Race Across the West 2011 – The Gateway Drug to RAAM!

Race Across the West was my main event for 2011, and was the most ambitious event I’d ever signed up for – 860 miles that traveled through 4 states with over 40,000 feet of climbing and a time cutoff of 92 hours. I didn’t know exactly what to expect – I would be entering uncharted territory in terms of time and distance – but I did at least know that I would be embarking on a truly amazing adventure no matter how it all turned out!

But before I get too far into the story of how the race unfolded, let me take a minute to thank everyone who helped to get me to the starting line. I was extremely fortunate to partner with several sponsors this year, and each of them played a critical role in my RAW preparation. Specialized Women provided me with 2 Ruby bikes – and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how the bikes performed – they are truly engineered for performance and comfort! Having a bike is only the first step though – bike fit is equally important, and that’s where Curtis from Revolutions in Fitness came into the picture. He was able to setup the bikes to fit me and helped me to identify and work on some physical limitations I had in terms of flexibility and muscle imbalance. Bike and bike fit alone still aren’t enough though – the rider needs to bring something to the table in terms of strength and power, and that’s where Integrate Performance Fitness came into play. I attended twice weekly strength and conditioning classes at IPF starting last fall which made me stronger and faster on the bike by working on total body fitness. And last, but certainly not least, is the importance of recovery, and that’s where my massage therapist, David Ledesma played a hugely important role. My weekly deep tissue sports massage appointments kept my aching body functioning through all the long training. Each of my sponsors are leaders in their respective fields, and it was a great honor working with each of them and seeing how they each helped me to achieve this goal, so thank you Specialized Women, Revolutions in Fitness, Integrate Performance Fitness, and David Ledesma!

While we’re on the topic of thanking people, I can’t proceed further without thanking my incredibly supportive husband, Mike. He’s always there for me, and he’s always believed in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself. I couldn’t have done this without him, and I love him with all my heart!

And of course the thank you section wouldn’t be complete without thanking each and every one of my RAW crew members. I couldn’t have completed RAW without them, and I challenge anyone to come up with such a kick ass crew!! From Sandy, the best crew chief (“overlord”) you could ever hope to have; to Jason, the one-armed “handi-capable” mechanic and smart ass; to my brother Peter who came all the way from Nova Scotia and had boundless energy throughout; to my husband Mike who donned a grass skirt and coconut bra (among other “questionable” outfits); to Diana who entertained me with a variety of costumes as well; to Sheila who did her best to look after the aforementioned hooligans – YOU ALL ROCKED!!! I couldn’t have finished this race without you, and I couldn’t imagine tackling it with a different cast of characters – you all gave your heart and soul throughout, and I’m eternally grateful to each and every one of you!!!

Loading up the vans - lots of gear!

Ok, back to the race! Logistics for a race this long are almost as intimidating as the race itself! I spent a good week packing and organizing things, and was still scrambling at the last minute to get everything ready. The Saturday before the race the crew started to arrive. Sandy biked down from Arcata and had her own little adventure , and Peter flew in to SFO after being delayed for over 6hrs in Washington, DC. We picked up Jason from Oakland and all crowded into our condo for the night. Sunday morning we picked up the 2nd minivan rental (we’d picked up the first the day before), and Bob Corman was gracious enough to help us load everything into the vans. It seemed like we had enough gear to support a small army for a few weeks!! But when you need spares of everything in order to hopefully be able to weather any kind of unforeseen incident it all adds up. Finally we hit the road just before 10am for the long drive to Oceanside. The drive was uneventful apart from one moment where we just about lost a spare bike wheel off the top of one of the vans – fortunately it wiggled it’s way loose just as we were about to exit to a rest area, so disaster was averted and we moved the spare wheels inside the vehicle for the remainder of the trip.

Clowning around practicing water bottle hand offs

We arrived in Oceanside just after 5pm and went to the vacation rental that we would call home for the next 3 nights. The house was absolutely perfect for what we needed, and provided a great staging area for final preparations, as well as for crew bonding. Over the course of the next couple of days I discovered that my brother is a mighty fine cook!! We had dinners the likes of shish-kebabs, roasted garlic, 3 kinds of fish one night, pasta, and fruit salad; and breakfasts of eggs benedict and gourmet scrambled eggs with bacon. Sandy even got in on the act and we had fresh squeezed orange juice from oranges in the orange tree in the yard! Life was good! Monday and Tuesday included various meetings and inspections, and on Tuesday afternoon we picked up Sheila and Diana from the San Diego airport. We were now all set for show-time on Wednesday!

Nanook & Crew the morning of June 15th before heading to the RAW start

At the RAW start line in Oceanside, CA

The race started at noon on Wednesday, with riders being sent off in 1 minute intervals. I was slated to start at 12:19pm. The nice thing with a noon start was that I didn’t have to be up at the crack of dawn. It was nice to be able to sleep in and enjoy that last little bit of pillow time since I knew that there would be very little from here on out! I was pretty overcome with emotion at the start – the enormity of what I was about to tackle was finally settling in on me. I think I even got a little bit teary eyed at one point! But soon enough it was my turn to start, and I was off on my bike.

The first 24 miles were unsupported, and there was a good little climb on Sleeping Indian Road that certainly made sure that you were awake and not sleeping!! As I headed away from the pleasantly cool overcast coast towards the clear and sunny inland, the temperature rose, and I started to feel the heat as I headed up the climb up Palomar Mountain. I wasn’t even 50 miles into the ride and already I felt a bit outside my comfort zone – not exactly what you want to experience this early in a ride this long!! But I just tried to remain calm and take things relatively easy, knowing that after these climbs there would be a long descent followed by a pretty flat section through the desert.

