On March 5, 2016, the Ottawa-Gatineau region will see it’s first winter fatbike ultra race, The Wendigo, a self-propelled winter adventure. Organizer, Cam Dube, has permission from land owners and the local skidoo association to unleash an ooze of racers across the snowy Ottawa Valley landscape on their fatbikes, using trails to compose a loop that will take competitors across frozen lakes, abandoned rail bed, amidst dark forest and wind-blown fields. A distance of 75 – 80 km is planned for the event, with the possibility of a 100km option. Details and registration info can be found here.
In this post, Cam Dube explains what fatbike ultras are, and how to prepare for an ultra fatbike event using the marginal gains approach (MS).
Growing up a ‘Valley Boy’, near Pembroke, I was raised by the phrase of “be back for supper”. To me, this meant “how far can I explore and still be home in time, before dark” and in doing so, would have me on my trusty old bike, racing across the countryside, in the woods, creeks and farm fields, with my buddies. Not much has changed since then and when the idea of doing an ultra event came to light, it seemed like the natural progression.
By definition, a fatbike ultra is any distance greater than 42.2 km (26.2 miles). I believe that an ultra can be any distance, as long as it takes the racer to a level of performance where they are pushed beyond their normal limits, both mentally and physically and where a personal sense of great accomplishment is attained.
Ultra-cycling events have been around for some time now, however the fat tire craze has brought new light to these events, putting them in the spotlight as some of the most difficult races on the planet. Events such as the Iditarod, the ITI and the Arrowhead Ultra were once an underground series of ‘rides’ where only the few took joy in riding a regular 26” xc bike for 900 miles through the mountains of Alaska or in the “ice-box of the USA”, International Falls, Minnesota.
Fatbiking with a Winter Ultra event on your horizon can seem daunting at any time, especially in times where you’re tasked with heading out for a training ride at -25C, alone, in the dark of the night. An event such as an ultra certainly requires some training and it is no doubt that a plethora of training systems and workouts exist to maximize one’s ability to ride stronger, faster and more efficiently. That being said, I truly believe that trying out as many systems as possible and seeing what combinations thereof work best for you and your intended outcomes is the best way to maximize training.
There’s no doubt that the “miles of trials & trials of miles” saying comes into effect for training with an ultra in mind. For some, a training schedule for a winter ultra might be low-maintenance and easy to adjust, depending on lifestyle and schedule, whereas for others, training could become an all-consuming routine. For me, fitness is only part of the equation when it comes to finishing an ultra. Practice with the gear, in conditions that best represent race-day(s) and keeping the mind positive are the other aspects that greatly contribute to success when it comes to racing endless hours on the bike in winter conditions.
Following is a top five list of things that have changed the way I ride in an ultra. Please bear in mind that I’m no veteran to this field of incredible people and athletes and my ‘learnings’ have come from experience, practice and watching those better than me.
When it comes to on-the-bike training, I am big fan of training in the conditions I am likely to encounter during the event. In 2014, I DNF’d at the Arrowhead Ultra, where the average temperature of the event was -40C. In preparation for this event I rode half the time inside and the rest outside. I contribute this DNF to my lack of training in very cold conditions and not adapting to my gear and food systems well enough for polar like temperatures. That attempt had me suffer from frostbite on my nose, toes and fingers. A second attempt in 2015 had me training outside 100% of the time, trying new systems for food and water management in the cold. It involved long and slow rides mixed with on-trail sessions of deploying my sleep system, lighting my stove and re-arranging gear on the bike, in the cold. It involved dealing with frozen water, troubleshooting likely problems and designing back up systems for my back up systems. This type of training worked for me, because on race day, I had little worries about self-management. In other words, the “what-if’s” were taken care of and I could focus on the ride. I knew my body could take me the distance and my mind could handle the possible issues one could face while out there.
I have yet to meet another ultra-racer whose attitude is pessimistic and negative. Having a positive outlook on everything is, to me, the most important piece of training that one can do. Smile and laugh, chat about silly stuff and find a way to adapt to the situation at hand. When the going gets tough, cold with deep snow and you’re exhausted, you have a choice to make and that is you can either bitch about those things as they linger in your mind, or you can smile, make light of the situation and do what needs to get done. Two choices, bitch or smile, it’s up to you, but I bet that if you choose the later, to bitch, you probably won’t see the finish.
