Cycling the Great Divide

2017 Challenge – Cycling the Great Divide

Over the next few months I am going to be documenting and blogging about my progress towards the biggest challenge I’ve undertaken so far.

John Bolton is my name and on June 10th 2017 I will begin cycling from Banff in Canada to Antelope Wells New Mexico –  a total distance of 4500k off road, in 35 days in aid of Laois Hospice. I will cycle up to 15 hours per day solo and self-supported, which means I will carry all my food, water and any other equipment.

The Great Divide or the Continental Divide is a line which follows the high peaks along the main ridge of the Rocky Mountains. Rivers on the West side of the divide flow to the Pacific and rivers on the East side flow to the Atlantic. The route I’m following is the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route which consists of dirt roads and mountain passes with 200,000 feet of climbing which is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 7 times.

Who is John Bolton?

I am a 49 year old self employed fitness expert with 25 years’ experience and I specialise in functional training, injury rehabilitation and ultra-endurance events. Over the past 25 years I have worked in the USA, London and Ireland and I have worked with everyone from patients recovering from various cardiac conditions to the England Cricket team, and everyone in between.

I played football until I was 35 and have been involved in all forms of resistance training for 30 years. Since I retired from football I have trekked to Mount Everest Base Camp in 21 days, kayaked around Ireland a total distance of 1600k in 41 days, cycled from Mizen Head to Malin Head a total distance of 610k in 27 hours, cycled 2000k around Ireland in 7 days and I have completed the Marmotte Cycle climbing Col du Glandon (1924m), Col du Telegraphe (1566m), Col du Galibier (2645m) and Alpe d’Huez (2224m).

John Slieve Bloom

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

Researching and mapping the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route began in 1995 and took two years to complete. The route begins in Banff Canada and crosses the US border at Roosville and travels through Montana, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico to Antelope Wells. The route consists of a series of low valleys and High Mountain passes the highest being 3500m.

The Rocky Mountains are home to Grizzly, Brown and Black Bears, Mountain Lions, Wolves, Elk and Moose, a point which is never lost on people who talk to me about the cycle. The road surface will vary from paved, gravel, single track and old railroad beds. Snow, hail and thunder storms are the order of the day when it comes to weather.

Preparation for the Cycle

The urge for me to cycle across America began four years ago; but before I could get around to it I had the small task of kayaking around Ireland; and after a year of intense preparation, Diane Cooper and I set out from the Old Head of Kinsale in June 2014 in a double Valley Aleut sea kayak. The journey would take us around the south coast of Ireland through some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world. Travelling up the west coast we enjoyed the company of numerous pods of dolphin, the occasional basking shark and the incredible humpback whale. Our voyage took us around the most Northerly point in Ireland, the notorious Malin Head and past the world famous Giant’s Causeway. Heading south we were very pleased to see Poolbeg lighthouse and finally rounding Carnsore Point on the home stretch. This incredible journey took us 41 days where we battled big Atlantic swells, powerful tides and the ever present winds.

With the thought of America in my mind; in June 2015 I cycled 610k solo and non-stop from Mizen Head to Malin Head in 27 hours. Then in July, once again, Diane Cooper joined me, this time for our cycle around Ireland. Our aim was to cover 300k per day for 7 days taking us to every corner of the country. The predictable Irish wind was ever present and extremely unpredictable. A combination of strong winds and driving rain made our target of 300k on some days impossible. Despite the weather, the journey was another major success and further enhanced my preparation for America.

Photo 1 Roonah Point

I still had one question that I need to answer before I finally made a decision on the Great Divide Cycle, and that was, how would I deal with big climbs. At 188cm tall and weighing in at 98k, I’m not exactly your typical cyclist. How much would this weight affect me on the climbs and could I deal with the relentless gradient for hours on end?  Cycling the Marmotte in the French Alps in June 2016 ticked all these boxes for me as it exposed me to numerous climbs of up to 2600m.

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The Final Decision – Why am I Doing This?

The decision to take on a challenge like cycling the Great Divide is one which I never take lightly. As I said, I have been thinking about it for the past four years and in August 2016 I finally began to research what it would take to cycle the great divide.

I’m often referred to as a fitness fanatic, but what people forget is that fitness is my profession and has been for over 25 years. I have studied anatomy and physiology for over 20 years and I have an in-depth knowledge of how the body functions. I have 40 years of training behind me and I have the added advantage of having Dr Diane Cooper, sports scientist, physiology lecturer and researcher with the European Space Agency on my team. Diane is also an ultra- endurance athlete with years of training and practical experience behind her. All our training and everything we do is based on science, testing and endless research. We are very acutely aware of the physical impact on the body, but we are also very aware of the incredible feats that our bodies can accomplish.