I finally passed the first time station, Lake Henshaw. From here the climbing was mellower, and it was starting to cool off a bit since it was late afternoon and we were at a bit of elevation. It wasn’t long until we hit the Glass Elevator – a screaming descent that drops about 3,000 feet down to Borrego Springs in the California desert. The top was fairly straight, and I had a tailwind, so before hardly even realizing it I’d picked up tremendous speed – I looked down at my cyclometer and saw that I was going over 51mph!! This was a new speed record for me. It wasn’t too long though and the road started twisting and turning a lot, and that tail wind suddenly became a fierce cross wind going into and coming out of the turns, so I slowed down substantially to stay in control of the bike. A couple turns in particular were extremely hard to maneuver, and I was blown across the road.

Then I came to a scene that you never want to see – some emergency vehicles, race vehicles, and race official vehicles…. I didn’t find out until later, but I guess one of the 2 person RAW teams (the team from my home province of Alberta in fact) had been involved in an accident – a jeep coming up the hill had crossed the road to enter a turnout on the other side of the road just as the cyclist came tearing around the corner, and he’d T-boned the jeep. I’m not sure the extent of his injuries, but it sounded pretty serious, and given the speed that I’m sure he was traveling at when the accident occurred, the fact that he was alive was probably a small miracle. In a year that has seemed to be far too full of tragedy with regard to bike vs. vehicle accidents, this was yet another jolting reminder of how fragile we are out there.

I continued on down the glass elevator, and as I dropped I felt the temperature rise. I was very glad that we were heading into the evening and that the temps would be cooling off and that we’d miss the extreme heat of the day in this area! At the bottom as things flattened out there was a brief section with a bit of cross wind where my crew started feeding me popsicles – anyone who’s ever seen me eat frozen foods knows that’s the one thing that I tend to eat slowly, so it was a challenge for me to eat the popsicles before they melted!!! Then eventually the road turned and I found myself with a screaming tailwind – woohoo!! I was cruising along at almost 30mph without hardly any effort!

Passing my crew in the California desert the first day

Just before 8pm I stopped for a quick break – it was time for a crew shift change, plus I’d been going for almost 8hrs in one pair of now salt encrusted shorts, so it was time to change into fresh shorts for the night ahead (my strategy to try and prevent chaffing issues was to try and change shorts fairly frequently). I also took this opportunity to eat/drink, and have Peter give me a foot massage. My feet had gotten surprisingly sore this early in the ride – in hind sight what had happened was that I’d had my shoes done up too tightly given the heat that I went through climbing up Palomar, which had really irritated my feet and made them sore. All my training this year had been in relatively cool temperatures, so I’d forgotten that when riding in the heat I need to leave my shoes a little looser. Oh well, what was done was done, and thank goodness Peter is as good of a foot masseuse as he is a gourmet chef!!

Let me take a few moments here to describe the crew organization given that we’re at a shift change. I had 2 minivans and 6 crew members supporting me at RAW. The day was split into three 8hr shifts, and there were 3 different “roles” that always had 2 crew doing each of them. At any given time there were 2 people awake in the follow vehicle (the van designated to stay as close to me as possible throughout), there were 2 people awake in the crew vehicle (the van that would help scout out pull out locations, run errands, get supplies, step in when the follow vehicle needed to fuel up or take a bio break, etc.), and there were 2 people sleeping in the crew vehicle (we had an air mattress in the back where the crew slept). This rotation meant that in each 24hr period each crew person was “on-duty” for 16hrs and slept for 8hrs. Shifts were 12pm-8pm PST, 8pm-4am PST, and 4am-12pm PST. From 12pm-8pm Diana & Jason slept, Sandy & Peter were in the follow vehicle, and Sheila & Mike were in the crew vehicle. From 8pm-4am Sheila & Mike slept, Sandy & Jason were in the follow vehicle, and Peter & Diana were in the crew vehicle. And from 4am-12pm Sandy & Peter slept, Mike & Diana were in the follow vehicle, and Jason & Sheila were in the crew vehicle. Sandy of course came up with this schedule, and it seemed to work pretty well. What I liked was that I got to interact with pretty much everyone on the crew at some point or another. I’d selected my crew because I love interacting with each and every one of them, so I was really happy that I got to do so!

Back to the story though…. As I rode into the night the conditions remained favorable, and I was able to cruise right along. Even though it was dark, riding through the desert was pretty magical. We rode past the Imperial Sand Dunes, and in the moonlight they were still pretty cool looking (plus I’m glad it wasn’t during the day since I imagine the temperature would have been scorching during the day!!). We passed through the 2nd time station, Brawley, CA, just after 9pm, and then it was on towards Blythe, CA, where we arrived just before 3am. This was 235 miles into the race, and I’d found a pretty good rhythm during the night. The strategy was to try and ride straight through the night to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. I’d never made it through the first night of an event without sleep before, so this was my challenge. I didn’t really have too much difficulty staying awake – I think in part due to the fact that I had been able to sleep in the morning the race started, and was fairly well rested going into the race having had the couple of days in Oceanside leading up to the race to mainly just “chill out”. What also helped was that we had an external speaker system on the van so that the crew could play music for me – we’d borrowed the sound system from a friend, Paul Vlasveld, and Jason and Mike had spent the better part of a day figuring out how to wire it up to the van’s battery – but it was totally worth it as it made the world of difference in terms of helping me stay awake at night!

