Race report: Red Rock X-Challenge 2017 (MTB/trail duathlon)

Some people train for a competition, then once they’ve completed it once never toe that particular starting line again. I’m not like that. After competing at the Red Rock X-Challenge MTB/trail duathlon in 2016 (see my 2016 race report), I signed up for this year’s edition about one month in advance.

In theory, that should have given me a bit of time to fine-tune my mountain biking skills, which had become a bit rusty over the course of summer that I mostly spent road biking and running in the mountains. In reality, I only headed out on the course once (and just like last year, managed to get lost because I think the GPS track is a bit off towards the end). But either way, I think even that lone recon gave me a certain edge over people who came entirely unprepared.

Race morning

I arrived bright and early for the 9:30 race start. Getting into the Lycée Belval parking lot required a call to the attendant, but other than that everything was straightforward. I picked up my racing bib, dropped off my running shoes and water bottles (they would be shuttled to the transition zone), and then got ready. Since the race rules require you to wear your bib on the back for the mountain bike part, and on the front for the run, but I neglected to bring any kind of strap, I had to re-purpose a backup heart rate monitor strap for that task.

Leg 1 – 20.5km MTB ride

The previous year, I intentionally lined up towards the end of the pack at the start. This year I wanted to be smarter and better position myself; but didn’t take into account that while I was still warming up, most of the participants were already lining up. So just like last year, I was stuck behind slower riders and forced to start conservatively.

On the first climb of the day, just like last year, the biggest issue wasn’t the climb itself but rather the people in front of me who were moving too slow. Several looked like they were entirely unprepared for a mountain bike race to go uphill.

The next few kilometers, through the Gaalgebierg outside Belvaux were mostly on single trails that are quite technical. The rain of the previous days and the foggy morning made the surface quite damp, and exposed roots were quite slippery.

Bikers in the middle of the pack were still grouped together quite tightly, which led to a few interesting situations. There’s a few uphill spots where average riders dismount. I usually did so a few meters before most of the people around me, because I actually knew what was coming and that saved me the embarrassing moment where you’re stuck in the middle of a climb with too high of a gear, lose momentum and then have to emergency-unclip or risk falling over. But if you’re surrounded by other average riders, that means a few times you still get stuck behind emergency-unclippers; or someone thinks he can still go past you (before realizing that no, he has to unclip too).

Once or twice, my lack of advanced mountain biking technique caught up with me, too. I almost fell not once but twice, and each time I had to clip back in and let a few people get past me; and invariably would then stay stuck behind them because if I hadn’t messed up I would have been faster than them.

After surviving the first 5km, the next 5km through the woods towards Differdange were mostly unremarkable. I was able to push a little more.

11.5km in, we crossed a short mining tunnel. After the tunnel there’s a sharp turn and then an immediate climb. The sudden change from going 30km/h to turning and climbing can lead to issues if you don’t shift down in time. It had happened to me during a recon ride, and judging by the swearing I heard during the race it also happened to at least one rider shadowing me.

The next kilometers were mostly unremarkable. The bulk of the easy position changes were behind us and each subsequent gain had to be earned. The riding here was less technical, but in between a few unpredictable (but well-signed) turns and a few muddy patches you still had to pay attention.

Photo by Corinne Kraus / rr-challenge.lu

Just before the transition zone sits a fairly demanding downhill to Fonds de Gras. I chose to ride conservatively here, and what that meant was that I chose to not ride at all but rather to walk down the bike. Obviously, this was the spot where two race photographers were situated. I remarked to each one that I wasn’t giving them remarkable material to shoot, but of course I’d rather be prudent than hit the dirt. Needless to say, a few riders shot down past me at this point.

My first MTB leg took me 1:11:07 according to the official timing. This put me in 38th place out of the 92 people that finished with chip timing. Both the time and position was a little better than the previous year.

Leg 2 – 9.3km trail run

I was a bit more efficient during the transition than during last year’s first attempt. It still took me about two minutes to get rid of my cycling gear (helmet, glasses, gloves, shoes) and get into my Salomon Speedcross 4. I learned from last year’s edition (where I did not hydrate well enough) and had put a full bottle of water in my drop bag, which I took out on the trail run course.

Just like last year, I set off at around a 5:30min/km pace. Almost straight away, a few people zoomed past me. The course, which loops around Réserve naturelle Prenzebierg (also referred to as Gielebotter on the race website), isn’t overly spectacular. It starts off level, and while there’s a few climbs it’s never really steep, and never really technical either.

Ideally, I should have been able to run faster. But at this point my body was in self-conservation mode and I decided that whatever I was capable of doing at around 150bpm was better than if I pushed myself and then faded on the next MTB leg. On the first uphill of the course, my pace slowed down to a paltry 6:12min/km (km4). I stabilized the pace at a slightly faster speed after that, but even the 5:00min/km downhill towards the end couldn’t improve my overall pace of 5:40min/km.

