I recently completed my first 100 mile mountain bike race at the Lumberjack 100 in Michigan, my home state. It was an outstanding first time experience in many ways, but the race itself was only part of the story. I began preparing for this “project” several months ago, putting in 10 to 15 hours a week of training, so the actual finish line that I just crossed was the end of a much longer journey than just 100 miles.
This is not a “how to” guide on endurance racing for first timers. There are plenty of resources on the web for that. Instead, I am sharing my own experience about training as a first timer and the all new experiences that have meant so much to my development as a cyclist and athlete in general.
Taking on a challenge like the Lumberjack 100, gave meaning to my training rides, but my training rides needed to be purposeful. So back in early March, I sketched out a 3-month training plan that would take my base of fitness to the level needed to do an endurance event of this magnitude. As a first time 100 miler, my competitive expectations were modest, but at the same time, I really hoped to make a strong showing. A goal of 11 hours seemed like a good place to start, and as my training progressed, I began to believe that a 10 hour finish might be attainable. More on that later.
I have been riding and racing mountain bikes for about three years now, so most people know that I have been semi-serious about the sport. However, when word got out that I was preparing for a 100 mile endurance race, it seemed like some folks went from seeing me as athletic and outgoing, to just plain “nuts.” You really can’t hide it when you’re training for an endurance sport. The training time itself will inevitably lead to changes in your daily routine. You’ll probably lose a fair amount of body mass too. I went from being 167 lbs to 154 lbs, while out-eating everyone I knew. And it really is difficult to explain why someone would do a race like this. Maybe it’s best to just say that I enjoy the sum of all the experiences being fit and riding a mountain bike and leave it at that.
Life is about balance, or balancing, and the one thing I really took time to plan at the outset was how to keep my life together while training for a 100 miler. My work life can be stressful at times and require extra hours. I have a wife and two young children. There’s also a house to maintain. And as a Christian, I am trying to live for God in whatever ways I can. So to be fair to these responsibilities, my wife and I made a schedule of exactly when I could be out of the house to train. In return I would solely manage the house on every other weekday evening and Saturday afternoon, giving her the chance to have several nights off every week. Saturdays until 2pm were for training, and we also agreed that I could do a pre-church ride early on Sunday mornings. Being home on time at 2pm from my longest Saturday rides, some of which were up to 8 hours long, meant getting up painfully early. So while normal people were still in bed, I was riding out to the local single track and dirt road loops in with my bike lights showing and 5 pounds of water and food in my backpack. The early riser training actually worked to my favor because it prepared me for the early start of the race itself at 7am.
As far as the experience of training is concerned, I believe that with, or without the race, it was incredibly rewarding. I used a variety of intensity levels to kept my rides interesting, and I changed routes as often as possible. I only rode my indoor trainer when it was absolutely necessary. I treated my long Saturday rides like exploration projects. Like, gosh, I’ve never ridden from Grand Rapids to Hastings, so let’s try that. Or, let’s find 6 hours worth of dirt road riding in Kent and Ionia counties. I began to spend a fair amount of time just studying maps and searching for new places to go via bike. My only note of caution however is regarding cars and traffic. My feeling was that in a high volume training strategy that included road riding, it would significantly increase the risk of a car/bike accident. Because of my concerns, I chose to stay on rural dirt roads and single track as much as possible. As it turns out, “dirt roading” it, or “gravel grinding” on either a cross or mountain bike was a better experience anyway. No close calls, no angry drivers and lots of peace and quiet.
My first month of endurance training was fairly uneventful. My biggest challenge was trying to get comfortable on the saddle during some of the initial 5 to 6 hour Saturday rides. Strangely though, the discomfort seemed to disappear after the first 6 weeks of training. Some say you build up to it, but I don’t know how exactly. My opinion is that your body accepts the change if not overdone, but that your saddle also molds to your body. Also, finding the right chamois cream is critical. After getting a little irritated with the price of some of these products, I tried out a few farm products like utter cream and bag balm. It turned out to be a match made in heaven, or on the farm apparently, because this stuff was perfect.
