All day, and all of the night; your guide to 24 hour mtb races

Oh, those summer nights…

As we hit high summer and enjoy up to 18 hours of daylight on these fine, high summer days, our opportunity for long days in the saddle without the need of lights is about as good as it could be. Here at Pedal Planner towers we’ve enjoyed a run of mid-week rides and been able to get a good 2 – 3  hour ride in even if we couldn’t escape the shackles of work and family commitments till 8pm or so. But what about those crazy folk who see this summer season as a good excuse to ride through for 24 hours, pretty much non-stop. We’ve gone in search of this peculiar breed of mountain biker; what we found not only inspired us to push our own riding but also taught us things that we can apply to less daunting challenges…

Crazy, Crazy Knights

To get a glimpse into the murky, doggedly determined minds of 24 hour UK mtb race events soloists, we were helped by a handful of riders who took part in last year’s Relentless 24, which is held at Fort William, and is the UK round of the World Endurance Mountain Bike Organisation (WEMBO) Race series…

Rob FrielThe riders we interviewed were: Rob Freil, XC racer and first time 24 hour mtb racer at last years R24; Jason Miles, a 24 hour event specialist who’s been known to do 5 or 6 24 hour solo events in a season before now;  Richard Rothwell, an experienced endurance mountain bike rider;  San Kapil a 24 hour mtb race event first timer; and Rickie Cotter, UK Champ and WEMBO silver medalist.

 

We were keen to understand what the best thing is about racing for 24 hours???

Rob: “To start with it’s actually good fun. It was a great place to be. Also I was enjoying riding my bike at Nevis Range. It was a really good fun course. About 14 hours in though and things changed. It became ‘type 2’ fun, like a hard day mountaineering or running across the Sahara, I guess. Looking back on it you remember how you felt, but not really. I know now I felt rubbish and there were points where pleasure ratings were pretty low. With hindsight though you kid yourself on that you’re tough and love that sort of stuff. At the time, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking that. But by the next day I was already considering another one. A week later working out which one will be best to do. ‘Type 2’ fun is rubbish at the time, but it gets more fun when you look back on it. I want to win a 24hour now.”

Jason MilesJason: “The end! Racing for 24 hours can be as horrible as it sounds but what spurs me on is the euphoria of the finish. A good result is a bonus but really the best thing about 24 hour racing is the sense of achievement and the satisfaction not only from the race but from the months of training, sacrifice and preparation that has carried you to the end.”

Richard: “The sheer enormity of what you are undertaking. The Dunkirk Spirit. The camaraderie. That feeling that no matter how hard you’ve trained it’s going to be a massive challenge to get through it. That one or two days a year when you go beyond your limits. I personally relish the sensations and emotions, good and bad. Blowing yourself to bits and coming out the other side with some amazing memories.”

San: “Let me start my saying that this was one fabulous event and I loved every minute of it. The best thing for me is being among like-minded people who love to ride their bike. I know I’m not destined for a podium place but being part of the 24 hour scene is magical: every mountain biker should experience this.”

Rickie:  “Sunrises upon any mountain in any country knowing the end is near. The close bond that grows between you and your pit crew and also the camaraderie you create with fellow racers.”

That sounds great; so how about the downsides?

Rob: “You are going to get to levels of physical, mental, and often emotional exhaustion that you have probably never experienced before – not something that you can really prepare for. You’ll  get aches and pains. I think I probably wasn’t as up for this as I should have been. My knee really jipped me and got into my head. That was my limiting factor in the end. That’s all temporary though.     

What really annoys me now is that I stopped just shy of 23 hours. I had time to go out again. I might have even had time to go out again twice before the 24hr bell and literally crawled around the final lap. That might have put me in the top 3 in the world. But I didn’t. I stopped. At the time I was struggling to press my R pedal at all and in my head I was injuring my knee, I was tired and it was too easy to just stop. That’s the difference between me, and the top 3 in the world last October I guess. Now I look back and in my head I quit, even though on paper I got a good result. I’ll never know physically what I could have done. That’s way worse than the short term discomfort and that’s why I’ll be back……..with ibuprofen…”


Jason:
“That’s a tough question – there’re loads of candidates for this one, depending on the circumstances. If the race takes place in bad weather, it’s that. If you feel ill during the race, it’s that. If the course isn’t very interesting (NEVER a problem at Relentless!) then the main enemy is boredom. Everyone can feel low in a race but that’s something you can overcome and learn how to control, but for less-experienced riders I guess the worst thing is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the task.

Imagine you’ve been riding hard for 10 hours and it’s cold, dark and raining. You’re in pain and you’ve just been sick – then you start to concentrate on the clock and realise you’ve got another 14 hours to go. That’s what gives a lot of guys’ heads a battering, and can cut their races short..”

