This week's tip:
a2a Survival Guide
How to make to the finish line of an ultra-marathon
By Peter Doucet
Italian Mauro Guenci wins the 2006 a2a in a time of 4 hours, 50 minutes and 8 seconds.
Photo: Trish Gorman
Many of my friends ask me what's harder: the New York 100K or the Athens to Atlanta Road Skate?
My answer: a2a, which I consider to be the toughest of all skate races.
The 100K may boast a hill that you climb 19 times. But a2a is a grueling 87 miles, which translates to 140 kilometers.
And the extra distance trumps the extra hill climbs.
The next question that friends ask me is how do you last through such a long event?
The key, I tell them, is a combination of planning, discipline and smart skating.
Map Your Goals
The first thing to consider when approaching a race like a2a is your goal. Are you racing to win? Are you just trying to go the distance? Or is it a combination of the two.
Once you decide on your goal, you can start mapping your strategy.
By thinking and strategizing before and during the race, you increase your chances of success. For example, if you are a weak hill climber, consider going on to the front of your group before you reach hills. That way you can set an easy pace going up.
Conversely, you could go on small breakaways before the hills. That way you will beat the pack to the top and be ready to hop back in on the way down.
Best Laid Plans
Things usually don't go as planned no matter how carefully you prepare. So always have a back-up plan.
Friend and Foe
- Warn skaters of any obstacles, such as tar snakes, sticks, etc.
- Don't hold onto other skaters and pull them when you're going down a hill.
- If you've got to throw your water bottle away, do so in a safe manner (make sure it doesn't roll back onto the course).
- Make sure your water doesn't spill onto the road! It's slippery.
- If you're skating beside someone near the middle of the road and there's on-coming traffic, move over or slow down to let them get over.
As with any race, it is important to scope out the competition. Identify the "friendlies," the skaters who will work with you during the race, and the "foes," the ones who will be trying to leave you in the dust.
Don't panic if a few skaters go bananas during the first 5 kilometers. If they are not among the typical top-10 finishers, like Eddy Matzger, don't worry about it. Chances are the pack will catch them before long.
Every time I've skated a2a, there have been some people who want to make a statement and lead really hard. Fine. Let these "big" boys and girls do the pulling.
And speaking of big girls, here's a suggestion for the boys:
If women who are competing for placements join your pack, let them race! Don't get in their way.
This is just a personal preference, but I always like to see the guys let the girls have their own race, especially in the last few kilometers when it's time to move up and pass.
Drafting will help you tons. I always try to find a pack that is cooperative, rather than competitive. In a group like this, the stronger skaters take turns at the lead. When the leader tires, the new leader gives the ex-leader time to settle back into the pack before picking up the pace.
Don't forget the basic rules of pack skating:
- Synchronize your pushes so that you can follow closely.
- Don't get stuck in between two pace lines (with one on either side of you). If you do, take short strides so you don't knock skates with the racers on your right and left. Then slip into a spot in one of the pacelines as soon as possible.
- Keep in mind that skating is a dynamic sport. Don't fight the passes and the pack movement; instead, work with it.
At various points along the a2a road course, you will come to water stations, which aside from water bottles will be stocked with bananas. If you're not carrying your own food and water, it is very important to take advantage of the stations. Proper nutrition will make or break you at a2a.
I carry power gels with me and consume one every half hour. I take them on a fixed schedule: one at 15 minutes after the hour, the next at 45 minutes after the hour. It takes me between 4.5 and 5 hours to finish the race. So, in the course of the event, I consume nine or ten power gels.
I also carry a water bottle that I fill with an extremely thick and heavy mixture of Gatorade. I take one or two gulps of this every half hour, along with some water.
(By the way, don't forget to enjoy the post-a2a food. It's great! Mmmmm!)
Don't Get Lost!
I don't think there is anything more stressful than getting lost during a race. You can ask my friend Ed Leung, who once got lost in the back country of Georgia. (Imagine an Asian man dressed in a tight spider-man skin suit trotting around the back-roads on skates. As far as I'm concerned, that's asking for trouble!)
I've also taken a few wrong turns at a2a. And I can tell you, there's nothing fun about it!
Skaters aren't the only ones who get lost on the 87-mile trek. Support vehicles often taken wrong turns and fail to rendezvous with their skaters at water stations. In fact, some support vehicles have been so lost that they arrived at the finish line in Atlanta long after their skaters!
To keep from getting lost, follow the S's that a2a organizers have painstakingly painted on the pavement.
Know When Not to Skate
Conserve your strength. When you reach a downhill, glide! If it's really fast, shift your weight over your heels to avoid speed wobble (skates shaking side-to-side uncontrollably).
When it's time to climb, take shorter steps and stand up a little straighter. Go up at your own pace — unless you're racing someone or want to tire out the skaters in your group. (There's nothing worse than someone who likes to attack over and over again during a 140K race!)
Draft, Draft, Draft
When you don't have to push or skate hard, stand up and straighten your legs. While you're in a pack, take advantage of the group dynamics. Get into the front or near the front, and let the pack "push you" as it compresses after a downhill or after catching a breakaway.
If your pack catches a group of skaters, don't slow down. Try to maintain your momentum. This will save you the energy of having to speed up again and allow you to cover a few extra meters without expending much energy.
It's In Your Head
During a2a, you're likely to experience a full range of emotions, from purest joy to ultimate despair, as the miles push your body to its limits. You'll hit rock bottom at one point and later soar to some incredible heights.
Another thing you are likely to experience is "The Wall." I've hit it each time I've skated a2a. Up against it, I felt like I was hardly moving. My legs were frozen in pain. And my feet hurt so much that I desperately wanted to rip off my skates.
But no matter how bad I felt, I always kept moving. I battled each negative thought and reminded myself that the pain would pass, which it does. I focused on skating my race and executing my plan to the best of my ability.
I knew that finishing was something I would never regret and that it would provide me with more great stories to share with my students and website visitors.
Enjoy the Ride
During the race, you will roll through some breathtaking scenery in the company of fellow skate addicts. Enjoy this opportunity. Take in the scenery. Talk to your fellow skaters. Soak it all in. And have fun!
Peter Doucet is a veteran speed skater and the webmaster of Speed Skate World. He has skated the a2a three times, placing 5th in 1998 and 3rd in 2006. A resident of Mississauga, Ontario, he has represented Canada in seven World Championships and at the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil. He founded the Toronto International Inline Race Weekend and the RSO Speed Points Series. He is also a coach of the Toronto Inline Skating Club. Oct. 4, 2007