British National Hill Climb Championships 2019

I finished my season last weekend with the British National Hill Climb Championships in Dartmoor. Despite a handful of top 20 finishes in the local hill climb series, I had fairly low expectations about facing up to the best hill climbers in the country.

My best results in hill climbs this year have come on shorter courses – two or three minutes of intense effort seem to suit me a little better. Haytor is a 5km (3 mile) climb so I was expecting it to take me around 16 minutes to reach the top. It’s so much longer than any climb near me. I’d been down to Dartmoor and recce’d the climb once and it had taken 18 minutes. This was going to be a long and painful death!

In normal circumstances, climbs of this length can be really enjoyable. Not so much when racing against the clock!

I wasn’t stressed about the event – as well as having no real expectations and just being there for the experience, I also had the company of a couple of clubmates, plus my wife, kids and Dad who had all come to watch.

The first minor panic was realising in HQ that I’d forgotten my bike mount! Overcome with a few strips of moustachio duct tape … probably saved a few grams too!

It was a cold day so warming up was a challenge. I rode up a short hill near the start several times, but every time I turned around and rolled back down I froze and felt even colder than before. In the end I opted to just wait in a small patch of sunshine with a few fellow riders. It felt like we were a bunch of seals basking on a sunny rock, waiting to be eaten by a shark!

Off the line and “Go Go Go!”

I tried setting off at a moderate pace. I tried not to focus on my power (the duct tape helped with this!) and just ride on feel. My power curve seems to indicate that I paced it fairly well – as well as setting a season-long power PB from around 7 minutes onwards, I didn’t do anything too overzealous in the opening minute (the purple line was this race, the grey shading is my 2019 power PB)

16 minutes & 30 seconds at 320 watts average

I couldn’t really have done any better, which is pretty much the only result that mattered to me.

The race was on open roads which is unusual for a National event. I got held up a few minutes in, stuck behind a queue of cars who were inadvertently stuck behind a leisure cyclist. I was a bit too hot-headed to sense the irony of being held up by a bloody cyclist! I ended up taking a few risks racing around the outside of the first few cars, then trying to duck down the inside and squeeze up the verge … all the while shouting for people to get out of the way. it was quite frustrating but on balance probably didn’t cost me too much time. It sounded like some other riders had much worse so hopefully the event organisers have taken note of all the complaints and will only use closed road courses in the future.

“DIG IN!” Haytor Rocks providing a dramatic backdrop to the race

There was a great crowd near the top of the climb, up on the moors. Loads of shouting and cowbells. But by this point the pain had escalated to the point that I was genuinely worried that I might stop and climb off. All I can really remember is my brain shouting “DONT QUIT! DONT F**KING QUIT!” After crossing the line I wasn’t sure whether I had enough strength left to stay upright on my bike. I rolled on for a few hundred metres, trying to decided whether or not to pull the brakes and collapse in the verge. I just about held it together and rolled on.

Must … find … oxygen …

After recovering I headed back to my friends and family to shout and cheer at all the other riders, and to marvel at the speed of the big guns. The men’s race was won by Ed Laverack, a professional rider in a ridiculous time of 11 minutes and 30-something seconds. He averaged 430 watts. I managed 320 watts in comparison, although was riding for nearly 5 minutes longer!! He weighs about 59kg; I weigh 68kg. So at least I know what’s needed to get to that level, just lose 9kg and find 100 watts. Fat chance! For the record I finished 145th. A humbling and enjoyable experience.

Spectating with my Dad – “I took a video of you racing, son – it looked like slow motion compared to these guys” #keepingitreal

This basically wraps up racing for me in 2019 – a year where I raced both a European Duathlon and a National Hill Climb Championships, as well as setting PB’s in cycling timetrialling and road running and taking part in my first ever cycling criterium and trail running races. It’s been a year of improvements while still maintaining an eclectic approach to exercise. Being a Jack-of-all-Trades gets a bad press, I find it’s the best way to enjoy my hobby.

Team Tor Hill Climb 2019

I had a race this afternoon that I wasn’t really up for. I’d spent the morning gardening with the kids – digging holes, weeding and chopping logs. After lunch I felt like what I needed was a cup of tea and a nap, not kitting up and heading off for 7 minutes of purgatory on the steep side of the Mendips. I’m getting too old for this sh!t.

It wasn’t quite as enjoyable as a cuppa, but a caffeine gel en route to HQ seemed to help my psyche. And once I’d pinned my number on and met a few friends and competitors I found my head.

