Some of the most enjoyable cycling I do, is inspired by people who challenge themselves to ride what seem huge distances, cycle across mountain ranges, or both! This may take place in the form of an event, or solo ride.
Learning about such accomplishments has certainly encouraged both myself and partner Emma, to increase the distance of our rides, or add extra climbs, Cols, or Passos when cycling in the hills or mountains.
I came to know of Chris Beattie, through his role as an ambassador for Q36.5, who produce high performance cycling clothing. Whilst learning about their products, I was also able to gain an insight into Chris’s cycling exploits, which range from riding fast time trials, placing high in various Gran Fondos and more.
On reading that Chris was racing in the 2017 Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra, I was keen to find out about his experience, and was really pleased when he agreed to a Q&A.
The Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra is an event in which either solo riders or teams take on a course which is 555 km in length. The participants have up to 40 hours to complete the distance, but some of the riders are finishing in approximately half this time. Chris is one of these people.
1) The setting of Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra looks extremely picturesque, but very challenging. When did you decide this was an event you would like to participate in, and what were the features that drew you to this race?
A large portion of Donegal is still untouched when away from towns and villages and is stunning on a clear, sunny day! The roads are undulating and indeed relentless even between the climbs! Traffic is normally light and therefore a perfect place to ride!
This year was the second running of the Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra 555 race, and I became aware of the event about one week before the first edition. After seeing the quality of the riders lining up, the parcours and the finishing times, I knew straight away I had to tackle the event in 2017! I had ridden long rides in the past, but I knew this event was really going to challenge me physically and mentally, and that it would also be a challenge logistically. The professionalism of the event organisers and the chip timing with live tracking was a big bonus and I knew this event was going to be world class. I was committed!
2) On choosing this event, what adjustments did you make to your training to be both physically and mentally prepared?
The main focus for me was maintaining pace over distance in training. During the last couple of years my focus had been Gran Fondo events so around 100/110 miles, and about 7500 ft of climbing. This event would multiply that by three! The distance in my long training rides would increase regularly, but interval work and hill repeats were still included to raise the threshold and keep the high end topped up for the efforts on the climbs. On these long rides efficiency is key but recovery is essential. Mentally I break the ride down into segments so instead of thinking 180 miles today I say 60 miles x 3 and I know 120 miles is fine so only the last section dwells on your mind! Sleep deprivation comes into play when pushing for quick times in ultra events, and I did blocks of training on greatly reduced sleep, so the body would adapt, and not want to shut down after long durations on the bike.
3) Passionate sports people frequently juggle the challenge of working full time and training for events. How did you go about achieving this?
My 9 to 5 is based at a University Campus which has its benefits! Firstly, holidays are good, so I get time to do big training blocks and to travel for big climbs and good weather! On a day-to-day basis, I commute to work on the bike, which is a bare minimum of 10 miles each way (but typically around 20 each way on average). The commute negates wasted time in the daily routine and maximizes riding time so even with an extended evening training session I can still be home with enough time to eat and rest….just! I am currently logging around 18,000 miles a year, so anything is possible when you plan your schedule.
4) A requirement of the event is solo participants and teams must have a support crew in an escort vehicle. Please can you tell us about your support crew?
The minimum requirement was for two crew but I wanted three good guys who were going to bring along some expert skillsets! Ryan Currie is someone I looked up to as a young rider when he was participating in events like the Milk Race on the Ireland Team. He was one of the best time triallists on the scene and of course is a great mechanic. Therefore, an expert on strategy, bikes etc. Ashu Kher again is a rider with great passion and a friend since school. He is a real computer genius and his skillset was our electronics, navigation system, tracker etc. Remember on these events there is no directional signage and going off course with any gain brings penalties and possible disqualification, so his expertise was invaluable, especially at night! Finally, Geoff Reilly, a work colleague and rider with local course knowledge. Geoff has experience of ultra-race crewing having worked for a solo rider in a 2151km Race around Ireland. Geoff knows how to support a rider and give motivation. His son Ryan is one of the top young riders in Ireland and currently races in France, so he knows what he is doing! Ultimately, I brought together three individuals with unique skillsets that I had 100% trust in, and they nailed it!
5) Racers have a time limit of 40 hours to complete the course, and rest and sleep periods are at the discretion of rider, team and crew. How did this factor into your race?
We factored in no sleep and no rest! Really, we organized and planned for neither me, or the crew to stop for rest or sleep. Remember the clock keeps ticking while you are stopped, so we only planned for necessary stops like bike changes at specific locations and checking in at time stations etc. Honestly, I knew I could function without rest and sleep, the only question being how well I would ride in the later sections, without sleep. It was harder for the crew to stay awake and alert and therefore important to have the capability to rotate drivers for safety.
6)When riding for a full day, I like to have a sizeable breakfast, then use a variety of bars, gels and chews to sustain an appetite for energy food. You were riding for much longer, how did you approach food intake prior to and during the event?
