I met Marko in 2016 in Bakersfield CA as he was preparing for the 2016 RAAM. We had been communicating by way of Twitter and email in regards to our recent invention Spruzza as device to allow sustainable cooling while riding in the heat.
If anyone understands and has experienced the effects of long distance training and racing it the heat Marko has to be in the top three. Having raced in eight Race Across America events Marko is no stranger to the world of extreme distances and extreme heat.
But it wasn’t Marko’s amazing accomplishments that first impressed me. In fact when I met him all I really knew was his RAAM attempts. I had almost no knowledge of his 15 year history of competitive ultra-cycling, his palmares or his seven world records. What impressed me about Marko was what an incredibly nice, respectful and considerate person he was.
You cannot NOT like this guy.
I was very interested in meeting Marko after becoming aware of his 2016 RAAM attempt and after two other ultra-cyclists, Dave Stoker and Elliot Block had used Spruzza during the 2015 Race Across the West. Dave and Elliot took first place in 2015 under conditions that set a course record for high temperatures. I was confident Spruzza could help Marko beat the heat in 2016.
You may not have had the pleasure of meeting Marko Baloh first hand and experience the quality of his character so we’d like to take a few minutes to interview him, share his astounding racing accomplishments and let him tell a few stories about his experiences on a bike.
Here’s just a few statistics for starters. Since 2001 Marko holds the following top three podium spots.
First place finishes 26 Second place finishes 12 Third place finishes 6. Keep in mind these are not county fairs. They are races such as:
Race Across America, Sebring 24 Hour Cycling Race, Borrego Springs World Time Trial Championships, DOS/RAS – Race Around Slovenia, Tortour - Race around Switzerland, No Country for Old Men, Race across Oregon, Texas Hill Country.
He also hold seven world records including the 200 mile, 100 mile, 1000 km, highest 12 hour mileage, 24 hour mileage.
Marko knows pain more importantly he knows how to overcome it.
MARKO BALOH – ORIGINS OF HIS RACING.
SPRUZZA Marko after looking at your coaching website it looks like your first wins in ultra-racing came in 2001. How old were you in 2001 and what inspired you to enter your first race?
MB I was 34 years young ;) and those weren’t actually my first races. I was racing the “normal” road races for 15 years before I decided to qualify for RAAM in 2000. RAAM was what drew me into ultra-cycling and still is what motivates me the most to keep training and racing. I have never won RAAM (besides a 2-person Team RAAM in 2008), so I guess I will be coming back again.
SPRUZZA Your first RAAM was in 2003. How did you hear about RAAM and how was the first experience at such an extreme racing event?
MB I already told you a part about when I qualified for RAAM. I first thought of it when I saw the documentary about the first Austrian racer who won RAAM 1988, Franz Spilauer. The first experience was like for all the rookies, awesome and intimidating at the same time. I prepared the best I could and had a great crew, but couldn’t do a thing about the health issue that stopped me some 400 miles before the finish. After an afternoon of having chest pain, we had to call 911, was rushed to the hospital only for stuff to discover I had blood cloth in my lungs (pulmonary embolism). That was it - my first DNF (Did Not Finish)! I will never forget the feeling, it was devastating.
SPRUZZA It looks like you’ve done RAAM either solo or with a 2 man team 8 times since 2003. That’s incredible. I’ve read some of the “on the road” with Marko RAAM stories from your crew chiefs. Really inspiring stuff. Do you have a best and worst story for us?
MB In fact now it is already 9 RAAMs as a racer, eight solo (6 finishes) and one in a 2-person Team. You can add one as a RAAM official and one more as a crew chief to American racer Scott Ragsdale. So, the next one would already be my 12th! Hopefully I make it in 2019…
To start with the worst, no it isn’t my first one and the Pulmonary Embolism. It is the second one that I started even better prepared, but I had to succumb to another health issue, this time it was pneumonia. Lying in the hospital bed and listening to the doctor explaining that I have to withdraw again if I want to survive, it was like a Deja-Vu. My crew chief Allan Larsen was crying, so I wanted to stay strong for my crew and didn’t shed a tear at the hospital. After the night’s sleep I wrote my own (cycling) obituary, saying that this was my last race and all I wanted to be from now on is being the best dad I can. One of my crew saw it on my website and read it out loud in the car driving towards the Atlantic City. That was the moment I lost it and burst into tears, in fact I still get emotional thinking about it. I was certain that was my last RAAM, little did I know, right?
ENDURANCE RACING – RECORDS
SPRUZZA You hold several world records, one the 24 hour record was just broken by Christoph Strausser. Which by the way you supported him on and seemed to be one of his biggest cheerleaders…a great example of sportsmanship. Any one of these records that is your favorite or the one you’re most proud of and why?
