No Country for Old Women!
I can hardly believe it's been a month since I conquered Dex Tooke's fiendishly beautiful 1000-mile No Country for Old Men course.
I'd been living this dream for nearly two years. In October 2018 I made Bill come out and ride it with me as a 2-person relay so that we could see the course ahead of time.
I decided to take Dex's dark, hyper-macho, "rugged enough", outlaw-riddled, Coen Brothers theme and turn it on its head. "No Country for Old Women" was going to be all about smart, upbeat, and-yet-she-persisted feminine energy.
My first step was to assemble an amazing crew of badass women (and Bill) to be my crew. I got Mandy and Elise - back in an encore performance from my 2010 RAAM crew. Sharon Stevens - has been an ultra-friend and badass for basically forever. Kelly Morris is a relative newcomer but brings amazing energy; I'd crewed with her before and knew that she's got the right stuff. For the first time ever I brought along a massage therapist: Sonya Weiser Sousa was RAAM-tested, having crewed not once but twice for my friend Joan. And....Bill. Bill is great crew and one of the best follow drivers I know. He did a great job of staying in the background. Speaking from experience, it's super tough crewing for your partner. You want to make them safe and warm and comfortable, and so much of ultra racing is, well, none of the above.
I also brought out a media crew. Cici Falbo had just graduated from Sul Ross State - the state university in Alpine, TX, where the race is based. She's a badass and a bit of a jock herself, and she knew the area well so she had some great ideas on where to shoot. Since she needed a driver, and didn't know all that much about the ins and outs of ultra racing, I brought in Patty Jo Struve to work with her. Patty Jo has also been racing and crewing ultras for 20+ years, so I knew she'd have a good idea of what's newsworthy.
Since the race is set up in loops that go through or near Alpine, I just rented a house there for the duration. The crew divided into two shifts and would be able to get rest in between shifts. We ended up with a pretty nice house. It had room for all of us, all of our gear, and a massage table. Badass feminine energy requires a rock-solid foundation of self care (note to self: let's not call it "pampering", even though that's basically what it felt like....)
Training was facilitated by coach Kellie Moylan. If you need a coach, don't mess around. Obviously to keep with the theme I preferred a female coach, but - Kellie is good enough that I'd have hired her even if she was a guy. Seriously. She comes highly recommended and with an excellent pedigree of turning out RAAM and other ultra-distance racers.
Starting training with a new coach takes some adjustment. It takes a lot MORE adjustment when you've never worked with a coach, or a power meter, or even basically a cyclometer, and you're 20 years into ultra racing. Fortunately(?) it was clear to Kellie what we were going to work on first after I sent her my first file. Those who have seen me ride are not going to be surprised that she was unimpressed by my cadence. Or - more accurately, my cadence made an impression, just not a great one. So we worked on it. It took a while for me to get the hang of riding at a higher cadence and accurately capturing results. About the time I did, I got sick. Flu became pneumonia, and I felt like I lost about 6 weeks, which I absolutely hated - but it turned out okay in the end.
After weeks and weeks of mainly shorter, structured workouts, we did a long test training race. I'd always been intrigued by the "Poor Man's STP", which is a variation on the Seattle-To-Portland ride. STP itself, not so much - I knew that it was a big, messy, mainly flat double century. But priming the pump by riding up to Seattle the day before - that had some juice! And my son lives in St Helens, so we got to double up and get a family visit in as well.
Successful back-to-back double centuries as well as some other long training rides told me I was as ready as I could expect to be. Bill, Elise, and I loaded up the Transit and headed out. We picked up Mandy in El Paso and arrived in Alpine on Wednesday afternoon, with plenty of time for me to take a quick shakedown ride.
Thursday saw most of the rest of the gang showing up: Sharon and Sonya and Cici. I got another short ride in. We did some shopping. I had a massage and turned in early. Aaaaaaaaah.