For sure, fuelling is a massive topic in ultra-races and the strategy has to be worked out to perform over 555km. Fluid intake, calories being burnt and what the body can replace during the ride, energy, alertness and even protein to rebuild on the go all come into play.
Approaching the event my diet remained the same as under normal heavy training, but adding in additional protein and nutrients, so the body was in top shape to get through the ride distance without depleting reserves. A high carbohydrate evening meal before and race day breakfast set me up with porridge, wholegrain bread, fruit, parma ham and a croissant washed down with black coffee 2 ½ to 3 hours before the start.
Race food replicated what my body was predominantly use to on the long training rides, but with a few tweaks! I am a big fan of SIS products (Science in Sport) and had their backing with products for the build up and race itself. My primary drink was SIS GO electrolyte a High-energy carbohydrate & electrolyte drink to help fuel and hydrate along with SIS energy bars and gels. Also every 5 hours I consumed SIS REGO, a blend of protein, carbohydrate, electrolytes & minerals, to rebuild and repair the muscles. This specialist intake was supplemented with a few bananas, fig rolls etc trying to address the burn rate of 10 calories per Kg/Hr for my average pace. However trying to digest more than 300 – 400 calories per can be hard so the drinks and gels are a must. I did have a great chicken roll at dusk which was a good morale boost going into the night! During the night, additional caffeine gels helped me to stay alert and keep my focus. In numbers, the ride burnt over 13,000 calories!
7) To complete the race you were riding for around twenty hours, and throughout the night. Did you make any changes or additions to your cycling equipment for the event? Was there a particular item which you were really glad you had chosen to use, or were there any adjustments you would make, should you do a similar event in the future?
The bikes were all normal road bike and TT bike set-ups with the only specific changes being to the tyres on the TT bike. For this I changed over to some heavier Vittoria Open Pave CG tubulars just to play safe on the rough surfaces of the Donegal roads. The TT bike was used for around 10% of the course. Reliable cycle lights, with suitable beam outputs and modes are critical. Exposure’s range of lights covered this, and they proved to be excellent. Rather than swapping between TT helmet and standard road helmet I choose a Giro Air Attack aero helmet for the whole ride, it saves watts for sure! As you know I work solely with Q36.5 clothing and I used their Miles Gregarius bib shorts which I can confirm gave no issues for the full 555km event! Other clothing changes took place for night riding, where bright and reflective kit was required. The most invaluable piece was the R. Shell Protection waterproof coat that was needed during the rain at dawn – a life saver!
8) Was there a particular tough period during the ride, and if so how did you work though it?
For me dawn was challenging. It had been dry all night but as often in Ireland, dawn brought a period of light rain which made for some slippery roads. With only about 50 miles to go it was hard mentally getting through Killybegs at the southern end of the course. I got my Q36.5 rain jacket on, long gloves, and just focused on getting to Donegal Town, so again I just broke it down mentally and thankfully the weather lifted again. Physically from here over the Blue Stack Mountain to Ballybofy was tough as the rain zapped the energy. I got in a low gear and concentrated on pedalling with some great support from the crew! Then the adrenalin kicked in for the last 20km blast back to Letterkenny and it was full on again to the finish!
9) How did you feel after completing the race? What was your recovery process, and how long did it take?
Immediately after, I felt relieved and overjoyed at what we had just achieved! Immediately I was consuming more SIS Rego, and started to nibble on some light foods, but the lack of sleep was kicking in after 28 odd hours of being up! It took a couple of nights to get back to the regular sleep pattern, but the body did not want to break routine too much. Certainly I was stiff and sore on Sunday especially on the upper body which does not normal occur. Active recovery started again with an exceptionally light turbo trainer session on Monday night and again on Tuesday, by when the legs were spinning again! Wednesday was back to the daily commute – on bike! It has really taken two weeks to get the legs recovered totally and riding normally again!
10) What is next for Chris Beattie and Support Crew?
Straight away we were already discussing improvements for Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra in 2018, so that is a given. The ultra-bug has clearly bitten and our goals now expand into UMCA World and Ultra-Cup events and events such as Race Around Ireland. This represents a very big challenge both physically, mentally, logistically and financially, but we know we can take it on!
In the interim, I am heading off to ride and enjoy the lifestyle of Girona on a trip with Sommet cc who have given me great support with my goals! Nick & Ian at Sommet definitely know how to plan the best bike holidays and I highly recommend you check them out before booking your next trip!
Thank you to Chris for this fascinating insight into riding this year’s Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra Race. From a personal perspective, the answers really highlight the level of effort applied by both rider and support crew, to enable them to be part of such an event, and how rewarding it can be. Maybe this will inspire others to take on the challenge of the Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra in future.
Best wishes to Chris Beattie and his Support Crew in future events.
You can click on the links below, to go to the websites for the race organiser and the brands who supported Chris’s participation in the event: