Unassuming cyclist Josh Kato crushed last year’s Great Tour Divide, a self-supported race that crosses the United States north to south over the Rocky Mountains.
Imagine your longest day in the saddle. Let’s go with 100 miles….that’s a typical long distance endurance ride. Now double it. Then, repeat…for 14 days, 11 hours, and 37 minutes straight. And for good measure, do it over the most rugged mountain range in America and entirely off-pavement.
That’s precisely what the 40-year-old Washington nurse and endurance cyclist did at last year’s Great Tour Divide (GTD). His time not only won the 2,745-mile event, but it set the course record.
We caught up with Kato to discuss the highs and lows of endurance cycling, and his secret training weapons, including patience, a fat bike, and donuts!
GearJunkie: Two years ago, your GTD didn’t go as planned. Can you tell us more about that?
Josh Kato: 2014 was supposed to be the year I was going to accomplish a dream of competing in the Tour Divide. I was riding much stronger than I had anticipated and on day three of the race, in Montana (around mile 300), I ended up crashing in the mud and snow. It was a bit of a worst-case scenario type of wreck. I landed wrong, fractured my fibula, tore my hamstring, and gashed the back of my leg which subsequently got infected. I rode until around mile 1,100 before I called it quits.
That hurt. Dropping out of something I had poured so much time, money, and energy into. It was as if I had let myself down. I was rather depressed. I figured I wouldn’t ever be able to get time off of work again to give it another go.
So that’s 800 miles with a broken leg! How did you push through that sort of pain? Did you underestimate the injury?
Ha! I said I was a nurse. Never said I was a good one.
Yeah, after my wreck, I realized fairly quickly that something was very wrong with my leg, but denial is a powerful tool. I truly never thought I’d be able to get the time off from work to do the race again so I was committed to pushing on as long as I could turn the pedals. When it got to the point that it was no longer physically possible, I called it on the race.
I’m 40 and my body has been around the block a few times. It’s pretty commonplace to have aches and pains that don’t go away very quickly. In my head, I was pretty sure what I’d done, but also realized I probably wouldn’t incur any permanent disability from it. Of course, had I completely torn my hamstring rather than just a partial tear that would have taken a huge amount of recovery time. It got to the point that I had to lift my leg to the pedal by pulling with my hand a length of strap wrapped around my foot, like a lasso.
On the GTD, everyone hurts. Some things can be overcome and some things can’t. Perhaps being in healthcare, it’s easy to minimize suffering. Acute pain isn’t a permanent ailment. It’s just something that needs to be worked through.
So last year–you decided to give it another go! You must have felt you had unfinished business.
When I found out I was going to get the vacation time from work, I trained like a madman. I wanted to finish what I had started and made every effort to make sure I could.
I never trained with the goal of winning. I trained to finish. I’m not a very competitive guy. Except with myself. I guess I was able to achieve a level of conditioning that allowed me to compete with the amazing field of competitors we had last year.
“I think one of the most important things I did was train with a heavier bike than I used in the Divide.”
What kind of mileage are you churning through to train for the GTD?
In my lead up to the Divide in 2015, I rode about 3,000 miles with an unusual amount of climbing — round 450,000 feet. We have a lot of hills in Washington. Almost all of my riding was on very poor gravel roads, trails, and abandoned logging roads. Very Divide-like terrain.
I think one of the most important things I did was train with a heavier bike than I used in the divide. I purposely go out and try to find the most challenging rides I can do. For a race like the Divide, a rider has to get used to going slow uphill with a heavy bike. It’s a mental thing.
Of course, we had a very mild winter last year in Washington so I was able to churn out some good rides early in the season. This year is making me get a bit more creative with training. Fat bikes are a great invention for training. This amount of training and having a job means I have to sacrifice a fair bit of other items in life. When I’m not at work, I’m riding, running, or prepping in some way for the Divide. It’s a huge time commitment.
You work as a nurse – does shift work lend itself to training and pulling in long days in the saddle?
I work the night shift. So yes, I guess it helps to know what keeps your mind going at 3am.
I think one thing that nursing lends itself to more than anything is seeing the struggles of other people. The body can overcome some pretty astonishing things. Some people have an amazing amount of will to keep going when the odds are stacked against them. It’s a good reminder to hear people tell me that they just wished they could be well enough to be outside roaming through the hills. People remind me every day to not take health for granted.
Obviously, you love to ride – do you cross-train to keep it fresh?
I love being outdoors. I run, I’m an avid backpacker and in the winter, I cross-country ski and backcountry ski when the snow cooperates. Fat biking has been a super training aide. It’s unlike other biking. Very refreshing and super fun. Plus, the bikes are quite heavy. My wife, Valerie, also loves to ride. It’s awesome going for rides with her. We have an off-road tandem and it’s such a treat to get out with her. It keeps the riding fresh. So much better than going out with “the fast guys.”
