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.

Daily training log: 26/Sep/2015: 52.5km bike ride

Driving your car for 35 minutes just to get to a spot where you then ride your bike for 2 hours seems a bit redundant; or maybe even wasteful because why not just start biking at home? But that would mean I’d always be hitting the same old spots, at least initially, and where’s the fun in that? Part of the appeal of running or biking is to explore and see places you’ve never seen before.

Today, I was starting my bike at the Saarschleife near Mettlach (Germany). I’d done hill trainings here a few times, but never biked. With my flu-symptoms mostly gone, I decided that I didn’t want to do an undulating course (sweat on the way up, get cold on the way down) but rather some continuous effort. The obvious choice then was a cycle path that travels along a river.

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I ended up doing my biggest distance ever, at 52.5km in slightly over 2 hours. This translates to an average speed of 25.9km/h (all according to my Garmin, and including a small break); which I think isn’t too bad for an amateur rider on a mountain bike with grippy tires. My pace started to suffer a little on the final kilometers – one energy gel probably wasn’t enough to keep my energy stores up.

The route that I chose took me from Mettlach to Merzig, then back again to Mettlach (30km); and then I did a shorter loop from Mettlach to Schemlingen and back. I initially estimated that 1/3 was on easy dirt surface, with the remainder on road surface; but my numbers may be off a little. It doesn’t matter much. I wouldn’t rank this as a stellar ride, more of a “get the job done” kind of deal that hopefully is just yet another small step in improving my overall fitness.

Here’s the Strava activity.

26/Apr/2015 – 17km MTB ride

Once again, I was spared the rain that was forecasted; so I set out on the mountain bike again to give the left achilles tendon another break. I ended up covering 17.05km with 318m elevation gain in 1h01; for an average speed of 16.7km/h. I spent some time on single trails, where I’m starting to feel a bit more confident. However, a look on Strava confirms that whereas I think I’m moving fast in spots, other people seem to have blazed through in half the time.

25/Apr/2015 – Short 13.5km MTB ride

It rained on and off most of the morning and afternoon, and my left achilles was feeling a little worse than average; so despite having most of Saturday off I decided not to do any big training session on foot; and instead just headed out on the mountain bike for a short while to get the legs and heart moving.

I must have been in a daze, because when the Garmin asked “are you currently inside?” while getting the bike ready in the garage I acknowledged; which of course switched the GPS receiver off. When I went outside It didn’t occur to me to switch the GPS back on, I merely pressed “Start”, so while the watch was recording my ride, it only recorded information from all other sensors (cadence, speed, heart rate, elevation).

41 minutes on the bike, 13.5km with 236m of elevation. Average heart rate: 138.

The real news for the day was also fitness-related, but not quite. Throughout the month of April, I tried to follow some of the advice in the book “Fat Loss Happens on Monday”, most notably tracking my calorie intake (in my case, on MyFitnessPal). That step alone – I didn’t manage to change all my eating habits – probably contributed to weighing in at a leading “7” (79.9kg, not much, but it is below 80kg) for the first time since late August 2012; which means my average weight went down over 2kg over the course of April. While most people who know me will probably scoff at that and declare that I “don’t need to lose any weight”, the reality is that for any fitness-related activity, if I can get rid of some excess body weight, I should be able to perform better. And I’m still near 14% body fat, so it’s not like I’m doing anything excessive.

First few outings on a mountain bike

I didn’t mention it on this blog so far, but earlier this month I bought a mountain bike. I’d been toying with the idea for quite a few years, but my runner’s mindset always prevented me from taking the plunge. But before the easter holidays (and the start of better weather here in Luxembourg) I reconsidered my position and realized that I was missing out on valuable cross training and recovery options. These days it’s not prudent for me to run two days in a row because of the achilles tendon, but biking creates less of a strain so I can still get something done even on days where running would be painful.

So far, I’ve ridden six times, around 70km total. Yesterday was my longest outing so far, at just over one hour. Thankfully, I’ve run extensively in the “Haard” reserve, so I know which trails to take and where to be careful.

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(Two random screen grabs in potato GoPro 2 quality.)

They say once you’ve learned how to ride a bike it stays with you forever… I’m not sure I agree. While I didn’t fall off so far, I am still pretty timid. I ride the brakes on all downhills and have gotten off voluntarily on some difficult (for me) spots. Or maybe I never fully learned to bike – while I had two bikes in my life so far (one in primary school and one in highschool), I don’t think I ever really mastered the skill. And then I went nineteen years without sitting on one.

So where does mountain biking, or cycling in general, fit in with any future training and competition plans? Am I giving up on running? Actually, no. But it gives me a few additional options and will hopefully contribute to a better overall fitness.