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Mountain biking is all about pushing your limits and trying something you have never done before. This can mean trying new terrain, hitting that feature that you always skip, or participating in an extreme ride that you never thought you were capable off. One of the ways you can push yourself is with an extreme ride or race. Today, the topic is endurance relay riding. There are lots of races that scare people because of the amount of miles that ride entails. But with the right nutrition, equipment, and communication you can do the impossible.

In 2014 I participated in a 12-hour race on a 2-person team in Wausau, Wisconsin. This was a relay of continual biking for 12 hours. In total, I completed 6 laps at the end of the day, adding up to 60 miles ridden. Being a 16-year-old girl on a team with a super-competitive 17-year-old boy and racing in an adult category, the intensity of the event was massive. Listen carefully and I will show you how I did something I swore to myself I would never do. Hopefully you will be inspired to do something crazy as well!

Pushing the limits, endurance style. Photo: Derek Hermon

Pushing the limits, endurance style. Photo: Derek Hermon

The first key to pushing your endurance limits is nutrition. In an endurance event your body gets very few opportunities to recover on its own–you have to always be one step ahead of it. This means you don’t wait until you’re hungry to eat, or thirsty to drink, or wait until you have cramps to eat a banana.

In my case, I would come off the trail after a 10-mile lap and would have around 50 minutes before I had to be riding again. Those 50 minutes felt like 10! All I wanted to do was lay down and take my sweaty clothes off. But we were in a race for a podium finish and I had to push through my mind block and give my body what it needed to keep going. I knew I needed carbs; I wasn’t hungry because I had just biked 10 miles and was still trying to catch my breath. But in endurance races carbs are your best friend. My cooler was full of lasagna and I forced myself to eat it even when I didn’t feel hungry. This is my perfect meal: it has pasta for carbs, a little meat for protein, and a little dairy. But you also need foods with a little bit of fat because your body is burning carbs faster than you can feed it. It seems strange, but all my body craved during this endurance race was chocolate chip cookies. And I would eat 2 or 3 before I did each lap! Endurance means a long time, so I suggest bringing some sugar because once you get halfway through that excruciatingly-long race it’s not a bad thing to pull on something sweet.

The second piece of nutrition is your liquids. Not only do you need to be drinking lots of water but you also need to be consuming electrolytes. I used a Hammer Heed powder that I could mix into my water. This helps replenish the smaller nutrients and minerals and also provides an easy way to put more energy in your body.

The last piece of nutrition that is essential in an endurance race is sodium. No matter what climate you are in, biking is going to make you sweat. That means that when you’re biking a long time you lose lots of sodium. When there was not enough sodium in my body my muscles would cramp and not work anymore. That is the worst feeling because it feels like your body is betraying you! But in reality you did not give it enough sodium! About 4 laps into our race in Wausau, I remember my partner and I were trying to hold on to our third place position–if one of us would not have fed ourselves correctly and fatigued early then the race would have come right out from under us. This is why I say to stay ahead of your body, so pushing your limits does not seem so difficult. So to stay safe I take straight-up sodium tablets. Do not rely solely on your drinks and salty snacks to give you the sodium that you need. You and your body will bike much happier when your muscles are working! When it all boils down, nutrition is very essential in conquering an endurance race!

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Having the right equipment in the sport of mountain biking is so important. One trail is never the same as another… and assuming it will be can be very harmful to you. It was to me. Without having pre-ridden the course for this endurance race in Wausau I assumed my hardtail Specialized 29er carbon Fate would be perfect for the race. However, the course turned out to be extremely bumpy. It was covered in roots: the complete opposite of smooth. A road biker wouldn’t have made it a quarter-mile! By lap four my butt had gone past the point of soreness. I would have to say it was the most painful part of my body.

This is why it’s important to know your trails and plan accordingly. When it comes to endurance I suggest to always go with a dual suspension: you are making the right choice for your back and butt. The second most important piece of equipment for endurance biking is your gloves. My hands hurt an extreme amount because my gloves didn’t fit like they should have. As a result my hands were blistering and sore. Make sure you have gloves that fit and have excellent padding. There’s lots of equipment that you need for an endurance race but the two most important are going to be your bike/suspension and your gloves.

12 Hours of Mesa Verde Pit Area. Photo: John Fisch.

12 Hours of Mesa Verde Pit Area. Photo: John Fisch.

The last and most important piece of an endurance race is your communication. If you are on a team then you need good communication with your teammates. During my 2-man race, my partner and I never got a chance to talk about our rides because someone was always on the trail. But we made it a point to do a quick check-in during the hand-off area. This is important in case someone isn’t feeling well or you just straight-up need more time to recover before you hit the trails again. We also left information for each other with our base camp. We had friends that were taking messages and telling us what we needed to do to survive.

During an endurance race there’s a certain level of delusion that you face. I remember after I had finished my fifth lap I got back to camp and realized I had not changed my socks all day, and I laughed to the point of tears because of it. You need to have people to help you through this kind of a race. It’s harder than you think, and even the pros will tell you that teams are necessary for success.

Endurance racing is not as difficult as it seems. If you take the time to prepare yourself and everything you need then you are more than ready to go! Biking is an adventure and the more dynamism in your adventures, the better! Next time you hear about a crazy race, don’t dismiss it because it seems like too much to handle. Instead, take the challenge and see what you are capable of!

Cianna Swanson is a junior in high school in Lakeville, MN, and has been mountain biking seriously since she was 13 years old. As a high school student she participates in the Minnesota NICA racing series. On the weekends she works at her local bike shop and continues to expand her knowledge of the sport.

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