My running time of 52:41 (according to official timing) is the 65th worse of all competitors. Which is funny, because apparently even though I consider myself more of a runner and less of a mountain biker, during this race I was stronger on the bike than on my feet.

Leg 3 – 18.6km MTB ride

The second transition took me a bit longer than the first. I distinctly remember fighting the drop bag for a bit, to get the re-purposed shopping bag to safely close and prevent my shoes for spilling out during the transport back to the finish line.

Since the weather was heating up considerably over the course of the morning, I was happy that another bottle had been waiting for me in my drop bag. This meant that I could change to a full bottle for my second bike leg, and didn’t need to rely on the race organizers for hydration (there was only one feed station on the course, which was situated at the transition zone and therefore could be accessed twice). But small 0.1 litre plastic cups of water are cumbersome if you don’t want to lose any time.

Straight out of the transition zone there was another climb. I went out at a decent effort, and before long passed another rider who seemed to be in a fairly low place. He pretty much stopped to the right side to let me go past.

Unlike last year where I was passing and getting passed by quite a few people along the way, this year I was alone for most of the MTB ride back to the finish line. The only people I encountered were a handful of riders who looked like they’d run out of energy.

This made the race slightly more challenging, because if there’s nobody fast in front you might still catch and nobody behind you that you want to keep behind, there’s less incentive to go as fast as possible. Of course it’s a race, and of course you want to do well, but if you’re not careful it’s easy to become complacent and lose your focus on riding at the best-possible speed every second of the way.

Because I was riding so much without any direct contact with other competitors, doubts started to creep in about whether I was still on the right track. I’d ridden most of the course before, and obviously I’d ridden it in its entirety last year, but towards the end of the race your thoughts tend to go a little foggy. But every time my lizard brain tried to get me to panic, I would see a “Red Rock Challenge” flag, or a blue line on the ground. I did hear later that some people did indeed get lost on the course, but from my point of view there were plenty of signs (although occasionally I only saw them at the last second when I wasn’t paying enough attention).

After about 11 kilometers of mostly easy riding where you can go quite fast, the next 5 kilometers will wreak havoc on your averages. The surface and route is not terribly technical, but there’s lots of small twists and turns; and overall fatigue is then adding another layer of sluggishness to everything you do.

Finally, I came to the parking lot where the single trail started almost 3 hours before. From here, I’d go back down the same way we came up. Except with no traffic. Last year, a competitor passed me on this last stretch, and I was determined to not have that happen again this year. So I pushed pretty hard on the remaining kilometers, which was possible because apparently I’d managed my energy well, had ingested enough calories and drunk enough water.

I crossed the finish line after a final bike leg of 1:08:21. I had been 38th-fastest on the bike leg again.

Photo by Corinne Kraus / rr-challenge.lu

Overall ranking, and conclusion

Compared to last year’s 3:14:55, I was almost 3 minutes faster and finished in 3:12:08.

Despite coming in at 38th position on both MTB legs, due to the slow run leg I was only 42th out of 95 male finishers (44%). But that still puts me ahead of last year’s result, where I finished 40th out of 70 (57%). Putting it in percent is maybe a bit overkill in a lot of people’s minds, but for me it has been a morale boost to gradually see that percent number go down in some of my races. I’ll never be top 10%, or even 25% I think, but it’s a real challenge to see how much closer to those number I can still get in the future.

I’m fairly happy with my race execution. I did not run out of energy, and I managed to make it through the rest of the day (where I had to do two photo assignments for the newspaper) without any trouble. Last year, I had a fairly high sustained heart rate of 164 over the course of the race, and I was wrecked the rest of the day. This year, I went slightly faster but only had an average heart rate of 157; and basically felt like I could go around the course again. That’s a considerable difference, and it means that either I have become more efficient, or that I still had room to breathe and could have gone faster (or a combination of these two).

Just like last year, my bike (which is still the same Trek hard-tail) performed flawlessly. This year, I was only wearing a single layer on top, considering that temperatures were quite warm. Contrary to last year, my hydration+calorie intake was much better. I had a 0.8 litre bottle (with Isostar) on the first bike leg, a 0.6 litre bottle (with Isostar) during the run, and another bottle with 0.6 litres (with Isostar) of which I drank maybe two thirds during the second bike leg. I also had two gels during my run. That translates to around 1.8 litres of water consumed during the race (0.6 per hour), and maybe around 600-700 calories altogether.

Will I be back next year? We’ll see. It would be interesting to see if I can break the 3-hour barrier with some additional training on the mountain bike and a faster run split. There’s certainly still potential for improvement.

