Interview: Conan Marshall
In part 2 of our interview with endurance athlete Marcus Leach, we learn about his 1000km race in Oman and discover how he got involved in ultra-cycling.
“If you look at the world we live in, especially the western world, it’s comfortable. Most of us go from day to day never really having to get out of second gear”
What was it like after the emotional rollercoaster of completing the three grand tours?
I got to the end of these three grand tours and there was a great sense of achievement. But as many ultra-athletes have experienced before, when you’ve achieved something that feeling of greatness and euphoria fades eventually and you’re left with this empty feeling.
It’s like your reading a really good book and halfway through the main antagonist gets killed off. With a goal like that, it becomes your daily focus. Every single day leading up to the grand tours and all the way through to the end my focus was making sure I’ve got my training and nutrition right then suddenly it diminishes.
All that focus that you have is gone and I went through this period of soul searching where I was thinking… What do I do next? I’ve gone out and done the biggest thing you can do in road cycling in these three grand tours. I needed to find a new challenge.
How did you then discover ultra-cycling?
I was doing some public speaking in Austria talking about the mindset you need in order to do cycling and a member of the audience came up to me after and said have you ever thought about doing an ultra-race?
Up to that point I’ll be honest with you, I hadn’t even heard of ultra-cycling. In that moment I was like wow, that sounds crazy but would be a real chance to push things to an extreme to see what’s possible.
So, I went home and spent two hours on google looking at ultra-cycling and I just discovered an entire new world of cycling races and events and this whole discipline of ultra-cycling and started reading about races across America like Transcontinental Race etc. All of these great feats of endurance. I just thought to myself this above all else is what I’ve been looking for. To be able to put my mindset and my determination into a challenge like this, it fits my mindset perfectly.
After some research looking at races consisting of distances around 3000 to 4000 km and I thought, okay I need to start at the bottom and work my way into this because I knew it would be not just a new challenge physically, but mentally. There would be a lot of different things to think about like the logistics of how you run your race, how do you plan your sleeping? How do you get your nutrition…? It was a whole new world to me. So, I knew I had to start from the beginning and start learning.
I signed up to a race called the Glocknerman which is a 1000km race is Austria, it goes through one of the highest paved roads in the Austrian alps, it’s a supported race you can have a vehicle behind you all the time, such as a motor home to sleep in. You’re fully supported, and this seemed like a really good entry point. So, I got myself a sponsorship and got it all sorted, that was end of last year. In the process of doing that I started researching what gear is needed for an ultra-race, as there’s going to be different kit required compared to doing a sportive on the weekend.
During this research I found this bike brand called BIKINGMAN and they were doing this race in Oman. It started in two weeks, it was a 1050 km race. It went through the mountains the desert, all around the coast and it was unsupported, so you had to take everything you need with you, no support vehicles, nothing. Just you, your bike and your provisions.
“it’s hard to try and explain the mindset shift when you’ve ridden for 300km in a day and you’re still not even a third of the way through the race…”
What were your thoughts while preparing for such a dramatic and astonishing race?
There was a voice in my head saying how can you do this, no support, 1000km in Oman, but at the same time there was a voice in my head saying you must do this it would be amazing.
How many people compete in this race?
I think there was around 43 people who did that race.
Ultra-cycling is a niche sport but 43 riders, that’s a very small number of competitors…
Well its Oman, not a well-known place. This sort of ride, it’s a niche as it gets its not a huge competitive scene. I’ve done sportives where there’s 6000 to 7000 riders, but I actually love the fact that there’s a very small number of other riders. It makes you think well this isn’t something everyone’s doing. This is unique. I signed up for it, thinking, fuck it what’s the worst that can happen!
This particular race must have been a major stepping stone into your life as an ultra-cyclist. How did the race pan out for you?
I finished 11 out of 43. I did it in 64 hours and slept twice along the way. I had all the kit that I needed but didn’t use half of it. It was all a new amazing experience and a learning curve everything you learn from you develop from. I loved the sense of adventure. There were no feed or mechanic stations you’re given the route and there you go.
This race must have challenged your body and mind to a new level.
I really fell in love with ultra-cycling when I did Oman and it was immensely challenging. You know it’s hard to try and explain the mindset shift when you’ve ridden for 300km in a day and you’re still not even a third of the way through the race and still have 700km to go still this is crazy. It was a real test of mental fortitude more than anything. There were times I was questioning myself whether I’m good enough. Any endurance athlete will agree that there’s a mental battle that’s bigger than the physical battle and there comes a point in every race that a voice starts to appear, and it starts to question everything if you’re not careful you’ll let it win.
When you put yourself in these extreme situations of endurance you really strip away everything in the word around you and you become very aware of who you are where you are. You live in the moment and nothing else really matters. You discover parts of your self that you never really have to encounter in everyday life.
Could you talk about how this challenging experience changed your perspective on life back home?
If you look at the world we live in, especially the western world, it’s comfortable. Most of us go from day to day never really having to get out of second gear, never really examining who we really are and what were all capable of and its when you put yourself in those extreme situations that you must do exactly that. You ask yourself, what can I endure?
There’s a whole lot of mental tools you need to get through tough times. When in those hard situations, there’s that little voice that tells you that its easier to quit, and it is. But when you quit, and those layers of the world come back on and you start regretting not having pushed a little further.
I’ve been forced to abandoned races in the past and in those few hours after there’s nothing but regret for not having gone a little bit deeper. All of these experiences change you for the better.
You achieved an amazing feat in Oman, what was next?
After finishing the race in Oman, it didn’t take long for me to sign up to the next Bikingman event which was in Corsica. A 700km race with 12,000 meters of climbing. 82 people competed and I came 16th in that race.
What were your specific aims in Corsica?
I went to Corsica wanting to execute the perfect race and stick to my strategy. If I could stick to my plan I would be happy. I wanted to cycle nonstop to the second checkpoint at 370km, have a short two-hour sleep, get back on the bike and ride not stop tile I was at the finish line.
I didn’t care if that got me 10th place, 50th place or last, I wouldn’t have minded cause I know that I couldn’t have done any more in that given moment. I was delighted with 16th, it took me 44 hours 4 minutes with two hours’ sleep in the middle. It was tough but beautiful. Corsica is an incredible place and I wouldn’t have gone there if I hadn’t of done this race.
Completing these two races seems like the perfect building blocks to go further.
Oman made me realize that ultra-cycling was what I wanted to do. Corsica gave me the belief that with the right application, the right training and focus over the next couple of years I can really start to become quite competitive at these events.
Follow Marcus @MarcusGLeach.
BIKINGMAN events: https://bikingman.com/en/