So - have you ever spent a year (almost) planning, dreaming, and scheming every aspect of a major event? Calculated exactly what it's going to take to make it happen? Worked out a plan to make sure that all THOSE things happen, in the right amount and at the right time? And then you get to the actual event, and....what? Well, it almost always turns out WAAAY different than you expected, doesn't it? Yep - almost always. But....let me tell you a story.
I could barely believe my eyes last October when I saw George post that RAO was returning to its roots, Racing....you know....Across Oregon. For years it's been a desolate, challenging loop around the desolate, challenged part of Oregon. A great race, but - a bit short in the "Across" department. And to make it extra special, it was going to be a 1000k - a distance that I'd actually never raced before. Count me in! Never mind that I'm really out of shape, and coming off a couple of really hard and ultimately disappointing races in 2017: the heart wants what the heart wants.
RAO is a big part of who I am as an athlete. My first RAO was 1999 - the first year George let people actually sign up and race. I brought Team Leopard Ladies that year. Since then I've been involved with the race more years than not. I've raced 7 times, and crewed 7 times.
Within (literally) minutes of me deciding to race it solo, I got a message from Mandy wanting to be on my crew. No way I'm going to say no to that - she's a physician, a highly experienced crew person, and a great person to have on your side. I figured for sure that Bill would crew, and that just left one more.....whooops! Bill looked at the course and decided that he'd ought to be racing, too. Can't say as I blame him - but, dang. OK, no worries, we'll have some fun with this! A little friendly intersquad competition, a la #battleofthesexes, erupted.
To get ready for RAO, the first thing that I had to do was take stock of the obvious: I needed to lose weight to be competitive. So - I did. I decided to get organized. I ate well, just not much. I tracked - everything: input, output, and even little side gigs like how many flights of stairs I climbed at work, just to keep it interesting. (I managed to 'Everest' the Community Wellness Center in about 2 months. It's a 2 story building. 'Nuff said.)
I tracked all of this in a custom spreadsheet that lurked on my work desktop under the title "100 Days of Suck". But - it didn't suck nearly as much as I thought it would. And – it worked.
At the first of the year, when training picked up in earnest, I suddenly found myself to be a decent climber. And - miracle of miracles - BILL found me to be a decent climber, too! We had both gotten so used to him getting a nice break at the top of every climb that it was a bit of a surprise all around when that just didn't happen. I knew that the extra weight had been slowing me down - but I was a little underprepared for actually not sucking.
Based on my progress, I predicted that with decent conditions and effort I could finish RAO in 52 hours. Maybe a bit less if I got super lucky, and I finished without a sleep break, and maybe a bit more if conditions were tough or if I was just plain wrong about how much I had improved. But 52 hours seemed about right – and it would get us into Newport before dark on Sunday, which seemed like something worth shooting for.
With training underway, in February I traveled to Texas to crew Geary at Pace Bend. While I was there, I noticed that people kept dropping Shane Traughber's name - specifically, the people who were kicking ass and taking names. Shane's a Texas-based sports nutritionist who has carved out quite a niche working with ultracyclists. It got me thinking. I mean, I'm no slouch on the nutrition science end of things. I'd studied nutrition and exercise science at Oregon State, way back in the Leopard Lady days. So - I know this stuff, right? Still, might not hurt to get a second opinion, especially since a lot of my last few races found me puking and/or cramping, and my crew frustrated because they couldn't fix it. So once I got back, I hit him up for some advice.
Long story short, if you get a chance, WORK WITH SHANE. There - if you're sick of reading this, you can stop now and you'll have gotten something useful out of it. What did he change versus what I was already doing? Not much, really - but we did enough testing to know how MUCH of what I was doing was helpful, what was not going to work, and how to organize my food and fluid intake to keep me on the road. We made clear, written directions so the crew wasn't guessing. And I had a solid plan for the days leading up to the race, so I knew that I was starting the race with optimal hydration and energy levels.
Bill and I trained hard. It's kind of amazing having your life partner be your training partner, your teammate, and your main competition. Let's just say that you're not inclined to blow off any workouts, and from time to time you're inspired to take things to another level of crazy. I don't know if I could've done this without his steady inspiration.
We previewed the west half of the course on Memorial Day weekend, which was important because Bill had never seen it (a lot of it was my old MVBC stomping grounds).
