In case you missed it:
RAAM Race Report – Part I, Tapering: More Dangerous than Training!
And now for Part II….
I signed up for RAAM because of how successful my Race Across the West (RAW) experience had been in 2011, so going into RAAM I expected the first 3rd to be relatively “easy peasy” (at least as easy as cycling 860 miles can be!) – after all, I’d already done this section a year earlier (and been very successful with it), and now I was in even better shape so I was going to rock this thing! I fully expected that there was a good chance that I’d get to Durango faster than I had the year before (my conservative estimate was +/- 6hrs). Well the first rule of RAAM is to expect the unexpected, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when things didn’t go according to plan. In hindsight, I was lucky to even get out of California let alone make it all the way across the country!
The start of the race went fairly smoothly, although it was a bit of a whirlwind of activity to get down to the starting line on time race morning. When we got to the start I was surprised but thrilled to be greeted by Erin and Jimmy. I’d met Erin when doing Race Across Oregon in 2009, and she was one of my bridesmaids at my wedding. She’s a very cool person, talented athlete, and gifted writer (she currently writes for Outside magazine). So I was ecstatic to see her before I started my RAAM journey.
I also had the privilege to meet Dex Tooke at the start. I’d followed his 2 RAAMs and been inspired by his tales of RAAM and his positive attitude. He was there to crew for Mike Wilson this year.
As we made our way to the start chute, I got to meet an ultra-cycling legend who I’m honored to call a friend – Seana Hogan. She’s the most winningest RAAM rider of all time (male or female) and she holds countless ultra cycling records. I got to know Seana this past year on Facebook, and then in the spring she was gracious enough to invite me to join her at her home for a training weekend. She provided a lot of great advice and support and encouragement as I prepared for RAAM. This is one of the coolest aspects of ultra-cycling – you get to interact with the legends of the sport – it’s a very open and supportive community of folks!
I then met up with Cassie Schumacher and Janet Christiansen – 2 of the other solo women racers. I’d met and ridden with Cassie in the spring at Seana’s training weekend, and I know Janet from the California Triple Crown double century circuit – we’ve met on a couple of doubles. Both are extremely classy women and it was an honor to race with them!
Then I got to share a moment with my husband, Mike, which was pretty emotional for both of us. He’s been there and supported me every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done RAAM without him. In fact I was contemplating giving up ultra-cycling just before I met him.
Soon enough it was time to hit the starting line, and I got my obligatory interview with race director George Thomas before he counted me down for my start.
Before I knew it I was on my way, and the journey that I’d prepared so long and hard for was underway! The first part of the course is a parade zone on a bike path, and then after that there are a series of some shorter climbs before hitting the main climb up Palomar Mountain. As we left the coast, the temperature rose steadily and the coastal fog was replaced by bright sun.
The climb up to Lake Henshaw was tough in the heat, and I was starting to feel my lower back tighten up – this was NOT a good sign…. I assumed that this was related to the saddle changes that we’d made prior to the race (see Part I of this race report series for details on that), and my body not being quite used to the subtle differences. I arrived at Time Station #1 at Lake Henshaw finally though, about 20 minutes slower than my time from last year.
The only vehicle with me at this point was the follow vehicle, and my physiotherapist, Tracey, wasn’t with us – I hadn’t scheduled her to be in follow because who would have thought that I’d have needed her this soon in the race!!! I told Mike that I was going to need to stop and see Tracey as soon as we got to Borrego Springs (that’s where all the other crew and vehicles had gone forward to) and that I would probably also do a saddle change there and go back to my old saddle. Having lower back pain this early in the ride was a bad sign, and I wanted to address the problem as soon as possible. As I moved forward, my brain was starting to go into panic mode – we were barely off the starting line and things seemed to be falling apart. We got to Borrego Springs and I stopped and Tracey went to work on my lower back while Mike and some of the others worked to change my saddle/seat-post.
Soon I was on my way again, and although the positioning did feel better, I could still feel the tightness in my back, especially when I went into my aerobars. The next section was a long, fairly flat section which was ideal for riding in the aerobars, so I wanted to take advantage of the more aero position, but I experienced pain and couldn’t generate as much power in that position. As we went down the road and things didn’t seem to get much better, I once again stopped and got Tracey to look at things. Fortunately the follow vehicle was off filling with gas, so errand vehicle was supporting me, and that’s where Tracey was.
I had not met Tracey prior to RAAM, but she came highly recommended from the UltraMan community in Penticton, BC, and my phone/email conversations with her indicated that I was going to be in good hands. Not only is she a physiotherapist, but she also does ART and acupuncture, so she has a large tool box to work with. Also, the fact that she’s an ultra athlete herself (having completed many Ironmans, and 2 UltraMans) meant that she understands how ultra sports impact the body. After interacting with her for a few days in the lead up to the race, I was even more confident that she was going to be “the bomb” out there, and that I’d certainly lucked out in terms of getting her on my crew!
