Preparing For a 50-Mile Mountain Bike Race
Endurance mountain bike races have several different flavors, but one of my favorites is Prescott, Arizona’s Whiskey 50. It takes racers through nearly every type of terrain, which makes it an ideal example of what you can expect from a 50-mile race. Consider this an overview with tips and lessons learned on the road. If you haven’t raced a 50-miler, just know that 50 miles on fire roads isn’t 50 miles of single track—so I prefer to think of races in terms of time rather than distance.
First up, a point-to-point race is different than one that makes laps. There is a distinct mental shift in how you approach each of these. The Whiskey 50 is a lollipop-shaped route, with the start and finish effectively being at the top of the lollipop. Its important to break the race down into segments, both into time and terrain pieces. Use the fun parts to motivate you through the tough parts, particularly for sections that don’t suit your skill set. Likewise, utilize segments of the route that you find play to your strengths to work extra hard. Its amazing how much less it seems to hurt when you’re the one driving the effort, instead of when someone else chooses that pace for you.
Prepare your bike accordingly. It’s easy to slip into the “pure speed setup,” but remember, these events will typically take the top pros over three hours to complete. Extrapolate how long you think you’ll be out there based on how you stack up against those riders. This could easily be a five-hour day, so keep that in mind. Handling skills, awareness, and response time to terrain features drop off dramatically with fatigue. We’ll often ride a fast XC-oriented tire in the back while putting a beefier trail-type tire in the front to protect against flatting and to allow for plowing instead of picking lines late in the race. In the first hour, dodging rocks is easy; in the fourth hour, you’re likely to just run over whatever is in your way.
I can’t say this enough—refresh your tubeless tire sealant.
If you’re racing on a lap course, the trail will be fairly clean and you’ll learn certain sections. This helps with avoiding flats. On a course like the Whiskey 50, you won’t see these sections of trail until next year. Go with a little additional (and fresh) insurance.
How to Train
How to train for an event like this is a popular question, and certainly far beyond the scope of this article. However, there are some general points that are worth keeping in mind.
Not many of us have the time to either train for the actual time or distance of an event like this, but you can try to build towards 75% of the race time at home. Particularly on your long rides, try and start the first hour of the ride easy, and focus on making the second half of the ride the fast part. Finishing fast is so much more enjoyable than falling apart in the second half. And it’s usually quicker, too.
As far as eating, don’t load up beforehand, because a heavy stomach can ruin your day. But eat frequently, and often, on the bike; every thirty minutes is a great rule of thumb, and you should practice this in training at home. Keep the calories in the first couple of hours light, like gels and blocks, then move to solid foods once the pace has settled down. Save a couple of gels for the last hour. You’ll be tired of eating any food by then, and gels go down easily and metabolize quickly, which you’ll appreciate toward the end of the race.
My favorite part of the Whiskey 50 is the road trip. Mountain biking is a great facilitator of travel. The race only takes a few hours, but the trip lasts for days so make sure to take some time to seek out new places to ride and visit along the way. If you’re considering a few different races, choose a race that will take you somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, or that will put you near interesting waypoints that you’re excited to see.
Coming from Utah, we like to hit the trails in St. George on our way down to Prescott. For Colorado Riders, Moab is an easy stop on the way, as is Phil’s World in Cortez.
Don’t ride to much before the race, but try to find a balance. If skipping a fantastic trail during the road trip only means the difference between 29th and 30th place, then making the time for an amazing ride is worth the price. An easy 90-minute ride is a great way to break up a drive and keep your body feeling fresh, too. You’ll be thankful that you planned your trip around taking a break to ride.
Finally, the day before the race, after you’ve camped along the way, ridden some new trails, refreshed your tire sealant, packed enough food to snack every 30 minutes during the race, and scouted out an early race-day coffee source, rest confidently knowing that everything is ready for your big day. Lay out your gear, have a fresh and washed helmet and put a note on your saddle to double-check your tire pressure in the morning … just in case.