MB The one that Cristoph broke was the one I was the proudest of. I was and forever will be the first solo unpaced non-drafting cyclist who broke the 900km barrier in 24 hours. I did 561.57miles and that achievement will forever stay mine. Yes, Strasser did actually demolish it, but we all know who he is and how strong he is. I was proud to be able to help him in a way with some advice and officiating his attempt. It was unforgettable. And a lot easier than going for it myself… ;)
Obviously your physical conditioning is paramount to success but you’ve mentioned in other interviews the importance of mental endurance. Where do you “go” mentally to survive the pain and fatigue of such long distance racing? Do you repress the pain or embrace it?
Pain? When you are well prepared and you love cycling, there really isn’t that much pain involved in ultra-cycling. Well, certainly RAAM is painful and when it does hurt you try to work through pain. The crew is there to help you the best they can, but in essence you are out there alone. What keeps you going is the goal you always see before your eyes. Whether it is just to finish the race, better your own time, better one of the records or go for the victory, it is what gets you back on your feet when you are down. I’ve never met people more determined even stubborn than RAAM racers. It is also what keeps us being such a tight family, knowing everyone is doing their best and everybody is actually racing against himself, his own anguish and fear. There is this thing that is hard to explain, but it is there and it is what keeps us coming back.
SPRUZZA Nearly every race you’ve entered is extreme. And you’ve done several many times and won or podiumed. How do you prepare for these types of ultra-endurance events? How big a factor is nutrition in helping your body endure and recover?
MB Those races are hard and long, so there is no way you could do it without loving cycling. Preparation is pretty similar to the “normal” cycling events, you only have to prolong your long rides and keep your stamina high. Outside the mental game, the nutrition is the major factor. You have to find a system that works for you. You have to consume abnormal quantities of calories in the circumstances when sometimes your body just rejects everything. So you have to have a backup plan for a backup plan and so on… Therefore it is vital to “train” your stomach, too.
SPRUZZA Can you share your thoughts on what’s the toughest on you the WIND, the HILLS or the HEAT
MB I would say in RAAM the Heat is one of the deciding factors, or I should say the riders preparedness for the heat. That is physically. Mentally, the wind is surely the toughest obstacle. Especially if you find headwind in Kansas, one of the longest and certainly the most boring states during RAAM. It is simply devastating.
SPRUZZA You seem to handle the heat pretty well but can you expand a bit on your strategies, tactics and tools for trying to stay cool when you’re riding in 100-110 degree heat?
MB In the past I have used the cooling vest, which worked well to a point, but it was getting heavier and heavier as the crew poured cold water on it, so by the end it was impossible to ride with it. Not to mention it helped develop some of the most painful saddle sores in my ultra-racing. Wearing the white arm covers and spraying cold water over those is what worked the best for us, as well spraying it all over the upper part of my body, trying to stay as far from short’s chamois as possible.
SPRUZZA You’ve used and trained in hot weather with Spruzza, a device to provide sustained cooling of the head and face. Has that helped?
MB With all the cold water spraying that we have done in the past, Spruzza mist was just the invention I was waiting for. It is simply impressive how good it makes you feel when you spray your face, neck and specially ears with water every couple of minutes. Unfortunately, we had some issues with installing Spruzza on my bikes simply because I have a triathlon bar extensions on all of my bikes and it was tricky to install the Spruzza. Hence, I didn’t use it as much as I wanted. With David of Spruzza Mist we are working on finding a solution for that and it shall be ready when I tackle RAAM next time. I am looking forward to it!
MARKO BALOH COACHING
SPRUZZA Not only are you a very successful cyclist you’re running a coaching company, Marko Baloh Coaching. Can you tell us a bit more the story behind that and what types of cyclist your program targets?
MB I have been coaching cyclists and not exclusively ultra-cyclists for 10 years. For sure I have been coaching myself before that, because there was simply nobody at that time who new what kind of training is needed for RAAM or 24 hour racing. I have changed coaching into my profession in 2013 and I never regretted it. Cycling is my passion, so to help other cyclists achieve their life long dreams / goals is as fulfilling as it gets. I love cycling and I love my job! If you want to work with one of the most experienced coaches in ultra-cycling, contact me and we will find a spot for you at Baloh Coaching. Check out the details and our packages at http://balohcoaching.si/training-programs.html.
THE FUTURE FOR MARKO BALOH
SPRUZZA Marko, you’ve been racing ultra events since 2001. That’s a long time pushing yourself at those levels. What are your plans for cycling, racing and coaching over the next few years?
MB For sure I am not the youngest anymore, but I do have some more cycling goals to reach. The truth is I will probably be slowing down a bit (figuratively and actually) on the racing side to get even more involved in my coaching, crewing for my clients and organising Training Camps or even Cycling Trips in some cycling friendly places around the World. For sure one solo RAAM is still in the cards for me, at the moment it looks it might be in 2019, if we manage to raise the needed budget. And I could never say no if someone invited me into their Team…