15 Lessons Learned from my First Ultra endurance Race
Ultra endurance cycling races are increasingly popular, and it’s not hard to see why. For many there is an undeniable and simple appeal to challenging yourself, traversing a vast distance, often through inhospitable environments as fast as possible under your own steam. It’s partly about discovering where your boundaries lie and pushing them. Yet it runs deeper than this and each person will come away from an ultra with their own totally unique experience.
Wanting a challenge I hastily signed up for my first race - the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race 2019. A 1145km course with over 20,000M of climbing and checkpoint cut-off times, it was a daunting prospect. I’m pleased to say I managed to finish the race, having a profound experience along the way, but that’s a story for another time. Here I’d like to share a few lessons that might help someone entering their first ultra and offer insight into what considerations go into such an undertaking. Whilst these tips aren’t going to win a race, they are focused on finishing in an efficient, comfortable and safe manner.
1. Eat, eat, eat
“An army marches on its stomach” - so the saying goes and it rings true for completing an ultra. Each day you’ll burn an unbelievable number of calories. If you don't fuel yourself properly things won’t go well. Everyones fuelling strategy is different so find what works best for you. For myself I ate a lot on the bike, forcing down something every hour. Then at each resupply opportunity I would be sure to scoff down larger amounts of calories.
It can be hard to get the required calories during such intense physical activity. Find foods with the highest/densest calorie content. Carbs, fats and sugars are key. I actually brought a large amount of bars and trail mix out to Morocco with me, supplementing this with what I found locally. Despite usually loathing the stuff Coca-cola gives a fantastic hit of energy. Yoghurt drinks are brilliant at resupply points for getting a good amount of calories in. Have at least one “proper” meal a day - in Morocco this was usually the ubiquitous omelette, with the elusive Tagine always providing welcome respite. Either way, just eat!
Through pretty extensive experience of bikepacking remote and sparsely populated regions of the world I wasn’t too worried about resupply during the race. Wherever there are people on this planet there will be some food, granted it might not be the most interesting or nutritious, but it will suffice. Remember to stock up plenty before any remote or difficult stretches, these sections can take longer than expected. Consider when you will reach potential resupplies as they could be closed at certain times, so plan accordingly.
3. Mind games
The mental aspect of completing an ultra feels like perhaps the most important. At some point in the race you’re not going to be feeling great - that’s an understatement - you’ll probably be in a pretty dark place. You’ll have to push through. Things will go wrong, be prepared for that, it’s how you handle the adversity that matters. Being able to deal with discomfort, fatigue, unforeseen issues and short term suffering is essential. It can be a matter of perspective, try to stay positive, remembering your privilege (you chose to be here and wanted a challenge), and remind yourself that things will get better - often pretty soon. Having such an intense experience is what draws many people to ultra racing, so embracing this aspect of it is crucial.
4. Comfort is key
It may seem all well and good rolling on semi-slick 45mm tyres, an aggressive riding position and racy gear ratios, these help make a bike faster - not necessarily true in an ultra endurance race. Comfort is key. The more time you can spend on the bike the better. Tune your bike and packlist so that you’re as comfortable as possible. For off road races wider tyres offer cushion and traction on rough stuff. Think about a riding position that you can sustain for +12 hours day after day, for me this meant wide flat bars for handling bumpy descents and climbs with bar ends to vary my grip. You’ll also want a gear ratio that allows tired legs to spin your loaded bike up the steepest of climbs - gear low, you’ll use it. Although my rigid steel fork was bombproof, a suspension fork would have increased comfort over corrugated jeep tracks and rocky singletrack - I’ll consider one in future.
5. Sometimes it’s faster to go slow
The race will take days. Remember this and pace yourself. It's easy to go too hard early on and pay the price. In Morocco the race set off at a furious pace, I checked myself and rode at a steady speed, still fast enough to make it over the large pass before nightfall. As the day wore on I found myself passing many riders crawling up the mountain, most probably having blown themselves up too quickly. You don’t want to fatigue early in the race and have to struggle unnecessarily or risk scratching due to injury. Listen to your body, take an extra hour or two of sleep if that's what helps you recover better. Having a big feed at a checkpoint or maintaining your drivetrain a couple of times a day - whilst time on the bike is crucial, sometimes those choices that may seem the slower option actually pay dividends and prove faster over the long haul.
