As a relatively young rider, my cycling interests are still in the midst of their development – I know I love cycling, but which discipline is most suitable for me, personally? In my few years of cycling, I have competed in events on the complete opposite sides of the cycling spectrum. My cycling endeavours began with racing downhill at the provincial level. I was never very good at downhill: for whatever reason, the nerves got to me and I couldn’t find the flow in the trail until my run was already almost finished. After a brief hiatus, I returned to cycling – although my focus turned to cross-country and endurance riding. Since then, I have begun competing in longer and longer races. From 100-mile gravel races, to a solo 24 hour on board my fatbike, and now winter ‘ultras’ (or simply an ‘ultra’), I have garnered quite a bit of experience in endurance racing these past few years, despite my relative recent entry into cycling.
For those who are venturing into the ultra-endurance domain, I think I can offer some useful insight that might make the initial experience much more pleasant. Similarly, even if you’re considering trying an ultra race – be it in the winter or otherwise – my race experience might still offer some useful tips for being competitive, while remaining relatively comfortable. My primary focus here will be on preparation for a winter ‘ultra’ event, although it should be noted that much of the same preparations are required for summer events too.
With this in mind, I think that preparation boils down to three general facets: first, physical fitness and training load is key to success in an ultra-distance event. Second, having the proper gear, and knowing how to use it, is of paramount importance to success in the ultra-endurance realm. Not only is this imperative for competitive success, but, having adequate gear also becomes a major safety concern for winter racing. Finally, preparing oneself mentally for an ultra-event will ultimately determine their success. This is arguably the most important facet of preparation, yet it is often overlooked.
There is no perfect training regime for achieving success in an ultra-event; however, it is possible to arrive at something that works on the individual level through a bit of trial-and-error and cognizant reflection upon what is required for a particular event. To start, I would highly recommend a heart rate monitor. Being able to monitor your heart rate, and set up specified heart rate zones, will help make training much more efficient and precise. It is my opinion that training for an ultra must focus primarily on building one’s aerobic capacity. Clearly, when one is pedalling for upwards of 20 hours at a time, one’s aerobic fitness is of paramount importance. One’s anaerobic capacity is much less important here because, simply put, the effort does not require any sprinting or high-intensity efforts. Many riders tend to over-exert at the beginning of a race, either from excitement or an underestimation of the duration of the race. In almost every race I have entered, this happens to some poor bloke who then bonks hard or, worse still, doesn’t even finish. This can be an embarrassing and humiliating situation to be in – and reflecting on this before the race can help prevent it from happening come race day. This hints at the mental preparations that are required, while also recognizing that one’s energy supply is limited and burning too much up at the beginning is detrimental to the effort. A heart rate monitor can eliminate this problem by helping one regulate their effort from the beginning!
For training, then, I have primarily focused on a traditional approach to cycling fitness. That means, unfortunately, a lot of hours spent in the saddle building base fitness through lower-intensity rides. Almost every week leading up to an ultra event, I try to do two rides that are of low intensity and longer duration. Ideally, one of these rides will be over 6 hours in length, while the other ought to be closer to three or four. I understand that many people are busy with work and family commitments, and those weekly 10 hours spent in the saddle may seem daunting. This is by no means the only way to prepare for a winter ultra, but, it is one that has worked for me, personally. The basic outcome of this sort of training is to get used to riding at a lower intensity for an increasing length of time. In my preparations, for example, every week in the lead-up to an event, I would gradually increase the length of time spent in the saddle (while still at a low intensity) and then taper my efforts one or two weeks out from the event.