Friday our final crew members - Kelly and Patty Jo - got in. The crew didn't even let me go to the pre-race inspection. I stayed home and relaxed. Mandy knows that I get a lot of energy out of the pre-race meeting, and she wanted me to focus on really enjoying that. So I did. Then we came home. I laid out my race clothes, had a massage and turned in early - again. Aaaaaah.
Saturday - you have to get up fairly early to eat, but mainly it's hurry up and wait. We tried to not get to the race hotel too early. I think we hit it about right, but I was still in the bathroom twice, draining out the nervous pee. Got the tracker. Lights on. National Anthem. Fire up the Garmin....I'm supposed to capture the first 12 hours or so of power data so that I don't overdo it. And - we're off.
The early miles are group ride, nice and easy-peasy in the dark. Once we cross the railroad tracks, we're racing in earnest. It's almost light enough that I can see the Garmin. And what I can see is....the power meter has failed to connect. Well, hm. It's not like I'm going to stop and sort it out. The heart rate data is feeding in just fine, so that's what I've got to go with.
I settle into a rhythm. I'm about where I figured I'd be - hanging out with the Chrises. Oddly, three of the seven guys in this race are named Chris, and I know two of them fairly well. Without knowing too much about Chris Pyles, I guessed that the three of them would be fairly close together for the first day or so, and that if I was staying with them I'd be just fine. So far, so good...
First time station, a couple of minutes slower than I'd hoped but not too bad. Temperatures are cool and there's not much wind. I'm eating and drinking on schedule for the most part - a little light on fluid with the cooler temps, but I'm peeing clear every hour or so so I'm not worried about it.
Once we hit Presidio and stated heading east along the Rio Grande, I started seeing the occasional discarded tarantula skin. Pretty cool. I knew that tarantulas were present out here. The scenery is really nice. There are some short, punchy hills. The punchiest of them looked like this:
If I meet the person who thought it was a great idea to put the "HILL" sign at the top of this hill, I may have some choice words. I mean, if y'all haven't noticed the hill by now......Yep, I walked a bit of this one. On a recumbent you've got to pick your battles. I figured that some easy walking at 2.5 mph was a bit better than beating my brains out to hold 3.5 mph. Naturally, this is the point where my power meter decided to wake up and start transmitting data. It turned out that I was running probably 10-15 watts higher than we'd planned. This may be the exception to the "don't kill the messenger" rule as I started to cramp shortly after getting that good news. Or it may be that the excess watts just happened to catch up to me at that point. I'll never know. But I dialed it back - a little. I was still hanging out in Chris-land.
Shift change in Study Butte - the crew had a nice, indulgent massage moment scheduled for me. I had other ideas. At this point I was behind where I thought I'd be, time-wise, and I wanted to keep going. I'm afraid I wasn't super-duper nice about it. Now I had Sonya, Kelly, and Bill.
I'd started to feel a little bit off in the stomach - bloated mainly - and I was slowing down on nutrition just at the point where the riding was going to be toughest. I knew it wasn't awesome, but we needed to keep moving. We climbed up to, and out of, Castolon. Still not feeling great, but I was happy to have made it through that part. Eventually the bloating and nausea caught up to me. Ultracyclists, if you get to that place where you simply MUST puke, here's a pro tip: have an excellent body worker in the van with you. I don't know what Sonya did, but between stuffing a knee (or a fist? or both?) in some magical place, we got things over with and handled with as much grace as can be managed.
I figured out that the waistband of my tights was not playing nicely with a somewhat bloated belly, so we cut the waistband out: function before fashion! I started sipping plain maltodextrin - not quite enough to keep up with the needs, but - something, and it made my stomach happier.
Between one thing and another - including a bit of walking, where I borrowed Sonya's shoes - we got over Chisos - the pointiest part of this part of the race - and headed toward La Linda. I'd gone through two bottles of plain maltodextrin without incident, which I knew meant that my stomach would be ready for something more. Problem was....what? I was totally turned off by sweet flavors at this point. So the crew took the valve out of one of my water bottles and filled it up with soupy mashed potatoes. Aaaaaah! Heaven!
