Race Across Oregon, 2009
The elevation profile for Race Across Oregon.
Race Across Oregon course.
My crew and I at the starting line in Hood River.
To describe Race Across Oregon, first let me preface it with a brief history of what lead me to decide to tackle this beast! 2008 had been hugely successful for me on many levels athletically – four double centuries, one triple century, one 24hr race, my first Death Ride, successful shoulder surgery (which finally significantly improved the nagging injury obtained in 2007 after being hit by an SUV), and my first ever 500+ mile event – the Furnace Creek 508, which was more successful than my wildest expectations (I finished in 36hrs 22min). 2008 was the first year that the Furnace Creek 508 was not a Race Across America (RAAM) qualifier, which was unfortunate since to my knowledge I would have qualified had it been a qualifier. So in 2009 I set out with the new goal of trying to qualify for RAAM (not necessarily with the intent of doing RAAM, but just to try and qualify which is an honor in itself), which meant finding RAAM Qualifiers to attempt. I knew that the Hoodoo 500 was one possibility, and I’d previewed that course while crewing for Mike in 2008, but I’d also heard of Race Across Oregon, and was intrigued by it (in my mind I had this notion that all of Oregon was lush and beautiful – well RAO bypasses most of that part of Oregon, but more on that later!). Additionally, I recognized and respected the fact that nothing is guaranteed or assured of in events of this magnitude, so giving myself multiple opportunities to qualify seemed like a good idea. So I decided to sign up for RAO and for the Hoodoo 500.
When I signed up for RAO, I knew relatively little about it. I’d tried to find out about it online, but there seemed to be very little information. Plus throw in the fact that the 2009 course was to be a completely new course from previous years anyway, and it meant that the unknown was even more of an unknown – to all competitors. Well, sometimes not knowing what you’re getting yourself into is a good thing….!!! Had I known just how brutal RAO would end up being – on so many different levels – I may not have had the courage (stupidity?) to sign up! But I did, and hence I’m sitting here writing this report!
The lead up to RAO was rather hectic – things at work had been busy for several months, plus in the spring I’d perhaps been a bit over ambitious in my training and had done a lot of events in close proximity to each other, so when June rolled around I suddenly felt exhausted and overtrained. In many ways my training for RAO was polar opposite to my training for the 508 – the 508 was only 10 weeks after shoulder surgery, so I’d been forced to focus on quality over quantity and do intense trainer workouts indoors and mainly hill repeats outdoors – my longest ride outside post surgery was only 75miles. But leading up to RAO I rattled off an Ironman triathlon, 5 double centuries, and a 12hr event in 3 months. My strategy was “ride long, ride tired”. Four of these events had come in a 5 week period (Devil Mtn. Double, Davis 12Hr, Central Coast Double, and Davis Double), and almost every event had had challenging conditions and/or weather that made them even tougher (rain at Davis 12hr, 90+deg heat at Central Coast, 100+deg heat at Davis Double, and rain and frigid 30deg temps at Eastern Sierra Double). So as July crept closer and I didn’t seem to be recovering despite backing off dramatically on the training, I started to get concerned. But finally 1.5 weeks before RAO I did a short, hard effort group ride and finally felt like I had a bit of pep in my legs, so that was a huge relief! Although this feeling was short-lived when the route-book was published online and I caught my first glimpse of the elevation profile I think my heart started to mimick the course and I nearly had a heart attack! Apparently there are over 40,000ft of climbing in the 517 miles. How on God’s Green Earth (or Oregon’s Bare Brown earth as it would turn out!) would I get through this???? Images of spiky elevation profiles now permeated my thoughts!
Anyway, my crew (Mike, my sister Katie, and Donna) left the Bay Area on Thursday afternoon in a packed minivan, and drove up to Medford, Oregon arriving just before midnight, then drove the remainder of the way to Hood River on Friday. Check-in was uneventful, and it was great to see Erin and Jimmy again. As always, the pre race meeting was a bit intimidating – being in the same room as some of these incredibly talented athletes always leaves me feeling sorely inadequate and out of place! My crew member Donna, a much stronger and faster cyclist than I, seemed far less out of place – maybe I could pretend she was me and I was her crew – that would afterall appear more logical! Alas, it was I who was signed up, and some of these people knew me, so no such swap would be possible!
