Dougal Allan reflects on his 2020 Coast to Coast
Admittedly it has been hard to make myself sit down and summarise my race experience from the weekend. I needed a few days to allow all the emotional and analytical juices to flow as I didn’t want to type my thoughts while my brain was out of control. I was also conscious of the fact that having a body and mind that is willing and able to cross our country in a day is quite a privilege, so my deep and utter disappointment with my own race left me embarrassed around people, knowing there are actual problems in the world and I certainly didn’t have one that qualified as worthy of sympathy. I remember limping into a cafe on the Sunday, deep in another timeless moment of reflection and mental agony, when I looked up and saw a lady drinking her coffee from her wheelchair. “Get over yourself and pull your head in” I told myself. She’d do anything just to walk. So as the days pass I am filtering out the negatives and focusing on the many positives. It’s been great to have more time with the family this week too. The kids are always a nice reset button for me and will always remind me of what is most important. That said, I am also determined to learn from my race on the weekend and ensure it sets me up to perform much better next time. And yes, there will be a next time. But first, I will revisit my 2020 Coast to Coast race, one last time.
The first run and ride went fine. There were a dozen of us and probably half of us were keen to keep pushing the pace evenly. I noticed Sam wasn’t doing much, which made me realise he meant business. It was going to be the test I had hoped and prepared for all summer. I felt excited and worked hard to harness it. As much as I favour my cycling, it really has little advantage on this first ride.
Into the run and I elected for a shoe change. I knew this would mean a gap would form to the guys with footplates but I tend to prefer the right shoes for the job on each stage, knowing efficiency is king when there are 11 hours of racing to navigate. A few kilometres into the run and we crossed the Otira river. It was running high and swift and offered some excitement early. I got across OK and settled into my rhythm, planning to keep my pace steady to Goat Pass before striding out on the east side of the divide if I felt good.
I took a few average lines along the way which was disappointing, but kept my focus on running a solid pace that would set me up for the second half of the day. I got no splits to the lead until I got to Grayney’s Corner, which was fine with me as I didn’t think it would make any difference to me knowing how far ahead Sam was anyway. While my legs felt OK, I knew something was missing. I have never been a great cold weather athlete, but I am not sure if this was a factor or if I just wasn’t quite firing. I had also seen Hamish on his hands and knees somewhere between Goat Pass and Dudley’s Knob. He assured me he was OK, but as it turned out he was suffering hypothermia and would eventually get helicoptered out. I was gutted for him. By Grayney’s corner I was told I was 8 minutes down on Sam and to me this sounded fine. I figured I might be 5-10min behind by the end of the run, but was also open to the idea of being 15 minutes behind and still racing for the win.
On to my bike and I pushed a steady pace to Mt White. I was surprised to hear I had pulled back 2-3 minutes on this stage. It was encouraging to think what this could mean for the final ride to Christchurch which is 4.5 times further. As I ran down to the kayak and stuffed a couple of CurraNZ tablets in my mouth, I was determined to make my bid for the victory from here.
The kayak started well. Rhys and Bobby were 3 minutes ahead of me getting onto the water and by 30 minutes I had caught them. As we entered one of the rock garden rapids I decided to go down the middle and make the pass on Bobby. Unfortunately I hadn’t given the wave train enough respect and I was thrown into the air and slammed on my side, ripping myself from my kayak within an instant. Before I knew it I was swimming to the side of the river, swearing at the top of my voice in absolute fury. Having not fallen out of my kayak since 2008 (ironically on race day too) I was in a mixture of disbelief and anger at myself for such a stupid error. The two rescue people on the side of the river did an amazing job of helping me get my kayak back on the water and sending me on my way. In my haste to get going again I hadn’t emptied enough water out of my boat and was sitting waist deep in it. I knew this was a recipe for hypothermia so went to work on my foot operated bilge pump to try and push the water out. It took my the next 75min of nearly constant pumping with both feet to finally rid my kayak of the water. My bilge pump is designed more for the odd urine leak than a full flood operation.
By the time I caught Bobby then Rhys again, it was the beginning of the gorge, about an hour after I had first caught them and taken a swim. I was also getting mixed reports on the gap to Sam, but the estimates ranged from 7-9 minutes. Given it was 6.5 at Mt White Bridge, I was pleased it wasn’t more. Not that this made me any less angry with myself.
I pushed on as best I could and kind of enjoyed the southerly front that brought strong winds and rain while I was in the gorge. It seemed to contribute to the ‘ultimate test’ I had set out to encounter in this years race. By the time I arrived at Gorge Bridge, I was 6.5 minutes behind Sam. Somehow I still clocked the quickest one day kayak time, but it certainly wasn’t the performance I had planned and prepared for. Despite this I was feeling positive that I could catch and pass Sam on the last ride. As far as I was concerned, I was still racing for the win.
When I climbed onto my bike and started pushing the pedals, my heart sank. Whether it was the cold (by now I had added a long sleeve winter cycle top over my thermal base layer and race suit), fatigue, ‘an off-day’ or a mixture of all, I was not getting encouraging feedback from my legs. I readjusted my planned race power by dropping 40 watts from the target and focused on staying as aero as I could. I was still telling myself I could do it and was keen to hear a split if somebody had one on course. The first split came about 20 minutes into the ride. A spectator yelled out to me that I was now 6 minutes down. 30 seconds in 20 minutes was not good news at all. But I continued to push my legs as much as they would allow me to. Who knows if Sam would blow up or not, I had to give it everything. But as the minutes went by, the power continued to fade and with it my optimism that I could still win the race. With about 30km to go I switched my focus to staying warm and getting to the finish. After 10 hours of racing, I was finally beginning to accept I probably wouldn’t win the race.
When I crossed the line about 7 minutes behind Sam I knew what was important. I needed to smile and acknowledge the support of the crowd, my supporters and my family. I needed to congratulate Sam on a fantastic race. I needed to answer questions from the media and I needed to be brave in front of my kids. As hard as I tried, I failed a bit on the last one. The tears came thick and fast. It just hurt. I knew what my capabilities were for the day and I had fallen well short. It was just as well my Smith aero helmet had a full face lens. It helped hide my eyes from the world.
Thankfully with a few days to reflect and spend time with my family I have started to pop out the other side. There will be other races and I will ride some highs again soon. I have already enjoyed shifting my focus back to my athletes who I am helping prepare for Challenge Wanaka and IMNZ over the coming weeks. The process of dealing with disappointment and growing from the experience helps my developmental journey as a coach as well as a father. It is all important stuff.
With the support of my family, friends and sponsors I am already making plans to return next year. I owe this race the performance I dream and prepare for all summer. It didn’t happen this time, but that has only positioned me to take a big step closer in 2021. I want to finish by thanking Bivouac Outdoor and rest of my sponsors and supporters for their support this summer. They all add so much value to my training and race preparation and I love representing them in my continued search for better. My coach Gordon has put so much into me too. Falling short felt like I had let him down initially, but he has been just as keen as me to turn the experience into a platform for improvement. Finally my wife Amy. She stood there at the finish and wept with me. She went through it all alongside me and never questioned my commitment. She didn’t even blink when I said I would need to go back next year. I am a lucky man.
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