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The Coaching Project

Chasing peak performance at the Arizona Trail 300

The 2014 Specialized Epic loaded for 300 miles of racing.     Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Gulley

When I rolled to the finish of the AZT300 last April, I told myself I’d never do it again. You always say these things after completing an endurance feat. But this time I meant it.

I had made it from Parker Canyon Lake, by the Mexico border, to Superior, near Phoenix, first out of the 37 riders who lined up. More importantly, I finished in just shy of 52 hours, faster than anyone had ever done it before. What more reason could I find for repeating? 

But one goal remained elusive. I believed when I set out—and still believed after the race—that I could ride the course in under 48 hours. It was an arbitrary number, but these sorts of goals are often what drive us as athletes. Subsequently, a good friend of mine, Salsa-sponsored racer Kurt Refsnider bested my time (but didn’t go under 48 hours), which added fuel to my motivation.

I’ve often wondered, as I think many amateur riders do, if using a coach and a science-based plan could make me faster. I’ve long been fairly systematic about my training, but I still speculated whether a tailor-made training regimen would give me an extra few percentage points. And if so, what could the average person learn from my experience and implement into his or her own training? So I started working on an article, “Secrets From a Coach,” which will appear in print in Outside this autumn.

Back in December, I reached out to LW Coaching with the idea. I chose Lynda Wallenfels for her expertise in endurance mountain biking. Not only has she trained some of the world’s most successful ultra endurance riders, she has an impressive resume of her own. She and her partner, Dave Harris, are both 24 Hour National Champions, and Wallenfels rode and won the AZT300 back in 2011. Beyond that, I have used many of LW Coaching’s pre-set training plans over the years, which gave me both confidence in her abilities and a solid base line from which to start.

“Sounds like a great opportunity,” she told me. “I’m sure we can make you faster." 

Wallenfels studied a year of my power files and then started my training. Over the past 16 weeks, I have religiously followed her direction, which has included riding five to six days a week, as well as a full yoga and core strength regimen. The program has been about doing more, but not always how I expected. I’ve ridden more volume than in 2013 and put in more intensity work, but I’ve also had more rest and recovery than ever before.

The metric for success: Can I do the AZT300 quicker than in 2013 and faster than 48 hours? This is a risky business for LW Coaching because an event like the AZT300 is as much about managing external variables as it is about one’s fitness. In 2011, for instance, my Garmin 705 died on course and left me unable to finish. And in 2012, a snowstorm on Mt. Lemmon turned me back.

By other measures, the program has already been a success. In February, at the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo, I not only won the duo male category (with partner Cary Smith), I averaged faster lap times than ever before and we finished in record time. In training, I’m registering the highest threshold power numbers of my adult life. On paper, I’m faster, fitter, and leaner than I’ve ever been.  

Goals aren’t accomplished on paper, of course. An event like the AZT300 takes good fitness, a strong head, lots of motivation, and some luck. This Friday I’ll line up with the confidence that I’ve taken care of everything I can to the best of my ability, and I’ll hope that the rest falls into place. You can follow along to see how the experiment plays out.

No matter what day and time I arrive in Superior, I fully expect to vow to never do it again. But if there’s one thing that’s certain in this entire endeavor, it’s that you never know what lies down the trail.

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