Last month it was my privilege to crew at The Starman Triathlon, an event that my neighbours Andy and Caz from True Grit Events were putting on. The Starman is a unique triathlon in the Scottish Highlands as it starts at midnight with a 1.2 mile swim in Loch Morlich; which for those unfamiliar with the location is about 10 miles east of Aviemore – where you will find the nearest street light. The 56 mile bike that follows takes you through Speyside and finishes with a tough climb up to the ski station car park at the base of Cairn Gorm where you start the final leg a 13.1 mile run. This run is no less challenging than the previous two disciplines as not only do you start by running up Windy Ridge to the exposed summit of Cairn Gorm you then have to run down and finally up and over Meall a’ Bhuachaille to finish at Loch Morlich.
As a Coach, crewing at this event gave me not only the distinctive advantage of viewing the rigours of completing a middle distance triathlon at night but also how each of the competitors adapted and coped (or didn’t) with the nuances of the event thus allowing me to form some advice for participants in not only the 2018 version of the event but also events such as this that take place when the sun goes down.
I think the first most obvious aspect of the race is that start time of midnight. Questions will arise in athletes’ minds as to whether they should, if possible, alter their daily schedule prior to the race and go nocturnal. I think a close second will be questions about eating and how to plan meal times around the race.
Looking at nutrition first, I would aim to eat 4 times on the day of the race making my last ‘meal’ around 21:00, i.e. 3 hours before the start, and I would make this my normal pre race breakfast. So if you were to race a marathon or a normal middle distance triathlon and you would usually have say a bowl of porridge and a banana for breakfast before it then that is what I would aim to eat at around 21:00. I would then work backwards through the day and perhaps eat my dinner slightly earlier knowing I’d be eating at 21:00 and also lunch and breakfast. One aspect to consider for this particular race is the venue and how you are going to make that bowl of porridge or whatever you are going to eat at night beside Loch Morlich. The majority of competitors were in tents so not too much of an issue but worth considering if your normal pre race meal was steak, eggs and broccoli.
With regards to the midnight start it is only one night so I definitely wouldn’t try and alter my life to try and be nocturnal. Anyone who has worked shifts, or has had children or even remembers back to their clubbing days knows that you can cope with one night with no sleep. Having said that I would look to perhaps trying to get a nap maybe in the afternoon or post dinner then get up for the 21:00 “breakfast”/Last Supper and then stay up.
I think the next and again obvious thing about the race is the darkness. It’s called the Starman, there is a clue there, and you see the stars when it’s dark. However living in rural Perthshire as I do we are perhaps more used to and accustomed to the dark. I have a head torch in my van for example so I can walk from it to the house at night, as our nearest streetlight is 3 miles away. The race venue is, as I have said is an even greater distance from artificial light - so when it’s dark it’s really dark. This leads to a number of aspects that need consideration: how will you cope mentally not only swimming in a Scottish Loch but out on a bike course in the pitch black potentially on your own; how will you cope practically in terms what lights will you utilise in order to see and be seen, and how aspects like looking at your bike computer which in the daylight are simple all of a sudden become a more awkward evolution.
Like many things in racing this comes down to practice. In the swim the competitors were issued with 3 cyalume light sticks, one on either side of their swim caps and one on the back of the wetsuit and each buoy was beautifully lit up. But if possible getting a few open water swims in the dark or even fading light would be useful but if not even just shutting your eyes for a few strokes in your local pool can help. Kitting your bike out with some great lights that give you great vision is paramount but also putting a light on your helmet works well as you then have vision where you turn your head. This is important to spot race and road signage, to look at bike computers and also if you glance to the side you illuminate there. Racing with lights in the dark can lead to a tunnel vision effect and this in itself can lead to feelings of motion sickness and nausea and a few competitors certainly reported this. However having some good lights and also trialling these if possible under similar conditions can eliminate it. Of course lastly, as with any triathlon, it is the responsibility of the competitor to know the route so if possible get to know the path the race takes and therefore when visibility is low you at least will have some recollection of where you are. At least one of the competitors had actually cycled the route at night - go to the top of the Coach’s class for perfect preparation!
There is definitely a discomfort element to racing at night. Your mind can and will play tricks on you and innocent shadows take on new forms. Keeping your mind quiet and in check is definitely part of night racing. It is very typical in races to have negative thoughts that you should have stayed at home and I think these are amplified when it’s at night. So yes there is a warm bed you could get into but you still can once you have finished and have that finishers medal! Again getting out for a few training sessions in the dark will bring some familiarity to the effects and allow you to stay focussed as you become more comfortable with the environment. There is also a beauty and stillness to racing at night and that feeling of dawn, especially as you descend Cairn Gorm, stirs something primeval in all of us.
I think lastly from a coaching perspective one aspect that often goes awry in any race is pacing and this is simply more difficult at night. Athletes these days are very accustomed to reading metrics such as heart rate, power, speed, pace, average pace etc from a multitude of devices but of course you may not be able to read them in the dark. Couple this with your visual perception being altered often leads to thinking you are moving quicker than you actually are. At night with the reduced vision, objects appear very quickly and it is this that leads to the assumption that you are travelling quickly. The answer, as in during day races is to get used to ‘feeling’ what a particular pace of effort feels like internally. So rather than relying on visual cues or even cues from devices that at night you may not be able to read well, practice instead getting in tune with your body and understanding what efforts feel like. Like everything practice, practice, practice.
Overall The Starman 2017 was a phenomenal inaugural event, I’m only sorry that I was crewing and not competing (although with a dislocated collar bone I didn’t have much option) and it is one that should be on every triathletes bucket list.