Fortunately the weather was lovely, one advantage of an afternoon race was the increase in air temperature.

I last raced this hill in 2017 and remembered going way too deep on the easier lower slopes. My time was 7 mins and 5 seconds. So with two more races left this season, and both being considerably longer climbs, I committed to a properly paced effort today. And it worked. For the first 4 minutes I rode at a pace that felt a little too easy. And then as the gradient pitched up I gave it everything.

The final 30 seconds were pure hell but I wrestled the bike to the top in a time of 6:50, beating my previous best by 15 seconds. I usually spin for a couple of minutes to recover, but today I need to stop. I started off slumped over the bars hyperventilating for about 3 minutes. My breathing was rapid and slightly desperate! Then I laid down in the verge, so at least I got my nap.

I’m pleased I raced and also to have nailed a properly paced effort. Too often I start too hard and then slow down later. Today was a great lesson in pacing and saving enough energy to finish strong. But it must be time for that long-overdue sleep now …

VC Walcot Hill Climb 2019

Last weekend I headed to Bath to take part in VC Walcot’s hill climb on Claverton Hill. This was the venue of my first ever hill climb two years ago – not a very long time ago, I’m still fairly new to this form of racing so was hoping to beat my previous time of 2 minutes and 46 seconds.

I rode out to the hill and arrived in time for a recce / reminder of the climb. My typical warm up this season involves riding for around one hour to the event, signing on and then riding up the climb at about 80 – 90% effort. Hard enough to feel where it gets tough – mostly where the gradient changes, but not so hard as to lose an edge before the race.

My race went well. After an initial 30 seconds of relatively easy gradient, the road pitches to around 15% for the next 30 seconds. From my recce I’d decided to try and pace myself sensibly through this, staying in the saddle. The rest of the climb is at around 10 – 12% so my tactic was to then really attack this part, out of the saddle.

“Up up up!”

One of the best features of this event is the large crowds it draws. It’s right beside Bath University so lots of the students come to race and support. The final few hundred metres are a baying mob of noisy supporters, shouting, ringing bells and banging pots and pans. It all passes in a chaotic, asphyxiated blur. But the anticipation and then sensation of the atmosphere is a great experience.

I crossed the line with the satisfaction of having given it everything. I even gave the ‘Catcher’ some work to do – without him I might have just fallen off my bike into the ditch! I beat my time from 2 years ago by 16 seconds for a time of 2:30.

After finishing I headed back down to catch up with friends and to add to the noise. After you race, you shout in someone’s face!

I might not be the best hill climber, but I’m up there with the best supporters!

3 Races in 8 Days

Having gone a few months without racing I’m now in the midst of an intense two month race period before Winter arrives. Whereas earlier in the year I was trying to structure my training and racing towards a priority race, now I’m just having fun and taking advantage of a solid year of consistent training.

Last weekend I took part in Salt & Sham’s hill climb in the Chew Valley. It’s on Chew Hill, a nasty little half-mile hill that starts at about 7% and just gets steeper and steeper the further you go. I think it tops out at about 15% before you crest the top and have a 100 metre sprint across the plateau to the finish line. My goal was to get under 3 minutes and crack the top 20 again. I hadn’t really given my tactics too much thought, but by the halfway point and a baying crowd ahead shouting and ringing cow bells I was out of the saddle. The hill gets steeper, so you can’t sit down, you can’t shift down, you just have to wrestle the bike to the top. It’s horrible. I finished 15th with a time of 2:59. I was well happy.

I finished ahead of a few people who usually beat me. I’m not sure why but the shorter steeper ones seem to suit me a little better. It’s a shame because they’re the most painful! I also beat my club mate again to make it 2-0 in our mini series!

Next up was a Thursday night 5 Mile running race. The Weston Athletic Club “Prom Run” – two laps of the seafront promenade. I’d never done it before but was told it would be great practice for my duathlons – learning the race craft of running in a fast group. I was told that there’s usually a group who run together to get under 30 minutes. I’d never run a 5 mile race before but thought I could probably go sub-30 at a push. Just run my 5K PB pace and then keep going for another 3K, right!

I turned up to find out 300 people had entered. It was a big race and quite exciting. Within the first few hundred metres a couple of rapid guys had sprinted away and I found myself in the first group of about 6 runners. We settled in to a very consistent 3:35/km pace (5:45/mile). Nothing much really happened other than we ran fast in a tight group. HOWEVER, a lot was going on in my head!

