Cycling is full of hard working, motivated athletes. We are in a sport that rewards hard work, dedication and discipline. Anyone from the Australian marathon scene would recognise Jenny Fay. Some riders get over-hyped, but when it comes to marathon racing, Fay lives up to the hype. She is rarely beaten. She is a fierce competitor, with a dedication to training that is unmatched by many other mountain bikers.
An Irish national, Fay has been living, working and racing in Australia for the past four years. In 2013, she ventured overseas to test herself in Europe as a marathon racer. She grabbed attention at the Grand Raid, won a Marathon World Series race in the Val di Fassa, and brought home the Irish National XCM Championship title. So … where do you go from there?
“Train harder, aim higher! When you throw yourself into Europe after being in Australia for four years you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what level you’re at. Australia, and the racing, had been really good to me and I’m glad I didn’t go any earlier, that I went at the right time. When I went over there I was in pretty good shape, and I was able to compete at the top. It has made a lot of decisions easier for this year, because now I know I can podium at that level I’m more realistic about my plans. Being able to compete that that level competitively, means my European calendar will be more worthwhile,” says Fay.
Making a name overseas
Winning just about every marathon race she has contested in Australia brings a certain notoriety – but not necessarily one that travels. Heading to Livigno, Italy, to train, and then to Switzerland for her first European Marathon, The Grand Raid, gave an opportunity for Fay to make her mark, and become known to the other racers.
“No one had heard of me at all. I rocked up to Grand Raid and at that race I had amazing form. It’s probably the best prepared for a race that I have ever been. I turned up alone, I stood near the other girls, got on the front row, and there were girls behind me looking at me. It’s what I would normally do in a race. It’s just part of the confidence, you don’t want to be bullied. I climbed up to the first ski station with Ariane (Kleinhans) and Milena and we dropped all the other girls,” she says.
Such a display of climbing brilliance doesn’t go unnoticed. Jenny Fay had announced her arrival in Europe.
“It’s a big world out there, and everyone ups their game every year. They are going to get faster, I’m going to get faster, but there’s still a bit of a gap there for me to improve on.”
Fay finished 4th, losing a place to Jane Nussli in the terrible conditions on the last descent.
Part of improving is setting goals, and once home, Fay made sure she not only had a break, but actually made some goals for the next year.
“I sat down with my coach after Europe last year and said right, let’s do this next year properly. And by properly I mean a season where I’m ready to do the Europeans and the Worlds and still do more World Cups. So the goal throughout our training was with that in mind, both in training and in racing. I’m relaxed about my training and racing, but at the same time I’m thinking at a higher level in my mind. I can’t afford to go out and not make the sessions worth it.”
As an Irish citizen, based in Australia, but racing in mainland Europe, or elsewhere, there are some hurdles that may not be in place for some of the women Fay is competing with, who have full team support with a mechanic, and a feeder – or more. Fay stresses that understanding how the race will run, and where the key areas for support are helped her make do with what her family were able to do.
“Logistics are important. I have sussed out the races for what needs to be done before and after and I’ve kind of dialled that in. I need to do that a bit more. But having those feeders there makes a difference. At the ‘top of space’ as I call it at Grand Raid (Pas de Lona, 2767m) I had nothing. And I rode down with nothing. And I felt… nothing. All the other girls and guys had their supporters there giving them bottles and jackets and to be honest I didn’t realise how technical, both physically and mentally, the last section was going to be. I was disappointed as I really lost a lot of time in that last section. It didn’t put me off what my next race was, as I had no expectations for that race. I thought, physically I’m good, and mentally, and what I need to do off the bike is about organisation. Scoping out the points on the course where having somebody for support is a benefit.”
More than support on the course, having support off the bike is a big help too – something Fay has in spades when at home, with team mates Andy Blair and Shaun Lewis.
“Not having Andy and Shaun there makes a big difference before and after the race. Being around their expertise and support is always of huge benefit, and I missed that last year in Europe crossing the finish line and having no one to celebrate or commiserate with! Doing the journey alone is tough for sure.”
Racing for Swell-Specialized, an Australian team, it’s clear that the goals Jenny has set are global. Managing the expectations of sponsors and her own sporting goals is possible due to the success Fay has had at home, and what she achieved last year when abroad.