My reasons for pushing my body to the extremes, needed to complete a challenge like this are obvious to me and to anyone who does challenges like these, but to everyone else it seems to be beyond comprehension. It’s difficult to put into words why anyone would take on a challenge like this, but despite the early starts, changing weather conditions, the harshness of the terrain, the endless hours in the saddle; the memories of this journey will live with me forever. How my mind and body will adapt and react to this challenge will be fascinating. This trip is all about knowing how to control your fears and overcome the pains and hardship that my body will endure. When you are doing a challenge like this it’s easy to focus on the finish line and wish you were there; but this cycle is not about the finish line, it’s about living every moment of this journey. That can be hard to do when all you want to do is stop and rest. But part of the success of this trip is to break every day down into manageable sections and only focus on them; as you become more tired you might have to break this down even further. It’s all about your current state of mind and what it can handle at any particular time and not allowing it to be overwhelmed by the scale of the task.

Laois Hospice

Early in September 1989, at a meeting of a small group of people in the Library of Portlaoise General Hospital, Consultant Surgeon Peter Naughton planted the seeds which grew into Laois Hospice Foundation – the first such home care team to be established in Ireland outside Dublin.

Early in the life of the Foundation the growing need for hospice was confirmed. In 1990 there were 37 patients, band by 1992 there were 92. During the first four years 349 terminally ill patients in the county were referred to hospice, and one full-time and four part-time nurses made 5060 domiciliary visits and 347 bereavement support visits. As the service from Laois Hospice expanded throughout the county, it was apparent there was a need to help grieving spouses, parents, family members and friends who may feel helpess, isolated and frustrated. A bereavement service was organised under the direction of Canon Billy Beare and Father Tom O’Byrne.

The committee of Laois Hospice consists entirely of volunteers. A meeting is held annually where we welcome members of the public. An AGM is also held, where directors and officers are elected, and the externally audited accounts of Laois Hospice are approved.

In 2014, Laois Hospice celebrated 25 years serving the communities of county Laois. The Hospice would not have reached its 25th Anniversary without the committee members, officers and all volunteers who give so generously of their time and donations throughout the entire county, as well as all who have opened their homes for the benefit of hospice in Laois.

The Research

When you decide to take on a challenge such as the Great Divide, there are endless hours of research needed. I first looked to see if there were any books available and as luck would have it, there was a book by Michael McCoy Cycling the Great Divide which gives a detailed itinerary of the entire journey. I also looked for people who had done the trip and I reviewed endless clip and blogs to get as much information as I could. Of course, you have to be able to decide is the information reliable and applicable to you.

I was also able to purchase maps from the Adventure Cycling Association in the USA for the entire route which are essential for detailed planning of the trip. The maps are scaled at 1:250,000 so in terms of navigation it does not give essential details for any difficult portions of the route. We normally work with 1:50,000 scale which gives much more detail but this would mean carrying five times more maps which would lend to its own problems. I am currently looking into a GPS system; but as with maps it’s not without its problems either. Most have a battery life is around 15 hours and it can also lose coverage from time to time. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to good navigation skills, feature recognition and the use of a compass.

My aim is to cycle 150k per day, so this is the distance I have marked on the maps. Each morning when I set out I have a definite point I want to reach, but I will also mark a few other alternatives in case I can’t make my intended destination. The maps I’m using gives the changes in gradient along the route and from this I can estimate my average climbing paces and estimate with reasonable accuracy if I can cover the intended 150k.

I need to see if there are any towns or villages on the route, what supplies they have in terms of food, bike shops, and accommodation and internet services. The other important issue will be to know if I can get water along this route or do I need to carry an extra supply. Towns can be a few days apart so I have to ensure I have enough supplies to get me through a particular stretch. Water will be plentiful during some stretches but the further south I travel the more scares it will become.

The Logistics

The Bike

Another very important decision I have to make is what type of bike I’m going to use. The choices are hard tail (a mountain bike that only has a front suspension) or a full suspension (a bike that has both front and rear suspensions). The plus side to a full suspension bike is the suspensions absorb a lot of the shocks but the downside is it’s heavier than a hard tail. The other question is what brand I choose. Nowadays, there are numerous brands and endless models, but not all designed for an ultra-endurance challenge such as this. I need a bike that is light but very strong, reliable and robust. Both bike and rider are going to be seriously tested on a daily basis. The final decision on what bike I am going to use will be made in the next few days.

