Friday, 9 October 2020

Ultra Endurance Cycling - The What, How and Why

The sleet stings my exposed fingers which is odd as I've lost most of the feeling in my hands. I crouch over the handlebars sheltering the brake lever from the wet as I wind the insulation tape around the twig. It'd be easier if I could get it dry. The effort of getting up the mountain has my inner layers soaked in sweat and then the storm front that pounced on me toward the top of the pass has finished the job. 

I've got the stick wedged in tightly and the tape is holding it in place. I twist my head so my helmet light shines in the joint between the brake lever and the body. Sweat runs down my forehead and stings my eyes. I blink my eyes into focus. That looks like it might work. I pump the brake lever. It's spongy but the back brake grips and releases. That'll have to do. 

A few hours earlier I was sitting in front of a crackling fire. A shower and the embrace of a duvet just steps away. 

"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" the owner had asked. 

Before walking into the the warmth of the guesthouse I'd already made the call to restock and head up Swartberg Pass. I've fallen behind and have to get to Die Hel before sunrise. 

I lean on the handlebars and close my eyes for a minute. I'm exhausted and between the howling wind and driving sleet what little energy I've got left is draining fast. The closest shelter is three hours away. Maybe more if this storm doesn't let up. 

I've been making my way to Wellington  from PIetermaritzburg for the last 10 days but the journey that led me here started 12 years ago

Like many South African cyclists I've done my fair share of MTB multi-day races. Races like the three day Sani2c through to the nine day JoBerg2c. Obviously one's pedigree would be  called into question if you hadn't done the ABSA Cape Epic. I'll freely admit to having done a couple of those in the days when you started in Knysna and over the course of seven days threaded your way across to Stellenbosch. 

I was and remain a middle of the pack rider. I don't have the speed, strength or technical prowess to propel myself onto the podium. However, when I entered a few 24 hour MTB events I was surprised when I managed to win. It seemed I had the stubbornness that enabled me to keep trucking when my body was tapped out. 

When the Freedom Challenge popped up on my radar back in 2007 it immediately piqued my interest and over the next few years transformed my cycling ambitions. Now speed, strength and technical ability were reduced to a  subset of the skills required to prevail in events where tenacity, strategy and general toughness were more highly prized. In the case of the Freedom Challenge the ability to self navigate without the use of GPS is the most basic requirement.  

The Freedom Challenge which was first staged in 2003 wasn't the first ultra endurance bike event in the world. The Great American Bike Race now known as the Race Across America (RAAM) held its inaugural event in 1982 but it's a road race.  

The next significant MTB event was the Tour Divide first staged in 2007. It starts in Canada and finishes 4418 km later at the Mexican Border after traversing the Rocky Mountains. 

Over the last decade ultra endurance events have mushroomed. Recent additions to MTB/Gravel bike racing are events like Race to the Rock in Australia which hosts it's 5th annual event this year and the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan is in it's infancy. 

Locally we also have The Munga or The Munga MTB to give it its full name. The Munga has been going for 5 years. 

These races differ from stage races in that once the clock starts it only stops when you cross the finish line days or weeks later. The tick-tock doesn't stop even while you're sleeping. 

What does it take to survive an ultra endurance MTB race? For the sake of this article I'll focus specifically on two local events — The Freedom Challenge and The Munga MTB. 

These races while similar are not the same, even though The Munga has its DNA rooted in both the Tour Divide and The Freedom Challenge. The popular South African version of "unsupported" differs from other international events, and that's not a bad thing. If you enter some of the overseas unsupported races you could unwittingly disqualify a fellow rider and possibly yourself by giving them a sip of your water or even by riding with them along the route. The definition of Solo and Unsupported in those races is taken to the extreme. There is sound reasoning behind it. However, here at home we have a strong sense of the Good Samaritan rule where fellow cyclists are able to assist each other along the route even when a race is defined as unsupported. Furthermore, both The Munga and The Freedom Challenge have race office organised check points where food, showers and beds are available as required. Given our geography and the paucity of food and accommodation along the race routes it makes sense to have events loosely described as unsupported apart from Race Office approved and provided support. This being the case these two races don't fit the Bike Packing genre. In short, Bike Packing is when you have to forage for food and accommodation as you go along sometimes having to make camp and cook your own food. That means you need to carry food, a stove, sleeping bag and a tent or bivvy. None of these are required for our local events. You can sleep rough if you like but that's mostly by choice. 

Let's deal with the structural differences. The Munga follows a route dictated by GPS routing. The Freedom Challenge on the other hand has a route  and at times a route suggestion that's marked on maps and described by narratives. No form of GPS is allowed. 

So you're interested in giving one of these events a bash. But which one? There's something about the gravity of each that makes them either more or less attractive based on your race pedigree. I'd recommend both to anyone who asks but practically speaking the self navigation and multi-week fatigue of The Freedom Challenge makes it an obvious extension for Adventure Racers. For Epic type riders the format of The Munga is a stepping stone to new adventure. 

If we ignore the navigational differences   the skills required to survive and thrive in these races are largely the same. 

First up is cycling ability. Obviously you have to know how to ride a bike but you also need to be fit for purpose. Meaning your training should be specific for building the fitness required for ultra endurance events. That is, your training efforts should lean heavily toward the lower zones. Smashing out Neuromuscular or Anaerobic efforts  might feel like you're toughening up but it's toughness without purpose. I've stood shoulder to shoulder with professional road cyclists in the start chute. They've been half my age, single digit BMI and have spend countless hours training in the upper zones. When the race starts they lean on their training and are soon out of sight. Almost without exception I catch them in a handful of hours when they are spent. I'm not better than them. I'm just better prepared and tuned for this genre of racing. 