We arrived at La Linda just a bit more than 24 hours into the race. I knew that made it tight to get to Marathon by the cutoff, but Dex himself was there to greet us, and he didn't have anything to say about that - just a huge Dexan smile and "Go git 'em Sandy!". So that's what I did. Mashed potatoes, the occasional York Peppermint Patty, and I'm not sure what else kept me going through that section. The media crew - Patty Jo and Cici - had taken the night off to recharge their batteries (literally as well as metaphorically) and were back in force. By mid morning I'd made the turn onto Highway 385 and toward Marathon. I knew that I had to (kinda) scoot to get there, but.....
When Bill let me know that we had 66 minutes to make the cutoff, I had a bit more than 17 miles to go, and nearly 1000 feet to climb, on what was probably the roughest chipseal on the whole course. I was certain that I'd not make it. And I was equally certain that I was NOT going to be quitting in Marathon. I'd come too damned far, and worked too damned hard, to let this go. I was also fairly certain that Dex was going to spot us a few minutes if it looked like we were getting it done, but - you never know. So - I had to try. Here's how it went....
My Garmin had long since died, so I was flying blind - I just had to timetrial and do my best, Garmin-less, impression of 18 mph - figuring that I would be going a bit slower on the stretches that were steeper than a percent or two, and that the chipseal meant that I wasn't going to pick up much speed on what skimpy descents I could find. I dialed it up and went for it. The crew saw what I was doing and they went NUTS! There were almost no places to pull out, but I could hear them back there making a ruckus. And it was WORKING. Every few minutes the van crept up beside me and Bill gave me the update. It was going to be CLOSE, but it seemed like it was actually doable. When I got the news that I had 29 minutes and less than 8 miles, I knew I was either right on or 1 minute behind target. I imagined rolling in 1 minute late. I imagined Dex standing there, in the wildly unlikely scenario where he was going to pull me off the course without giving me a chance to find 1 teeny, tiny minute over the next 622 miles. I imagined what I'd say to him, and it went kinda like this: "Dexter Tooke, I'm going for a bike ride. Your tracker is in my pocket. Come and take it..." And then I started riding just a little faster.
Of course, there were complications. With 67 minutes (or thereabouts) to go, my bladder had started to register its hourly complaint. Pullouts are few and far between on Texas 385, so I had been prepared to hold it for a bit. Now I was going to have to hold it - or not - to Marathon. I carefully considered whether it was worth it to piss my shorts to get there in time. About the time I made my decision, I realized that - crap - between me and Marathon there is ALSO a Border Patrol inspection station. It is not likely that they will pull me over - unless there has been a recent rash of grannies invading the US on recumbent bikes - but it's possible, and if so I may have to make the decision of whether I am going to defy a lawful order of the U.S. Government or stop and lose all chance of making it to Marathon on time. I'm less sure on this one, but I figure that whatever I choose, I'll be pissing in my shorts when I choose it, to save time.
In the end, none of it was an issue. Shortly after I'd started mulling my Border Patrol strategy, the van rolled up beside me and Bill leaned out the window. He was holding his phone and he had a strange - not pained, but close - look on his face: "Sandy - you don't....have to. Dex has waved you through Marathon." He knew that I needed to know - but hell! I was riding like a banshee and I'm sure part of him didn't want it to end. But - I sure did. I kinda soft-pedaled to a spot where we could pee. The Border Patrol station wasn't even open. And I got to Marathon a few minutes late. But I felt FANTASTIC. I'd proved to myself that I could dial it up when it mattered - and that this one mattered enough to hurt for. That turned out to be a very valuable 12 miles.We invested part of the time that I'd earned by racing a few hard miles in a 5 minute lower body massage and kit change. Aaaaah. Now off to Sanderson. We changed crew again; the crew that had been on since Study Butte headed back to Alpine for a well-earned rest.