Month in review: April 2017

April was mostly a good month, but I might have wished for a better final week. I caught some kind of bug and ended up weak and tired, which meant I took six full days off running.

Track&field: Only 7 training sessions this month, a little over half of what I did in March. Clearly, even though I spent one week of April on a training camp with track athletes, my main focus this month was hill training. I recorded 36.5km during track activities, with quite a bit of mileage doubling as road kilometers (during warm-up).

Road and trail running: April continued the trend I set in March: it was a solid month. I clocked 149km on the trails and roads, and with the help of some hills in Lanzarote I managed to record my highest vertical ever in a month, at just over 6000m of elevation.  Over half of the month’s total was achieved during a single week in Lanzarote, where I did a lot of repeats of Penas del Chache, the highpoint of the island.

Cycling: The month started off well, but then during the second half I didn’t touch any bike. Still, I clocked 6h17 in the saddle, and drove 159km during 5 separate outings (3 on the road bike, 2 on the mountain bike). I recorded 1375m of vertical. All these numbers are significantly lower than those in March, but I guess that’s indicative of where my priorities are right now.

Walking: Speaking of priorities, walking wasn’t either. 32km with 568m of elevation gain. A slight improvement from March, but nothing worth writing home about.

Weight training: The coach had us do one bodyweight session while in Lanzarote. But other than that, I didn’t touch any iron during all of April.

Total time outside: 41h10. Almost identical to March.

Body composition: I notice some improvement. 79.89kg average (down 0.8kg since March), body fat 14.12% (down 0.5%). This is the leanest I’ve been in April since I started tracking these numbers daily in 2011. My April average was 2kg lighter than the same time last year; and 1kg lighter than 2015. For whatever that’s worth.

Month in review: March 2017

March was a high-volume month, and I’m quite happy with the majority of the training efforts even though I wish I had had some more energy during a handful. I set a new personal record for calories burned within a month (a highly imprecise number, granted): 26,415.

Track&field: March was a solid month as far as the number of track training sessions was concerned: 12. Nine of these were with the club, and 3 were indoors at the national team training. The numbers seem quite solid, but there were a few sessions were I could clearly feel the fatigue in my legs.

Road and trail running: On the running front, March was similarly solid. I clocked 134km and 4500m of elevation. I did 7 lunch runs, 4 hill runs and 2 trail runs. I didn’t race at all in February. However, the increased volume and quality of my outings has brought a marked improvement. I did one lunch run with sub 5min/km pace and some restraint as to effort spent – that’s a pace that I barely reached the previous month while racing a 9.4km race.

Cycling: Finally, some decent weather. This allowed me to take the bikes out on 9 different days. One of them was a commute to and from work, for a cumulative 38.5km day. Most other outings were during my lunch break, where work requirements kinda dictate that the effort cannot be more than about an hour, or 20-30km. In total, I spent 10h20 in the saddle, for 238km of distance and 2800m of vertical.

Walking: Not a priority with all the other things going on. 25km with 423m of elevation.

Weight training: None. I know, I know.

Total time outside: 40h45. Easily beat the 1h/day average I set myself as a target last month.

Body composition: 80.68kg. Body fat 14.60%. Down about half a kg from February, but body fat remains almost unchanged (-0.15%). Definitely some improvement, but I’m still not eating as healthily as I could/should.

Month in review: February 2017

February started off with a few more days on vacation in Fuerteventura, which maybe served as a way to kickstart a renewed focus on endurance, with a little elevation gain thrown in.

Track&field: I decided to skip the last remaining indoor track competition in February. 2017 was pretty much a loss anyway, with times that were considerably slower than in 2016, so I didn’t see any point in running another 60m (with maybe a 50/50 probability to either run yet another mediocre time, or to injure myself). Throughout the month I still did 5 track training sessions, 4 of which were with the club and 1 indoors with the national team.

Road and trail running: With a lowered focus on track&field came an increased focus on road and trail running. I ended up with 122.59km on the month; which is twice as much as I did any single month in 2016. At the start of the month I told myself I’d aim for a cumulative elevation gain of 4000m (1000m per week), but I ended up slightly lower, at 3274m. Still, that’s twice as much as last February. The weather wasn’t always cooperative, so my total mileage includes more road km than I’d have liked; but if I go running in my work lunch break I’m not particularly keen to return to the office with muddy shoes. I did one race in February, on the 26th. The name implied it’d be a 10km in the forest, but in reality it was probably closer to 9.3 to 9.5km, with at least half of the distance on paved surfaces (and out in the fields).

Walking: I complained about the low amount of hiking in January, and that trend continued in February. At least this time I had a better excuse, since a lot of my lunch breaks were taken up by running. Still, only 29km with 558m of elevation is low.

