Congratulations on your 24 hour World TT Championship title. Did the race go according to plan?
Thank you! And yes, I was really happy to see the race go more or less to plan. Having had to pull out of this race after 19 hours last year due to heat exhaustion, I was determined not to make last year's mistakes again.
In 2016, I went into the race with unrealistic expectations. I raced it hoping I might be able to break or equal the UK all-time record for 24 hours (461 miles). I was naive and had underestimated the state of the roads for the Worlds (pretty rough), the lack of traffic assistance and - most importantly - the effect of racing in the Anza-Borrego desert during a heat wave, especially when coming straight from wintery UK conditions with little time to acclimatise. That is not to say that 461 miles is impossible on those roads and in those conditions, but it certainly was way too ambitious for me then. Maybe one day...
This year I put more effort into heat acclimation during the weeks leading up to the event (Bikram yoga, heat chamber sessions and turbo sessions without a fan). Of course it was sod's law that the temperatures were a lot more pleasant this year. The plan was to start as rested and hydrated as possible and not distract myself by any unnecessary travel or sightseeing. There would be time for that after the race. Under the race rules you are allowed to draft others for the first 10 miles only; after that you need to maintain at least 10 metres distance from other competitors. Last year, I had been tempted to jump on the wheels of some of the fast guys to gain a head start for the first 10 miles. This year, I made sure to focus on nothing but my own race and resist any such temptations which tend to give you little real benefit and actually result in 'overdoing' it a bit early on as the guys put out a lot of power early on and are pretty speedy.
The plan was to stop in the pit area for a full change of all 3 bottles I was carrying on my bike, eat a quick snack and grab two more for the road. For other races, I have been used to doing more regular hand-ups of food and drink, but as this race only allowed support crew in the pit area which was quite small and crowded, we opted for a full stop instead. If my husband had been there to support me, perhaps I would have been brave enough to try hand-ups, but I was working with a friend's husband who had never supported me before and had to juggle between supporting me and her for the same race. We more or less stuck to this routine until the hotter parts of the day, where I stopped every hour to stick another ice sock in the back of my skinsuit and pour water over my feet and arms.
I focused on pacing myself according to the conditions: to pace it conservatively; to put on layers early enough to avoid cooling down too much overnight; to stop for ice often enough during the day to avoid overheating; to accept a drop in power and speed during the hottest part of the day; and to finish strong. Everything else (mileage, placing, etc.) would flow from there.
I am so happy with what I achieved. Following the plan this year and learning from past mistakes meant I was able to win the world 24 hour time trial championships. Importantly, it also gave me confidence that I may be able to achieve better results in future races if I can become even more disciplined, more focused on my pacing and race more 'sensibly'.
You set yourself a huge goal of the LEJOG record a couple of months ago, where you had to pull up after 370 miles. Clearly you bounced back in style, but how did you manage the low of that result and build up into world-beating form again within 2 months?
In other races, you may still be satisfied if you set a PB, win the race or end up on the podium. Success and failure is very clear-cut for a record attempt. You either break it or you don't. Records exist to inspire and to encourage the next person to come along and break the record in turn. The current record hasn't been challenged since it was set it in 2001. I guess, it takes a special kind of person to even consider it, certainly with the way traffic and driving behaviour on UK roads have developed since then. I may not have succeeded upon my first attempt, but I certainly won't give up trying. I hope my exploits will continue to inspire others, be that to keep this great tradition of point-to-point record-setting alive, or to simply encourage others to dream big, persevere in the face of adversity, and ultimately achieve more than we ever thought possible.
I was pretty down about having to pull out after 370 miles on my first attempt due to gut issues. I knew it had taken many of the great record holders of the past several attempts to break the record, but to fail because of an issue that could so easily have been avoided (i.e. tailored nutrition and proper adaptation) was quite literally ‘gutting’. Looking back, gut issues may have been what stopped me in my tracks, but there are quite a lot of other things I can do (or not do) to improve my chances of being successful during my second attempt.
