A report from Pure Mountains guide and co-founder, Tim Kirkus.

The European MTB Marathon Championships in France on 10 June 2023 was a priority A race for me this year. I trained well and, with two weeks to go until race day, I was really looking forward to the challenge.

Then I caught Covid and everything changed.

Training for the last fortnight before the race was impossible, as I had breathing problems and flu-like symptoms. There were two options, assuming I tested negative before travelling. The first was to abandon the race and recover properly. The second, riskier, option was to accept that I was hopelessly out of condition and race anyway. I’d read that extreme physical stress too soon after Covid was potentially dangerous, but I was starting to feel better and thought “To hell with it, I’m going anyway”.

I tested negative three days before leaving and, though still weak as a kitten and breathless, the major symptoms has eased.

The race was on the Sunday and I pre-rode one lap of the two lap race on the Saturday. Taken at an ambling pace, I felt relatively OK. The course was interesting and technically challenging, but very muddy and slippery.

On the Sunday morning, I felt relaxed and really enjoyed the atmoshere of a major championship race. I think this was because I’d given up any thoughts of being competetive and the pressure was off.

When the flag dropped, I stayed out of the usual argy bargy, knowing that this was never going to be my day and that getting through the next 65km was the priority. However, I felt really good and started to push a little. The training was obviously having a positive effect and perhaps the after-effects of Covid had gone. My power numbers were close to where they should be and I thought “Maybe I am in this…”.

Then I scrolled through my computer data and noticed my heart rate. HR is not something I usually pay much attention to, as my power numbers are far more representative. But in this case something was obviously wrong.

My last race was a round of the Gravel World Series and my average HR was 145 BPM, which is normal for me for a long, race effort. At the end of the first lap in France, my average HR was close to 170 BPM. So, for the same power output as normal, my heart was being extremely stressed. And at the begining of lap two this extra stess caught up with me. Chest pain which I’ve never felt before, extreme breathlessness, and a total loss of power, all combined to bring me to an almost complete halt. I seriously considered dropping out as this was scaring me.

But I kept going and very slowly made my way around the course. I was being passed by so many riders and mentally was really struggling, but started to focus on counting down the kilometers until the end.

I finished and was 9th in my category. This was nowhere near where I’d hoped to finish in the weeks before the race but, all things considered, was not too bad. It’s super important to have realistic expectations and be able to adjust those when needed. 

Now it’s time to rest and recover properly. And not to catch this blasted illness again.”