Cycling: With the weather not cooperating, and winter logistics being more complicated than during summer (it’s easier to go out for a ride in the evening if it’s still light outside), I only did one alibi outing on the road bike. Since I hadn’t done much biking in the past month, I kept the outing fairly short and only did 23km. I was still rewarded with neck pain, from what my body now considers an unusual effort.

Weight training: None. Which is bad.

Total time outside: 25h05. Much better than January (by almost 11h). Getting closer to my 1h/day minimum.

Body composition: 81.27kg. Body fat 14.75%. Compared to January, my weight is up slightly (by half a kilo) but my body fat is down slightly (0.16%). I came back from the vacation (with buffet breakfasts and dinners) with slightly over 1kg of weight gain, and that number stayed mostly the same for the remainder of the month. I guess the increased training led to increased appetite. Not too worried about that as long as there’s no further increase. I’d rather over-eat a little than starve myself.

Month in review: January 2017

“Month in review” posts keep me accountable. At least that’s the theory.

January wasn’t a remarkable month. I had some health issues (a stomach bug that impacted me for the majority of a week) and the indoor track competitions I did turned out to be less than stellar as far as absolute performances are concerned.

Track running: Just like in December,there was a clear focus on track this month. I did 7 track sessions (3 indoors, 4 outdoors). Furthermore, I competed in 3 competitions, spread out over 4 days and with a total of 5 races (3x 60m, 2x 200m). My times were less than stellar – so far, my 2017 bests are 7″58 on the 60m and 24″06 on the 200m. That’s considerably slower than last year. The plan for the upcoming months is to still focus on sprints a couple of times a week, but to increase my time&effort in the longer distances.

Road and trail running:  I got out 5 times in January for a total of 45.6km with 1562m of ascent. The highpoint of the month was during our vacation in Fuerteventura, when I ran and power-hiked to the top of Pico de la Zarza, the highest mountain of the island. The 14.8km round trip was a lot more volume than I’ve done in any individual session recently; and it was slower than most past attempts. But overall, it’s reassuring that I can still do a 1+ hour all-out effort with relative ease.

Walking: Walking and hiking stats were still disappointingly low. I walked a mere 26km in January, with a minimalist 304m of elevation gained. I could do a lot better here if I re-implemented a routine of longer lunch walks.

Cycling: None. With temperatures below freezing on a lot of days and track competitions to prepare, it’s easy to find excuses. I still hope to restart doing some lunch rides in February, and ultimately build up my form to support 50m round-trip work commutes as the days grow longer in spring.

Weight training: Once again, almost nothing. I tracked one session, on January 31st. It’s easy to read books that talk about creating fitness (weight training) habits, but it’s harder to implement all of that when most days you get home from work and your only thought is grabbing dinner and calling it a day.

Total time outside: 14h26. Or in other words, less than half an hour per day.

Average body weight: 80.81kg. Body fat 14.91%. At least something improved this month. Of course being ill (and not eating for a day and a half) had some immediate impact on body weight, but I also restarted some healthy habits (counting calories at least some of the time, eating less fast food and unhealthy snacks). The end result was an average weight that was 1.6kg below the December number, and a small improvement (-0.56%) in body fat as well.

Race report: Meeting Régio #2 – 200m 24″20

On Monday evening preceding this weekend’s Meeting Régio #2, we trained starting blocks. I felt strong. Then I returned home, had dinner and about an hour later I suddenly felt ill. I’ll skip the details, but suffice to say that the next time I could stand the thought of having any kind of food was about 36 hours later, on Wednesday morning. I still stayed at home on sick leave until Thursday, then dragged myself to work on Friday even though I still wasn’t feeling 100%.

So of course when I drove to the Coque indoor track on Saturday, I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform at my best. But with the Luxembourgish indoor season being as short as it is, this would be my first and last chance to run a 200m before the national championships the next weekend.

I was seeded lane 4 in heat 5. The fastest local competitors were in preceding heats, so I didn’t know what to expect from the people I was running with.

Lane 4 is one of the best lanes for me right now because the bend is wide enough for my 6″2 (1.89m) frame, but doesn’t feature quite as much of a height difference on the turns as lanes 5 or 6 (which requires powerful legs, which I no longer have).

Photo by Jeanny Hostert-Marx, fla.lu

As usual, I tried to get out of the blocks and through the first bend as aggressively as possible – what you lose here cannot be made up later on. Throughout the straight, I had gained some ground on my competitors, but would need to do an efficient second turn.