The other thing that I needed to be sorted was; do I use panniers (bags which attach to the bike) or a trailer such as a BOB (Beast of Burden) to carry all my gear. As this is a self-supported cycle I need to carry all my camping equipment, clothes, food water etc and I needed to know what is the best method. The plus side to the BOB trailer is its carrying capacity and there is less weight on the bike and so less wear and tear. The downside is it weighs about 7kg and there are extra moving parts which could cause a problem at some stage. The plus side to the pannier is it weighs less, has good carrying capacity and has no moving parts. The downside is it, as it is connected directly to the bike it increases the wear and tear on the bike. As weight is a huge factor in this event, I have decided to use the panniers.

The Gear

Like everything else associated with a cycle like this, choosing what clothes to bring takes a lot of consideration. As carrying capacity is very limited, the more I bring the heavier it becomes and the more energy I expend trying to push the extra load. Whatever I pick needs to be multifunctional, light, warm and dry quickly.

In reality the way things like this work is, you cycle in one set of gear and always keep a set of dry clothes to sleep in. If you are lucky enough and you managed to keep your cycle gear dry from the previous day, then you have the privilege of getting into dry gear –  if not the most aromatic. Eventually your luck will run out and you will be faced with waking up in the morning and pulling on cold wet clothes. During some events you have no luck at all and all you do is climb in and out of wet gear. So here’s to hoping.

The Food

Getting the food right or wrong will have a huge impact on the outcome of this or any other event. Prior to heading out to the USA, and with the help of my wonderful business partner Diane Cooper, we will work out my calorie expenditure for each day cycling. Once we have this I will know how many calories I will need to consume on a daily basis in order to avoid substantial weight loss which could prove detrimental to my strength.

My normal breakfast is porridge oats with nuts, seeds, berries and natural yogurt. My aim will be to carry porridge whenever I can and mix in seeds and nuts if possible. Unfortunately the only form of milk I can use is powdered, not the best tasting but is high in calories. Whenever I can I will stop at restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch on the road will be wraps filled with chicken, canned fish, avocado or whatever is available.  Dinner will be dehydrated food or MRE (Meals Ready to Eat).

As towns are a few days apart I will have to carry enough food to get me from one town to the next but I will always carry spare dinners in case I do not cover the distance I anticipated and end up staying in the mountains. Snacks will vary from high energy bars to things like nut butters with fruit or oat cakes. The nut butters are very high energy foods with a long shelf life and are easy to carry.

Camping

When most people speak to me about this trip they don’t realise that most of the nights I will camp in the mountains as the towns are so far apart. So this leads to the question, what tent will I use or will I use a tent at all. The general options are Bivi Bags, Tarp Shelters, Hammocks or Tents.

Bivi Bags

A bivi is really just a waterproof shelter which just has room for a sleeping bag. So all you can do is sleep in it. The plus side to a bivi is, it’s very light and warm. The downside is you could not eat your food or change your clothes inside it. If it’s raining it’s hard to get in without wetting your sleeping bag.

Tarp Shelter

A tarp tent is a tarpaulin, a plastic or nylon sheet, used in place of a tent. It is usually rigged with poles, tent pegs, and guy lines. Ultralight backpackers use tarp tents because they are lightweight compared to other backpacking shelters. The downside to a tarp is water can run in under it and is does not retain heat like a tent.

Tarp

Hammock

A hammock is very lightweight and fitted with a fly sheet so they can be warm and dry. The only real downside is they need trees to suspend them from and in desert terrain this can be a problem.

Tents

When traveling alone the decision you need to make about a tent apart from the fact that it needs to keep you warm and dry, is what size should it be and how heavy is it. You could go for a one man tent as this will be lighter but it can be difficult to eat and change your clothes inside it. A two man tent is heavier but allows room to change in especially if it’s raining outside. Another great advantage is it’s possible to cook your food while inside and stay out of the weather.

I have used a two man tent in all of the challenges I have done to date and it has proven to be very effective in all conditions, so this is what I will use on the this cycle.

Photo 3 Galley

Personal Safety

Without question my personal safety is a top priority, but is it possible to eliminate all the risks? Of course it’s not. When doing a challenge like this you need to assess all the risks and then analyse what is real and what is the likelihood of something happening. If the likelihood is high then you would really have to question why you are doing it; but if it is low and there are ways to control them then the reality of something happening is lower. But no matter what there has to be an element of risk or the challenge is just not big enough.

Phone coverage is a real problem in the Rockies, as up to 90% has no coverage, so I have decided to bring a satellite phone for emergency calls and use the internet when I come into towns. The other thing I need to do is let someone know where I am leaving from, where I’m going to, what route I am taking and when I expect to get there.

