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How ultracyclists train for the Great Himalayan Ultra race

Lounge speaks with three Indian ultracyclists on their fitness routine as they prepare to compete in the world's highest cycling race

Ultracycling athletes need to train for months to gain the optimal level of fitness.
Ultracycling athletes need to train for months to gain the optimal level of fitness. (Istockphoto)

On 26 August, when the Great Himalayan Ultra flags off, Niharika Reddy and Shirin Kekre will become the first female riders to attempt the tough ultracycling race. Savage inclines, temperature extremes and the Himalayan terrain are just some of the challenges they’ll encounter during the highest race in the world.

The route begins in Leh and follows the NH1 to the Fotu La—the highest point of the race—before descending to Kargil and onwards to Dras. From here, riders turn around to retrace their route and after a brief detour to Thiksey, finish back in Leh.

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Both Reddy and Kekre will be competing in the 600km category—the GHU also features 444km and900km races—where they will encounter an elevation gain of around 10,350 metres. While Reddy will be riding as a team alongside her uncle, Sudhakar, Kekre’s will be a solo attempt. What is also common to both is that they cut their teeth at the Deccan Cliffhanger, a 653km race that runs from Pune to Goa, last year.

Ultracyclist Shirin Kekre.
Ultracyclist Shirin Kekre. (Boney Panicker)

To train for that race, Kekre had relied on an application called Trainer Road, which created a workout plan based on her requirements. For the GHU too, she decided to follow the same routine, relying on a high volume workout that kept her in the saddle of an indoor trainer for around 10 hours each week. The longest ride she took to prepare was an outdoor, twelve-hour effort from Pune to Mahabaleshwar in March. But by the time June arrived, she was unsatisfied with her preparation.

“The app is most suited for triathletes, so I had to customise it to my needs. But while it’s worked out well for me in the past, I realised I was really exhausted this time around. A lot of fatigue with very little recovery. After five months, I figured I hadn’t gained anything,” Kekre says.With only ten weeks to go for the race, she started working with triathlete and coach, Nihal Ahamad Baig, who had won the Ironman race in Goa last year. Kekre’s workouts became a lot quicker and efficient now, facilitating faster recovery along the way.“There’s a good chance I was overtraining earlier on,” she says.

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Ultracyclist Niharika Reddy.
Ultracyclist Niharika Reddy.

For Reddy, the preparation for the GHU brought about a major change in her routine. Until March, she would only be training in the outdoors. Her plan was designed by her coach and ultracyclist, Kabir Rachure, who has finished the Race Across America three times. It was a mix of hill training, sprints and longer rides, where her sole focus was on getting faster over time. Once she invested in a trainer in March, a majority of her workouts shifted indoors.

“A lot of the focus has been on power training. I’ve been riding a lot more and have also been quite efficient with time. Though I feel I’m a lot faster now, it’s all very new to me and I’m really curious to see the results during a race,” Reddy says.

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Lining up alongside the duo will be Rohan Mandhre, who’ll be racing in the newly introduced self-supported category over 600km.“I like to explore the road at my own pace and racing self-supported brings that additional challenge of planning the entire ride since there’s going to be no one looking out for me,” he says.

Ultracyclist Rohan Mandhre.
Ultracyclist Rohan Mandhre.

Mandhre started training for the race about 10 months ago, riding five days each week on an indoor trainer. He would also take on gym workouts, strengthening specific muscle groups while also working on recovery under his physiotherapist wife, Radha. On weekends, he would step out for long rides, a majority of which ended with a climb and on tired legs.

“I had to do a lot of VO2max workouts to prepare my body for high altitude. It’s also difficult to find long inclines around Pune, similar to what the race has on offer. So I would map my route in a way where the ride concluded with climbs of steep gradients, which added to the level of difficulty,” Mandhre says.He also made the most of the inclement monsoon weather to mentally prepare for any adverse situation he was likely to encounter during the race.

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“I would make it a point to step out even if there was a heavy downpour, well aware that the conditions would be brutal. For instance, during one ride to Matheran, the gradient was about 20-25% and really slippery. But I pushed on and it gave me confidence that I could survive tough conditions,” Mandhre says. “Of course, it was nothing like what the Ladakh environment has to offer. But the idea is to make the mind strong and deal with anything that comes your way. There’s really no room for excuses in a race like this.”

For all cyclists, the idea will be to ride as long as possible while coping with fatigue and sleep deprivation that they are certain to encounter along the way. Mandhre has a unique trick up his sleeve to beat the latter.

“I’m hooked on coffee, but for the last two months I’ve been off it. The idea is to use caffeine when I get really sleepy and hope that the body reacts to it. It’s just something I would like to experiment with on this race,” he says.

As per race rules, all riders arrived in Leh two weeks before the start. While the first few days were spent resting and fuelling, all three soon took on rides around town to acclimatise to the altitude.“I was exhausted after the first ride. But I gradually increased the intensity and it’s worked out well for me so far,” Mandhre says.

Kekre rode close to 180km during the first week, before beginning her tapering phase. “Since this is my first attempt at something so different, my sole focus will be on making the cutoff times. And of course, enjoying the climbs and the views this incredible place has to offer,” Kekre says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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