The next crew shift change happened just before we got to Parker, AZ, but as the sun came up, I started to really struggle to stay awake. Just before 7am local time we stopped and I tried to eat some breakfast. I was firmly entrenched in one of my low points for the ride – having ridden through the night I was now in a bit of a haze and struggling to keep my eyes open. I climbed into the van to eat since there were lots of bugs where we’d stopped, and while in the van I started shaking uncontrollably. I certainly wasn’t “cold”, as already the temperature outside was starting to climb, so I think it was just the exhaustion taking hold. The crew did a good job of kicking me out of the van and getting me back on the bike, but unfortunately now direct follow time had ended, so they could only do leap frog support. Now it was just me and the road, and I was fighting an incredible urge to sleep.

The stretch out of Parker was a long, gradual uphill that was into a headwind, and the temperature steadily rose. Not only that, but this stretch of road had fairly heavy traffic on it, and we’re talking about BIG traffic – a lot of semis. There wasn’t a very good shoulder for much of this stretch, and when there was a shoulder it was often unridable due to rumble strips. This stretch of road is one of 2 sections on the RAW course that I maintain are NOT safe to ride on without direct follow, and I will be expressing this concern to the race organizers. Normally you’re allowed direct follow during the daytime hours after the 1st day of RAW/RAAM, but this year the race organizers were unable to get permits from the states of Arizona and Colorado to do this, so there was no direct follow allowed except between the hours of 8pm-6am local time. I certainly hope that the race organizers will be able to rectify this in the future, because I for one will NOT do RAW (or RAAM) if direct follow is not allowed on these unsafe stretches of road.

But back to the race itself. Apparently by 9am it was already up in the 90s, and by midday the temperatures topped out at over 100degF. I combatted the heat by wearing white shorts, my lightest jersey, white arm-coolers (which I kept pouring water on to get the evaporative cooling effect), and tube socks filled with ice wrapped around my neck. Later in the day my crew also started feeding my popsicles to try and cool me from the inside out – they discovered a Mexican brand popsicle that was very much like a rice pudding, but it was oh so tasty and I ate several of them that afternoon! Between the heat, the headwind, and the heavy traffic, this section was pretty miserable. There were a couple of other riders and crew around me during this stretch, so it was nice to see other people out there. At one point Ann Wooldridge, one of 2 other solo women doing RAW, was very close to me, and in fact we went back and forth a couple of times. Her crew was extremely encouraging, so it was great to be near them. Finally I made a turn towards Salome, and things improved at least in terms of the wind.

I pulled into Salome just after 12pm local time, and although I really, really wanted to take a break out of the heat, my crew was having none of that. I was told that I would be allowed to take a break in Congress (just over 50 miles further), and not before!!! So I headed back out on the road, armed with another popsicle, and trudged along. The temperature at least didn’t seem to be getting worse, and since we were gaining elevation it seemed in fact to cool off a little bit (although it was still stinkin’ hot!!). In between popsicles on this section I got to eat quarters of a cheeseburger – boy oh boy did it taste good!! The first half of this stage went fairly well, until we turned onto a road that had awfully rough chip seal on it….. There was about 25 miles of this, and the constant jarring continued to beat me down physically and mentally. When Peter would ask from the side of the road what I wanted, my response was “A new f’ing road surface!!!”. But finally I entered Congress just after 4pm local time, where I knew that there was a waist deep wading pool waiting for my hot, tired, and achy body. The time station in Congress is run by the Bullshifters – a Phoenix bike club, and they set up a little oasis in the desert – such a welcoming sight! I got to the time station, promptly took of my shoes, socks, and jersey, and got into the pool of water (where I was once again fed another popsicle!). Boy oh boy did that feel like heaven!!!

Taking a dip in the wading pool in Congress, AZ while eating another popsicle

We decided that I was going to take an extended break here since the section after Congress had a lot of climbing, including the Yarnell Grade which climbs about 1800ft right as you leave Congress. It was still over 100degF, and I was pretty thrashed from the heat of the day and the rough roads. After my dip in the pool I changed into dry clothes, ate another cheeseburger, and then lay down for an hour nap in the air conditioned van. My crew then helped me to get dressed into clean clothes, lathered me up in sunscreen again, armed me with another ice filled tube sock and a popsicle, and sent me on my way up the Yarnell Grade. Altogether we were stopped in Congress for about 2 hours, but it was a much needed break. Although it was still almost 100degF when I started up again, parts of the climb were in the shade now, and the temperature was at least dropping. Although not a cakewalk, the climb up Yarnell wasn’t too bad, and there were some pretty cool vistas of the desert down below.

After dropping down the other side of the climb we stopped for another shift change and I took the opportunity to eat another meal. We then began the long climb towards Prescott, AZ, and I kept looking back to soak up the gorgeous sunset over the hills behind us. Now that I was out of the heat again I felt like I had my second wind, and I felt pretty good for most of the climbing. Then we reached what I thought (wrongly!) was the summit, and had a bit of a descent. What I didn’t realize though was that the road must have been following some kind of ridge line or something, as we seemed to keep dropping briefly only to have to climb some more. This went on for what seemed like forever before we got to the proper descent in Prescott. We pulled into Prescott just after 10pm local time where I took another break to get a foot massage, eat a can of ravioli, and down another iced mocha drink.

