The last ten miles were by far the most painful miles I’ve ever spent on bike. My legs, so tired and depleted, had little to offer as I encountered each obstacle on Barrel Roll trail. Each time I pedaled hard to get over a rock obstacle, my legs would protest in revolt by locking up with cramps, rendering both legs immobile. The next moments were sadly comical as I sat frozen on the saddle, unable to unclip or pedal my paralyzed legs, waiting in a precarious balance until the inevitable moment that I would (“timber!”) tip over on the bike like a cyclist riding clipless for the first time.

Slowly, while constantly pleading with my spent legs, I was able to finish my first attempt racing the GRO Races’ True Grit Epic 50. My race time was certainly nothing to brag about, but after a few rounds of ibuprofen and time to recover, the memories of the cramping seemed less intense and the thoughts of awesome views, killer trails, and fun times riding with hundreds of new mountain bike friends inspired me to want to come back the next year better prepared and able to race the 50 miles without falling apart.

Just finished the Grit! Feeling as good as I look.

True Grit is by far the most difficult Southern Utah mountain bike race with long distances on some of the most technical trails in the area. GRO Races has offered up racing for just about everyone with an 84-mile gravel race, 50 or 100-mile mountain bike race, or a 15-mile challenge race. New to this year is an option to really test your grit and have it all in a three-day stage race that combines the gravel, mountain, and challenge race. True Grit is March 12th through 14th in Santa Clara, Utah. If you are thinking about racing it in 2020, now is the time to start preparing.

I’m no elite mountain biker. I work long hours at my job and have six kids, so my time for training and riding is pretty limited. A good week for me includes two to three rides. So if you’re like me, and wanting to test yourself on a challenging technical endurance race, here’s a few things that I learned to help prepare for True Grit.

There are three important elements to being prepared for the True Grit Mountain Bike race; fitness for distance, readiness for the technical trails, and nutrition.

Fitness for Distance

Although the official course distance is 46 miles with 6100’ of climbing, the distance feels much longer. Much of the race loops up and down across technical Shinarump conglomerate slick rock that can make each mile feel like at least two.

A simple way to prepare the body for long distances and durations is to get in a few long rides building up to the race. Extend from your typical ride distances incrementally. This conditions the body to gain the strength and endurance required for the long haul. If, for example, your typical ride distance is ten miles, start to increase that distance with each ride, working up to 40 to 50 mile distances. Not only will your legs build stamina, but other parts of the body such as shoulders and arms will fatigue much later.

Strength training core exercises off the bike leading up to the race are another important way to prevent premature fatigue.

How to prepare: Ride yo bike!

Readiness for the technical trails

There are three single track loops in the True Grit mountain bike race that are classified as black diamond; Zen, Barrel Roll, and Barrel Ride. If you can, pre-riding these three loops is important to becoming familiar with the obstacles. Riders that are technical masters may look to clean every obstacle on these trails during the race. For most racers, it is usually more energy-efficient to walk some of the most technical sections to avoid injury or spending all effort on the explosive moves that are required. There is one particular section of Barrel Ride that is common for causing injury during True Grit: the Waterfall. It is an expert level obstacle as the trail makes a steep descent down the irregular slick rock. Many racers choose to walk it rather than try to gain a few seconds by riding it.

Collin taking a dip into the bathtub on Zen

The most technical climbing on the course is on Zen. Because the Zen loop happens during the first half of the course, there can be a tendency to put too much effort into clearing the technical obstacles, and if the fitness isn’t there, then the legs may be spent for the rest of the race.

Technical climbing on Zen. Can you see the trail?

Pre-riding these three trails helps racers know what to expect, make a plan for what to ride and what sections to walk, and how to manage energy for the long haul.

Nutrition

In my first True Grit race, this is where I got it wrong. I made the mistake of only in-taking water during the race. Resulting in a body that was depleted of nutrients by mile 30. Make a plan for how to take in electrolytes and calories to keep the engine running strong. There are aid stations well-stocked at several locations on the course. Test your nutrition strategy during long-distance training rides to determine what works best for you. Your strategy may be different than mine, but I’ve found success with a balance of water, electrolyte drink, and PB&J to keep the stomach from feeling empty. The best thing I did for understanding nutrition was to attend a mini nutrition clinic offered by Red Rock Bicycle.

I didn’t stand on any podiums my second year racing True Grit, but I crushed my previous time and most importantly had a much more enjoyable time during the race.

The True Grit Epic race lives up to its name. You don’t have to be a pro-level athlete to give it a try and stretch your athletic boundaries. With the right preparation, it can be an amazing, safe experience through beautiful country with dozens of your closest brand new friends. I hope to see you during the race, I’ll be the guy with a big smile and a PB&J.

If a squid like me can race the Grit, so can you

Words and pictures by Logan Phipps