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Long Distance Lessons From Endurance Champion

Thursday, 24 November 2016

  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking 6 (1)
  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough with guests
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  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking 4
  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking 6
  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking 7
  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking jersey
  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking 1
  • Tillotson 2016 Chris Eatough mountain biking 3

Old Boy Chris Eatough returned to Bolton School to give the 2016 Tillotson Lecture on the subject of ‘Long Distance Learning’. Chris is a former professional mountain bike racer who won the World Championships in 24 hour solo mountain bike racing six times. He has also won five USA national titles and competed all over the world.

The Tillotson Lectures are a major annual event in the Boys’ Division calendar. A series of talks took place throughout 2015 and 2016 to commemorate the School’s 100 and 500 year anniversaries. The 2016 Tillotson Lecture Series began with a panel discussion on ‘Living a Life of Faith in Society’ in February 2015. This was followed by talks from Old Boys: the Prizegiving address by architect Robin Partington, who touched upon the importance of the School’s buildings; and an academic talk from Judge Roy Battersby representing pupils’ and alumni’s responsibility for society. Chris’s address connected with the sporting life of the School and concluded the talks for 2016.

Chris opened the Tillotson Lecture with a short video about the film 24 Solo, which was made about his quest to attain a seventh consecutive world title. He then thanked Headmaster Philip Britton, Mr Trevor Pledger and the School for inviting him back to give the evening’s lecture.

He said, “Wandering through these halls today and being part of school life for a day again really brought back to the forefront for me what a special place this is, what a great school this is, how fortunate I was to come to school here. … It was a great place for me to kind of begin my young adult life, especially the way that I was able to blend academics and athletics here at Bolton School.”

He spoke about the sports he was passionate about during his time at Bolton School, particularly football and biathlon, but also water polo, swimming, track and field and tennis. He recalled his family’s move to the US and his subsequent involvement with soccer at Clemson University, which he described as similar to Bolton School as it allowed him to mix sports with his studies.

After his time on the college sports team, he discovered mountain biking. Following his success as a team player, he discovered that he liked the direct relationship between training and improvement in solo sport.

He quickly reached a high level in mountain biking, but realised that he was at the pinnacle of what he could achieve over short distances. However, over longer distances, he fared better than other competitors, and so started tackling longer races. This eventually led to team 24 hour races, and finally his curiosity about solo riders taking on these endurance challenges made him want to try it for himself.

Chris’s first attempt at a 24 hour solo race was at the World Championships with just his father as his support crew. Having watched other riders compete, he decided that he wasn’t going to take any breaks over the course of the 24 hours, and so he won his first race by an incredible margin.

However, as the World Champion he then had to continue to compete in 24 hour solo races. He also had to work hard to come up with new techniques to stay ahead, as the competition would quickly adopt his strategies and he would lose his advantage. This constant evolution was one of the points he emphasised in his talk as a crucial piece of advice, as this was one thing that particularly helped him to achieve his success.

He also paid tribute to the incredible work his support team did for him over the course of his career. They prepared food and drinks for him during the race, even finding him a doughnut with icing and sprinkles in the early hours of the morning when he had a craving, and kept him going with supportive messages taped to his bike. He also said that the friendship and camaraderie within his team and between teams was one of his favourite memories of the sport.

Chris went on to win six World Championships in a row, but in the seventh year he came in second place. Although he was disappointed, the feeling did not last, as the winner had to be hospitalised for three days when he crossed the finish line after pushing himself too hard. Chris, on the other hand, was able to greet his team and family and make it to the podium. This experience put the sport into perspective for him and helped him to realise that the win was not the most important thing.

Following his seventh World Championship race, Chris went on to win two more National Championships before retiring from his fourteen-year mountain bike racing career.

His passion for bikes continues, and he has since then implemented a public bike sharing transportation network in Washington DC. He is currently working on a similar project in Maryland where he lives with his wife and two young children.

At the end of his address, he presented Mr Britton with his 2005 World Championship jersey as a gift to the School.

Chris concluded his talk with a fascinating question and answer session, during which members of the audience were able to ask about various aspect of mountain biking and his racing career.

He spoke to the audience about enjoying the first and last hour of his 24 hour races, in contrast to the physical and particularly the mental difficulty of the middle of the race, especially during the night, and how he overcame these challenges. He discussed the foods he ate while racing and also the importance of a healthy, balanced diet in between. He talked about training for the two or three 24 hour races he completed each year, from the rides of up to eight hours at a time that he completed by himself, to the other long races he competed in between. When asked about whether mountain bike racing had been tainted by performance enhancing drugs, he said that he had never even considered it for himself, and as far as he was aware, the athletes he raced against were clean as well. He said that although sport meant a lot to him it was never worth cheating for, and he was glad to have found a different path that allowed him to reach the very highest level, and do it clean. Chris also talked briefly about his luck with accidents and injuries, and some of the advice his father gave to him as a sportsman. He partly attributed his success to his “stubborn” ability to drown out doubts and not give up in the face of tough conditions. He spoke about some of the technology that improved over the course of his career, including disc brakes and rear suspension. Chris was also asked about the bike-sharing programmes that he was involved with implementing in the US, and spoke at length about how they can improve cities as well as speaking on the future of this concept, from electric bikes to placing these programmes in more suburban areas.

Throughout the question and answer session, Chris reminisced about highlights from his career in mountain bike racing.

To close the evening, Mr Britton thanked Chris for returning to give the Tillotson Lecture. Having looked in the School archives, he discovered that Chris was presented with Half Colours during his time as a pupil, and in honour of his sporting achievements since then, he presented him with honorary Full Colours.

During his visit to Bolton School, in addition to giving the Tillotson Lecture, Chris was able to meet with the school’s elite athletes, discuss university in the US with interested Sixth Form pupils, and talk to the Year 6 Junior Boys and Junior Girls.


Chris’s Tillotson Lecture can be viewed by clicking the following links or by pressing the play button below: Part OnePart TwoPart Three.

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