Richard RothwellRichard: “The sheer enormity of what you’re undertaking… coming out the other side. And stopping. The Stopping is the worst bit. When riding, you’re resigned to your fate. You get into a rhythm. Your body moulds to the bike and your legs keep turning. Problem is, when you stop, your body doesn’t switch off! Elevated heart rate, legs turning even though they aren’t. Sleep being (ironically) virtually impossible. The dreaded 24hr hangover!.”

San: “The worst thing for me is not having a support crew. Unfortunately for me I do most of my events on my own, so it does make it a bit awkward. Also not being able to ride your bike for a week after the event as there’s nothing in the legs.”

Rickie:  “The hours and hours of cold, wet lonely training you need to put in beforehand. And the dirty washing afterwards!”

Keeping the fuel levels up must be a challenge; what was your nutrition plan?

Rob: “I’ve done enough ‘normal’ races and marathon events to know that eating is important, but if you burn all your matches at the start, it doesn’t matter really what you eat; you’re done for. So I knew to avoid going into the red at all costs. I’d tried this tactic at other events like the Glentress 7. Every lap I got something solid – like a cereal bar, banana, brioche or rice cake. I also took a gel to have at the same part of the course every lap. And of course I’d take a bottle. I mostly went with energy drink / electrolyte with a protein every few hours. I don’t know any science behind that but thought it would work. It was fine until the middle of the night. By then I was stopping and necking lukewarm cups of tea and soup and eating slices of pizza. By my last couple of laps I was on Coke (-a-Cola), Snickers and crisps. A couple of the other guys were ripping my amateurish strategy for this, but one of those guys ended up in hospital. I know they just go on liquid diet. I won’t be doing that in a hurry.


Jason:
“I have a fairly ‘relaxed’ eating plan as I’m blessed with a relatively strong stomach. I know other racers that have to have very specific foods at certain times but I just shovel it in and get going. My wife Debbie supports me throughout all the races I take part in (yes, she stays up for 24 hours, bless her!) knows what food I like and has enough experience to know what mix of carbohydrate and protein I will need at a given time. She has it all prepared ready to hand up to me as I ride past my pit. I just leave her to do her job so that all I need to do is just bung it down the hatch. The food I’ll eat during a race ranges from carbohydrate gels and bars to potato cakes, dark chocolate and strong coffee.”

San KapilSan: “My plan was to nibble away after every lap as usually I’m terrible at the nutrition and it worked great for me until I came off on the descent and bruised my ribs which slowed me down and reduced the laps that I may have done.”

Rickie:  “Nutrition: it’s such a personal thing and sometimes, even with a solid familiar plan, things go pear shaped. Have a variety of tried and tested foods and try to replace anything that comes back out. Avoiding nausea is difficult so learn to eat through it. Above all remember: Food = Forward motion!”

Richard:
“I think at least the bones of a nutrition plan is crucial; you need to make sure you are having the minimum calorie requirement and it’s easy to stop eating when you feel rough. I achieved this mostly with drinks and gels based on a carb / water requirement per hour and later on, the careful use of caffeine. In 2014 I stuck to my plan and it worked; later on in the race I really jammed lots of ‘real’ food down for a mental boost as well as a extra calorie hit. This was a deliberate strategy to make sure I was ready for the hardest early morning hours.”

Do you have any training tips?

Rob: “Bear in mind these tips are from a guy who set the fastest lap of the race, blew spectacularly and limped home in a bad way in his debut event, so treat them with care! I had asked a lot of folk – including previous Mountain Mayhem Winners and Nick Craig, what they advised. Interestingly I got conflicting advice. On pacing I was told by some my main issue would be going slow enough. Other guys go out too hard and just accept they will slow as a strategy, and advise this. I looked up previous 24hr race results and worked out I’d only have to be riding at about 70% relay pace to win. That gave me confidence to know I could go fast enough so my strategy was just to ride at the front and hang on. Interestingly, despite slowing badly at the end this was more to do with knee pain than blowing or lack of sleep.

Regardless of pacing strategy, if you train and race XC, even at the front it is a pretty pedestrian speed. As Nick Craig said – you’ll have trouble holding back. So for me – coming off the back of a decent XC season I needed to get some miles in. But I only finished racing XC 5 weeks before. I immediately cut back on the top end stuff and I did some hefty weekends – including 6-7hour XC mtb rides and 8 hour road rides back to back. I think any more than that and you risk doing yourself in. I’d try and get some overgeared hill efforts in on the Wednesday evening too. Then the last weekend before I chilled out.

