The sport of ultracycling and how to train in it

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When Kabir Rachure got up in the wee hours of September 11, the sky looked threatening. As he lined up for the start line of the Great Himalayan Ultra, the world’s tallest ultra-cycling race, the rain fell. It was obvious that the road was going to become difficult for the next 600 kilometers.

Rachure, 30, relied on all his previous experience. He had won two consecutive editions of the high altitude race in Ladakh in 2018 and 2019. The course, which involves an elevation gain of 10,300 meters, takes the riders from Leh to Dras near Kargil along the NH1 and back. in Leh. Besides the thin air, participants should also be prepared to face the elements.

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Despite an unsavory start, Rachure finished the race in style, winning it for the third time. And the victory was only part of the story, as he finished the race in a record time of 25 hours 50 minutes. It was about 5.15 hours better than its previous mark and almost seven hours ahead of second place.

“The weather was my initial concern, but it actually helped us. In previous editions, the scorching heat wore out the body. You couldn’t use the muscles well, which made progress difficult when the sun was out. This year, although there was rain, strong head winds and freezing temperatures to deal with, I was able to push harder with the right layer in place, ”explains Rachure.

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Much of his training took place on an indoor trainer, where he timed between 8 and 10 hours each week. Most of the sessions were based on what is called sweet spot training, where Rachure sought to find the right balance between intensity and volume of effort. Its main objective was to increase its functional threshold power (FTP). This is a common performance measure based on how much power a rider can generate over an hour. Doing so, in turn, helped him improve his stamina.

For the altitude, Rachure also did a VO2max workout, where the muscles adapt to functioning with less oxygen, similar to what the body would experience in the mountains. “I normally do one VO2max session in two weeks; this time, I did two sessions in one week. These sprints last between 20 seconds and a minute and a half, several sets that do not exceed 75 minutes in all. It was the main change in my routine, ”he says. Rachure says he wasn’t interested in training specifically for distance or endurance. “None of my sessions lasted more than three hours. I’ve run enough to know what it takes to be in the saddle for long hours, ”he said.

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In July, Rachure undertook a half attempt at Everesting, where he achieved a total elevation gain of 4,450 meters in 3.40 hours. Two weeks later, he made a full Everest attempt in 8.26 hours. “It was a big boost in understanding my climbing abilities. I found my body in good rhythm, ”he says. The only real assessment of his endurance was possible during the National Time Trial Championship on August 15th. Rachure raced in the 24 hour class and won the event after covering 763 km. He only spent 11 minutes out of the saddle during the entire effort. “The muscle memory was in place, as was the habit of riding for long periods of time. Plus, the Great Himalayan Ultra has a mandatory three hour break, so I was confident my preparations were in place, ”he says.

Much of Rachure’s focus was on the recovery process. He included dry berries, grapes, and green tea in his diet, as they are high in antioxidants and known to aid in recovery. Most of the protein intake came from natural sources instead of supplements. He took ice baths once every two weeks to relieve fatigue, which also prepared his body for the cold temperatures of Ladakh. Finally, for a week before the race, Rachure slept nearly 10 hours a day. “The body would recover better at lower altitudes in Navi Mumbai, so I decided to spend more time here. Two weeks would be enough to acclimatize to the altitude, ”he says.

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The first three days in Leh were spent resting. On the fourth day, he traveled 45 km, but turned back after feeling uncomfortable. After two more days of rest, he covered 50 km on the flat and finally found his rhythm. Five days before the race, he did a final 68km run, then focused on his diet and fine-tuning his bike. “Much of the food I ate was prepared by my sister, Sapana, so the nutrition was there. We could easily get some fresh, organic veg, so I think it worked out better. I stayed away from non-vegetarian foods other than eggs because digestion would be a problem at altitude, ”he says.

Along with Sumit Patil, a seasoned endurance cyclist familiar with the course, they defined the race strategy: where they could push, the right place to overtake other riders and where the elements could hinder their progress. The plan was to run alongside a team who had multiple cyclists, so he could maintain a higher speed while having them run compared to the solo participants. “I realized that if we kept the pace with the team, we could increase our time steadily in the first half of the race. I mentally divided the course into two sections – 380 km to Kargil, after which I would have three hours of rest. The body then resets itself, so that the last 220 kilometers are not so felt. By Khalsi, around 130 km in the race, we took the lead over all the runners. And I still hadn’t taken a break until then, ”he says.

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The total time out of the saddle for the entire race was only 40 minutes, most of it changing his riding gear to adapt to the weather. By the time Rachure reached Kargil for the mandatory three-hour break, he had widened a 70km gap over the second-in-class rider. “The first 380 kilometers decide if you’re going to win or lose. I knew where to push and how hard I could push, and where I had to take it slow. And my seasoned crew only complimented my efforts. This explains why I had such a solid finish, ”says Rachure.

Shail Desai is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.


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