I'm hoping to be "sorta fast" this year. Photo: Linda Guerrette
SBT GRVL is just days away, and my co-worker, Adam Vadeboncoeur, and I have our bikes dialed and our gear picked out. Now it’s time to focus on all the other important details. This year, both of us are hoping to finish the full 142-mile Black course in 8 hours or less.
Adam has a really good chance of succeeding because he’s an elite ultra-distance runner. I, on the other hand, am pretty unspectacular. I’m an amateur racer in my mid-30s. I’m starting to develop a bit of a dad bod. And I never have enough time to train. My finish time last year was 8:58:13, which I’m very proud of. But I’ll have to shave an hour off my time to hit my goal, which is a lot to ask. To improve my odds, I need a solid race plan.
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Before I Leave for Steamboat
Photo: Linda Guerrette
I’m headed out to Steamboat Springs, Colorado early Friday morning (August 18) so I need everything ready for the weekend the night before. Here’s what I’m tackling the night before:
- Wash the bike
- Clean and lube the drivetrain
- Check/tune shifting
- Do a bolt check
- Top-off tire sealant
- Check/stock my flat kits
- Charge my head unit & AXS batteries
- Pack nutrition and hydration
- Pack (3) riding kits
This is all basic stuff I do before any race. My bike is solid, and I’m not making any major changes right before the race. I just need to ensure it’s in perfect running order.
My SBT GRVL Lodging: Camping vs. Hotels/Airbnbs
In previous editions of SBT GRVL, I’ve camped in my car. There are a ton of great camping spots in and around the Steamboat Springs area, and if you reserve a spot at SBT VLLG, it’s actually super convenient. SBT VLLG is located on Howelsen Hill, which is right next to the main drag and the start/finish line.
Unfortunately, I also suffered from hip and lower back issues last year that caused a lot of discomfort from miles 80-110. I lost a lot of time as a result. While there were many factors that contributed to this problem — bike fit being one — I also didn’t sleep very comfortably the night before. I don’t camp often and my sleeping setup is very barebones and janky.
Plenty of riders can camp and feel fresh the next day, but I’m not one of them. I’m way too soft. So this time, I spent more money and got an actual room in a hotel. Having an actual bed, my own bathroom, and air conditioning could be the marginal gain I need to hit my goal time.
My SBT GRVL Recon Plan
It's always a good idea to scope out the terrain. Photo: Linda Guerrette
I don’t do openers before a race, but I like getting a decent (but easy) ride the day before the race to get some load in my legs so I don’t show up at the start line totally flat.
I usually like to ride the opening 10-20 miles because this is where riders will experience the biggest groups and the most chaos. Having the opening fresh in your mind can help reduce stress and help you make good decisions during the race. But I’ll do the opposite for SBT GRVL and ride the last 20 miles (in reverse) before doubling back.
Photo: Linda Guerrette
I’m doing this so I have a chance to go down the final descent for Black and Blue course riders — Cow Creek. It is the roughest descent on the course, and there are lots of rocks, ruts, and as the name suggests, cows. It’s possible to flat, take a bad line, or even crash in this section, especially when you’re exhausted after a long day of racing. I think it’s worth checking out if you’re trying to set a PR or hit a time goal. It’s also close to town, so it’s easy to reach.
If you’re comfortable on Cow Creek, the rest of the course will be a piece of cake. If I’m with a group of riders entering this descent, I’m attacking (if I have the legs, lol). Previewing it the day before should hopefully give me a bit of an edge.
I’ll also use this time to finalize my tire pressure choice and hopefully sort out any niggling issues with my bike or gear. I run 27/29 PSI here on the Front Range, but I might want to change it for the roads at SBT GRVL.
My Favorite Steamboat Restaurants and Pre-Race Foods
Bruch at Yampa Valley Kitchen.
Of course, I’m planning to eat A LOT of carbs in the days before the race, mostly cereal, pasta, and rice. There’s a Safeway in town so I don’t actually need to bring that much food with me since it carries everything the Safeway by my house does.
A trick I’ve picked up over the years is to "pre-hydrate." I plan to start doing this during the drive up to Steamboat by regularly drinking water and electrolyte mix throughout the day. It will set me up well for Sunday morning so I won’t have to smash water right after waking up and then visit the bathroom multiple times before the start.
The day before the race, I plan to hit a couple of my favorite restaurants in town. I’ll do brunch at Yampa Valley Kitchen. Then, in the evening I’ll go to Salt & Lime to eat tacos. It’s what I did the previous two years I raced SBT GRVL. I like the vibe of these restaurants and the food is great, so I’m going to stick to it. Having a ritual and taking time to relax and enjoy myself the day before will hopefully reduce my pre-race nerves (more on that in a bit).
Rice, eggs, bacon, chives. My go-to race breakfast.
