by Richard Kolkovich
The first race of my NUE season was the Big Frog 65 this past Saturday, just West of Ducktown, TN. This is a retro of how the race went, training/prep included.
I set a few goals going into the race:
- Finish (pretty obvious, but it’s there anyway)
- No injuries (again, pretty obvious)
- No stopping (no use of aid stations - fully self-supported in an attempt to reduce time not rolling)
- 8 hours or less total time. Stretch goal: 7 hours or less. This goal was set based on my training pace(s)
- No bonking! (kinda goes up there with ‘Finish’)
- Have fun!
- Top 50% of the field
Training consists not only of preparing the body but also preparing your nutrition and hydration plan, race strategy, and equipment. I did not spend too much time on my equipment, other than keeping my bike properly maintained. I did, however, purchase a new backpack for the season as well as a set of Julbo Aerolite glasses; both have been quite useful purchases.
At the beginning of February, I started a 12 week training plan designed for a first-time 100k MTB rider from LW Coaching. I completed a 50mi race last year, but I was not properly prepared or trained for that, and this race was coming out of the off-season, so I decided it would be worth my while to buy a training plan to follow.
Balancing MTB training in winter with skiing is very difficult. If I can ride, I am probably somewhere I can’t ski. If I’m skiing, I’m probably not able to ride. I spent a good bit of time riding indoors on trainers to maximize my ski season. Takeaway for next season: don’t sign up for such an early race. :)
I generally adhered to the plan about 65% of the time, sometimes with modifications to accomodate skiing or other activities.
I determined early on that I wanted to ride a fully self-supported race: no stopping at the aid stations. This means that I would start the day with 100% of my nutrition and hydration needs on my back. I formed this opinion and strategy in a vacuum, and in hindsight, it was pretty idiotic (more on that later).
Eating solid food from the back of a mountain bike is difficult, at best, so I decided it would be best to use liquid calories. I did not want a typical sugar-laden fuel, as my diet is more ketogenic / Paleo (more on this later, too). So, I adapted a protein shake recipe I have made for some time and used that:
- 1 can full fat coconut milk
- 36 grams, Collagen Hydrolysate
- 3 scoop, Whey Protein Powder
- 1 scoops, BCAA 5000 Powder
- 1 medium bananas, raw
- water to taste for thickness
This results in a pretty tasty and calorie-packed shake! For the race, I used coffee to dilute it instead of water - even more tasty!
To switch it up a bit, I cut up some RX Bars into sixths (which is about a bite), put them in a bag, and taped the bag to my top tube.
My strategy to ensure I consumed enough calories and water was to suck from a hose every 10 minutes. Even numbers == eat, odd numbers == drink. This is not to say that I would NOT sip my water if I were thirsty at, say 1:21, but it was to act more like a failsafe to ensure I was not going to bonk. Because once you bonk, it’s too late…
In addition to this dual-bladder, dual-hose strategy, I had my RX Bar Bites for the top of every hour, and I packed in a few Hammer Gels for the later stages of the race…for an extra boost and backup in case of an oncoming bonk.
Results and Retrospective
So? How did I do? I’m happy to say that I accomplished every single one of my goals, except for the last one. I finished in 6:40, putting me 75/108 in the Open Male category (125/195 overall). I’m pretty pleased with this performance, as I’m much faster than I thought I would be.
But there’s always room for improvement. And I am definitely not happy with a lot of things, regardless of results.
The secret to success is to learn from your past efforts, be they successes, failures, or somewhere in-between. I’d rank this effort as “somewhere in-between”, but I still have a lot of takeaways, as this is my first race of the season and my second race ever.
