Mental Preparations: Atlas Mountain Race

The buildup and arrival at the start of any new bikepacking event always feels like the first day of school. The chalkboard is inky black and un-smudged—a clean slate. It’s a chance to rewrite our story, forge new friendships, new memories, and join alumni. A mix of fresh and familiar faces nervously converge with their new seasonal kits, crisp and clean for the first and last time for days (if not weeks). There are jubilant hellos and awkward side-stares, each participant eyeing each other, assessing, speculating, inadvertently passing judgement…or more likely second-guessing their own choices. The percolating hopes and dreams teeter between excitement and anxiety, stimulating premature bowel movements that force last-minute acts of Houdini-ism to untether spandex bibs in nearby toilets.

This new start is the chance to apply the wisdom and knowledge from past lessons. Each new event and experience is an unblemished report card, a coming of age, and an opportunity to excel and improve. Some measure that by how they place in a race. For most, it is simply finishing a course or the elevated pride of achieving a new step in personal development.

Improvement can be difficult to quantify, though. Bikepacking is an ever-changing curriculum, with new variables, conditions, and circumstances in every event. No experience is ever the same and no one equation yields a universal response. Piecing it all together for a single, successful experience is a lofty goal.

And thus, drowning in scholastic metaphor, I enter with a simple plan, always consulting my experiential meter for emotional guidance. I’ve decided I will use the first 24 hours of the 2020 Atlas Mountain Race to gauge the circumstances, crunch the numbers, put my finger on the pulse of the race route, and read my place within it. Morocco is new to me and no matter how much research I’ve done in an attempt to breathe life into the lines and places on the map, I can’t truly appreciate the full complexity of the environment and what it has in store for me until I experience it. No mile forward or meter climbed is ever the same. The first 24 hours will give me time to assess my fitness and emotional state and what unique logistical issues I may need to overcome. I will then decide whether to dial things back towards “experience,” taking more photos and sharing more conversations, or to maintain an aggressive pace. It isn’t about winning. It is about the exhilaration of further understanding what I am capable of. And that’s what makes it so exciting.

The months leading up to this start have been challenging. Sleepless nights, unusually frequent bouts of sickness, and a shortage of time—all products of an extremely busy work schedule and life with a one-and-a-half-year-old and a non-bike-focused trip to Vietnam. For better or worse, it has disrupted my typical training routine and left me a little unsure of my status. I am still learning how to adapt to fatherhood and to find balance with too many passions, and how that truly affects my preparation. Don’t get me wrong, I am not resentful. I am grateful for the changes in my life. They are choices and gifts. It’s just new to me and I am still unraveling the effects. Now it is critical that I treat every new event with the utmost respect. Every race is special and demands the proper amount of training and preparation, especially now that it means time away from my family.

From the outset, my “bikepacking career” may have been over-ambitious. In 2014, I kicked things off with the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), perhaps one of the most risky and dangerous events due to its remote location and frigid conditions. I was lucky to have racers with experience around me to train and prepare with and seek advice. Their presence and prudence (and, in hindsight, perhaps their fear of vouching for me) shaped my initial careful and cautious approach to all events. But most of all it taught me respect. Respect is something I universally value. All things—especially a bikepacking race—should be looked in the eye and treated with reverence and sometimes with patience. So, from the beginning I planned and packed my gear conservatively, preparing for the worst-case scenario—to survive and to finish rather than to win, in other words. Although I’m a competitive person, winning wasn’t even on my mind. I was old enough to approach the new playing field with humility regardless of any past successes. The ITI taught me the importance of finishing—it is its own form of victory and I appreciate how the community of bikepacking seems to celebrate and share that sentiment. Most are here for the experience, not the glory: myself included.

Today, some seven years and multiple international races and expeditions later, as I make final preparations for the 1,200 km Atlas Mountain Race, I realize I have slowly loosened my white-knuckled grip on caution. I have become more willing to tinker with the scales of expectation. With each new experience I’ve felt the axles of indecision, uncertainty, and anxiety loosen, and before long the training wheels finally jettison off all together. My choices were my own, my races were my own, and I trusted my capabilities. With each event, I have willingly forgone new comforts and resisted temptations to stop in order to shave time on the trail. I have maintained my respect for the race but shared that with a newfound respect for myself.

In the end, I’ve done all the homework and training I could, and here I am, an eager sophomore on the first day of school with a fresh kit and new wheels, anxious for all the new lessons to be lectured to me. And most of all, open to an advanced course in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Follow RJ’s Atlas Mountain Race adventure here... 

Atlas Mountain Race will be making updates via the following channels:

Instagram: @atlasmountainrace
Facebook page:
On the blog section of our website:

Atlas Mountain Race YouTube Channel
Twitter: @atlasmountainrace



This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Cutthroat Gravel Mountain Biking RJ Sauer Travel Ultra Racing

Share this post:

RJ Sauer

RJ Sauer

As a bikepacker and cyclist I am always learning. Riding my bike takes me to new places, teaches me new things and introduces me to an incredible community of wonderful people. My passion is to combine my love of creative storytelling, with the physical challenges of exploring new and wondrous environments and cultures.


Commenting is not available in this channel entry.