Wednesday, September 10, 2014

LOTOJA 2014-- Part 1 (by Rob Critchfield)

Throughout the Western Untied States there are many towns named after Native American tribes or words.  LOTOJA (pronounced “LOE-to-juh” by some and "la-TOE-juh" by others”) sounds like one of those.  Instead, it is an acronym for the longest sanctioned bike race held in the United States.  The acronym stands for LOgan TO JAckson, which means the bike race starts in Logan, Utah and ends in Jackson, Wyoming.  On route, the race travels through Idaho, climbs close to 10,000 vertical feet, and covers over 200 miles.  The race was designed to mimic the European classic races like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders.  On Saturday, September 6, 2014, Rex Batson and I participated in the 31st LOTOJA bike race. 

In addition to the distance, for guys like me that live at sea level, the elevation is another challenge.  Logan, Utah is at about 4,300 feet.  The race climbs as high as 8,600 feet at its highest point.  

LOTOJA is more than a bike race.  It is an epic event for most participants and their families.  Because of the distance, it takes an incredible amount of commitment and discipline to train for this event.  It often becomes a family affair because training for LOTOJA will impact your family.  You just have to put time in the saddle and you really need a supportive family to train for this.  In addition, oftentimes your family is your support team.  They become vested in your ride.

Before describing my experience at the race, I think it makes sense to describe this ride in more detail.  LOTOJA has two general categories and then each category has numerous race groups.  The two categories are the race group, which are riders who are actually racing.  Then there is a nonrace group that LOTOJA calls its cyclosportive group.  This group are strong enthusiast riders who ride LOTJA much like a Grand Fondo. 

The race group has 16 races happening (a Tandem race, Men’s Pro and Cat 1-3 race, a Men’s Cat 3 race, a Men’s Cat 4 race, 4 Men’s Cat 5 races, 3 Master +35 races, 2 Master +45 races, a Master +55 race, a Masters +60 race, and a Women’s Cat 1-4 race).  The cyclosportive group is divided into a race relay (this is where there are teams of 2 to 5 people who ride the distance as a relay team),  5 Men’s 35+ groups, 3 Men’s 45+ groups, a 45 and 50+ group, ride relay, Men’s 25+ groups, and open groups.  Each group consists of anywhere from 30 to 60 + riders.

Because of the distance, support for the ride is critical for a successful ride.  Given the numbers of riders, support is tightly mandated.  There are 7 food stops throughout the ride, of which three of them can be your own support.  The other 4 are what is called neutral support, which are stops supported by the race organizers.  When I say stops, I use that term liberally.  Most racers do not stop.  They speed through the food stops and grab a musette bag to replenish their food and liquids. 

Your food and liquids become very important.  For those of you who ride long distances, you understand what can go wrong.  If you don’t eat enough, your muscles do not have enough energy to continue to peddle and you bonk (  If you take in too much, you can have digestive and gastro intestinal problems, which can also end your day.  If balancing your energy stores are not enough, you have to worry about dehydration and making sure you are taking in enough electrolytes to avoid cramping.  Even if you get these things right, the strain on your muscles can be such that you cramp anyway.

An experienced cyclist can get their food and liquid wrong and still ride a 100 miles strong.  With a 200 mile bike ride, if you get these things wrong, you will usually pay for it before the end of the ride.  Also, these races are usually very competitive.  This is the premier bike race in the Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming area.  Most of the races end in a sprint finish.  Accordingly, one little mistake can cost you a chance to finish on the podium.

I rode LOTOJA with my buddy Rex Batson.  Our final preparation for the ride began in earnest on Friday morning.  For my nutrition, I have become a follower of Alan Lim, the founder of Skratch Labs.   He is a big proponent of eating real foods on the bike instead of bars, gels, and other processed foods (you can read more about this on his blog at  One receipt of his I really like is a cinnamon roll receipt.  The fuel is really the roll but the cinnamon provides a little flavor.  Rex has really come to like these also.  On Friday morning, the day before the Saturday race, Rex and I baked our cinnamon rolls.  We also boiled potatoes and rolled them in salt and Parmesan cheese (another Alan Lim idea).  Further, we made some small Panini sandwiches.

