NavWorld Ambassador Theresa Ralph is living proof you can’t keep a competitive woman down. When this former Springbok swimmer took time out to raise a family, no-one envisaged she’d be back a few years later – this time on two wheels and taking the local mountain bike scene by storm. Wearing many hats; mom to two kids, IT specialist, semi-pro athlete, part-time spinning coach and orthopaedic sports masseuse. Ralph has a message for other busy working mothers out there who would like to fit sport into their already hectic lives: “You can do it, don’t think you can’t!”
Theresa Ralph’s new route to sport’s stardom began back in 2009 after watching her brother train for and ride his first Cape Epic. Considered by many as “the toughest MTB stage race in the world”, its route changes every year – leading aspiring amateur and professional mountain bikers from around the world through roughly 700km of unspoilt scenery and 15,000m of accumulated climbing. And, while doing so, the field (comprising teams made up of two riders) gets to experience many of the magnificent mountain passes the Western Cape has on offer.
“At the time my children were 3 and 5 years old, I was 34 and slowly starting to get my life back,” recalls Ralph. “I couldn’t help but notice how much effort my brother was putting into preparing for the event, and realised what a serious challenge it was to ride.”
It didn’t take long for Ralph to figure out that mounting biking was for her too. Six month’s later, she had her own bike and was training hard to enter the 2010 event. By 2012, her meteoric rise in the woman MTB rankings was apparent for everyone to see – she’d just made a podium finish, coming second. The rest, as they say, is history. “My success at the 2012 Cape Epic put me on the map as a competitive rider to take seriously. In a way, this race made me,” says Ralph.
Epic race, for an epic rider
She’s not kidding. Apart from representing South Africa at the MTB World Championships in France that same year – it’s her ongoing dedication to this gruelling, eight-day endurance event that largely defines her today as a sportswoman. Since her first ride back in 2010 Ralph has entered every year, and is presently geared up for her seventh time around when the 2017 Cape Epic kicks-off in a few days.
Like last year, her team mate will be pro-rider Yolandi du Toit. “We’re great friends and know how to help each other through our individual weaknesses. Yolandi’s a Garmin Ambassador, and I’m NavWorld’s Ambassador – so we both support the same products, which is great for us as a team. We also have a lot of fun when we ride together, which is extremely important.”
The way Ralph sees it, her natural affinity with off-road endurance riding comes down to simple genetics and her body type. Ralph explains: “I have always been extremely competitive, it’s just the way I’m wired. Being tall and thin, my physical build is also more suited to endurance sports. If I’d been short and stocky, I’d probably be into power sports. Many years of competitive swimming has given me an edge too – I might be slow out the blocks, but when I get going I don’t stop.”
Gym work: Ralph’s secret to success
Nicknamed “The Diesel Train” by fellow competitors because of her uncanny ability to come up from behind, breeze past them and then just keep on going – Ralph’s stamina is legendary. A large part of this she puts down to regular gym sessions, where she concentrates on strengthening her upper body, core and legs throughout the year.
“I feel this is an area where a lot of girls make a mistake. They think just riding is going to get them there. It’s not,” explains Ralph. “There are specific exercises you can do to improve your mountain biking. For example, it’s really important to have a strong core – this helps you when cornering, when balancing on narrow single tracks, or when bombing downhill. It also prevents back pain, something that’s very common amongst mountain bikers, especially at venues where heavy climbing is involved.”
Keeping fit year-round
As far as base training goes, staying fit is a year-round activity. Ralph elaborates: “The MTB season is long, starting in mid January and ending mid December, so I only get four weeks a year where I can rest properly.” To get around this, and make sure her race diary remains manageable, she only targets three major events a year and considers the rest all minor. “You can’t tackle them all, because you can’t peak! Anyway, if you keep pushing yourself without allowing your body to recover adequately, you’re actually weakening yourself, not making yourself stronger. You always want to go into big events feeling fresh.”
Ralph’s weekdays start at 4:15 every morning. This is her chance to get in a good 90-minute to 2 hour ride (she aims for between 350 and 400 km per week), before rushing the kids (now 10 and 12) off to school and getting to work. Monday and Wednesday lunchtimes are taken up by teaching spinning. With what’s left, she tries to fit in as many gym sessions as she can – typically about four each week. “I cover all my distance in base, and normally take it long and slow. This lets me train for distance and endurance,” explains Ralph. “I then do intensity training in the gym to make me strong and fast.”
Turning up the heat
When training for a big event, such as the Cape Epic, Ralph starts by upping the intensity of her interval training about 2 months before race day. For example, doing 8 sets of 4-minute intervals, with 3-minute rest periods in between (instead of her base 10-minutes on, 10-minutes off routine). Closer to the time, she then moves on to “scholastic training” – this involves 4-minute sessions, broken down into 30-second segments, alternating between flat out and rest until the time is up. Say’s Ralph: “It’s a brutal on/off, on/off until the 4-minutes has finished. It’s very intense and almost makes you feel sick, but it does get your legs race ready.”
Over the last two years a lot more woman riders have teamed up with professional coaches. Ralph (who trains with Mike Posthumas from Science to Sport) sees this as a good thing, saying: “I would define a coach, not as someone who pushes your training, but as someone who monitors your fatigue levels. Many riders trying to improve their performance try too hard and over-train. A good coach can crunch the data and tell exactly what you should, or should not, be doing. They’re also watching you. It’s like having a therapist; they help build your mental strength.”
Ralph has recently taken on a dietician for the first time, lamenting: “Maintaining a racing weight after 40’s not easy! When I was younger, all I had to do to drop weight was forego my second morning rusk; those days are over.” Nowadays, her diet is high in protein and lowish in carbs. Conscious of her meals throughout the day, she targets what to eat when to optimise her energy levels while training. Typically, she consumes most of her carbs in the morning, then phases them out throughout the rest of the day.
When racing minor events, she has a different strategy. “I always eat carbs the night before a race and start with a banana in my pack, and at the water points I always eat. If a race is longer that 3 hours you must eat to replace what your body’s consumed. It also helps to prevent cramping.”
Coping with one’s calorie intake for eight days while riding the Epic is a mission in itself. Ralph explains: “You’re burning so much energy riding for 5 – 6 hours each day that you just can’t replace the calories lost once you get off your bike – you have no choice but to eat while riding for the next day. If you don’t, your body starts the new stage already energy depleted and begins consuming muscle to keep going.” To prevent this from happening Ralph regularly tucks into potatoes, bananas, gels and energy bars, saying: “PowerBar’s Ride Energy Bars are one of my favourite quick snacks on the trail, I absolutely love them!”
Juggling sport and family life
Now that Ralph’s children are older, juggling all of her commitments has become a lot easier. Although, when they were younger, she did rely on a lot of family support. Nowadays, they’re as much into mountain biking as mom is, and both compete in the Ashburton MTB and Nissen TrailSeeker Series – having both podiumed in their respective age groups. “I always give them the option to go riding with me or not and, 99 percent of the time, they choose to come along, either to ride or offer support. We have a great time together.”
“It’s hard to get the balance right at first, but you can do it,” reassures Ralph. She would like to see more women get involved in the sport, pointing out that mountain biking is low-impact and much better for one’s joints than other forms of exercise. “Pushing yourself physically and working up a sweat is also a great mood enhancer and, when peddling hard, you can always have a good vent and get rid of whatever’s bugging you. It creates a positive cycle that sets the trend for the entire family. Just as importantly, mountain biking is an incredibly social sport, so you’re bound to make some great new friends – we joke amongst ourselves that we ride to stay ahead of all the eating!” – (c) 2017 NavWorld