As the name suggest, the 3 Peaks Challenge is a challenge in the truest sense of the word; it takes riders of all abilities and pushes them to their very limit. The terrain and the weather conditions conspire to make the course incredibly arduous but it is my firm belief that any rider, big, small, old or young can successfully complete the course within the 13hr time limit so long as they are adequately prepared.
My first attempt at 3 Peaks was in 2012 and it was (and still remains) the toughest ride of my life, it was one of those efforts that you are both extremely pleased but a little disappointed with at the same time. I was aiming for a <10hr time but the massive climbs, warm weather and a series of tactical/planning errors made this ride a torture. I finished the course in the top 50 fastest riders in 9hrs 36min, a respectable time and well under my goal time, but as soon as I finished I knew I could have done better.
Although I crossed the line in 2012 swearing, “Never, ever again”, within a week I was already planning for 2013 and, after the post-ride delirium had passed, I started to analyse some of the errors I had made leading up to and during the ride.
In the lead up to the ride, I was reasonably happy with my training; I was climbing Mt. Dandenong about 3 times per week and was racking up decent weekly distances, however, a large percentage of my rides were ‘junk miles’ – long, slow cruises on my mountain bike on the bike trails purely to bulk up my weekly distances. My training regime was also lacking in long, hard climbs, in fact, the only true climbs I had done previous to 2012 3 Peaks were six weeks earlier during the Audax Alpine Raid.
On the day, perhaps my biggest error was to book a camp-site in Bright, rather than closer to Falls Creek. The caravan park was noisy, my tent was hot and, by the time I got to sleep, it was time to wake up and drive to the start before the roads were closed. This meant I got perhaps four hours sleep on the night before the event which was less than ideal…
At this point in time, I was still fairly inexperienced in terms of nutrition and I had serious trouble with cramps for most of the course due to the fact that I was carrying no electrolyte drinks or tablets. By the time I got to a feeding station and got some Powerade into me, it was too late and the cramps had set in for the duration. I also had some trouble pacing myself correctly, burning too many matches on the Mt Hotham climb and on long road around Omeo and leaving nothing much in the tank for the Back-of-Falls climb.
In terms of timing, 3 Peaks is very well organised and the published time splits are a really useful tool for analysing the strengths and weakness of your performance. From this information, I saw that my aggregate climbing time (the total time taken to ascend all three climbs) was well within the top 15 times, yet my total ride time was only just within the top 50 fastest times, suggesting that I had lost large amounts of time at the stops and on the flatter sections of road.
2012 was the year the I started Audax riding and I got pretty serious about it not long after 3 Peaks, mainly as a means to maintain my fitness until the following year. However, I learned to love Audax for itself and the long-distance riding has improve many aspects of my cycling; of course, it has greatly increased my fitness and endurance, but it has also taught me to pace myself more effectively and to not be intimidated by distances. I’ve also learned a great deal about sports nutrition, bicycle maintenance and recovery techniques.
I started my training for the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge two weeks after completing the 1200km Great Southern Randonnee, with a fairly similar regime to the previous year; rides in the Dandenongs 3-5 mornings a week before work and weekly distances of 300-600km (depending on my Audax calendar). This year, however, I greatly reduced my ‘junk mile’ rides and tried to replace them with longer, tougher rides (the stupidest being a ride from my house to Mt Baw Baw and return) or with the much-dreaded hill repeats. In fact, I found hill repeats of the 1:20 (The Basin to Sassafras) to be an excellent way to make up my weekly distance goals, mainly because if I felt lazy and wanted to skip a morning ride, I knew I would have to make up for it with a couple of extra reps on the weekend. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep-in too many mornings. In addition to hilly rides, I also made an effort to include a number of long, relatively flat rides where I focussed on maintaining a high average speed, which had shown itself to be a weakness in 2012.
In an effort to tackle some big climbs before 3 Peaks, I signed up for the 7 Peaks Challenge, attended many of the excellent Climbing Cyclist/Hells 500 “7 Peaks Domestique Series” rides and did a few rides out to my favourite local climb, Mt Donna Buang. It was on some of these rides with other cyclists that I started to notice that how much weight (or more accurately, the power-to-weight ratio) effects one’s ability to climb. I often found myself struggling to match other riders on steep ascents only to discover that they weighed 10, 15 or even up to 20kg less than I did, so I knew, that if I wanted to do well in 3 Peaks, I would have to trim down a little.
