For those who believe normal mountain bike racing provides an insufficient degree of challenge—or, some might say, suffering—there is marathon racing.
Beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday, July 6, Sun Valley will host the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships. About 250 racers will ride a two-lap course up and around Bald Mountain covering a total of 45 miles and about 6,000 vertical feet of climbing.
Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s vice president of national events, predicts that the top riders will finish the course in less than three and a half hours.
By contrast, last year’s Cross Country National Championships course—21.5 miles—covered only one lap of this year’s marathon course. About 1,100 cyclists competed in that event—four times the number expected to show up for the marathon.
“There are not a lot of people who want to go out and race for about four hours,” Rice acknowledged.
He said USA Cycling’s only criterion for a marathon course is that it be between 60 and 100 kilometers (37 to 62 miles) long.
“It’s different every year,” he said. “Sometimes it’s in the mountains and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s single track and sometimes it’s double-track jeep road.”
Rice said top male contenders this year will include Todd Wells, who placed 10th in cross-country mountain biking in the 2012 Olympics in London. Wells won the Cross Country Mountain Bike National Championships in Sun Valley in 2011 and was second last year despite riding part of the race on a flat tire.
A top female competitor will be Pua Mata, who won the pro marathon championships in 2011 and was the top pro cross-country and endurance racer in 2012.
Two strong local contenders will be Rebecca Rusch and Muffy Ritz. Ritz will be racing in the 50-and-over class and Rusch—for whom even regular marathon racing is apparently not enough of a challenge—will be racing in the single-speed class.
“It’s the best of all possible worlds to have a big event two blocks from my house,” Rusch said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Rusch, 44, placed second in the single-speed class in last year’s cross-country championships, and said she expects to do well this year.
“I’ll be competitive for sure, but I don’t know who’s showing up,” she said.
Both women have done lots of long-distance biking races.
“I kind of like the pain and suffering in long races,” said Ritz, who’s 55. “I don’t think anybody really has fun when you’re out there—the reward comes after.”
And, she added, “the older you get, the longer you like to go. You don’t have the speed any more, so you have to rely on endurance.”
Both women said being in a race pushes a cyclist to reach for that sense of accomplishment.
“You really feel disappointed in yourself if you drop out,” Ritz said. “There’s a saying—‘Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever.’”
Even so, she said, the Sun Valley event is going to be “a long, hard one.”
The course will include not only the initial 2,800-foot climb from Cold Springs to near the top of Bald Mountain, but an additional 400-foot climb between the Warm Springs base area and River Run.
“There is the home-course advantage,” Rusch said. “For people who are coming from out of town, they’re not going to be accustomed to the amount of climbing we have here.”
This year’s race will start at the Ketchum Town Plaza and do a lap around the River Run base area before heading down the Wood River Trail bike path to the start of the climb up Baldy at Cold Springs.
“We’ll have a lot going on for spectators who want to check it out,” Rice said.
At River Run, the Higher Ground adaptive sports organization will host a Ninkasi beer garden, Caribbean and Mexican food, and lawn games, including volleyball. Live music will begin about 2 p.m.
For those who want to watch the racing action on Baldy, the gondola and Christmas chairlifts will provide rides to the top for $15.
Various men’s and women’s classes will start between 8 a.m. and 8:44 a.m.