The White Rim Trail in Moab was in Payson McElveen’s DNA. His dad, Mike McElveen, first rode a mountain bike on the famed 100-mile loop in Canyonlands National Park in 1998, and it was a dirt path that had long captivated the now professional mountain biker.
McElveen, a 2016 graduate of Fort Lewis College who continues to call Durango home, crafted a plan nearly a year ago to attempt the fastest known time (FKT) record on the White Rim Trail, a route that took his father three days to complete during his initial ride. Most bike the trail in multiple-day excursions.
Though debated in cycling networks, the widely accepted FKT record of 5 hours, 59 minutes, 34 seconds was set by Salt Lake City-based endurance athlete and well-known skier Andy Dorais in 2016. On Wednesday, McElveen blew past that mark with a final time of 5:45:16 on his Orange Seal Off-Road Team Trek Top Fuel bike.
“You know, I’m proud of it, proud of that number,” the 26-year-old McElveen said Friday in an interview with The Durango Herald. “It was a unique experience. Usually when you’re looking at results, it’s a number next to your name – first place, second place, 12th place, whatever, but this time it was a time, and so it was a fun kind of new experience there.”
He averaged a speed of nearly 17.4 mph for the route and said there were several sustained sections where he rode 25 to 30 mph for a half hour at a time.
The project was supported by McElveen’s Red Bull sponsor. He said the company had their eye on a project such as the White Rim for nearly a decade but didn’t have the right athlete in place. With McElveen on the Red Bull team and the White Rim in his family background, the project came together over the course of a year. McElveen said the White Rim was one of the first big mountain bike rides his father did. Though he was only 5 and was not along on the trip, he still remembers his father’s excitement when he got home from the White Rim.
“That trip really guided my mountain biking career because my dad came back and was really passionate about it, and it’s something my family started doing together,” McElveen said. “It always made sense for me to go back there and see, just for family history reasons, what was possible.”
McElveen’s father actually rode the White Rim again two days before his son’s record attempt. He completed the trail in a little more than 8:20 and 8:02 in moving time.
“Partly for recon reasons and also just because he wanted to,” McElveen said. “He wanted to see at 65 how much better he was then when he did it at 44 because he’s ridden a lot since then.”
[image;3]At the finish line, Mike McElveen was there to give his son a big hug at the end of a trail that helped light the fire of a cycling career that has taken McElveen from Texas to Fort Lewis College and now to stardom.
The recordWhile Dorais’ previous record time was remarkable, he also opted to tackle the 2,200-foot climb of Shafer Hill first, while McElveen’s route finished with the Shafer climb in the final hour of his attempt. While planning the record pursuit, McElveen wanted to establish a standard route for how the White Rim should be ridden, and he started with the most commonly accessed parking lot.
“That’s a little bit of a tricky conversation because I see both sides,” McElveen said of the different start points. “Without a doubt, the way that Andy Dorais did it back in 2016 is a significant advantage because basically you’re doing this big 2,220-foot climb at the very beginning when you’re all rested versus doing it at hour five when you’re exhausted. If I wanted to just cover that loop in the fastest time I possibly could, I would have done it the way he did it.
“One of the goals of the project was to bring a little bit of, just standardize things a little bit. Bring some, I don’t want to say credibility, but it’s a mythic loop in the bike riding world. There’s a lot of rumors of fastest times and this, that and the other, and everyone pretty much agreed that that 5:59 Andy did a few years ago was the fastest that it had been ridden. But we kind of wanted to solidify that, make it more official but also kind of set out a start and end point that was more approachable for most people. Going as fast as we could was certainly a goal, but also as much of a goal if not more of a goal was inspiring people to get out there and enjoy the terrain, whether it’s Canyonlands National Park specifically or whatever an individual’s backyard is. Logistically speaking, it is really hard to drive down to the bottom of that Shafer climb the way Andy did, so we basically wanted to make it as relatable as possible, which is also why I did it fully self-supported. I didn’t get any bottle hand-ups or food hand-ups. I packed everything out that I packed in, didn’t have any stashed clothing or anything like that. That was kind of the idea.”
Within hours of the news release going public Thursday, McElveen began receiving some pushback for his self-supported tactic. Many have said the FKT attempt could allow for stashed supplied along the route. McElveen said he understands that thinking and supports other riders attempting the feat in their own way.
“Some people say the fastest known time should just be that part of the puzzle is how you route it, which is totally valid,” he said. “Basically, I got some feedback from some of the most established professional racers like Rebecca Rusch and Travis Brown, and they all felt that standardizing it the way we did was the way to go. But I’m open-minded, and I totally understand the other perspective, too.”
Adversity and pressureMcElveen, the two-time defending USA Cycling marathon mountain bike national champion, originally hoped to attack the record attempt last fall but was unable to give it a go. A torn triceps muscle early in the winter hampered his ability to train, and he re-tore the muscle in a fall on New Year’s Eve. He spent much of the rest of the winter in California at the Red Bull High Performance Center working on his recovery along with formulating a training plan with his coach at Williams Racing Academy based out of his home state of Texas.
McElveen’s form came around and he entered his first big race of the season March 16 at the Land Run 100 gravel race in Oklahoma. McElveen won, and he was eager to take that confidence-boosting result into his final week of training for the White Rim. One day after his win, McElveen became sick, and that limited his training.
