What Happened When I Did a 107-Kilometer Duathlon in My Backyard

Andrew Tracey

From Men's Health

In this new world, home workouts, garden WODs and kitchen mobility sessions have become the norm. And with races, events and gyms closing—some indefinitely—this way of life posed a unique question: How could I, a Men's Health UK fitness editor focused on functional bodybuilding and shunning endless cardio, run the Adventurist gauntlet while adhering to these strict, new rules? Particularly with just two weeks’ notice and access only to a stationary bike and an enclosed backyard.

It was a head-scratcher that would culminate in a formidable challenge: to complete a grueling ultra-duathlon—a 20km run, a 77km cycle and another 10km run—from the confines of my own home.

By its definition, “endurance” involves staving off muscular and mental failure for as long as possible, in the face of uncomfortable or difficult circumstances. It’s making suffering an art form, going beyond a standard level of pain and coming out on top.

I’ve spent years taking part in, coaching and spectating competitive events and, if this has taught me anything, it’s that my brief dalliance with the world of ultra-endurance—having trained for a 70.3 Ironman (itself cancelled due to the pandemic)—didn’t qualify me as an endurance aficionado. I still had major doubts about my ability to suffer. The pain threshold of the ultra-endurance athlete felt unreachable.

With that in mind, my challenge was a 107 km “race”, broken into the stages mentioned earlier. Even with months of training, I knew suffering was inevitable. “Usually, I’d want at least 12-16 weeks with any athlete for a middle-distance event,” explained Tom Frearson, a British triathlon and ironman coach. “One of the biggest challenges with triathlons is the physiological transfer from bike to run. In a duathlon, you have this transfer both ways. Overcook the first run and the bike’s going to hurt; overcook the bike before the second run and your race is over.” It was clear from the outset that this would take more than physical strength. I needed mental grit and race smarts, too.

True, I wasn’t coming at this event totally cold. I’m a fitness editor: I’m fit. I’d also been in truncated training for that canceled half-Ironman. But Frearson still made it clear that even my longest training rides were nowhere near what was required for the mileage now looming. My total running also hadn’t peaked to what was necessary. It was becoming glaringly obvious that in the unfamiliar world of elite endurance, there were no short cuts.

For the not-so-average ultra-athlete, a week of 10-15 training hours is the norm, bookended by tempo sessions, conditioning runs, strength training and “bricks”, a combination of long-distance cycling and running. This wasn’t the case for me. In short, I began my training in the time frame when most athletes would be considering a “taper”, a strategic drop in training volume, aiming to recover and hit their absolute peak on race day.

As Frearson acknowledged, my training forecast—and the race experience as a result—was a unique one. “You don’t have forward momentum, wind in your face, or changing scenery. There are no other athletes or crowds to take your mind off the pain. Any race comes down to mental strength above the physical. In this event, the emphasis on mental strength is even greater.” And so, with no fellow competitors, I decided to remove any added pressures of place or time. I simply needed to cross the imagined (or by then, hallucinated) line. Simple? Yes. Achievable? Perhaps not. There was a very real possibility of failure, the likelihood of injury and the certainty of pain.

I did have luck in other respects. I’m fortunate enough to live in a very rural area, and my house sits in the middle of a plot with a fenced border that, if hugged during a run, meant I could eke out a 200 meter loop without breaking social-distancing rules. I was also in the midst of testing a Wattbike Atom in my garage, so my sans-road cycling was easily sorted. The stage was set.

Hitting the Home Run

Game day came around quickly. Staring at my running app as it began the countdown sequence, my thoughts began to race. I was staring down uneven and inconsistent ground, punctuated by never-ending left turns. What’s more, one of the corners featured a 60cm drop into a hard turn, creating a near-complete stop every 200m. I would have to make up the speed before turning again in 20m.

Nevertheless, the die was cast. The run began as a cathartic experience, but my head game quickly slipped away. My lap counter became an audible reminder of the insignificance of each complete circuit. Sure, I was chipping away at my total goal of 100 laps, but after some quick mental arithmetic, my heart sank. My pace, combined with irregular terrain and constant directional changes, meant that I was going to be clicking off laps for more than two hours.

