“Competition, ambition and experience kept me in the race throughout the day and night. And staying on the bike and in the race is the only way to do well in an ultra cycling race.”

by Lisa Marie Dougherty

Lisa Marie Dougherty has been a serious bicycle racer since 1994. She is a licensed USCF racer (Women’s Category 2). As a ultra marathon cycling racer, she qualified for the Race Across America in 1996 after completing the Bicycle Across Missouri race in under 50 hours. She has won the World UltraCycling Association’s 24 Hour Championship race three times. She is married to Eugene Dougherty, also an accomplished racer himself.


“I’m just going to ride and have fun. Nothing says I have to ride the entire 24 hours. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop and go to sleep.”

Yep. . . I actually uttered these fateful words in June, 1997, shortly before competing in my second 24 hour WUCA race.

In 1996, my second year as a cyclist, I carefully prepared for the World UltraCycling Association 24 Hour Championships held in Eldridge, IA. My race season was filled with centuries, double metrics, a 400 km brevet, Seattle-to-Portland, and Ride Across Indiana. I broke in my crew with a 300 mile practice race on a 50 mile loop around my folk’s place. Throughout the season, I carefully experimented with my diet, gradually broadened my endurance and thoughtfully sculpted my strategy. On race day Mark Patrick my lone crewman, and I approached the start line with confidence. Although the race was my first 24 hour ultra race, I managed to pedal 381 miles to finish second to Emmy Klassen. The experience had been extremely difficult yet challenging and fun. Bicycling straight through the night was an enchanting memory that I hoped to relive in 1997.

The next season started with collegiate races in February, but my enthusiasm for long distance rides wasn’t there. Rarely did I ride longer than 1-1/2 hours, although most of my training was more intense than ever before. In mid-April I rode my first century of the year – fast and alone.

That was it for long rides. I competed in lots of criteriums while doing rides no longer than 50 miles. The director of my USCF team Wild Thang Racing urged me to practice sprints and focus on criteriums, so I spent every weekend racing around and around city blocks. I improved considerably as a criterium racer, but rides as short as 30 miles began to seem daunting.

Suddenly, the Iowa 24 hour race was only a few weeks away, yet my last long distance ride was the century in April. Yikes! Oh well . . . I refused to panic. Instead, I decided to simply enjoy riding the bicycle that day. I love the ultra cycling community so much that just being a part of the Iowa WUCA event would make me happy. I declined two offers for crew support, attached a rack and trunk to my bicycle so that I could be self-supporting on the 142 mile grand loop, and took off for Iowa.

Lack of long distance training and crew support weren’t my only obstacles. Poor planning left me struggling to get everything ready the day before the race, which was perhaps my biggest mistake. My rack knocked my rear derailleur slightly out of adjustment so that shifting gears became an annoying task. Being mechanically impaired, I elected to shift less rather than try to align the dang thing. My last minute rush to the store left me staring forlornly at an empty shelf that my favorite liquid fuel normally occupied, so I was forced to try something different during the race. I even managed to forget all my water bottles and extra shorts. I was beginning to wonder if I would even get to the start this year.

This concern proved valid as I sauntered to the start line the next day shortly after my start time had already ticked by. Now I was relegated to the back of the line although the clock continued to count from my scheduled start time. I released my final shreds of competitive ambitions for the day – I would be lucky to survive.

I had no crew members cheering me on. I hauled all my own food, water and spare clothes up and down the hills of the Mississippi river valley. Near the end of the Grand Loop I suffered a bout of heat exhaustion which sent me into hyperventilation causing my lungs to hurt for the rest of the day and night. Three severe thunderstorms caught me on different parts of the course and injected the fear of God into my veins. While many riders dropped out early, I managed to ride 353 miles, stopping only for short breaks and a one hour forced break due to severe thunderstorms. How is this possible with such inadequate training? Competition, ambition and experience kept me on the course throughout the day and night. And staying on the bike and on the course is the only way to do well in an ultracycling event.

Competition came to me in the guise of the tenacious Nancy LaRue. Since there were only two other women in the race and one of them dropped out long before nightfall, I began to sag during my first few night loops. After each loop, I would roll up to my lonely tent, dismount, slip out of my cycling shoes and hobble over to my bag of goodies to find something to nibble on. Then I would gaze at my bicycle, wondering whether this would be a good time to retire. During one of these moments, I just have sat like a zombie for hours, but somebody told me that Nancy had almost closed the gap separating us. It was time either to regain my racer’s disposition or relinquish the race after 14 hours of riding. I remounted and went back to work, gradually recovering my enthusiasm as I entered my favorite part of ultra races – nighttime. In the darkness and solitude of the night, the true wonder of existence floods a cyclist’s soul as she enjoys one of her greatest gifts: a body capable of covering miles and miles on end in synergy with a simple yet practically perfect machine, accompanied by nothing more than the hum of tires on asphalt and the whisper of the chain.