He also went and scouted the terrain and saw miserable conditions after a recent rainstorm. Luckily, McElveen’s health came around, as did the trail conditions.
“November of this past year was the first time I rode it,” McElveen said. “I planned on doing another trial run a week before, and the weather was really bad and it was completely unrideable, actually. A big worry. We drove some of it in a Toyota Tacoma and actually got the Tacoma stuck, so there was no way you could get around it, let alone set a fastest time ever.
“Luckily, some warm weather and some sun kind of packed it back in, and it was pretty good conditions. ... All else being equal, it was on the faster side. Certainly could have been faster but far from the disastrous conditions I was afraid of a week out.”
Still, the pressure of performing with a film crew following his every move from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day was another stressor, and his tricep injury, which he estimated at only 70 to 80 percent healed, was another concern.
“To be totally honest, more than I’ve ever had to deal with,” McElveen said of the adversity. “I’m learning to work with the grain and all that stuff. Luckily, I had incredible support across the board, film crew, my dad, sports psychologists, the village that makes it happen. So, in the scheme of things, it could have been a lot worse. I think we dealt with those little setbacks just fine.”
‘Fast, focused, fortunate’McElveen has worked with sports psychologists, and one day before the record attempt, he and his team worked on a mantra he used to get through the long solo effort. He wrote a note and taped it on the top tube of his bike to remember the words “fast, focused, fortunate.”
“Fast, just because that might seem self-evident, but so often in endurance sports you get into this mode where you’re thinking, ‘Suffer more. If you make it hurt more, you’ll do better.’ But, to me, if you focus on just being faster instead of suffering more, a lot of time you get a better head space and make decisions that make you actually go faster instead of hurting more. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s helped me out.”
McElveen constantly remind himself of the steps along the route that he needed to take to succeed in the final outcome. He said the focus was about balancing progress goals versus outcome goals.
Fortunate was the word McElveen continued to repeat to himself during the final 2,220-foot climb of the route that features roughly 7,500 total feet of elevation gain. An encounter near the top of the climb reinforced that mantra.
“When you’re hurting so much, it can actually get kind of emotional,” he said. “It’s helpful to remember that you are fortunate to be out there, fortunate to have these public lands. I’m fortunate to have my health, fortunate to have the opportunity, really. That’s what I kept coming back to, and then somewhat ironically and very significantly near the top of the climb, I saw this group of hikers and there was a young woman in that group who very clearly was in the middle of chemotherapy. Yeah, I mean, that hit pretty hard, even in my delirium – definitely drove me to the line for that last half hour.”
Hydration and gearOne of the biggest conversation pieces around McElveen’s record was his hydration method. He carried only two water bottles of sports mix. The truck along the route was used only for camera purposes.
An exercise science major at Fort Lewis College, McElveen stays on the cutting edge of sports science and remains good friends with Rotem Ishay, a former FLC cyclist and the current director and exercise specialist at the Durango Performance Center and Fort Lewis College’s exercise science lab coordinator. The idea of intentional dehydration has been experimented with at the top levels of cycling and distance running, including by Team Sky cycling.
“It seems like there’s always conflicting information when a new theory comes out,” McElveen said. “Despite how central it is to performance and our existence, period, hydration still has a lot of question marks around it.
“It’s not something to play around with because you can die, straight up, but I also knew I wasn’t going to die out there because the high was 64 degrees, I started early in the morning and I have enough confidence in my health and fitness that I knew I could do the whole thing with no fluids, zero hydration. I would’ve gone a lot slower, it would have sucked a lot, but I could get through it.”
The idea was to optimize everything for speed, he said. That included not carrying an extra tube. He pre-hydrated and drank an entire gallon of water after he finished.
He tested the two-bottle decision in a 5-hour, 10-minute ride on the road in Moab six days before the record attempt and decided firmly to carry only two bottles instead of three.
“For the actual effort, in the last hour, my body was doing some pretty weird things, and we’re definitely looking into whether that was hydration-related,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have changed anything. ... It worked out, but I wouldn’t recommend it for folks that don’t have a lot of experience or aren’t as in tune with how long it’s going to take, basically.”
He said he ate nearly every 20-30 minutes and 300 calories per hour in the form of gels and chews.
McElveen also wore a Voler skinsuit designed specifically for him as well as a Bontrager XXX WaveCel helmet for aerodynamics. Every second mattered during the long, fast ride.
The standard is setMcElveen will take some time to rest before the next event on his calendar, the Sea Otter Classic on April 11 in California. He will look to defend his marathon mountain bike national title for a third time May 11 in his home state of Texas at Palo Duro Canyon, where he is once again expected to be pushed to the finish line by Durango’s Howard Grotts, the 2016 mountain bike Olympian who is also his roommate these days.
McElveen is ordering up a trophy for the White Rim record, and he looks forward to the day he can mail it out to whoever breaks his record. As for his next trip to the White Rim, he plans on taking multiple days, just as his father did in 1998.
“The competitor in me knows that it’s possible to go faster, and, you know, honestly, if someone went out and broke my record, I’d be stoked,” he said. “Records are set to be broken. I think it’s cool to have that competitive aspect.
“At the same time, this whole project has made me really look forward to doing the whole ride at a really civil pace, take multiple days, have a beer hand -up here and there instead of hydration mix, watch the sunset. So, I’m certainly looking forward to that.”