The story has been updated to correct that the average person can process 1.5 liters of water per hour.
Four hours into the six-hour race I signed up for, my toes froze. And as my feet slowly went numb, so did my brain.
That’s the challenge of long-distance solo cycling, I’ve realized. It’s a lonely, mind-chilling business.
I’ve pedaled 100 miles or more on a bike on several occasions, but always as part of group rides that involve stopping for barbecue or milkshakes and socializing with other cyclists along the way.
Now ultra-endurance cyclist Andrew Willis, who heads up Holland Racing, is trying to talk me into a different beast altogether. He thinks I can pedal 200 miles straight at the RAAM Texas Challenge on March 25, a feat that would require starting before dawn and riding into the night, without a crowd of friends to take my mind off the task at hand.
First things first. I’m tempted but not yet committed to this race. My travel schedule leaves little time for long training rides, and the thought of riding for so long makes my butt tingle.
That said, two Austin experts besides Willis — cycling coach Brant Speed and sports nutritionist Shane Traughber — tell me that I could hop on my bike tomorrow and finish the event, which winds its way from Marble Falls to Kerrville and back. That, of course, would hurt a lot, so I’ve been hitting training sessions at Pedal Hard Training Center, where Speed works, and formulating a nutrition plan with Traughber’s help, just in case.
It’s also why I found myself making 6-mile loops around a Hill Country park recently, at the Pace Bend 6-12-24 bike race, in which cyclists logged as many laps as they could in six, 12 or 24 hours.
Willis, who last summer pedaled from California to Colorado, won the 24-hour category with more than 430 miles. I called it a day after four hours and nearly 60 miles, when my toes turned into Popsicles and the lure of a hot bath and a cup of hot tea overcame my competitive spirit.
Still, I’ve learned a lot about what it would take a mere mortal to conquer a 200-miler.
First off, it’s about hydration, seat time and mental focus.
Conditioning is important too, of course, but I already swim five days a week and bike to work most days. That means my cardiovascular system can handle the job, according to Speed, the cycling coach.
Still, I don’t want to “burn that engine hot all the time,” as he says, so in order to comfortably finish the race I’d have to cut down on swim practice, attend high-interval training sessions at Pedal Hard once a week and follow his directives on getting in two additional quality rides each week.
“And it would behoove you to get into a state of uncomfortableness,” he said.
The good news, according to both Willis and Speed, is that to do a 200-mile race that might take me 15 or 16 hours doesn’t mean I have to build all the way up to that time or distance. Speed says if I get in a few back-to-back four- or five-hour rides between now and then, along with lots of regular cycling, I can do it.
At Pedal Hard on a recent morning, I spun away while gazing at a video screen that showed me biking through what looked like Arizona. Under Speed’s tutelage, I paid attention to speed, watts and RPMs while I followed a virtual course populated by saguaro cactuses and flat-topped mesas that never got any closer. He showed me how to adjust my seat position so I’m not bracing my body weight on my arms and taught me to increase RPMs before shifting into a higher gear.
Another day I sat down with Traughber, who told me I’m capable of the 200-mile challenge as long as I take it slow. I’m just trying to finish, so there’s no reason to blow out my quads trying to go fast.
“Comfort is king,” he said. “It’s how comfortable can you be for 200 miles?”
That means I need a proper bike fit that puts me in a more upright position. I also need compression socks, some good butt lube and clothing to minimize friction, plus over-the-counter painkillers to help with sit-bone pain, someone to massage my feet and legs when muscle cramps kick in (and they will) and a routine that includes standing up out of the saddle every 15 minutes and periodically stretching my calves and legs.
Otherwise it’s all about staying hydrated (that’s key), keeping my heart rate low and enjoying the view.
Even without any training, I’ll be able to cover the first 50 miles fine. I’ll start tiring after that, and at 100 miles I’ll reach a mental breaking point. Things will hurt and my technique will fall apart. At 150 miles I’ll want to quit.
“The last 50 miles are all mental,” he said.
So what about food and fluids?
The average person can process 1.5 liters per hour, but it varies. The best way to figure out how much you need is by calculating how much you sweat in different conditions. (Check out Traughber’s online calculator at traughbernutrition.com/forms/hydration-calculator.) Then follow the ABD mantra — Always Be Drinking.
As for food, eat early and eat often — as in every 30 minutes.
“Remember, you’re not eating for where you are now, it’s for an hour and a half to two hours in the future,” Traughber said.
Low fiber and high carbohydrate works well, as do high-water-content foods like homemade rice cakes filled with tasty add-ins like bacon, sausage or apples. They’re less likely to trigger an upset stomach or gas than gels, which should be consumed with lots of water. I’m going to get a copy of “Feed Zone Portables” to figure out how to make them. Ripe bananas (less fiber), watermelon and soup work well, as do potato chips when you tire of mushy food.
“Our bodies are amazing things,” Traughber said. “There is no doubt in my mind you can do it. It’s the slowest, most wonderful road trip you’re ever going to do.”
I’m trying to believe that’s true, but now I’ve got to decide how badly I want to make that trip.
The Texas RAAM Challenge is set for March 25, starting at Johnson Park in Marble Falls. Cyclists race 200 or 400 miles, either solo or as part of relay teams. For more information, go to texas.raamchallenge.com.