Neil Scholes is head coach at Performance Edge, who generously helped at our inaugural STARMAN Night Triathlon event in August 2017 and has been back every year since. Here is his report of the 2017 event along with his thoughts on training and nutrition for an extreme night-time triathlon.
In August 2017 it was my privilege to crew at The Starman Triathlon, organised by True Grit Events. The STARMAN is a very unique extreme triathlon in the Scottish Highlands which starts at midnight with a 1.2 mile swim in Loch Morlich. This, 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. This allowed me to form some advice for participants for this and other events 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 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 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. 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, an even greater distance from artificial light – so when it’s dark it’s really, properly 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 of 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 night-swim, the competitors were issued with 3 cylume 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. Getting a few open water swims in the dark or even fading light would be useful and 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 that finisher’s 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 triathlon / 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 and it may lead 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 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 Night Triathlon 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 triathlete’s bucket list!
Please check out Neil’s website here: http://www.performance-edge.me/home/