At 78kg and 190cm (~6’2″), I was far from fat, in fact, most of my life I had been considered a bit too skinny and it seemed a little insane to even be considering losing weight. However, I remembered that in the previous year’s 3 Peaks I weighed in at about 72kg so I knew I should be able to get down to 75kg or even 70kg, which would greatly increase my power-to-weight ratio. The question was, what was the best way to do it? I read many articles on the internet discussing weight-loss, but most of the techniques are aimed at people looking to lose weight with a minimum of effort and were based on gimmicks that trick the body into thinking it is full. Eventually, I stumbled upon a site that was designed for athletes looking to lose weight and broke it down to a simple formula:
Energy In<Energy Used = Weight Loss
It’s obvious, but its strange how few diets emphasise this fact; use more energy than you eat and you will lose weight. So I started to look at food in terms of kilojoules and made some changes to my diet.
First to go was alcohol; it is full of useless kilojoules and even a moderate intake of alcohol has been shown to negatively effect endurance athletes. My next step was to reduce my intake of energy; rather than calorie-counting, I decided to restrict my diet to foods that contained less than 1000kj/100g (or 100ml). This 1000kj rule was entirely arbitrary, but I found that it cut out most of the junk in my diet (chocolate, lollies, soft-drink) and really forced me to think about what I was putting into my body. Many of my regular foods had to be substituted for wholemeal, low-fat and/or low-sugar alternatives and I spent many hours in the supermarket comparing the nutrition information panels on the back of food packaging. I wasn’t too strict with foods that were consumed in very small volumes, like condiments, honey, etc and I also found some unlikely loopholes that allowed me to things like ice cream.
Importantly, I never restricted my diet while on longer rides and allowed a modest amount of carb-loading before long Audax events, because ‘bonking’ is very unpleasant and something that I never wish to experience again. This made riding even more enjoyable, knowing that I could have a couple of lollies or a chocolate bar during the ride that would otherwise be off the menu, although I always tried to avoid any post-ride food binge.
About a year before, for a number of reason, I had also altered my diet to a low-meat diet (largely inspired by this ‘Weekday Vegetarian‘ TED talk), so my menu was already pretty restricted at times. Unfortunately, I was forced to relax this aspect of my diet a little for the sake of efficient protein intake because I was in danger of starting to lose muscle mass and the best way to get large amounts of protein without any unnecessary kilojoules is to eat super-lean meat (veal steaks and kangaroo).
My diet started on the 1st of January and I weighed 77.6kg, with a BMI of 21.5 and an approximate body fat percentage of 11.2% (roughly calculated by weight, neck and waist measurements, plugged into Body Fat Calculator). When possible, I weighed myself every morning and every night while calculating my BMI and percent body fat weekly. This may seem a bit obsessive, but I think it really helped to establish the weight-loss trend and it soon became apparent that any serious deviation away from the diet would be revealed in the following days by the scales. I stuck to my diet fairly well, except for a couple of parties where I compensated for my sobriety by eating too much food, and the scales gave me a severely disapproving stare for several days afterwards…
The weight dropped off very quickly and I reached my first goal of 75kg in about 10days. After that, the weight-loss was a bit up-and-down but the trend was always down. At one point, I reached as little as 69kg but that was too low and I felt really lethargic and horrible. I managed to stabilise it at 70-72kgs and, a few days before 3 Peaks, I weighed in at 70.8kg with a BMI of 19.6 and body fat percentage of ~6-7% (I can’t verify the accuracy of the percent body fat, I believe the formula used to calculate it is designed for people with a different body shape to mine).
Both the diet and the weight-loss were not sustainable in the long run, but they were never meant to be, it was a specific regime designed around a set target (after 3 Peaks I dropped the diet and rapidly came back to a more comfortable 76-78kg). I looked terrible, I was gaunt, sickly-looking, most of my ribs were showing and all the fat had been shed from my legs, leaving them grotesquely veiny. And my pants no longer fitted my properly, which was probably the most inconvenient aspect of the whole scenario.
But I felt fit and, most importantly, I was climbing better; I was riding faster times on most of my regular climbs and was able to perform better against other cyclists. This regime of intensive, targeted training coupled with weight-loss was the most specific preparation that I had ever done for an event and I felt that I was ready for a red-hot crack at the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge.