February 2005 – my first ever race. Lining up for the start of the St Valentine 30k, I could never have imagined the incredible range of races I would go on to do in the next 10 years. From Dorset to Dublin, it has been a wonderful way of seeing this world of ours.
Having just raced in the searing conditions of the Canary Islands, it got me thinking – what are the toughest conditions to race in?
This question was at the forefront of my mind as I raced along the northern coastline of Tenerife in 30 degree heat and a headwind which felt like being blown in the face with a hairdryer!
In stark contrast, back in July, I ascended mount Snowdon (in the Scott Snowdonia Trail Half Marathon) in rain so torrential, and wind so beating, that I literally couldn’t feel my arms by the summit. Needless to say, in 10 years of racing, I’ve experienced all types of extremes. Not least summertime in Wales!!
So, lets look at what we are up against. I’m going to break climatic conditions down into three main components.
Temperature – It’s reasonable to assume that to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the athlete, temperature extremes can be a severely limiting factors. For me, I have always been able to handle cold better – although wet cold (rain) can be more challenging. Excluding the extremes, with the right prep and kit selection, most temperatures can be effectively overcome. Good quality clothing and effective layoring cannot be underestimated.
Wind – As a runner who also cycles a lot, I’m very conscious of the impact that windy conditions can make. As I was discussing on a recent club ride with a fellow triathlete, I’m constantly amazed by how little advantage runners take of drafting. I’ve heard it said that it can be worth up to a second per kilometre. Free speed ladies and gents. Take it when you can get it. Roger Bannister used it for the 4 minute mile!
When drafting isn’t an option, wind is an extremely tough thing to deal with. On the bike, there are few things that I’ve found more challenging than doing a time trial into a headwind.
I think the crucial difference between these two factors is that the former is very much a problem of efficiently maintaining homeostasis in the body. Correct kit and, in the extremes, acclimatisation are the only answers I suspect.
With the latter, when it comes to racing at least, it is about tactics and mental fortitude.
The final challenge, and one that is very common to us all in the UK, is precipitation. For me, as a barrier to performance, this falls somewhere between the challenges posed by temperature and those of wind.
Rains can, if our equipment is not appropriate, have the same debilitating physical effects as cold temperatues. However, it is the mental effects of exposure to water that should not be taken lightly. In their training programme, the Royal Marines expose new recruits to numerous and long lasting exposure to water because it is proven to be one of the most effective ways of sapping human morale – even among the best. Next time you are out in the wet, look what happens to the mental state of those who are with you – particularly those without the right kit.
In the main, it feels to me that dealing with the conditions is more of a mental challenge than physical – except at the extremes. If you can get your head in the right place, you can deal with almost anything. Whenever I have to deal with tough conditions I always remember the following words from Ellen McArthur,
‘What’s the choice? You’re out there, you made the choice to be out there. So deal with it.’
For me, that quote just works. Its worth finding one that you can repeat back to yourself in ‘those moments’.
I thought this would be a little food for thought for all those gearing up for racing and training this winter – and particularly those brave warriors who will line up above Damflask Reservoir in a few weeks time for the Percy Pud. Get your head and your kit right, and all will be well.