Great Divide Race June 2005




Endurance Riding

Endurance: A bearing or suffering; a continuing under pain or distress without resistance, or without sinking or yielding to the pressure; sufferance; patience.

Endurance, what does it mean? Flick through the pages of any Mountain Biking magazine or website and you'll come across the word, it's ubiquitous and perhaps a little overused. It can mean anything from a six hour team race lapping around the woods to twenty four hour solo races on rigid singlespeeds or multi day TransAlp style events in the mountains. They are all enduring in their own right, some more than others, but the unifying factor must be that the participant bears sufferance, mentally and physically, because for some people, in a bizarre way, through suffering comes satisfaction, enlightenment and true reward.

The chances are that you've probably taken part in some sort of endurance race or event. You might not have experienced all of the defining characteristics of 'Endurance' mentioned but it will have been challenging, satisfying, maybe even enjoyable and the chances are you woke up the next day feeling a bit stiff but on the whole pretty fine, and your self esteem was up a few notches.

So, you feel good, you have a few of these races tucked under your belt, but now there is something in you that wants things a little harder, what happens next? Well, the options for racing start to narrow considerably and pretty much don't exist in the UK. A good progression is to nip across to Switzerland and have a go at the Cristalp, about 130 km of fine scenery, great climbs and hospitality Euro style. If you like that then stick you neck out and go for the TransAlp, eight days of back to back riding from Mittenwald in Germany to Lake Garda in Northern Italy. Finish that and you'll have a warm comfortable feeling of satisfaction to get you through the rest of summer.

But come autumn, you're flicking through pages of obscure websites and magazines in search of something which might just scare you. I've found and tried a few of these races and in some small way the people I have met and the places I have visited have changed my life.

Ultra Endurance

"I find that when I run a long race I get to meet some new people including myself. And that's the guy I'm trying to figure out."

Ultra: Beyond

There are few 'accessible' organised races that come harder than the TransAlp or TransRockies but once you find them you enter the world of 'Ultra Endurance', and this world has light and dark sides. It is a world that not only tests your physical ability to the limit it also bends and twists your psyche. Ultra Endurance racers have to be stalwart in body but more so in their mind or the dark side will consume them and failure will follow. If you make it through the dark times you eventually emerge into the light and a feeling of fulfillment.

A reasonable definition of Ultra is when a race has no defined stages only a start and a finish; you decide how many hours in a day you race and rest. As a rule of thumb anything under four or five days just isn't Ultra!

In Ultra events there is no discrimination between the sexes, women compete on a level playing field with the men and have as much chance of reaching their goal. A man who dismisses another Ultra racer because they are female is a fool to himself.

My first true ultra endurance race was the Ultrasport Idita, a 350 mile unsupported winter race across the frozen wastes of Alaska to a small town called McGrath on the other side of the Alaska Range where Mt McKinley stands. Ultra, maybe, but far from ultimate, hard core racers go the full distance, 1100 miles to Nome, affectionately known as the 'Thin White Line'. In the race of 2002 Andy Heading took 28 days to cover the 1100 miles in conditions so debilitating he lost considerable body mass. The race to McGrath these days is almost regarded as a sprint. This race has a twist in that you can either bike, walk or ski and you need not declare your mode of transport until you get to the start line. Think you can beat a skier or walker on your bike, then try this race.

In 2004 my own race was less dramatic than Andy Headings ride to Nome but it had its moments. River ice broke beneath my bike and my boots froze solid as liquid soaked into the fabric. My rear mech was encased in ice for the rest of the ride and I could not change gear, I peed on it, momentarily freeing it only to end up with a rear mech encased in a golden block. A bivouac on the avalanche prone slopes of Rainy Pass after an 18 hour slog through waist deep snow. Towards the end of the race I would stand over the bike in the moonlight and fall asleep slumped over the bars for minutes at a time before waking and moving on. In that frozen waste I was slowly beginning to discover things about myself.

It's not all bad in winter Alaska otherwise the same racers wouldn't go back year after year. Biking in frozen river gorges and cruising down snow packed singletrack in the woods is perhaps one of the wildest most enjoyable things I have ever done on a bike. Stop pedaling for a few minutes and there is the most complete and utter silence you have ever experienced, do this at nighttime and you will feel a greater distance from your normal life than ever before.

The journey to Nome changes each year, alternating between a Southerly and Northerly section. The Southerly section is more remote and the trail less reliable. In 2005 Carl Hutching set a new record for this route, reducing Andy Headings 28 days to a mere 22. These 22 days included a 4 day bivi waiting for the trail to become rideable. It was so cold plastic pumps shattered, food ran out and pine needle tea rich in vitamin C was drunk. It snowed, it rained and unimaginable winds blew him from his bike and across the ice. It was ultra.

The annual assembly of Idita racers is one big extended family that welcomes newcomers; one of its greatest assets is the camaraderie and mutual respect that racers have for each other. Get through one of these events and you know how hard it has been for you and the others.