200km | 11.000ft of elevation | 8:20hrs
I started cycling in 2014 and have grown substantially as a cyclist since then. So when my friend Zach brought up the Horribly Hilly Hundreds (HHH) back in February, I was immediately intrigued. I like climbing and we don’t get nearly enough of it around Chicago. I ambitiously signed up for the 200k, because why not go all in when the opportunity presents itself?
With countless plans in mind on how to train for a challenge like this, I knew I wanted to focus on two things:
I was fairly confident that the distance would not be an issue, even though I hadn’t ridden a century in a while. My longest ride training for the HHH ended up being an 80-miler, which was probably not the smartest but also didn’t present a problem in the end. Hill training in the Chicago area is much more difficult than dialing in your nutrition. I'll start with nutrition and hydration.
For an all day-ride like the Horribly Hilly Hundreds, I knew I wanted to make sure I get enough fuel in from mile one. I figured that nothing would be worse than bonking, especially on a hot day in the middle of rural Wisconsin. So for a few months I experimented with my mid-ride and recovery nutrition to figure out what works best for me.
My go to breakfast is oatmeal. Always. I guess I am a creature of habit in this regard. I usually top my oatmeal with chia seeds, coconut flakes, cinnamon, almonds, dried cherries and some fresh fruit or a spoon of jam. And it goes without saying that this is paired with a giant cup of coffee. If I go on a ride right away, this will do. For the HHH, I added some extra fats to the routine about 2 hours before the start. As we had to drive to Mount Horeb, find parking and meet up with our fellow riders at the start line, I had half a muffin before the started pedaling.
As my sweat rate is also relatively high and I found myself craving salt after my summer rides, I knew I needed to pay attention to my electrolyte levels. I am not a fan of taste in my drinks, so Gatorade and similar sports drinks were a no go for me. I enjoyed Osmo Hydration Mix, but my product of choice for ‘race day’ was GU Roctane Summit Tea as it contains more calories. This mix is designed for strenuous activity and packs extra electrolytes and both maltodextrin and fructose. Those carbohydrates use different pathways to get absorbed and transformed into energy. In addition to sodium, the primary electrolyte lost in sweat, it contains amino acids taurine and beta-alanine to maximize performance.
I also made sure to also keep some salt tablets with me (which I ended up using after mile 80).
For the longest time, I had trouble assessing how much nutrition I needed on rides, and what works for me. I started out with gels and energy drinks and very quickly realized that I do not want to depend on this gooey sugary sweetness all ride long. I moved over to almonds and dried fruit, which tasted much better but didn’t give me the energy as fast as I needed it. I finally found that energy chews (I absolutely love the Clif Blok salted watermelon chews) work decently well for on rides with a mid-ride snack stop. During those stops, I’d either just get some local pastries or snack on a homemade bar and a banana or barnana snacks. For a ride as long as the Horribly Hilly, I knew I wanted to be prepared and try non-sugary snacks. My favorite combination for training rides were plantain chips and egg muffins with spinach, prosciutto and dried tomatoes. Using “real food” for fuel is just a little different from gels and bars, and I am happy I tried it out during training. Luckily, the rest stops at the HHH were well equipped with a plethora of options – from M&Ms and trail mix to water melon to wraps, PBJ sandwiches and, of course, pickles. During the race, I made it a point to eat at every rest stop, so roughly every 25 miles. I ate (probably too much) watermelon and one wrap/sandwich per stop, and added some M&Ms here and there. Between stops, I would shoot for 1-2 Clif Blok chews. This strategy worked really well for me. And even though I naturally devoured the Custard served at the finish line immediately, I didn’t feel as if I was starving, which has definitely happened to me more often than not after a ride.
During training, I would try to supplement with some protein shakes after particularly hard efforts. I really like Garden of Life protein because it tastes non-artificial and has never caused any GI issues for me. In the evenings, I would also try to drink a tart cherry juice and take Cherry Flex softgels. Tart cherries contain antioxidant anthocyanins and melatonin that can help with muscle recovery and sleep improvement. I wanted to do everything I could to help my body recover faster – placebo effect or not.
Finding Hills – the Chicago Area Edition
I’m sure everyone knows that riding in Chicago is wonderful, but that is mostly because of our community, not because of our scenic, hilly terrain. When I registered for the HHH in February, I imagined all the ways I’d implement hill work into my training and it all made sense in my head. And then I forgot about it for a loooong while. I rode a bunch, but I didn’t do any targeted training really. I did 2-3 days of indoor training from January through March, and luckily, some of it included long, grueling low-cadence intervals to set my legs up with the strength needed to conquer hills.
I knew I was not going to get in a lot of riding in April because of a busy work/travel schedule, so I focused on strength training and yoga - stronger core, stronger cycling! When May rolled around I started to slightly panic in light of reality: only one more month! Yikes! I went all in and upped my monthly mileage from 450 in April to 740 miles in May. Those included the La Crosse TT and Road Race in Wisconsin (elevation!) and plenty of rides to Barrington, various boat ramps along Lake Michigan, and some nice new routes around the Lemont area (thanks to Anthony for being a superbe ride architect!). I also went on a short West Coast-escape to tackle the infamous Mount Tam. It was a sobering experience, as the 5,500 feet of elevation during a 65-ish mile ride seemed excruciatingly hard – and were only half of what I had to master come June 17.
While I didn’t leave California feeling any more prepared than before, I think going out on a total of three relatively hilly rides in a row helped prepare my legs to deal with the climbing challenge that was to come. Looking back, I think it really helps going out of your way to find routes that cater to the terrain of the ride to train for this much elevation. It doesn’t have to be California, but something as simple as doing hill repeats at boat ramps or finding some challenging neighborhood climbs in Lemont really helped me gain more confidence when it comes to hills.
As my calendar finally displayed June, I had this strange feeling of “it’s too late to do anything now”. I felt regret over not having prepared more diligently, about not having ridden longer rides (my longest ride pre-HHH ended up being an 80 miler in March). I felt like I wasn’t treating the challenge with enough respect. But I also knew like I would not bail and either do a shorter distance, or DNS. I just had to tough it out and trust in what I had done and what I got in me, mentally and physically. I did another 80-miler two weeks before the big day and a few more scattered 45-milers – building more on speed and strength than endurance. I finished June with 730 miles total, with the first week coming close to 300 miles and the “taper week” before race day totaling only 55. I wanted to at least be well-rested before the big day.
During the HHH, I did most of my climbing at a really high cadence in order to save my legs for the distance. Had I done more longer rides, I would probably have had more confidence to “attack the climbs” instead of just trying to get up there with the least amount of work possible. I spent roughly 4:30 hrs in my power zone one and only a total of ten percent of the ride in zones five and six, I guess that says it all. One of my goals for a future HHH is definitely to push my pace and my climbing, and definitely work on my descents, instead of focusing on extreme recovering during the flats and downhills.
Preparing for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds definitely gave me a better grasp about what my body can do and what I can do to fuel my body. While I don’t think I have everything figured out quite yet, experimenting with different nutrition choices during training can be fun (or not so fun). At the very least, it’s interesting. I am decidedly happy that I conquered those 127 miles of hills and beautiful Wisconsin scenery and actually had fun with it. For now, I look forward to finding my next challenge for 2018.
Jasmin Welter is a dedicated commuter and competitive cyclist and triathlete, riding her mostly pink bikes around Chicagoland year-round. Jasmin is an Ambassador for The Chainlink and is involved with several other initiatives and brands to get more women on bikes. Jasmin writes regularly about new products, women cycling, commuting and more. Follow her on Instagram: @tri.heart and @princess_layup.