Your training efforts should be in and around the Endurance zone otherwise known as the "all day pace".

Without the physiological adaption that takes place in the lower zones your body isn't able to tap into fat reserves. Three or four hours into a race everyone has exhausted their glycogen reserves. Those athletes who can tap into alternative energy reserves are able to keep going. 

When I first started these long events I hurt. The sort of hurt that brings you to a halt. I suffered from hand, ITB, Achilles and knee problems. Unfortunately you can't pop along to the local gym and fix these in a few weeks. Putting your body under stress for days and weeks at a time requires that you have deep physical resilience. This takes time. When you understand that there is no shortcut to onboarding this toughness you appreciate the benefit of adopting an incremental approach. If you think you can go from three hour coffee rides to riding forty hours non stop you're going to discover what it's like to breakdown physically. The lesson you want to avoid is how to recover from overuse injury. 

Toughness is an innate characteristic. Suffering to achieve a goal is not attractive to everyone. If you've chased someone up a climb until your vision has started blurring you've entered the suffer zone. But short term suffering is not the same as the unremitting fatigue you'll need to endure in a multi-day race. You'll have to be able to resist the urge to stop when every muscle in your body is waving a white flag. Don't confuse this with the genuine need for sleep.

Unlike one day races you are unlikely to be racing ultra endurance races every other weekend. In fact, it's unlikely that's you'll do more than a handful of events every year, probably less. You are going to expose your weak underbelly several times in successive events until you develop "race feel". It takes a long time to make peace with the idea that you can have a five minute timeout in the shade of a doringbos while racing. 

The fact that ultra endurance racing is a  skill developed over time is underpinned by the correlation of the average age of the competitors. It's not uncommon to see the field packed with over 40's. There are very few youngsters who do well. The young riders who do excel have earned their stripes and have deep respect and understanding of this genre of racing. 

Self sufficiency is a vital skill. There is no team car or waterpoint every 20 kilometres. Having loads of kit is one thing. Knowing what kit to take on which event is crucial. For example, if you are going to be climbing over games fences or carrying your bike you'll want your bike to be as light as possible. That means carrying stuff on your back. But if fence climbing and portages aren't part of the route then it makes sense to put your kit on the bike. Fine tuning your equipment for the task comes with experience. You need to take enough to survive the worst but not so much that you carry kit you never need. Gone are the days when you would typically lug around over 10 to 15 kg's of kit. These days it's closer to 5 kg and often less. 

It would also behove you to know your way around your bike. There are no bike mechanics or sweep vehicles milling around to help. Even if there are mechanics at support stations they might be 100 kilometres away. At some point something is going to go wrong and you will have to make a plan. That said, you'll need to know what minimum spares and equipment you'll require to get your bike back into working shape. It might mean that cable ties and duct tape become your don't-leave-home-without items rather than energy gels and snack bars. Once you have the right equipment make sure you know how to use it. I've seen people forlornly staring at their chain breaker or inflator wondering how it works. Things go wrong all the time but it doesn't mean your race needs to end. Knowing how to fix a puncture, change a shifter cable, repair a broken chain, swap out a derailleur jockey wheel, change brake pads or convert your rig to a single speed are essential skills. The list of what can go wrong is endless. I've seen some catastrophic failures but I've also witnessed the ingenuity of experienced endurance mountain bikers.


As said earlier, speed and technical ability are not the touchstone skills that ensure success. The mental aspect of endurance racing is what matters the most. It's difficult to distill out the critical aspects but if you've spent time chatting to a good endurance athlete you'll see that although they may come across as laidback they have a good grasp of the skills required. They often don't appreciate just how much they know because they have ingrained those skills into the way they think to the point that it's obvious—to them. Spend time with these athletes and you'll appreciate their breadth of hard earned knowledge. 

The question that comes up time and time again is why we suffer through ultra endurance events and then go back and put ourselves through it again and again. I've pondered this question at length and there's no simple answer. 

For some, doing an ultra endurance event is a once off on their bucket list—do one and hang the medal on the pegboard in the garage. It's something they perceive as hard and by achieving it they get to underpin their self worth. I get that. After all don't we all want to be our own hero? 

For others it's deeper than that. It's the domain of the endurance junkie. It's as much about self challenge as it is about self discovery. Ultra endurance pushes you to the edge. It's about nudging  oneself to the limit and beyond. That limit is often imposed on us by our own perceptions. As we break through successive barriers we see ourselves evolve. As we expose layer after layer there are moments of disappointment and failure. We push ourselves to expose and then confront our own demons. Rather than being dissuaded these moments are analysed and plans made to avoid a reoccurrence. It's about riding further, sleeping less and taking on ever tougher challenges in suboptimal conditions. It's a drug. But rather than creating a distorted fantasy it shapes our new reality. 

Why keep coming back? Because there's more to give and more to gain.

"A man does not climb a mountain without bringing some of it away with him, and leaving something of himself upon it." Sir Martin Conway. 

We do hard things because they are hard. You come to expect that you'll be stripped bare, shaken up and reassembled. If you get to the point where you are no longer transformed by the experience it's time to look for a new challenge. 

While threading through rural villages on the Freedom Challenge I have been asked countless times "Where are you going?"  I respond variously depending on my daily or ultimate destination sometimes customising my answer to suit my perception of their geographical understanding. That's the answer of my head. While curled up in a ditch in the Karoo or trudging through a winter storm on Swartberg Pass at midnight my heart's answer would be, "I'm am already there."

1 comment:

Marnitz said...

You also need lots of mullas, these races don't come cheap if you want to race, race weight = mullas it will cost you a pretty penny to drop you pack from 10 to 5kg, but the experience will always be worth every penny spend.