How to ride 928 miles in 90 hours (in desert heat).
In a recent blog we caught up with Precision Hydration athlete Penny Barker, who was at the business end of training for Race Across the West (RAW), a 928 mile slog over just 92 hours, with nearly 50,000ft of climbing. Believe it or not that's just a warm up for her ultimate goal, Race Across America, in 2017! Well, she's back from the West Coast now and she's shared her race report along with some of the things she’s learned in training. Worth a read if considering taking on a coach or thinking about signing up for your toughest challenge yet…
When I discuss my goals with other people, there are normally two questions “why?” and “where do you even start with training for something like that?!”
This first question is easy to answer; for me Race Across the West is the qualification step to the Race Across America (RAAM), a 3080 mile non-stop race across America with a 12 day cut off. It’s often billed as the world’s toughest bicycle race and completing it has been a dream of mine for some time. I’d made a mental note to do it before I was 40 and then realised that time was creeping up on me! Alongside the physical and mental challenge, I am also raising money for Hounds for Heroes and the British Heart Foundation as well as to raise awareness of the fantastic work that they both do.
Where do you even start?!
So, where to start with the challenge…
Solo riders need to qualify for RAAM. It’s also a huge logistical challenge as you need a crew and at least 2 support vehicles (it’s a supported race). This also incurs considerable cost. I therefore decided to set myself a 3 year “journey to RAAM”, to get qualified, get strong and get both the crew and myself mentally and physically prepared. RAW is one of the RAAM qualifiers and, as it’s run alongside RAAM along the first 928 miles of the that course, it seemed a no-brainer to target; where else was I going to be able to experience the same conditions and prepare for the challenge of RAAM?
For me the next step was to get a coach who could identify with the kind of endurance events I was looking at; if I was going to invest time and money in this, I needed to give myself the maximum chance of success. I also wanted to get some science behind my preparation and look into lactate threshold and VO2max testing so I had benchmarks to test myself against.
Your coach choice is important – your coach has to “get you” and you have to understand why they work the way they do, at least enough to trust them. I work with Nick Thomas from The Endurance Coach.
Training tips I’ve learned along the way
I’ve learned a lot from Nick, but the biggest lessons I would pass on would be:
1) Look at the big picture of your life and work out where the stressors are. These determine how much volume and intensity you can tolerate without breaking. If work is stressful and you’ve got stresses in your home life as well, then training will only add to that stress. Whilst that may be ok in the very short term, long term it will be detrimental.
Sometimes you just have to accept that whilst you feel that you must do more training, less will be better if you absorb it and can still give the attention you need to work and home life. If you don’t heed this, you may end up mentally burning out and not achieving your goal, or hurting those close to you. This has probably been the hardest lesson to learn, but the most beneficial.
2) Recovery is as important as the training – it’s how we get stronger. I’m still not as good as I should be at this, particularly the sleep thing.
Nick works me on a 3 week cycle; 2 weeks overload, 1 week recovery (decreasing volume but not too much decrease in intensity). His rationale is that a 3 week on/ 1 week off cycle would see me not working well in the 3rd week and not recovering properly as I’ve got a stressful (and quite physical) job. Mentally speaking, this also works well for me.
3) Get strong, then go long. We work on building the engine, then the endurance.
4) Keep sessions focused. Use a HR (or ideally a power meter for cycling) and work in the right zones. Learn to suffer at the top end and learn to go ridiculously easy at the bottom end. Don’t train in that grey zone. The learning to suffer bit hurts, whether it’s shorter VO2max intervals or long “strength endurance” rides. Big gear, low cadence, grind up hill…. Repeat!
How to prepare for the event of your life.
Years ago when I signed up for Ironman Lanzarote, I’d literally done a handful of triathlons, mostly sprints and the odd Olympic distance. If I tried thinking about a whole Ironman I’d start panicking. But, it was just about breaking it down into its component parts and working on those, then gradually putting longer sessions together. Set yourself realistic intermediate goals. I was already happy at riding a century, so my first major milestone was 200 miles. It was actually supposed to be 150 miles, which I was doing using a local 200km Audax ride.
I decided with Nick that I’d ride to the start, then do an extra loop on the end. Without telling him, I set my sights on 200 miles and just kept going into the night, doing extra loops locally! It probably wasn’t terribly wise, but the mental boost I got from doing it mitigated the extra recovery I needed, and Nick’s used to me doing the odd impromptu crazy thing!
After 200 miles, I then decided I needed to look more at the sleep deprivation side of things, so I did a “simulation weekend”. This was based at my house and I did it when my husband was away. I set up the blow up mattress in the kitchen, put out some easy-to-prepare food and started riding after work on Friday evening. I rode through until 10am on the Sunday, with just 3 hours of sleep.
I learnt a lot that weekend, including that it is possible to fall asleep on your bike whilst descending, which is not very clever! Mentally, it was a very useful exercise as well as getting me over the 350 mile mark in training.
I was very lucky to have a crew of 6 family and friends volunteering to be part of the journey and we worked together on all aspects of preparation. You have a Follow Car communicating with you by radio and they need to practise following you closely without running you over as well as following turn-by-turn directions.
They need to be able to do quick bike changes, bike maintenance, prep food, massage and other therapy, sort kit, do bottle and food hand-offs whilst moving. You name it, your crew does it. They are literally your life support system, both for body and soul. Mine are awesome, there is no other word. We had meetings in the evenings to go through admin things, training weekends to practice the practicalities and also a coaching session on “Building Resilience within Teams” from Effective Challenge.
