You have probably seen the images of broken riders by the road after riding for 24/48 hrs or even longer! Marvelled at the feats of riders such as Michael Broadwith, 3x winner of the UK 24hr Championship & holder of LEJOG record.  Or you have watched grainy footage on YouTube of RAAM racers completing that simply mind boggling race.  You likely had one of 2 thoughts, you were either struck by the we of their achievements and wondered how?  Or like the vast majority of people you thought they are truly bonkers!  Well, I hazard if you are reading this you may be in the former category, one I find myself in.

Over the past couple of seasons I have transitioned myself from a  fairly decent short distance Time Trialist able to be there or thereabouts with the fast lads over 10 / 25 & 50m TT’s to being pretty decent at the long stuff 12 – 24hrs.  Back in 2015 I was 5th in the UK National 10m TT championships, just 10 secs off a medal with a  ride of 18min 2 secs (back when that was a pretty fast ride!) , I also at that time rode a 46 minute 25m TT to put me 7th (then) in the all time list.  At the time I felt I was probably at or close to the ‘best I could be’ and needed a new challenge.  I researched, focussed and changed my priorities, my goals and my training, focussing on succeeding in long distance events.  Fast forward to 2018 where I won the UK National 24hr Time Trial title covering a distance of 530.6m, and average speed of 22.1mph.  In 2017 I won the UMCA world 12hr title with a record distance of 285m and was bronze in the UK National 12 hr Championships covering 305.6m.  It seemed I’d made the transition ok!

Long distance or Ultra cycling / marathoning or anything ‘ultra’ is a preserve of a select bunch. Those who are mentally as strong as they are physically,  who are able to overcome the doubts, the negative self talk that can drop in at 2am and the myriad of aches / pains and body signals to STOP!

Long distance anything always fascinated me, it was seeing these athletes toil and overcome what seemed insurmountable barriers.  I recall watching the famous Ironman World Championships in 1982 where rookie Julie Moss crawled towards the finish line only to be agonisingly beaten right at the line.  The images form this, the sheer determination and will to win are (for me) awe inspiring. Or watching footage of RAAM (Race Across America) where athletes ride no stop over 3000 miles,  It’s up to them how much they sleep, and many will go days with no sleep, or catching 30mins here and there.  Stories of riders hallucinating, falling asleep whilst riding are both awe inspiring and incomprehensible!

How do you enter this rather crazy world?

A common misconception is that you need to be training full time and it’s the only way to be able to build the fitness to compete and succeed.   That’s not true at all and I will discuss some great examples of how anyone can achieve their goals off limited training.

In this post I will discuss the following

  1. What type of long distance / ultra events are there in Cycling 
  2. How much training do I need to do to compete , say a 12 or 24hr race, or even longer?
  3. What else do I need do think about
    1. Kit & equipment, comfort & completion
    2. Logistics , feeding and support
  4. Key resources and advice

Ultra Events

There is no specific definition of an ‘ultra’ event (in my mind).  Think running – anything over marathon distance would be considered ‘Ultra’, be it a 30m fell run, to the arduous and epic Marathon Des Sables Across the Sahara. In Summer.  Or a double / triple or Deca (10x) Ironman distance Triathlon.

In Cycling for many, riding 100m is a major achievement and some would consider anything much above this to be in ‘Ultra territory’.

Here in the UK there are numerous organised events via the CTT (Cycling TIme Trials) specialising on long distance individual time trials.  You will find probably 6-8 100m events per year,  4-5 12hr events and one 24hr event (*that are CTT sanctioned). You will also find independently organised 24hr events such as the Revolver series at Brands Hatch, where people can either ride as teams (2 or 4) or as an individual over 6/12/24hrs. These are great introductions to the ultra world.  All you need to do to enter, is be a member of an affiliated club (details on the CTT website) and pay your £20 or so – and off you go!