 

Photo by Jean-Paul Schmit, fla.lu

Half-way into the second turn, I felt the effect of the week that I’d spent ill. I could no longer push hard, and as such I exited the second turn in third place. I still tried to maintain stride length and made a conscious effort not to force things too much, which usually ends up being counter-productive because while you feel like you’re working hard your running economy goes bad. I successfully held off the runner from CAB in the outside lane, but couldn’t gain ground on the two athletes ahead of me.

Photo by Julien Garroy / Le Quotidien
Photo by Jeanny Hostert-Marx, fla.lu

I crossed the line in 24″20. I had hoped to be faster, but given how the week had gone I suppose it’s still OK. From an age perspective, I was by far the oldest competitor at 39 years. The next-oldest runner was born in 1984, with everybody else born 1990 or later. Position-wise, I finished 31th out of 49.

I’m not happy to run slower than 24″ – everyone has these time limits of what they think is “slow”, and for me it was always 24″00 on the 200m and 12″00 on the 100m. (On the other hand, “fast” in my part of the world is under 11″00 and 22″00 respectively.) It’s been 19 years since I first ran 22″00 on an indoor 200m; and if I make the link between then and now there’s certainly nobody from that time frame who’s still competing today. So I guess I should be happy about that.

Race report: Meeting Régio #1 – 60m 7″60

Going into 2017’s first race, I thought I had a good shot at being faster than the previous year. I’d done a much more thorough preparation phase over the previous several months, also because my achilles tendon had allowed me to get in more quality sprint workouts. I even had the privilege of joining the national team for some of the workouts.

Which was both a blessing and a curse, because while I had done quite a bit of quality work in the past weeks, I also had a stressful work week behind me and wasn’t too sure whether I had fully recovered from the last two hard training sessions on Monday (indoor sprints) and Tuesday (sled work at the club).

So I drove to the Coque indoor track with a few goals in my head. Realistically, I was aiming for anything between 7″40 and 7″50. Optimistically, I thought I might even dip below last year’s season best of 7″40. Pessimistically, I was hoping to at least be faster than 7″65.

After a pre-race chat with Martti, I set off to warm-up with Mart. We did our warm-up in the area behind the stands (obviously the Coque still lacks a serious warm-up area), and then headed downstairs for stretching and skips/strides.

Fifteen minutes before the race, the first heat was allowed out on the track. Or rather, not. Since a high jump competition was going on, everyone was prevented from setting foot on the outside track, which was otherwise unoccupied. So despite subsequent heats being called out and allowed out of the calling area, we were all kept in the small band between the outside lanes and stands. Doing serious warm-up sprints there was almost impossible and the minutes dragged on until finally the previous category’s 60m were over and the first heat was allowed to approach the starting blocks.

I was in the 3rd heat, in lane 4. Once more, I think that’s my historic times getting me a good lane, rather than my current capabilities. I was sandwiched between Lionel Evora Delgado (who would go on to run a remarkable 7″01 in the finals) and Tiago Delgado who I’d trained with several times over the past month or two; and who’d beaten me at every single start there.

The gun went off… and then went off again. False start.

Retry.

The gun went off for attempt #2, and much to my surprise I was out of the starting block with the best. That feeling unfortunately didn’t last long. It seemed that within the blink of an eye, Tiago leapfrogged from being one meter behind me to being one meter ahead of me. Lionel was far gone by then too, so all I could do was hold on to Tiago and hope that he would go reasonably fast, because then that’d mean I wasn’t too far behind. As we crossed the line, I could see Steve Weiwert to the very right also ahead of me.

Photo: Jean-Marie Weiler, fla.lu
Photo: Jean-Marie Weiler, fla.lu
Photo: Jean-Paul Schmit, fla.lu

After the finish, Tiago mentioned he wasn’t happy with his start; and I immediately felt like I could have done a better race as well. While the start had been OK, I hadn’t pushed as aggressively as I should have during the rest of the race. Post-race analysis with the above photos also reveals that I pushed my upper body forwards over an imaginary finish line that was at least two or three in front of the actual finish line. That mistake alone might have cost a  hundredth of a second or two.

The end result was disappointing: I was clocked in at 7″60, and I finished the heat in 4th place out of 5 (with one other runner marked DSQ because of his false start). Overall, considering all 6 heats, I finished in 25th place out of 41 people. Needless to say, I neither qualified for the A-final, nor for the B-final.

Month in review: December 2016

I stopped writing “month in review”s in February because my statistics show that nobody ever visits this blog. “Why bother?”, I thought. But almost a year later I realize (once more) that by regularly scrutinizing my training (and related factors) in semi-public, that I might hold myself more accountable; and therefore make better progress towards my goals.

