Go big or go bigger: How does an XC racer get ready to go 100 miles, big?
Lucky for me I have been doing the switch back and forth for a while now. Hopefully this helps some of you avoid the pitfalls I have encountered rebooting for the long stuff in the past.
Indeed it seems obvious in the weeks leading up to a 100 miler or backcountry epic event you have ride more to be prepared, but how much more? How often do you go big in training and how hard should you ride?
For me the high-speed rollerball style XC races have wrapped up for the summer. I had a successful national championships in Sun Valley, Idaho. I netted silver in the exciting short track just ahead of Adam and JHK. I flatted out of bronze in the XC but finished a solid fifth.
I knew my LT and lactate tolerance was pretty good from my SRM data download daily to Training Peaks, and the results are a great confirmation, but endurance seemed like a stranger to me. A long ride seemed like anything where i needed more than one bottle the size of a children’s cup at Burger King, and ride food consisted of a lonely gel. Kinda funny really.
I set out on some fact finding with a solid, steady endurance ride of four hrs in the mountains. I did some tempo, but mostly brisk endurance pace, top of zone two. I felt swell until hour three, when my legs groaned and I felt that ship-sinking feeling. You know that moment, when bunking down next to a deer carcass on the side of the road seems like a welcome alternative to the dreaded climbs between you and home.
Afterwards, my file revealed I had work to do. Via one of my favorite metrics on the WKO software I could see metabolic demands of sustaining this pace were out of reach at this point. Hidden in the repertoire of seemingly data overkill in WKO is Pw/hr ratio.
For watt weenies like me, it compares how many watts you do per heart beat at the beginning half to the second half. This cardiac drift is a sure indicator of fatigue, and my soggy noodle legs told the rest of the story.
I went back to the well, hitting progressively longer rides at a brisk endurance pace of 240-250 when pedaling and heart rate in the 140 bpm range on the climbs. A few nice blocks of this with a bit of rest made for some great mid-summer base weeks of adventure rides.
Since I had been doing so much technical and physically demanding World Cup XC racing, a lot of this homework came in the form of road riding. For most riders it should be the opposite, as they need trail toughening and skill sharpening. At least 75 percent of training should be off-road riding.
One of the highlights of my training block was when I almost cracked, or at least my stomach did. On my third day of mad riding, I set out at dawn on a six and a half hour ride to meet my friend Ben King, one of the hard-asses of the pro tour peloton. Our rendezvous was one of my favorite roads, Skyline Drive, for big ride on a hot and hazy Virginia day.
It was a great ride but in my haste to hit our meeting point on time I ran low on water. It was only a half hour, but getting behind on water makes it impossible to eat a peanut butter and honey sandwich.
Paying the price for the next hour of steady motoring was not fun. I was grumpy and heavy. When we stopped, I feasted on a egg and ham sandwich and engulfed a shake the consistency of lavender Sherwin-Williams paint. The guy we ordered from made a pleasant mistake and a big order of country cut fries came along. It all went down easily with my giant Starbucks, ahh… .
I had broken rule number two of endurance fueling on account of breaking rule number one. The rest of the ride my stomach was not happy and my legs were only a little better off. Lesson learned.
And low fat, low protein and fiber are good ideas too. Though some of each are important, a bowl of french fries floating in a puddle of oil might be overkill. But I was at a point of weakness, give me a break. And besides, Ben was chowing on them, too.
After a couple of weeks I was back to normal level of base fitness 7-10 percent drift or less and high zone two.
I was ready to add some hot sauce back to the gumbo. Mmmm. Gumbo.
Muscular endurance/recruitment seems to be a limiter to aerobic output for most of us and for sure critical to finishing strong in long mountain bike races with steep climbing. I was sure to have some big ring, low cadence climbs and short hill jams mixed in toward the end of rides. Mountain bike climbing death marches like the seven hour assault on second mountain hit the spot.