I headed out of Prescott which was a downhill for a while longer before another long climb. It was on this stretch that I once again began to battle sleepiness – nothing I seemed to do helped. A few miles before the top of the climb I had the crew switch the music that they were playing, and that seemed to help and I felt more awake for the last part of the climb. At the top we stopped for a quick bio break, and I put on a jacket for the long, fast descent into Cottonwood. Although I was awake at the top of the climb, the monotony of descending soon started to lull me into sleepiness again. On at least two occasions I stopped briefly in order to try and wake myself up since I was drifting off. Just before we came to Jerome, AZ I found myself in a little race with of all things, a skunk!! He (she?) had appeared out of nowhere on the side of the road, and rather than running off the side of the road he’d decided to start running full tilt down the road in front of me. I didn’t like the position that I found myself in – looking at the uplifted tail of a skunk – and immediately slowed down hoping that he would get off the road and let me pass. I know that as a rider I’m not allowed into the van very frequently as it is, but I knew darned well that if this skunk “marked me”, then there was likely no way in hell that I’d be allowed into the van again for the duration of the trip, and we were only just over half way! And although the smell of skunk may have helped keep me awake, I really wasn’t that desperate!! So Pepe continued his little sprint down the mountain side with no apparent desire to abandon this race, and I hung back and stared at his uplifted tail! Finally I pulled out as far to the left as I could (literally on the other side of the other lane) and left Pepe in the dust. If nothing else, it was a little bit of night time entertainment that got me awake and alert again for a little while!

We pulled into Cottonwood around 2am local time and it was time for me to take another sleep break. I quickly ate another meal, and then was out like a light. I slept for about an hour and a half before being woken again to head out on the next stretch to Flagstaff. Sandy said that the plan was that I would try to ride 250 miles that day (Friday), getting to Monument Valley around sunset, so that I would then only have about 100 miles to do the next day. This sounded a bit ambitious and I didn’t know whether it would be possible, but I liked the sounds of it (since it meant I should finish on Saturday sometime). It was about 4am as we headed out, and it wasn’t too long before I got to watch the sun rise over the Arizona landscape. The ride from Cottonwood to Flagstaff was extremely scenic as we passed through the likes of Sedona. There was a lot of climbing on this section, but nothing terribly steep, so with the breathtaking scenery and the cool & refreshing morning air it was a fairly pleasant ride. I started getting a craving for real food though, and in particular a breakfast burrito. All the crew could find at this hour was a McDonalds somewhere near Sedona I presume, but the 2 breakfast burritos that Sheila gave me tasted heavenly! I immediately put in a request for more burritos in Flagstaff, as well as orange juice – for whatever reason I had this huge craving for orange juice, even though I’d never had it on a ride before.

The approach into Flagstaff, AZ on day 3

Mike posing on a sign between Sedona and Flagstaff

We arrived in Flagstaff just after 9am local time. This was a monumental place in the race for me, as it was 536 miles in, and I was now about to cross the threshold of what my previous longest ride had been (Race Across Oregon which was about 537 miles) – I was now entering uncharted territory. There was a very strong tail wind leaving Flagstaff, and I knew there was a long 40 mile descent coming up, which I was looking forward to after the long climb from Cottonwood to Flagstaff. We stopped just before the descent began so that I could fuel up again – I had 2 more breakfast burritos, and a couple of water bottles full of orange juice – very refreshing!! Then began the long descent towards Tuba City. The first half of the descent was uneventful – there was a huge shoulder, and I was able to just cruise along with the tail wind and the downward grade. The sun continued to beat down on me and I was thankful that I had my arm coolers on.

Then things began to get sketchy…. What had been a 4-6foot wide shoulder suddenly disappeared completely in sections, or when there was a shoulder it was mainly occupied by rumble strips. We were on an incredibly busy thoroughfare road mid-day, and there was lots of traffic barreling by at what must have been 70-80mph, much of it being large semis and RVs. I’ve never felt as terrified and unsafe on a bicycle as I did for the 20+ miles on this road leading up to the turnoff to Tuba City. I was forced to take the lane for large chunks of time since there was no shoulder, and I was just hoping and praying that the traffic barreling up behind me would see me and give me some space – especially the semis since as they pass at that speed they create a vortex of wind that can make it hard to hold a straight line. At one point I was riding on the white line and there was a semi within inches of me that was getting passed by another semi – my guardian angels must have been VERY busy on that stretch of road!!! This is the 2nd stretch of road on the RAW course that absolutely needs to allow for direct follow during the day (the 1st stretch being the one out of Parker, AZ), and I will not do RAW (or RAAM) unless direct follow is allowed. We take calculated risks every time we get on our bicycles, but riding these 2 stretches of road without direct follow is unnecessary and irresponsible risk. After finally getting off of this stretch of road (and having a great desire to get off my bike and kiss the ground for having survived it!) there were a couple of rollers into Tuba City. There were some interesting rock formations and colors in the landscape around Tuba City. I got to Tuba City just before 1pm local time.