Track running: December saw a very clear focus on track work. I did 14 track workouts, both outdoors (6x) and indoors (8x). The latter number was amplified by participating at the FLA training camp during the Christmas holidays. I’m thankful that the federation allowed me to participate, even though I noticed a number of times that I’m far removed from my peak performances. Still, you play with the cards you’re dealt with, and I hope the effort I put in increases my odds of doing well during the January competitions. In mid-December, I did a 300m at the Indoor Laf Meeting which was not very good.

Road and trail running:  With such a clear focus on track, the need for recovery and busy days at work I didn’t get out nearly as much as I liked. Consequently, I only did one single long trail run (12km) in early December.

Walking: I only walked 33km during the entire month, which therefore sits as one of my least active months this year. Again, work is partially to blame: it’s much easier to just grab food at the nearest place during lunch than to go on a reasonable (4-5km) walk and grab something to eat on the way.

Cycling: This month, cycling was impacted in the same way as walking. With daylight being nonexistent outside of work hours, I should have gone out on bike rides in my lunch breaks, but didn’t. I still got 82km in (in 4 rides) with 799m of vertical gain, and 3h53 in the saddle.

Weight training: Strength training was nonexistent this month, apart from a few sessions at club training, for a total time of just 2h19.

Total time outside: 18h34

Average body weight: 82.43kg. Body fat 15.48%. This is a fairly significant change for the worse, after doing quite well for much of the year. Since November, I’m up over 1.4kg and almost 1% of BF.

Race report: Indoor Lafmeeting, 300m, 39″18

For the past several years, the Luxembourgish Federation has been organizing a regional indoor meet in late December. Since the inside of the indoor track (with 60m lanes) is only put in place around Christmas, that means the meet is limited to the outside lanes. As for distances, the federation is concentrating on “odd” distances: 300m, 600m and 1000m.

In 2011 and 2012, I already did a 300m indoor at the same event and even managed to set a lifetime PR in (a very mediocre) 37″79, since I hadn’t run that distance during my peak years.

For 2016, I was hoping to maybe beat that time. My preparation during the early months of the winter season was shaping up nicely, but then work stress, illness, and ugly weather all had a negative influence on my fitness. Furthermore, I fell prey to some bad habits (eating too much junk food and not burning off enough calories) so that on December 16th, I lined up about two to three kilos heavier than I was in summer. Nevertheless, I was optimistic that I might at least finish in a low 38″.

I was seeded in lane 3 of the third heat. In theory, that was quite a good fit for me: not waiting around for the final heats (there were eight in total), and having a “middle” lane without the negative impact of either a narrow bend (lane 2) or  having to climb the higher curb on the outside lanes.

I wasn’t able to concentrate too well before the start, so as the “on your marks” command was given, I was rather annoyed to discover that rather than be excited to race, my mind was having a hard time concentrating on the task at hand. No time for those idle thoughts though, the “ready” command was given and then we were all off with the shot.

Photo: Julien Garroy / Le Quotidien

Since a 300m is composed of three bends and straights and I wasn’t quite sure about my sprint stamina in a quick race, I tried to be efficient out of the first bend, but then to hold back a little through the second bend and onto the opposite straight. So far so good, I felt like I was closing in on my competitors. With one more bend to go, now was the moment to speed up… and of course, that’s when the unexpected happened and somewhere in my stomach region a cramp started to form. This had never happened before. I have enough experience with legs feeling heavy or some other issue that makes running less efficient, but never had any experience that originated in the stomach and/or lungs. It severely impacted my oxygen intake, so for the final 75m or so I wasn’t breathing well. To my body, of course, it felt like I wasn’t breathing at all, and consequently everything fell apart. Needless to say, rather than make my move and pass the competitors ahead, I was passed by the ones behind me.

Photo: Harry Daemen / FLA

I literally collapsed over the finish line in a disappointing fifth and last place, in equally disappointing time of 39″18.

Photo: Harry Daemen / FLA

Overall, I finished 24th out of 45 competitors.

Race report: Red Rock X-Challenge (MTB/trail duathlon)

Ever since its inception a few years ago I’ve been aware of the “Red Rock Challenge”, a weekend-long event in October that offers a multitude of different trail run and mountain bike races; near my home in the south of Luxembourg. After I covered part of the event for the newspaper in 2014 and 2015, I told myself “one day, I’ll compete in one of those races”.

Since I’m at the tail-end of my Thirties (39 years old in late October), I realize more and more that for athletic endeavors, “one day” is a bad perspective; and that the best way to take part in a challenge is not to feel overwhelmed and wait for years for the right opportunity, but to just commit to it and potentially be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

So when I looked at the competition schedule for this year’s Red Rock Challenge and found that they offered a duathlon (bike-run-bike), it would have been easy to dismiss it as being too hard, or that I hadn’t trained enough for it. Conventional wisdom would have steered me towards either just doing a trail race or just a mountain bike ride. But challenges are supposed to be, well, challenging. So I signed up for the duathlon event, which was advertised as 21.2km of MTB, 9.6km of trail running and 18.2km of MTB.