The start on Saturday morning was an early one at 5am, so when the alarm went off shortly after 4am it was difficult to roll out of bed, but this was what I’d signed up to do, right? And this was supposed to be FUN, right??? I showered, dressed, and forced down a breakfast consisting of a peanut butter and jam sandwich and some coffee (my first caffeine in a couple of weeks – I’d tried to ween myself off of it in hopes it would have a bigger impact during the race). In hindsight, I should have forgone the sandwich, as it ended up sitting in my stomach for what felt like all day, and never really digested. This is what I’ve always eaten before events, but usually I eat longer before the start, allowing more time for digestion, so I should have instead just had a GU or something and started in on my bike nutrition earlier. Anyway, at the start I saw Erin, who was WAAAAY too perky for pre-5am!! Mike took some pictures of us together (both with our own unique sense of bike fashion – her with her blue jersey and pink arm warmers, and me with my green and orange jersey and blue arm warmers), and then I quickly wished Sandy good luck – I knew she was going to kick butt out there so I likely wouldn’t see her for very long! Then at 5am George, race director, lead us out on a neutral 9mile start. Almost immediately there was a short but very steep climb – I take 40+ miles to warm up usually, so my body was not happy about the effort required to get over that sucker at 5 in the freaking morning!! I lost the main pack during this climb, so the rest of the “neutral” start was spent trying to claw my way back to the main group. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one back there though – there were a couple of us, including Erin and Karen Armstrong (another amazing athlete!). We finally caught up to the main group just as we reached the end of the neutral section.
Then we made a left turn and started the long, relatively gradual climb that would eventually take us up to an elevation of over 4000ft on the side of Mt. Hood. Almost immediately I found myself in last place. I didn’t panic though – I fully expected this to happen. I tend to start out slow on any ride, and I knew that every one of these competitors was strong and talented. So I happily brought up the caboose of the group for quite some time. I finally caught up to Jeffrey Bonk somewhere on the climb, and pulled in front of him, although he stayed pretty much with me the rest of the climb. As I slowly started to feel more warmed up and got into a rhythm, I started to reel in the riders in front of me. My crew would occasionally say things like “you’ve made up x seconds on Erin!”, or “you’re only x minutes behind Sandy!”. This was great to hear, but my goal wasn’t to push myself super hard to pass them this early – I knew it was going to be a looooong weekend! But as I did draw within sight of Erin and some others, it did make me feel good! Finally the top of the climb came, and then it was a fast descent. I actually passed a handful of riders on the descent, including Erin and Sandy. I was quite surprised to say the least – guess I have gravity to thank for that! Of course gravity would not be my friend most of the rest of the ride though!!! Anyway, after a pretty nice, fast descent, there was a section with some rollers and such, but for the most part this section all the way to the first time station was pretty fast. I arrived at the first time station at 9:58am, almost 5hrs from the start – not exactly lightening fast for 73 miles, but still good enough to be only 10min behind Karen and 2min behind Sandy (she’d whizzed by on her recumbant on a gradual downhill – she was racing “recupright”, which meant she was switching between an upright bike and a recumbent).
It started to heat up on the next section, although not oppressively so. The terrain started to get drier and drier with less vegetation. As I passed the waterfall on the Deschutes River I saw some fisherman hauling in what looked to be a pretty good catch! Shortly thereafter began the climb up towards Grass Valley where no support was allowed since the road was narrow with no shoulder and a shear dropoff. This climb was totally exposed, but it wasn’t exceptionally hot yet, so it actually rode not too bad. I was however glad to see my crew at the top, and I popped some ibuprofen shortly thereafter since my knees had gotten a bit achy. The ibuprofen did the trick, and the achiness went away. The next section looked like it should have been relatively flat according to the profile, however due to scale, the profile couldn’t show that in reality it was a series of never-ending short rollers! The race director had said we’d have a tail-wind here – WRONG!!!! Instead it was a pretty constant head wind. Along here I passed John Pearch – one of his crew members was Lee “Fuzzy” Mitchell – a legend in the ultracycling community who supports many of the California Triple Crown rides in his “Bike Van”. As I went by once he called out and encouraged me with something like “there’s another man up there – go pass him!” – that made me chuckle! Finally this section ended and I rolled into time station 2 at 1:39pm – this was only 121 miles into the race, and I’d already eaten through over 8.5hrs total….
