July 23, 2021
The number one question people ask me regarding the 2021 BC Epic 1000 is How did you manage to ride through the heat?
I actually gave my heat strategy a lot of consideration—both in preparation for the event, and in execution. I definitely didn’t roll up to the start line without a gameplan. Below you’ll find a brief roundup of my thoughts, as well as a few of the actual strategies I used to stay cool during the record-shattering high temperatures that plagued British Columbia that week in June.
Science says that keeping your core temperature from going through the roof improves athletic performance. Or something like that. I flunked out of first-year sciences to pursue an Arts degree, so I’m clearly not the person to explain this to you, but you can google it for yourself if you like—alternatively, just try to get through a tough workout on a hot day without any cooling mechanisms and see if you don’t feel like garbage afterwards. Seriously, try it—I dare you!
Interestingly enough, it was firsthand experience with overheating—such as loss of appetite, dehydration, dizziness, sunburn, and extreme fatigue—that I endured while training and touring through some brutally hot days in Southern Spain and California that convinced me that I needed to take the whole “2021 Heat Dome” thing seriously. My primary goal during the Epic was to keep my core temperature down so that I could optimize performance, and hopefully keep cranking out the watts as temperatures skyrocketed into the mid-40s Celsius (110+ Fahrenheit). I didn’t want to end up feverishly seeking refuge under the only tree for miles around, the same tree that dozens of other travellers had—judging by the snowballs of crumpled toilet paper and human waste—chosen to use as a roadside toilet (yes, this actually happened to me). I attribute much of my success in the Epic to staying cool, remaining clear of mind, and avoiding the “red zone” that I’d fallen into during prior rides. So, what exactly did I do? Read on!
Ice socks are cut up and knotted off pantyhose stuffed with handfuls of ice, and then shoved down the back of your jersey. I used these at the 24 Hour World Time Trial Championships in Borrego Springs, California, and they helped me beat the heat in the hottest part of the day. This strategy really lends itself to supported events—I had a crew stuffing a fresh ice sock down my jersey every lap during the time trial, while on the Epic, I had to make my own at the infrequent gas stations I came across. Nevertheless, ice socks really do help you keep cool! They’re nice and chilly on your back and as the sun melts the ice, the breeze comes in contact with your wet skin. The effect is refreshing, and helps keep your core temperature down. I used these on the exposed climbs out of Princeton and Penticton on day one, heading toward Paulson Summit from Grand Forks on day two, and heading out of Cranbrook toward the singletrack climb on day three.
Hidden Hydration Magic
I use a three-litre hydration bag inside of a Salsa triangle frame bag. Zipped up, the frame bag creates a surprisingly insulated environment. At every gas station stop I filled my hydration bag with ice, topped it off with water, and sipped the freezing liquid in the shade until I succumbed to brain freeze. AAGGGHHHHH! Then I topped it up with more ice and water, zipped it into my insulated frame bag, and set off. Hours later, I was still sipping ice cold water from my magic hidden hydration bag, enabling me to power up the climbs feeling refreshed. Note: I went through about a litre of water an hour during the hot part of the day, so I usually had to refill my hydration bag in a creek (and then wait 30 minutes for my purification tablets to kick in) but on several occasions I found a spring that I could drink ice-cold water out of—Score!
As a fair-skinned person prone to sunburns, I knew that I would need to pay special attention to protecting my face and neck. I also knew that too much direct contact from the sun on my skin has the effect of sapping my energy and increasing my RPE. I wore an Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap (in white) during the hottest hours of the day (from 8 am until 9 pm—basically all day) to shield myself from the sun’s rays. I purchased the sun cap specifically for this event, but I’ll definitely be using it again during hot day hikes and afternoons at the beach. Sure, it’s a little nerdy, but I’d rather be capped and protected than sizzling like a lobster, or peeling blisters from my neck and nose a day later. I paired the cap with white sun sleeves, which saved me the trouble of applying sunscreen multiple times a day, and, like the cap, reduced contact area with the sun.
Nothing cools you down like submersion in frigid water, and luckily, the Epic route follows many rivers, and is intersected by even more streams. While I had to be discreet—my ultralight packing scheme didn’t leave room for a swimsuit—a bonus of owning a substantial lead is that there’s no worry of a competitor ripping around a corner to spot you frolicking naked in a creek (note: a swimsuit really wouldn’t have been too much to carry, but dealing with a wet, soggy swimsuit still posed a logistical challenge that I didn’t feel like dealing with). I also took this as an opportunity to soak my sun sleeves and hat. When breeze hit the wet material it created a cooling effect—a personal AC unit—as the water evaporated.
I opted to wear my lightest coloured jersey: a powder blue Rapha Core Lightweight Jersey. While I wasn’t excited about the prospect of putting one of my fav jerseys through the filth of a dusty, offroad event, I figured that a dirt-stained piece of kit was a price I was willing to pay to stay cool. Light colours reflect the heat; dark colours absorb it. While material also plays a role, I figured that this light-coloured, lightweight jersey was probably the most suitable piece of clothing I owned. I considered white cycling shorts, which I don’t own, but decided that purchasing a new set of bibs at the last moment would probably be a bad decision. Moreover, the possibility of shitting one’s pants is a real and present danger in ultra-endurance events where fast food restaurants and gas stations make up the bulk of one’s dining experiences. And the only thing worse than shitting your pants is having everyone know that you shit your pants, which is the primary reason why I favour dark cycling shorts.
Salt, Salt & More Salt
I popped salt pills like Skittles. Well, not quite—but I was taking one an hour during daylight hours, which is close enough. I started out with Skratch in my hydration bag and brought a dozen additional servings with me, in addition to a tube of Nuun tablets (I used 3-4 per hydration bag fill), and the Gatorade I topped up with at gas stations. I would have stashed a bag of Hawkin’s Cheezies in a back pocket if my stomach had let me ingest more solid foods, but aside from that, I did everything I could to increase my salt intake, and decrease the likelihood of cramping and other adverse effects.
As I mentioned in an Instagram post, the heat still did a number on me. My stomach could barely tolerate solid food for the entirety of the race; I peed—no exaggeration—a thimbleful on day one. Most of my low points—aside from that devastating ride from Elko to the finish—were times when I felt panicky and overheated, and didn’t have any cooling options available. A pre-race email sent by event organizer Lennard Pretorius (also posted on the BC Epic Facebook Page on June 23, 2021) had some great suggestions about staying safe in the heatwave as well, such as riding in small groups to monitor for signs of heat stroke, taking cooling breaks in tunnels or creeks, and riding later in the day to make the most of the cooler hours.
Ultimately, I think the best strategy is the one that works for you, but to underestimate the dangers associated with competing in a multi-day (or even single day) event in extreme heat could turn out to be a costly mistake, both in terms of personal health, and overall ranking. While I felt like I did everything within my power to apply these cooling techniques, I was also constantly monitoring my body, and accepted that I’d need to reel it back from time to time when the heat threatened toward intolerable. One day, I hope to ride the Epic without such extreme conditions. For now, I’m grateful to leave with some useful takeaways… oh, and a new women’s FKT. 🙂