Tour Divide Training: Douglas-fir, Pie & Whitesnake.
Is there a proper way to train for a 2,745 mile self-supported bike race? Josh Kato, last year’s record breaking winner of the Tour Divide, thinks so… and it involves hair metal, donuts, and nary a single trip to the gym.
Words and photos by Josh Kato
I receive a fair number of queries regarding how I trained for my 2015 Tour Divide. It’s a valid question. While there is a growing wealth of online knowledge about bikepack racing gear, there isn’t a whole lot of info on how to train for one of these things. There are some training programs available that deal with races in the range of 750 miles and up. But the Divide is sort of uncharted territory when it comes to training. Then, honestly, is there a proper way to prepare for a self-supported bike race of over 2,000 miles?
I’m not an expert in the field of ultra-endurance race training. I’ve won one race in my adult life. I don’t have a resumé full of endurance event finishes. I’m a middle aged guy with a regular job who happened to go out and have the race of a lifetime. How? Yes, I had a blast, but I also worked my chamois off. The discussion below is what I did in the lead up to my 2015 Tour Divide race. This is not a “how to” article. It’s just how I prepared to race the Tour Divide. No coaches, no medical experts or scientists were involved in designing my training regimen. This is what some random 40 year old guy did before setting out on a 2,745 mile bike race. Somehow it worked. I think it worked because it’s what I love doing—riding my bike in lovely places away from busy roads and bustling coffee shops.
Prior to racing in 2015 I wrote a brief blog post about training for my Divide go. Perhaps it was a bit sarcastic, but it was truthful. In essence, what I thought would work for me was to ride a fatbike, ride uphill a lot, run, ski, stretch, chop and stack wood. I didn’t realize how effective that training program would become. There was cross-training built into the regimen, strength training, flexibility, practicality… and riding. I will try to go into a bit more detail here.
Strength in Numbers, and Pi.
For starters. The stats. These are the numbers that I kept track of. Numbers are easy to interpret and don’t lie too often. In 2015, from January 1 until the start of the Tour Divide on June 12, I rode 3,112 miles for a total of 331 hours, with a cumulative elevation gain of 373,801 feet. I guess numbers that start with 3 are my thing. Is it a coincidence that Pi(e) is 3.14? Hmm…
These days, it’s easy to look at numbers and see who did more of this or that. Miles, time, elevation. Applications such as Strava and the like have made many cyclists into number crunching monsters. You can easily see who is the fastest up a hill or any given stretch of trail or pavement. What the apps don’t readily show you is how those miles were covered. I can go for a 30 mile ride that’s far more challenging than a 100 mile ride. I can make any ride a lot harder than the day before. It’s not about how far you go. It’s more about how you go far. I try to be less concerned with actual mileage, and more concerned with the difficulty of the miles, and the hours I spend in the saddle. Although 100 miles sounds impressive if I put it on social media, a 30 mile ride can be much harder. For example, head out on 30 mile ride, on a loaded fatbike, in a rainstorm, on a poor excuse of a road, with a headwind, up 6,000 vertical feet with almost all of that elevation gained at a gradient of 10% or more. Finally, add about 15 pounds of rocks into the framebag, just for a little character builder. Compare that to a 100 mile ride on fairly level paved roads with a carbon road bike in a group of 5 guys taking turns drafting.
Which is harder? Which is better training? Which will make you tougher? I know which works better for me and it isn’t the longer mileage. Yes, for the record, I do put rocks in my framebag during climbs to add weight to the bike. If you try that method, just be sure to jettison them before the descent. They tend to rattle a bit at speed and I don’t think they are carbon frame compatible. There are numerous creative ways to make your ride more challenging. I’ve gone out for hours and hours with my brake pads dialed in to rub the rotors continuously, carried enough water for 5 guys to run across the Sahara, and put hardcover books and cans of SPAM in my panniers. By definition bikepackers are really pretty “Fred“. Look the part! It will help you later. If you want the easy plan why take on something like the Divide?
Yes, for the record, I do put rocks in my framebag during climbs to add weight to the bike. If you try that method, just be sure to jettison them before the descent.”
I have a non-traditional work schedule and so it makes my training a bit different. I work 12 hour nights, 7pm-7am. On my typical work days, or rather nights, I would wake up at 3pm and go for a fast ride for around 2 hours, if not outside, then a high cadence spin in the trainer. At least I can drink coffee while in a trainer—about the only redeeming aspect of riding inside. To put this in perspective my routine would be more like most day workers getting up at 4am, going to work from 8am-8pm, going to sleep around 10pm and then waking up at 4am to go ride again. Granted, with 12 hour shifts I get more days off in a row than someone who works the typical 5 day work week, so that definitely helps me put in more long days in the saddle. I would usually take a day or two off a week to rest up or cross train.
Bon Jovi as a coach.
