Interview: Alex Melling
Do you now class yourself as a runner or cyclist or a bit of both?
I’d have to say I’m now 100% a cyclist, and the shift happened literally overnight. Part of my work overlaps with cycling, as I do research on cycling safety and sustainable travel. This mean I’ve always been connected to a lot of cyclists on Twitter even though, for a long period, I wasn’t really doing much myself. Then one of them posted a link to a photo-essay on Strava about the fourth edition of the Transcontinental Race [https://stories.strava.com/transcontinental-no4]. It looked brutal, and orders of magnitude bigger and tougher than anything I’d ever done before. Perhaps perversely, my immediately thought at seeing those images of broken and exhausted cyclists was “I have to do that”.
Just like that, I became an endurance cyclist. The following week I bought a bike and entered the race. This was in November 2016, and I found out at the start of January 2017 that I had got a place in the event. Training really started in earnest then and, mirroring my earlier experience of running, I built up to covering long distances quite quickly. Audax UK was great here. They have low-cost rides of 200 km or more happening almost every weekend, and these were ideal for pushing myself further in a low-pressure environment.
The Transcontinental Race was everything I hoped it would be. It was vast, frightening, overwhelming and elating. We started the race just as Europe was hit with the Lucifer heatwave, and every day it got up to 45 degrees or more. Riding pretty much non-stop through those sorts of conditions, I felt highs and lows more extreme than ever before.
When I started running a few years earlier, I was intimidated by all the other runners on the start line. But after a couple of years I had the experience to know that, no matter how good they all looked, I’d beat most of them (I usually finished somewhere in the top 10% in running ultras). This knowledge gave me confidence and soothed the nerves. Switching to cycling put me right back at Square One, and the start line of TCR was truly daunting. Such fit people! Such gorgeous bikes! I had no expectation at all that I might do well; I was just there to try and finish, as a personal challenge.
So, I was quite surprised when I rolled into Checkpoint 1 and learned I was 26th out of about 300 riders. “Oh crumbs,” I thought. “I’d better start taking this seriously”. Sure enough, I spent the next week creeping up the rankings and rolled into Checkpoint 3 in Slovakia to learn I was up to 16th and still climbing through the field. I reckon I’d have had a shot at the top 10 if it hadn’t been for a series of inner tube failures across Romania and Serbia that cost me the best part of a day’s riding. I was still elated to finish the race in 27th place after 12 days, 23 hours and 4 minutes. I was so tired the day after the race that I was defeated by trying to eat a piece of cheese. It was three months before my hands worked properly again after hundreds of hours on the handlebars.
Through your website, I see you’re competing in the North Cape 4000 race?
North Cape 4000 was set up by some Italian riders as an alternative to the Transcontinental, and when it first ran in 2017 it was essentially the same format – four checkpoints and you could choose your own route between them. This year is the second edition and the only change is that there’ll be a fixed route we all follow. It’s 4300 km from Lake Garda in Italy, over the Timmelsjoch pass in the Alps and then all the way up to North Cape, which is at the very top of Norway. There’s something about the idea of heading ever northwards until we literally run out of Europe that really appeals to me.
I quite enjoyed the route-planning element of TCR (despite accidentally sending myself over an Alp at one point because I was the only person in the entire race who didn’t spot the pancake-flat cycle path that went around it). So, at first I was disappointed by NC4k’s switch to a fixed route. But then I reflected that one of the highlights of the day on TCR was when I’d bump into another rider, and with a single common route this should happen more often.
How is your training going for the North Cape 4000?
Once again, the cycling is echoing the running. When I ran my first hundred-mile race (almost exactly a year to the day after my first ever run), my only focus was on getting round the course; the following year, once I knew I could do this, I started to work on building speed and got some fairly good results.
I’m now in that same second phase with the cycling. Now I know I can complete a non-stop ultra-distance cycle race, it’s time to focus on building speed. As I write this, the North Cape race is still over 100 days away, and I’m in the happy position where I think I’d be competitive if it happened next week. This past few months have really seen my performance improve and I’m definitely fitter than I was going into TCR last year; the three or four months I’ve got left are just going to make me all the faster.
Have you noticed anything about yourself since you started endurance sport?
I think I’m a lot more placid, and more self-confident. The knowledge that I can run 100 miles faster than all but a handful of people, or push myself across a continent on a bicycle at a genuinely competitive speed, is simultaneously humbling and emboldening. It might sound a bit corny, but if ever I feel self-doubt, perhaps in a professional situation, I just remind myself what I’ve done and it makes me feel better. “I can run a hundred miles,” I think. “I came top 10 in the Arc of Attrition in the year when five storms hit at once and 72% of the field dropped out.” It helps put things in perspective.
Riding the Transcontinental Race, I recall several times being overwhelmed with a sense of awe at what I was accomplishing. I’d suddenly realise – thousands of kilometres into the race and with only 2 hours’ sleep in a bus shelter the night before – I was still moving along. My body is amazing, I’d think. I can do anything. These thoughts again led to a few humbled tears being shed on Macedonian roads. I hold those thoughts with me still.
How important is it to set goals in these competitions?
Like a lot of people, when it comes to ultra-endurance competitions, I think it only makes sense to have process goals rather than outcome goals. An outcome goal like “Finish in the top 10” isn’t wise, because whether or not you do that can depend on too many factors outside your control. Even an outcome like “Cycle all day with an average speed of 25 kph” isn’t within your control, because there could be crazy headwinds.
It is much more sensible to have process goals like “Keep my heart rate below 140 unless climbing”, “Eat at least every 30 minutes” or whatever. The goals should be worked out in training and they should be objective things that you can definitely control and definitely monitor – “keep my heart rate below 140” is a much more useful goal than “keep my heart rate low”.
I’m hardly the first person to give this advice about focusing on process rather than outcomes, but it definitely works for me. And the longer the event, the more important it is.
My more personal spin on this issue is to point out the slightly uncomfortable truth that your best possible finishing position in an ultra-endurance race is already determined when you stand on the starting line. We don’t really like to think about this, and tell ourselves stories about how if you really want to win you just have to believe in yourself enough and push harder. Sorry, but that’s not going to work – especially in endurance sport. See that person next to you? If they’ve got better genetic advantages and/or have trained better, they’re going to finish ahead of you, other things being equal.
Except… except you each have the ability to fuck up your potential best performance if you don’t get the process right. And the process of racing is the only thing you can control, so stay focused.
Is there an event that in the next 5 years you really want to conquer?
I have no idea how I’d do this logistically, but long-distance cyclist Michael Wacker – whom I met in the middle of Serbia during the TCR – has just announced a self-supported race around the world following Mark Beaumont’s route. So, it would involve trying to do what Mark did, but with no outside assistance. At the moment, I don’t think I’m going to be quitting my job to go and do this, but I have to confess that the thought of that race is already gnawin
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