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If you’re a mountain biker with decent fitness, you’re probably capable of extending your mileage and doing an epic ride with eye-popping stats. It doesn’t require a special diet or a 12-week training plan, but it does requires you to think and ride differently.

For a long time I was satisfied with my usual 8- to 12-mile rides that lasted from an hour to an hour and a half, and a long ride for me was about 20 miles and two hours. But as my 50th birthday loomed, I decided to try a 50-mile ride. Previously, my longest ride ever was about 35 miles, and I wondered if I could crank out those extra 15 miles.

For a little background, I’m not a racer, and I don’t train. I ride. I also have no history as an endurance athlete, and I’m not a regimented person. But I’ve always been curious about my potential, and I strive to improve my riding, despite my sometimes-slacker nature. Skipping to the punchline, I cranked out 52 miles with 6,000 vertical feet of climbing in 5 hours and 20 minutes of riding time, with another hour or so of rest stops and food breaks in between.

Doing a long ride obviously takes a little more fitness, but you don’t have to be an Olympian, just prepare and pace yourself.

Doing a long ride obviously takes a little more fitness, but you don’t have to be an Olympian, just prepare and pace yourself.

Adding Miles

No shocker, the first thing I did in preparation was ride more, but nothing extreme. I tried to get out a few times a week and build a bit more endurance. Instead of loading the bike in the truck and driving to a trailhead, I rode pavement to it. This added mileage and saddle time, but they were manageable miles. The ride home got me used to riding while tired and cranking out extra miles without the psychological hurdles of grueling trail climbs or technical descents. All I had to do was stay in the bike lane and turn the pedals.

I also added trail miles to my usual rides, including extra climbs and out-of-the-saddle intervals. My goal was to stress my body a little more than usual, both in intensity and duration, but not kill myself. I didn’t wear a heart rate monitor, I just used common sense. If I got lightheaded during an interval, I backed off. Too sore the next day? Recover and try again later.

Rather than doing a 50-mile backcountry loop, I settled on multiple laps on my local trails that are linked by short sections of road between them. The goal was to stay on dirt as much as possible, and riding locally meant I was familiar with every section of trail I would ride and have no surprises with the terrain.

Gearing Down

I got a lot of help from my friend, Dan Kouba, who has trained for and competed in endurance races. He coached, encouraged, and rode with me.

Riding partners can talk help talk you through those moments of low-energy and fatigue, and bearing a little suffering seems easier when you add camaraderie.

Riding partners can talk help talk you through those moments of low-energy and fatigue, and bearing a little suffering seems easier when you add camaraderie.

The most valuable thing he taught me was to keep my heart rate low by gearing down and riding slower. I mentioned that I didn’t wear a heart rate monitor, and our rule of thumb was if I couldn’t speak in complete sentences without gasping for air, I was pushing too hard. That’s become my most valuable rule of thumb for longer rides, which makes sense. It’s like the difference in effort between walking and running.

Hills were more challenging, and our route included some steep and prolonged climbs. I stashed my ego in my backpack and dropped into the granny gear on stretches where I would usually ride in the big ring of my 2x drivetrain and stand on the pedals if needed. The first 15 miles were slower than normal, but physically, they felt like a warm-up ride around the block.

Black to Blue

Take the technical sections easy when doing a long ride. You can clean them later. The goal is to keep pedaling and avoid crashes.

Take the technical sections easy when doing a long ride. You can clean them later. The goal is to keep pedaling and avoid crashes.

Like most mountain bikers, I love riding downhill–the faster, the better. It’s common for me to be as winded after a hard-charging downhill as I am after a steep climb. But on this ride, I used downhills as a chance to catch my breath and rest my legs. I knew I would be physically and mentally tired during the long ride, and the difference between cleaning or crashing in a technical section is often a split-second decision and response. I wouldn’t be as sharp as usual, especially in the second half of the ride, so I rode at about 80 percent of my usual downhill speed. Where I usually attacked a downhill like a black diamond run, I cruised like it was a blue-level groomer.

Beyond the halfway point, I started to feel the miles, but knew I had more in me. Would I have enough? At the time I didn’t know, but I was confident that if I continued Dan’s riding strategy, I could do it.

It’s All Temporary

I also leaned on the experience of fellow Idahoan and pro mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, who was my unknowing muse on this ride. She’s known as the “Queen of Pain” for her super-human feats of endurance riding. In her book, Rusch to Glory, she imparted this gem of wisdom: “No matter how good or how bad you feel, it won’t last.”

