He grew up mountain biking in the beautiful mountains of Utah and even though he didn’t buy his first road bike until 2005, he hasn’t really fallen behind. You see, Collin Johnson is another one of ultracycling’s young guns that are beaming with talent and ready to rock the ultra world right out of the box. Even though this is only Johnson’s first year competing, it’s pretty darn safe to say that this kid is the real deal.
He’s a 27 year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan who has just started the third year of his PhD in computer science and is also studying robotics. He caught the ultracycling bug back in 2008 when he moved to California. Once he rode the 2009 Fall Death Valley Double Century, he knew that he was hooked.
According to Johnson, this is officially his first year of ultra racing, and he has much bigger ultracycling plans down the road. If his three races so far this year are any indication of where he may go with the sport, then I would say that his future in the sport certainly looks pretty bright. He took an age group win at a very hotly contested Calvin’s Challenge, and then went on to place second at the Balltown Classic. Things also went extremely well for Johnson at the National 24HR Challenge (N24HC) where he took home the silver bowl for the overall win. To top it all off, he’s currently the overall leader in the Heartland Triple Crown Series.
Collin took some time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions that we had regarding how his season is shaking out. Here’s what he had to say:
URN – Collin, you had a great result at Calvin’s Challenge back in May with a twelve-hour total of 242 miles taking 1st in your age division and 7th overall for standard frame riders. Was Calvin’s your first Ultra race and what motivated you to enter?
CJ – Calvin’s was my first ultra race. I guess I am unusual for my age in that I prefer ultra cycling and racing to the more standard USA Cycling races. I had wanted to start doing ultra races sooner, but this year is the first that I have had the time and made the effort to train and race.
URN – Calvin’s is an early season race, how did you go about training for it given that you live in Northern Michigan where it can be a bit colder in late winter and early spring.
CJ – The mild winter really helped with training this year. By the time Calvin’s came around, I had 7 or 8 century rides for the year with the longest being 150 miles two weeks before Calvin’s. April was hectic because I had my qualifying exam for my PhD program on May 7, so I was trying to ride enough while working 80+ hour weeks.
URN – What was your goal going into Calvin’s and were you pleased with your result?
CJ – My goal going into Calvin’s had been 220 miles. I was extremely happy with how I did at Calvin’s.
URN – What was the most difficult part of the race and were you able to work together with other riders much during Calvin’s?
CJ – I rode with the front group at Calvin’s for the first half lap before the relay teams flew off. I rode with Peter Oyler for the rest of the first lap. I lost track of Peter at the end of the lap, and I ended up riding three more long loops by myself. I rode with groups a bit on the small loop, but mostly was on my own.
URN – What were some lessons learned at Calvin’s that would help in the next event?
CJ – I battled dehydration at Calvin’s for about an hour and a half. In training, I do my long rides with a Camelbak, so I always have a lot of water with me. At Calvin’s, while the weather was cool, the humidity really made me sweat a lot. I was self-supporting and trying to drink a bottle an hour, but that just wasn’t enough. Knowing how my body starts to act when I am getting dehydrated ended up being extremely useful at Balltown and N24HC.
URN – Finishing second only 4 minutes behind Kurt Searvogel at this year’s 200 mile Balltown Classic is impressive enough, but to do it without a support crew, well, that’s something to talk about. So, tell us a bit about that race.
CJ – Balltown was a great race. I have a love of the mountains and climbing, so the more climbing the better. After Calvin’s, I was convinced to stick with the front group as long as possible. I was self-supporting the race, so I used the same strategy I use as on my long solo rides. I started with one four hour bottle of Perpetuem and another four hour bottle with just the powder to fill with water at the halfway point. I rode with a Camelbak so I would have enough water.
At the first checkpoint, I was slow refilling my water so I had to put in a hard 30 minute effort to get back onto the lead pack. I figured it was better to try and catch them so I’d have a group to ride with. Otherwise, I was going to be fighting the wind alone.
During the first half of the race, I was climbing a bit faster than the others in the group, but they were stronger on the flats. When we hit the steep hills on Horseshoe Road, I put in a big gap after the first steep hill. I slowed down to wait for the others to catch on before continuing because the wind was really howling. At the top of the second hill, I decided to attack and try to get away. If I was going to win, I thought this was the time to go. I opened a big lead and stayed out front for a few hours.
Along the way, Trish was cheering and urging me on, which really helped during some of the harder points in the race. I knew at some point Kurt would catch me, and sure enough, soon after Farley, I looked back and saw Kurt on the horizon. Eventually, he caught me, and I rode with him for a bit before stopping to try and cool down by pouring water on my head at a water stop. I tried to catch him at this point, but couldn’t close the gap. I just kept pedaling and fighting the wind.
With the heat, I was going through a 100 oz Camelbak between each checkpoint. I fueled the whole race with Perpetuem, Endurolytes, and a couple bananas. I like having adventures on my bike, so I have a good system figured out for doing long, self-supported rides in harsh conditions.
URN – The N24hc was your next race, was your positive results at Calvin’s and Balltown the catalyst for entering, or was it already on your calendar? Was this your first 24hr event?
CJ – N24HC was my first 24 hour event. At the start of the year, I had made a schedule of races that I wanted to do. N24HC was at the top of the list because some friends had done it the year before, and Middleville is only a couple of hours from Ann Arbor.