Pro tip: You know you did this right if you’d consider calling your wife as spotter to get up the stairs after your ride!
Aerobic endurance repeatability at a high level near max work seemed to come along with the rest of training, but I think it’s because I make sure to incorporate some progressively longer races into the fray and sprinkle a little VO2 work that I keep my speed and kick strong.
If you just do long, slow distance work you become a long, slow motor. Racers need speed. In fact, endurance specialists have the most to gain from LT and VO2 if they already have a solid base.
The addition of some sub-LT and cross-LT climbing on long, but not uber epic rides kept the stoke going! “Yeah boy! I love this style of riding hammering out some crazy backcountry rides,” I thought while prepping pockets full of great food and planing water stops at my secret mountain springs for a long day’s journey. The adventure and stunning scenery take the edge off leg-smashing climbs, and when you go big you feel like a warhorse on the march. It’s an awesome feeling.
How do you know aerobic endurance repeatability and muscular endurance are golden? Hammer really hard at the beginning of a ride, 20 minutes at just below max (ftp-5%). Ride hard tempo on every climb for hours and then try to bring the heat back to full blast for a couple of six to eight minute hills at the end. Now if you can bring your power back up and turn the turbines back to full juice. You’re set. Ok, its not easy, but it feels amazing when you get there.
My first such test was the toughest race in North Carolina, the legendary Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell, the day after the Jerdon Mountain XC MTB race for real nasty test.
Sometimes you have to be creative when trying to push yourself to the limit!
I passed my test, but TNT Thomas Turner scared me a bit when he caught me near halfway down the tricky 4000ft decent of Heartbreak Trail. Yikes!
With only 10 miles left I would have to real hit the afterburners to close the deal, or lose my lunch.
I attacked with all my tired legs had. They had some good kick, I was winding 90 rpm and jamming out of the saddle on my Flash 29. Just under a 390 watts pain session was on for the next half hour but I GOT it! New record of 4:33, in the bag.
Goal here is to be able to hit full LT and near full LT power at the end of a whopper! Check.
NUE round the Wilderness 101 I knew would be a great race to see if the work was paying off. The goal was to see if I could roll the full distance, fuel up and still finish with some kick.
It was a super race. I managed to split the lead group up on a singletrack descent, drill a solid pace on the mid-race climb and attack from our three-man group to take the win just ahead of Justin Lindine.
Since two world champions will be at Leadville and it is a pure pedaling dirt road pain fest, my plan is to roll a solid race, give it my all in the third quarter and get this one off my list. It might be longer than any competition at the Olympics. All my previous efforts at this race have been far from what I am capable of, but when you live in Virginia it’s not easy to ride on the moon.
Goal: ride a solid race, finish in the top three. Sub-6:25 would be great. Who knows, maybe a course record could go down this year, and if Alban and Sauser don’t get carried away on Columbine and my teammates Alex Grant, Tinker and I can organize a good group that works together, who knows what the outcome might be.
I’m excited, because in addition to Leadville I have several sweet singletrack races like Shenandoah 100 and Pisgah Stage Race coming up, plus I am ready for adventure rides at the Shenandoah mountain bike festival, and of course super stoked to have riders converging on Harrisonburg for my charity tough guy ride. I really can’t get dropped by Ben and Keck on my own ride!
Either way having put in the right kind of work, I am excited for big challenges ahead and I feel am ready to go big. I hope you are too!
Jeremiah Bishop’s occupation has always been Adventurer/Explorer, which led him to his career as a pro mountain biker. He races full-time for Cannondale Factory Racing, has over 100 race wins, including eighth place at worlds, and is a two-time U.S. national champion in short track and marathon. Jeremiah is an ace stage racer and a star of the ultra endurance race scene. He is also a cycling coach (on pavement as well as dirt) and stays true to his adventurer roots by fishing, hosting the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo charity event and getting in extra time outdoors with his family.