The next segment started off ok – there were some more gradual climbs, and it was getting warm, but I was feeling half decent. Then came a long decent into a canyon contatining the John Day River from which I knew I had to subsequently climb out of, and I started to feel blast-furnace like pockets of air on the way down, and it got hotter and hotter as I descended further and further. I kept hoping the descent would end, because I knew for every mile down I went, it was just another mile up I’d have to go very soon in the heat! Finally the descent ended, and almost immediately began the 9+ mile climb back up. It was hot. Let me rephrase that – it was HOT! The van thermometer apparently read 97deg, and I’ve read other racer’s reports that said their bike computers were reading 106deg. On this stretch tube socks filled with ice became my friend and savior! Along with cold watermelon and cold drinks handed to me by my dedicated and diligent crew. The climb went on, and on, and on, and on….! I thought I’d started to prematurely hallucinate when I saw someone actually running up the road on the opposite side – it was a crew member for another competitor who was apparently trying to get some run training in during the event – he was running up the hill in the heat almost as fast as I was riding up it – wtf!!!! Talk about feeling slightly demoralized!!! Anyway, at long last the top came, and the heat seemed to dissipate a little bit. I stopped and changed into some dry (and not salt encrusted!) clothes, and this was when I was passed by the first team (unless my memory has blocked out that I was passed even earlier, which is a possibility) – they’d started 4hrs after me and had caught me in less than 150 miles – apparently feeling demoralized is a big part of RAO!!! At this point the heat and winds had made me fairly miserable, and so the fact that the next section was more ups and downs through extremely BORING terrain did not help my constitution!! I was trying hard to make it to Heppner before 8pm so that my crew could get food at the apparently amazing diner there which closed at 8pm, but as the miles wore on it became apparent that this was not going to happen. It was one climb after another, accompanied by more head winds and more boring terrain, so by the time I arrived in Heppner I was pretty miserable – and pretty sick of Oregon! I pulled into Heppner at 8:44pm, only 207 miles into the ride, and almost 16hrs into the ride. Apparently I was in 9th place overall, but that did little to cheer me up. My lower back had started to become incredibly tight over the last 50 miles or so, and in general I felt worse than I had felt after the entire 508. Thinking about the 310 miles that lay in front of me was rather daunting, and doubts started devouring my brain. Additionally, the excessive heat during the day did what it always does to me – it made me extremely sleep very early in the evening, so here it was not even dark and I was already having trouble keeping my eyes open….. I took a relatively long break at Heppner – I needed it physically and mentally. Mike massaged my back, legs, and feet, and tried to give me a pep talk while I lay on the ground feeling pretty defeated. I wasn’t even half way and thoughts of quitting were already fleeting through my mind. But I finally got up, got changed yet again, and hit the road.
It was dark by the time we left Heppner, and so began my struggle to stay awake. My crew fed me chocolate covered espresso beans and caffeinated beverages out the window of the van, and I asked for some salt’n'vinegar chips to munch on to try and help keep me awake. The combination helped, although on the descents I found myself drifting off, so I asked my crew to honk the van horn every now and then to try and keep me awake. This segment had another series of several climbs tacked one after the other. At one point I passed a crew stopped on the side of the road and was shocked to see that it was Jason and Alfie – Bruce Carroll’s crew! Bruce is an uber-fast cyclist, so I certainly didn’t expect to see him, but I guess like so many others, he was struggling too. In a way seeing them helped me feel better about my own sorry state of affairs – if Bruce was suffering this bad, then I knew it was a tough course. Anyway, the night wore on, and I finally reached the top of Battle Mountain at an elevation of over 4200ft. Then there was a descent of about 25 miles to the next time station – there are chunks of time in here that I simply don’t recall – I was fighting hard to stay awake, but it was a losing battle, and I kept waking up to the sound of the van horn honking. Finally we pulled into Dale at 4:56am, just at dawn. I immediately got off my bike and lay down for a 20min nap. I think my crew wanted me to keep going without a break, but I desparately needed a respite. I was now 285 miles into the ride, and already 24hrs had passed. I was just over half way in terms of mileage, but I felt broken – I was unable to stay awake, my back was getting progressively worse, and my spirits were low. What the hell had I gotten myself into????