An interesting difference between winter events and their summertime counterparts is the amount and type of gear required. For many winter races, the organizer’s may require certain gear to be carried for the duration of the race. Some require a relatively minimal amount, but others, namely the bigger ones like the Arrowhead or the Tuscobia, require lots of winter gear in order to even start the race. This stems primarily from the fact that the hazards present in the dead of winter loom much larger than during the summer; indeed, one need not worry about frostbite and hypothermia in the summer! Thus, having a good system for carrying your gear – and knowing how to use all of it – is essential for the successful completion of a winter ultra. This can only be accomplished through trial and error. I am by no means the greatest authority on this subject, however, through some trial and error I have been able to get all the required gear together on a very limited budget. Because I am still a university student, I must choose between two often antithetical gear characteristics: price and weight. Unfortunately for me, lightweight gear is often incredibly expensive. Fortunately for me, however, is that weight doesn’t necessarily reduce my enjoyment of the ride. I’m quite fine with a few extra pounds of gear, so long as it puts me on the bike and racing! If price isn’t a barrier though, then the trial and error period may ultimately lead to a much lighter gear system.
Moreover, tailoring one’s gear choices for a specific event is of paramount importance. If, for example, your race takes you through lots of wooded areas – like Crown Land or federal forests – then a good way to save weight is to bring a foldable wood-stove. This is an incredibly simple system: it is basically foolproof and doesn’t require bringing any sort of fuel. Solid fuels are another great option for saving weight, although the fuel bricks are sometimes hard to ignite in cold temperatures. Whatever the specific conditions of the event are – geography, weather, topography, temperature, population centres, or any other salient feature – they will require a slightly altered gear choice. The best way to practice your gear setup is while on training rides: I slowly changed my gear setup throughout numerous training rides after I found things that seemed to work and things that didn’t. To fully prepare for my key events, I tried to ride with most of the gear that I would be required to ride with during the race. Moreover, if I was unconfident about the performance of some of my gear I made sure to test it beforehand. This is, perhaps more so than any other piece of advice I can offer, absolutely essential in preparing for a winter ultra. If the performance of one’s sleeping bag is questionable, it would simply be foolish to trust it in an emergency situation on course. The dangers of ultra-events are magnified by the conditions of winter and having reliable gear is of the utmost importance. Personally, I have put myself in this predicament – something I wish not to repeat. Throughout 2016 I didn’t have any winter riding boots, nor did I have any neoprene booties. I wore my summer shoes with thick socks for the duration of the winter. At one event, my free-hub failed on course and I was stranded in the fading light along a snowmobile track that saw infrequent use. This was not an ideal scenario – especially as the temperatures were well below freezing, and dropping. By the time I made it safety – some four hours later – my feet were incredibly cold and had lost much of their movement. In hindsight, they were dangerously cold and frostbite was a legitimate possibility. If an event takes place in a very cold area, then, it is necessary to prepare for those conditions. Again, trial and (controlled) error is the key to success here.
The most recent ultra-event I completed – the Wendigo Ultra – required a rather large amount of gear, which I shall outline below.
Required Gear List
- Reflective material – 8sq. Inches
- Red Blinking lights
- 2L Insulated Water
- Foam Pad, ¾ Length – r3 value
- Bivy Sac (emergency blanket too)
- Winter Sleeping Bag (-20C)
- High-Powered Light System
- Cook System
- Pea-Less Whistle
- Minimum consumable 500 Calories
Keep in mind that this is only the required gear. On top of this are all the things to get you through the day in relative comfort – like clothes and food. Weight can quickly add up, especially without the latest and greatest winter camping technology and riding gear. My system is relatively standard if not a bit heavy, consisting of a makeshift bar-roll, a Blackburn frame-bag, and a Revelate Designs seat-bag. I also made a makeshift fork mount out of a bent bottle cage. For insulating my water, I use Outdoor Research’s hiking Nalgene insulator, mounted to a custom stem attachment. Combined, these things are enough to get me through the gear check-in, however, they are certainly not the lightest. For me, I would rather feel safe on the trail than skimp on gear functionality to reduce weight.
