Recently I traveled to Poulsbo, WA to participate in an endurance mountain bike race. I have a lot to learn and dial in so I can “get it done” at BreckEpic, so in preparation I signed up for the Stottelmeyer 60 to practice the endurance race format. Years ago I raced a 50 mile mtb event and it was a spectacular disaster: I crashed, bonked, had mechanicals (3!), and mercifully DNF’ed with six miles and a huge climb to go. I will say I went to that race on a whim and thought it would be like the after-work races I did at the time (about 12 mile courses) but would take longer. ROOKIE!
There are many things different about endurance racing than the cross country (XC) racing I focus on. My biggest concern is fueling; if I don’t get enough calories in I will bonk or find myself walking off leg cramps, if I take in too many, to quickly or the “wrong type” I will get a sour and crampy stomach. All of these have plagued me as an athlete. In endurance races you have drop bags deposited along the course at aid stations full of snacks and supplies you hopefully will not need; like a rain jacket or extra CO2 carriages. There are no aid stations in XC races, you would never give up the seconds to stop to grab a snack, and a flat tire means you are cut at the end of the lap by falling off the leader pace. How I was going to embrace food, aid stations and intentionally stopping during the race left me feeling like I was headed for an exotic destination where no westerner had ever been before.
I traveled to the Olympic Peninsula with my friends Anne and Cary who are seasoned veterans of distance racing. They were gracious to share their tricks of the trade for fueling, how to move through aid stations efficiently, and what should be in my drop bag. They shared awesome details like putting a rubber band around the necks of water bottles to secure gels so at aid stations I can quickly resupply and that a Payday candy bar might be the race treat that gets me to the finish line. What I took away from our conversations is that fueling (as I feared) the factor that can make or break your success in an endurance race. On my long training rides I have been experimenting with foods and calories that work for me. I have learned that on longer rides I need to replace about 250 Kcal/hr consisting mostly of carbohydrates and I need to drink half a liter of water an hour in cool temps where every other bottle has electrolytes in it. My travel companions cautioned me that my caloric intake may be significantly higher during the race; and I would know if I started to cramp (not enough glycogen for my muscles), my bike handling was sluggish (not enough glucose to power my brain), or I had any stomach disgruntling. They were also worried about my food choices which were homemade rice cakes from the Skratch Labs cookbook and Perpetuim (a high calorie electrolyte beverage formulated for endurance athletes); so I threw out the adage of never experimenting on race day and followed their advice for a fuss-free but completely pre-packaged fueling strategy. Calories by gels, blocks and a high calorie (but protein free) electrolyte drink was the menu.
The Stottelmeyer 60 is a fifteen mile loop course twisting and turning through a very dense forest keeping the pace slow but requiring constant bike handling skills to get over roots and between tight trees. Opportunities to pass came in short fire road strait-aways, giggles were had on a new DH flow trail, and we passed through a lupine field where the flower stalks brushed my helmet. The weather had been unseasonably warm and dry but race day presented with a black sky and cool temps. The rain held off through the first half of the race, but by my last lap it was a downpour. As the rain came down, bike handling became more important as the trail became muddy, roots slick and visibility poor. My brain fogged in fatigue on the last lap too. My palms tenderized by miles; a switchback that was a fun swoop on previous laps became a terrain feature not to be taken lightly by the last pass.
Endurance race pace is slower than XC race pace. If I went too hard early, finishing would be a struggle; so I used my competitors as my mentors. Early in the race I posted-up with four other women in the pro division; two with solid endurance mtb racing resumes and two who were local girls that knew the trails like the back of their hands. Midway through our second lap I stopped at the aid station to resupply (I had just endured a minor muscle cramp episode and knew I would need to get a whole lot more calories in than I had planned – I calculated I averaged 375 Kcal/hr!) and those girls rode away. I did not doubt my need to stop and ensure I stayed fueled, especially so early in the race, but it was hard to lose the pack. But not to fear, back to riding I caught up with a group of men who were happy to sit on my wheel and chat me up for the next hour. The miles ticked off, I felt great, I was enjoying the terrain, and I was keeping a pace I was confident I could hold for the rest of the race. My train and I overtook the women I was earlier riding with (a moment of doubt for me) and I soon lost the chatty gentlemen. In my third lap I would catch up to riders, chat for a bit (crazy to be in the middle of a race and making friends, not gasping for air), then find myself catching the next rider. I developed a strategy for moving through aid stations: hand my bike to a volunteer, swap out water bottles, drop my gel wrappers, put two gels in my leg cuffs, grab a handful of blocks (like 7) and ride away chipmunk style. A stop took me less than a minute. My last aid station stop was bliss. I knew I was 9 miles from the finish, 9 miles from dry clothes, and 9 miles from a burger. I didn’t care if my stomach turned at this point so I ate a banana and an Oreo. That Oreo may be one of the best tasting things I’ve ever laid to my taste buds. I wished I had put Oreos in my leg cuffs not gels; soggy or not they would have been divine.
The finish line loomed. Anne and Cary were cheering me home despite the pouring rain. I did it! I successfully completed an endurance mountain bike race: I managed my pace, my fuel, aid stations, enjoyed (almost) all of the race, and I even won. My burger was fantastic. I can’t wait to do another of these!
So my test run for BreckEpic was a big confidence boost. Stottelmeyer 60 gave me insights on what I have to work on: recovery after a race so I can do it again the next day, increasing my mental stamina so I can safely descend technical terrain at the end of a day, tightening up the equipment I carry, and refining what I have in my drop bags. I learned the pace for an endurance race is still pretty fast (faster than a fast ride with friends), I will be constantly eating and drinking, aid stations are a place for support not a zone to fear, the race is long so trust yourself and don’t get seduced by doing what others are doing, endurance racing is a whole lot of fun not just suffering, and most important – I can do this!