Anyone who follows me, or MarathonMTB on social media will be aware that my World Marathon Championships didn’t exactly go to plan. Around 30km into the 60km race my rear wheel bearings randomly failed. The second descent was pretty hair raising anyway and with my wobbling wheel I felt really unstable on the bike. I stopped to see if I could tighten the hub, but no such luck. I had to pull out.
I walked to the nearby feedzone and was recorded as a DNF. However since I had no support crew and my other half was racing the Sella Ronda Hero 87km race, I was stranded about as far away from the start-finish as I could possibly be. I realised I was going to be there a while. I sat down on the grass to watch the remaining riders roll past. I think three World Championship racers passed me which meant that I was pretty far back in the field of 62 starters. Whilst I had been taking it easy on the first two climbs knowing that I come strong later in marathon races, I hadn’t been doing great. It set me thinking and back home I’ve done some research to see if I was right.
Back in 2012 when I first raced the World Championships there were 40 finishers in the women’s field. There was around 2 hours 15 minutes between the winner Anneka Langvad and the last finisher. Langvad finished in a fairly quick time of 3 hours and 52 minutes despite it being a really muddy October race in northern France. The riders needed to be strong but also able to deal with unpredictable slippery mud. They even removed part of the course the day before as it was so dangerous. Lots of people really struggled with the conditions.
In 2013 the course was completely different, long untechnical road climbs – lots of them – and mostly gravel descents which are challenging to ride but only really at speed. Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa won that year and 40th place was only 1 hour and 10 minutes behind her over a longer course than the year before (Dahle took 4 hours 35 minutes). There were 55 finishers and last place took 8 hours. But it was a long course with a lot of climbing so if you weren’t prepared you could really suffer. Like the year before the terrain encouraged a spread out field, but for completely different reasons.Back in Austria in 2013.This year Gunn-Rita won again and just like in 2013 it was a very mountainous route, but with more traditionally technical descents. As well as the gravel roads, there were loose bouldery chutes and some trail centre style bermy sections. Even though I only did half the course I could see just how much of a well rounded rider you would need to be to do well. Gunn-Rita’s time was very similar to Langvad’s from 2012. Only this year there were 58 finishers and 40th place was only 1 hour behind. In fact the last finisher was only 2 hours behind, closer to the winner than 40th place in 2012.
So why I am I including all these times and placings? Well over the years I have attended the World Champs I’ve felt that the field was changing. I wanted to see if it was just my brain explaining away my lower placing each time, or whether the fields really were getting tougher and more competitive. I think the figures above prove that I’m not going mad, clearly growing numbers of women are racing and finishing the Worlds and the difference between the top and bottom of the field is narrowing. Obviously this is not a scientific study but I hope you can see that the courses were all very selective in their different ways. In fact given the steep climbing in this year’s event you might even expect the field to be more spread out than in previous years, not less.
For the men it is the same story:
Winner: Ilias – 4 hours 18
80th: 1 hour 35 behind
Last finisher: 91st place – 8 hours
Winner: Sauser – 4 hours 25
80th: 1 hour behind
Last finisher: 115th place – 7 hours 45
Winner: Lakata – 4 hours 25
80th: 1 hour behind
Last finisher: 123rd place – 6 hours 45
This says to me that my gut is right, marathon racing at the top level is getting significantly more competitive. I think the UCI qualification criteria has been really successful at getting more people to the World Champs, but also to the World Series events at which you can quailify. With wider attendance you get more competitive racing and everyone is forced to work harder for the same result. It was and is a great thing for the sport.
Marathon racing is somewhat unique in cyclesport in having an elite World Championships that non professional athletes can enter and do well in. In 2012 there was at least one non-pro in the women’s top 10, but professionalism is increasing and this will become less and less possible. Again I don’t consider this a bad thing for the sport. I’ve been lucky in being able to take part at such a high level, but in a way it shouldn’t be possible. The World Championships, the pinnacle of the sport, should be hard to get to and should require significant professionalism and commitment.
Whilst I was mulling this over back in the Dolomites I also realised something else. Not only had the make up of the men’s and women’s fields changed, but I had too. Back in 2012 racing the World Champs was my be all and end all. I sat on my turbo all winter (and summer in fact given the challenges of training in London) and I made significant sacrifices to make sure I was in peak form. In 2013 I struggled a bit more as my accounting exams became more all consuming and I didn’t spend enough time riding in tough terrain to really prepare for a World Champs. My priorities had begun to change.
Different priorities in 2015.In 2015 I find myself in a different place again. Where bike racing had been a real driver in my life, something I wanted to do well at to prove something to myself and to unknown other people, it isn’t so much any more. In hindsight you can see the signs of this in my approach to racing this year. I haven’t done as much, for totally sensible, normal life getting in the way reasons. But previously it would still have been important for me to train and to race whatever else was going on. I’d have felt too guilty not to. I don’t have that any more.
Despite all of that I really committed myself to training and being in the best form for the race last weekend. The power numbers said I was fitter than ever before. I had time riding at altitude in the mountains getting my legs and head ready for the race terrain. I tapered, ate sensibly and was ready. Then my bike failed randomly. Anyone emotionally invested in a race like this knows how upsetting this is, and yet I wasn’t that upset. It was just one of those things. Shit happens.
Back in the feedzone I got out my phone and I already had concerned messages from people who had seen my DNF on the live timing. I didn’t want people to worry so I shared what had happened on social media and then the lovely responses started flooding in. I started to feel like I had let everyone down by not being more distraught about not finishing. I got upset that I wasn’t more upset!
Back home having had a madly busy week I’ve started to understand even more that I just don’t have what it takes to race at the top level any more, especially with increasingly competitive fields. It takes real commitments that I just can’t make. I know people who have cut down their working hours, or those who are on the road/trail by 5am to get a training ride in before work and you know, I can’t do that. I need balance in my life, and my work and personal life are as important in providing that balance as my cycling hobby. It’s taken me a while to realise that.
I’ve realised that whether I am training for a race or not, I’ll still ride my bike most days. I’ll probably still do interval sessions. But I no longer need to prove to myself that I can do it, I’ve done that. And I don’t think I’ve lost my natural competitiveness either, I just need to find the next challenge. I’m not sure what that is yet.
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