Spending 10+ hours out in the cold requires a lot of calories. I choose food that is simple yet fun to eat, that has a mix of sweet and salty with a hint of bacon. For example, I often use small Ziplocs and mix nuts, cheese blocks, crispy bacon, pieces of pop tart and the like, all together to make up a bag worth 1000 calories, roughly 3.5 hours of riding in the cold. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stare at 25 Larabars shoved into their feed bag, let alone trying to eat one at -30C, hence the term ‘larabricks’. Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of bars and I do pack a few, but I break them up into bitesize pieces and I keep them warm in my pogies. Food management is key and training yourself to manage the calories needed per hour requires discipline.
If you’re going race in an ultra, get pogies and train with them. Not only do they keep hands uber warm, they are a storage system for food, batteries and the like. Wearing an ultra-thin glove liner inside the pogies helps with sweat management and minimizes moisture absorbed into the pogie.
Secondly, purchase your footwear at least one size up. My footwear systems include 45NRTH Wolfvhammers that are a euro 46 (I’m a 44 in my regular xc mtn shoes). This works beautifully for me as I always wear an ultra-thin sock liner, such as the Wigwam Gobi liner next to skin and then my thermal sock overtop. I can’t say enough about the importance to incorporate a sock liner into the mix. It has made a world of difference for my foot management in the cold. Below -30C I switch to NEOS boots with a Sorel wool boot liner on the inside, on flat pedals. As for pedaling systems, my take on SPD versus flats comes down to personal preference and your ability to stay warm and comfortable. In a 20 hour/+ event, I have had riders on flats blow past me and vice versa. Should surface conditions be an extreme, ultra-soft or ultra-hard, everyone will be walking up or down the hills, so use what works best for you.
Your face. I have two recommendations for protecting your face. If you must wear goggles, try pulling out all of the foam that is above and below the frame, as this will help maximize airflow. I have used this method with a pair of clear lens goggles and had adequate success.
Secondly, for your nose, use a strip of old fleece or a headband and stretch it over your head so that it covers your nose and cheeks. This method was adopted from watching the pros, like Jay Petervary, who has done this for some time now and it alleviates the need for a balaclava, that as we know, can be cumbersome for eating and drinking as they typically slide around your face, collecting and freezing snot into a massive “chincicle”, which then stretches the balaclava rendering it useless.
Lastly, water. I have managed to keep water in a liquid state using a Camelbak Thermobak 2L against my next to skin layer, covering it with all my other layers. I then run the hose under my armpit and into my other armpit goes the mouth piece to keep warm and I always blow back the water out of the hose and back into the bag. As a back-up system, I carry one to two Nalgene bottles or thermos in an insulated case.
Putting it all together
In summary, the beginning stages of training for a winter fatbike ultra requires, in my opinion, the “miles of trials” approach. This means spending countless hours on the bike, using the gear in the field and developing your cold weather ‘systems’ to create a solid foundation so that you can then draw from past experiences, good and bad, and push yourself to the next level. Re-inventing the wheel is not necessary, as someone out there has undoubtedly attempted to do what you’re trying to accomplish, so just ask. There are countless groups, fora and the like where the chatter is constant. Above all, have fun on the bike and remain positive as you develop your new skills for managing yourself and your gear in frigid temperatures.
I am relieved to finally have some cold temperatures to ride in as I tinker away at my final preparations for the Tuscobia Ultra on January 8th, 2016, in Park Falls, Wisconsin. This event is a relatively flat out-and-back 160 miles, where competitors have the choice of skiing, running or cycling. Upon my return, I’ll provide a race report and discuss key ‘learnings’ from this event and some packing and bike prep ideas that worked for me. After the Tuscobia, it is time to share my knowledge with riders taking part in the Lake Winnipeg Fatbike Camp, which I am delighted to be co-guiding for Tour D’Afrique Global Cycling in February of 2016.