The nightmares started three weeks before the race. College type dreams where I’m on the starting line at Black Gravel Steamboat Course without my swimsuit and I have to run shirtless. You don’t have to be Freud to realize I was worried about being ready for the 142 mile event which climbs nearly 10,000 feet while traversing mostly gravel roads through the ranches around Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I have never done 142 miles before, let alone gravel at elevation. Of course, I have nightmares.
But that uncertainty was also what drew me to racing. I’ve been on tough multi-day bikepacking adventures and cycled 100 miles exactly once on smooth roads. Steamboat Gravel offered the perfect opportunity to attempt something I wasn’t sure I could complete, like ordering the 24-ounce Porter at a steakhouse. What if I hadn’t ridden in a year and only had six weeks to train? I had a solid plan: seek help from some of the best coaches in the business and accumulate as much training and expertise as possible in the short window.
Then came the awakening. “Craming only works in college,” said Matt Cramer, former senior director of high performance at the U.S. Olympic Committee and partner of United Endurance Sports Coach Academy, after I asked him to help me come up with a workout plan. “You can’t miss two days and double on a Saturday. Your body doesn’t adapt that way. He added that a 12-week training period for a race like Steamboat Gravel would be good. Sixteen weeks would be better. “You present what we call a coach’s conundrum. I want to help, but we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish in such a short time.
Ouch. But I wasn’t trying to win the race. I just wanted to finish and not be miserable in the process. How far might professional training take an average athlete in this scenario? Cramer was ready to find out, so he devised a rigorous training plan that had me riding five days a week, two to five hours a day, mixing intervals with longer endurance rides. There were regular email and phone checks, where Cramer said things like “forced adaptations” and “lactate threshold.” It was, without a doubt, the most time I have ever spent on a bike; I was spending 14-16 hours a week, enough time for a person to learn the basics of a second language. I mostly listened to trashy vampire novels on my rides.
I had never had a cycling coach before, but I loved training and the responsibility. I also liked having a professional to bounce ideas around:
Can I play golf on my days off?
Should I shave my beard to reduce wind resistance?
If Cramer was the sobering voice in my head, then Antoine Zamora, the director of performance nutrition for the Utah Jazz, was my hype man, somehow convincing me that managing my calorie intake can have transformative benefits. “I love taking a look at performance — what you need to accomplish — and making a plate of food out of it,” Zamora said via Zoom from his office.
Nutrition has always been my Achilles heel. I eat well, but not when I go on an adventure or participate in an endurance event. In general, I drink very little and I limp to the finish line with cramps and pains. But Zamora gave me a detailed daily meal plan that had me weigh my protein and carbs on a food scale and eat pre-determined snacks, like Greek yogurt with fruit and honey or Honey Stinger bars, at specific times of the day. Giving up on my food choices was kind of liberating. I no longer had to wonder what or when I should eat. Zamora told me and I listened.
On the bike, I had a prescription for how much to drink and what to eat every hour. On rides longer than three hours, Zamora wanted me to drink two 16-ounce bottles of Rapid Hydration Mix per hour and mix pretzels with energy chews on the reg. The idea was to replace all the salt I was losing, based on the fact that I would lose five pounds of water weight on every big ride.
We made regular Zoom calls to talk about how I slept. Zamora told me to watch my poop and scolded me for not drinking a gallon of water a day. I had daily weigh-ins. There were selfies without my shirt. It was tiring. And it totally worked. Even though I rode long, hard miles every day, I felt great on the bike. I finished my strength training rides and eliminated several public relations on Strava.
But all was not rosy. With such a short training window, I couldn’t afford to miss any days on the bike, which meant I had to drag a bike trainer to the beach for my family’s annual summer vacation and spin for ages. hours. And while I enjoyed the results of following a nutritionist’s guidelines (look honey, abs!), the daily weigh-ins and shirtless selfies made me feel like a budding Instagram influencer.
As the race approached, I feared that all my efforts would not be enough. The shirtless nightmares began. For advice, I called last year’s Black Course winner, pro cyclist Alex Howes.
“Go full throttle and never look back,” Howes said.
