Planet Fear Adventure Racing Editor Nik Cook takes on the eight hour trail running and mountain biking challenge of the HellRider Adventure Duathlon.
Off-Road duathlons make ideal training events for Adventure Racers. Without the worry of navigation or the logistics of finding team-mates, they're brilliant for honing your fitness, practicing your fuelling and getting a competitive fix. They get your legs used to the jelly sensation of running off the bike and, for novices who are put off full Adventure Races by the distances and potential for getting lost, the usual 2-3 hour duration and fully marked courses are an ideal taster of multisport racing in the mud.
Most off road duathlons follow a simple trail run, mountain bike and then a second trail run format. They're also normally relatively short, typically taking around two hours to complete if you're near the sharp end of the race. The Columbia HellRider Adventure Duathlon is a whole different kettle of fish.
Comprising a 5 km trail run loop and a 7.5 km mountain bike loop, the idea is simply to complete as many alternating laps as you can manage within eight hours. You can enter as relay teams of five or three or, if you're up for a real challenge, solo. Race organiser Paul Magner of TrailPlus originally came up with the race concept solely as a team event but, having been pestered by endurance nuts, relented and opened a solo class. Last year it attracted fifty die-hards but that number had swelled to eighty for 2012.
Welcome to Hell
Although I'd competed in 12-hour solo mountain bike enduros and plenty of other events far longer than eight hours, alternating running and biking continuously for that length of time was a complete unknown. I'd completed my own four hour "Half HellRider" in training to try and get a taste and that had shown me that the full eight would be a big ask. Pacing and fuelling would be the keys as well as not wasting unnecessary time in the numerous transitions I'd have to make.
Midway through Half HellRider training session with pit helpers.
The weekend before the race was an absolute scorcher but fortunately, being the Jubilee weekend, race day dawned a very endurance friendly dull and drizzly British Summer special. Arriving at the picturesque West Wycombe Park, I racked my bike, lugged my box containing all my food and supplies into the transition area and waited nervously for the off. All solo racers were grouped together in transition and it was obvious looking around and spotting numerous Ironman tattoos, that there'd be some stiff competition. As the 1000 start time drew near, we were called to the line and, after some words of encouragement from the devil himself, we were off.
With all the relay teams, not getting sucked into the mad initial dash was essential and I consciously tried to blank everyone else out and settle as quickly as possible into my own sustainable tempo. With the run lap beginning with a long uphill drag, I was soon glad of the training I'd done of my home Peak District trails and I was able to tap out a solid climbing pace but, nagging at the back of my mind, was how this climb would feel as the day wore on. I resisted the temptation to open out my stride on flatter sections and tried to run any descents as economically as possible. One climb in particular was especially brutal and I hoped my fell and mountain running background would give me an edge. A long rutted downhill dropped you back to transition but only after you'd negotiated two knee deep river crossings. These would either be blissful relief if the day heated up or cramp inducing horrors if it stayed cool. Just before the first crossing, I caught and passed another solo racer but already I had no idea where I was in the race, no way of finding out and it would just be a solo grind against the clock.
I'd reckoned on, including transitions, being able to fit a run and bike lap into each hour but, coming in off my first run, was already up on this schedule. I felt good though, happy with my pacing and, having gulped a gel down, switched running shoes for biking ones and strapped my helmet on, headed out for my first bike loop. Just like the run, this started with a long uphill drag but I backed off, spun my legs efficiently and took the opportunity to take some fluids on board. My strategy was to have a gel in transition at the end of every run or bike lap and to try and take 500-750 ml of liquid on during each bike. For the first six hours this would be energy drink and then I'd switch to my tried and tested rocket fuel, a 50% water and coke mix. The lap was a great mix of open trails and some fun singletrack sections. It was quite congested on the first lap and, hitting a steep and technical climb, I was forced to dismount by a rider stalling ahead of me. I hoped on later laps I'd be able to attack that climb as it'd definitely be a chance to put some time into any weaker bikers. More grin inducing singletrack followed before another brute of a climb. Not so steep but far longer, this was one to drop down through the gears, spin up and save energy. The bike loop finished with a super fast descent back to transition and then it was back out onto the run.
Again, I'd taken some time out of my schedule but with my post-ride running legs feeling strong (for now), I wasn't worried and headed out for another solid run lap. The field had strung out significantly for my second bike and I had a clean run at the crux climb. It was tough but just rideable. In endurance racing, you often hear talk of burning matches. This is where you push into the red, above your aerobic threshold and "burn a match". In a long race, you only have a certain number of matches and have to use them wisely. Riding this climb was definitely burning a match but I hoped the gamble of attempting it on each bike lap would gain me significant time over the majority of racers who'd dismount and push up it.
Through four hours and I was feeling great, almost worryingly so. Fuel and fluids were going in well, I had no stomach problems and most significantly, as by now I'd run well over a half marathon, my legs felt fresh every time I got off the bike and ran. Each bike lap, apart from the steep climb, felt like recovery but I seemed to be putting decent splits in, hadn't been passed by any other soloists and was even starting to lap some.
With six hours gone, I was still having a great time and running and riding well. Each time coming into transition was a real lift with spectators and waiting relay team members shouting encouragement and there was a real music festival atmosphere, complete with pumping music. I was still gaining time and it looked like nine run laps and eight bikes would be possible within the eight hours. This would take me over marathon distance running and over sixty kilometers of mountain biking. Still though, my legs felt good. I theorised that the continual switching from one discipline to the other was somehow fooling them but surely they'd eventually cotton on and stop being so compliant.
Finishing final run lap with just one more bike to go.
It didn't happen though and, coming in from my ninth and final run, the clock was at 7:46 so I'd have to head out on the bike again. The rules state that you get to finish the lap you're on and that your final placing is decided by your time for that lap if you and another racer have completed the same number of laps. With this in mind I could finally throw caution to the wind, forget about sensible pacing and burn any remaining matches. I hammered the lap, rode my fastest split of the race and finished with a massive grin on my face.
Even as I crossed the line I had no real idea where I'd come and was delighted to find out that I'd placed second. The eventual winner was a good half lap ahead of me so, although I still felt amazingly fresh and wondered if I could have pushed a bit harder, I had no regrets. The eight hours had flown by and the atmosphere and support from spectators, marshals and other racers had been amazing. In the end I'd managed nine run laps and nine bike laps in 8:10. This totalled 45 km of running with 1421 m of ascent, 67.5 km of mountain biking with 1684 m of ascent and 17 transitions, not a bad day's work. It's a truly unique event that I can strongly recommend and, because of the relay team options, is suitable for all levels and abilities. I'll certainly be back next year to try and take the win so I'll hopefully see you in Hell!
For information on next year's HellRider and other TrailPlus events go to www.trailplus.com