My crew woke me up and I got back on my bike and started on my way again – it was another climb, and it felt muggy and the wind was starting to pick up. Pretty soon the wind got even stronger, and there were even some sprinkles of rain. There was a longish climb followed by a descent, but the descent could not be enjoyed since the wind was blowing so hard. I was riding close to Jeffrey Bonk again on this section, and at one point we chatted about what we had to do to finish – he said something about having to average only 10mph over the next 200 miles to finish – sounds easy, right? I realized I still had a chance, and tried to focus on getting through this damn course so that I never had to come back and do it ever again!!! Then there was another climb, and now my back really started to get worse. At the top of the climb I asked my crew to rub some Alcis on my back. I started up again, and now it was a series of rollers, but into a strong headwind. My lower left back started to go numb, and then I started getting excruciating pain as I tried to pedal. I was in tears trying to fight the wind and the pain. I didn’t know what was happening – I’d never had lower back pain like this before. My crew was nowhere to be seen, and I was so tired that I couldn’t remember whether they were behind me or whether they’d already passed me and were up front somewhere. So I rode on, crying like a baby! Then my crew passed me and pulled off the road up ahead. I got to them and promptly got off my bike. I told them about my back, and they tried to help me massage it and stretch it. This helped a bit, and I got back on the bike and started out into the wind again. There was a brief downhill, and then a turn and another uphill. I started up the climb, and my back started to seize up almost immediately. I was in serious pain, and I started to think about what kind of damage (potentially permanent for all I knew) I was doing to my body. Was RAO worth it? Not at this moment. I caught back up to my crew and they tried to encourage me to keep going. Mike started to run along beside me, and I told him I didn’t think I could keep going. He kept running and trying to encourage me as I grunted and groaned and yelled out in pain between sobs. I had finally reached an utterly new and depressing low on my bike – I literally couldn’t go any further – the pain was too much. I stopped in the middle of the road. At this point I was pretty sure my weekend was over. I stumbled into the ditch and leaned/sat against the rocks. Mike came and sat with me, and then I realized that he was in tears too…..for whatever reason this calmed me. I told him it wasn’t his fault. His response was that it hurt him to see me suffering this much, and that I was the strongest person he knew. I obviously recognized that I’m NOT the strongest person [stubborn, maybe! ], but hearing those words from him, and seeing how invested he was in me lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. We sat there for a while, and then a couple of other cyclists came by – John, followed by Sandy. I stood up, and my back had calmed down a bit again, so I got back on the bike and proceeded to trudge on down the road.
I caught back up to Sandy near the top of the hill, and I asked her if we still had a shot at finishing. Without hesitation or any inkling of doubt she said “yes!”. We talked a bit more, and she gave me a bit of a pep talk. Her crew then stopped to show me and my crew how to try and stretch out my back. My crew didn’t see the initial stages of this though, so when they came driving up and saw me sprawled out on my back on the ground with all of Sandy’s crew members hovering over me, they got all concerned and thought I’d crashed or something! Anyway, this was yet more evidence of how even though this is an individual sport, it’s a tight community, and assistance is freely given. That’s one of the coolest things about this sport – the people involved in it!
A short while later began a looong and fast descent. I had to play around with positioning on the bike to try and keep my back from tightening up too much. I finally found that if I kept my left leg at the bottom of the pedal stroke and slowly rocked it back and forth a bit just to keep it somewhat mobile, that kept the pain at bay while descending. After the descent there was a section which was essentially the first (and only) “flatish” part to the course. But by now it was getting late into the morning, and the temperatures were once again soaring. As we approached the next time station in Spray, I felt like I was in an oven! Combine this with my sleepiness, and it made it tough to stay awake – there are sections along here that I don’t remember. For example I know at one point I had a V8 can sitting on top of my aeronet, and a while later I noticed it was gone – I guess I dozed off and the can bounced off at some point (I apologize for littering – I honestly didn’t mean to!). We finally arrived in Spray, 358 miles into the ride, at 12:38pm, and I promptly ran – ok, “run” is not an accurate description – I “hobbled” into the store to get out of the heat. Here I changed clothes, stretched, and ate some cold noodle soup and part of a popsicle. I probably lingered too long here, but I dreaded going back out into the stifling heat….. But finally I did, armed with a fresh tube sock filled with ice around my neck and tucked into my jersey.
