Turning up on the start line peaked and fit is only half the game at ultra mountain bike races. Executing an accurate race on the day is required to turn your speed and strength into results. All the training in the world ain't gonna get you to the finish line without accurate execution of many race details.
The key to success in your first off-road century is to start with a plan. Going into the race with no plan is relying on luck and the strength of your mojo.
The following is a race plan for an athlete with a goal to finish their first mountain bike 100-miler. A race plan for an athlete aiming for a podium spot or personal record performance will have a vastly different look.
First off, take care of the simple common-sense details, such as knowing the start time and location. Look up the weather. Considering you may be out on the trail for over 12 hours at a variety of elevations, knowing what conditions to anticipate and clothing to carry is essential. Check sunrise and sunset times to see if you will need lights. The more challenging 100-milers, such as The E-100 in Park City, Utah will start and finish in the dark for some racers. Being left out on the trail after dark with no lights is a preventable preparation mistake.
Learn as much as you can about the course from race staff and past racers. Race Web sites, mountain bike blogs and forums can be good information sources. Pre-riding sections of the course over a weekend trip is especially beneficial to assist with tire selection and bike choice. I recommend leaving the single-speed at home for your first-ever 100-miler and choosing a full suspension cross-country setup.
Toeing the start line with an appropriate pacing strategy is required to achieve your goal. The goal assumed for this article is to finish within the time cut-off, elated and tired. To achieve this goal you must pace the race with close to even splits -- meaning keep an even pace all day.
This is not the same as keeping an even effort level or heart rate the whole day. Perceived exertion should be very low in the first few miles and gradually climb for the duration of the event. Pacing at an appropriate perceived exertion off the start line is extremely difficult in the face of race day excitement. Having an objective pacing control such as watts or heart rate on board can be useful.
- Keep your pace entirely aerobic at all times.
- It is OK to walk short steep sections (in fact your butt will love it) to stay aerobic.
- Limit power spikes by avoiding short intense bursts of speed or power.
- Ignore other racers in the first few miles and focus on yourself.
- Ride the first half of the race at a moderate to high cadence to keep your muscles fresh.
- Allow cadence to drop in the second half of the race as your legs get tired.
Speed, positive mental outlook and enjoyment of the second half of a 100-miler is almost entirely reliant on the fuel plan followed in the first half of the race -- or more specifically keeping your stomach working. A foul stomach is the number one reason for ultra mountain bike race DNFs at every level from first timer to pro.
A fuel plan has five parts:
- Pacing: Over-pacing with sustained time over threshold at the start of a 100-miler is the fastest way to shut down your stomach and derail your fuel plan. A working stomach is the foundation of a fuel plan.
- Timing: The stomach is a delicate creature and you should treat it with lots of TLC if you want to get some love back. Throwing down a big wad of anything quickly puts stress on your stomach and it will rebel. If you are indulging in a double whammy and over-pacing at the same time it will visibly rebel and that is no fun. Whatever goes into your stomach needs to be in frequent small portions. The smaller and more frequent, the happier your gut will be.
- Calorie Intake: Personal differences occur in the calorie amount athletes can process through their stomachs, but a good rule of thumb is to aim for 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body mass per hour. A 150-pound athlete will be shooting for 75 grams per hour or 300 calories per hour. This is only achievable if #1 and #2 above are taken care of.
- Hydration Balance: Ideally replace the fluid you lose, no more and no less. On hot days, you will lose more than on cool days. Dehydration will slow stomach emptying and decrease performance. In training, weigh yourself before and after rides. For every pound lost, replace with 16 ounces of fluid. Over-hydration is less than ideal and has its own problems. If you gain weight on a ride, drink less next time you are out in identical conditions.
- Electrolyte Balance: During exercise, electrolytes, largely sodium, are lost in sweat. Perfect body functioning and athletic performance requires attention to electrolyte balance. Again significant differences in electrolyte demands exist between athletes and under varying environmental conditions. Anywhere between 500 to 2000 mg of sodium per hour may be required.
The head game
One hundred miles of mountain biking is a long time to be happy and focused. Having goals and staying task-oriented are the keys. Remember at all times your goal: to finish. This keeps everything in the correct perspective and in general, keeps your self-talk positive when you are behind schedule or you feel too many racers are in front of you.
Keep your eyes on your prize and don't allow distractions to derail you. But accidents and incidents do occur, from flat tires to leg cramps, interrupting your "A" race plan. When plan A goes awry, stay task-focused and immediately get on the job of fixing what went wrong and moving on with plan B.
Never waste time and energy getting annoyed that plan A didn't work out perfectly. A hundred miles is far too long for everything to work out perfectly. How to successfully deal with mishaps is part of the ultra mountain bike game.
Second in line to your stomach for TLC is your bike. You depend on your steed to make it over the finish line.
Ultra mountain bike care tips:
- Start with a bike in tip-top condition.
- Don't crash. Crashing has a tendency to break non-repairable parts, including frames.
- Put lube on your chain one to four times during the event, depending on conditions. Use a long lasting lube such as Rock n' Roll Extreme Lube.
- Shift gently and smoothly.
- Ride around deep puddles, not through them, especially hub and bottom bracket deep puddles. These parts dislike swimming.
- Walk your bike through any technical section you are unsure about.
Take up the challenge of your first 100-miler with a plan and finish with a smile.
Lynda Wallenfels is a USA Cycling and Triathlon Elite coach and pro mountain bike endurance racer. She is the course record holder at Brian Head Epic 100, 12-Hours of Brian Head, The E-100, 24-Hours in the Old Pueblo, Kokopelli Trail Race and The E-12 Hours. Download her 12 week 100 Mile Mountain Bike Race Finisher Training Plan. Ask her training questions on her forum, contact her about coaching or read about her latest exploits on her blog.