Ultra-Endurance: An Interview with Kendall Park
In this engaging interview, we uncover:
- Kendall's journey into the realm of ultra-endurance cycling.
- The mental resilience required to face the rigorous challenges of long-distance racing.
- The undeniable risks encountered by ultra-endurance cyclists.
- The gear required to survive and succeed in winter ultra races.
- Kendall's thrilling plans for future adventures in the realm of ultra-endurance cycling.
Leaving the Rohn Checkpoint at mile 180—a little over halfway to the finish! Photo by Laurie Thorpe
Kendall: I have a very different athletic background from most cyclists—American football. I played in the Women’s Football Alliance from the ages of 18 to 25, and had a lot of success. However, contact sports take a toll on your body. After four surgeries, I decided to retire from football. When I started medical school in 2015, I picked up cycling as a means to stay in shape. I had an old beater mountain bike that I would use to commute to school. In my free time I would listen to audio lectures as I rode for miles and miles on a secluded rail trail. This was my favorite way to study; I did not know I was laying a foundation for my future athletic endeavors.
Kendall: Yes, I would say things escalated quickly. During the graduate school portion of my medical degree, I’ve had more free time to devote to cycling. In 2020, I rode the entire 240 mile Katy Trail over six days with a friend. It felt like the most epic thing I had ever done. However, a year later, I challenged myself to do the same trail in less than a day. I finished in 18 hours and 16 minutes, setting a new women’s fastest-known-time (FKT), along with recording the first self-supported finish. The experience solidified this sense that I had found my new sport.
Kendall: I entered my first 80 mile gravel race in the fall of 2020 with the intention of building up to self-supported ultra-endurance racing. In these races, you're expected to be self-reliant, meaning that you are responsible for your own bike repairs and supplies during the race. You can only make use of publicly available services—friends and family cannot help you. Another feature of these races is that the clock never stops. If a race spans multiple days, you’re carrying camping gear to sleep on the route. It’s a true test of self-sufficiency, all the while pushing you to your physical and mental limits. When I discovered the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a multi-day winter ultra through the Alaskan wilderness, I had to do it. I didn't even have a fat bike at the time, but I knew I had to do it. I spent 2022 collecting the gear and skills necessary to complete the ITI. Winter racing is a whole different ball game. Take the already tough sport of ultra-endurance cycling and add extreme winter survival skills. The first priority is to stay alive, the second is to avoid losing fingers and toes, the third is to finish, and lastly, try to win. It's serious and challenging, and I love it. In this year’s ITI 350 I managed to finish alive, with all my digits intact, and 3rd amongst the female cyclists.
Crossing Puntilla Lake on the way to Rainy Pass. Photo by Nan Pugh
Would you say a specific mindset is necessary for these ultra-endurance challenges, and how do you mentally prepare yourself for them?
Kendall: Oh, absolutely. These races are 90% mental. Most racers who drop out have the physical fitness to finish. I am lucky in that my disposition was already well-suited for these races: strong willed, level-headed, resilient. You’ll meet some of the most positive people on the planet at these winter ultras. In the 2022 Actif Epica, the course got completely buried by a blizzard. I fondly recall this other racer and I having to throw our bikes over chest-high snow drifts and basically swim across the drifts on our bellies. It was a miserable experience, but we were laughing and joking the whole time.
During the Unbound XL gravel race we had to carry our bikes through two miles of mud. Racers were upset, some even crying. But in winter races, you could be pushing your bike for a whole day and/or night. During the ITI, I pushed my 70+ lb fat bike 18 miles up Rainy Pass. I set out in the morning and it was night by the time I got to the top. So, when you compare, carrying my gravel bike through mud for an hour on a pleasant summer day doesn't seem too bad. The mental game is often about perspective, you know? I think back to other tough experiences and suddenly the current one doesn't seem so bad. But the trick is knowing when to push and when to rest. There’s a point where stubbornness turns into recklessness. That's where I have to exercise a lot of control.
What are the biggest dangers and challenges faced by ultra-endurance cyclists during races?
Kendall: Ultra-endurance cyclists race through environments with grizzly bears, thunderstorms, extreme exposure to desert heat, frigid cold, and so forth. And yet, the thing that kills ultra-cyclists is vehicles. That's because we’re out for so long, alone, often at night, in remote areas where drivers might not be expecting cyclists. In some of these races, you have to carry bear spray or even lug around ten liters of water to make it through the desert. Evenstill, vehicles are the biggest danger. Most winter ultras require racers to carry 2-3 red blinkies and reflective gear at all times to be visible to snowmobiles. I make sure my bike is wrapped in reflective tape and I use my Lumos helmet for added visibility.
As for biggest challenges, that often depends on the racer. For some people it’s mental, for others physical. I’d say managing sleep in multi-day races is one of the more universal challenges. Remember, the race clock is always running, so you can shave significant time off your finish by sleeping less. However, skimping too much on sleep can hurt performance, and at extreme levels can create safety issues. So every racer has to find the right balance for themselves.
We're really curious about the type of gear involved in these extreme winter races. I understand that you've actually made some of your own equipment. Could you share more about that?