We placed our food in bags and labeled them for each stop.  We prepared our drink mixes and put them in the refrigerator.  We also prepared instructions as to what to give us at each food stop.  There is a lot of logistics that go into preparing for this race.

The food stops are located about every 30 to 50 miles.  There are stops at Preston, Idaho (supported), the top of the strawberry canyon climb (neutral), Montpelier, Idaho (supported for racers and neutral for cyclosportive), the top of the Salt River Pass climb (neutral), Afton, Wyoming (supported), Alpine, Wyoming (supported), and Hoback junction (neutral).  

I have a brother who lives in Logan and another who lives in Afton, Wyoming (which is over 100 miles away from Logan and right on the race route).  My sister and mother were visiting my brother in Afton.  They all agreed to help Rex and me by being our support team.  Rex and I needed to get our food and instructions to my brother who lived in Afton.  We also wanted to get Rex’s car to Jackson so we didn’t have to back track before heading home after the race. 

We had decided that we would not use support in Preston.  We hatched a plan where my brother’s family who lived in Logan agreed to drive Rex’s car to Montpelier.  There, my nephew and his friend would pick it up and drive it along the race route.  We placed our food and drink bottles in Rex’s car with the instructions for our support team.

The week before LOTOJA, my family had a reunion in Logan.  At that time, I gave my brother who lived in Afton several empty water bottles and a packet of scratch labs drink mix.  At that time, I didn’t know what the logistic plans were so I wanted him to have my drink mix just in case I was unable to get him my other stuff before the race.  As I will explain later, that was one of the keys to me having a successful ride.

Rex and I always plan on having a good night’s sleep, but often we don’t get to bed as soon as we had hoped.  Rex found out on Friday night that his son’s wife delivered their first child.  Rex became a grandpa on the eve of LOTOJA.  We were up a little later than we had planned because of this exciting news.

Rex and I signed up for the 35+ cyclosportive group this year.  I was excited to ride this group because I thought there would be some stronger riders.  My goal for LOTOJA was the same as last year.  I wanted to finish the race in under 10 hours.  This would be my third LOTOJA and Rex’s second.  My first, I finished in approximately 11 hours 30 minutes.  My second, which was last year, I finished in 10 hours 56 minutes.  I thought last year my time did not reflect how fast I could ride the race.  I flatted in one section and sat in a slower group longer than I should have in another section.  As a result, I certainly thought under 10 hours was attainable.

I am not sure why I had not done this before, but a few days before the race, I spent quite a bit of time analyzing the race times from prior races.  I started to see some trends.  Basically, I concluded that the success of the race is usually not decided in the first 100 miles where all of the climbing is.  It is really riding the last 100 miles fast.  I also noticed that last year, only two or three riders who were in the 35+ finished the race under 10 hours.  This told me that I would likely not find the stronger riders I expected in this group.  I also determined that to ride this fast, you cannot stop for any significant time anywhere.  It is grab and go if you stop at all. 

Rex and I had a 6:06 a.m. start time.  We were the first 35+ cyclosportive group to leave Logan.  As a result of our early start time, Rex and I woke up about a quarter to 4:00 a.m.  I ate my usually breakfast before a long ride consisting of a couple of pancakes.  I then did some stretching and tried to mentally prepare myself.  I thought my taper for the ride had gone well, but my legs were not feeling great that morning.  Rex and I had gone out on Friday morning and did a fairly easy ride.  We didn’t ride for more than 45 minutes and really just spun our legs.  However, I was feeling the effects of that ride early Saturday morning and it was making me nervous.  I was hopeful that after we got going, my legs would feel better.

My sister-in-law dropped us off at the start about 5:30 a.m.  With the 6:06 a.m. start time, we had plenty of time.  We both continued to mentally prepare for the long day ahead.  We got to the start line and there was hardly anyone there.  They start the race at 6:00 a.m.  They then alternate a race group with a cyclosportive group every three minutes.  At 6:06, we would be the third group to go off.

