Riding the White Rim Trail in Eastern Utah is an incredibly beautiful – even spiritual – mountain bike experience. Riding the full White Rim 100 mile loop in a single day (dubbed “WRIAD”) puts the ride in the epic category. Doing WRIAD unsupported in summer turns the ride into a true desert adventure, a potentially brutal final exam on heat acclimation.
100 degree temperatures were forecasted for Moab on our June 4 ride date. The desert would be hotter. My Garmin ride file ultimately indicated a high of 116 degrees, with the majority of the ride over 100 degrees. We would be in the desert for 10 hours, with a ride time of 7hrs 40 minutes to cover 106 miles and 6,400 ft of climbing. (The difference between the two was primarily wait/recovery time for a riding partner going though a colossal bonk, or “de-lamination” as he called it.)
Fortunately all four riding mates were good friends and experienced sufferers: a multiple time Everest mountain guide, a world ultra-distance triathlon champion, a Western States 100 endurance run champion, and a top finisher and Ironman qualifier in Houston two weeks ago.
I live in the Bay Area and almost always ride in the chilly early am hours, so desperately needed some extracurricular heat acclimation to get ready for the trip. Since your body cools itself solely by evaporation, the key is (1) getting your system ready for some serious sweating and (2) making sure the body water system remains full enough to keep the evaporation going and core temp under control. If your core temp gets too high (above 102 degrees or so) your HR will rise, your stomach will start to shut down, and your output plummets. Misery, vomiting, and difficulty follow.
Here are some steps to help manage an extreme effort in the heat:
GET READY TO SWEAT: My ultra-running friends urged daily sessions in the steam room or sauna, starting a 15 minutes and adding 5 minutes a day to 45 minutes. This is not that fun but is made safer and more manageable with a cool drink, reading material (make sure it is disposable!) and stepping out for a quick shower every 5-10 minutes. When possible I would hop on the bike immediately after the “hot chamber” session to incorporate some exercise. The effect of this program is a noticeable HR decrease in heat, and an increase in blood plasma volume – more coolant in your radiator so to speak.
PRE-HYDRATE: You want to start off with a high level of blood plasma. I have tried different pre-hydration schemes, but for really hot efforts would recommend a bazooka of pre-Hydration: Osmo Nutrition makes a great drink that delivers 3000mg of sodium. It tastes so bad they have an advisory on the web site, so best to chug it before bed and 30 min before the big hot ride.
PLAN YOUR HYDRATION: Figure out how much body water you expect to lose. With the forecasted heat I wanted a minimum of 24 oz / hr of fluid plus some margin. This means I would need to bring at least 240 oz (just under 2 gallons) of water with me: a 100oz (3 liter) Camelback, three Playtpus collapsible bags (frozen the night before) and two 24 oz Camelbak insulated bottles.
ESSENTIAL ELECTROLYTES: Almost as important as the water is salt and other electrolytes. I had some real issues with cramping in the heat earlier this season and recently switched to getting salt in the form of sodium citrate… with great results. In addition to the 6000mg of sodium from the Osmo pre-Hydration drink, I took 2 salt tabs per hour (321 mg each). The CLIF Shot Hydration drink and CLIF Shots Energy Gels I consumed also have sodium and potassium. Sodium intake for the ride was over 12,000mg. The American Heart Association recommends 2,000mg for a typical American, not to exceed 3,000mg, so this is A LOT of salt.
GET CALORIES: You will of course need to fuel the effort to avoid bonking. Over the course of the 10 hours on/around the ride, I consumed:
• 6 Scoops CLIF Shot Electrolyte sports drink
• 20 CLIF Shot Energy gels
• Three energy bars
This worked out to 325-350 calories an hour, at a rider weight of 170 lbs, more than enough given that we were not riding that hard until the final climb.
PROTECT YOUR SKIN: Sunburn will impair your body’s ability to shed heat. We all used Neutrogena wet skin spray because it seems to work well on sweaty dirty skin.
To my surprise the heat was not an issue so long as I kept moving. In the end our group made it through the WRIAD unscathed. We had one flat, a broken chain, a handful of minor crashes due to inattention and/or deep sand. My high alpine guide friend got behind on his salt and fuel (which was buried in his pack and inaccessible while riding) causing a major bonk and a stomach shut down replete with vomiting. Fortunately he was used to this sort of agony — and able to get through the adventure requiring only some healthy breaks.
A few other tips worth mentioning:
• Make sure the bikes are as prepared as the riders. A mechanical deep in the desert is serious business.
• Be prepared for those mechanicals that do happen. Someone in the group should be mechanically inclined
• Plastic water bottle cages become useless, and the drink itself will taste like bad hot tea
• Bring an instant ice pack to apply to the back of the neck or wrists, which will help if someone starts to overheat
• Give yourself an out if possible. Two of the guys stashed emergency water before the base of the final climb the night before. Fortunately we didn’t need it. We poured some on our heads and backs: it felt like a scalding shower initially but had a cooling effect on the climb.