Mile 57. I’m five hours into the High Cascades 100 mountain bike race and five miles up its longest climb. My stomach grumbles. Twists. I’ve heard that if things go wrong with the gut, it’s now.
NOT TODAY. While spinning uphill, I force down a Picky Bar and ShotBlocks, then chug electrolyte water.
My stomach stabilizes. I push on. At the top of the climb, I hit Farewell trail, a 3.5 mile descent that I grin through.
It’s game time.
WHY Would Anyone Ride a Mountain Bike 100 Miles?
Hoooold up. Surely one of you is thinking the above. Friends’ responses ranged from, “Wow, I could never do that” to “that sounds like my private hell” to “that’s on my bucket list.” To each their own!
For perspective on difficulty, High Cascades is 70 miles of singletrack, 14 miles of road (to/from the trailheads to break up the pack), and the rest on fire roads. Riders climb (and descend, wheee!) ~10,000 feet of elevation on the extensive trail system west of Bend, Oregon in the shadow of Mt. Bachelor.
Here’s the map of the entire race course if you’re interested! Mike at Mudslinger Events put on a well-organized, awesome event.
A Dirty Century, as they’re called, is hard, FAR harder than 100 miles on a road bike. So much singletrack requires focus and a different kind of stamina – upper body, mental, plus legs. It’s intense, but as my buddy Aaron said, “For endurance competitions, it ain’t even fun until somebody quits.”
My goal wasn’t the joy of a day ride or the camaraderie of a group road ride. I raced High Cascades as a physical test, an endurance push past anything I’d done before. It took dedicated training, days where I didn’t want to ride, a shelving of other goals. I didn’t need a reason or prize money. Personal satisfaction was enough.
How did it go? It was radtastic! (It’s a word. Look it up.) The race environment was stimulating, my competition was friendly, and my overall experience was positive. Yes, I worked hard. Yup, there was dust and it hit 90 degrees. All part of the challenge!
Results: I finished in 9 hrs 17 min, handily beating my 10 hour goal and good for 64th out of ~400 people. I only stopped for ~2 minutes total at the aid stations and my body felt solid the entire time. Ok, ok, I could have used more chamois butter to ease the chafing from mile 70 on…
I finished with energy to spare and think I could have gone below 9 hours. Still, for my first-ever mountain bike race, I’m stoked with the results! Check out the ride details here on Strava.
Good Friends, Sage Advice
Let’s be clear: I didn’t race to stand on a podium. High Cascades is a popular race and attracts pro racers and badasses with sustained power output that makes my quads shiver in fear. For me, racing was simply a personal challenge.
My buddy Joe, a seasoned 24 hour MTB racer, gave me two pieces of advice for my first endurance race. 1) Don’t stop and 2) Ride to finish, not for a time. Competitive numbers guy that I am, I wanted to shoot for a time – 10 hours or bust! – and so advice like Joe’s was helpful.
My friend Julie, a fitness coach and endurance racer, shared a mantra that I adopted: “slow on the uphill, steady on the flats, free speed on the downhill.” For such a long ride, hard efforts early on can torch chances of success later. I stuck to Julie’s advice and am glad I did. Given the energy I had left at the end, next time I can toe the line a bit harder.
Since I’m a good descender on a mountain bike, I made up time ripping downhill. That said, High Cascades is more of a cross-country race, so the people who do well are stronger climbers than descenders. It’s no enduro race!
Snippets From Race Day
Some pros, like the famous boxer Floyd Mayweather, are relaxed before fights. As he’s said, ‘I’ve done everything I’m going to do. Nothing I do in the next little bit is going to change anything, so ain’t no use getting worried about it.”
I knew I was ready, but I didn’t feel quite so laid back. Thanks to jangled nerves, I only slept a few hours the night before. (Our cat Oliver contributed, yowling all night because he gets worried when we appear to be packing for a trip.) Luckily, the training was done and only pedaling my bike remained.
Breakfast at 4 am: I stuck with tried and true foods my stomach knew well. Green tea, a giant bowl of quinoa with fruit and nuts, plus a smoothie.
Starting line at 5:30 am: 400 athletes pent up and raring to go as the sun creeps over the horizon. The gun goes off and we surge off in a giant peloton on the road toward Mt. Bachelor. It’s 9 miles of road to split the group before we hit dirt, a necessity to avoid a terrible bottleneck at the start. People chat with buddies, vie for position.
Mile 9: The pack splinters as we hit the first fire road, the uphill part of Tyler’s Traverse. It’s 6.5 miles to the top and the dust clouds billow and swirl. Some racers (myself included) use a buff or bandanna to curb the dust. I’ll still feel a pinch in my lungs for a few days after the race. The hardest part on this climb is letting people pass when I know I can go harder…pace, Dakota, pace!