0 – 1K: This is fun

1 – 2K: This feels quite easy. I could probably outpace this group but it would be good practice to stay running so close to other guys

2 – 3K: This actually feels about right. I couldn’t go any faster than this

3 – 4K: This is starting to hurt. I’m not sure I can hold this

4 – 5K: If I stay in this group I am going to die.

5K: 18 minutes exactly! I can easily go sub 30 if I let this group go

5 – 6K: Dropped. Running solo

6 – 7K: Caught by a runner. Ran with him for 100 metres. Dropped.

7 – 8K: Oh shit, there’s a group of about 6 people right behind me. Do not get overtaken by a whole group. Run harder!

I held them off and finished in 29:45. It was a good lesson. My heart rate was through the roof for the whole run. I felt pretty tired for the next few days and had quite sore calves and quads.

The next race was Sunday – my own club hill climb. If there are two groups of muscles you want firing on a hill climb they are quads and calves.

I think I said this last year, but if you want to find a way to make racing less stressful then try organising a race! The prospect of just riding my bike for 6 minutes was a welcome break from all the proper effort of organising and managing a million jobs for a big race. But I enjoyed it all and will definitely do it again next year.

My race went ok. It’s a tough hill to judge. Basically 2 kilometres in total, consisting of two steep sections separated by a long plateau. By the end of the plateau I thought I was on for a great race but I just seemed to just lack the power / condition / fitness / [insert other excuse here] to nail the final two minutes and I lost a little bit of time. I was hoping for a sub-6 minute time. I ended up getting 6:16 and finishing 14th out of 46 so fairly respectable. My main club-mate rival’s chain came off on the start line. I was a couple of people behind him. I felt awful for him, didn’t really know what to say as he climbed off and put the chain on. From the results it looks like we would have had exactly the same time, or possibly he would have beaten me by 1 second. He was gutted. I was gutted for him.

It was a great day. Once everything was over we all headed to the pub for some lunch and a few belated birthday beers. My birthday was Saturday but I postponed celebrations until after the race.

Chew Valley Massive

Somerset RC Hill Climb 2019

It’s been nearly 10 weeks since I last raced. The European Duathlon Championships were the priority for my season and since then I’ve just gone back to basics and enjoyed my training. In the past couple of years I’ve tended to fill the season with as many races as I can squeeze in. Races can be great, they provide a focus to make you train rather than putting your feet up, drinking beer and eating barbecued food like a normal person all summer. They can also be an antidote to periods of self-doubt as they provide regular feedback on fitness. I rarely train as hard as I race so when I’m not racing it can be difficult to truly know what my current level is.

However, one of the issues I had last year with such regular racing was the mental toll that they can take. I don’t really race for fun. I enjoy the feeling after a race, but the build-up to a race can be a bit stressful and the races themselves always bloody hurt. So after Romania I decided that I’d look ahead a few months and focus on hill climbs in the Autumn, and then after that the small matter of a local Ultra-Marathon in April (more about that another day…)

I love the local hill climb series. For about 8 weeks in September and October there are a handful of short races on steep hills in obscure places, involving skinny people in not-enough clothing racing uphill as fast as they can. I now organise one of the races in the series.

This weekend was the start of the series and I travelled down to the Quantocks with a club mate to race up a one mile hill with an average gradient of 8%.

It’s not really a form of racing that suits me. You need to be super lightweight and be able to generate huge amounts of power for a short period of time. It sounds like a sprint but it’s more like a one mile running race. Pacing is everything.

My aim for the last few weeks has been to increase my 5 minute power and lose some weight. Both things that I’ve improved marginally, but nowhere near as much as I hoped.

Luckily my club mate is very similarly matched to me, so we have signed up to a few of the same races and can have our own private battle. Outside of that, my goal was to try and crack the top 20 in a highly-competitive field. People take this weird little niche sport very seriously. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much fun.

I’d never ridden this hill before so we arrived in plenty of time to get in 3 climbs as recces / warm-ups. I did the final one at about 80% effort level. My race went well. It’s hard to describe but roughly somewhere around the minute-mark you go from thinking “this is feeling good” to “Oh my f**king god this is painful, can I sustain this?”.