After Spray the flats continued a little bit longer as we followed a river. The temperature was up in the mid to upper 90s, and as I saw people swimming and playing in the river I so badly wanted to jump off my bike and run and jump in! But I didn’t, I kept trudging along trying to think cold thoughts! I was still really sleepy too – at one point I was jolted out of my sleepy stupor when Erin passed me. She looked strong, and seemed to be far more cheerful than I was. She was starting to talk about not being able to get through it though, so I tried to encourage her and tell her that we were both going to hang in there and finish. She rode on ahead, but then when we got to the base of the next climb (another long one – about 9 miles, and steeper near the top), she stopped with her crew, and so I passed her and continued up the climb. The heat was still oppressive, so the ice filled tube socks, as well as Mike hosing me down with the weed sprayer, and Donna and Katie giving me cold drinks were what kept me going. Thankfully as we gained some elevation the heat began to drop, although the wind was picking up. I was still battling sleepiness, so when Erin’s crew van passed me and I thought I heard her call out from the van saying she was done, I didn’t know whether I’d halucinated it or whether it’d actually happened. It turns out she had abandoned the race a couple miles into the climb, but I’m still super impressed with what she accomplished – she only did her first double century ride this year, yet here she was taking on the toughest 500 miler there is, in what had to be some of the toughest weather conditions. Huge kudos to her for her strength, courage, and tremendously infectious sense of humor! If for no other reason, attempting RAO this year was worth it since it allowed me to meet and get to know this fellow nutcase!
Anyway, back to my story……I finished up the climb and was looking forward to the descent into Fossil, but there was a fierce headwind which made it difficult to get up to the kind of speed I knew this gradient should provide. Then began another 5 mile climb, and the skies were now starting to look stormy. The wind was whipping around, and in some of the switchbacks I was fighting to hold a straight line due to the gusts. Finally I got to the summit, and started a long, fast descent. The skies were still dark, and the wind was still blowing, and then I started to feel pellets hitting me – great, it was hailing!! I just about started laughing at how ridiculous this ride was starting to become – only a few hours ago it had been nearly one hundred degrees, and here it was now stormy and hailing! Luckily I think I caught the edge of the storm though, because I only got rained/hailed on a bit, but the roads were quite wet as we got further along. Despite the weather, this was probably one of the most scenic parts of the course (although after the boring scenery a lot of the day before, a blank piece of paper might have looked interesting!) – the area is known as the Painted Hills, and there were some very interesting hoodoos and rock formations in the surrounding hills. After a quick stop near the bottom to put on my fender and stretch out my back, it was back to the matter at hand – another 9 mile climb of course! This one too seemed to have some steeper sections – although this many miles into a ride a highway overpass would have probably felt steep! At one point Mike handed me a sunflower he picked on the side of the road – I put it in my aeronet, and looking at it helped to keep me motivated. The climb kept going and going and going…. Part way up John Pearch passed me – he was looking good and climbing well. Seeing him in front of me gave me something to chase, and so I tried to not lose sight of him. Near the top of the climb we hit 7pm and so my crew had to start following me again. There was a quick descent into Antelope, and then you guessed it, another climb! This one was comparitively short though – just under 4 miles. I passed John on the descent, so now I made it my goal to try and stay in front of him on this climb. It’s great to have another rider in your vicinity at this point in the ride, as it can do wonders in terms of keeping you motivated. Too, my crew had said that when I got to the top, then I would have a 22 mile descent into the next time station, so I was looking forward to that. I was doing the math in my head – it was almost 8:30pm, so that gave me 8.5hrs to get to the finish. I figured about 1.5hrs to get to the time station, which would leave 7hrs to do the last 60 miles. I knew the last stage had a lot of climbing in it, but I felt confident that with 7hrs I could make it. I was going to finish this thing!! I saw the crest of the hill, and I started to get excited – I could taste the descent coming up, and victory was to be mine!! But then I crested the hill, and thought