When Kabir Rachure arose in the wee hours of 11 September, the sky looked ominous. By the time he had lined up at the start line of the Great Himalayan Ultra, the world's highest ultracycling race, the rain came pouring down. It was evident that the going was likely to get rough over the next 600km.
Rachure, 30, was banking on all his previous experience. He had won two consecutive editions of the high altitude race in Ladakh in 2018 and 2019. The course, which involves an elevation gain of 10,300 metres, takes riders from Leh to Dras near Kargil along the NH1, and back to Leh. Besides the rarefied air, participants also have to be prepared to contend with the elements.
Notwithstanding the inauspicious start, Rachure completed the race in style, winning it for the third time. And the win was just part of the story, because he completed the race in a record time of 25 hours 50 minutes. This was around 5.15 hours better than his previous mark and close to seven hours ahead of the second-placed finish.
“The weather was my initial concern, but it actually favoured us. In previous editions, the scorching heat wore down the body. You couldn’t utilise the muscles well, making progress difficult when the sun was out. This year, though there was rain, strong headwinds and freezing temperatures to deal with, I was able to push harder with the right layering in place,” says Rachure.
Much of his training took place on an indoor trainer, where he clocked between 8-10 hours each week. Most sessions were based on what is called sweet spot training, where Rachure looked to find the right balance between the intensity and volume of the effort. His primary focus was on increasing his Functional Threshold Power (FTP). This is a common measure of performance that’s based on the power that a cyclist can generate for an hour. Doing so, in turn, helped him work on improving endurance.
For the altitude, Rachure also took on VO2max training, where the muscles adapt to functioning with less oxygen intake, similar to what the body would experience in the mountains. “I normally do one VO2max session in two weeks; this time I did two sessions in a week. These sprints last anywhere between 20 seconds and a minute and a half, multiple sets that don’t go beyond 75 minutes in all. This was the main change in my routine,” he says. Rachure says that he wasn’t interested in training specifically for distance or endurance. “None of my sessions lasted over three hours. I’ve raced enough to know what it takes to be in the saddle for long hours,” he says.
In July, Rachure took on a half Everesting attempt, where he tackled a total altitude gain of 4,450 metres in 3.40 hours. Two weeks later, he made a full Everesting attempt in 8.26 hours. “That was a great boost when it came to understanding my climbing abilities. I found my body in good rhythm,” he says. The only real assessment of his endurance was possible during the National Time Trial Championship on 15 August. Rachure rode as part of the 24-hour category and won the event after logging 763km. He spent just 11 minutes off the saddle during the entire effort. “The muscle memory was in place, as was the habit of riding for long durations. Besides, the Great Himalayan Ultra has a three-hour mandatory break, so I was confident that my preparations were in place,” he says.
Much of Rachure’s focus was on the recovery process. He included dry berries, grapes and green tea into his diet, since they are rich in antioxidants and known to help with recovery. Most protein intake was through natural sources instead of supplements. He would take ice baths once every two weeks to ease fatigue, which also prepared his body for Ladakh’s cold temperatures. Finally, for a week leading up to the race, Rachure slept for close to 10 hours each day. “The body would recover better at lower altitude in Navi Mumbai, so I decided to spend more time here. Two weeks would be enough time to acclimatise to the altitude,” he says.
The first three days in Leh were spent resting. On the fourth day, he rode for 45km, but turned back short of his destination after feeling uncomfortable. After two more days of rest, he did a flat 50km ride and finally found his rhythm. Five days before the race, he did a final 68km ride and then focussed on his diet and fine tuning his bike. “A lot of the food I consumed was cooked by my sister, Sapana, so the nutrition was on point. We could easily source fresh, organic veggies, so I think that worked best. I stayed away from non-vegetarian food besides eggs, as digestion would be an issue at altitude,” he says.
Alongside Sumit Patil, a seasoned endurance cyclist familiar with the route, they chalked out the race strategy—where they could push, the right spost to overtake other riders and where the elements could hamper his progress. The plan was to race alongside a team that had multiple cyclists, so that he could maintain a higher speed while racing them as compared to the solo participants. “I realised that if we kept up with the team, we could grow our time consistently over the first half of the race. I split the course mentally in two sections - 380km to Kargil, after which I would get three hours of rest. The body hits reset then, so the final 220km doesn’t feel as much. By Khalsi, about 130km into the race, we had taken the lead over all riders. And I still hadn’t taken a break until then,” he says.
The total off-saddle time on the entire race was just 40 minutes, most of it to change his riding gear in order to adapt to the weather. By the time Rachure reached Kargil for the mandatory three-hour break, he had opened up a gap of 70km over the second-placed rider in his category. “The first 380km decides whether you’re going to win or lose. I knew where to push and how hard I could push, and where I had to take it easy. And my seasoned crew only complimented my efforts. It explains why I had such a strong finish,” Rachure says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.