The Endurance Path Revisited: Dumb Things Cyclists & Other Ultra Athletes Think & Do

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Endurance News, #59, July 2008. Download that publication here (56 pages; 2.0MB). View this article on the Hammer Nutrition website: Click.

This article is a sequel to "Ten Steps on the Endurance Path: A Prescription for a Long Life on the Long Road," published in Endurance News, #58, April 2008 and in Marathon & Beyond, July / August 2008.


For starters, whether you’re talking about cycling races 100 or 500 or more miles long, all of these ultra cycling events are easier than you think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t occasionally challenging moments or that DNFs won’t or don’t occur, but for most people, most of the time, riding or racing an ultra isn’t, ultimately, all that hard. You don’t have to be a god or goddess to complete one, or several. But of course, other people will think so, thereby elevating your status within your social circle. But again, the difficulty of essentially all the ultra races is grossly exaggerated. Don’t buy into the hype. Ultras are far easier than you think! *


Next, it’s heresy to state this amidst our “consumer economy,” but you don’t need a five thousand dollar bike, or even a two thousand dollar bike, let alone a ten thousand dollar bike, to be any particular kind of cyclist. If you’re comfortable and efficient, relatively aerodynamic, and your bike is reliable, that’s all that matters. Period. I can absolutely guarantee that you will not ride uphill any faster on a super-light bike, and that’s even more true if your body fat is not currently in the single digit range.


Cyclists, get your nose out of the pavement! Riding bent way over is not going to make you faster, because, in fact, you won’t actually ride bent way over if you set your handlebars way below your saddle. I see this all the time at my events and out on the road: The tops of the bars are 4 to 8 inches below the saddle. Such a bike with NO RIDER on it looks really racy. But put the rider on it, with their back rounded and their fingertips barely touching the TOPS of the bars (never the drops), and you’ve got somebody who might as well be riding a beach cruiser. Trust me, the “coolness” of all the fancy Tour de France-ready bikes we see is completely wasted on 90% of their owners. (And 90% of all cyclists I see do, indeed, ride in the manner described.)


During the my eighteen years as the race director of Furnace Creek 508, I have made one consistent observation over and over again about the front-runners versus the rest of the field (in either the solo or relay divisions): the top 3-5 in each division practically live on their aero bars and/or in the drops. Everybody else? Wind-scooping time-wasters!

Instead of looking like a poser, set the bars up to the same level as the saddle, and then actually ride in the drops, A LOT. Your sum total of aerodynamic drag will be massively lower than the guy with the Lance Armstrong-wannabe set-up who never actually rides in the drops.


The current penchant for high-cadence pedaling notwithstanding, too many riders let their legs bog down while cycling. Avoid this energy-zapper with one simple mantra: “lively legs!” Don’t let your legs bog down when you hit a hill. Shift into a lower gear as you stop at red lights and stop signs. Keep your legs feeling fresh by regularly asking yourself: “Do my legs feel lively?”


Many people glorify the front-runners in ultra races and imagine that they must endure untold amounts and types of pain in order to arrive at the finish line ahead of everyone else.

Wrong! Actually, front-runners are at the front because they can be - due to genetics, training efforts, mental toughness, and natural ability. Ultras are the easiest for the fastest racers.

The people who really suffer at ultras are the back of the packers. If you hang out at the finish line of an ultra from first through last place, you will see a nearly linear progression from looking fresh as a daisy to looking like death warmed over as the field crosses the line. Every racer is completing the same route, the same mileage, and the same number of mountain climbs. However it’s the slower racers who are hit the hardest by the experience because it’s simply hours in the saddle - including hours of lost sleep and hours of exposure to wind, heat, cold, and sun - which really trashes ultra athletes. So, if you want to feel fresh for another race soon after one ultra, finish it quickly!


I constantly observe that endurance athletes don’t take their nutrition and hydration plan seriously at all times. Many use the “see food” diet - if they see it, they eat it. They also “reward” themselves with things they shouldn’t be eating or drinking. Also, when many endurance racers “smell the barn,” they stop eating and drinking properly. I’ve had people drop out of Furnace Creek 508 with only 10 or 20 miles to go because they were so brain-starved and couldn’t think straight, from not eating properly or from simply abandoning their scientific eating system with a mere century to go! When it comes to ultra sports, food is fuel, not entertainment.


It is a lie that ultra racers need to train 400 to 1000 miles a week to prepare for ultra races. This is another myth perpetrated by RAAM racers who think it makes their cycling accomplishments seem more impressive. Farther is not better. In fact, it is counter-productive and does more harm than good to ride more than 300-400 miles a week in training. There is absolutely no physiological rationale for training mega miles in cycling. On any given ride, there’s zero fitness benefit to riding more than about 80 miles.

The actual benefit to riding over 80 miles, like 200 miles or more, is that you learn how your body reacts, or breaks down, from the long hours out there: Do you get saddle sores? Does your neck hurt? Do you start feeling queasy and throw up because you’re eating and drinking the wrong stuff, or wrong combination of stuff? Do your hands, fingers, feet, or other extremities go numb? These are the important things you learn from riding really far on occasion.


Lots of ultra racers talk about quality over quantity, but it’s mostly just that: talk. How many of them know their anaerobic or lactate thresholds, regularly do structured intervals, compete in traditional bike races, or even train with speedy club rides?

Almost none, and in my opinion it’s because they're scared of the competition and finding out they’re not as fast as they think they are.

It's very simple: you can either have quality or quantity miles. Make them count.

When I completed RAAM at age 20 in 1987, I only rode or raced 100 miles at once on five occasions in the eight months prior to RAAM. Instead of just riding lots and lots of miles like my competitors, I competed in USCF races, in triathlons, and in mountain bike races, plus I trained weekly with a racing club  and took a racing class at the velodrome. I rarely rode even 300 miles a week, let alone more than that. That approach helped me to ride faster and to sleep 2 to 3 times more per night than my competitors when I completed RAAM. I also had more fun! (Jonathan Boyer used the same approach when he won RAAM in 1985 and then again in 2006 at age 50.)


Finally, please understand that living and training like a hermit is not necessary to prepare for an ultra, nor is it necessary, nor healthy, to do zillions of ultras year after year.

There’s something to be said for keeping things in perspective, as well as remembering that one person should not always be the center of their family’s universe. Does the family really enjoy “support crew vacations” year after year, or should that Huge Weeks-Long Race be skipped, perhaps to do what the Significant Other dreams about instead? Maybe even leave the bike at home, too! (Hey, spinning classes are everywhere now and running shoes don’t take up much room in the suitcase, right?)

* Why, you might ask, do I state that ultras are far easier than people think? Because the people who do ultras, almost without exception, do them because they can, literally, while other people can’t, or at least think they can’t. Ultras are actually pretty easy for these people to do and they’re motivated, in part, by demonstrating that they can do something that most other people can not or will not do. Thus ultra sports generally attract natural-born ultra athletes; conversely, ultra athletes scare away people who either can’t do them, or are too scared to try.


Chris Kostman has lived on the endurance path since 1982. Besides competing in races as diverse as the Race Across America, the Triple Ironman, and the 100-mile Iditasport Snowshoe Race, he also organizes endurance events such as the Badwater Ultramarathon and Furnace Creek 508 and a series of five-day cycling camps. This is his fourth article for Endurance News. More info at