Outside of the competitive world the UK has a strong tradition of AUDAX,  these are organised , generally point to point rides such as London – Edinburgh.  These are not a race but a challenge to be taken at the riders own pace.  Self supported riders either camp or stay at hostels or hotels on route.  Again more information via the UK AUDAX website.

On the world stage there is a World Ultra Cycling Association (WUCA) who govern, oversee and bring together some of the world wide races.  They officiate races across all continents and run various year long competitions across varying distances from 12 hrs up to RAAM distance, and even over see the truly bonkers ‘year long TT’ – yes it is what it says – how far can you ride in a year.  The current record is about 76k Miles!!!

There is also, in November, in Borrego Springs California the self styled ‘World 6-12-24hr Championships’.  Their aim being to bring the best ultra racers together into one race over these defined , iconic distances.  An event I was lucky enough to win the 6 and 12hr categories in over the last couple of years.

Let’s now start to think about what it takes , training wise, to undertake and event and enter this world.

Firstly there is no time limit (generally!), enter a 100m Time trial the winner may do 3hrs 20 or so, but you can take as long as you need – so don’t let that concern you.  A 12hr race is simply that, how far can YOU ride in 12hrs, so it’s actually the same for everyone, the defining factor being who goes the furthest.  Everyone suffers the same!

Training for a 12hr race /Double century / 24hr race

For many this is a huge and daunting ask,  iconic dawn til dusk racing.  How do you train for Such an event?

For me there are a number of mis conceptions about long distance training, I’ll list a few

  • You only need to train Zone 1 & 2 as its all you will ride in
  • Just do lots of long (boring) base miles
  • You need to ride 12hrs in training
  • You need to be out doing 6-9hr plus rides all year, twice a week

When I came back to long distance racing I was convinced a different approach would work.  I was still keen to maintain a high FTP to enable me to perform in shorter events and am a great believer that the ‘size’ of the engine is key.  The ‘engine’ , for me, thus needs to be trained across its key operating areas. Long base rides are of course critical.  But so is sub threshold interval work where we are looking to ‘push up’ the FTP barrier.  This work does three things for me:

  1. It’s time efficient, a 2 x 30mins sweet spot (90% of FTP) will deliver the same training ‘stress’ as a 3hr zone 2 ride (maybe more)
  2. By maintaining and pushing up your FTP you increase the ‘operating capacity’ of your engine,  so say your FTP is 200w,  Z2 maybe 100-130w,  but if you increase that FTP to 250w, then the size of your ‘base zone 2’ also increases.  Thus you go faster, further and more efficiently than you would have before. If you only ever train at 100w you can never improve this.
  3. Training sub threshold stresses you, but not to state that recovery is overly long, so you can build fitness quickly and efficiently

This strategy was both key for myself and key for an ultra racer of mine.   He is time crunched, only 10hrs or so (max) a week to train. But with goals of 200m / 500m and 24hr races.  He simply could not train the ‘old way’ so we needed to be creative. And it worked.

Some key questions answered:

  1. How long does my ‘longest ride’ need to be?
    1. When i successfully raced 12 & 24hr races my longest, non racing ride was 7-8hrs maximum .  I only completed 1 or 2 of those.  Focussing more on intensity as described above.  I always completed one endurance ride a week , 4-7 hrs, on my race bike to get used to the position but no longer. Simply the recovery time from going much longer outweighs any fitness benefits
  2. Can i just train in Zone 2?
    1. You can. But you won’t improve.  One of my favourite quotes is Einstein’s definition of madness, “keep doing the same thing the same way and expect different results – that’s madness”  (abridged!)
      1. Simply you won’t improve
      2. You have to stress yourself and work all energy systems – even in the 24hrs race there were multiple periods i was operating in Zone 4 & 5, getting up hills, accelerating out of roundabouts, passing other competitors.  You need to have the capacity to do that and recover.
  3. I haven’t the time
    1. I defy anyone to tell me, honestly, they cannot find 10hrs a week that they now dont waste watching TV, surfing the internet or on Facebook. We all can. How much do you want it?

