Note: This article first appeared in the UMCA UltraCycling Magazine in October of 2015.
Ultra cycling, like any sport, is something that you become better at with experience. As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect”, only in the case of ultras it can be hard and even unfeasible to “practice” in the same way that you would for other sports or distances. If you’re training for a 10k, you’ll likely run 10k many times in your training. The longer an event though, the less likely you’ll actually complete the full distance in training. If you’re training for a 500 mile race, you’re not likely to do a 500 mile ride as “training” (if you did, it would most likely be in the form of another race). This is not to say that there aren’t progressions that you can follow while getting into ultras that will put you on a path to success though.
Typically, the longer a race is, the larger the investment of time, energy, and money into trying to make the race a reality, so logic dictates that you would want to go into such a race with the highest possible probability of success. I’ve noticed however that it can also lead to the opposite behavior – because the stepping stones that exist that would bridge the gap to the longer event are also fairly large commitments, racers are sometimes inclined to skip over these “bridging races” and just jump directly to the longer race that they have as their end goal. While this doesn’t necessarily doom the racer to failure, I believe that it decreases the racer’s chances for success, and that the longer the race is, the more important these bridging events are. If you choose not to do these bridging events you may get lucky and achieve your goal on your first attempt, but if you don’t, then you’re faced with having to return to that event again (not to mention the disappointment associated with not achieving your goal). This results in a doubling of your investment of time, energy, and money, which is likely more than you would have invested had you done several smaller events in preparation that would have increased your chances of success at the longer race. Plus by doing the bridging events you’ll enter your goal race better prepared and will likely have a better experience and performance as a result.
There’s a reason that the rookie DNF rate is typically higher than the non-rookie DNF rate in ultras. Ultra racing is about so much more than just riding your bike in a traditional sense – there are things that you learn while doing ultra races that you just don’t learn while training due to the fact that your training is limited in terms of continuous duration. I’m not just talking about physical challenges either – I’m talking about mental and emotional challenges as well, because the longer a race is, the more important these other aspects of ultra racing become. Plenty of very talented athletes have DNF’d ultra races in which average Joes and Janes have finished. Success in an ultra race is not purely dependent on physical ability – it certainly helps, but physical ability alone will not get you through an ultra. This is part of the beauty and richness of the sport of ultra racing!
Just as things start to happen 8 hours into a ride that don’t happen on a 2 hour ride (for example those shorts that work perfectly for your weekly bakery ride suddenly declare war on your crotch 6 hours into a ride), the same is true the longer you ride. New things start to happen 24 hours into a ride that didn’t happen 12 hours in – perhaps your digestive system which was perfectly happy with product X during all of your 12 hour training rides is now rejecting and in fact expelling product X as quickly as you try to consume it, necessitating that you switch to products Y and Z. Likewise, you experience new challenges 48 hours into a ride that weren’t there at the 24hr mark – perhaps you start struggling to stay awake and possibly even start to hallucinate – why is there a pink dolphin swimming beside you in the middle of the desert??? 3 or 4 days into a ride even more challenges rear their ugly heads – perhaps you develop Shermer’s Neck, or get sores in your mouth, or your hands and feet go numb (while you wish that your butt would go numb instead!!), and so on and so forth. The exact scenarios are different for everyone, and can differ from race to race, which is why it is important to get as much experience as you can!
Ultra racing ultimately boils down to troubleshooting and problem solving – you can plan as much as you like, but in the end even the best made plans will likely have to be modified and adapted at some point, so your success is dependent on your ability to adapt to and find solutions to new challenges as they arise. By gaining experience at different races, you become an expert problem solver, and you learn what works and what doesn’t work for you. You still may encounter new problems and challenges in future races, but through having overcome and solved a multitude of problems and challenges in past races, you have the confidence and calm to methodically tackle these new problems, and you have experience to draw from with regard to remedies to try and approaches to take.
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that experience is important, but how do you get it, and what form should it take? A decade ago there weren’t nearly as many ultra races and opportunities as there are today. While the sport is still fairly small in the grand scheme of things, it has grown and diversified, and new races and race divisions have sprung up to fill various niches and bridge the gaps that historically existed between traditional races and the various lengths of ultra races.
When I got into ultra racing there were double century rides and 500 mile races, but not much in between. Now there are more events that bridge these two distances. Some 500 mile races are providing “stage race” options – completing the 500 mile course in prescribed chunks over 3 days rather than continuously. Some races are offering shorter options such as 300 miles, and there are other intermediate distance races such as the RAAM Challenge races which are typically 375-400 miles. There are also time based events, most of which offer several different options (6hr, 12hr, 24hr), and many of which do not require a support crew since they are done on a looped course, thus making them easier logistically and less expensive. You also have the randonneuring community offering various distances (200km, 300km, 400km, 600km, etc.) – a great way to get some experience riding longer distances without many of the expenses traditionally associated with ultra racing such as having a support crew, assuming you don’t mind being mostly self sufficient. All of these options combined provide a nice progression of events that can be used as preparation for building up to a 500 mile race such that you shouldn’t have to jump directly from a double century ride to a 500 mile race. I recommend at least one or two such bridging events when charting out a plan for your first 500 mile race, as well as several instances of back to back days of long riding during your training (for example a double century ride one day followed by a century ride the next).