URN – What was the race plan for the N24HC and what was your goal for this one? Were you planning to work together with anyone?
CJ – Going into the race, I was hoping to do 450 miles. My long training ride had been 340 miles in 19 hours, so riding with others and having a crew, I felt 450 was a good goal, and after Calvin’s and Balltown, I knew I could hang with the lead pack. My plan was to stay with the lead pack until my legs blew up, at which point, I would try to maintain a steady pace for the rest of the race.
I didn’t have any plans for working with other riders. Very early in the race, I found myself off the front with one recumbent ahead of me. I figured people would catch up. Dave Meredith caught up soon and six or seven more arrived soon.
URN – Any major concerns before the start given that this was your first 24hr event?
CJ – I was concerned before the race was whether I had recovered completely from my last long training ride, which was 19 hours long that I did two weeks before N24HC. The week leading up to the race was stressful because I was trying to complete a research paper with a deadline of June 15. I tried hard to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night and was mostly successful at that.
URN – Take us through the high and low points of the race if you could. Were you on the front or with the lead group for the largest part of the race?
CJ – The big loop on the course was fantastic. The rolling and varied terrain was one of the best century routes I’ve ridden in Michigan. During races, riding real fast with a tight group is a blast. I like going out and pushing the pace. I figure it’s a race, so it should be hard.
I rode at the front for the whole race. At the end of the big loop, the front of the race was Scott Luikart and myself. We did three day loops before he started getting cramps, so I kept going alone. I rode alone for most of the remaining 15 hours of the race.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my legs blew up, which wasn’t too surprising. I rode a couple slow laps and recovered a bit. The rain helped cool me down, and my body caught up on hydration.
The lowest point of the race was the start of the rain around 4:30am because all the salt I was coated in flushed out of my clothes. My contact points with the bike had been rubbed pretty raw at this point, so flushing them with saltwater was certainly painful. Fortunately, the rain kept up and washed all the salt clear.
With this being my first 24-hour race, a couple of the hours during the middle of the night dragged on. I kept looking east, hoping the horizon would start to change color. However, grad student, and in particular computer science, life tends to involve late nights working, so all-nighters aren’t too infrequent in my life.
URN – With very warm weather the last few years, the N24hc is becoming known as a “Hot Weather” race. You obviously dealt better with the condition than others as there were 46 riders who dropped out before the end of the initial 122 mile loop. Tell us how you dealt with the heat.
CJ – I grew up in Utah, so I am used to riding in hot weather. I sweat more than just about anyone I know, so I drink more water, but otherwise handle the heat well. I had my crew douse me with ice water at the rest stops. I had a couple laps where I was wearing an ice sock around my neck.
URN – Everybody is always curious what winners use to fuel their race. Could you share your N24hc fueling regiment? What worked and what didn’t?
CJ – I fueled with 1.5 scoops of Perpetuem per hour and an occasional Clifbar or banana. During the heat of the day, I was probably taking 8-10 Endurolytes per hour. I was drinking 30-40oz of water an hour until about midnight. I sweat a lot and my bibs were salt-crusted so I was clearly losing a lot of salt and water. I didn’t suffer any cramps, so my fueling worked well.
My crew kept trying to get me to eat a little more solid food, but with the heat I found it difficult. My stomach wasn’t really upset at all, but I was continually thirsty so I couldn’t really chew a Clifbar.
In general, I was happy with my fueling. I used the same strategy that I’ve honed on my long training rides, and having a crew helped keep my fueling more consistent.
URN – What kind of bike setup are you using? Would you have changed anything for this race?
CJ – My bike is a Look 586 with SRAM Force with 50×34 on the front and 11×25 on the back. I’m riding normal wheels, not aero carbon wheels. I used Profile T2+ clip-on aerobars. In general, I was happy with the setup. I am going to switch to using the T1+ bars because the hand position is more comfortable.
URN – You hammered out a 472.6 mile performance with absolutely nobody else finishing within 54 miles of you. How do you feel about that result?
CJ – I’m extremely excited about my result. I train hard and love to simply be on my bike, so seeing all the hard work yield a great result was very satisfying.
I just went in with the plan to ride as hard as I could, and then just keep pedaling when things got rough. My crew was truly amazing and provided more support than I could have dreamed.
A big THANK You to a couple of friends of mine, Will Jurkowski and Maria Muniz who crewed for me at the N24HC. This race was the first time they had crewed an event of this type, and the first race where I have had a crew. We worked out a basic system for what I would need when stopping and how often I would stop. We didn’t have any hiccups, and I managed to only have 23 minutes off the bike for the duration of the race.
URN – What other races do you have planned for this season and what is your macro view of your ultracycling future? Where do you plan to go with this?
CJ – I have two more races planned this year, the Metamora 4×50 and the Weekend of Racing 24 Hour in hopes of winning the Heartland Triple Crown.
Ultimately, I want to do RAAM. Being from Utah, the Hoodoo 500 is high on my list of races to do. The 508 would be great as well. I love the desert and the mountains, so any race that involves those two things would be something I’d like to try.
I learned about a new race, the Tour de British Columbia, that is starting next year. I’m currently looking into logistics and training to see if making the leap from 24 hour races to a RAAM-duration event in 13 months is feasible.
My grandma would like me to ride the Tour de France, but that’s a whole different world.
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