Once I had committed to the idea, it was already too late for in-depth preparation. I only had two weekends left, which I both used to do recon on the mountain bike course – doing the first 10km one weekend, and then biking around 35km of it the next one. The opportunity didn’t come for me to even looked at the run course, but I figured that an hour of running would be the least of my worries if it was sandwiched between 40km of hard mountain biking.

Leg 1 – 20.5km MTB ride

I lined up on a fairly chilly Saturday morning with around 180 people. While about 80 of these had signed up for the duathlon like me, an additional 50 people had signed up for the easier option of just doing the mountain bike course, while 37 teams were doing the duathlon as a relay.

Since I didn’t really know what to expect from either myself or the competitors, but guessed that my endurance and skills were less than average, I positioned myself about two thirds back from the starting line. As we set off at a less-than-maximum pace over both paved surfaces and gravel for the first 1.5km, I was moving up a few positions, but still very much respectful of what would still come.

On the first climb, now on a slightly narrower forest path that only allowed people to travel two abreast, I began to regret my timid starting line positioning. There were several people in front of me who were considerably slower than I would have been on my own. A handful of people were already fighting gear ratios or had no climbing legs at all.

After 2.6km and about 80m of elevation gain, we crossed Rue de Hussigny. The next few kilometers were quite technical for an entry-level hobby biker like me. We faced a descent with a few 180° turns, two or three steeper ascents, and some undulating single track in between. On the ascents, again, I found myself stuck behind people pushing their bikes. On my own I’m not sure I would have managed to stay clipped in at every single one of these spots, and my heart rate was quite high even while getting slowed down; so maybe in ideal conditions I wouldn’t have been much faster. But still, I was getting slightly frustrated. Fortunately, before too long the field had thinned out somewhat, and the average width of the trails had widened to the point that passing was easier.

After around 10km we came to our first major road crossing, just outside the eastern outskirts of Differdange. Volunteers were stopping the cars, so there was no slowdown. On the other side of the road, we climbed slowly, reaching the path formerly used by small-track mining trains and followed that through a short tunnel. Since I’d been here the previous weekend, I knew that the tunnel surface was smooth, or otherwise this would have required a careful crossing – it was very dark and potential obstacles would have been difficult to spot.

After going through the tunnel we turned 360° and crossed the tunnel on a higher level. The trail kept going up and my heart rate reached 177, near my maximum. I knew I had to slow down a little since a heart rate this high was not sustainable in the long term. Fortunately, there soon came two descents that offered a bit of a breather.

54 minutes into the race I crossed another road, this time without seeing any traffic. Next up was a bumpy traverse of a field over a grassy trail that allowed to take in what competitors were up ahead. It’s easy to pick at least the nearest one and set yourself the target of catching him, but in reality the race had gone long enough for the slow riders to filter out, and whoever was in front of me wasn’t an easy catch anymore. I still managed to overtake a rider every few minutes, but most times I didn’t even know if any of these guys were even in my own race (duathlon) or just doing the MTB part.

The next quarter-hour was spent on an anti-clockwise loop of Titelberg, most of which I rode without seeing anyone either in front or behind me. This part of the route was quite interesting visually and ended with a technical down-hill. I’m sure that more experienced bikers breezed down to Fond de Gras without a second thought, but for me it was a small victory to make it down almost without walking the bike.

My first MTB leg took me 1:11:33 according to the official timing. This put me in 44th place out of the 70 people that finished.

Leg 2 – 9.3km trail run

Fond de Gras was where we switched from bike to trail shoes for the second leg of the race. This would be my first duathlon transition, ever. With this in mind, I promptly forgot to press “lap” on my Garmin, and thus wouldn’t have any means of tracking how much time I spent in the transition zone. After getting off the bike, I was surprised to find that it took substantial mental effort to deduct that my Number 107 bib meant I was supposed to look for my drop bag in the row that was marked “100-120” (I think). And of course as I moved past the bags and bikes of other competitors I missed my own bag and upon reaching the end of the row had to retrace my steps. Great.

I got rid of my helmet, biking glasses and gloves; and put on my Salomon Speedcross 3 – their “speed laces” probably saved me a few seconds over tightening a traditional shoe. And then I finally remembered to press “Lap”. Although I hadn’t tracked the duration, my transition took me much longer than the handful people who arrived shortly behind me and were now ahead of me.

