Marathon racing is different in any country you travel to. Australia likes a standard 100 kilometre event, with as little sealed road as possible. Austrians want climbing, climbing and more climbing – 4000m in about 80 kilometres seems to be where they have settled. Polish marathons are just hard: more kilometres and vertical metres than stated, along with talented, strong riders. The Swiss like plenty of options to keep everyone happy, good organisation, and some classic scenery. In the US they do it Hard Style. Blame Napoleon for not conquering the English – but Americans run imperial, so 100 milers are the norm.
Garth Prosser (Cannondale Factory Racing) has been racing this US-style of event, and stage races, for the past decade. He talked to MarathonMTB.com about how he found the sport, and how he manages his life around it.
“I come from a distance background, tracing it back to my early childhood as a fat kid. I started running between my family’s different farms, which were sometimes miles apart. I had done 5 hour runs many times before I hit 18. I just had this fat-phobia, I am sure we could get an analyst to dissect out the root of it! But unfortunately there wasn’t much information out there in the early 1980s in midwest USA on ultra-running, so I just plodded through it. I became a cross country runner in high school, but again, if it wasn’t one of the big three sports in the middle of America, it was looked at as a bastard cousin, ostracized.”
Thankfully, times have changed and many schools now support sports previously considered as ‘fringe’ activities. Mountain-biking has been a beneficiary of this, too, in a number of countries, with inter-school race series and training camps.
“Fortunately mountain-biking was starting to hit when I went to university in the 1990s. Having always loved the bike, I picked it up as a form of transportation around the university campus, The Ohio State University was something like 70,000 students, a huge place. It was a natural fit for me.” Using his mountain bike for transport, and with a competitive background, Prosser was reasonably quick to move into cross-country racing, until his boundaries were pushed.
“In the Autumn of 2000 I did the second annual Shenandoah Mtn 100, and finished 10th without really riding that hard. It was my first “long” race and it was mud fest. We had to detour around parts of the course due to high water. Just being way out there riding was another world for me, away from all the gerbil track racing of 4 and 5 mile loops. I went for hours not seeing anyone. From that day on, I was hooked on long races and stopped riding circles. I can count on one hand the short mountain-bike races I have done since then.”
This resonates with Prosser’s trail preferences too, and no doubt is similar for many readers and other racers. Although racing is essentially about competition and self improvement, long races are also about adventure. The US has an amazing trail network as a legacy of it’s history. These create special riding and racing experiences, and Prosser is enthusiastic about what he gains from these courses.
“I like the feel of the old trails, whether it be in Shenandoah Valley, Colorado mountains, or the Sierras, some of the oldest trails in the US are left overs from mining, forestry and mills that date back 100′s of years. You can feel it when a trail has a purpose, and you can also feel the lack of it when it is simply a trail that was stuffed into some vacant land or a park. The trail will speak to you and you become connected to it. Almost as if the ghosts of that trail’s history are with you. Heading to the mine, to the mill or through the snowy pass in a mountain saddle. You can only get that feeling in long epic loops or point to points.”
Such enthusiasm for long races in historic areas eventually lead to an involvement at the organisational level for Prosser. This is a refreshing change compared to a lot of Elite racers. Although supported by Cannondale’s mountain-bike teams in their various guises over the past ten years, Prosser wanted to personally put something back into the sport.
“I helped start the the National Ultra Endurance Series with several other promoters in 2006 as what was initially a way to cross promote the events. There weren’t many epic loop races back then and just linking to the other race web pages seemed like a logical thing to do. It was an after thought to actually make it a series, and it’s grown exponentially. Chris Scott, being one of the most successful promoters in the 100 mile genre, was an obvious integral part of it. His races bring together every aspect of ultra endurance distance mountain-bike racing; great trails and venue, volunteers, and the party. Anyone who has done one of Chris’s races knows he’s got the recipe down.”
Members of the MarathonMTB.com team can attest to this: the Shenandoah 100 in 2008 was an epic affair. The course contained the trails you travel around the globe for. The competitors were top class, and the feedzones and volunteers were amazingly supportive and enthusiastic. Although two kegs were drunk the night before, the remaining half dozen or so were kpet for after the event. And I thought the previous week partying in New York City had been good, it was somewhat of a revelation to discover it was possible to ride a 100 miler on four hours sleep, and finish.
Ultra Endurance Marathons are hard on the body, and Prosser has maintained his own common sense approach to his training – utilising the options available to him, and adapting well to the changes that his life and career present to him.
“I spend as much time on the bike as my life will allow, but work gets busier every year. On a good week when I don’t have a race I will ride 20+ hours, cutting that down to 10 in my busy race season, and not including race hours. I am a full time sales representative for a surgical video imaging equipment company, so I am in the operating room several days a week.
