Part four of an occasional series where I'll share conversations with athletes in the world of adventure sports.
On this occasion, I'm speaking with 43-year old Nick Gracie, owner of UK based sports nutrition distribution company, UNNU Limited. Nick is an experienced runner and endurance athlete who captains Team Adidas Terrex, a strong squad of male and female adventure racers who have been UK champions since 2005. He is considered by many to be the UK's most accomplished adventure racer.
A selection of Nick's achievements include;
AR world champions 2009
AR team world rankings 2014/15 - 3rd place
AR world championships 2014 - 6th place
Itera Expedition Race 2014 - 1st place
AR European champions 2014
AR world championships 2013 - 3rd place
Patagonian Expedition Race 2013, 2012, 2011 - 1st place
Tierra Viva Race 2013 - 1st place
Q1. What attracts you to the sport of adventure racing and how did you first start?
Nick: Adventure racing for me started in 2002. I watched a Discovery Channel programme about the Eco-Challenge with my good friend, Warren Bates (who went on to set up GodZone, New Zealand's premier adventure race). It looked really interesting so we entered our first race and came last! I was fit from doing lots of running but we were really clueless, wearing rugby tops and riding cheap bikes. Our navigation wasn't the best, either. However, the challenge really intrigued us and over time we sought to improve in the different disciplines (kayaking, climbing, trekking and mountain biking). The more we practiced, the better we got.
I like the physical and mental challenge adventure racing gives me. Whether it's a shorter race where you're in the red zone for the best part of the route and firing on all cylinders, or a week long expedition race where you need to pace yourself more, it's a very rewarding sport that pushes your limits and gives your body and brain a great work out.
Adventure racing has also allowed me to travel to some amazing places. I've been lucky enough to race in over 20 countries, including all over Europe, USA, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, China, Australia and New Zealand. I value the experiences I've had in these countries and the friendships I've made.
Q2. How do you train and prepare for the races you compete in, and what is the key to being successful?
Nick: The best training I find for adventure racing is adventure racing. It's difficult to emulate the lack of sleep and fatigue you'll experience during a race.
In an average week, I'll train for around 7-9 hours, focusing on endurance activities such as running and spinning. I like orienteering so I'll try to get out once a week with the active local club here in Bristol. In the summer months, I'll spend time kayaking and take my cycling outside, mixing this up with longer runs and more orienteering. In the run-up to a race, I'll increase my training time to 10-12 hours a week with a few, big 15-16 hour weeks if it's a world championship. I like to set myself small goals and break things down week by week rather than focus on one big goal, 3 months away. I find it helps to keep me focused.
There's no one thing that is key to being successful but focusing on a few things can definitely give you an edge.
Be prepared - It goes without saying but make sure you're solid technically in each of the different disciplines. Practice moving at speed whilst expending minimal effort and make sure you train in conditions similar to those you'll experience during the race. Don't take new gear or clothing - break things in beforehand and make sure they're comfortable and work.
Be organised - Being organised saves time. If you can move fast through transitions you can give yourself a huge advantage over other teams. Make sure you know where your food and gear is and that you're able to put your transition equipment (e.g. your mountain bike) together quickly.
Be open-minded - Things will go wrong (you'll definitely have wet feet, you may get a puncture and sometimes you'll come across a river in the dead of night that's not on the map). It's how you react to these things that counts and a positive manner works wonders on the team's morale.
For more adventure racing tips, see the Adidas Terrex website.
Q3. You run a sports nutrition distribution business. How do you fuel yourself whilst you're racing?
Nick: My focus during a race is to get lots of calories in me as quickly and easily as possible. On a kayaking stage, I like quick-to-eat food such as clif bars, clif bloks and gels, etc. Anything that allows me to take on calories and keep moving is good to have.
Nutrition whilst biking is much the same, the focus for the team being eating and drinking on the move so you don't lose time.
On a trekking stage, we'll usually stop and eat more 'normal' food such as bread, cheese and cured meats for lunch and dehydrated meals for dinner (though the shorter adventure races often pass through villages and you can buy food locally. On an expedition race, we might not see civilisation for the whole race). Red Bull is a must for all races and stages and is the best way to combat the lack of sleep.
Personally, I prefer a mix of savoury and sweet food in my race diet. Too much of either can leave you craving the other! The only thing I avoid usually is energy drinks as I tend to find they leave a coating on my mouth. It's difficult to get rid of.
Q4. Where do you see the future of adventure racing in the UK?
Nick: I think it's in a good place. The Itera Expedition Race was held in 2014 and it's returning in 2016. The film of the race has been shown by Channel 4 and eurosport. There's also established races such as Open Adventures and Questars. On top of this, the sport has recently had some good media coverage - helped in part by a stray dog at the world championships in Ecuador - but it could definitely be better. For instance, the New Zealand media covered the dog story but failed to mention their home team, Team Seagate, who won the race. However, given that there's probably less than 100 folk in the world competing at an elite level, it does fairly well.
If I'm honest, I'd like to see more youngsters nipping at our heels (the average age of an adventure racer is perhaps mid 30s, there's very few racers in their 20s) but I appreciate it's an expensive sport - you need decent gear for each of the disciplines and the means to fund yourself to enter and travel to the races.
Q5. What does the future hold for you?
Nick: In April 2015, I'm off to Chile with Team Adidas Terrex to defend our Tierra Viva title. In August, we'll defend our European AR Championship in Ireland and then we'll start to prepare for the World Championships in November in Brazil. It's going to be a great year, I'm really looking forward to it.
Post-adventuring racing? I'd like to go back to doing ultras (I've competed in the Barkley 100 mile and the Lakeland 100 mile race). I'm also keen at some point to do the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon. Adventure racing is my focus for now though.
Nick Gracie is supported by Adidas Terrex. His sports nutrition distribution business supplies over 1,000 running, cycling and outdoor shops in the UK with energy gels, bars and sports drinks (www.unnu.biz).