The Anatomy of a 24 Hour MTB Race: A racers perspective*
Location: Newcastleton; Scotland
Race: 24 Hours of Exposure; European 24 hour Championships
Greg <rolls into pit> : My knee is hurting really badly now!
Dave <drinking beer> : Well…you have been riding your bike for 16 and a half hours straight….
Greg <pit changing bottles and food> : Touché Dave….touché.
Dave : <Friendly shove in back> : Bye now, see you in another 90mins
Time elapsed: ~45 seconds
This more or less highlights the contact I had with my pit during the 3rd edition of the 24 Hours of Exposure in Newcastleton on the Scottish borders. Sometimes longer, mostly just like that. Located in the Kielder forrest this race has become the 24 hour MTB race in the UK for soloists. With no teams racing, just solo riders, the race has hosted the UK and European championships for the past 3 years and effectionalty become known as 24Solo.
We don’t have much of a history of 24 hour MTB racing in Ireland. Some say the standard isn’t here, I argue the orginisers are lazy. It is a massive commitment to host one of these events for a club and many of the UK and European events are run by event management companies for this reason. One of the problems this has lead to is a lack of hard truths about what it takes to race, let alone complete, in a solo 24 hour MTB race. Most MTB clubs have one, maybe two, members who have raced a solo usually with more who have raced as teams. Hopefully this will shed a little light on what needs to be done for these grueling events.
A solo 24 hour MTB race is not the same as a 12 hour, or a team 24. Do not get lulled into a false sense of security because you have raced as a 4 person team at Mountain Mayhem. You need to be prepared to spend a large amount of time preparing for this event on and off the bike. Many things will be sacraficed in order to pull it together and you may need to shift from your traditional style of training to that of an endurance focus. I would suggest running it past partners, spouses and kids before doing it as the training can become very selfish by the end with many hours in the saddle that could be spent with loved ones. However, done correctly it is easy and can be fulfilling knowing that you were training while everyone else was sleeping. The quiet and serenity of mountains during the night is something that is amplified when you are training solo at 2am in Djouce woods.
I approached a few riders in the UK asking for advice in the months before the race. In the end the following pearl of wisdom was common too all of them: “Ride your mountain bike, on big mountains, lots. Then wake up the next day and do it again.” I’m not going to advocate 40hour training weeks or anything near that, I think my max was a 24hour week, however riding tired is a key. Riding late and long on a Friday evening then getting up early on Saturday and doing it again even though your legs are screaming at you. This is building both mental and physical strentgh. If you think the 6am alarm call on Saturday is hard, you have no idea. You also need to be very comfortable riding at night. I don’t mean a 90 minute ride in 3 Rock with your mates stopping at the top of everything for a chat, I mean 3-4 hour rides. Self sufficient. In the dark. Embrace the night…just watch out for certain car parks….tell people where you are going or use a tracking application on your phone like Endomondo.
Think like a cross rider – at least this is my approach. Two of everything. Two bikes running the same tires, same contact points, same gearing. Same frame would be ideal, but for many like me, not possible. You need to have a near seemless change between the positions on the bikes. After 17 hours you may thing that a change would be nice, it won’t, it will feel wrong and you’ll get angry. In the pit think fast and easy; arm, knee, leg warmers with shorts on you. Unless it gets really messy down there, you wont need to change out of shorts, bring lots of chamois cream. Spare long sleeve and winter jackets for the night so you can switch depending on the weather, gillets come in handy here so as to mediate temeperature during the dusk and dawn periods. Bring every pair of gloves for every weather condition, I rode in 1 pair for the whole race as they were what I trained in, but having options is good if you get any gastric issues. Double way zippers on jerseys, hard to find, will allow you too remove pressure on your gut, if you can find them, take them.
Pit and Crew:
A solid crew and a well orginised pit = a fast racer. Get someone anal. Someone who likes making lists, likes shuffling things into piles, someone dependable. It also helps if they can stay awake for the entire race as you will develop a need to see the same person, get the same food from them, do things the same way…ok perhaps I’m a bit OCD about this, but it works. If like most racers though you are relying on loved ones make sure you allocate them some time before and after the race, let them know how bad things might go, give them boundries on which they can pull you out if you go past them. After the race let them be part of your achievement, they have worked just as hard as you did. Under no circumstances bring your D&G clad, Ugg boot wearing, Brown Thomas shopping, frappa-mocha-chino drinking partner to the race unless he/she really knows how messy it is going to possibly go. They will need to deal with it. You need someone 100% dependable in all situations, preferably two, also preferable if they can swing hammers to fix your bike. If there is any risk of the person pitting leaving you post race, don’t put them through it.
You will not be able too insert, or process, enough energy to fuel the event. If you insert too much, it will result in it spilling out one or both exit holes. Once you are happy with this we can proceede.
You need to be able to understand what you CAN absorb, process and utilise during the events. The simple and honest science is that we are limited to absorbing about 60g of carbohydrate per hour, imagine a small hole at the bottom of a filling glass, you need to get that balance right. Now…why is he talking about carbohydrates and not calories? Well Timmy *science alert* The human stomach is sadly not like a combustion engine. People assume we have a simple <fuel in/ stomach process = energy out> equation working, but it is a lot more compex than that. We understand that as intensity goes up we shift the fuel that we work on; fats for low intensity, carbohydrates for high intensity. However, these combustion processes are still regulated at the gut by how they are absorbed as well as available oxygen and water. Thankfully this can be trained, it can be increased, but it takes time. Carbohydrate metabolisim is going to be your main fuel during this event, fat will be burned in huge amounts, however trying to fuel on fats will result in a slow down of gastric emptying and eventually a slow down in you. To further complicate the issue, the combination of carbohydrates used will determine the uptake rates. Sucrose, fructose, galactose, lactose and maltose are all sugars you can use, however each one will be absorbed at different rates and not by others. You need to train your stomach like the rest of your body to deal with the shift in carbohydrate uptake rates, this takes time, this requires practising your fuelling.
Going into a 24 with no race plan is a bad idea. Although you cannot prepare for every hour of the race and what is going to happen, you still need to make choices about how you are going to ride your race. If you ride the best race you know you can and all others fall apart around you, chances are you are going to do well. This approach saw me move from 23rd after the first lap too 9th by the last lap. Turtle and hare. You also need to have a back-up plan for when things go wrong. After that you need to have a fallout plan for when the back-up breaks down. After that…you’re on your own. Think of the simple acronym: PPP=PPP – Piss Poor Preparation = Piss Poor Performance.
Racing solo takes a whole new dimension into account, that of your mind and a constant nagging that ‘you can stop – you have no team to let down’. It is easy to pull over, sit on a park bench, and take a snooze. If you do, prepare too slide backwards fast. You need to train yourself to become mentally strong. You need to go places deep within yourself in training and find out where you are week, you need to eradicate that. Think of Apocylapse now; Never get off the boat. If you don’t sit down, or step off your bike in the pit, you cannot stop. Racing a 24 is very different, you will be on the bike a very long time assuming you are treating it like a race, you will have massive periods of extacy and similar periods of utter depression. Many endurance racers I know of already experience these feelings day to day and I suspect this is a reason why they excell at these events. Get through these periods, ride the highs, coast the lows. You’re pit crew is your drug, use them too bring you back up.
Racing a 24 solo is hard. You will get round, but getting round fast is another thing. Building a plan, putting the pieces in place, making sure you have everything covered is the way to attempt this. Just be consistant, aim for as little stopped time as possible, pedal damn-it!
*A blatant rip-off from 12 hour European and UK champion Twinklydave, aka Dave from the quote above.