned to choc-coated USN protein bars with less than 15% fat (which is half the fat percentage of regular chocolate).
And after months of trying to dodge the ultimate sacrifice, I finally converted to lite beer. To my surprise, toning down my intake from eight or nine beers a week to fewer than six wasn’t even that rough. When you’re training hard, food and sleep trump beers in the post-ride priority list, and when you’re contemplating a six-hour ride the next morning, having one for the road really starts to lose its appeal.
As my diet improved and I stitched together some big training weeks, I started to see some real gains. I took my bike everywhere: I trained on Christmas Day; I rode in the KwaZulu-Natal sugarcane, over the infinite undulations of the Wild Coast, and under the sweltering Karoo sun. Rides that not so long ago had been totally impossible – like multiple ascents of Cape Town’s toughest climb (to the radio mast at the top of Tokai forest), or back-to-back 100 kilometre days with 2 000 metres of climbing – were fast becoming a reality. Breaking physical barriers which had for so long defined my sense of what I could do was an addictive experience. The more I did, the more I thought I could do.
But you can have too much of a good thing. One-dimensional training invariably puts pressure on muscle groups that have been neglected. Core strength is probably the single most important conditioning component for any sport, and long hours in a desk job does your back in if your core is not activated. Build sit-ups, crunches and planks into your training – or risk not even getting to the start line. Remember, cyclists, runners and swimmers have six-packs not just because they’re lean; core strength is the glue that binds endurance and power together.
The equipment debate is not as cut and dried. Without a doubt, it’s worth investing in great kit – for key pieces of gear, buy the best you can afford. For instance, when my Epic partner first jumped on his new Scott Spark 29er, he couldn’t believe the super-smooth ride quality it delivered. “It rides like whipped cream!” he crowed. And I won’t lie: pulling on our top-end Craft jerseys every morning made us feel like a million bucks, even if the feeling only lasted until the road turned upwards.
But equipment is a mental issue as much as it is a material one. Even the pros don’t have the best of everything. Do they lose sleep over every piece of gear that isn’t cutting edge? I think not. Make your gear work for you, but don’t let a competitor’s pricy kit psych you out. As they say, an athlete’s greatest competitive advantage lies in the 20 centimetres between his ears.
Even at the Epic itself, my learning curve never flattened out and I had to work hard to keep my head in the game. When you’re on the limit day after day, nothing saps your energy more than negative thinking and when your mind wanders, even in a good way, mistakes follow.
There was also no alternative but to inhabit the cliché and “take it day by day”. Not only was this the reason everyone signed up for the Epic in the first place – to ride bikes for a week through amazing scenery while forgetting that the outside world even existed – but morale depended on it. The event simply became too daunting if I looked too far ahead. Races this tough ruthlessly expose any weakness and the elements magnified errors, soured tempers and skewed judgments. I rode 50 hours that week, more than double my biggest training load, and as epic as I thought my journey to the Epic had been, the race itself was clearly at a different level.
But the same rationale that had applied in training held in competition. Those who endure, conquer. And once I worked that out, I was all right. I was happy to ride longer and harder, and go deeper and suffer more, than I had ever dreamed I could. In the past six months, I had redefined so many of my preconceived limits that I was basically a different person – 12kg lighter, stronger and harder to crack.
I had set out with belief and found courage on the road.
– Angus Powers