As disappointing as failing my first LEJOG record attempt was, I found it actually easier than I thought to bounce back from it. Success is great. It is what we all strive for as athletes and what everyone wants to hear about. Success often comes as a result of hard work, sometimes by surprise, but is easy to take it for granted or not query enough why you were successful and what you can learn from it for your next race. Failure is a bitter pill to swallow, but also an opportunity for some brutal self-reflection, to evaluate why things went wrong and what you can do next time to make sure you don't fall into the same trap again.
Planning and executing a record attempt the length of the country is a massive and daunting task. People can tell you things, but sometimes you don't fully understand what they mean until you have experienced it for yourself. As with the World 24hr championships, I know much better what I am planning for the second time around. Much of a record attempt is down to good planning. Some of it is down to luck or elements that are not fully within your control (e.g. weather, traffic conditions, availability of support crew, work deadlines etc); but there are other elements I can most definitely control and improve.
Racing Revolve 24 (a circuit-based 24-hour race) 10 days after the failed record attempt and the World 24hr TT championships another 6 weeks later were perfect opportunities for me to test out a new nutrition plan. Winning both races in challenging circumstances (freezing cold and foggy for Revolve 24 and very hot for the World 24) was really good to regain some confidence, both in my own abilities and in a new approach.
Not long before LEJOG, pictures of you in a hospital bed made their way onto social media! It's clearly been a very mixed year which poses the question: do you feel you are firing on all cylinders now, or is there even more to come?
The image of me in the hospital bed was actually taken in 2013 when I hospitalised myself with a very badly infected saddle sore after my first ever 24-hour race in Le Mans. I won the race, but the infection grew to elephant-sized proportions and red swelling all the way up along my belly. I was put under full anaesthetics to remove the cyst and kept in hospital for 2 nights. I think the image resurfaced because it was a Facebook memory from a few years ago.
At the beginning of October, a few weeks after my failed LEJOG record attempt I did a Forth Edge Endurance test to gain a better understanding of my blood markers and my base fitness at the end of the season, which would allow me to correct any issues and build towards my 2018 goals. It was really encouraging to see that a period of rest and consistent training had allowed all my blood markers to fall within a normal to good range. I knew from my FitBit tracker that my resting heart rate had dropped quite a bit, but it was good to see that other markers such as oxygen capacity, immune function, fatigue, recovery and markers for over-training (or rather no over-training), were also painting a positive picture. This gives me confidence that my current training load is not too heavy and I may even have capacity to increase the training load (if my coach thinks that is a good idea of course). I look forward to retesting in early January.
At the moment, I feel strong, happy and healthy. I get more sleep than I used to and am working with a nutritionist to change and optimise my diet for performance. My mind is in a happy place. I recently did some power testing to establish a base line for my winter training and was pleased to set several all-time power PBs on consecutive days. With such results in winter (on the back of the record attempt in September and 2 tough 24-hour races in September and November) it is encouraging to think what I may be able to do next summer/autumn.
Speaking of which, what are your goals for 2018 and beyond?
My main goal for 2018 remains to try and break the LEJOG record! The positive and supportive reactions I received after the first attempt, helped me to overcome my disappointment but also to strengthen my desire to have another go! My motivation for taking on such a huge challenge is partly about exploring and expanding my own boundaries, but is also about encouraging others (women in particular) to dream big and be bold as we are all capable of far more than we think.
Whilst the goal remains the same as last year, the approach is somewhat different this year. Last year I got side-tracked by other races and challenges I also wanted to fit in. I won four 24-hour races (including UK and World titles), set a new PB for a 12-hour TT, was the first female finisher at London-Edinburgh-London, set a new distance record in Zwift, secured a new exciting job and promotion. On the surface, 2017 looks like an amazing year. In many ways, it has been an amazing year indeed. But none of those achievements mean as much to me as beating the LEJOG record would.
In 2018, LEJOG will therefore be the main goal and the only goal. My training and my mindset will be focused on LEJOG only. There may be other races I take part in, but only if they contribute to the main goal and if their timing fits with the record attempt. Race execution and lessons for LEJOG will be more important than placings. As the record attempt is weather dependent, I will aim to be fully LEJOG fit by June/July, ready for an attempt. If the weather doesn't play ball for a record attempt in summer, I will just hang onto that fitness, enter some other races and postpone my record attempt to September. I will not make the mistake I made this year, to target September only and then find the weather to be unpredictable and less than optimal. It will always remain a bit of a gamble and will always remain stressful to pull off at the last minute. Hopefully the lessons I learned this year will increase my chances of success next year.