My motto for my RAW preparation was “no stone unturned” and my crew and I tried to think of everything that might be relevant. It’s really useful to go through each aspect of the race and ask yourself “So what?”. This helps you to tease out details and create an action plan of things to do. For example….
1) We are riding in the desert. So what? So, it will be very hot. So what?
a. I will be sweating a lot and in danger of either hyponatremia or dehydration. So what? So, I need to look at hydration. So I found out about Precision Hydration’s Sweat Test, had one done and, voila, I had a personalised hydration strategy to keep me hydrated when it counts.
b. I need to acclimatise to that heat. So I booked some sessions in the heat chamber at the Porsche Human Performance Centre and going out early to RAW to do some riding in the desert.
c. I need to cool down on the bike. So, I ended up making a homemade ice-vest and ensuring I had lots of ice in the Follow Car, as well as room for me to sit in there for a few minutes to cool down.
One lesson I learnt the hard way was that it’s not just about the bike (or swim, or run, or whatever). You can have the best engine in the world, but you need a chassis to support it. I neglected strength and conditioning work for my first big ultra race last year and suffered from a failure in my neck muscles called “Shermer Neck”. It’s quite specific to ultra cycling due to the prolonged extension of the neck, but it was on my “risk list” and I didn’t pay it enough attention.
For RAW I rectified this with a specific Strength and Conditioning programme (Nick’s based in Manchester, so it wasn’t practical to work with him for this as I’m in Reading!). I joined Crossfit Reading and I now work with two coaches there doing work that is relevant to my goals and fits in with the cycling. They ensure I do it correctly and safely. Squats, deadlifts, overhead squats and shoulder presses are now all part of my training, as are various core and mobility exercises. This year my neck made it to the end of RAW, rather than ‘just’ 675 miles in Ireland. It’s a weakness that I need to continue working at for RAAM.
The race itself.
Tuesday June 14th , 2016, 12noon. All the prep was done, now it was time for the race itself! RAW was quite literally the most amazing experience of my life. I had expected RAAM to be amazing, but RAW was brilliant. That’s not to say it wasn’t tough, and there were definitely some bits that quite frankly sucked. Cycling through the cooler desert air on the first night, with my Follow Car behind and the convoy of lights around the other racers, was a magical experience.
From about early on Wednesday morning, however, I started to suffer from GI issues, causing cramps and frequent toilet stops. It sapped my average speed and my energy as I wasn’t absorbing my nutrition. In the heat of the desert (which was up to 42 degrees C), it was really a bit of a sufferfest as well as being demoralising. On Wednesday night we were climbing into the mountains and the temperature plummeted each time we descended, so all my warm kit for a British winter went on! I also hit a wall of tiredness and kept falling asleep on my bike. Luckily I managed to get over this and make it to the next time station for a 90 minute sleep.
Thursday was a long, hot climb (35 miles at 5-7% in 38 degrees heat) and that really wasn’t fun. The views were great but my guts were still playing up and I wasn’t performing well in the heat or the altitude (although at the time I hadn’t twigged on the effect of the latter). That night I again was nodding off in the cold and dark and had to have another 90 min sleep in a motel. This was to be my last sleep in the 90 hours of the race (giving me a total of less than 5 hours). I was back on the road at 01:30 AM in all my winter kit! Training in the British weather was one advantage I had on some of the US riders!
Friday saw us heading from Arizona into Utah and through Monument Valley. Cycling through there was the experience of a lifetime, albeit like cycling in an oven. I can still picture the red rocks contrasting with the brilliant blue sky. Through the whole race I really tried to be “in the moment” and remember this was meant to be an adventure. In Monument Valley, I was thinking how lucky I was to be riding somewhere that few people have ever cycled through. But I had also lost a significant amount of time and the cut off was in jeopardy, so I was riding as hard as I could. Good terrain and a final cessation in hostilities from the guts meant I was making good progress, fuelled by cheese and tomato sandwiches and mini donuts!
Friday night saw us finally leaving the desert and, in the early hours of the morning, I started the final stage which would see us climbing to about 8000ft before an 8 mile descent into the finish at Durango. It was an easy stage, 44km with 3 long climbs but well within my capabilities and I should have stormed up it but, very early on, I started struggling to breathe. It soon became apparent that the altitude was taking its toll. I was forced to soft pedal the whole way, worrying that I was going to miss the cut off. Luckily the Crew had built some leeway into the timings and I reached the final descent with 2 hours to spare. The view of Colorado as we descended the mountain will stay with me forever, the dark green of the forests against an azure blue sky.
For me, the biggest challenge for RAW was that posed by my gastrointestinal system! I’ve had issues on all 3 of my longest events so far, and some of my longer training events. I eat a healthy diet and have tried various strategies for race nutrition but for RAAM (and for the long term health benefits), I’ve decided to embrace fat and the concept of the ketogenic diet (low carb, high fat). It’s controversial (not the evidence, but the fact that it goes against the mainstream nutrition advice) but it’s definitely worth a try. At the time of writing. I’m two weeks into ketosis; watch this space!
RAAM is now doing everything just that little bit better. We are having a team debrief and “lessons learned” and will take the race apart. I can’t wait for the next part of the journey! Come and follow that journey at www.pennybarker.com, @penster550 and Facebook.
Thanks Penny. Looking forward to following your journey on to RAAM 2017!