“No, you should do the opposite of that,” he said, explaining that riding 142 miles in midsummer at altitude is going to be tough no matter how much practice I put into it. “There will be low points. You’ll be at mile 128 and your ass and your hands will hurt and you won’t be able to drink because your gut is messed up…but at the end of the day, it’s just a bike race.
The race itself was more of a stage than I expected. Some 3,000 cyclists registered for the event, choosing distances ranging from 30 miles to 142 miles. Nearly 1,000 of them opted for the 142-mile black course. We lined up in downtown Steamboat Springs just before sunrise, and I got nervous when I noticed I was the only runner without freshly shaved legs. The MC didn’t help matters by telling the crowd that Steamboat Gravel is one of the toughest one-day races in the country.
Riders were talking a lot about Steamboat’s fast gravel roads. They call it “Champagne Gravel”, and rumor has it that the city prepares the dirt roads with magnesium chloride to maximize compaction. The rumors are true; the gravel roads were smooth and fast, and I made it to the aid station, about 25 miles into the race, faster than expected. But I was a bundle of nerves for that first stage, worrying about holding my line in the peloton, wondering if I was going to spend 14 hours on the bike and finish after the race team crossed the finish line. ‘arrival.
Throughout the day, I found smaller groups of stronger runners trailing behind on stretches of sidewalk. I ate Pringles, Cokes and PB&Js at the pit stops and drank three bottles of a concentrated carb-electrolyte mix between each pit.
The course was beautiful, crossing vast cattle ranches on mostly smooth land with higher peaks on the horizon. On a secluded stretch of backcountry gravel, I spooked a baby elk standing in the middle of the road. At mile 75 someone handed me a glass of bourbon as I was climbing. At mile 90, I decided to listen to a few chapters of my vampire novel. The 100 mile mark passed unceremoniously and I felt good. I was tired, but I wasn’t in pain.
(That’s not to say there weren’t low spots. I spent a good 30 minutes pedaling through a hatch of mad yellow crickets that came across the road, punching me in the face. About 110 miles or so , I found myself working on my impression of Matthew McConaughey while talking to nearby cows.)
With about 25 miles to go, I decided I had nothing to lose and started attacking, standing and pounding the climbs and pushing it on the rolling straights. I passed the bikers at a steady pace, pedaling faster as I watched the miles pile up on my Garmin, crossing the finish line. I arrived at the back of the pack, with an uncompetitive but perfectly respectable finish time of 10:51, easily a few hours faster than expected. What was even more shocking was that I felt like I could ride more – 142 miles might be the longest distance I’ve ridden, but it’s definitely not my limit.
After unhooking from my pedals and hugging my wife, I had an overwhelming urge to pull out my phone and open the Notes app:
How to run 142 miles the fun way: Draft early, draft often. If someone offers you a glass of bourbon, take it. When the climbs get tough, start the Wu Tang Clan. Wear sunglasses to protect yourself from aggressive crickets. Pringles is your friend. Eat a lot. Have a mantra that you repeat out loud when you feel low. Mine was the Wu Tang Clan, don’t give a shit. But the most important key to success? Hire a trainer and nutritionist and do whatever they say.
My training plan
It was pretty simple: log hours on the bike and mix intervals with endurance rides. This is what a working week looked like.
Tuesday: 75 minutes of tempo riding including two 20-minute intervals with eight minutes of rest between intense efforts.
Wednesday: 60 minute endurance run
Thursday: 75-minute rhythmic ride with two 20-minute intervals.
Friday: Active rest (golf!)
Saturday: 150 minute endurance run
Sunday: 150 minute endurance run
My nutrition plan
I focused on mixing protein with healthy carbs and well-timed snacks. I was also supposed to drink a gallon of water a day, which I never accomplished. Here’s what a meal day looked like.
Breakfast: 2 to 3 eggs, bacon, fruit, coffee
Lunch: 7 oz. protein, 1 cup cooked starch, 2 cups vegetables
To taste: Smoothie with whey protein, mango, avocado, baby kale, chia powder and milk
Having dinner: 7 oz. protein 1½ cup of cooked starch, 1½ cup of vegetables
Snack (two hours before bedtime): Honey Stinger Nut & Seed Bar