Water and weight
OK, so this whole “no stopping” idea? Completely bonkers. Idiotic, even. I was SORELY mistaken about how much time this would save me vs. stopping at the feed zones. First off, let’s calculate how much weight I’m carrying:
- Hydration pack: 3L/100oz ~= 6.52lbs
- Shake pack: 2.5L/85oz ~= 5.54lbs (using density of water here because it’s close enough)
- backpack weight: 2.2lbs
- Total extra weight carried: 14.26lbs
Whew. That’s almost an extra 15lbs! Now, I didn’t count the weight of the bladders themselves in that calculation, as switching to bottles would be roughly equivalent. Now, how much water would I actually need to carry on my person to avoid dehydration? That depends on a lot of factors, such as pre-race hydration level, exertion level, and outside temperature. For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s between 16-24oz/hr, as this was my assumption when coming up with my original plan. Worst, case, that’s 24oz/hr or 1.56lbs for every unsupported hour.
Now, for the Big Frog, the aid stations were at miles 21, 31.5, 46, and 55. The ONLY instance where I would be riding for more than an hour, give or take, without water available would be the first 21 miles. So it’s safe to say that I could carry a single bottle and stop 4x OR carry 2 bottles and stop 2x.
Since I’m talking efficiency here, I would probably ride 2 bottles and only stop twice. That means I am carrying, at most, 3.02lbs of water. This means that with my original “strategy”, I was carrying 11.24lbs more than I needed. What does that mean for my times? According to this analysis, that’s an extra 1:20 for every kg carried on a 100km course. Or, in my case, 6.3 minutes.
Now, if we take into consideration that the test linked above was on a touring bike on pavement AND had about 75% of the climbing of my route, we can SWAG the typical 2x multiplier for MTB efforts over road bike efforts, putting us at an extra 12 minutes. Does that 12 minutes put me on the podium? Nowhere close; we’re talking 2-3% here. And I’ll have to stop at aid stations to refill, further eating into that “savings”. BUT my initial theory is debunked: not stopping will not save me time.
If I also take into consideration the intangibles of riding without a pack, I may indeed see more savings than just the paltry 12 minutes. When I ride packless, I feel MUCH better on the bike - my weight is easier to throw around, my low back tends to do better on the longer distances, and my downhill speeds are better due to my increased confidence. What will that mean in reality? I don’t yet know, but I’m working on finding out.
Nutrition and long-term considerations
Careful readers may be thinking, “What about your nutrition?! You just eliminated that weight but didn’t put it back!”. This is true, and it dovetails nicely with my long-term goals discussion. Remember way back toward the top of this post when you weren’t so bored, and I mentioned my diet being keto / paleo? Yeah…this is where I dive back into that…
Prior to beginning my training, I was basically ketogenic. I wasn’t terribly strict about this, but my weekdays generally looked like:
- Bulletproof Coffee first thing in the morning
- Salad w/ some protein (typically, leftover salmon or grass-fed beef) for lunch around 13:00-14:00
- Protein and veggies for dinner, moderately frequently with white rice or sweet potates
The Bulletproof intermittent fasting has been part of my routine for over four years now. I’d shake this up on the weekends, indulging in Actual Breakfast. And, as I have stated, I wasn’t always strict about this diet, but it was generally adhered to. And I felt GREAT on it. My mind is crisp and clear in the mornings while I am (assumed) in ketosis. My energy was steady throughout the day, and my body moved and worked very well.
I would amend this diet with either a protein shake (similar to the one describe above) or grass-fed whole milk as pre- (typically the shake) or post- (typically the milk) workout additions.
But as I began training for racing this season, I began to lose my way. My first step was toward a more Paleo macro balance (high protein, moderate fat, low carb); I wanted to ensure I was getting enough protein to build muscle mass, after all. I dropped my BPC in favor of regular coffee and a bigger, earlier lunch. Still fasting in the mornings, but I pulled my lunch back to noon or 11:00 and bumped up the caloric content. I made my “lunch” a mid-afternoon snack, so I could still enjoy the benefits of intermittent fasting while consuming more protein and keeping a paleo macro balance.
And this is where I got my fuel requirements (my target being 300 C/hr while on the bike), ultimately landing on my shake as being a perfect way to do this. Well, my first long ride where I tested this theory resulted in me not sucking enough fuel from my fuel bladder. I felt the bonk coming, and I resorted to my backup: Hammer Gel.