We built up Little Aspen (a Colorado Altitutde Sytems tent for sleeping at fake altitude) in the bedroom. It probably helped us. It definitely turbocharged our dog, Aero.
I crewed Race Across the West for Geary - more heat and altitude training during a recovery week for me. Then time seemed to fly right up to race time. Sort of. I spent the time methodically (yes – really!) packing the van, completing my Race Bible (the information my crew needed to be successful), and double-checking everything. It seemed weird to get to the last minute and have time to bake cookies for the crew instead of frantically dumping things in the van, but – I kinda liked it.
The Wednesday before RAO I traveled up to Portland to collect the crew, picking up Geary in SE Portland, Denny at the airport, and Mandy at her folks' home in Damascus. Then it was off to the start. We stayed at an AirBnB just across the Idaho border, which worked out well. We invited Bill's team over for pre-race pizza and last-minute trash talking on Thursday night, then the race was on to see who could sleep the best until the race start.
I usually show up early to the start line and do the social thing. This time, not so much. We cruised in about 15 minutes early, giving me plenty of time to pee (twice!) and say hi all around, but - that's it. It was pretty hot, and besides, we were going to see all these folks at the finish line, anyway. Just like that (OK, one more trash-talk moment poking fun at Bill...thanks George!) we're off! My crew knows to not take start line photos (my specific race superstition: start line photos are for people who aren't terribly sure they'll be taking finish line photos!).
The "neutral" start goes out pretty quickly. None of us are in a mood for socializing. Shortly after George set us loose on Hwy 26, David Baxter disappeared into the sunset (literally), never to be seen again. Fast guy. Bill fell in behind me. He almost reeled me in at the top of Brogan Hill when I pulled a pee stop there, but - not quite. He passed me briefly on the descent on the other side, then I passed him back, figuring that I'd see him again on the next climb. It didn't turn out that way.
On into the night - we are riding well, I'm eating and drinking and peeing pretty much on schedule. Team Sandy has placed a lot of stock in pee - color, quantity, frequency are all right where they belong. The crew abides.
Up some hills, down some hills, then - steady downhill for a bit. Sometime before sunup, somewhere west of Dayville, I didn't hit an elk, for which I'm insanely grateful. We hit the John Day Fossil Beds just as first light was coming around. Spray at 6:30. The cafe there had just opened so we stopped briefly to use the restroom. Then it was off to Service Creek.
Spray to Service Creek was my first recumbent ride ever. It was engineered by David Bradley, on a RAO scoping trip that George organized in 2008. David set me up on a 'bent, in borrowed shoes with <urgh!!!> Time pedals, pointed me in the direction of Service Creek, and told me that they would be along in, oh, 5 or 10 minutes to see how I was doing, or to pick me up if it wasn't going well. David Bradley was a lot of things, one of which was a cheerful, bald-faced liar. (He also repeatedly denied setting Bill and me up, which is patently not true, though he's been forgiven.) Fifteen miles later, I found myself at Service Creek, staring down a big-assed hill, in cleats that I didn't trust to disengage. So, that very first ride, I stopped at Service Creek and waited for David to finish laughing his ass off and pick me up. Today, I steamed straight up that bad boy and down into Fossil.
The section from Fossil to Maupin is brutal no matter what. On a recumbent, I'd rate it double brutal. There is nothing that's not up or down. "Up" is steep enough that I need extra focus on keeping the bike moving straight, which means that I spend less focus on eating and drinking. And "down" is, you know - down. So you're moving fast, and having fun, and not eating or drinking much, either. The worst of the hills is an 8 mile beast - the Clarno Grade. It is steep enough to make you dig in, but mainly it's LONG. And the longer you're on it, the hotter it gets - so as much as you want to stop and catch up on your eating and drinking, you also DON'T want to stop because every minute sooner you get done feels like a small victory. I hollered at that hill several times - cussed it and told it that it was going to lose, again, just like it had in 2009, which was the last time Clarno and I had squared off. And, evenutally, because all hills have to end, I was right.
Then DOWN to Antelope, UP to Shaniko, and DOWN to Maupin. There were some headwinds going down Bakeoven road into Maupin, but not as bad as I've seen, not by a long stretch.
