If life responsibilities and scheduling weren’t an issue, my training would probably look something like this: Map out a huge ride, complete huge ride. There’d be no high or low intensity, no hard or easy days. Just ride zone two for a very, very long time, but see things. Explore. I think I stumbled into cycling from the ultra running world with the expectation that I was just going to see more places, faster. This has been true, but when it comes to the racing aspect, the adventure plan on training doesn’t exactly pay off like it does in ultra running.
I’ve been dabbling with the racing in the gravel scene since 2017 and over the last two years I’ve had to learn that huge rides and being a zone two hero will make you great at riding zone two. However, it will not make you particularly fast. As it turns out, having very easy days and very hard days does make you faster. “Training” as the pros call it. This year I decided to race three events, Maisie’s Pride in May, Crooked Gravel and Sbt Grvl in August. Getting the hang of training for these events has actually been quite an adjustment for me. It involves a lot of looking at my TrainingPeaks calendar, balancing when I can and can’t run based on whether or not I have a Vo2 workout the next day, or seeing if I have a big ride with some intervals worked into it. It also involves a lot of looking at my work schedule.
From the middle to the end of July I normally would have been doing bigger more intense rides. However, I had two back to back week long work trips, the second being international with red eye, very long travel days on either end of it. All of this meant I’d be poorly rested and also unable to do much training. Knowing this I had to make some adjustments. During the week of international travel, I would just make that a rest week. But going into that, I’d want to rack up some fatigue. So during the first work trip, I’d need to squeeze in some intense rides when I could. Following my international trip, despite not really doing much of any riding or running, I took a day off when I returned and another day easy, as the transit was stressful and left me with about four hours of sleep. Stress is stress is stress.
That being said, at this point it was the last few days of August and my races were right around the corner, so I couldn’t just idle and hope my aerobic engine would carry me though 100 miles. The races were August 10th and 18th, SBT Grvl being the later, more important one. I was using Crooked Gravel to fine tune my nutrition plan and just ride at altitude, since the course was above 9000 ft the whole time. The week before Crooked gravel, I did some high intensity, followed by a ride that had 30minutes of tempo on gravel. The tempo on gravel was mainly just to make sure I still remembered how to ride quickly on loose surfaces. Up until that point I had ridden just my road bike in training. I wanted to ensure that I could actually take some sketchy corners at speed. Seven days prior to Crooked Gravel, I did a longer ride, again mainly focusing on eating and drinking, but also incorporating in some sprints and a few eight minute threshold efforts.
It might be clear, but the things I was mostly focusing on were very short intense efforts, skill work and my nutrition game plan. This is because all of those are my weak points. Maybe it’s because I’m a runner, but I could forget to eat during a 4 hour ride. I could also ride forever in zone two on a perfectly paved surface. But the point of training and racing is to improve and then test yourself to see how much, if any, you’ve improved.
When Crooked Gravel finally arrived, I was ready to roll. I slept poorly, but wasn’t too worried about it. The format of the event was unique in that it had three timed segments. The other parts of the ride were just that, a ride. You could make the ride and the segments as hard or easy as you wanted. I chose to just ride the whole thing fairly steadily. I didn’t actually want to dig myself into a big hole the weekend before SBT GRVL. The ride ended up going fairly well. I enjoyed the format of time segments, since that meant I was able to ride with a good group of people the whole time. The course was pretty challenging. High altitude, rainy weather, a big climb and a rowdy descent. I felt that my nutrition and hydration were pretty on point the whole day. The race gave me some confidence that I wouldn’t be winging it entirely the next weekend.
The week of SBT GRVL, a wrench got thrown my direction, but a good, very fast wrench. I got a new gravel bike, the Cervelo Aspero. While it might not have been the smartest idea to pilot a brand new bike for 100 miles with very little time spent on it, I couldn’t help myself. This only came back to bite me a little bit, but mainly after the race was over, turns out you should measure twice and make sure the setback is accurate. If not, you might end up with knee and back pain. I drove up to Steamboat on Thursday evening, so that I could do a shake out ride on Friday and some openers on Saturday. A taper week is always my worst feeling week, so neither of these rides felt great and had me questioning myself a bit. I started adjusting my expectations for the race. Thinking that maybe it was just going to be a fun ride and I’d just cruise around all day casually. Best Bike Split, a program that takes all your heart rate zones (and power data if I used that) and training data to estimate your finishing time for a race, predicted that I would finish the race in 6:17. Which at this point, I’d be fine with anything under 7, or so I kept telling myself.
Per usual I slept horribly before the race, but that’s just who I am at this point. The early start meant an early breakfast and a cold ride to the start line. Once the race kicked off, I knew I’d need to find a group and settle in. Which is pretty much what happened for most of the race. I was able to push on the climbs, because that’s a strong point for me, and recover a little by sitting on during a descent. I never felt particularly good during the first 50 miles of the race. In fact, there was a lot of negative self talk or dumbing down my finishing time expectations. But in the back of my head, I know that I’m a second half of the race person, in fact the longer a race, the better I’ll do. Not because I get exponentially faster, but because I need a while to warm up and I just fatigue much, much later than most (aka I get slower, slower.) I blame ultra running for this.
After mile 50, I felt like I was getting into a good grove. I was feeling good and my legs felt like they wanted to work instead of me forcing them to turn the pedals. The last short climb and descent were a blast. The last section of dirt road was technical and fast, which was pretty fun to ride. The last bit of the race finished on an undulating paved road with a bit of a headwind. I definitely wished I was able to draft here, as I had been riding alone for the past twenty miles or so. But this section flew by and before I knew it, I was making the last turns into town and the finish was in sight.
I ended up beating my Best Bike Split, finishing in a time of 5:34, making me the 8th woman the 4th in my age group. Which is a time I’m proud of. I don’t think I could have ridden too much faster that day.
It’s been fun to be able to see my times improve this year. I don’t have any racing left, but I do feel pretty fit. For a brief moment on the drive home after the race I felt a little lost as to what I’d do for the next few months of nice weather. That feeling was quickly washed away when a few of my pro roadie friends who are also done with racing this year messaged me about some huge adventure rides we have to squeeze in this year. Guess I know how I’m spending what’s left of my fitness.
Reese is an avid trail runner and cyclist. When she isn’t out riding gravel roads or running up a mountain near her home in Colorado, she’s drinking hot tea and staring at her French Bulldog, Loaf.
Check out @reeseruland for proof.