The efficient racer

I go into every event aiming for a race that is efficient and clean; where I get to the end proud of how I raced and knowing that I couldn’t have done any better.

In this context, position is irrelevant and a good result just adds to my post-race satisfaction, but it isn’t my primary objective. At the end of the 24hr Rogaine Ireland (late June) my Irish teammate, Sean Murray, and I were thanking each other for a good race and experience; we only met the day before. He then says to me, “Well, I couldn’t have done any better” and I replied, “I couldn’t have done any better either”.

We raced efficiently, planned a decent route and made some navigation errors – but nothing major (par for the course). We hiked swiftly and ran where we were able to. We battled rain, howling wind, limb-numbing cold and dense fog and got through with no issues – we were prepared for it. This was indeed a race well done and neither of us asked “What if?” afterwards.

Train regularly

For me, there are two elements to training – fitness and familiarity.

Fitness is a given. You can get to the finish line at Comrades in seven hours or 11 hours. Both paces are fit and both will get a finisher’s medal.

Coordination, reflexes and action-specific performance are boosted every time you repeat actions

Familiarity is linked to competence and excellence. If you want to be good on technical terrain you’ve got to regularly run and bike on gnarly trails. If you want to be a good desert runner you need to run and hike in sand. The same goes for every discipline really. A gymnast does somersault after somersault after somersault to carve canyons in those neuromuscular pathways. Coordination, reflexes and action-specific performance are boosted everytime you repeat actions. You’ll only attain excellence with lots and lots of repetition, regardless of discipline.

I think it is very important to train race-specific and focus on the challenges of each race like altitude, terrain and race requirements,” says uber trail runner Ryan Sandes. “Work on your weakness as the harder you train them, the easier the race will be.”

For fitness and familiarity my rule of thumb is that once a week is better than nothing (more for your mind than anything else), twice a week maintains and three times a week (and more!) will lead to improvement.

Speed potential

If I ran a 50-minute 10km race last year and I want a 45-minute time on the same course this year, the only way I’ll get it is by being able to run a 4:30min/kilometre pace. In fact, I would need to run faster than 4:30 to make up for factors outside my control – like a large field and slow start, having to re-tie my shoe laces or needing to pee. The faster you are the faster (potentially) you can finish.

Sleep – more or less

In adventure racing and non-stop multi-day events like Freedom Challenge the only way to get to the finish sooner is to go faster for longer and that means sleeping less. In planning for his third assault on the Freedom Trail, Alex Harris looked at how to play off sleep and speed to beat his 2011 record.

The problem with sleeping less is that you’ll get more fatigued, your decisions become questionable and navigation errors (the number of them and degree of severity) increase exponentially. It is well worth trading three hours of getting lost for three hours of sleep. With sleep in the bag you move faster and you’re far less likely to waste time through poor decisions.

Moving does not always mean going forward or progress,” says Ryno Griesel, who – with Cobus van Zyl – holds the record for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse. They completed this 210km stretch in 60 hours. “Experience teaches that the ‘sacrifice’ of time spent sleeping will be less than time wasted in an inefficient, sleep-deprived state.”

Move in the right direction

To generalise, navigation is a sorely neglected skill and looking to brush up on your map reading a month before a race or expedition is just not good enough. Map interpretation, decision making, compass familiarity are just three basics that are honed every time you go out with a map.

In a race situation where you’re competing against another person or team and you are matched in absolutely everything (speed, proficiency, experience, sleep time) except navigation, the one that takes the best routes and doesn’t get lost will beat the other.

Alex Pope is navigating for Team Cyanosis. He defines the ‘best team’ as the one that makes smart decisions based on experience and strategic thinking.

Know when a short cut is worth the risk, keep looking at the map to make sure you’ve seen all the route choices and visualise the junction ahead so that you don’t have to stop to look at the map while you’re screaming downhill. These save seconds and minutes,” he adds.

Pack smart

Spare batteries, dry bags, sun shades, cold-weather gear, rain jacket, sufficient food… Make lists of things you need to pack so that you’re prepared for every eventuality – within reason. In packing for the rogaine in Ireland I knew there was a greater chance of it being cold and wet than sunny and fine and that the nights would be chilly. I was right and I had packed for it. At 2am when we got off the mountains and away from the rain, wind and icy cold we made a quick stop to put on dry tops. That extra 300g really is worth it.

In the adventure racing environment no individual should pack more than another. Team Cyanosis members collectively decide what to pack for each leg of the race. They all carry the same items from socks and gloves to shells and no individual packs more than another.

When you pack race gear together as a team for a leg you all experience the same level of comfort or discomfort, which balances morale as well as team performance,” says Macintosh.

Find strong teammates

There are benefits to adventure and event participation as a team. Balance weaknesses with strengths so that you can help each other. A strong biker can give slower teammates a push; strong trekkers can take a teammate’s backpack or give them a tow to up the team’s average speed. A ‘perfect’ team is not formed overnight.

It takes a long time to build a well-balanced team that works efficiently as a unit opposed to working well as an individual,” says Clinton Mackintosh, captain of the adventure racing team, Cyanosis.

Receiving assistance is NOT a sign of weakness. Helping each other is what team endeavours are about and accepting assistance is for the benefit of the group. When offered assistance, don’t resist. Smile, say thank you and appreciate being with kind people.

Ride the apple cart

Non-stop and staged multi-day races are packed with apple-cart-upsetting variables. You can only go so fast, sleep so little, choose the most efficient route and be as good a runner/biker/paddler as you are at the race. When it comes to bad weather, getting lost, niggles and injuries and teammate issues the only thing that will see you through to the finish is attitude. A sunny disposition makes up for the lack of sunshine.

Have a few race strategies in place as you never know what can happen during a race,” advises Sandes. “Often it is not the strongest person that wins the race but the person who thinks the best on their feet and makes the correct decisions. Stay calm if something goes wrong as getting worked up will just waste your energy.”

For your next adventure, whether a race, weekend adventure or expedition, aim for clean and efficient. Be the best that you can be on that day (or days) and then after that be the best that you can be again and again and again. Best of all, there really is no limit to being better.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Originally published in Go Multi Magazine, Sept/Oct 2012