Kendall: Oh, absolutely. The gear is a fundamental part of winter racing. I did make some pieces myself, including a midlayer onesie made out of a material called Alpha Direct. Alpha Direct is an incredibly light and breathable insulating layer. This mid-layer was the centerpiece of my kit and helps me to maintain an optimal body temperature during races. It's all about staying warm and dry. Sweat is one of the biggest dangers in winter races. If your insulation gets wet, it stops working. This probably contributed to the large number of scratches on the first day of this year’s ITI. We had a fast and warm start–great trail conditions at 20 degrees Fahrenheit. A lot of racers burned hard during the day, worked up a sweat, and then couldn’t stay warm through the night when the temps plunged to -35F. Things got pretty serious; some medical evacuations had to be called in for hypothermia and frostbite.
As for other interesting winter gear… water freezes, so it either has to be carried in thermoses or a hydration bladder under your jacket. A lot of favorite cycling snacks such as trail bars get rock hard in the cold, so racers either need to find other options, or thaw their food with body heat before consumption. In fact, there’s a long list of standard cycling gear that stops working in the extreme cold. CO2 tire inflators, certain types of bike pumps, Voile straps, brakes and shifters that use mineral oil, rechargeable batteries. Our phones and other rechargeable devices have to be kept on the body to keep the battery alive. We use disposable lithium batteries for everything else. Everyone carries a serious winter sleeping bag and some kind of shelter in case they have to camp outdoors. A stove is an essential emergency item used to melt snow for water. Turkey bags are often stuck between boots and liners to act as a vapor barrier. Racers tape their noses and cheeks to prevent frostbite. We also need some kind of protective eyewear for extreme wind or blizzard conditions. In my case, I added a detachable magnetic visor to my Lumos Ultra. I found this worked better than ski goggles as I could swap between lenses and the vents at the top of the helmet prevented the buildup of fog. For Alaska specifically we might bring waders for water crossings. All this gear and more contributed significantly to my performance and safety during the race. Like I said, it’s a whole different ball game.
Kendall's Trek Farley 5 rig for the ITI 350
What are the advantages of having an integrated lighting system on your helmet, like the Lumos Ultra, compared to simply strapping a light on the back of a regular helmet?
Kendall: I haven't seen many people strapping red blinkies on their helmets, possibly due to the impact on aerodynamics. The ability to control the intensity and frequency of the Lumos Ultra lights helps me conserve battery power during ultra endurance events. For example, last year’s Unbound XL (350 miles) started at 3pm. We rode through the night, into the next day, and into the following night. I finished after 11pm on the second day. With a low-power flash pattern, my Ultra's battery lasted through the dark portions of the race with charge to spare. I’ve used the helmet in a similar manner during winter races. The Ultra's battery placement near the head helps it function well in cold temperatures. A rechargeable blinky on a seatpost does not last as long in the cold. I appreciate the Ultra helmet not just for safety, but also for convenience. It's so much easier to turn the lights on when they're integrated into the helmet. When racing long distances, especially in winter, simplicity is crucial. If something isn't easy, you'll stop doing it because you're exhausted and cold. Streamlining your equipment and making it simple to use can significantly improve your racing experience.
Poor visibility and trail conditions at the top of Rainy Pass.
Why do you think it's important to have lights higher up on your helmet like the Lumos Ultra instead of just having a regular seat post light?
Kendall: You know, it just feels like common sense to me. There are a couple of reasons why having lights up higher is better. First off, there's a lot of stuff on a bike that can block the beam if it's on the seat post. For example, you could have bikepacking bags covering the light, making it hard to see. You might try to strap a blinkie to the bags themselves, but this makes it easier to knock off (I say this from experience). Also, I would guess that drivers aren't looking down as much, so having the lights higher and more in their line of sight is probably better. No matter what crazy setup you have on your bike, your helmet is almost always visible – having lights on your helmet guarantees that you'll be seen.
Kendall, it's been fascinating hearing about your experiences and the thought that goes into your preparation for these races. Looking forward, what are your goals and aspirations in the world of ultra-endurance cycling? Any big challenges on the horizon?
Kendall: There are a couple of big races on my radar. I would like to race the ITI 1000, which is three times longer than the ITI 350 I completed this year. It's a challenging route that follows the entire Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome and takes almost a month to complete. Another race I've been eyeing is the Tour Divide, a grueling 2700-mile race from Canada to Mexico through the Rocky Mountains. It's a true test of endurance, with the fastest times for females falling a little under 20 days. I have to admit, I don't make my future race schedule that public. I only told a handful of friends and family that I was attempting the ITI 350, even though I spent over a year preparing for it. These races are intensely personal. You’re alone, in your own head, for the majority of the time. The notion of strangers spectating can sometimes intrude on that sense of solitude. I’m always happy to talk about my races afterwards, especially when it comes to sharing tips. I’ve been working on a website of resources to help other aspiring cyclists succeed at ultra endurance racing, but time is my biggest constraint right now. It will be available at wildest.bike sometime this summer.
A flat tire repair on the Susitna River at -35F (-37C).
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It would be awesome if you could share how you made the detachable visor for the helmet! Good luck with your next endaevour.
Kendall….what an inspiration. I have truly enjoyed reading this story. I LOVE my Lumos products and see such a benefit. Riding across AK is on my bucket list. I rode across the USA the summer of 2021. What an amazing summer I had. Pedal On!!! Safe travels…Donita