I really wanted to make it to Monument Valley before dark so that both my crew and I could see Monument Valley in the daylight, but doing the mental calculations on my bike I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to make it (especially given that I didn’t know how far it was past the next time station in Kayenta, which was over 70 miles away). I started trying to focus all my energy on getting to Monument Valley, and pushed my pace harder than I would have otherwise. Thankfully the wind was favorable on much of this stretch, so I was able to go at a pretty good pace. I had been falling a bit behind on nutrition (on the sketchy section earlier it was all I could do to focus on riding when I had no shoulder so there wasn’t much opportunity to eat or drink – although I had downed some chicken nuggets and iced tea), and a lot of the food the crew was offering me wasn’t all that appealing, so I asked them to find me a “real” burrito (i.e. not a breakfast burrito which I’d already had 4 of that day). A while later they handed me something in foil that resembled a burrito, but wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting. It had a tortilla, refried beans, and a lot of cheese, and was particularly tasty, but I’d never had a burrito like it before. I found out later that it was “The Bomb” – a 900+ calorie monstrosity that they’d purchased from a gas station – not exactly what you’d call “gourmet”, but it certainly hit the spot and went down easily. I ate half of it then, and the other half later on that section. Thankfully this road wasn’t as busy as the road I’d been on previously, but it was still lacking a shoulder in a lot of sections, which was frustrating because I had to keep crossing over the rumble strips to get in/out of the shoulder as it disappeared and reappeared. One section of the road also had a lot of expansion joints, so I became fairly miserable for periods of time, and my goal of reaching Monument Valley before dark seemed to be evaporating. Finally I hit a bit of a downhill section which was probably about 15 or so miles from Kayenta – the scenery also got a lot more stunning and I found myself looking around in awe soaking up the views. There were a couple of short rollers, but the final push into Kayenta was pretty fast. Along the way I lost a front light though – it bounced off while crossing the bone jarring rumble strips that I had to keep weaving across as the shoulder disappeared and reappeared.

Leaving Kayenta, AZ, heading towards Monument Valley

Heading into Monument Valley

I pulled into Kayenta at about 6:40pm local time. Since Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings though, there wasn’t that much time until the sun set, and I was still over 20 miles from the end of Monument Valley. So after a quick pit stop I was on my way again, and I decided to give it all I had – I suddenly found myself literally time trialing my way down Monument Valley!! There was a brief section with a bit of cross/head wind, but then the road curved again and I had a tail wind. I was in my hardest gear pushing as hard as I could go – frankly I was amazed I was even capable of this given that I had almost 700 miles on my legs already! I knew that pushing this hard certainly had it’s risks – I might start cramping, or totally exhaust myself, but with 2 full nights and a full day of time before the cutoff and less than 200 miles to go, I figured I should be able to absorb and survive a little setback if it happened, and I wanted to see Monument Valley damn it!!!! Finally we crested the last little rise and I could see the formations that I knew Monument Valley was famous for. It was still light out, but I think we were about half an hour past the time at which the rocks would have still shown their color – there just wasn’t enough sun in the sky to illuminate them as I’d hoped we’d see them. Looking at the scenery through my orange tinted glasses I was able to see a bit more color, so I waved the van up beside me so that I could hand my glasses to Peter so that he could look through them and see the difference (since he studied geology in university I know seeing all this cool scenery was a highlight to his RAW crewing experience). Alas the handoff did not go as planned, and suddenly my glasses were bouncing along the pavement….. I stopped, and the van went ahead and turned around to go back and scour the ditch for them. I put my bike on the side of the road and started walking back up the road looking for them. Just when I thought all was lost, I spotted the lenses perched precariously on the pavement (it’s amazing that they hadn’t been run over by another vehicle!), and after I collected them, it wasn’t long till I spotted the rims too – phew, disaster averted (although I did have backup glasses so we could have managed had we not found them). But this little stint probably cost us 15-20min, and it was getting darker and darker. I rode down the rest of the hill towards the Utah state line where the crew van was waiting (it was time for another crew shift change). Although we didn’t see Monument Valley in all it’s splendor, we at least got to see it, so the hard effort all afternoon was worth it. Now I could back off and go at a more manageable pace!

There was a climb out of Monument Valley which was rather tame, then there were a couple of ups and downs before a screaming descent into Mexican Hat, Utah. Along this stretch I ate burrito #6 for the day – this one was from a restaurant in Kayenta and it was mighty tasty as well, particularly the guacamole on it! We arrived in Mexican Hat at 10:24pm local time (we were finally in a new time zone – woohoo!).

Next up was Montezuma Creek. Sandy said that there were some “rollers” on the next section – I’m not sure what her definition of “roller” is, but apparently it’s different from mine!!! Or at least when I have over 700 miles on my legs what she calls a roller doesn’t feel like it anymore!! The “rollers” were steep little suckers, and I had to keep dropping into my triple chain ring. My butt was also finally starting to get a bit more bothersome (probably in part from the time-trial efforts earlier in the day where I was putting more pressure on my butt). On this section I downed burrito #7 for the day – another one from the Kayenta restaurant. I think I’d finally hit my max intake of burritos for the day, and shortly thereafter there was an emergency bio break!!

We finally got to Montezuma Creek at 2:24am local time. The follow vehicle had peeled off earlier to go on ahead and set up for a sleep break, so the crew vehicle had stepped in and followed me the last few miles. I wasn’t sleepy yet though, so I saw no point in stopping and sleeping. There was less than 100 miles to go, and I could smell the barn!! I figured we might as well keep rolling until I got sleepy. I did take a short break though to change shorts, ice my butt (yes, I filled a ziploc bag with ice and sat there with no shorts on icing my unmentionables – ultra cycling doesn’t involve much dignity, especially by the time the 3rd night rolls around!!). I also ate some pizza, yogurt, and an iced mocha.