6. Minimise faffing
Faffing - the enemy of every ultra racer. When you stop it’s scary how quickly time slips away. Simple tasks that would ordinarily take no time get drawn out and over the course of a race these minutes add up. Now, truth be told, I faffed a lot in this race, repacking bags outside shops, deliberating over resupplies, hanging out in cafes for too long and slowly packing in the mornings. Whilst all of these are part of the race, I could have streamlined the processes. Use time efficiently, for example repack bags whilst you wait to be served, eat more whilst riding and get fast at packing away your bivvy. Having an organised and effective packing system will pay dividends. Place regularly used items and food somewhere accessible, with less used gear more tucked away, perhaps keep sleep kit together for speedy setup at night.
7. Maintain that drivetrain
Carry a small microfibre cloth to wipe down the chain and appropriate lube for the riding conditions. Keeping your drivetrain running smoothly just makes riding that much easier and enjoyable. Clean it at least once a day, in Morocco I often cleaned twice due to the enormous buildup of dust! It takes almost no time and can help prevent other issues.
8. Consider gear
Worthy of an article in itself (I'll share a packlist at some point) - but here are a few key takeaways. Have reliable and familiar gear, plan for the conditions and likely eventualities. Bring spares and a good repair kit if in remote areas. For example in Morocco I carried waterproofs that I didn’t use once, however if it rained or snowed on the high passes they would have proved invaluable for the weight penalty they incurred.
9. Take photos
I wanted full immersion in my race experience - no distractions. Therefore I didn’t buy a local SIM or seek out wifi. For me this digital detox and singleminded focus definitely heightened things. The few photos and short videos I took during the race now serve as windows to my memories. Be sure to record a few moments of your race - I wish I’d captured some more.
You can’t bring spares for everything, so think about what could fail and how you might go about repairing it on the road. Some spares are too impractical/heavy to bring. Extra sealant, a tyre boot, spare tube, cable ties, tyre plugs, brake pads, a spare cleat and few chain links can be absolute lifesavers for those unforeseen yet inevitable mechanical issues in the middle of nowhere.
11. Saddle Sores - No Thanks!
Saddle sores can be a race ender. I landed upon an effective strategy to avoid them. Whilst some riders bring a spare bib/shorts I decided to use a single quality one for the whole race as it was a relatively short duration for an ultra (for longer/wetter race conditions a spare would be necessary). In combination with this I had a seat that I knew was comfortable and worked nicely with my sit-bones. The most crucial step was keeping things clean and aired down below. To achieve this I carried a small pack of disposable wipes. When I stopped cycling for the day I would whip off my bib, turn it inside out and allow it to air all night, after using the wipes I changed into a super lightweight pair of synthetic running shorts for breathability. I carried a small tube of chamois cream but never used it, although some people have good results with it. Not the most appealing topic but certainly an issue to consider before going into an ultra.
One of my most useful items was without a doubt a Garmin Etrex20x GPS unit. Having the route easily visible so that I wouldn’t miss any unexpected turns was important. It’s a rugged unit, taking long life AA lithium batteries that can be sourced anywhere, meaning one less thing to charge from the dynamo. However, I would suggest that it is downright foolish not to have a backup navigation option. For me this came in the shape of my phone running the incredible MapOut navigation app. I honestly can’t praise this app enough (having also used it for cycling South America), it gives incredibly detailed route info and offline navigation is so simple. Whilst I used the Garmin for navigation when riding, it was helpful to check MapOut at rest stops or at night in my bivvy to see detailed statistics.
You have to see the way at night and keep electronics running. Think about how much riding in the dark to expect - in Morocco with long nights this ended up being a lot - and plan accordingly. Lighting was covered by a dynamo powering a handlebar light which meant reliable free power. I also used my faithful Black Diamond head torch for better visibility when riding technical sections. To charge electronics I topped up an Anker cache battery via the dynamo during the day. I was effectively a self-sustaining system with my legs generating the power for electronics meaning I could just focus on riding.
For a lot of the race I was content listening to the satisfying crunch of gravel under tyre and cassette buzzing. Every so often for a mental pick up I found sticking some tunes in my ears a very welcome relief. Have a couple of playlists of favourite songs, different styles, tracks that will motivate you up that 5am hikeabike!
15. Enjoy Yourself!
The most important point of all. If you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point? Granted, you might not enjoy every moment as there will certainly be struggles, but you’ll look back on those moments as solid type 2 fun! The intensity of an ultra will doubtless create moments of incredible euphoria and forge memories that will last a lifetime. Tears of joy welling up in my eyes whilst riding through a desert sunrise, that feeling of strength as I crested another huge climb with legs somehow still feeling powerful after days of riding, the smiles as I high-fived children in a mountain village, or the immense feeling of satisfaction as I sipped a cool beer at the finish line and watched the sun sink into the Atlantic Ocean. If you have a desire to challenge yourself, push your limits and even a hunch that you’ll enjoy some aspect of it - you probably will - so get out there and make some memories.