Going Longer – LEJOG nonstop / Audax / RAAM / Race across Europe (RAE) / Year long TT / Round the world

Here, even more so than the 12-24hr the key asset is mental strength.  Physical condition is important, but less so.  Honestly.  You need to be mentally strong enough to push yourself after 30hrs, it’s raining hard, EVERYTHING hurts, all you want is your bed.  Of course you can stop – but will you ever get this chance again?

From a training sense you have to be able to manage the long hours in the saddle, you have to take the approach I talked about in the 12/24hr training.  You potentially need to layer in some over night and sleep deprived sessions.  These are less physical but more mental training.  The importance of the mental side is demonstrated in my examples below

A good friend of mine, an amazing competitor and current LEJOG record holder Michael Broadwith personified this for me.   In 2017 he announced, very publicly of his intention to beat a near 20 year old record for Lands End to Jon O’Groats (LEJOG). The previous record holder was a true stalwart of the UK scene, Gethin Butler and set an astonishing time of 44hrs. Mike was no novice, being 3 x UK 24hr champion and ridden the 2nd furthest distance ever of 537m.  He knew what he was doing.

Needles to say Mike completed his goal, by just 45mins or so, but he set the record.  In truly atrocious conditions in Scotland where hs team debated pulling him from the attempt.  He was falling behind his schedule, he was exhausted, he had ‘Schermers neck’  – a condition named after a RAMM competitor whose neck muscles totally gave way that the head become like a floppy football and needs manually supporting.  This is where the mental side kicked in.  He had invested (in every sense of the word) so much into this attempt that nothing was going to stop him.  And it didn’t.  It was a truly awesome display of mind over matter.  To demonstrate the strength and mental focus of this guy, just 4 weeks later he competed in the UK National 24hr championships,  clearly not recovered and suffering from 4 hrs in. Yet when absolutely anyone would have forgiven him, and probably thought it sensible he stop, he continued for an amazing bronze medal that day.

In a similar vein Chris ‘Hoppo’ Hopkinson, has completed solo RAAM 4 x.  A true test of mind over matter.  Chris’s last RAAM in 2017 was beset by mechanical and sickness problems almost from day 1.  There was no way Chris would not finish.  He made it to the East Coast through almost solely will power alone

What these anecdotes show is that, of course fitness is key, but the longer you go the more ‘mental’ the game is.  With your competitors, but most importantly yourself.  It’s knowing your internal boundaries and knowing how far to push. The brain is a massively powerful organ, it regulates and it conserves energy for self preservation, if you can push 10% past this, you are in w a whole new league of what is truly, humanly possible

Let’s look at and talk kit and equipment:

  1. BIke, no matter what long distance event you are talking about (*on the road!) you need to be riding a true time trial machine, ideally with disc wheel, deep section front wheel and disc.  The aero dynamic advantages are far out weighed by any weight penalties on specific hilly sections.  On something such as LEJOG , you could switch to specific climbing bike for key hilly sections.  Last year I raced around Lake Taupo in the Maxi category (4x round),  the eventual winner who i rode 90% of the race with, a local ex-pro Roman Van Uden took this strategy, switching to a light road bike on the hills and TT bike on descents and the flat.  If you are riding a route with some particularly awful sections or long climbs, then consider swapping bikes out, maybe a gravel bike if its off road, or a climbing bike for long hills.   Last year i raced the Lake Taupo ‘Maxi’  4 x round the lake.   Pretty quickly myself and Roman Van Uden , a former continental pro rider from New Zealand were off together and we rode virtually all of it together. The laps started with a 40k long gradual climb.  Roman’s strategy was to ride this on the road bike, then change to the TT machine at the top of the hill .  This was a great strategy maximsing the advantages of each machine in the right place.
  2. POSITION IS EVERYTHING
    1. There is currently almost weekly, records falling in shorts distance TT due to (in the main) better aero dynamics,  but these gains carry across to log distance. In spades. Let’s say you aero test and we ‘find and save’ you 20w.  That’s worth 1 min or say half a mile in a 25m TT,  but scale this up to a 12hr, it could be worth 4 miles… 4 miles is huge!!  (*Assuming lower speed in the 12hr race)
    2. Balancing comfort and aerodynamics is key – the best aero position is worthless if you can’t ride it after 45 minutes!
      1. There is balance to be struck between comfort and aero dynamics/  Find that and I guarantee, with the right mental focus, you will do well in long distance racing
  3. I mentioned disc wheels & aero frames above, balancing these with the most robust but least rolling resistance tubeless tyres is also key
  4. Aero kit all the way- what amazes me when I see anyone attempting anything ‘ultra’ in road kit, road helmet, standard wheels is how STUPID they are for not taking every single free speed , wind cheating advantage they can!  So its got to be
    1. Wind cheating aero suit
    2. Aero helmet
    3. Shoe covers
    4. Trip socks