I must be hallucinating again – where was the descent???? It just looked like an open plateau that stretched on as far as I could see! Was my crew playing cruel tricks on me??? Where was the fricking descent??? I tried to convince myself that it must just be a little ways up the road. So I continued, and noticed that there was a VERY strong cross wind coming from my left. And great, wouldn’t you know it, my next turn was a left turn into the wind. Who’s cruel idea of a joke was this!!! Then there was another right turn – ok, perhaps things would be ok after all. But no, the road then managed to turn into the wind yet again (or perhaps it was the wind turning into me as it got an updated bearing on my heading – afterall, it’s sole reason for being right now was apparently to blow in my face and suck any last remaining specks of self confidence from my beaten body! It was by now pretty dark, and not only was the wind blowing, but I could see lightening in the distance – wonderful – the weather gods had all converged and joined forces in this miserable little pocket of Oregon to wage war on me, and right now it was winning the war hands down! At some point there did come a little descent where the gradient was such that I could actually move forward at faster than 8mph without pedaling – this was where I began to shiver from the cold. We stopped and I put on a jacket, and then I continued on into the wind – my hopes of finishing diminishing more and more with every pedal stroke. Then to add insult to injury, I don’t know where it was, but probably about 20min before we got to Maupin and the last time station, the final straw broke – a large chunk of skin dislodged from my bottom, making it nearly impossible to sit on my saddle. Up until now my butt had been holding up relatively well. Now it was screaming at me!
Finally we pulled into Maupin at 11:25pm, almost 3 hours after cresting the top of that last climb. There was now only 5.5hrs left before the race was officially over, and although there were only 60 miles to go, almost half of that mileage was uphill, and given my pathetic ~8mph average speed on the last “descent”, the math just wasn’t adding up to being able to finish. My crew figured I needed at least 6hrs, more likely closer to 7hrs with back-stretching breaks and such added in, and since I’d left my gizmo that makes time stand still at home (it was locked away in a drawer along with my sanity!), there didn’t appear to be a way to finish. And the final kicker in it all was the fact that a large part of my left buttock no longer had skin on it, and it wasn’t shy about letting me know any time I tried to sit on my saddle! So there, in the middle of Maupin, I finally cracked. I had gone from feeling that I had this race in the bag just 3 hours earlier, to being utterly defeated and feeling like I had no chance. John came into the time station right behind me, and he continued on. The next morning I saw that he had finished a mere 6min after the cutoff – boy oh boy did that send shock waves of self-doubt through my mind – did I give up too easily? If I’d kept going would I have had a chance to finish? Afterall, I was going about the same pace as John. But hindsight is 20/20, and there’s no sense asking the “what ifs”. Afterall, considering that about 14hrs before finally abandoning I was sitting in a ditch thinking I was done, the fact that I was able to keep going and ride another 160 miles through heat, hail, and wind is still an accomplishment that I can be proud of. I may not have finished, but this was an extremely challenging course coated with pretty miserable conditions, but I didn’t go down without a fight! I rode 457 difficult miles in 42.5hrs, of which I was on the bike riding for 38hrs and 16min. I probably lost a good hour or two due to the back issues, which ended up putting me in enough of a hole that I couldn’t quite crawl back out. About half the field DNFd, which goes to show how tough a course it is. And experienced veterans struggled too. Karen Armstrong, the women’s winner, had done the 508 in about 34hrs last year, and it took her over 45hrs to complete RAO. And Sandy, a hard core ultra cyclist with a lot of these events under her belt just snuck in under the cutoff as the only other woman finisher. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t finish – this was afterall the first time that I’ve DNFd anything – but at the same time there’s a lot to be learned from defeat. I know in my heart that I’m capable of finishing RAO, so perhaps I’ll be back next year for revenge! In the meantime, a heart felt thanks to my awesome crew of Mike, Donna, and Katie! Without you guys I’d have never made it as far as I did – your encouragement and support were incredible! It was a tough weekend for competitors and crew alike, but you all rose to the challenge, so thank you, thank you, thank you!!