Ambition is another key ingredient for success in 24 hour races. Although better physical preparation would have paid off with more total mileage in the race, the 1997 Iowa 24 hour race was a success for me because I love bicycles and 24 hour bicycle racing. Motivation, heart, enthusiasm, dedication – these are all part of the ambitious athlete’s disposition which an enable an inadequately prepared cyclist to cross the finish line of a 24 hour race. Without them, even an adequately trained ultra-cyclist is in danger of failure. Having a spirit that can drive you through pain, discomfort, nausea and emotional upheavals, that can recognize some bit of good in every experience and that always perceives failure as a last resort . . . this spirit has to be the most important commodity to the ultra-cyclist. Of course, spirit can only take you so far. Without proper training, longer and more brutal races like RAAM qualifiers, BMB and PBP will most likely destroy any cyclist regardless of enthusiasm and competitive drive.

Experience is the third key ingredient. Not only did I complete several ultra-cycling events in 1996, I competed in the first edition of the Iowa 24 hour race so I was familiar with the course as well as my body’s reactions to the shorter ultra-cycling events. The race was still quite painful and difficult, but I actually enjoyed most of it because my experience has taught me how best to prepare for such an event and how to deal with adverse situations that may arise during it.

Tips for your First 24 Hour Race

  1. Make sure you are well rested before the event. Although a good night’s sleep before the event is nice, if you are like me you will be too anxious to sleep soundly. A restless night right before the event won’t really hurt you; several nights of insufficient sleep before the race definitely will hurt you.
  2. Drink lots of liquids the night before the race to make sure you start the event fully hydrated. This may force you to get up during the night, but it’ll be worth it.
  3. Start your preparations early. Don’t leave everything to the last moment. Make sure you have all your favorite foods and drinks and all the tools and cycling clothing you will need. Make a list several days before packing so that you can add items to is as you remember them. Pack early so that you aren’t rushed.
  4. Plan to lodge near the race start/finish so that you can make it to the start comfortably before the race begins and so that you don’t have to drive far afterwards to get sleep before heading home.
  5. If you want to ride with the big dogs, you will need a support crew. Doing it solo is very doable but don’t expect to keep up with the exceptional racers who have the b onus of crew support.
  6. Bring a variety of foods to the race in addition to those you plan to eat. You may not believe, this but even Dairy Queen Breezes lose their appeal after consuming the eight one in a single day. (No . . . I haven’t done this, but I am considering it as a scientific experiment.) Don’t plan an all-liquid diet as a first-time 24 hour racer. After the first 100 miles or so, your body will be crying for solid food. Make sure you have some on hand. . . just in case.
  7. Go your own speed. Don’t try to keep up with the speed demons at the beginning of the ride. Even if they can keep it up, chances are good that you won’t be able to, so take it easy and patiently reel them in one by one as the day progresses. You’ll be surprised how many people will burn themselves up early in the race and retire before th day is done.
  8. Try to get yourself as physically prepared for the event as possible by riding long events, speaking with experienced ultra-cyclists and experimenting on the bike with different types of food and nutritional supplements. During my first season of ultra-cycling, I spent many mornings on my indoor trainer eating breakfast while cycling. This taught my stomach to deal with eating substantial meals while performing an aerobic activity.
  9. Carefully examine your bicycle before the race to make sure it is in the best condition possible. Pay special attention to gear shifting, braking, tire condition, and clipless pedal adjustments. Tighten all screws and nuts, especially on the aerobars and derailleurs. Make sure you pack at least one extra tire, a few tubes, a patch kit, tire irons, necessary allen wrenches, a chain tool, lubricant, tire pump and rags. Oh yeah. .. . be certain to bring your headlight, taillight, reflectors, reflective tape and spare batteries as well.
  10. Most important of all, bring the right attitude. Whether you are well-prepared and competitive or only sort of, kind of prepared and not very competitive, remember that cycling is fun and that everyone at the ultra-cycling events is linked to you by a special, shared looniness. This isn’t the Olympics or a stage of the Tour de France so, if you pass someone in trouble, stop and give them a hand. Ride your best ride but enjoy yourself while you’re doing it. Once you’re as skilled and powerful as the top names in ultra-cycling, you can begin pushing yourself toward your limits.

If you are attempting your first 24 hour race this year, best of luck. Train hard, plan carefully, but have fun.