Because I was a little bit depleted coming into Maupin, Mandy decided to put me down for a nap when we got there. In a rare fit of sanity, I didn't fight back. I knew that we'd done well to that point, and that we had plenty of time to take an effective sleep break, and that I'd be better for it later. Since we were going to sleep, I tried to taper off the caffeine, which made for hard work struggling to stay alert while I got down to Maupin. We actually did a 10 minute catnap on the way, just to make sure I was alert.
When I got there, the team had it all planned out - they found a shady place for me to nap, got me out of my kit, fed me some mac and cheese, made sure I rehydrated, and got me cooled down for about 90 minutes of good sleep. When Mandy got me up - all business: Fresh kit, bathroom, here's your bottles, get out of here. We had a few minutes before direct follow, so the crew was going to sort out the van a bit, buy me a milkshake, and get gas before they picked me up on the climb out of Maupin on 197.
I was riding fairly well coming off of the sleep break. At 7:00 the van came up behind me, passed off my milkshake, and settled into direct follow. About an hour later, though, they had some bad news to deliver, though: they had skipped getting gas in Maupin, thinking that they had "enough" to make the next town. But they wouldn't if they kept going at my pace – the “DTE” indicator on my Caravan had lulled them into a false sense of security. They would have to either run out of gas, or go forward on the course without me, just as it was getting dark. I wasn't happy about this at all. First, it's a pretty bush league mistake, and all of my crew is super experienced. Second, it's getting dark, and the whole point of having the follow car is for safety at night. Third, well, see first and second....but we needed gas, so off they went. As they peeled off into the distance, I realized that (1) I don't know how much battery life is left on my headlight, (2) I wish I'd asked for a jacket for the upcoming descents, because they're going to be gone a while), and (3) when you set your iPhone to Airplane Mode because it is insisting on updating iOS in the middle of your race, you only have access to the "Downloaded Songs" in your playlists. Which in my case meant that my "Top 25 Most Played" playlist, which totally rocks, was diminished to precisely 2 tracks: Billy Squier ("Everybody Wants You") and Earl Scruggs ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown").
So here I am, riding along with Earl and Billy, feeling more than a little sorry for myself, without my crew or a jacket or any of the things that I suddenly wish I had (but nursing a killer coffee malted milkshake), when a race official cruises through. OK, that's about the only thing left that could make things worse - I really shouldn't be out there without support and I could receive a penalty. And, on further inspection, it's not just "an" official - it's George. CRAP. He rolls down his window. "Good evening", he says, slowly....carefully....pointedly: "where's your crew?" "Getting gas, George", I say. "Really?" "Yes, really..."...preparing for the lecture...."I will be your follow vehicle, then". WOW. Mercy and graciousness. I'd better make this good...I try to push a bit through this section, at least until my crew gets back on the job.
Once they were back, we continued along 97 and into Madras. We took a stop to RE-fill the gas tank there - I figured the 50 miles that they put on during the round trip were enough to matter, and I wasn't in any mood to take a chance. We also got a fix on Bill's position. When I realized that he was still on Bakeoven Road, I was a bit worried, but I knew that he was in good hands, and he WAS moving....Shortly after we were back on the road, George called and pulled us off of 97. Mandatory shuttle in to Terrebonne, due to a-hole traffic experienced by the couple of team racers who had recently passed us. OK, we can use that time to re-feed, again.
On through Terrebonne, into Sisters - all stuff that Bill and I had pre-ridden on our Memorial Day scouting trip. We added a layer in Sisters and I chugged some soup as it was starting to get chilly, then it was off to tackle McKenzie Pass - not the last "real" climb by a long stretch, but quite honestly, with 400 miles under my belt and bit of swagger building in the attitude department, I considered that it was the last one that was by definition a potential show-stopper. So I wanted to show it proper respect, but not be overwhelmed. And - that's what I did. We worked our way to the top. Every now and then a team would go through (relay teams had started around 12 hours behind the solo racers, and were slowly catching up) and give me some encouragement, but mainly it was just me and the dark and the hill.
Like I said before, all hills end, and McKenzie Pass is no exception. We dressed me as warmly as we could for the descent. I jammed more clothes over everything I already had on, and added a heated motorcycle jacket on top of that, just to be sure. It was just before dawn, and at its absolute coldest, (high 30's) when I started down. We needed every layer I had on. I actually had to stop once for a 10 minute catnap because I was getting the sleepies on the descent. I worried a bit about what that might mean for the rest of the race. But once we pulled me off and let my brain reset, I was fine.