About one minute in … feel the rush
Somewhere near the end … gurn baby gurn

I tend to start a bit too fast and fade a bit near the end. These days I have a power meter so it’s quite interesting to see the data and compare it to the winners. For this climb I averaged 360 watts for 5 minutes 18 seconds. The top guys are pushing somewhere around 500 watts and finishing a minute faster! Unlike other forms of racing it’s uncategorized so you could be up against Cat 1 or professional riders. The guy who won is National Hill Climb Champion. He did 4 minutes and 10 seconds! I finished 20th so just squeaked my first goal. My clubmate did 5 minutes and 21 seconds to finish in 21st so I just pipped him.

I also spent the rest of the day coughing as a result of the intense exertion. It was a good day out and nice to bump into lots of the hill climb crowd, people who feel like friends even though we only see each other a few times a year standing around feeling slightly awkward in our lycra eating cake in a village hall. Next week is a short half-mile hill just around the corner from home. Already looking forward to it!

Sprint Duathlon European Championships 2019

This past weekend was the 2019 Multisport European Championships in Targu Mures, Romania, and my first international duathlon race for the Great Britain Age Group team. Since qualifying back in October last year this had been my priority race for 2019 with every subsequent race, training session and avoided beer feeling like a building block towards this event. I’d had a long winter of building my base fitness, commuting to work by bike in the cold and the rain and the dark. And building up the running mileage, either in similar conditions on winter evenings or mindlessly pounding away on a treadmill.

In duathlons last season, running was my weakness so I prioritised this element in my training. It worked, and by Spring I’d set PB’s in two consecutive half marathons. But I suppose unsurprisingly it came at the expense of my cycling power which dropped quite significantly. Multisport races like duathlon and triathlon are a test of your combined speed across all disciplines, so the training cannot be too focussed on any one sport. I ramped up my cycling training and entered lots of local timetrials and crit races to try and bring on some form. By the start of June I was running slightly slower than Spring but still significantly faster than last year, but my cycling was back to the same level as the previous year. It felt like the best compromise.

Collecting my race number

I travelled out to Romania with no real expectations of the race. I was slightly concerned by the possibility of crashing on a draft-legal bike leg – my first duathlon of this format. I just wanted to finish feeling like I’d given it my best and to put on a good show for my wife and kids who’d come out to spectate. And also not to be a neurotic bag of nerves before the race and ruin their holiday! The lack of expectations helped me to stay relaxed in this respect. We had a great family holiday in Targu Mures, spending most of our time at the local outdoor swimming pools. 

You can’t be taken seriously on the international pro circuit if you don’t have an inflatable unicorn!

Opening ceremony – parade & party!

The race was taking place on the city centre streets so I got out a couple of times to recce the course. Unfortunately due to the levels of traffic and stop lights it wasn’t really conducive to do any meaningful training on, but I could see that it would be a flat and fast bike leg, but with a lot of sunken manholes to try and avoid.

Race recce – the day before the race with police escort

Managed to mess up my race number temporary tattoo! Luckily my wife saved the day with a sharpie. Including a rather excellent bat

The race started well and I set off on the first run at fast but manageable pace. After a couple of kilometres I was in a group of about 5 runners and despite it feeling a bit too fast for me, I didn’t want to let them go. I think this is basically the sweet spot in endurance racing – that horrible and painful place that feels neither too fast nor too slow. I think Chris Boardman once said “if you think you can maintain the pace then you’re not going fast enough, and if you think you can’t maintain it then you’ve set off too fast!” 

With a few hundred metres to go to transition I eased off a touch and let the group go ahead of me. My aim in transitions was to be faultless rather than fast so I wanted to give my brain half a chance of achieving this. It worked and I exited transition back with the same group. 

With draft-legal racing at amateur level there’s always going to be an element of luck about who you exit transition with. Personally I think it detracts from the pure form of racing that time-trialling gives, but thems were the rules of this race. Fortunately there were 3 of us in our little group who were immediately prepared to take turns on the front at riding hard. We raced fast and began to hoover up the faster runners ahead of us. Unfortunately some of them clung on to our group, so that by lap 3 of 4 we were a big group of about 15. With only a few of us working. By this point the older age-groupers and women were also all out on the course so it was pretty hectic on the tight city-centre streets. I sat in the group for most of lap 3 to recover, before launching an attack at the start of the final lap. Partly I wanted to put on a show for my wife and kids and come tearing past at the front of the pack; partly I wanted to try and lose some of the wheelsuckers. But mostly my brain just shouted “let’s go” and before I knew it I was giving it full gas and leading out the group. After a minute another GB rider came through and shouted that we’d dropped a load of people. I sat on his wheel until he started to fade and then launched forward again. By this point I was starting to hurt and also worrying that I might be damaging my chances of running hard. I eased off a touch and a Romanian rider came through. We worked together and I recovered slightly, feeling positive that we were down to about 6 riders.