Mile 17: The first real downhill on Tiddlywinks, a rad jump trail. I tail a couple XC riders on their hardtail bikes, then bust a move on a jump line and pass them, grinning away. Riding bikes sure is fun…but are we really only 20% done?!
Mile 24: first aid station. Nice to see Chelsea cheering away! I zoom right past as planned. Legs are feeling good!
Mile 40: I share the suffering of a 3-mile steep, sandy fire road climb with a few other riders, then zip into the first aid station. Chelsea! Smiling friends! They pit stop me in 1 minute flat, NASCAR style, placing on a ice pack on my neck, stuffing new bars in my jersey, swapping water bottles and my hydration pack and pouring ice water on my arms to help cool me off. I stuff my face with homemade rice bars and hit the trail.
Mile 52: Well THAT was a great 12 miles! Zippy singletrack, one of my favorite descents in Bend (Upper Whoops), and I passed about 15 people, including a single-speed racer looking dapper in cargo shorts and a plaid shirt. (Yes, people ride 100 miles on a single speed.) Now the hard work begins/continues with an eight-mile climb up Mrazek. Not much talking happening between racers as temps head toward 90 and the climb steepens.
Mile 60: Farewell to the climbing…for a few miles, followed by a steep, rooty effort up South Fork all the way back over to the other side. My legs and energy levels are staying high and I’m starting to turn it on and pass people.
Mile 75: 7 hours in, I hit Aid Station #2 after a 3-mile long, FAST sandy fire road descent. Chelsea hands me a refreshed hydration pack and a few more bars to finish the race. Ice water never tasted so good.
Miles 75-100: I start cranking harder, feeling good and knowing I’ll finish. No leg cramps, no stomach troubles! I’ve ridden these trails dozens of time and I’m still smiling, even after over 7 hours on my bike. I see a couple people hurting and taking a rest by the side of the trail and I’m thankful to have stayed out of the pain cave all day.
The Finish: The last five miles are flat on pavement. I tuck and crank hard, wind whistling as I sail along. There’s a final singletrack section at the finish line and I hit a jump, a few twisty turns, and then sprint for the finish with Chelsea rooting me on.
I’m DONE. I hug Chelsea. My friend Tucker claps me on the back so hard I almost fall over. I feel good…and then it hits me. I’m tired. It’s hot. I need to sit down in a cold bathtub and not move my legs. Get this boy home!
Aftermath, a.k.a. Did I Hacksaw My Bike to Death
My bikes are all still intact! I still like mountain biking (strangely?) and the race didn’t take TOO much out of me. In fact, the next day I spun around the neighborhood and felt great! (My chafed undercarriage, on the other hand, was scorched.) All the training paid off, I guess.
ALL THE DETAILS: Training, Gear, and Fueling
Interested in details and/or looking to race 100 miles? Read on below for allll the dorky talk about my training, the gear I used, and what I ate/drank during the race.
Training for a 100 Mile Mountain Bike Race
Similar to marathon training, most people don’t ride a full 100 miles straight preparing for the race. In fact, my longest ride was only 7 hours, and my maximum distance was only 61 miles.
I focused more on volume, i.e. pedaling pedaling pedaling! Consecutive longer days (3+ hours) were the most important, since nothing emulates tired legs in a race like tired legs in a training ride. I’d crank out a 50 mile ride on Tuesday, then wake up the next day and do the last thing I wanted to do: go ride my bike a few hours.
To make sure my body could handle the physical duress of a long mtb race, I focused on mountain biking and didn’t touch a road bike the entire time. For my next longer XC race, I’ll likely add a day of harder tempo/threshold road riding efforts to focus on increasing my power so I can crank harder uphill.
My destroyer-endurance-racer friend Paul’s advice was to take rest days. Actual, sanctified days off – no going for a run or climbing super hard. This felt strange, as resting is NOT my natural state. After a big block of rides, I’d sometimes take even two days – with nothing more than a spin or walk around town – to let myself fully recuperate. My rock climbing took a hit, but it’s already coming back fast.
So how many hours/miles did I ride per week? Well, with all the snow this winter in Bend, I skied and rock climbed and didn’t touch my bike for months! Skate and backcountry skiing kept me fit, of course, but I wasn’t cranking on a trainer like some guys who roasted the trails at High Cascades.
As the snow (finally) melted in late April after a huge snow year, I started riding frequently and started logging consistent 10+ hour training weeks. Some people don’t do any hard efforts in their endurance training, but I love going fast and so intervals and all-out efforts were part of the package to keep me entertained. Overall, I find it amazing that two big months of riding prepped me for such an intense race.