I had built up the descent in my head as being scary and risky. In reality, at least at my pedestrian rate of descending, it isn't too bad. You just have to do your job, stay in your lane, and get it done. Pee stop and shed the motorcycle jacket at the bottom, then on up Highway 126.
At the bottom of 126, I did some quick calculating. I figured that given the sleep break and the slow progress up and down McKenzie, my original 52 hour goal was totally out of reach – but that we could certainly get done by midnight, which would leave a healthy margin of error. In most of my races, I've ended up slowing quite a bit and eating into what margin I had, so I was feeling good about having 5 hours in the bank. I took on a couple of slices of warmed up pizza, which tasted heavenly.
A bit more than halfway up 126, my crew found a great place for me to visit the bushes to take care of some, er, early morning paperwork. A week later, I am still nursing the poison oak from that adventure, but – ultimately it was successful. As I was heading back toward my bike, Bryan Martin came through. Nice to see him – he and I both raced RAO solo in 2009. This time he's on a 2 man team.
I made considerably better progress up 126 than I had planned. Then it was up Hwy 20 to Tombstone, where Ian (the other official, covering the back end of the team race) stopped and gave me some encouragement before heading on. Not too long after that, Bill's van came through. I'd done that math, too, and I wasn't hugely surprised – just sad to see both bikes on the back. They stopped a bit up the road and Bill got out, so I knew that he was okay. Quick hug, then over the top and down to Sweet Home.
Once we hit Linn County, we were in Sandy Land! I had lived in Albany and ridden with the Mid Valley Bicycle Club for years, and I had worked out in the rural areas of the county, so I knew all the roads. We hit Sweet Home a bit after noon. I am still thinking – hey, a short 200k to go, no problem getting in by midnight. Bill and his crew are there – he got too dehydrated and his electrolytes were out of whack, so they did the safe thing and pulled out rather than risk him getting worse. I sucked down a popsickle and hit Holley Road – a little bit of climbing, then dowm to the Calapooia, then crossed I-5 toward Harrisburg.
During this stretch, Mandy started feeding me avocado sandwiches - half a (well-salted) avoccado folded into a slice of bread. It's really, really good, and it's super easy to eat. I realized that I hit my sweet spot – everything is just clicking along. My body had given up and accepted the idea that I will be riding my bike for, well, for a very long time, so it might as well go along for the ride. My stomach was going to be just fine with whatever the crew throws at it, my legs were going to ride as well as I ask them to, and my head was going to stay in the game. Now our big challenge was to keep me in this happy place as long as possible....
Yet another pee break in Harrisburg, over the bridge, and through the flats toward Monroe. A team passed me on Noraton Road, and I figured that officially makes me the Lanterne Rouge. I'm cool with it – the end of the train does get there, after all! After Monroe, we turned up Orchard Road toward Coon Road. As much as I love knowing these roads so well, Coon Road is one that I wish I had known a bit less about. It's a tough climb on a good day as a club ride. Still, I was banging along pretty good, getting over the pesky rollers with pluck if not panache, when another team (the Fast Monkeys) passed me. NOW I was LR for sure – I'd evidently miscounted before.
Off Coon Road, onto Bellfountain. It's rolling climbs and descents that I know VERY well, and I sped up a bit. Along the way, an old MVBC friend, Michael, appeared out of nowhere to cheer. Woo-hoo!!! I was super bummed to see that the county folks had chipsealed the bejeezus out of (what used to be) the MVBC's coastdown testing hill.
Made the turn onto Chapel, toward Philomath. And – it's....not quite 5:30??? Recalculating....now I knew that I would be in before midnight unless we had a total disaster. Back onto Hwy 20 in Philomath. As we were leaving town, the heat was catching up to me, just a little. The climbs are pretty exposed, and I was flagging a bit. My crew asked me what I want. “Newport” is all I had to say. We're going there, we'll get there, but – you gotta eat. Chews, York Peppermint Patties, easy stuff got me through that section. Mandy remembered that it was easy to get applesauce into her elderly, demented patients, and tried it on me. Elderly – check! Demented – check! But it hit the spot.
