When one views the starting line of the annual Leadville 100, Cascade Cream Puff 100 or, for that matter, any ultra-distance off-road event, one sees that many of the participants are sporting gray hair.
Off-road cyclists who compete in ultras are often older than those seen at many NORBA events. The length of the event, the need to put in plenty of long training miles, and the greater need for pacing is not usually appealing to the younger cyclist.
But riding 100 miles on dirt trails offers significant tests beyond just pacing. The challenges the cyclist must face must be anticipated and prepared for. The ultra-distance cyclist must develop a tremendous capacity for endurance and have a complete understanding for the feeding and care of their bodies over long distances; and they must be able to tolerate fatigue and discomfort that is often never experienced in shorter races.
The ultra-cyclist must learn to be self-sufficient for the many hours spent on the bike. Whereas there are usually smaller loops on cross-country NORBA courses with hand-ups of fluids allowed every lap, the ultra-cyclist must learn to carry plenty of food and fuel and often extra clothing in their CamelBak and must know how to read maps and trails for some events.
There may up to 25 miles between feeding zones on ultras which may mean two to three hours on the bike between feeding zones if the terrain is severe and the altitude high. In that time you can easily go through your 90 ounces of water or sports drink in your CamelBak.
Certainly the greatest challenge faced by many in such events is to complete the event. Often the goal is just finishing, and surviving an ultra is considered a victory. This is especially true when you consider the length of the event, the terrain and the weather. Most mortal beings are often out on the course for over 10 hours, and often the weather turns bad just when the cyclist is coming down to the closing miles of the race and their energy reserves are at their lowest.
The Leadville 100, for example, begins in the town of Leadville, Colo., at 10,150 feet, and reaches its highest point at 12,600 feet on mountain trails that gain and descend 15,000 vertical feet. During the event riders can experience hypothermia, altitude sickness, delirium, lightning, rain, snow, hail, heat and cold.
The challenge multiplies even further because the cyclist must arrange for aid drops and support crews, and anticipate clothing needs for various conditions and fluid needs that will call for gallons of fluids over the course of the event.
Riders complete in ultra races knowing that the rewards go beyond money. Nonetheless, there often are unique rewards.
For example, in the Leadville 100, if you finish in under 12 hours you receive a silver belt buckle and a sweatshirt with your name and time emblazoned on it. If you finish in under nine hours, you receive a belt buckle three times larger, which would draw envious stares from any hard-core cowboy.
In preparing for such events, there are as many training styles as there are cyclists. Some advocate riding up to 300 miles or more per week in preparation, with one long ride of six to eight hours in the last weeks leading up to the event. Some recommend riding progressive 50- to 400-mile weeks, starting about eight to 10 months before the event.
Some cyclists who compete regularly in shorter NORBA events just decide to go out and do an ultra event! Often they complete several ultras each year with less than 100 miles per week of training.
For most of us, training for an ultra is different than training for a traditional NORBA event. You start at a slower pace and try to maintain it throughout the training ride. It is important to simulate the anticipated race conditions including the terrain, elevation and varying weather conditions or they'll experience undue stress, surprises, injury and possible defeat on race day.
In past years, while training for Leadville I rode about 10 to 15 hours per week on the paved roads outside Colorado Springs and on dirt roads and trails in the Pike National Forest. A key workout has been to put in a few seven- to eight-hour rides with long climbs and stretches of pushing the bike up steep grades while carrying plenty of fluids and food in my CamelBak to try and replicate the event.
Be more concerned with the time you spend in the saddle than the mileage you cover. My training has been directed toward adapting to several conditions: altitude, hilly terrain, rough surface, heat and cold, and the need for nourishment. I planned my long rides to ensure that I get in plenty of climbing, since Leadville has over 15,000 feet of climbing and descending.
I also tried riding in all types of weather conditions, hoping for no surprises on race day. I have even started a few of my long rides at noon to experience the heat of the day as well as the late-afternoon thunder storms that often occur in the mountains.
Another thing that will factor into one's success is learning to eat and drink plenty during the event. During the long rides, I have used different foods and drinks to see how they settle while riding for long hours. Training your body to process foods and drinks during the ride is crucial, especially during the last portion of the race when fatigue is setting in.
Be smart in fueling your long training sessions and races. While you might be able to get away with nutrition and fueling mistakes in a race of under three or four hours, you cannot make fueling mistakes in a ultra and still finish.
Somewhere past 50 miles, an ultra-race becomes as much a mental ordeal as a physical one. Experienced ultra-cyclists stress the importance of training the mind as well as the body."Keeping your pace under control, staying hydrated and fueled, and your mind focused on the task, are the keys to success," says John Stamstad, winner of many ultra-cycling events.
Many successful ultra-endurance athletes will tell you that success is a subjective matter of how you hold together and how you manage you physical and mental resources on race day.