How to ride ultramarathons – part 3: On the road

The day has come, you are waiting at the starting line, and hundreds of kilometers lie ahead of you. Next to you, the other riders look oh so professional. You haven’t competed before, your pulse is racing, and you wonder just what the hell are you doing here.
Even experienced cyclists feel such nerves just before setting off. After a few kilometres, though, you will start to enjoy the ride and your head will fill with other thoughts.


Do not overdo it in the first few kilometres

“They are leaving me behind, I have to catch their wheel, I will just catch up with this group. After all, a moment of harder riding can’t hurt me” – this is all just a waste of energy at the beginning.
You should ride the first few hours in such a way so as not to put any real effort into the ride. It should feel as if you are going too slow, for example, with a heart rate of around 130.
By going 2 km/h slower you lose only 5 minutes per hour, but you save a lot of energy (and  therefore time spent at food stops) and water. There will come a time for riding more intensely…


… at night

In the run up to your first night, you have to ride without getting too fatigued. You need to have a reserve of strength to speed up, if necessary, to increase your heart rate, which will make it easier
for you to fight off sleep.
Treat night naps as a last resort. If you cannot ride all night, take a nap in the evening or the morning when it is warmer.
At night, access to food is restricted to what’s in your pockets and to be found at petrol stations. If it’s a race abroad, remember that at night stations will only be open on main roads. Try to limit how often you stop after dark as much as possible. It is best to power on continuously from dusk till dawn. This will keep you from freezing and then warming up.
If you need a longer break, take it in the evening. Eat, replenish your food and water for the long ride ahead, and put on a warm base-layer (later it will be too cold to change).
Also, remember that when you are tired, you feel the cold differently. The fact that you rode comfortably in particular clothes at 10C does not mean that at 15C on an ultra route you will not want to dress warmer.

The next day and night

It’s toughest and coldest at sunrise. The long-anticipated dawn usually brings with it sleepiness. It is worth waiting a bit longer, though, or if you have to, taking just a nap. Don’t forget about your safety; if you nod off, you can’t ride straight – so, stop before you hurt yourself.
Later in the day you will mainly be fighting fatigue. In all probability, nothing extraordinary will happen that is worth writing about.
Until the evening that is, however, when you will have to answer an “exceptionally” important question: should you go to sleep or keep going? Or maybe a nap will be enough and then you can go on?
Let’s analyse the consequences of each scenario:

  • A second night without sleep. This is the hard stuff, a challenge even for seasoned cyclists who are sure that they will manage it. After 50 hours without sleep, you will experience hallucinations, and may have trouble eating or get a headache. 90% of the hallucinations you will experience involve “fans” being present. You will start to think that there are people standing by the road or in the bushes. It’s nothing to worry about, but you’ll be very surprised the first time it happens.
  • Sleep. This option is simple: you will rest, but you will lose a few hours.
  • There is also a midway option: a quick nap and off you go. I recommend this solution if you want to finish the route with a good time but are not fighting for every minute. Just remember to get enough sleep before sunset at a comfortable temperature. Before going to bed, change into warm and dry clothes (at least an undershirt) and eat. Where should you sleep? Somewhere warm and safe. Perhaps a meadow, or a bus stop with a shelter.
What’s next?

It will only get harder now. If you are faced with a third night before you get to the finish line – go to sleep. Don’t try to ride on, because even if it is physically possible, after 60 hours without sleep your head will be totally crazy. What should you eat en route?
There are many theories about what nutrients are needed during exercise, about how many macronutrients you need per kilogram of body mass, etc. In practice, just eat what you can buy on the way, or what is available at checkpoints. You just have to stick to a few rules:

  • Sweets give you energy, but after just a few hours you will be sick of the sight of them
  • Take a break for a typical lunch once a day
  • Eat light meals (choose pancakes instead of pork escalopes, baked potatoes instead of
    fries, etc.)
  • To save time, eat at petrol stations.
  • Usually you will find something reasonably good there,
    and usually there will also be a vegetarian option.
  • If you pass a bakery – pop in, such an opportunity may not come again.
  • Don’t experiment with food. Eat only what you have tested thoroughly in training.


​Extreme situations

Unfortunately, there is a risk that, as a result of an unexpected event or failure, you will get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Just in case, it is worth learning some bushcraft techniques to get you through the night safely.
If you need to spend the night in a forest, find a place that is sheltered from wind and rain. Put on dry clothes, wrap yourself in a space blanket (preferably with the silver side against the body). For more technical details on bushcraft, here is a link to a professional in this field:
In less desperate situations, it is worth making it back to civilisation and looking for accommodation
or a petrol station.
If you want to drop out because you are tired, don’t make such decisions at night. Often the
morning and some rest will give you the strength to complete the route.

Most important

Do not go crazy. We all like to race downhill fast, but when you get tired you don’t have good reflexes, eyes that have been exposed to dust for hours on end cannot see that well, and an unknown route can surprise you. Remember that even the asphalt, on which you are descending at 70 km/h at night, can turn into a pothole at any moment, and remember that a bend can turn out to be tighter than it seems and the surface more slippery. If you crash in the sticks at night, you may not get help for several hours.

Don’t give up for no reason. Tired? You don’t have the strength to go on? Falling asleep? Then get some rest, get forty winks, adjust your crown and head for the finish line.
Is the going too slow and you won’t finish within the time limit? Ignore it and finish outside the limit.

Have fun. Yes, you’ll be tired, you’ll be fed up. However, use this time spent with yourself for a unique kind of meditation and mental reset.

See you on the road!


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