I wont be doing my on-bike training that differently this year. I think you need speed. Look at the Grand Tour Winners. They can all do a blistering prologue. It’s not all about grinding out mile after mile. If you can go fast, the relative pace of 24hour racing will feel easier. So I’m road racing, XC racing and doing Glentress 7 and 10 Under the Ben to practice Endurance pacing and strategy, but essentially my riding strategy will be similar. Maybe shift the Endurance phase a month earlier?

One thing I will be doing is getting my hips stronger. I honestly believe that I turned up with a big enough engine, but the chassis fell apart. I had not ignored my core strength but obviously got it a bit wrong. When I get really tired, like after 8 hours tired, my pedalling gets lazy. My glutes switch off and my knees don’t hold a good alignment. I didn’t know that until I’d raced for over 8 hours though. I need to work on hip stability. Core stability is key, but make sure you know your weakness and focus on that. If you have a weakness, it will find you in a 24hr. Also I’ve been doing yoga this year just in case.”

 

RicRickie Cotter croppedkie:  “I’d also say train your mind to cope with pain and to be able to deal with problems when they arise. Learn to stay calm and know what your body can do . Prepare as best you can but most of all, NEVER quit!”


Jason:
“Work hard. Don’t miss training sessions. Read books on the subject or pay someone to tell you how to train properly. Remember that when it comes to training it’s often more about quality rather than quantity.”


San:
“You can’t really train for a 24hr event apart from ride your bike as much as possible. I found that it depends on the day, your bike choice, state of mind and your nutrition: if you can get these right and avoid falling off, you’ll be in for a good 24hr day.

 

Richard: “Ride your bike a lot. But not too much! Be consistent in building the volume to an appropriate peak, and don’t rely on doing the odd massive ride. Do quality hard sessions and try to have a purpose in your riding, whether it’s skills, speed, strength, or endurance. Train your body to be energy efficient; don’t eat too much on pre-training rides, but focus on quality post ride nutrition to allow your body to refuel, recover and get stronger. Drink lots of water all the time! Your body works so much better when it’s hydrated.  

On the day you need to pace yourself! I’ve seen loads of people (myself included!) smash it for 10 or 12 hrs and then at the magic 18hr mark… Boom! The wheels fall off! Any redlining will come back to bite you at some point. Consistent effort is key. Everybody slows down; it’s the rate of slowing that often dictates the result…  Also, expect it is going to be hard and embrace it. No matter how hard you train, it’s going to be tough. Don’t be shocked when the obstacles come; think of strategies to deal them and push through. Keep moving forward, no matter how slowly you’re going!”

Finding the right 24 hour UK mtb race events for you…

We hope you have found the insights from our soloists inspiring: so why not have a go yourself? You can experience the punishment and reward of 24 hour racing without doing the whole 24 yourself – share the love and team up with some mates; here’s a selection of 24 hour UK races. Mountain Mayhem is staged at Gatcombe Park and runs in June.  The Bontrager Twentyfour12 comes in July, staged on the edge of Dartmoor just outside of Plymouth.

For anyone who fancies a bit of island life, how about ‘The Longest Day, Longest Ride’, which as the name suggests runs near the summer Solstice (one of the latter two weekends in June), on the Isle of Man. The course is designed to be enjoyable, but a tough test of endurance for all types of rider from ‘weekend warriors’ to recreational riders and cross-country racing snakes. The event is similarly ‘all welcoming’, with the organisers going out of their way to make sure it is one of the most sociable sporting occasions on the Isle of Man sporting calendar, welcoming riders, spectators and supporters to the family friendly venue to experience an event with a unique festival like atmosphere.

There is however only one UK 24 hour race which is part of the world series, the Relentless 24, with all age classes and open to solos, pairs, fours and eights. The course is never easy at Nevis Range, with a testing mixture of steep climbs, technical descents and smile inducing flow.  Although the race is 24 hours long, boredom is never an issue. The trails have been tested by World Cup XC events, World Championship 24 hour racers and the many local biking enthusiasts who call Fort William home.

Jason adds: “I’ve taken part at Relentless24 five times now as a solo racer, most recently when the event hosted the World 24 Hour Championship. I live hundreds of miles away in Manchester but I keep making the long trip to Fort William for the world-class and all-weather course, the brilliant atmosphere and the typically laid-back but super-slick No Fuss organisation. It genuinely is one of the greatest endurance events you can do.”

What’s more, with this year’s event taking place on Halloween, there may well be Ghoulies in the forest late at night, just to add to your excitement………

Out thanks to the great team at NO Fuss, Gary Cooper at LDLR for their help with this article and to Sportograf for the images.

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Kim Hurst

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