The Sanderson loop is probably the most 'bent friendly section of the course. Long, deep rollers that I could really get into. Mandy started feeding me egg salad sandwiches. I'd been craving a ham salad sandwich for some time - probably a throwback to my long rides in the Corvallis area, with stops at the Kings Valley store. They hit the spot and stayed there - both good things. Once afternoon passed back into night, the weather was right in between - jacket-no jacket, rain-no rain, long tights or not. It was hard to stay with one plan but we mainly did it. We took a quick sleep break shortly after turning onto Hwy 2400 W; I had strong memories about truck traffic on Hwy 285 last year, and I wanted to make sure that I was more alert for that. As it turned out, there was relatively little traffic on 285 because it was very early in the morning. We got back to Sanderson sometime before 7AM Monday. More than half through, feeling pretty good about it. There was some light, spitty rain between Sanderson and Marathon, but nothing outrageous and we just kept moving.
Between Marathon and Alpine, we had some glimpses of actual sunshine, and - hey! - is that Shane out on the road cheering? He's crewing for Eric Newsholme but must be between shifts. I felt really pumped going into Alpine. We had planned a sleep break but - naaah. Not when I'm riding on air like this. I know it will catch up to me that night - but the van is well set up for sleeping and we can just go with it. I get a shower, kit change, and some food, and we're right back at it. Fortunately the house is only a block off of the race course.
I'm riding fairly well through Marfa and then Ft. Davis. The weather is pleasant and sunny. Now I'm seeing actual tarantulas on the road. I point 'em out to the crew so that we don't hit them. We have to be careful when we pull off the road, though - there's been just enough rain to make some pretty impressive mud.
One major bonus of skipping the sleep break is that I got to actually SEE the Obesrvatory loop. Last year it was totally socked in with freezing fog - and I was afraid that this year it was going to be dark. But we got there just in the knick of time - I was able to knock out the worst of the climbing shortly before nightfall. I walked a couple of steep stretches. Cici got some great drone footage of that. Hey - I'm cool with it - relentless forward progress and whatnot.
After we got past the observatory, there's some flat climbing before you head down. My body was having none of it! I really needed some down time. We tried a couple of 20 minute catnaps and finally conceded that I was going to need (I think) an hour. So that loop ended up taking quite a while. When we finally got back to Fort Davis, it was raining again - not super hard, but enough - and since it was mainly downhill I was really bundled up. By this time the crew was feeding me a "custom" mixture of chicken noodle soup and mashed potato flakes - again, thinned out and served in a water bottle. I was taking as much as I could, but I was really hoping for some scrambled eggs when we got back to Alpine for the "real" sleep break. Of course, since all I'd been eating had been egg salad, the home crew hard-boiled all of our eggs, so when the crew informed them that Princess Sandy was demanding a bit of scrambled, Mandy had to get creative. And - since I was cold and wet and really, really tired, I fell asleep after eating two bites of them anyway.
With the earlier sleep break in the van, I figured that we needed to make up time, and that a 90 minute sleep break would be plenty - we just had a longish double century to go, and I should be able to gut that out in my sleep - right? Mandy was skeptical, but....The crew picked my clothes, took my breakfast order, and left me to sleep. At 90 minutes, I got up, and got dressed - and I was a ZOMBIE. I picked at my oatmeal, stared at my coffee, and for the first time I just wasn't sure that I was going to be able to get on the bike and ride. "Mandy, I need another hour". Yep - she'd already figured that one out. She'd wanted me to take more sleep anyway, so this was actually good news in her book.
Back to bed. I rested more than slept. What was in my head was - cast your mind back - how AWESOME those 12 miles of timetrialing had felt, how SURE I was that I'd wanted to push into deep fatigue and pain and mess and all. And I knew that I wanted that feeling again, and that I could have it. I was kind of annoyed that I wasn't sleeping, but I figured that the rest was doing me good. After an hour, I got up to find Mandy coming in to get me up. I slammed the rest of my breakfast, doubled down on my coffee, and off we went.