I made the call at this point that I would carry Gels for backup and a boost in the later stages of the race, replacing my RX Bar Bite with a Gel starting at hour 4. How slippery the slope becomes…
After I had this strategy in place, I began to consider the long-term effects of my change in diet. Namely, the re-introduction of sugar in significant quantities to my body. I went back to my baseline and thought, “Could I do this while ketogenic? What would my fueling strategy look like? Would I need to fuel if I’m burning my own body fat?” I don’t want to sacrifice my long-term wellbeing for short-term gains.
And so I found people like Ben Greenfield and Peter Attia (and a bonus: egg boxing]). If these guys are rocking Spartan Beasts and Ironmans (Ironmen?) on a ketogenic diet, I can be an endurance mountain biker on a ketogenic diet. By this point, though, it was too close to the Big Frog to change anything, so I went with what I knew and practiced.
This is not a health or science blog, per se, so I will not attempt to dive into the details of this phenomenon here, as there are much better resources on the subject (see Ben and Peter’s websites for starters). Suffice it to say, our bodies are built to burn fat for energy. In fact, our bodies PREFER to burn fat for energy. The state of ketosis is one where your body is burning ketones (or, more accurately, ketone bodies) for energy. These bodies come from fatty acids in your adipose (aka fat) tissue (or from your digestive tract if you have eaten).
Some key points in case you don’t care to deep dive on the subject of ketosis:
- the body can store roughly 1800-2400 calories in glycogen (which is converted to glucose and used for fuel)
- a pound of body fat stores roughly 3500 calories
Simple math, right? A single pound of fat can fuel you beyond depleting 100% of your glycogen stores. On top of the fact that only about 400 calories’ worth of that glycogen is useful to most of your body, as the liver is the only organ that can export glycogen. The rest is muscle glycogen which can be used only by the muscles storing it.
All of this to say that a body, when properly detoxified from the SAD (Standard American Diet), can be a fat-burning machine, basically eliminating the need to fuel the body constantly during endurance exertion.
This is just scratching the surface of ketosis and endurance exercise, so please don’t think it’s just that simple. De-SAD-ifying the body (or making the body happy) can take time. Luckily, I feel pretty confident that my body is well-adapted to burn fat based on my previous four years of a largely ketogenic diet.
So where does this leave me when it comes to fueling on the bike? Well, I plan to follow a more-strict ketogenic diet (i.e. - 80%+ of my calories from fat, 10-15% from protein, 5-10% from good carbs) and begin testing my limits with shorter (2-3 hour) rides with zero fuel.
For on-bike nutrition during a race, however, I plan to introduce a fat-based shot consisting of MCT oil, amino acids, and some Super Starch. This will keep easily-burnable fatty acids (MCTs) in the bloodstream, and should assist in maintaining ketosis. Additionally, mobile protiens will allow gluconeogenesis without (ideally) destroying the muscle tissue I’m working so hard to build. This process allows the body to produce glucose from proteins, assuming glycogen stores run low or out. Even in ketosis, glucose is used, so I’ll play it safe and give my body protein.
For this concoction, I’ll be using a small squeeze flask which will easily fit in the back of my jersey. I’m also going to evaluate Justin’s nut butter packets (specifically, the almond butters) for cheaper options on training rides and to change it up during races.
So, what are my action items? What do I do between now and my next race? Well, I have a month before the Mohican 100k in Loudonville, OH, so I plan to resume my training while reverting to a ketogenic diet, testing my limits without fuel as well as testing my new fueling plan.
I’m also going to ensure I don’t skimp on the cross training, as I feel like I’ve been neglecting that too much during the past few months. This means more HIIT and Yoga interspersed with my rides. This is practical in the short term (core strength is great for the bike), but it is also a long-term wellness play.
To sum up my goals for the next race:
- finish without injury or bonk
- ride without a pack
- finish in 6 hours or less
- Have fun!
- Top 50% of the field
To achieve some of those goals, I’ve ordered some new kit for my bike / rides to enable storage of tools and the like on just my frame. My first real ride after the race was the first with no pack, and I’m already making adjustments. How will I fare? Can I shave off 40 minutes of time through dropping the pack and training more? We’ll see in a month…