There is no doubt the threat of bears is real and it’s not a question of “Will I encounter bears?”; there is no doubt I will encounter them. The real danger with bears is if you surprise them, or cut off their avenue of escape or come between a cub and its mother. So while traveling you need to make as much noise as possible and this would include blowing a whistle. The more a bear knows you’re coming the more they will move out of your way. The other way to avoid unnecessary contact is while camping, suspend your food ten feet off the ground or to use bear proof boxes. Keeping food in your tent at night is a sure fire way to have a bear pay you a visit while you sleep. The other thing I will have is bear spray, this of course is a last line of defence and generally works 90% of the time. We of course ignore the 10% of the time that it does not work.

Training

In reality training is something that I do all the time and it’s generally a combination of cycling, TRX training and flexibility. I normally train five days per week but the intensity and duration of the sessions would vary depending on the time of the year and my goal.

Cycling

The type of cycling that I do depends on the time of the year and the challenge for which I’m training. Most of the events that I participate in are on the road so most of the cycles are on the road bike. During the winter I generally switch to the mountain bike as a way of building more strength, avoiding icy and busy roads and just to change the training. There is also something really nice about being off road in the mountains, exploring new routes and encountering wildlife along the way.

As the Great Divide is off road, most of my training will be spent off road in the mountains. I need to replicate the conditions as much as possible. Living in Ireland prevents me from being able to train at altitude or train on the really big climbs, but doing loaded hill repeats is the next best option and using an altitude training mask is also a possibility.

My official training programme started in January and it works on a four week cycle. This means that every fourth week there will be a recovery week; during this week I will reduce the intensity and duration of the sessions. This will allow my body to recover and ensure that I do not over train. I have a total of eight sessions per week with one rest day; the sessions vary from long and short and interval cycle sessions to TRX and flexibility.

My long sessions in the mountains started in October at 75 minutes and I have gradually worked up to six hours. During these sessions I am pushing out the time before I take on food and at the moment I am up to three and a half hours. The aim behind this is to allow my body to predominantly use body fats, this will make me less dependent on carbohydrates and give me a much higher source of energy. As this event goes on for such a long period of time it will be important to keep the intensity low in order not use a high percentage of carbohydrates. As my fitness improves my average speed will increase. So the aim behind this method is to travel as fast as I can while still getting most of my energy from fats. The distance between towns can be up to 300k so it is important that I can travel for long periods and not need to take on food.

TRX

TRX is a full body resistance work out where the intensity of the exercise is dictated by the angle your body is in relation to the anchor point. The TRX can be used for strength, local muscle endurance, aerobic & anaerobic training, flexibility and core strength.

In order to maintain good biomechanics it’s important to work on strength. The stronger a muscle is the more pressure it takes off the joints, tendons and ligaments and it in doing so it lowers your risk of injury. A lot of people come to me for injury rehabilitation but most of these injuries could have been prevented by implementing a strength training routine and maintaining good biomechanics. Improving biomechanics will increase efficiency of movement and reduce energy expenditure.

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Flexibility

This is the range of movement around a joint or a series of joints. The importance of flexibility is generally overlooked by most people and generally only gets a look in when an injury occurs. Good flexibility allows the body to maintain good biomechanics, reduces the wear in a joint, increases blood flow to an area and improves performance.

The importance of strength and flexibility can’t be overstated and should always be part of your routine no matter what phase of training you are in. Sports people are constantly looking to improve performance and this is achieved generally by training harder, but including strength and flexibility in your routine will improve performance and reduce your risk of injury.

Fitness Testing (Lactate Threshold Testing)

In order to properly track the improvement in my fitness I carried out a lactate threshold test with Dr Diane Cooper. Lactate threshold testing shows your body’s ability to tolerate lactate levels in the blood. Lactic acid and lactate are often thought to be the same thing, but in fact lactate is a salt of lactic acid and is produced by the body.

During high intensity exercise the level of oxygen in the muscle drops this causes the pH balance of the muscle to change, this impairs muscle contraction and causes the nerve endings to be stimulated causing pain and burning.

As your fitness improves your body can tolerate much higher levels of lactate and thus allow you to work harder and for a longer period of time. Long slow sessions helps your body to deal with lactate levels by increasing the number of blood vessels in the body and so allow your body to transport more oxygen to the working muscles and remove lactate. This highlights the importance of the long slow sessions and the need to resist the temptation to push hard all the time.

So there you have it – an in depth look at just what it is I’m facing and why I want to face it.  I intend to keep track of my progress and post about it here on a monthly basis. I will also be keeping track of things on our other social media platforms, details of which are as follows; Facebook TrueFitnessAdventures; Twitter TrueFitnessTRX.

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