I recently participated in a 7-day, 220+ mile mountain bike stage race in the heart of Pennsylvania. It’s called the “Transylvania Epic” (TSE): epic because it’s rugged, rocky, and boasts almost 27,000’ of climbing for the week; Transylvania because you get to meet a few vampires and along the route, and Dracula himself may occasionally hand you up a beer.
The week is hard, intense, and a lot of fun. I wrote a stage-by-stage report of the race here. But that was preaching to the choir. A more interesting question is: what are the benefits of doing a stage race at all?
The same could be asked of any extended endurance race. It isn’t obviously better for your health to train for and complete an event that breaks down your body brutally and repeatedly; in fact, some studies indicate that prolonged endurance training has deleterious health effects. It also isn’t obviously better psychologically to place yourself in a situation, as I did, where you are competing mainly with professional athletes you’ll probably never come close to even on your best day. So what are the incentives?
One thing is definitely challenge. Everyone has a different perspective on challenge, of course, but the TSE is something almost nobody could just show up and do. It requires a comfort level with mountain biking that may take years to develop, and it requires enough training to allow your body to tolerate back-to-back hard efforts. Because completion of this event is a little elusive, it is something to cherish, a physical triumph you can look back on with pride. This is probably all the more so if you complete these events as you get older and still kick some ass.
That’s all true, but for me there is another prize from stage racing: I get to treat my body as a specimen and a machine. And I love that.
Like many women, I have not always had an easy relationship with my body. I’ve spent a lot of time—far too much time—criticizing it, despairing over it, feeding it chaotically, depriving it, and generally neither cherishing nor rewarding it. My relationship with my body is not bad now, but I still find something satisfying in being literally forced to listen to and place the needs of my body first.
For example, there have been some posts here on workout fashion. I like the topic and read the posts with interests, but for stage racing it is not much of an issue. At very least by stages 3 or 4, I guarantee you will not wear a clothing item for any purpose other than function. You will avoid anything peripheral and you simply will not care if one jersey looks better on you than other: you will choose the one that best allows comfort and performance (at least provided it isn’t too stinky).
Then there is food. Before doing the TSE, my friend/coach recommended I try to consume 700 calories an hour during the races and also eat a decent size meal straight afterwards (followed, sometimes quite soon afterwards, by dinner). I wasn’t going to be able to do 700, but I aimed for 500, which is more than double what I usually consume per hour on a training ride. This meant careful calculation of drink mix and energy foods, and literal force-feeding when the race was done. That sounds unpleasant, and in some ways it definitely was, but it was also extremely interesting for me to be in the position of not being able to consume enough. Especially when my post-race meal was mac’ and cheese. I’m what they call a hearty eater, and the challenge has always been knowing when and how to stop. Finding that I needed to eat more (for performance) than I could manage was an unusual feeling. I found that I didn’t really like it: it made me feel weak and less powerful than optimal. This led me to appreciate, once again, that my body needs to be fueled, and sometimes it requires a whole lot of fuel to work well.
Finally, stage racing lends an overwhelming simplicity to life. Your focus is on riding and then how best to recover from riding, which mainly involves eating and resting. There is little additional drama. Nobody cares about your hair, your clothes, or the rapidly growing stubble on your legs. You generally do what is the most comfortable and productive for yourself, all week. In short, if you weren’t already, you get to be a man. By which I mean a stereotypically laid back, self-centered and unselfconscious man. Whether or not that person actually exists, you get to occupy his psyche. And it certainly is an agreeable place to hang out, at least for a while.
Endurance racing trims down some of the emotionally draining anxieties of life because your focus is on fighting physical depletion. I’ve found that other multi-day athletic events such as bike tours and backpacking trips bring a similar freedom. But for me racing is a little purer, because the exertion is that much greater. I still can’t really say whether it’s actually good for you. But I think the perspectives you’re forced into are valuable. And it certainly is addictive!
Addendum: we recently had a piece here on randonneurs and sleep deprivation. This isn’t quite that. The more sleep you can get during the TSE, the better! It is another way to nurture your body into giving its best performance. I have friends who enjoy 100 mile mountain bike races, and have not been tempted. Six or maybe seven hours is as long as I like to spend on a bike. But perhaps I should try it. Is everything I love about stage racing simply intensified by more and more hours of exertion?
Rachel is a plaintiffs’ class action lawyer in Boston, MA. She was formerly a philosophy professor, and likes to think she remains a philosophical thinker. She rides all sorts of bicycles, but her first love is mountain biking and she races regularly at the amateur level. She is also leader of Team LUNA Chix Boston Mountain Bike, which leads bike rides for women in the Boston area.