We headed out from Montezuma Creek knowing that we’d soon be passing into our 4th state – Colorado. There were quite a few cows along the side of the road – and I was glad that my crew confirmed that they were in fact there and that I wasn’t hallucinating (yet!)! We made a left turn onto a road that we’d been warned had “some” gravel on it. Well, again, I guess my definition of “some” is a little bit different from the race organizers!!! What followed was a seemingly never-ending stretch of what I’d call a full on gravel road!! There were a few sections that were more manageable, but there was a very long section that had a lot of loose gravel on it. This did not make me a happy camper, especially when I had to climb in the gravel and was trying really hard not to spin out on my road tires, or descend in it and hope like heck I wasn’t going to bite the dust! FINALLY we reached the end of the gravel, and the road improved.

"People are crazy" - need I say more!

Mike and Sheila who were supposed to be sleeping started making appearances on the side of the road. At one point Mike was running down the side of the road wearing nothing but a Speedo and a Santa hat waving a flag and yelling loudly – appropriately the song that was playing on the sound system at the time was Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy”, which includes the lyrics “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy!”. Apparently my husband had gone crazy – again – earlier in the ride I’d spotted him in a grass skirt and coconut bra! Anyway, I guess they realized that I was going to finish earlier than expected, so they skipped the later part of their sleep break to help cheer me on.

As the first glow of morning twilight started to appear in the sky I requested one last country song (since I knew that Sandy and Jason were going bat shit crazy having to listen to 3 nights of country music – but hey, it was working in terms of keeping me awake!). The song I requested was Justin Moore’s “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”. I had been riding RAW in memory of a friend of ours, Jim Swarzman, who was killed while riding his bicycle on a brevet in April of this year, and it seemed appropriate to listen to this song and think of him as I caught my first glimpses of the Colorado countryside. It was a very emotional moment, and I felt Jim’s presence with us as I was getting ever so close to the end.

At 5am local time we did our final crew shift change, and Mike and Diana were once again in the follow vehicle. I knew that they both like country music, and Diana managed to find my favorite Dixie Chicks songs (“Cowboy take me away” and “Wide open spaces”) and played those as we meandered our way through the Colorado countryside. It seemed extremely fitting since we were passing by a lot of farms. This hour passing through the quaint farming countryside in the earliest light of the day seemed very magical, and in many ways I felt like I was “home”.

Unfortunately though direct follow came to an end at 6am local time, and then began my own little mental adventure…. I’ve never reached a point on a ride where I’ve hallucinated before – sure, my eyes have played small tricks on me and shapes in the dark have taken on strange appearances, but I’ve never experienced what I was about to experience. I started seeing things that weren’t there, and I started losing the perception between what was real and what wasn’t. It was a very surreal feeling and extremely disconcerting – it was like I was in a semi-conscious dream state. I was aware that things “weren’t right”, but I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. I’d look at the side of the road, see someone or something, then blink and look again and there would be nothing there. A few times I found myself slowing down and starting to clip out of my pedals because I thought my crew was there on the side of the road only to realize that there was no one there. At one point I even started to ride off the road and ended up in the sand on the side of the road as I’d drifted off to sleep. I also started experiencing waves of deja vu – there were a couple of short but relatively steep hills, and the 2nd one I honestly wondered if I had somehow gone backwards on the course and was tackling the same hill a 2nd time. A few times I even started panicking a little bit because I didn’t know if I was still going the right way, and I didn’t know where my crew was. The next time I saw them I told them what I was experiencing and I asked that they stay as close to me as possible and help me through this. I was at least aware of the fact that I was messed up mentally and was going through a mental disconnect, but I couldn’t distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. In hindsight I think there were a couple of things that compounded to cause this mental breakdown. Obviously the sleep deprivation was the main cause since I had only slept for 2.5hrs since Wednesday morning and it was now Saturday morning. In addition to that though, I think my caloric intake had dropped a bit since I hadn’t eaten a whole lot since Montezuma Creek, and I think that contributed to the sleepiness. Plus the stark contrast going from having direct follow and a van right behind me playing music and talking to me and engaging me to being all on my own in the dead silence of the morning I think also contributed to my mind shutting down. Anyway, I limped along trying to focus all my might on getting to the next time station in Cortez.

I finally pulled into Cortez, CO at 7:56am local time. The vans were gassing up at a gas station and they’d bought food from McDonalds for me. I wolfed down a breakfast sandwich, two potato patties, and yet another breakfast burrito – apparently I was hungry!!! I immediately started to feel my brain start to reconnect, and after having sunscreen reapplied I headed on down the road. There was only about 45 more miles to go, but they weren’t an easy 45 miles – we were about to climb to the highest elevation on the RAW route – about 8,400 feet. The sun was starting to beat down on me again, and I could feel the effects of the altitude. I suspect that had I slept a little bit the night before I might not have felt the altitude as much, but at this point that was neither here nor there – I just needed to pedal a few more hours and I’d be done! The Colorado landscapes were absolutely breathtaking – the hills and fields were bright green, and reminded me of the summer time back home in Alberta. Plus you had the backdrop of the mountains which were still glistening with snow on the peaks. Although I was suffering on these climbs, at least I was suffering in an absolutely gorgeous setting, which made it that much easier. The climbs seemed to go on forever, but finally we got to the top. I stopped and gathered all of my crew around for a big group hug, as I thought it was very symbolic to stop at the highest point of the route this close to the finish and thank them for all that they had done for me!