In terms of riding gear, I have almost fully chosen 45nrth gear. Their line of winter cycling equipment is of the highest quality and functionality. Moreover, it all works incredibly well with other 45nrth products. Clearly, their product designers emphasized product integration during their development. I use the 45nrth Wolvhammer boots for my feet with one big pair of wool socks. I’m on the tall end of cyclists, and my shoe size reflects this. I’ve heard of many people ordering their winter boots several sizes too big to make room for additional socks although this is a luxury I simply do not have – the Wolvhammer line tops out at a European size 50. I use a non-descript base-layer for my upper and lower half (I think I got it from Mountain Warehouse, but I can’t remember). Outside of these, I use a combo of 45nrth’s Naughtvind 4/5 thermal bib pant and their Merino Wool t-shirt. In conjunction, these layers should keep someone warm well below the freezing point, even when slightly wet! Indeed, I remained warm through thirteen hours of -10C to -15C weather at the 2017 Wendigo Ultra, despite freeing rain in the first half left almost everyone soaked. As for a coat, I have an older wind-proof jacket that is both functional and light (a rarity for me) so I have adopted that as my upper body outerwear. On my head, I have found that the 45nrth Lung Cookie and Toaster Fork provide excellent warmth and comfort in exceedingly cold temperatures. As for my hands, the 45nrth Cobrafist pogie is one of the warmest I have tried and I rarely ever wear gloves when I’m wearing them! Not only are they warm, but they are excellent snack holders/defrosters. When the temperatures drop, a warm pocket around your hands is a great spot to keep energy bars relatively un-frozen, consumable, and tasty!
An often-neglected aspect of ultra-endurance riding is the mental preparation required for the successful completion of an incredibly long event. For those wanting to begin ultra-endurance events, this is perhaps the biggest potential detriment to their eventual success (ostensibly, those that have already completed several ultras have figured out how to mentally prepare). I am unsure whether a person’s mentality draws them to ultra-endurance events, or if ultra-endurance events bring out a certain mentality in a person. In other words, is the mentality required for an ultra-endurance event innate or can it be learned? I am inclined to believe the latter because, in many ways, I find that the mentality I take into a winter ultra-event is drastically different than in other areas of my life – be it other disciplines of cycling, or school, or work. Whatever the case, having a positive mindset, being resilient, and being adaptable are all essential to completing a winter ultra. Positivity is key, of course, because it helps keep your spirits up and informs how you approach the other necessary traits (resilience and adaptability).
I suspect that if one can remain positive, they will also remain resilient and adaptable. In terms of resilience, I have seen many people quit before their bodies actually needed to. While it may become uncomfortable after a while, the human body can withstand quite a lot, and turning your mind off to the discomfort allows you to continue much longer than would otherwise be possible. Indeed, after a certain amount of time in the saddle, the hours seem to meld together. After this point, ten, seven, or three additional hours feel basically the same. Being adaptable is incredibly important because conditions are bound to change and unforeseen problems may occur. Reacting to these eventualities in an appropriate manner will allow you to continue plugging away and, hopefully, allow you to complete the race. All of these things, in combination, are hard to practice, I will admit. However, it is not impossible. The night before a big event, I often find myself going over these characteristics in my head – almost incessantly – so that it becomes ingrained in my psyche for the following day. I also generally repeat the following phrase in my head: “You’re going to be in the saddle all day. You’re going to be in the saddle all day.” There isn’t any benefit to be had by going too hard at the beginning. Be realistic with your projections, and formulate a mental picture of what the distance and time might look like. If the event should take around sixteen hours, you have to be mentally prepared for at least sixteen hours. If nothing else, just repeat to yourself that you will be in the saddle for sixteen hours. Sixteen hours. Sixteen hours. 16. Hours. For whatever reason, this repetition seems to help me deal with the often-daunting lengths that constitute an ultra-endurance event. Events where I have inadequately dealt with their length – either by assuming that it wouldn’t take too long, or by underestimating its difficulty – I have failed. Mental preparation is, ultimately, a very individual thing that requires an understanding of your own personality. For myself, I have found that positivity, resilience, and adaptability, alongside the repetition of certain key phrases, works for me. This might not work for everyone, however, the specifics are inconsequential; the salient point to take away from this is that wrapping one’s head around the size, length, or magnitude of the endeavor at hand is necessary for the successful completion of said endeavor.