I set off running at around a 5:30 min/km pace, unsure of how my legs would hold up after 75 minutes of hard biking. Surprisingly, they held up quite well for as long as the trail was straight or on a minor down slope. But on the first incline, somewhere after 3km, I quickly switched over to a power hike. By this point, I’d been caught and passed by a few people. As the trail flattened out again, I resumed running. A female athlete had been behind me since the transition, and when on the next uphill my legs started cramping, she offered a few words of support. Two spectators  who were nearby let me know that this was the highest point of the course. They weren’t quite right, but in that moment the cumulative support somehow flicked a switch and I  managed to make the leg cramps fade away while also getting back some speed into my legs. I still wasn’t going much faster than a 6km/min pace, but it was much better than walking.

Even though the first kilometers had felt glacial, I was happy to get closer and closer to the transition zone again. The last half kilometer as we got closer to the transition zone felt a bit uncertain, with trails going off in different directions and spectators walking everywhere, but I followed the markers and ended up at the transition zone again. The run took 0:55:31 according to the official timing. My GPS time puts it at 53:55. At this point, the official results put me in 52th place; I therefore must have lost 8 places, but only remember being passed by 3 or 4 people; which means 4 others had faster transitions.

Leg 3 – 18.6km MTB ride

My second transition was slightly better than the first, even though I realized afterwards that I breezed past the feed and water station without taking anything. While I had munched on a power bar during the run, and had drunk about two thirds of my water during the first bike leg; I would later regret that I hadn’t kept up with my hydration needs as well as I should have.

Straight out of Fonds de Gras was another climb. I was starting to feel the cumulative effort and felt slow, but still hit a heart rate of 172 on the way up. The trail mellowed out through the forest, then briefly followed a road (just for one bend) before rejoining the forest again.

Around this point, I started to suffer. My lower back wasn’t happy, and in retrospect I’m not sure whether it was my kidneys that were complaining because they were starting to feel the effects of dehydration (2 hours into the race, and I’d consumed just barely over half a litre of fluids), or if it was just my lower back muscles letting me know that, well, I had not enough lower back muscles to adequately support my body through all the movements of a 2+ hour effort over rough terrain.

With so much of my mind on just moving forward as efficiently as still possible, my memories of the next kilometers are somewhat vague. I know that even though the amount of competitors had thinned out, at some point I reached one local competitor whose name (on his triathlon suit) felt vaguely familiar. I passed him, but he held on and stayed behind.

Some time later, with mostly easy riding, we had to cross a small wooden bridge. We’d both caught up on another rider, who slowed down smack in the middle of the bridge. I changed to a lower gear, somehow my gears got caught up and the chain jumped. The sudden loss of forward movement and a foggy brain had me leaning to the left. I would have fallen straight into the water below if there hadn’t been a wooden board that I was able to lean against and steady myself. I swore, successfully cleared the bridge and then let the other guy go past.

The end was coming nearer and nearer. Thankfully, there were no more big climbs, but the trail was undulating and there were quite a few twists and turns that required full concentration.

A little later, I saw two wheels sticking straight up. I’d caught back up to the last rider, and apparently he’d fallen and was now trying to unclip and get himself off the ground. I asked if he was alright – he was, so I continued on.

Somewhere along the way I passed a few more people, and got passed once or twice, but mostly there was nobody around me.

Finally, I reached the the parking lot near the forest where the single trail had started at the beginning of the race. From here on out, the descent would follow the same path that we came up on. Road markings were a little misleading however – or at least, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and got confused. Soon though, I realized that I was indeed on the correct path and needn’t worry about navigation anymore.

Maybe a kilometer from the finish line, another rider passed me. He said something, but I had a bad case of tunnel vision; and didn’t understand a thing. With my mind that foggy, it was time for the finish line, which fortunately was approaching.

I biked over the red railway bridge and across the line. The second MTB leg had taken me 1:07:53. I finished that bike split in the 34th fastest time of all duathlon competitors.

Overall ranking, and conclusion

I finished 40th out of 70. My final time was 3:14:55. The race was won in 2:22:37, with the first Luxembourgish competitor coming in at 2:34:34.

The race was one of the hardest competitions I’ve done, mostly because of the long time with a high sustained heart rate. My average heart rate was 164bpm.

A lot of things went right during the race. My bike, a Trek hard-tail (front-suspension only) performed flawlessly. I suffered no punctures, and had no gear issues. I didn’t fall (barely). My clothing choices (cycling shorts and two layers on top) were OK. While I was too warm occasionally, just one layer of clothing would probably have been too chilly. I didn’t drink enough and a few more calories would probably have provided me with more energy during the end of the race. A slightly more optimistic starting line positioning might have kept me out of traffic jams on the first few kilometers. Overall, I’m really happy with how the race unfolded and if I manage to train at least as much next in 2017, I wouldn’t mind lining up at the start line again.