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Biking is the easy part- Reflections of an ultra-endurance racer

Our ambassador Cory Ostertag shares his reflections on being an ultra-racer, dad, and riding the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route.

It’s hard to imagine a sport that is more selfish than bikepack racing

An inherently solitary activity with participants typically spending the majority of their time alone deeply absorbed in a state of self-preservation. Adding to this, the customary ‘rules’ enforce detachment from our family and friends. This temporary dissociation with our normal lives is a big reason why some of us bikepack. To some degree, we use bikepack racing to waive responsibilities, unplug from reality, and connect with our primal nature – eat, sleep, hunt (unless you’re lucky to be in the lead, then you become the hunted). But as I’ve learned, eschewing one’s typical duties to ride your bike endlessly becomes significantly more challenging when a big part of your daily life includes playing the role of a parent and an attentive spouse.
"Spending any time away from family has become increasingly difficult to justify. "

    Julian turned four this spring. While his age is irrelevant in and of itself, this came with some massive milestones for our father-son relationship. I don’t know enough about childhood development to make general statements about four year olds, but as many dads will know, this is the point in time when kids will start to rely less on mom and will begin idolizing dad as a sort of hero figure. My interests have started to leak into his, and my behaviour is no longer just something I do, but something that Julian will proclaim “I can do to!” As a velophile, much of this emulation and impression is centered around the bicycle. Suddenly the routine task of cleaning my bike is a shared experience that typically ends with me getting sprayed with a garden hose. Meanwhile my bikes have fallen into a state of disrepair because I can’t attempt any rudimentary maintenance without Julian volunteering his “help”. As an introvert, having space to myself has always been important to me, but having now witnessed the impact of my influence on Julian’s developing mind, spending any time away from family has become increasingly difficult to justify. 

    This spring I created the opportunity for myself to participate in the Cross-Washington Bike Race, an 1165km off-road route spanning the west-east distance of Washington state. Riding the route as part of the annual Grand Départ had been on my bucket list for a while, but as the event approached the thought of leaving my wife and Julian behind felt shamefully egocentric and borderline negligent considering Shelby was 36 weeks pregnant with our second child. While I’ve always touted my ability to find “balance” in what I do, it has become apparent that my passion for endurance cycling may well be irreconcilable with my need to be available to my family and paternally involved in my son’s life. Riding 1165 off-road kilometers was going to be hard. Being away from Shelby and Julian for an entire week was going to be harder. In order to succeed, I would need to find solace in doing this for the right reasons.

    Julian has started to race BMX

    Julian has started to race BMX

    Julian BMX Racing

    "Riding 1165 off-road kilometers was going to be hard. Being away from Shelby and Julian for an entire week was going to be harder."

    Cory's long-time companion, his Taïga EXP

    When I first started getting involved in ultra-racing, I knew I had to be clear about WHY I was doing it and what my core motivations are. These two concepts can be easily confused. On one hand, the WHY are the outcomes generated from the activity, which presumably I enjoy, although often aren’t realized during the activity itself, but after (i.e. type 2 fun). These include fitness, adventure, exploration, challenge, Strava kudos, etc. On the other hand, motivation is what drives me everyday. The thing that keeps me moving along the protracted training process in preparation for these huge, but infrequent events. One of these motivations is to learn more about myself. How do I handle stress, disappointment, fear, and the unavoidable emotional peaks and valleys of a long effort? In a way, bike rides are like little lab experiments that teach us about our own character so that we can extrapolate these learnings and apply them to real life. Many of us are drawn to competition because it functions as a dress rehearsal for some greater judgment yet to come. I have the privilege to be able to participate in just about any passtime I could wish to pursue and I’ve opted for ultra-cycling; a time-consuming and arduous sport that an infinitesimally small number of people have any interest in, and that has zero tangible reward. But that’s ok because it enables me to learn more about myself and helps me feel comfortable telling others about who I am.

    This leads me to my second core motivation, which is simply to inspire others. I love sharing my stories of success and failure so that other people can envision themselves doing something similar. They may have just needed that extra little push or tidbit of knowledge to make it happen. (That’s why I’m writing this right now!) But more importantly, as a father, I’m hyper-motivated by my opportunity to inspire my children. I want to show Julian that it is important to be passionate about something regardless of how niche or silly it might seem, that mastering a skill is born out of dedicating energy and time; and that satisfaction can come from both failure and success.Taking advantage of winter time to service his bike

    The Cross-Washington Bike Race didn’t go exactly as planned

    I went in with lofty goals of winning and potentially breaking the course record. Like last year’s preparation for the BC Epic 1000, I trained diligently, spending many hours riding through a dark and miserable winter in order to prepare myself for the challenging route. But you can never prepare for the unexpected. My resupply plans went out the window when I learned that nutritious gluten-free food was scarcely available in rural Washington. On top of that, an early crash and the resulting injuries meant that I had to take a little more rest than normal in order to keep my body functional. I even considered taking myself to the hospital half way through the route out of an irrational fear  that I might die of sepsis, or at minimum, needed to have my thumb amputated (spoiler alert: it was fine). There’s no doubt that my sleep-deprived brain, combined with the thought of my family and my new baby on the way made me much more risk-averse and concerned for my own well-being. Despite this, I opted to not tell my wife that I was nursing some wounds across the state. 36 weeks pregnant, she didn’t need the extra stress. 

    Regardless, I knew they were ‘watching’. Julian has been trained to dotwatch since the age of 2, and at the end of the day that’s what this is all about for me. It doesn’t matter whether I set an FKT, get 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or lanterne rouge. Regardless of the result, Julian sees the effort and commitment I put into bike racing and he shares the excitement that is generated from it. Maybe it’s just him developing into his own little self, but it seems that the more I demonstrate the importance of biking in my own life, the more he shows interest in wanting to learn and improve his own two-wheel skills.

    Cory's swollen and bruised ritght hand

    The Taiga EXP with a bikepacking setup

    The Taiga under the sun

    Before I left for Cross-Washington, Shelby and I had been spending months gently coaxing him to transition from his run bike to his shiny new pedal bike with little success. Shortly after I returned a switch was turned on in his brain, and suddenly he was pedaling his bike with ease and confidence. I’ve started taking him out to the local BMX track where dozens of pint sized shredders zip around in comically large full-face helmets. With a number plate strapped to his bars, Julian rides with a level of focus and determination that I haven’t witnessed in him before. If there were a prize for most laps completed in practice, he would win. The kid has stamina. 

    And through this role of father figure, I’ve somehow justified the countless hours of training and weeks away from family for endurance blocks and races. But have I really? Sure, I’m inspiring my impressionable son to love a sport, but that doesn’t justify slipping out the door at 6am in lycra when all he wants to do is play lego and watch cartoons with me. To add to this, I try to be as communicative and attentive as I can in planning daily schedules with my wife. Like every young family, we are constantly double booking ourselves and asking; who’s doing daycare drop-off, grocery shopping or cooking dinner? The majority of the time Shelby is doing all of the above and more. We talk about finding balance but ultimately, we are stumbling through this process at my family’s expense and for my personal benefit. This is irreconcilable. Full stop.

    This is the hardest part about ultra-racing. Biking is the easy part. 

    The author, Cory Ostertag

    To follow Cory’s adventures : 

    Cory Ostertag : Instagram account

    Photo credits : Dylan Davies (@shredordead) and Cory Ostertag


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