That’s enough training. Ride your bike a lot and you can totally ride 100 miles! If you’re a data geek, check out all the stats on Strava.
Let’s talk about gear!
Gear for Race Day
Biking, while more complicated than running, is still basic. My gear list for High Cascades was straight-forward:
Full-suspension 29er bike: Santa Cruz Tallboy CC. Set up with 120mm front suspension, 110mm rear, this bike is the perfect fast uphill, fast downhill bike. New to me in May, I love it! My poor Ibis HD3 sits sad and lonely in the garage…
Shoes – Specialized 2FO Cliplites. I love the boa clasps on these for easily changing tension on the fly (literally while biking), not to mention they’re comfortable and grip rocks like crazy when needed. Warning: they are sized small and I wound up going to an 11.5 from my usual 10.5
Two 10L hydration packs – at aid stations, Chelsea and friends traded me an empty hydration pack for a full one, which made transitions fast and seamless.
Repair gear – last-minute, I bought a Salsa top-tube pack that wound up carrying a spare tube, CO2 canister, and all other repair tools for the race. This kept the weight off my back and removed the need to move stuff between packs (with the exception of my bike pump).
Clothing: Jersey, spandex shorts, socks, sun sleeves (my fav from bike touring) and gloves. RECOMMENDATION from experienced friends: make sure your gear is comfortable and you’ve used it all for many hours prior to a race. A weird seam in a new chamois or a pair of gloves can wreck a race.
What Did I Eat? Plants!
Most people who toe the line of a 100 can ride the distance. It’s the fueling and hydration that take out competitors. As I caught up to a guy 3 hours into the race who blew by me earlier, I learned he hadn’t eaten or drank anything yet. I’m no seasoned endurance racing expert, but I knew he was in trouble. (He didn’t pass me again.)
FUELING IS KEY. If there’s one thing to get right, learn how to eat and drink on the bike while moving. My goal (which I met) was to only stop at mile 40 and mile 75 for my rad wife and friends to help me swap out hydration packs and reload my food supplies. I multi-tasked and snuck in my lone pee break while walking up a steeeeep, sandy fireroad. Otherwise, I was on my bike the entire 9+ hour race.
Lots. Of. Food. I follow a vegan diet (#plantpower, woot!) and have for four years now. Probably related to that, a couple people asked me if I changed my diet during training. NOPE. The only thing I did was increase calories, eating huge varied salads, lots of burritos, big rice bowls with vegetables, and the occasional pizza.
For long rides, I’d go with a few bars and maybe a sandwich. My favorite, however, was to swing by my favorite food cart in Bend, eat half a giant burrito, and take the remainder with me to be eaten at a viewpoint hours later.
Race Day Food:
My takeaway from research was that eating 350-450 calories an hour during racing is a good target. (This Training Peaks article has more detail.) I came in somewhere in that range, but my primary goal was consistent fueling during the race. Here’s what I ate:
Bars: Picky and Lara bars, ~1 per hour. ~200 calories each.
ShotBlocks: 2 blocks/hr, 100 calories/package. Stuck to this schedule entire race.
Hammer Endurolyte pills: I popped 1-2 of these per hour and experienced zero cramping.
Medjool Dates: 1 date/hr until they turned into a mush paste at an aid station. Whoops!
Secret Weapon: this recipe for blueberry and chocolate coconut rice cakes. Clean, easily digestible calories, plus the bars are moist thanks to the blueberries and coconut milk. I STUFFED my face with these at aid stations (always good for a laugh) and mainlined 200-400 calories. Also could be wrapped up and kept in a jersey pocket for snacks on the go as well.
After kicking around ideas, I decided to a) maximize water access and b) minimize transition times. To accomplish this, I had two hydration packs that Chelsea cycled out and handed to me at the aid stations, refilled and ready to rumble. I also had a water bottle on my bike with water, salt, and some lemon water.
I used 70 oz. of water in each pack plus three Nuun electrolyte tablets. The secret weapon: per my buddy Eric’s idea, I made Nuun ice cubes and put those in the water on race day. Cold water was so, so, so good when temps tipped into the 90s in the afternoon.
My goal was simply to drink water, and lots of it. For a race with so much singletrack, the hydration packs made it possible for me to drink basically whenever, as opposed to only on smooth trails or fireroad. My approach worked well and I’d recommend it!
Final Thoughts on Racing 100 Miles
The only thing I have left to add is this: you can do it! Put in the time for training, steel your muscles and your mind, get a game plan in order, and get after it. I hope the experience I’ve shared helps you realize it’s doable even if you’re someone like me who has never raced off-road before.
Want to race the High Cascades 100? Here’s the link.