The best rides are the ones that are not about the ride at all. I only wish that fly-fishing was a better workout. That’s my main passion. Nothing like standing in a river with a bit of graphite. Sadly, it doesn’t work the cardio system too well.
You rode in the Smoke’n Fire 400 last year. Do you use these ‘middle distance’ bikepacking rides as training rides? How many do you take on each year?
The Smoke’n Fire is a super fun event! Excellent scenery and awesome trail sections. My first bikepacking race was the 2014 Tour Divide. My second was the 2015 Divide. My third was the Smoke’n Fire 400. I finished the Divide in June. The SNF 400 was in September. I barely rode after the Divide. I had to go fishing! I used the SNF 400 as a test for myself to see how I’d do “off the couch”. I was very happy with my result.
It was also interesting doing the full sleep deprivation thing. In the Tour Divide, I slept every night. It’s a long race. These shorter races seem to be much more about sleep deprivation. On some of the last climbs in the SNF 400 I was hallucinating pretty well. I remember seeing Jay Petervary (who wasn’t in the race) sitting alongside the road petting a capybara. Also, when I rode into Boise at the end of that race I heard someone shout my name. I thought that might be a hallucination as well.
You weren’t hallucinating. I was following the leader board and cheering finishers at the end of the race–I gave a shout out to you.
Funny! Good to know now I wasn’t that bad off. I guess I’m not cut out for the full sleep deprivation thing. I’d enjoy doing more races but the work schedule interferes quite a bit.
“You gotta find a way to keep going. Donuts help a lot.”
Pulling in mile after mile … I’m sure it can be incredibly emotional, but on both sides. You must hit both extreme highs and lows. How do you monitor your emotional state?
The Tour Divide is so long that yes, you go through every single emotion possible, as well as some that you didn’t realize were in you. Riding mostly alone, pushing yourself to unfamiliar physical limits, that’s the easy part. The emotional aspect is the hard part. You gotta find a way to keep going. Donuts help a lot. In reality, I always try to remind myself that no matter how bad I feel, how down in the dumps my mind is, that things will get better at some point. All bleeding stops, eventually. Ultra-racing is very much like that.
So you’re 40. That’s venturing into middle age. But you’re at the top of the game. Jay P. is even older. Does endurance riding get better with age?
JK: Yup, 40. I’ll hit 41 before this years Divide. Guys like Jay P. and Jefe Branham are very inspirational to me. They keep going and going. I’d like to say I’ve solved the mystery of the 40ish racer and ultra-endurance but I haven’t got “the” answer. One of the only things that I can determine is that we keep realizing our gig might be up at any time. So we gotta get done with a few things as fast as we can. I know that I can ride much longer than I could when I was younger. Perhaps it’s an impatience thing with youth. Perhaps we’ve just learned through life experience to endure more. Or maybe we are just more determined to show up the youngsters. I do know I focus on the journey far more than the speed. Oh, I wanna go fast, but the journey means a lot more to me now than it did when I was younger.
You’re quite a photographer. (All photos in this post are taken by Josh Kato). How do you balance pushing so hard, so long, yet taking time to smell the proverbial roses?
The main difference between my touring speed and racing speed are the number of photos I take during a ride. Landscape photography is a hobby of mine and I do love getting a shot of a fleeting moment in a beautiful place. My wife can attest that my camera is rarely out of hand during a tour. Nonetheless, even when racing the best of the best ultra-guys I’m not going to pass up a landscape that creates an emotional response in me.
What kind of camera do you take with you on the bike?
During races, I carry a small point and shoot that takes decent images. During the Divide, I carried a Canon S110. It does great while shooting on the go. While touring I use either a Sony RX100 or Fuji XE-1.
Any advice on how to keep the camera readily available while riding?
I almost always ride with a hydration pack. The packs with a small pocket on the shoulder strap are very nice to be able to tuck a small camera into. I then use a carabiner to clip the lanyard to my sternum strap so I can drop the camera should I need to brake quickly. Of course this only works well if it’s dry outside. I have yet to try a waterproof camera that has the image quality I want. When it rains, Ziploc bags are my friend.
So what’s your ride schedule look like this year?
I don’t have a huge agenda other than having another go at the Tour Divide. The race just kind of sticks in your head. Amazingly, I got the time off of work to go again, so I’m not going to pass it up. Not sure I’ll be able to train as much as last year but I’m certain I’m still going to have a blast. Other than the Divide, we’ll just have to see. I do know I need to get some more fly fishing trips in this year.
Thanks Josh and good luck this year!
This year’s GTD will roll out of Banff, Alberta on June 10th. The website hosts some good background information, but for the latest check out the Tour Divide on Facebook. To follow Josh and all the cyclists in real time, head on over to the Tour Divide’s leaderboard at Trackleaders.com.