Internally, my heart and lungs felt fine. Externally, the uneven surface was hammering everything from my soles to my skull. As the distance increased, so, too, did the pain in my knees and hips. With the 100th lap looming closer, I was clocking up a reciprocal number of ankle rolls. Eventually, I pushed past the last bend and into the next phase.

To me, there are few things worse than stationary cycling. I find the idea of outputting enough energy to travel for miles without going anywhere as desirable as a low-calorie diet. It began to crystalize in my mind that if I was going to fail this challenge, it wouldn’t be from cramps, or my lungs failing—it would be because I capitulated mentally.

Against the odds, I started strongly. I was clipped into the pedals, which allowed me to pull the pedal back upward, thereby doubling my efficiency. With a bit of positive self-talk in my internal monologue, I reached a point where every revolution of the pedals felt purposeful. The stationary cycling became mindful, and I reached a meditative state—it was me, the bike and nothing else, chipping away at the kilometers in total harmony.

Tentatively, I looked down at the monitor and was crushed to find that I had only cruised through a paltry 5,000 meters.

Disheartened, it was then that I decided to reassess my nutrition and hydration strategy. My intake, as instructed by ultra-endurance athlete Fergus Crawley, was to shoot for 60 grams of carbs an hour on the bike and 40 grams on the run. “Try to become regimented with when you eat or drink,” Crawley had told me. “Being strict with it means depletion should never give you any issues.”

Originally, I had adopted a distance-based approach, stopping every 10km for
a swig of water or energy drink and some sugars. This was designed to mimic aid stations on the course, helping to provide morale boosts and smaller, bite-sized objectives. For the first 35K, this worked.

Then the monotony of stationary cycling hit me like a freight train in the back half. I decided to move away from this strategy, to short stops for a quick swig of water and a mixture of ice and energy drink, and some sugars.

Endorphins rapidly depleting and aches sharply spiking in my quads, the penultimate 10,000m interval saw me burying my head between the handlebars, spiraling as I considered the enormous workload that still remained once I had left the bike. Eventually, the monitor ticked over to the fateful 77,000th meter.

With no celebration, I dismounted and headed for my secret weapon. A large chest freezer full of water had been slowly chilling since the previous night; I dunked my head under, desperate to refresh my body. Now two-thirds of the way, all that was left was a jelly-legged scramble to the summit.

Photo credit: Callum Tracey
Photo credit: Callum Tracey

On My Last Legs

Head frozen and caffeine mainlined, it was time for the home straight. I’d barely been off the bike for five minutes before I was circling the garden, reveling in the fact that I didn’t have to go through the time-consuming rigmarole of changing disciplines again.

The same, sluggish pace returned. My hips groaned and each strike into the turf felt like another step closer to my body breaking down. At this time, it was the hottest point in the afternoon. The icy pool that I left at my designated “hydration station” – in reality, the same fencepost on every lap – provided welcome relief and helped against the onset of overheating as the kilometers ticked onward and upward.

Fatigue was never far away and, as Frearson had warned, the battle was being fought on different fronts. “Fatigue is guaranteed, both physically and mentally,” he had told me. “A trained athlete will have been through the process of accumulating fatigue many times in the build-up to a race. It’s a key part of the conditioning that’s built into the programming by any coach.”

With this at the forefront of my mind, my final 50 laps began clicking away minute by minute. Having started a running clock at the day’s outset, I was minutes away from the six-hour mark, a milestone that I wanted to hit, having cast an eye over the race results from 2019’s London Ultra-Duathlon—the race that mine was imitating. While it was extremely unlikely that I would finish with a sub-six time, I felt invigorated by the opportunity—theoretically, at least—to scrape a top-20 finish.

At six hours and four minutes, I clicked for my final lap. Slowing my pace to a crawling finish, I lurched into the shade. I had reached endurance Valhalla at home. With trembling hands and untied laces, there was no anti-climax. I hadn’t cheated by scaling this back— government orders or not—and I felt emboldened by the fact that I had pushed myself far beyond my limits, for little more than the experience and a few column inches.

It was proof that, despite a global pandemic forcing us to abandon the fanfare and pageantry that comes with a competitive endeavor, the human spirit still soars. And isn’t that what being an Adventurist is all about?

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