The morning of the race, I’ll wake up at 4:30 AM and have some pre-prepared rice and eggs with bacon with plenty of coffee. I’ve been on the rice and egg bandwagon ever since I spoke to Dr. Allen Lim from Skratch Labs about Tour de France nutrition. I can smash almost 1,000 calories right after waking up without any negative effects on my gut.
The start for the Black course is at 6:30 AM, so after I eat and get caffeinated, I’ll leave my room around 5:30. This will give me time to ride my bike across town and get in line for the bathroom (there will be a line, guaranteed).
Dealing With Pre-Race Nerves
SBT offers Saturday group yoga which could help relax you. Photo: Linda Guerrette
Do you feel nervous before races? I often get so nervous at the start line, I feel like I’m on the verge of a panic attack. The good thing is, once I start, it usually melts away and I can live in the present of the race. But how do I manage my nerves leading up to the start? I’ve been freaking out before races for years and I’ve picked up a few habits that help:
- Breathing: I use the 4-7-8 breathing technique A LOT. It calms me down instantly. You’ll catch me doing this the night before, the morning of, and definitely on the start line. It doesn’t even have to be that rigid. Slowly breathe in deep. Hold. Exhale fully. Hold. Repeat. It does wonders.
- Music: I have a playlist full of upbeat but slow music that I listen to before all of my races. There are songs that have been on it for years. I’ll be listening as I get ready in the morning and I do my breathing exercises since it helps me enter a parasympathetic state.
- Approach with curiosity: I picked this up after listening to Amber Pierce on the TrainerRoad Podcast. It’s a really basic mindset shift. Instead of zeroing in on results or what could go wrong, I consciously tell myself in the morning that the race is a learning experience. It's an opportunity to discover new things about myself and the sport. I chose to do this, and I’m super lucky to be able to experience it. A lot of people don’t get this chance. A race is only a failure if you learn nothing from it.
- Focus on process goals (instead of outcome goals): This is another Amber Pierce nugget. I have an ambitious goal, but in the lead-up to and during the race itself, it's better to consciously focus more on the small elements fully in my control that can lead to success — servicing my bike, hydrating, sleeping, eating every 30 minutes, or sticking to my pacing plan (see below). These are things I can achieve regardless of the end result, and staying focused on this keeps the nerves at bay.
My SBT GRVL Pacing & Nutrition Plan
SBT GRVL has amazing aid stations, but you might have to skip some if you're racing for time. Photo: Dane Cronin
My pacing plan for the race is extremely simple:
- Ride easy(ish) in the first 90 miles
- Try not to chase (too much)
- Skip aid most stations
The last two times I've raced SBT GRVL, my biggest mistake was burning matches by chasing other riders early in the race. The terrain is rolling, and it’s very easy to hammer and chase up every little climb. This uses up a lot of energy. Then, when the course got really hard around mile 95, I would feel absolutely miserable.
This year, my goal is to ride my own race. Of course, for a competitive person, “ride your own race” is easier said than done. That’s why I have a power meter on my bike. This will make it a lot easier to stick to my plan, which is to ride between 180-250 watts throughout the entire race.
Adam actually said something similar regarding his pacing plan. “I’m going to pace much more conservatively through the middle 50 miles than I did last year,” he said. “Hopefully I feel a little better in the last 30!”
Of course, sticking to fast groups helps you go faster. But if it takes more than 30 seconds at 350-400 watts to latch onto a group, or I’m being forced to ride in the high-200s for long periods of time, then I’ll chill out and let that group go. Hopefully, this restraint leads to a much faster overall time.
Another strategy both Adam and I will be using is skipping aid stations. SBT GRVL has abundant aid stations, which are fantastic if you’re just out to experience the race and have a good time. But if you’re chasing a PR or an ambitious time goal, stopping at aid stations will cost precious minutes. If all goes to plan, Adam and I will only stop once at the aid station at mile 95.
Our nutrition and hydration strategy will be key to achieving this. We’ll both be eating gels and other solid food every 30-45 minutes to stay fueled, and we’ll also be wearing hydration packs and carrying large bottles on our bikes filled with carb mix. We’re using Skratch Superfuel, which I used at Unbound Gravel last year and Adam used to win multiple ultra-marathons earlier this spring. You do need to train your gut to handle it though.
Yes, we’ll be carrying an extra 7-10 pounds on our bikes with all that water and food, but the time savings from skipping aid stations should be worth it.
What If We Fail?
I was absolutely wrecked after last year. Will this year be the same?
As we learned at Unbound Gravel this year, failure is always a possibility. I think Adam will have no problem coming in under 8 hours. He’s in amazing shape and has been on a tear this year winning multiple ultra-distance running races. He even got selected to represent the US at the 50k World Championships.
I’m in essentially the same shape I was in last year, so improving my finish time is going to come down to better planning, better pacing, and better luck. My 8-hour time goal is very ambitious. If I don’t make it, I won’t be too sad, as long as I tried my hardest and did everything in my power to succeed. Hopefully, this plan works, and I at least set a PR. See you at the finish!
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