About two months into my training plan an amazing thing happened. I felt faster! The discovery came on a weeknight ride when my plan was to complete two 30 minute intervals at an 80 to 85% of maximum heart rate. I had already done shorter intervals and found them to be fun, but this time I was amazed. It was a sustained power that felt reasonably comfortable. It probably helped that the previous week was a recovery week and I had consumed a ridiculous amount of red meat at a cook-out a few days before my ride (three hamburgers and two steak kabobs). I have always thrived on a paleo, or cave-man diet. The protein seems key to muscle recovery. For the ride I chose a new dirt road loop from Seidman Park out to Ionia and back. After a 20 minute warm up I hit the gas, and with my heart rate purring along at about 160 bpm my bike speed was averaging around 18 mph. On dirt roads with a full suss mountain bike, it seemed like a nice clip! After 30 minutes I backed my heart rate down for 5 minutes, and turned the bike around to blast back towards Seidman Park and it was the same thing; steady high output without a great deal of discomfort. Revelations of new speed did not stop there. I also found while riding my cross bike with its stiff frame that climbing out of saddle is one of the best parts of a ride. That’s quite a change from my sit-and-spin approach to almost everything (although that’s still the best strategy for riding a full suspension bike for 100 miles).
On race day I felt well-prepared, and of course I had planned my ride strategy much earlier. I had three simple goals: have fun, be efficient, and go fast, in that order. My feeling was that the third goal, going fast, would happen as a natural result of achieving the first to goals. The start of the race had a few controversial moments. They have been covered in other race reports. My only take will be to say that the race organizers did a great job, and sometimes there is no way to avoid a bit of chaos. Aside from breathing thick dust for the first few miles, I thought the start was okay. Obviously you’re mixed up with people with a huge variety of ability so it requires some patience on everyone’s part. Being only the second time racing my full suspension bike, I had only began to understand its advantages. One of them being going downhill, and for much of the first lap I was riding the brakes to avoid hitting the rider in front of me. Of course on the climbs it was somewhat of a reverse effect as the slight increase in weight made things a bit more difficult. An exception however was on the loose sand climbs, on those the suspended rear tire maintained good ground contact and did not spin out. I absolutely loved my full suspension bike. It was comfortable all day and helped me close gaps several times in the bumpier parts sections where forward motion seemed less disturbed with every hit from the trail.
The only physical issues I encountered during the race were some mild cramping in my left leg. I believe this was caused by trying to be cool and climb every hill on the first lap (except for the lookout tower climb) instead of walking some of the worst climbs like the smart people were doing. Oh well, it was fun anyway and my bike climbs like Spiderman. I really believe that my good experience, physically, came from riding within my endurance ability where I had trained. I new that staying in my target aerobic heart rate zone for as much as possible would be key to a sustainable pace and a good time. While there’s no way of doing Big M’s climbs without going anaerobic, for most of the course I was very careful about my pace. I averaged in the upper 11 mph range during the first lap and drifted into the 10 mph range by my third. My average heart rate for the entire race was 148bpm. This isn’t to say that the race didn’t hurt because it did during my third lap. Laps one and two were in all honesty a blast. They went by very quickly which sounds strange because we’re talking about 66 miles going quickly! I even began to feel that instead of doing a 10 hour race I could get it done in the mid 9 hour range. But on the third lap I began to suffer mentally as my pace slowed and a sub 10 hour finish started to look impossible. I began to feel really disappointed and then the fade started to set in. The miles seemed to pass more slowly and I was becoming little blue. Someone even asked me what was wrong. That question bugged me a lot – nothing was actually wrong, I was just being a baby. Actually the question was a God-send because I realized the pity-party was ridiculous. I wasn’t even hurting that much and it was time to get back to the business of racing. I thought about how much my family and team had invested in my race and I owed them and myself a solid finish. I did what I could to ride to my fullest at that point. It didn’t get me the sub-10 hour time, but it probably arrested the fade. Over the last few miles I heard a few riders behind me, and feeling competitive, I decided that getting passed was unacceptable so I throttled up again. It felt fun, like my interval training from earlier. I was surprised to find a nice amount of latent speed after already riding for about 98 miles! Anyway, I crossed the finish line at 10 hours and 9 minutes and to this day I am happy with that, and yet unsatisfied. I would like to do better in the future, maybe be a 9 hour racer, or even an 8 hour racer some day. Either way, I am completely sold on endurance racing!