On my days off of work I tried to get in as many hours in the saddle as possible. I would typically ride at least 6-8 hours per day and climb at least 10,000 feet with an overloaded bike. Some days were spent grinding up hills, other days I would go out and focus on my spin. I still push hard it just depends on how I do it. Fast spin or hard grind. Those are my usual options. I’m not saying that intervals won’t make you stronger or faster it’s just that I have a lot of hills to ride and I rationalize that a hillclimb is an interval. My longest one day training ride in 2015 prior to the start of the Divide was about 130 miles with 19,000 feet of climbing. I only clocked about a dozen rides over 100 miles prior to the 2015 Tour Divide. I did at least 4 or 5 overnight trips; I like to sleep under the stars, and it’s important to fine tune the gear kit. There is nothing better than waking up early, climbing on the bike and heading out up hill. Although I spent many days out pushing hard, and riding alone. I also spent days riding with my wife. She pedals at a slightly slower pace so these made for nice recovery days. Mind you they were still not “easy” days, with more hills and logging roads—they were long-steady-distance, not long-slow-distance. She was also training for a big ride—the Smoke and Fire 400. She also kept it fun by blaring hair metal and classic rock from a speaker strapped to the handlebar. Maybe having to endure that music improved my tolerance for discomfort, I am not sure.
Not all of my time was spent on the bike. There was cross training and flexibility work. Once a week or so I forced myself to go out for a run. Running is important to strengthen muscles and ligaments for the inevitable hike-a-bike. Also, it reminds me how much I like biking and how much I hate running. I find as I get older the stretching and strengthening component is worth a whole lot more than the 10-30 minutes spent doing it. Far more valuable than riding an additional 30 minutes. Everything works better if I put in the time and effort to stretch, keep flexible and work on some strengthening exercises. My personal focus is on strengthening the core and stretching my hamstrings. I don’t go to a gym. I’m too cheap and introverted for that. Basically I do sit-ups, burpees and good old hamstring stretches. Sure, there are all sorts of isolated exercises and myofascial release techniques, but I really like to keep things simple. Swinging an axe and stacking wood works a lot of muscles, and helps keep the house warm in winter. Plus, it’s just sort of satisfying splitting a good piece of Douglas-fir.
I don’t go to a gym. I’m too cheap and introverted for that.”
Happiness is a workout.
This brings me to an immeasurably valuable aspect of training. Happiness and enjoying yourself, even on the worst days—the mental component. Power meters, wattage, functional threshold potentials, L5 intervals… those are factual, marketable aspects of exercise. It’s not so easy to figure out the psychological strengthening exercises required to successfully complete an ultra. Is this a genetic predisposition? You either have it or you don’t? I don’t think so. Yes, our intrinsic mental make-up probably has some bearing, but I firmly believe the way we train our bodies and the view we choose to take on life, challenges, and love can alter our mental makeup to take on any journey. I can’t tell anyone how to make their mind up to finish something like the Divide. Choosing to train, choosing how you train, choosing to make excuses. It’s all mental. I’d like to be able to offer a class in ultra-endurance brain training but what works for me obviously wouldn’t work for others.
Ultimately I think it’s about balance—finding a way to be miserably happy. Putting rocks in my frame bag, having Whitesnake blasted in my ear on a climb, and dragging a fatbike through creeks during spring run-off with numb feet… it all helps bend my mind to the proper obtuse angle required to enjoy pedaling an average of 190 miles a day, for two weeks straight. But it is a long haul. Going fishing, stopping to watch the sun rise or set, pausing to view an eagle glide over a ridge top. Literally stopping to smell the flowers. These things work to keep my mind fresh. You gotta find what works and embrace it. I’ve said it before, the times when I had the most fun ended up being my fastest times. No coincidence for me. Happiness and joy resulted in speed.
Easy as Pie.
Traditionally, training is a lot like homework. It is something you have to do in order to achieve a final result, but not something you look forward to. The Tour Divide is not a conventional race, and somehow my unconventional program led to the best race of my life. Taking on an ultra such as the Divide has a lot of uncertainty to it. Maybe that’s what draws many of us to these types of events. If a finish was guaranteed, why would we do it? The challenge, pain, uncertainty and happiness of these events can be life altering. With the odds of failure so high, the training had better be rewarding in itself. The way to prepare is up to the individual. For some, keeping stats and following a program works best. For me, I took the basic elements of training and tried to make them more hard and more fun. It takes a tremendous amount of work and not a little bit of luck. Pie and donuts certainly don’t hurt either.
For more on Josh and to follow his adventures, check out his blog, Far Out Wanderings. Also, you can check out his winning 2015 Tour Divide Packlist here. And as always, if you have a good story to share about a ride, carrying rocks, or anything else that has the slightest connection to bikepacking, send us a message.
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.