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How to survive a marathon mountain bike race

By Spencer Powlison


I’ve been racing mountain bikes since I was 12. I’ve seen it all — Tear-jerking leg cramps, catastrophic mechanicals, mid-race bathroom emergencies. Marathon-length races like the Bailey Hundo always seem to have the most carnage. They’re intimidating, unpredictable and hard. That’s why there’s nothing sweeter than the finish line of a 50-miler.

I’m no longer a card-carrying “pro,” but I can beat them all in terms of my decades of experience (except Geoff Kabush). Plus, my years of slugging it out midpack helped me learn a lot of lessons the hard way. Do as I say, not as I do!

Bailey Hundo 2019
Photo: Linda Guerrette

Win in the garage

Even if it’s weeks before your event, you can “win” your race with a little time spent sorting out your bike and gear.

  1. Check your bike for wear. You don’t have to be a mechanic to have an observant eye. Inspect all of the key components for excess wear: drivetrain, brake pads/rotors, and yes, tires (and sealant, if running tubeless).
  2. Figure out the tires and gear you need. Hopefully you have an idea of what to expect in your upcoming race. At minimum, get optimal tires for the terrain, and if you need it, consider something like a CushCore XC tire insert to prevent flats.
  3. Know how to use your gear. At least watch a YouTube video to see how something like a tire plug or CO2 inflator works. Ideally, practice at home so you’re ready if/when something goes sideways.

Flat follies: I was poised for a great finish on a sunny, hot day at the Grand Junction Off-Road on Colorado’s Western Slope. This was my kind of terrain: rocky, technical, undulating, and unforgiving. Then I flatted. I was wise to carry a tire plug tool at Grand Junction, but I was foolish not to know how to use it in an emergency. I ended up scooting and hiking the final five miles to finish. Heed rule #3 above.
Bailey Hundo 2019Photo: Linda Guerrette

Train for eating like you train for riding

It’s intuitive to train your legs, lungs, and heart. But improper fueling and hydration will overshadow any fancy training plan that the world’s best physiologists can dream up.

  1. Put your nutrition plan on paper. You may be able to wing it in a 90-minute XC race, but at the marathon length, you need to plan. Estimate many hours you’ll be riding and break down that time into your fueling cadence. It could be one gel every hour, one every 30 minutes, or even another nutrition product (everyone has different needs). Also, account for the calories in your drink bottles or hydration pack.
  2. Practice that nutrition plan. Go out for a training ride that simulates the race, or even just half of it, if you’re short on time. Follow your nutrition plan to get a feel for it. See if your stomach is getting overloaded by calories or if you’re feeling a little bonky in the final hour. Make adjustments.
  3. Nutrition goes beyond calories. Cramps, salt loss, dehydration. Your body needs more than pure calories. Consider whether race temperatures will be extreme and if you’ve had trouble with heat in the past. Do a bit of homework and experiment in training to find what works for your body. It may take a little time, but the worst you can do is ignore this variable.

Cramp Hill hubris: I’ll give you two guesses as to where I found myself keeled over on the side of the trail, wailing in agony as cramps electrified my inner thighs in the final miles of the Whiskey Off-Road. Yep, it’s right there on the map: Cramp Hill. I knew it was there all along, weeks before the April race, but in my hubris, I didn’t adjust my nutrition accordingly or practice it in training. A year later, I returned with pickle juice in my nutrition arsenal, and rode to the finish cramp-free.Bailey Hundo 2019Photo: Linda Guerrette

Roll with it

Once you tie on a number plate, a lot of variables are beyond your control. A race is bound to deal you a wildcard, you just have to play it as best you can.

  1. Ride your own race. The start of any mountain bike race, even a 100-kilometer marathon like Bailey Hundo is hectic and fast. Put yourself in a good position to stay out of trouble, but don’t get swept up and ride someone else’s pace. Back off if you have to.
  2. Passing is a dance. Credit Epic Rides head honcho Todd Sadow for this kernel of wisdom. Face it, you’re going to be the passer and the passee at some point in a mountain bike race. Be patient, communicate with the other rider, and find the right spot to do the dance. It’s a 50+ mile amateur bike race. Take a moment, be cool, and make it work for both of you.
  3. Crashing happens. So long as you aren’t injured after crashing, take a second to reset. Get back on the bike and pretend like it didn’t happen. It’s easier said than done, but consider this: A crash is over as soon as it happens. If you can compartmentalize the moment and move on, it will just be a funny story to tell at the finish line.

Shit happens: At the risk of oversharing, I had a major bathroom emergency on my hands as I was halfway up the biggest climb in the Leadville 100. Though I had miles before the top of Columbine at 10,300 feet, my innards had reached the peak of what they could handle. So I took care of business, and then I went on to have an awesome race, finishing top-100 in under eight hours.

Stick with it

I did my first marathon mountain bike race at age 14, a junior beginner in the Vermont 50-miler in Brownsville. Back in 1998, I was piloting a steel Specialized Rockhopper with cantilever brakes, 26” tubed tires, some sort of terrible elastomer-sprung RockShox fork, and a finicky triple-chainring drivetrain. I doubt I’d ever seen an energy gel at that point, let alone consumed one. But I didn’t know any better, and I had a great time.

I kept coming back to the Vermont 50 year after year. I gained experience, speed, and smarts. Sure, I also hit a growth spurt, which I know won’t likely apply to you, but the point is that it takes time to get good at mountain bike racing. If you enjoy it, stick with it.

When you put in the time and learn from your mistakes, it pays off. Five years after my first Vermont 50, I won the race overall in 2002. Whether you actually cross the line first someday, or just achieve a personal best, I can assure you that the winning feeling is worth the effort and agony that is inevitable along the way.Spencer Vermont 50
Picnic tables were not a technical feature on the Vermont 50 course, but still all that messing around on a bike payed off for me in the long run.

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