The “bad” part was counterintuitive to me. I figured when you get tired, it’s a downward spiral from there… but not necessarily. You can ride through fatigue until your body finds the next well of energy.

Doing a long ride is not a race, it’s an experience. Take breaks, eat, and relax. It helps your mind and body prepare for the next leg.

Doing a long ride is not a race, it’s an experience. Take breaks, eat, and relax. It helps your mind and body prepare for the next leg.

That also coincided with Dan’s advice about food. He told me to fuel for what I was about to ride, not what I’d already ridden. A common mistake I make is to rest and eat at the top of a climb as a combination of replenishment and reward. He also advised me that at some point, I would need some “real food,” not my usual subsistence of GU packets and Clif Bars. A balanced mix of food kept my stomach happy and my mind looking forward to the next rest stop.

Gutting it Out

I won’t candy-coat it. There were moments toward the end when I was hot, tired, and thirsty regardless of how much I drank. It was my body saying, “are we there yet?” like a fussy school kid. The snap in my legs was long gone, and lactic acid turned my quads to mush.

This was the part I dreaded. My body and brain considered tapping out. It’s when you have to turn off the rational part of your brain and tap into its reptilian core. Am I tired? Yes. Would stopping feel better? Yes. Can I keep spinning the pedals? Yes. Then keep riding and tell the whining voice in your head to shut the hell up.

I also ignored the bike computer on my handlebars, which taunted me with its slow turn over of the miles. Dan had a GPS that was more accurate than my bargain-basement model. As we pedaled in sober silence, he broke it by announcing “that’s 50.” It woke me from my stupor because my computer showed I was still short of the mark. As much as I would like to say Dan’s declaration brought a surge of elation and joy, a sigh of relief is more accurate. I also knew I still had a couple miles of pavement to get home, so while I had met my goal, my ride wasn’t over.

Arriving home was anticlimactic. All I wanted to do was sit and stare, then take a hot shower to wash away the dust and sweat. But a cold beer and a comfortable chair brought it all into perspective: 52 miles and climbing 6,000 vertical feet seemed like someone else’s stats, but they were mine. I had earned them.

When you know your route, you know what to expect, where to conserve your energy and where to push a little.

When you know your route, you know what to expect, where to conserve your energy and where to push a little.

What I Learned

You don’t have to be an Olympian to ride long distances, but you can’t treat a long ride like your after work sessions or your weekend fun rides. It takes preparation and a willingness to endure some discomfort.

By pacing myself, consistently eating and drinking, and taking rest stops as needed, I could pedal through my “pain cave,” which was more of a dull pounding than a sharp stab. I also learned that I could bore through multiple walls of fatigue and mine layers of energy behind them.

Most importantly, I tested my physical limits and recalibrated my mental gauges. A 10-miler now feels like a spin around a pump track, and the psychological hurdle of a 20-miler is hopped like a curb. When the miles drag on and the end of the ride seems beyond the horizon, I know that all I have to do is gear down and keep pedaling.

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# Comments

  • drcbrath

    Outstanding! Good advice. Great article. I did something similar on my 50th.

  • Greg Heil

    Great article! When I did my dirty century, I too rode on mostly-familiar terrain (I did do about a 30-mi loop I hadn’t done before, but it was pretty straight-forward) to make up the mileage. It took some of the unknowns out of the effort and allowed me to focus on going long and not navigating or re-supplying.

    That said, I’d recommend at least some sort of training plan if you’re going for 100 miles. I followed this one that Jeff wrote up, and it worked really well for me: http://www.singletracks.com/blog/mtb-training/the-dirty-century-training-plan-for-finishers/

  • hproctor

    Great read; I’m also not a racer and do not train, but I plan on trying to ride my age (63) next winter. It is too hot in Florida any other time of the year, plus I be riding in Oregon for 4 months before hand and should be a bit fitter due to the extra climbing I’ll come across. I’ll make my attempt at Santos, that has the mileage in a linear park. There are dual trails the entire park and I plan to start at a middle TH and ride in one direction before doubling back to complete the trip. That way, I be able to stash food, liquids, and other supplies at the half way point to keep me well stocked. Nothing that hasn’t be done before, but my goal none the less. So far, 35 miles is my longest ride and I was dreaming of a burger and beer the last 3 miles!