I have realized over the summer that I seem to do a lot better by drinking a lot more and eating a little less on my rides.  The extra drinking seems to keep my electrolytes balanced.  I used this strategy in the Seattle to Portland ride this year (another ride over 200 miles) and it served me well. 

Rex and I had developed our plan over the few days leading up to LOTOJA.  We would try and stay together, realizing if one of us was stronger he could go ahead.  Rex and I work well together and the plan was to make a two man team for the last 100 miles where we would not have to rely on others to help us.  We would not stop for support in Preston.  We would not stop at the neutral stops but take on the water bottles the volunteers handed to us.  Although Montpelier is not supposed to be a supportive stop for the cyclosportive riders, Rex’s car was exchanging drivers there, so our support group would already be there.  We decided that we would have them hand us water bottles at that stop.  Our plan was then not to stop at the top of Salt River Pass but to go on to Afton.  We would then stop at Alpine for a minute and that was it.  The idea was to keep our stops to a minimum.

A few weeks before LOTOJA, I received my official Cyclopath jersey.  What I love about the jersey is the deep pockets it has.  I knew instantly that I was going to wear the jersey for LOTOJA because of the pockets and the need I have to haul my food and hydration.  With limiting the stops, I would need to carry more on me.  What excited me the most, is I am able to easily fit two water bottles in the back pocket.  This means I can ride with four water bottles.  I had my jersey all packed and ready to go with food, a couple of water bottles, and other necessities.  Everything fit perfect.  The jersey was a big part of my plan not to stop as frequently as I had done last year.

At the start, the weather was about 50 degrees.  I decided to wear arm warmers but opted to forgo a jacket and tights.  I felt like it would warm up enough later in the day and I didn’t want to haul a jacket around.  It did feel a little nippy.  There were plenty of riders who were wearing nickers or tights and had jackets.  Part of the reason is that the temperature usually drops about 5 degrees when you get out of Logan. 

I often over hydrate before a race like this.  I want to make sure everything it topped off.  I drank one water bottle full of scratch mix, which is my main hydration mix.  It is made by Alan Lim’s company scratch labs.  They also make this super salty drink mix  The purpose of it is for guys like me who sweat a lot.  You drink this before a day when you will have a long effort and the idea is that the extra boost of electrolytes is supposed to stave off the deficit you accumulate by sweating on a ride like this.  I had tried this once before with success so I decided to drink it again.  It is nasty stuff.  It tastes like sea water with a hint of Mango.  But, I choked it down about a half hour before our ride started hoping it would help keep me from cramping later in the race. 

I get a little nervous before the start of LOTOJA and it is not unusual for me to use the restroom a couple of times especially with all of the hydration I was taking into my body.  About 12 minutes before the start, I decided to go to the rest room one last time.  As I unzipped the full length zipper on my jersey, the zipper part broke.  It just came off the zipper and was sitting in my hand.  I had no way to zip up my jersey.  I immediately went and found Rex.  He was looking at me like I was crazy having my Jersey fully unzipped in the nippy weather when I walked up to him.  I explained what happened and he gave me this look.  Rex likes to tease me that I do what he calls “Robify” things.  I am a big guy.  As a friend of mine recently told me, you are built more like a tight end than a cyclist.  As such, I am hard on cycling gear.  I wear out cranks, chains, wheels, and cassettes quicker than most.  I have also broken two aluminum frames just by riding them.  Rex is always giving me a hard time about this, and so his look was one akin to him saying “how in the heck did you Robify your jersey?” 

With just 10 minutes before the start of our race, I was in trouble.  It was going to be a long distracting day if I had to ride the ride with an unzipped jersey, not the least of which I didn't want to freeze on this first part of the ride.  The elevation at which this ride happens usually results in me having an elevated heart rate.  Here I was 10 minutes before the start of the ride and I already had an elevated heart rate without turning one pedal rotation.  --To be continued

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