Before I can seriously think of other challenges, I really need to get LEJOG out of my system first. Once I have achieved this dream, I will allow myself to dream bigger still. I would very much like to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2019 and may try my hand at some longer multi-day or even multi-week unsupported cycling races such as the TransAtlanticWay or the Transcontinental. Through my 24-hour races I have qualified for the Race Across America a number of times now. I would like to race it one day, but may crew for another solo rider first to witness first-hand what I'll get myself into. Plus raising the funds for the LEJOG record attempt was challenging. Raising sufficient funding for RAAM (which will be upwards of £25k), is just mind boggling. There are other things I would love to do one day such as trying my hand at the world 24-hour outdoor track record or having a go at the legendary tough and hilarious Dutch 'against the wind time trial championships' (which are held on the day of the strongest storm)...
The world of ultra distance cycling and the UK winter don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. What techniques do you employ to enjoy winter training and maximise your performance?
In previous years, I have used the winter season as an opportunity to visit friends living throughout the country by bike. It helped, especially mentally, with being able to ride in all conditions. This winter, I am embracing indoor training a little more. I am very impressed with the integration of planned workouts from Training Peaks directly into my Wahoo Element. With the sessions controlled by my Wahoo Kickr (but the power recorded from my Power2Max powermeter on the bike for indoor-outdoor consistency), there is little option for me to 'under' or 'over' do my sessions. I no longer need to remember what kind of interval to do next as the Element counts down to the next interval and gives me a warning of what is up next. It has been a real revelation to me, which has helped to improve my pacing and make my training more disciplined.
The heat training I did in the build-up to the world 24 hour TT championships in the desert clearly has done me good in that race, but I may also have gained some general performance benefits from it (better cardiovascular fitness). I really enjoyed the Bikram yoga sessions, so will continue to practise at least twice a week. If not for performance benefits (even in cooler weather), than at least for increased flexibility, core stability and mental well-being. I am fortunate to live really close to Hampton Pool, which is an open air pool that is heated 365 days per year. They also have a sauna, so I may use the sauna after my cycling sessions or jump in the sauna after a gentle swim.
After all the support I received in 2017 from so many kind people, this winter and 2018 in general is more about 'giving back'. I cannot think of a better way of giving back than through your local club. I recently rejoined my club as a first claim member and volunteered for a number of events. I look forward to a few club runs before the racing season explodes in earnest again. As much as I enjoy racing and focused training, it is also very important for me to make time for the social side of cycling and the fun of exploring new routes.
As a triathlete that loves to run long and swim but doesn't quite 'get' the cycling, I'm interested to know how you came to develop a passion for cycling, and what is it about ultra distance that keeps you coming back for more?
How interesting to hear that you love to run and swim long distances, but don't feel the same about time in the saddle. I only cycle. Swimming seems a huge technical challenge (I can do breast stroke but that is about it) and whenever I run I just find it too hard to get going again, even after the shortest stop.
My passion for cycling partly comes from being Dutch and having been on a bike all my life, albeit mostly as a mode of transport. More importantly, cycling is what gives me freedom. It did so when I was a child and wanted to get to places and friends without having to rely on my parents. It did so when I was a teenager when I wanted to get away from home. It continues to give me freedom since I rediscovered cycling in my mid 30’s as an adult. It gives me time just to be alone, to feel strong and independent, to explore, and to discover what I am capable of and how far I can take this passion. I think I am genetically blessed with some good endurance genes (hence the title of my blog Duracell Bunny on a Bike), but I also enjoy the mental challenge. I never get bored and always keep wondering 'what if I went a just a little further', 'what may be around the next corner' and 'how much further could I push myself'? The other thing that fascinates me about ultra cycling is just the sheer amount of things that can go wrong the longer the challenge. It is scary, but also provides more opportunities for learning, growth and development both as an athlete and as a person.