Green landscape heading towards Durango, CO

Last climb towards Durango

After our big group hug I set out again, and a little bit further up the road Mike gave me a daisy which I tucked into my jersey. There was a brief little descent and one last little climb before the final 10 mile descent into Durango. The descent was absolutely gorgeous with the mountains all around me, and I just tried to soak it all in and savor the moment! We pulled into the time station in Durango and confirmed that I had no time penalties, and then we set out for the last 2.5 miles, which were uphill to the Fort Lewis College campus. I really didn’t appreciate having to climb the last couple of miles, but it’s not like I had a choice – the finish line was at the top of the hill!

Finally I got to the finish chute, and was surprised to see quite a number of people there cheering me on. It was a pretty special moment, although I think I’d already had my emotional outpouring earlier in the morning as I’d watched the sunrise. My crew all gathered around and we hugged again, and then I had to endure what seemed like endless picture taking! It was extremely special sharing these moments with my crew since I absolutely could not have asked for a better crew, and I absolutely could not have been so wildly successful without their help!! I had the easy job out there – I just had to pedal my bike – Sandy, Mike, Jason, Peter, Diana, and Sheila were the ones who got me from Oceanside, CA to Durango, CO, so THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!

After pictures we headed to the awards banquet which was underway, where we got some great food and I got to collect a couple of trophies. I’d won the overall women’s division (and the RAAM media guy, Vic Armijo, wrote a pretty cool article about me), and in doing so was the first woman to complete Race Across the West in the 4 years that it’s been happening. I also won female Rookie of the Year, and ended up collecting Queen of the Desert as well (they’d selected 2 stages representative of the desert and the woman with the fastest combined time on those two stages got the award – similarly they had a Queen of the Mountains award which the other woman finisher, Ann Wooldridge won). I also had the honor of meeting Dani Wyss, the men’s champion for RAW, and former 2 time solo RAAM winner. He finished in an amazing time of 2 days and 29 minutes! When I was somewhere between Flagstaff and Tuba City, he was crossing the finish line! He was so fast that he beat all of the 2 person teams, and all but 2 of the 4 person teams – WOW!!! What an amazing athlete, and genuinely nice guy! The next day I also got to meet Ann Woolridge, the other woman who finished, and Lorena Salas Ramos, who came oh so close before having to abandon the race in Cortez, CO. Both are extremely classy women, and it was an honor to race with them!

So for you number crunchers out there, here are the various stats from my ride that may be of interest to you. My overall time was 2 days, 22 hours, and 58 minutes – far faster than I had ever hoped to finish!! Of those 71 hours, almost 62 of them were spent on the bike, so I had about 9hrs off the bike total. 2.5 of those off-the-bike hours were spent sleeping, and the remaining 6.5 were the cumulative effects of all other stops (things like eating, bio breaks, shorts changes, etc.). My elapsed time pace was 12.08mph, and my riding pace was 13.9mph. My max speed was 51.3mph (descending the Glass Elevator on day 1). The total elevation gain over the 860 miles was over 40,000 feet, with the max altitude reached being 8,400ft (just before Durango). During the 3 days I consumed about 19,000 calories, which is about 270cal/hr, and I drank about 1364oz of fluid, which is about 19oz/hr. I also took about 10 ibuprofen during the course of the race. I ate 8 burritos, 2 slices of pizza, 2 cheeseburgers, several cans of beefaroni/ravioli, 1 can of chicken soup, some chicken nuggets, countless rice crispy squares, several Go-Gurts, lots of watermelon, 1 PayDay bar, at least 7 popsicles (2 the first day, 5 the second day), lots of water, V8, orange juice, iced tea, and iced mochas/coffee, and various other odds and ends throughout!

As for how I felt, it was certainly a roller coaster ride, but overall I would have to say that in many areas I had fewer problems at RAW than I’ve had at any of the 500 mile events I’ve done. Definitely my butt held up better than it has on any 500 mile event, so I think I’ve finally found a good shorts/saddle combo (Assos shorts, and a Selle Italia Diva Gel Flow saddle). I had absolutely no back or muscular skeletal issues – and my neck/shoulders didn’t get sore at all which I was quite shocked about! I had problems with my feet, but I think that was from having my shoes done up too tightly the first day. My hands got sore and went a bit numb, but not as badly as I’ve had on some other shorter rides. I accomplished something I’ve never accomplished before, and that was riding through not one, but two nights without any sleep (prior to RAW I’d never even made it through a single night without taking a nap).

So all of this combined begs the question that I’ve already been asked countless times since I finished RAW – “are you going to do RAAM next year?”. Well……I don’t see how I can’t toss my hat in the ring given how wildly successful RAW was on so many levels. I don’t know whether I would have had another 2000+ miles in my legs/mind/body, but I certainly wasn’t at my limit when I finished RAW. I had the mental breakdown the final morning, but I don’t think that would have happened had I taken a sleep break that night, which I would have done had I been racing RAAM instead of RAW. I’ve always pushed my limits and tried progressively longer and more difficult events while searching for my limits, and I didn’t find my limit at RAW, so the logical thing to do is to search for my limits on RAAM next year. There are a couple of things that would have to happen to make that possible though. First and foremost, I won’t ride RAAM if something isn’t done to address the unsafe stretches of road that I had to ride on in Arizona after Parker and before Tuba City. Second, I need the blessing of my husband (but I think that one’s in the bag since I’ve already asked him!). Third, I would need to put together a crew that’s as awesome as the one I had this year at RAW! I have some tentative commitments from a few folks, but RAAM is obviously a lot bigger commitment given that it spans 2 weeks instead of 4 days. I would definitely take each and every one of my RAW crew for RAAM if they were available! Anyway, if all the stars align just right, hopefully I’ll be on the RAAM starting line next June!!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how RAW became my gateway drug to RAAM!!! RAAM has been a pipe dream of mine for quite some time now, but until I finished RAW it seemed just too unfathomable and beyond my grasp. It’s still a HUGE challenge, and certainly not something with any guarantees – it is after all over 3 times as long as RAW! Plus you’re at the mercy of the weather conditions – this year we were pretty lucky – I could show up next year and it could be awful conditions – that’s just part of the lottery you enter when you commit to something like RAW or RAAM. But I’ve never felt so confident in terms of making the decision to attempt RAAM as I do now. So stay tuned as I hopefully begin this journey towards solo RAAM in 2012!!