  • hproctor

    Great read; I’m also not a racer and do not train, but I plan on trying to ride my age (63) next winter. It is too hot in Florida any other time of the year, plus I’ll be riding in Oregon for 4 months before hand and should be a bit fitter due to the extra climbing I’ll come across. I’ll make my attempt at Santos, that has the mileage in a linear park. There are dual trails the entire park and I plan to start at a middle TH and ride in one direction before doubling back to complete the trip. That way, I be able to stash food, liquids, and other supplies at the half way point to keep me well stocked. Nothing that hasn’t be done before, but my goal none the less. So far, 35 miles is my longest ride and I was dreaming of a burger and beer the last 3 miles!

  • hproctor

    Great read; I’m also not a racer and do not train, but I plan on trying to ride my age (63) next winter. It is too hot in Florida any other time of the year, plus I’ll be riding in Oregon for 4 months before hand and should be a bit fitter due to the extra climbing I’ll come across. Making my attempt at Santos, which has the mileage in a linear park. There are dual trails the entire park and I plan to start at a middle TH and ride in one direction before doubling back to complete the trip. That way, I be able to stash food, liquids, and other supplies at the half way point to keep me well stocked. Nothing that hasn’t be done before, but my goal none the less. So far, 35 miles is my longest ride and I was dreaming of a burger and beer the last 3 miles!

  • thub

    Great article, thanks Roger. Cool that you got your first mountain bike in Kodiak in 1989, I got mine in Anchorage the same year. I’m 46yrs old, not a racer, not a trainer, just a mountain biker trying to get / stay in decent shape. Last weekend I tackled a 39 mile traverse in Alaska, the Resurrection Pass Trail. I started in Cooper Landing and finished in Hope, AK. This was my first time on the route. It was a big challenge for me. I was riding my Specialized Fat Boy loaded with gear stuffed in Revelate bags. My bike was over 50 lbs loaded. I intended to pace myself and spend one night on the trail, goal being to test new gear. The climb into the pass started decently, rode everything in the first 10 miles. After that I had to pay the piper and earn the pass. I had to push the bike for over 4 miles up a steep grade on rough trail. I ate a power bar at 9 mile mark. I ate a half a Cliff bar at 15 mile mark. I camped at East Creek at 25 mile mark, it was mostly downhill for the last 10 miles to East Creek. I bonked hard, when I got to camp it took all I had to just set the tent up. I crawled in, finished the other half of my Cliff bar and skipped dinner. I was to tired to fire up the camp stove. I got up 5 hours later and ate a power bar, broke camp and hit the trail at 4am to finish. Due to my poor eating habits I did not recover, what should have been an hour and half to finish the ride took me 3 hours. I learned a valuable lesson, nutrition is everything on long rides. Great perspective to do the longer rides on known local trails. I’ll start adding in some longer rides in town, hopefully ride stronger on other backcountry excursions I want to tackle. Bike packing is a ton of fun, cant wait to get out there again.

  • sshafer1

    I’m a total GU guy, but after about 4 or so hours of hard riding, I’m done. I know I need real food, but what should I eat and how often should I intersperse food with my GUs?

    • Greg Heil

      I enjoy Gu as well, but if I’m going long I like to do Gu only every other or every third food intake period. I generally try to eat every 45 minutes or so (at the longest interval… sometimes less) and if I’m using Gu, that means only one gu every 1 hr 30 min, minimum. In between, I personally like granola bars, trail mix, or something more like real food if I’m going really long: peanut butter jelly, bananas, etc.

      Also, beer.

    • wh400

      Greg – my new found half-way point meal is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a beer. A few minutes to relax, enjoy the outdoors and take it all in. I am then ready for the rest of the rid!

    • Greg Heil

      MMM that sounds tasty!

  • wh400

    I love this idea. You wrote:

    “Rather than doing a 50-mile backcountry loop, I settled on multiple laps on my local trails that are linked by short sections of road between them. The goal was to stay on dirt as much as possible, and riding locally meant I was familiar with every section of trail I would ride and have no surprises with the terrain.”

    Was this for training or the actual ride? I have a nice 22 mile loop that I could try, and, like you multiple ways to get back for that just in case scenario.

    I have trained for an ran marathons, but for mountain biking I just like doing it, not training, so your plan sounds perfect.

    • wh400

      I meant to comment, another great trick, is to eat real food during your training, just like you would when you do the real ride. That way your body gets used to eating and then riding.