“Specialized and my sponsors are very understanding and supportive and can see that I want to go beyond Australia. They see that I can aim higher, so they’re totally behind me. I’m conscious myself that in an emotional way I’m still tied to all the marathons in Australia, I hate missing them. The fact that there are two marathon series, and when you’re known as a marathon racer, people expect you to be at those races. For me, the bigger picture is the Europeans Championships and the World Championships, so I have to stop thinking of them as series. It just so happens that the Real Insurance XCM Series will be preparation for Europe and the Worlds, and that series actually works with my calendar. But at the same time, I’m not going to go into every race with my ‘A game’ because I’m building towards something else. I’m always used to going into training and racing with my A game, now it’s a case of building slowly. It won’t be worth getting to Europe and flogging a dead horse. If I’ve gone all that way, having won Australian marathons, and then can’t perform on the world stage, it won’t be worth it.
Over summer, Fay raced some of the Subaru Australian National Series, including the Championships in Bright. With a road background and a marathon pedigree, the shorter format introduces more than just intensity for training.
“It was more technique than anything else. We jumped into fitness pretty quickly after my break and I wasn’t ready for it (the National series). I spent a lot of time working on my skills at the forests in Majura and Ainslie and at Mt Stromlo, and I really felt at Capital Punishment that I was a lot more fluid on the bike. It’s hard to transfer those skills to a cross country race, because you’re concentrating on what you’ve learnt, and then trying to add speed on top of that as well. I’ve realised that will have to come over time. The best thing is we have all these races available, and the best girls in Australia to use to test yourself. Those races were a massive challenge.”
“Last year I didn’t do the cross country season and I missed it both physically and mentally, to prepare me for the rest of the year. The one thing you have to know in Europe is that yeah, you can climb as good as the other girls but they can descend heaps better. That’s the difference between spending a lot of biscuits climbing and then getting down a descent slowly and then climbing back to them. When that turns into a cat and mouse game it becomes really hard mentally – you think you will never get there. Putting the time in now to work on technical skills means that when I do go to races I’m not the one at the end of the race who has been so aggressive all over the course. I’ve got to be smart, I’ve got to be tactical as well. These girls have been racing for years, competing against girls who are as good as them, so they have the tactics. They’re ahead of me. When I race marathons I race the men but I’m still in a time trial against the women – so it’s harder in that sense. I actually haven’t learnt to race marathons tactically.”
Moving to a bigger playing field was obviously more than just bench marking herself against some of the best on the world, it was clearly inspiring for Fay. So, just who does Jenny Fay look up to?
“All the girls racing cross country this year are just so good, Jenni, Tory, Peta and Bec. They really up their game, you see them in January, February and March and they are just flying. I really look up to them. On the world stage, Ariane, Milena and Sally are just phenomonal. When you think you can ride a fire road fast, and then you see Sally just ride away from you, you think “I’ve got a lot of work to do”. That’s where I want to be – and I can’t forget that when I’m back in Australia. They are the girls who are going to be at those big races. In Europe I get a chance to see them at the European Championships, which is going to feel like the Worlds. And then I go to the Worlds, and I get to race them again. Its good, it’s like you get a second chance at the same race, two weeks later. Physically, you’re not going to get any slower. So you can’t excuse yourself for that.”
Robert Conroy from The Roost Mag has spoken to Fay about the European Championships, but just two weeks late the World Championships will be in Pietermaritzberg, South Africa. The Worlds are a huge goal for anyone who is selected. Fay is no different – but it’s proving to be a hard one to plan for.
“I’ve asked a few people about the Worlds course, and I know it’s going to be hard. I can prepare for the profile and get there in advance to ride the course. There are support races on days leading up to the Worlds, which give us an opportunity to race some of the distance. I don’t think it will be your typical 100ker. I consider Worlds to be long distance cross country, so its suited to cross country riders who have the endurance to last for 3-4 hours. So I’m expecting hard climbs and hard descents. Jumping into the world stage last year is the best thing I did. I did it with good form and now I’m not afraid, I know I can compete at that level. If I tried the same with XC I’d be too scared! I’m very comfortable racing marathons, and I’ve worked to be the best marathon racer I can be, but I think there’s more there.”
You can follow Jenny Fay on her blog, or follow her on twitter @jennyfaymtb