Mantova • Campo Canoa
7-9 giugno 2024

Mantova • Campo Canoa
7-9 giugno 2024

Ultra distances, impossible feats and mental preparation

giovedì, 27 Aprile, 2023

We had a chat with Thomas Boury.
With a start in Avallon, not far from the land where he was born, and a finish in Le Cap d’Agde, the place from his childhood memories, naturally, Thomas Boury decided to set the first FKT along the GTMC (Grande Traversée du Massif Central). A 1400 km bike ride in full autonomy with a minimalistic set-up: a singlespeed Kona Unit built with a rigid fork. 6 days 36min, that’s the time it took him to cover the full length of the route. An epic adventure, under the eyes of his father, Thierry. The story of this FKT doesn’t just lie in numbers and speed. It takes us to the heart of the ultra-endurance world where sleep deprivation and effort stretch the human soul to its limits.

The long distances at speed, the loneliness, being first (or being unique).  At BAM all of us are a bit  a sort of runaways. Can you tell us what KFT  is for you?

Well, if FKT stands for Fastest Known Time, personally I see this kind of doing as an adventure more than a kind of race thing. The fact that I am on my own out there is very similar to bikepacking or a personal adventure. When you are racing, the race flow always lift you up to find new motivational levers, but during FKT you are just by yourself, and it feels very different. It triggers very interpersonal motivations to do it. Obviously, being the first at doing something, or being on top of the ranking list is alway nice to hear, but it definitely is not the thing that motivates me in the first place. For me, FKT is just an excuse to find a bit more about my inner self and to explore new paths.

When did the passion, and propensity, for long distances begin?

I have been bikepacking since 2014-15. I went to live in Melbourne following the Bicycle Messenger World Championship (as I was a courrier) and at the time I remember getting out there by myself and then with some friends. I found that being able to cover long distances within a day was very exciting. You get to see a lot of different things within a short time lapse. The first real bikepacking trip was for Christmas 2015 with my friend Lewis Ciddor (winner of the Tour divide 18). We rode our bikes across the Victorian Alps for a couple days. It was such a nice experience. A couple months after that, I crossed the south island of New-Zealand with my fixed gear. For over a month I rode and ran across this gorgeous country. It definitely hooked me up with bikepacking and the simplicity of “ride, eat, sleep, repeat”. But I never went further. At the time, I was running more than cycling. Later on, between 2018-20 I sustained a groin injury, which is basically an inflammation of the pubic area. I got surgery, but this period had me cycle more than running. I tried the “7 majeurs” between France and Italy. It’s a 365 km loop that cover 7 pass over 2000m such as col de Agnel, Col de la Lombarde, Fauniera etc… It took me 20 hours to make the loop. I guess this was the first real taste of ultracycling. Then in 2021 I decided to register for my first race. The  Bikingman France, 1 000 across the South of France with over 20 000m of elevation. Since then it has never ended 🙂

How did your physical and mental preparation begin? 

I always had a “sporty” approach in the way that I love to analyze data, monitor my training etc.. I was up to build a sport project on a wider spectrum, with a professional approach. So since the beginning, my training always implemented some strength and core work but I have professionalized a few things recently. I started mental preparation at the end of 2021, and I’ve been working with a physio since last winter. 

Photo credit: Ryan Le Garrec

Could you Tell us more about your mind preparation? 

(How do you prepare it? What exercises do you do? How do you manage or indulge it? other)

I’ve started during winter 2021 to work with Anne, my mental prep. But the thing is, in the first place I didn’t start to work with her exactly on mental preparation. She has several competences and her work is not only around mental preparation. She’s also coaching individuals to help them in their professional life. I think at the time, I was a bit lost professionally. I had a good job on paper, a good salary, but I wasn’t feeling great. My aim in reaching out to her was first to explore my needs and expectations in my professional life, and then afterward to switch toward the mental preparation for cycling. I truly believed in a holistic approach. If you are looking to feel good on the bike but the other area of your life doesn’t fulfill you, then you won’t be able to fully exploit your potential on the bike. It’s a kind of life balance. I needed to reboot my whys of doing the things I was doing. When you go cycling for 1 000 kms or more, you really need to know why you are doing that. What are you looking for outhere, what are your expectations? I think that a lot of people dropping from races haven’t asked themself enough prior to engaging in such difficult and introspectives adventures. That’s some of the things I did with Anne. We worked together to pinpoint my motivations, my definition of success, the way that I approach pain etc. To do so, we did visualization exercises, we put on paper what were my expectations, how I define success etc We implemented weekly or daily breathing exercises to help me manage stress. There exist a lot of tools surrounding what mental preparation is. If you are looking for a universal answer about what mental preparation is, I think there is not. I see it as a sum of tools that help you manage your thoughts and the way you approach situations.