Logistics

This is frankly what scares me!  Managing feed stops for a 12/24hr is hard enough, managing them on a moving point to point such as LEJOG requires awesome coordination.

Ideally bag yourself some support from an expert who has done it before, either racing or crewing. Utilise the support of others for advice, this community is fantastic for the support and guidance you will get if you just ask.

The key here is

  • Attention to detail
  • Plan for every eventuality & then some impossible ones
    • Yes you may well totally destroy 2 bikes – it’s possible – so have a 3rd!
  • Trust your crew – you will literally be putting your life in their hands.  So talk about all scenarios in advance, make sure you are all clear on the ‘what ifs’ and what to do in certain eventualities.
  • Be very clear, beforehand on deal breakers, be it versus schedule, the riders condition, weather or other factors.  If one of these is encountered.  The ride is over. No question

Feeding 

This is critical in all ultra adventures.  You have to know what you can face eating after 6 / 9 / 12/ 24 hours.  The weirdest thing (for me) about long distance racing is the fact you simply get fed up of eating, you don’t want to eat, you can’t face it, you know you need to – how do you square that dilema?

Here are a few important things I have learned along the way

  1. You need a MASSIVE amount of calories – BUT converse to that it’s nothing like what you’d need, hourly, to race a fast 100m TT.  You may be operating at 60-70% maximum, the calorie usage is proportionate. It’s easy to over eat / drink early on
  2. You cannot (in my mind) do it all on sports nutrition gels / bars and drinks.  These are fantastic for immediate energy supplementation, but the progressive build up over multiple hours can cause gastric distress, either in the bowels or waterworks .  I have suffered terrible stomach cramps from too many energy gels / bars and cystitis from the buildup of acidic energy drinks.
  3. Bearing both in mind I am a huge advocate of ‘real food’.  In my successful 24hr race I consumed sandwiches, nuts, pot noodles, pot rice, I sent out for a pizza late at night and a sausage butty early morning.  I mixed it up.  You need to have something to look forward to.  I know come midnight pizza was coming – this was a target! Then 8am my breakfast butty. Little targets, little victories!
  4. PRACTICE your feeding, be sure you can digest what you are planning to eat, be sure you and your helper(s) practice hand up strategy. Think about what is handed up, We work to a plan where what is handed up is easily consumed in 1 or 2 bites, not a whole sandwich that takes 5 miles to eat!

So lets sum all this up.

  1. ANYONE can ride an ultra event
  2. Research / plan and prepare
  3. Be clear on your own mental limitations, how will you deal with the dark times – you will have them believe me!
  4. Practice your feeding strategy – DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE how important this is.  SImply this will make or break your event
  5. Enjoy the process, the planning, the event and the reflection – Its a HUGE achievement!

Hopefully this has proved a useful introductory guide and if you would  love to discuss further and in more detail drop me a line!

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