And I rode. On. Fire. I had figured that if I really, really, REALLY pushed it I could get back to Study Butte (the last crew changeover) by 10 or 11 PM, and that would give me a decent chance of getting in before the "regular" cutoff of 96 hours. In a fit of chivalry, Dex had extended the cutoff out to 102 hours for women, but I was hoping to not take him up on it. I was pretty sure I could do it, too. The only thing that had me bummed about this timeline was that it would mean that I'd never actually get to see the Chisos climb. It's enough of a climb that we get to do it....twice. The first time was waaaaay back in the middle of the first night, and my memory of that was slightly marred by the puking. But - whatever.
Sports fans, I am rarely a pessimist, but this was one of those times. By the time we were through Marathon, I was nearly a full hour up on what I thought I "could" do. Then we turned south, and I got my revenge on that section of 385 - the one that I'd timetrialed UP on Sunday morning. Now I was riding DOWN, at a good clip. We got to the National Park entrance early afternoon, and it was starting to get hot. Not as hot as it CAN be there - but definitely hot, exposed, and very sunny and dry. There were sections of 10-12 miles between allowed support points, so we had to be very strategic to keep me cool enough. The media vehicle came through and took some great shots and did some over-the-top cheerleading and generally supported me.
I was feeling pretty good - certainly better than I had any right to believe I was going to feel. And it began to dawn on me that if I kept this up I just MIGHT get to see Chisos before it got dark.
Actually - I got to the top of Chisos well before dark. This time I had a much better idea of my pacing, I wasn't puking, and I was feeling good. Still, there's one tiny super-steep part, and I walked a little of that. I gave our amazing race official Kevin a super-sweaty hug at the turnaround point, did a quick kit change, chugged a Coke, and was on my way. The scenery was stunning. A couple miles from the bottom, I slowed down briefly to say a quiet thank you to my parents - especially my dad. They didn't get the long and busy retirement that they'd hoped for, so I'm left to live out some of my dreams in their honor.
On the way out of the park, and toward Study Butte, the sun is starting to be low, and the scenery is AMAZING. The crew knows that I rarely, if ever, just stop. But I did, for a second, to take it in: "We're the luckiest people in the world. Right. Now. Thank you so much for being here and being with me!". We got to Study Butte around 8 PM - PLENTY of time to get in before the 96 hour cutoff. I am amazed.....
Last crew change has started to take on a party atmosphere. The rest of the crew has re-styled Bill as "Billie Jean", complete with a very cute purple wig. He finally fits in! Of course there's a tiny mechanical issue on the bike for him to take care of - my left barend shifter is losing its grip on the cable and if I want the big 'ring I've got to hold it there manually. Billie Jean dives in. Immediately, the wig is in his eyes and he's brushing it back. We all laugh - welcome to the club, sweetie!!!
I know that the next 10 miles are the toughest riding of the last bit, so I just relax and count them down. It's starting to get later at night, and once the traffic thins out the crew starts talking to me to keep me awake. Lots of thought questions that kept me alert: Would you rather be gored by a unicorn or drowned by kittens? Whaaaaaaaat?