    • Roger Phillips

      I rode the local trails for the whole ride, except the sections of pavement between them. We have a wealth of trails in Boise, so putting together a 50 mile route wasn’t difficult. I don’t remember exactly what I ate, but there was a sandwich in the middle of the ride, and I added some high energy and tasty food as rewards. I’m a big fan of chocolate and nuts.

  • Orinda8

    My concern with this article is that I worry the writer and those who responded still think that riding longer makes the heart stronger. Multiple articles recently ( mostly in Mayo Clinic Prceedings) show that after 45 min excercise at only 4-5 mets there are diminishing returns from further exercise with some studies showing the most extreme exercisers have survival no better than people who get no exercise at all. So if you want to do long rides as part of a team or because you enjoy stressing the body, fine. But at least be aware of the risks

    • Greg Heil

      45 minutes? Lol, I’ve barely warmed up by that point.

      I don’t think the author made any mention of doing any of this for fitness, health, or any other reason. It sounded like he did it for the challenge of it.

      I always chuckle to myself when people think that I mountain bike to stay healthy. Being healthy is a nice side effect, but I–and I think most people–ride because it’s FUN!

    • mongwolf

      … … because its TOOOOOOO MUCH FUN. I totally agree with that statement Greg. Yes, I probably should think of biking more for fitness, and I might push myself more. But at this point in my life (the years are adding up now), I really don’t concern myself with training hard on the mtb. I just enjoy the ride and let the terrain decide what conditioning I may get. But then again, the Mongolian terrain can really push a rider. Even the long steep hike-a-bike sections provide a good level of fitness out of the saddle.

    • Roger Phillips

      Did you called me an extreme exerciser? Not sure whether to blush or be offended, so I guess I will blush. Greg is correct. I ride because it’s fun, and I occasionally (and that should be taken literally) rise to a challenge. The ride usually ends when the fun ends. But I know from experience all that fun requires some uphill suffering. That’s just part of mountain biking.

  • mongwolf

    Thanks for the very interesting article Roger. I love these kinds of articles on ST. Normal riders sharing their experiences. Great stuff. One other important point I didn’t see in the article (may have missed it) is electrolytes on long runs. If you don’t take care of them, you’re most likely heading for leg cramps before you reach your goal. I stay away from the specialty drinks because honestly I find them a rip off in terms of price and that they really don’t add a ton of cations to your system. What I do now on longer rides is take one of my quality multi-vitamins before the ride and one during. This seems to do the trick for me and at a fraction of the cost of those sports drinks. I also sometimes just dissolve a multi-vitamin in my drink. That seems to work really well too; you just have to shake it up each time before drinking.

    Last year was my third semi-full full year of riding, and I did a 41 mile ride, putting together some favorite trails in the Colorado Springs area. That was about double my longest ride on any given day up to that point. Though I was a mid-distance runner much of my life, early in my biking I found that the distance running really didn’t help that much in riding except for the cardio and having some cardio for higher elevation. My progress in biking has had everything to do with slowly building upper leg strength and endurance and more importantly core strength and endurance (especially the hip area). Running does little for these and probably subtracts muscle and strength in these areas. I hope this year to put in a 60 mile ride — instead of 50 just to jump past the 50 barrier. I also hope to do a 150 – 200 mile multi-day backpacking ride. Thanks for the inspiration Roger.

    • Roger Phillips

      You’re certainly welcome, and I am flattered that I provided some inspiration. Good luck with your rides, and have fun.

  • farliv

    I did my first long ride in the blue mountains west of Sydney, Australia. it entailed 25 klms car placement and then 80 klm (I’m not sure what that is in American) through a closed wilderness area. It passed through the catchment area of Sydney’s water supply. It entailed an initial descent of 800 mtrs., a stealthy trespass across a farm into a rugged and remote wilderness area.
    We traversed a few valleys and worked our way over to a cliff that has spokes hammered into the rockface for hikers to climb. We took ropes and pulled the bikes up after us. from there we had a 20klm ride back to civilisation.
    Problem was I had a badly leaking tyre (for Americans, that would be tire) that plagued me all the way, necessitating pumping it up every few klms. Stupidly we had no spares or even patching kits. Nor did we have much food, lights or warm clothes.
    After the climb my tyre finally gave up the ghost forcing me to walk the last 15klms alone in the dark back to civilisation, our car and food on what turned into a very cold evening.
    I learned a few lessons that night.

  • 29ersrolling

    Outstanding write up man!
    I’m 38 and ride a lot but consider 20 miles to be epic, I’m gonna see if I can double down and hit 40 after reading this.
    Thanks for taking the time to share.

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