Blowing the peloton to pieces!

The final run really hurt. But it was two out-and-back loops of the city centre so I could see the lead runners and realised I was in a much better position than I had been for the first run. We’d overtaken a lot of the field during the ride. This helped with blocking the pain. The first kilometre lasted an eternity but on a positive note, the pain didn’t actually increase. It stabilised. This is often the way with duathlons – the hardest part of the race is the start of the final run because you’re already on the limit and you force your legs to stop spinning and start running again. They can protest against the pain quite convincingly! All I could thing was ‘keep going, the end is in sight’. I refused to let my pace drop.

On the final approach to the line I heard and saw my family cheering. I gave my 5 year old daughter a high-five as I passed. I looked up and saw the clock on 59:45 so I dug deep and reached the line just under the hour.

It was a great feeling to have finished and to be in the sweaty embraces of athletes from all over Europe. I could tell that I’d finished well in the race, but was delighted to find out I’d finished 4th in my age group, missing the podium by just 22 seconds. It also looks like I had one of the fastest bike splits of the race, including the elites who raced later that morning. The icing on the cake was being told that by finishing within the top 3 GB athletes in my age group, I’d automatically qualified for next year’s European Championships. That’s next year’s summer holiday sorted then!

 

Chew Valley 10K 2019

I ran my local 10K race yesterday, the CV10K. It’s a notoriously challenging course with a monster hill of around 100 metres of steep ascent at the halfway point, followed by more undulating terrain and then a steep descent to the finish line.

My PB was 41:12 from 2017 which was good enough back then for 21st place. Each year there are usually 10 people under 40 minutes out of 1000 entrants which says a lot about the difficulty of the course. My goal this year was to go under 40 mins and finish within the top 10. I’d run a couple of flat 37-38 minute 10K’s this year so I hoped it was achievable.

I arrived at the start line about 15 minutes early feeling well prepared. I was the only person in the sub-40 pen for about five minutes while the whole rest of the Chew Valley walked past making funny jokes. Talk about putting yourself under pressure in your own back yard!

Fortunately a few others soon joined me, including a few elite runners who’d travelled two hours to get there. The top 10 goal started to feel a bit more challenging. I focussed on my sub-40 goal.

My target was to arrive at the foot of Coley Hill at the halfway point an average pace of 3:50/km. I was bang on time and feeling fairly fresh in 9th place. I took the hill nice and steady, still remembering 2017 where I’d gone deep into the red on “The Hill” and really suffered (and then slowed down for the final few kilometres). I overtook one runner just before the top.

At the top my average pace had dropped significantly to 4:05/km which stressed me out a bit. It felt like too much to recover. Especially as the next 2km were very undulating. I pushed on, trying to maintain a decent pace but was really starting to hurt on each rise.

I arrived at 8km with my average speed at 4:04/km. Fortunately the final 2km is mostly downhill so I just threw myself down it, much to the angry protestations in my quads! I started to worry they might cramp up. I knew walking later on was going to hurt! By the bottom of the hill and with 500 metres to go I looked at my watch which said 3:59/km average. Success and time to just enjoy the rest of the race and the loud support from the streets. Or so I thought!

Someone shouted at me to say I was in 8th. But after I’d passed the clapping continued. That’s weird, I thought. There was nobody behind me at the top of the descent. I glanced over my shoulder to see two runners closing in. I’m not normally one for aggressive, competitive finishes. I’m normally too tired to have saved anything for a sprint finish. But I dug in and really attacked. I saw a sign saying 400 metres. After what seemed like an age I turned a corner expecting to see the finish line … and saw a sign saying 200 metres! WTF!!

I pushed on, but also glanced back and saw I’d put a bit of distance back into my followers. This somewhat eased the pain. Not long after I saw the line and sprinted over it for 8th place in a time of 39:40.

I stuck around at the line chatting to other runners for a while. And then hobbled back to HQ to meet my wife and kids for the 1K fun run!

My 5 year old daughter did a fantastic job on the 1K. She kept going for the whole two laps without stopping, even saying after that she’d started to feel tired but didn’t want to stop. My 2 year old jogged a little, walked a little and then got on my shoulders. We did one lap, getting lapped by my daughter and ending up in last place! As they say, you’re only as good as your last race!!

Chew Valley 10K. Great day out for the family. We’ll be back next year