Once I made the turn off of 20 at Blodgett, the road was simply amazing. It's why anyone with a brain would want to ride a bike in Oregon. If that's not descriptive enough for you, well, go ride it yourself. You'll thank me for it. Leafy, narrow, quiet, just enough terrain that the road bends left and right and up and down so that it's never boring. Up to Summit, down to the tracks! George asked everyone to text a photo of the racer WALKING their bike across some nasty railroad tracks. My crew went all out – tutus, a gorilla suit, and “SMILE TRAIN” tee shirts. We lost a couple of minutes goofing off there, but it felt good – it was essentially the beginning of celebrating the finish. I was astonished to realize that it wasn't quite 7PM yet. I did some more math. We had a couple miles to go before we hit a stretch of gravel that we were required to shuttle over. Then it was...let's see....20 miles to Siletz, and....7.2 miles to the end of racing.. After racing ends, a 12 mile “parade” finish with a fixed time allowance to get to Newport. OK, so to hit midnight I'd have to average at least, um....6 miles per hour?....and I realized that that I was being ridiculous! I could, and should, and WOULD, do better than that. I set my sights on being at the end of racing before 9:00. That way it would still be light when we finished racing, even if it was pretty dark by the time we sauntered down to the actual finish line.
We got through the gravel, with me in fresh kit and ready to go, a bit before 7:30. I got on the bike and put the hammer down. I have never, ever felt like that at the end of a race. My legs were on fire – I was stomping along at a solid 20 mph and feeling amazing. I kept my emotions in check. Every so often I would get a time/miles check from the crew. I don't run a bike computer so other than road mile markers I was flying blind. Siletz – 8:23. Seven miles to go. I. CAN. DO. THIS. Pounding along, watching the mile markers disappear under my feet, as if by magic, counting them down until there were two. And then one. At one mile of racing to go, I let up on the gas, just a bit. I knew that there was enough time left to get in by 9 even if I had a flat or a mechanical. And after 600 miles of no flats and no mechanicals, it didn't seem particularly likely.
Bill and his crew barely arrived at the finish line before I rolled in at 8:48. They'd figured me for 10PM and had to hustle a bit to get there – but they did it. Hugs and kisses and photos and (finally) a few tears, and a huge, primal, scream that let out everything that I'd been holding in me since October. The rest of the ride was pretty surreal. It was rapidly getting dark. I was riding along – well enough, I guess, but not pushing it, and not caring to – just sort of soaking it in. I'd told George that going around the bay was going to be a great way to end the race, and I was right- it was peaceful and dreamlike. We got to the parking lot where the crew could pick me up, got to our hotel rooms, and slept.
Epilogue: In the end, my time was 52:18 – so, almost exactly what I expected, even with the sleep break. I was pretty stoked about that. Some parts of the race were harder than I expected, and some were easier (or if not easier, I rode them much better than I felt I had a right to expect). My speed and pacing was roughly the same in the first and second half of the race (before/after Maupin), and I was gaining speed at the end.
Having a structure to my nutrition was almost certainly a difference-maker. I felt more confident going into the race, my crew never felt overwhelmed by the task of keeping me eating and drinking, and – it worked. I weighed myself before and after the race. I lost a bit less than a pound – which is pretty phenomenal. According to the log sheets, I took in 12,680 calories and 936 oz of fluid during the race. I'd count these as being 90% accurate – the occasional thing that didn't get logged probably got canceled out by the occasional last bite that I fumbled and dropped. My race plan would have called for between 12,500 and 15,000 calories during the race, and roughly 1000 oz of fluids – so I was definitely in the ballpark.
Ever work your ass off to make a dream come true, only to have it turn out exactly the way you dreamt it? Maybe, just maybe, once. I'm the luckiest gal in the world.
Thank yous: I couldn't have done this without the support of a BUNCH of folks:
First (always), Bill: if he wasn't my life partner, soulmate, best friend, training partner, teammate, spin instructor, grounding influence, and fix-it guy, he'd still be my everything.
My crew: amazing. You all dropped other way more important things going on in your lives, came out to the middle of nowhere, and gave more than 100%. We stayed on task and on course the whole way. You worked the plan, fixed things that needed fixing, kept the best race log I've ever had, and did it with good cheer.
George: I know this was an incredibly stressful event to put on, so – thank you! Nothing more, or less, would've inspired me in the way this one did.
Shane: Well planned nutrition, well articulated so that my crew was empowered to take excellent care of me. Can't say it often enough – HUGE difference-maker.