“Fortunately the doctors like to schedule surgery early in the week and early in the day, creating lots of riding time in different places. We cater to the small rural hospitals. It also allows me to ride a lot of different places so I don’t burn out on the local roads around my house. I try to keep my road bike in the car with me wherever I go so I can ride when I have time. I pretty much train exclusively on the road bike as there isn’t much room for trails in Ohio where I live, with it being completely flat and all agricultural. The winds kick pretty strong for 6 months so you can get in hill work in the flats.”
This matches up with MarathonMTB.com’s race experience with Prosser on the same US trip previously mentioned. On approaching a singletrack descent, we both lamented our lack of technical ability due to mostly being ‘roadies’. But we made it down, laughing - both enjoying our sport and the trails.
Going imperial from metric for your race distance ends up as a significantly longer time on the bike. More pedalling in anger requires thought into your recovery, and really figuring out what you need. Ultra endurance racing also requires long training hours. Like many endurance athletes, Prosser doesn’t usually go ‘cold turkey’ on rest days. Rather, he listens to his body, and let’s his experience help him decide how best to manage his recovery between events.
“I never know how I will feel after a long event, so I play it by feel afterward for recovery. I like to get out for at least two good hours the day after, and then take the next days easy, maybe even off the bike. When I say good hours, not race pace, but more than a bike path spin. I have raced back-to-back weeks for a month without much noticeable loss in performance. This summer I went from the Leadville 100 to the Breck Epic Stage race to the Shenandoah 100 to the Pisgah stage race with no breaks. Then I took a weekend off and right to BT Epic in Missouri
“I felt pretty good after it all and was able to transition right into the ‘cross season and perform better than last year, winning and placing top three in my first 3 outings. You have to rest a lot, nine-plus hours a night plus a nap (my dog loves that arvo nap thing the most) and be careful to eat clean as you aren’t able to do the long training rides during the week like normal.”
By their very nature marathon races involve a long time on the bike, and typically involve a moment where you start to question what you’re doing. Compared to a lap style event, your options are reduced. Additionally, US 100 mile races take you well into the backcountry, as do many Australian races. You’re not going through a village, a beer garden or past a ski lift with the frequency that you may in a heavily populated European country.
“In almost every 5 hour-plus event I have ever done there is a point where I ask ‘why?’ (and that’s a bunch of races, at least six 100s per year since 2001) and all I can do is ride through it. That’s also why I don’t do 24 hour either, there are too many chances to stop and hang it up when you ride past your car. But in a Marathon, if you are out there, and stop, you will eventually have to get back on the bike and ride your ass out of there anyway, so you might as well keep moving. ”
With the painful loss of close friends recently, Prosser has found new strength to help him through difficult times.
“In 2009 I lost several extremely close friends, to the point where I thought I would hang everything up. Since that point I have found some strength in their memories to clean climbs and push harder. My times have continued to get better every year since the beginning of 2008, so whether they are behind some of that or not, I can’t say, but I can say that I have had some major break downs mentally during those times, and I just continue to push harder on the pedals through those times, and I feel fine by the time I hit the finish.”
Prosser is clearly a determined racer, and he is keen to pursue his sport outside of his home country more in the future, if the calender allows a break. Marathon mountain-biking is about adventure, and there are some key races Prosser wants to experience.
“I wanted to get out this year for a few more International races, but I have a pretty full schedule here. The domestic scene is getting so full of great races that I don’t have time to travel so far. I do have some I want to put on for 2011, a stage race in Guatemala in the Autumn for sure. I just want to keep riding until I can’t ride anymore, it’s been great to continually see improvement for as long as I have. Who knows, maybe I’ll hire a coach and get fast in 2011.”
But will his hit-list of International races include some racing in cycling’s heartland – Europe? They have great races, excellent levels of competition and quality after parties. But 100mile events? It’s not quite their thing. Is ultra distance a requirement to compete for Prosser?
“I think Euros still cling to their cycling as a spectator sport. XC is much easier to spectate at I guess. They have the Spring Classics – on the road – which are similar to 6-8 hour mountain-bike races. We have some dirt roads, they have cobbles. The biggest 100 is Leadville, and no matter how much some mountain-biker’s slam it as “not a mtb race”, it sure as hell is as tough as one. Maybe there are harder ones, the Breckenridge 100 for instance, but each venue has its own lure. Also, who wants to talk about the ’161 k’ they did? Too much to say, right?”
As for bikes, Prosser has had longterm support from Cannondale, and typically draws on either his 29″ Hardtail or 26″ wheeled Scalpel, depending on the course. Of course, he will also be seen logging long hard hours into the wind on his roadbike, or tearing up a ‘cross race. Like many successful marathon mountain bike racers, Prosser is a complete cyclist, happily competing in a variety of events – fuelled by the passion for hard races in interesting places. This is something we can all appreciate. Prosser clearly sees every time out on his bike as an adventure – so what will you discover on your next ride?