Does the mind stop much earlier than the body? (In difficult situations , mainly.)

It depends on the situation. The human body, by nature, is looking for comfort. When you are setting yourself outside your comfort zone, and if you have worked prior to that situation on various mental aspects, it helps you go through much smoother than someone who hasn’t done it. For example if you have acknowledged your whys of doing the thing you are doing, you are much more at peace with yourself because you fully accept that it is a conscious choice. Let’s say for example, you are riding your bike during a race, and the weather is shit. Like real shit. Cold, windy, rainy. In that case it is very likely that your body drops before your mind. You’ll start shivering, and then if you haven’t trained it, your mind will drop. But If you have looked up your motivations, repeat to yourself that this is a conscious choice to be out there, that is part of the adventure, your mind won’t try to fight as much the discomfort situation but rather more let it pass and go through. 

What are the similarities between ultra-endurance and life/existence?

I see both as a journey. With ups and downs, high and low patches. You have to develop your grit and resilience, nothing is coming easily and you have to fight for it. I always feel ultra-endurance racing is like going through a condensed life. In ultra-endurance as much as in life you have to reinvent yourself, find solutions to issues in order to move forward. The philosophy I applied to my ultra-endurance activity is very similar to the one I have in life. My optimism, joy, fear are always side to side. 

Does the bike set-up for an FKT have to be perfect? What does it look like? 

The ideal set-up is the one you are ok with. The big mistake would be to replicate others’ way of doing it. For example, on my side, my set-up is very minimalist. I usually do not take any mat or sleeping bag (although I like to have a pillow), my clothes are very limited with only arms and leg warm, a vest and rain jacket. There is no perfect set-up. You have to find the one you are comfortable riding with. The good set up is the one you have. You do not need to buy the latest fancy shoes with carbon soles to maximize your performance. Obviously it’ll help, but that’s not the game changer. Do with what you have, train with it, get comfortable with, make your bike like an extension of your body. Know its perks and get acquainted with it. That’s It! 

Photo credit: Ryan Le Garrec

What has been the hardest mental experience in your life?

I’d say that it is not related to bikes. Probably the loss of a family member . What is interesting to note is that bikes and endurance should be fun. Obviously going down a pass at night in a freezing and pouring rain isn’t much fun, and it’s tough but it’s ok because I choose to be there in the midst of the waking sunrise, being cold by myself. I’m doing what I love the most, riding. I did cry during my FKT attempt at the GTMC. I think I hitted a wall at some point but it was ok. It was more a way of releasing the pressure. I was ok with the pain, etc . To answer the question, I’d say the hardest part is while training on the rollers at home, usually after the winter break or after the first big race of the season. When you need to go back to the root of training and start doing some tough intervals. I’m there, asking myself If I’m really made of that, being an athlete. I find it hard to manage the doubt. Hopefully I have written my long range plan and I know why I’m doing it. That’s also what makes the difference between a single day exploit and a long career. Someone who’s made something extraordinary one day but never renewed it probably suffers too much to accomplish what he / she has done. If we build our accomplishment over more pain than pleasure it is very likely that the joy the accomplishment brings will never make it to the level of pain we’ve gone through. That is why it is very important to cultivate joy and pleasure while doing the things that you love. In our case, riding bikes. In the end, going down a pass on a cold night or making it through a tough interval brings me more joy in the process than pain. I’ll be careful to monitor along the way. Like a florist, I’m watering my body and mind by listening to them. 

What has been the hardest physical experience?

Saddle sore during the Atlas Mountain Race 2022. The physical pain was rough. But It’s funny to see how so much pain during the race could go away within a day or two of not riding your bike. So if you consider quitting, just get a hotel, take a hot shower and a good night’s sleep and you’ll see things differently the next day.

When you can’t do it, what do you tell yourself?

I never think about the fact that I can’t do it. I always tell myself I can do anything. I might not be the fastest, but that’s ok. We all have capacities, but first you need to trust yourself. I’m trying not to over complicate things by sticking to the doing instead of thinking how to do it. That’s what helps me during a race, or a FKT. It’s just keep pedaling. I also have developed small mantras that I keep repeating to myself. My favorite one is “je suis ce que je fais, je fais ce que je suis” you can translate it in english  by “I’am what I’m doing, I’m doing what I’am”. By saying these few words it brings me the strength and confidence that I’m at the right place at the right time, doing what I love. I feel aligned inside. So the best advice I can share is to find your own mantra that lifts you up. It could be anything, a word, an expression, a gesture, whatever you feel like. Cherish it, practice while training and use it when the going gets tough.

Photo credit: Ryan Le Garrec