In the meantime though, I’m going to savor the accomplishment of completing Race Across the West – no small feat on it’s own! I had a fantastic race, and truly enjoyed the overall experience. A final thanks to all of my crew and sponsors for helping me to achieve this goal!

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16 Responses to Race Across the West 2011 – The Gateway Drug to RAAM!

  1. Brian Verstegen says:


    Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Congratulations on this accomplishment and the recognition bestowed as a result. Next year RAAM!


  2. Roland Roth says:


    I am overwhelmed by your achievement. I do SF to LA every first week of June for the SF AIDS Foundation and find that to be some feat… and each night we get 15-16 hours of down time! What you’ve done is nothing short of remarkable. Congratulations, you deserve great praise. And having a good team behind you… well, they (and their burritos) are worth their weight in gold. You are very inspiring… keep up the good work!

    Roland (a classmate of your husbands in high school)

  3. Debbie Cain says:

    So so proud of you! Seems like a long long time ago when I accompanied you in your first double! That was my only one but you’ve gone and done remarkable feats! You should be proud. Loved the “Pepe part” of your story! Guess they will have to strategically place several skunks across the US next summer! Best of luck in all the rest of your long rides my good friend!
    Love, Deb

  4. Bill Osborn says:

    Joan, it was so wonderful seeing you at the finish! Congratulations on being the first woman to ever complete RAW, I can’t think of any other woman more deserving of such an honor. Keep in touch in regards to your plans next year. I know of at least three people that would be interested in crewing, one of which is me.

    Bill Osborn

  5. michele says:

    Well DOne Joan, I am thrilled and truly excited at the awsome success that has opened up your dream to become reality. Well Done!!!

  6. Rob Kraencke says:

    One word, awesome!
    Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Thanks for the inspiration; I never would have ridden a double if I had not met you.
    I wish you as many smooth roads and tailwinds as possible in your future.

  7. Bob Corman says:


    You are an inspiration as a rider, a writer, and a friend. Go ahead and find your limits.


  8. Bill Lytle says:

    Good on ya…you crazy pedal pusher…

  9. Larry M. says:

    Hi Joan,
    Pretty neat. If you wanted to stick to the shorter rides you could always pull Mike along in the Little Red Wagon.

  10. dan sauers says:

    how fast can a skunk run

    Nice write-up, Joan.
    Knowing some of your issues during previous long (but significantly shorter) endurance cycling races, I am amazed that you seemed to rip through this one without back, neck, shoulder aches, not to mention RAW butt syndrome!
    A truly awesome ride!

  11. Dale Adams says:

    Great job! makes me want to get out there and ride. I enjoyed your write up also.

  12. claudia says:

    amazing! how you made it through this intensity with almost no sleep is beyond my comprehension. you are certainly inspirational! thank you for sharing.

  13. Roy Benton says:

    Marvelous achievement for you & your crew! Thanks for sharing all the textured detail, which make the experience palpable for me & your other riding acquaintances. It’s a relief to hear that you’ve solved some of your physical issues. When I read your account, I felt myself smiling, seeing that you’re actually enjoying the experience, at so many levels.

  14. Alana Henrickson says:


    “Incredible”, is the only word that immediately comes to mind at the moment as I completed the reading of your RAW race report. You are an amazing athlete and cyclist, and so brave to descend at a speed of 51 mph! Wow! So glad you finished the ride safely, and with time and energy to spare. You’re definitely not a picky eater if you can stomach those gas station burritos! Knowing that, you’ll do fine in the RAAM…looking forward to reading that race report next year! Way to go, Joan, and congratulations!

  15. Wow Joan! You are such an inspiration! I’ve had the email of your write-up since June and haven’t had a chance to sit and read and enjoy your write-up til now. I’ve told several of my friends that I’m excited to read it, but with big commitments, I wanted to make sure to not have to rush through it. What a wonderful write-up. I just love how your support crew took care of you and you appreciated it and appreciated the scenery and the experience. That is a HECK of a lot of miles! I loved reading your story and huge CONGRATULATIONS on an incredible journey! Awesome! Cristin (Pinkie)

  16. Wayne Greenway says:

    Hi Joan,

    Always believe in yourself and your crew no matter how hard RAAM is.
    It’s the mental game that gets many racers. Not to trivialize the physical brutality of RAAM but very good hard core athletes drop while other less seasoned ones with good training and a determination finish.
    Reading your blog your physical game looks great!

    I wish you the best!
    Cherish the experience.
    It’s life changing.

    6th place overall RAAM 2001
    2nd place rookie.

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