For many (well not “many” in the general sense, but “many” in this community), a 500 mile race or even something shorter may be the epitomy of your ultra racing goals (which is perfectly ok, and rather sane in fact!), but some of you have been or may find yourself bitten by the RAAM bug! You’ve done that 24hr race or 500 mile race and find yourself qualified for RAAM, and it has planted the seed. If this is you – read on! If this isn’t you and you’ve sworn off RAAM with the blood of your first born, still read on though, because the concepts and approaches I discuss can still be applied to progressions toward shorter races.
While I’ve tried to convince you that getting experience in a logical progression through doing races of increasing distances is important regardless of your race goal, when facing something like RAAM, it is even MORE crucial to get as much experience as you can beforehand. While doing one 24hr race or 500 mile race may have “qualified” you for RAAM in the technical sense, it by no means indicates that you’re “qualified” in a practical sense. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security from this qualification designation – while it is a tremendous accomplishment that you should take great pride in, it is only the beginning of a well thought out RAAM plan.
I recommend a 2-3 year progression leading up to RAAM after you’ve qualified, which I know can sound a bit like what your parents sounded like when you kept asking “are we there yet?” on those family road trips when you were a kid! It is difficult enough in today’s world of instant gratification to set goals that require a year of planning and preparation much less a goal that takes multiple years, but patience young grasshopper! A solid progression when done right has many satisfying milestones along the way, and gives you invaluable experience that will improve your odds for success at RAAM.
The year after qualifying I recommend doing two or more 500 mile races, and possibly some of the shorter races (24hr races, RAAM Challenge races, etc.) as well if they provide opportunities to experience different conditions. Each race out there is unique and has different characteristics that provide great learning/testing opportunities. Some are hot, some are cold, some are at altitude, some are hilly, some are flat, some are windy, some are dry, some are wet, and so on and so forth – I’m sure Dr Seuss could have written a great book about ultras! Get experience in as many different conditions as possible, because RAAM will traverse many different environments, and what works in one set of conditions may not work in another. Try to experience as many different conditions as possible to find out what works and what doesn’t work for you.
Talk to other racers and find out what works for them and what their strategies are, but don’t be limited by their ideas, because what works for them may not work for you. Try to come up with your own ideas and test them out. Remember, we are all different, and only you can test and learn about yourself and how you respond to different conditions. You know you better than anyone else knows you – be your own guinea pig!
Keep in mind that when something doesn’t work, this shouldn’t be considered a “failure” – learning what doesn’t work for you is extremely valuable, and it is much better to learn this during a shorter race where you’ve invested less than it is to discover it during a longer race where you’ve invested so much more and it now jeopardizes your chance of success. Also, when something doesn’t work in one particular condition, don’t rule it out for all subsequent conditions – it may work great in a different set of conditions, so just make a note of the conditions under which it didn’t work. That’s the purpose of gaining these varied experiences – it allows you to experiment with things and better get to know your body and how it responds to varying conditions.
After a solid season or two of 500 mile or equivalent races, I then recommend doing a longer race – one that lasts 3 or more days. Race Across the West is a great candidate since it traverses the first third of the RAAM course directly. Another option in North America is No Country for Old Men in Texas, which offers a 1000 mile race option. In Europe there are several races that fit the bill in terms of being longer than a typical RAAM qualifier, but shorter than RAAM itself. The purpose of doing this longer race is to try and get insight into how your body is going to respond once you get several days into a race. It can also boost your confidence in terms of knowing that you’ve successfully completed something that is closer in magnitude to RAAM. Going from 1000 miles to 3000 miles is still a big leap, but not as intimidating as going from 500 miles to 3000 miles. If you can troubleshoot your way through a 3-4 day race, and have additionally gained experiences in varied conditions by doing several other 2 day races, you’re probably pretty well prepared for troubleshooting the remaining days that you’ll face during RAAM.
In summary, I’m certainly not trying to discourage you from dreaming big – rather I’m trying to help you to dream big while maximizing your chances for success. Regardless of what race you’ve set as a goal, find out what races and events are out there that will act as bridges from your current experiences to that particular race, and then put in place a plan that incorporates those events. Gain as much experience as you can in different conditions, and don’t be afraid to experiment. So go forth and dream big, but also plan big!