And so it goes. I figure we'll just keep clipping out miles, and we'll get there eventually. Until. The. Wind. Came. OMFG wind. Cold, nasty, swirling. We were something like 40 miles out when it started getting really, really bad. I was already tired, and 30 mph swirling, gusting winds were enough that I just couldn't deal with anything other than handling the bike. That meant stopping to hand off, eat, drink, pee. It was sort of raining, a little, sometimes, and it was getting cold fast, so we put me in all the warm stuff. It hurt like hell to keep stopping when I knew that we were SO. CLOSE. but it was what we needed. A couple of times I just had to get into the van for 10 minutes to get my shit together and feel alert and strong enough to hold the bike. Once I calculated that I had to average something less than 5 mph I didn't exactly worry about time any more. The crew was fantastic. I've always said that an effective crew rides the line between dominatrix and midwife, and that the skill is to figure out which one the racer needs and be that. So at the point where I was just feeling exasperated and exhausted and I vented that it was just UNREASONABLE that it was getting so hard now, they went full-on midwife: "Yes, it's hard: Mother Nature just wants you to know how much you want it. We've got your back, now let's do it......". Exactly what I needed to hear. I knew that I wanted it....some shred of me still remembered that. With 30 miles to go, I got a rear flat, and a fairly emphatic one. Sealant sprayed everywhere. Bill switched out the wheel while everyone else peed. I was making it on bits of fluid, York Peppermint Patties, and tangerines. Kelly had brought tangerines for the crew and started feeding to me probably out of desperation. I needed small and manageable, so they worked.
Fifteen or so to go, we hit the Border Patrol station. It looks like freaking Siberia. The dude working the booth is dressed for the weather, and freezing. He does his duty - "Are you all US Citizens?" and we pull over for a minute because there's light and some approximation of shelter, and give him the story of what the hell we're doing. Not long now.... The last 10 miles or so is mostly downhill. I've been wondering what the wind is going to be like there. It could be....worse - and if so, I'm going to have to be super careful. Hell, who am I kidding. 990 miles into a 1000 mile race, in the middle of the night, dressed like the Michelin Man, I'm not going to be tearing it up. And I don't. And it's not as bad as I'd hyped it up to be in my mind, anyway
You can see Alpine for quite a ways....and then you're there, at the neutral finish point. The crew wraps me up, notes my time, calls Dex, and we whoop and holler and hug and cry and all that. And then I have to ride the last 3 miles, which are quite possibly the most beautiful three miles of my life. No scenery, no accolades, no nothing. And I finally understand what those neutral finish miles are all about.
One of the classic books of tactics is Go Rin no Sho (Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi, who holds the distinction of being the only samurai ever who lived to retire. I first got interested in it because for a while my race bike was a Catbike Musashi. Musashi talks about five elements of sword fighting: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. I was able to connect the first four to physical aspects of biking: training, nutrition, equipment, and strategy - but Void escaped me. Until I was on that little 3 mile ride, and I realized that I was in the Void: cold, wind, and hunger couldn't touch me. My crew was following me but they were spent and silent, just along for the ride. My legs knew what to do - pedal slowly, without effort - and they did it. My mind had nothing to do. Time had literally stopped at the neutral finish. That three mile ride might've lasted ten minutes, or an hour and a half. I can't tell you, because I don't know and I honestly don't care. Whatever it was, it was perfect. I pulled in to the QC7, more hugs, more photos, an amazing trophy, and then home for a shower, some food, and some not-sleep (who can sleep after one of these things?).
So many folks helped along the way, and I'm going to list a few: Kellie Moylan - awesome coach. She got me through a very steep learning curve AND a bout of pneumonia and still had me fully prepared for this race. Sonya Sousa/Fluid Body Works - amazing body work. Much more than massage, she kept me functioning through some pretty epic shit. Shane Traughber - nutrition consulting. Schlitter Bikes - much appreciated help with the Encore. The whole crew: Mandy, Elise, Kelly, Sharon, and Bill - you left your lives behind for a week - or more - and made this dream come true. The media team of Cici and Patty Jo - epic! Just epic! This was my first experience working with a media team and you made it awesome. Mackenzie Griffin played a walkon role as The Dogsitter. She got more than she bargained for because she had to manage our house and mutts through a PG&(sometimes)E power shutdown.
I'm especially proud of having done it OUR way - lots of feminine energy. As Kelly said, over and over, Women Get Shit Done. We brought a great group together, everyone did their part, and we had some fun along the way.