Here we were barely into the race, and already she was being put to work. I stopped again and expressed my frustration, panic, and concern about what was happening. She was very calm and reassuring, and set about trying to help me with the problems. She did some ART/massage, and then did a bit of acupuncture. She also lowered my saddle just a tiny bit (did I mention she’s also a certified Reutl bike fitter!). I continued on, and things felt a bit better, but I decided to stay out of aero position to give my body a bit of time to adjust to the new position and to not put additional stress/strain on it by forcing the more aggressive position. It was frustrating to have to hold back on this stretch of road somewhat because I knew we should be trying to hammer through the desert at night while it was cooler, but I also knew that I needed to get my lower back calmed down or we wouldn’t make it out of California let alone to Maryland!
I continued to ride through the night, and although we were behind our schedule from last year, we seemed to be making good progress. We stopped just before sunrise to change shorts and I had the breakfast of champions – a Hot Pocket and an iced mocha! There would be plenty more Hot Pockets consumed during the day – naturally warmed by the hot desert sun! I watched the sunrise somewhere just before we passed into Arizona.
It was a pleasant temperature in the morning, so I tried to take advantage of this and push a bit harder since I knew that as the day wore on it was going to get miserably hot. We got to Parker, Arizona at 11:06 EDT, about an hour and fifteen minutes off my pace from RAW last year. Even though we were through here later, it didn’t feel quite as hot yet, so I was hopeful that maybe it wasn’t going to get quite as hot this year (this was wishful thinking!!).
We headed out from Parker towards Hope. The winds weren’t as bad as last year (last year there was a fairly stiff headwind on this section), but the roads were as bad or worse than I remembered! I was using leg coolers, arm coolers, white shorts, and a light colored jersey to help combat the heat. I was also using ice socks wrapped around my neck.
The last 20 miles or so into Hope seemed brutal – the rough road and heat were really starting to take their toll on me. I was glad to turn towards Salome and get “Beyond Hope”! I stopped in Salome at the market briefly to use the facilities and down a popsicle. Unfortunately we were never able to find the Mexican brand rice pudding like popsicles that I ate so many of during RAW last year.
Then it was on towards Congress, a desert oasis with a wading pool which I knew was going to be my first significant rest off the bike. The stretch from Salome to Congress felt hotter than it had last year, although thankfully the rough road didn’t seem to bother my feet quite as much. I’d done a good job of keeping my shoes super loosely done up, so this allowed my feet room to breathe and prevented some of the foot pain I’d had at this point last year. It was so hot on the way to Congress that the ice socks my crew gave me would only seem to last about 10min and I would need a new one. They were kept busy leap frogging me and providing ice socks, ice water (to pour on my leg coolers and arm coolers), and nutrition (a lot of Gogurts and some of Wayne’s homemade macaroons were the food of choice on this section). Along this section I began getting the first signs of what was to be my next physical problem – my right IT band. I started to notice a radiating pain down the outside of my right lower leg as I tried to push down on the pedals. It wasn’t bad yet, and seemed to go away after I got moving again after a break, but little did I know this was going to be the next hurdle to overcome. We finally pulled into Congress at 19:09 EDT, which was only 19min slower than last year – not bad considering that earlier in the day I was over an hour and a half off pace from last year, so clearly I’d made up some time during the day.
I immediately hopped off the bike and made my way into the inviting wading pool that the Bullshifters bike club from Phoenix who run this time station had setup.
I ate a cheeseburger while sitting in the pool, and then my crew took me into a hotel room to shower and get ready for my first sleep break. It felt great to take a quick shower and get out of my bike clothes for a bit. I went and laid down in the back of the errand van and tried to go to sleep while Tracey began to work on me. She put some acupuncture needles in my feet and forehead to help me relax – although apparently I’m pretty good at relaxing on my own and was out like a light (as was to be the case for all of my sleep breaks). Throughout the race Tracey was able to massage and stretch me out while I slept.
After my 2hr sleep break my crew got me dressed and ready to go again, and soon I was on the road towards Yarnell Grade.
As I headed out, my right IT band was still pretty tight, but I tried to ease into riding in order to get it warmed up. This worked ok for about the first half of the climb, and I was feeling pretty good – then all of a sudden it just tightened up again and every pedal stroke I took I felt radiating pain on my right lower leg and wasn’t able to generate any power. I didn’t want to stop on the climb, afraid that I might not get going again, so I tried to push through it. The last couple of miles on the climb I basically had to pedal one-legged using only my left leg to exert any force since the right leg was so painful. I was able to pull up on the pedal stroke with the right, but couldn’t put any downward pressure on the pedal. I wanted to stop at the top and get Tracey to look at things, but Isabelle wanted me to continue down the descent, saying that it would loosen up then. I did the descent and some of the rollers afterwards, but it didn’t really help at all. Again, we weren’t even half way to Durango yet and I was starting to panic in my head – why wasn’t my body cooperating!!! I’d gone through a full year of training with essentially NO physical problems like this!! Why now was everything falling apart at the seams???
Finally I was able to see Tracey, and she worked on my IT band and tried to loosen it up. She used “the stick”, and I can’t remember if she used some acupuncture as well, but whatever she did, as I got going again it slowly started to feel better. The climb up towards Prescott went much better than Yarnell did in that I didn’t have to do it one-legged. The rollers along the ridge line were as never ending as I remembered from last year though.
Somewhere along the ridge line I got a hankering for some of the beef barley soup that I know we had packed. I thought it would be perfect to stop in Prescott briefly and down some soup quickly while having Tracey quickly work on the IT band again to ensure it was ready for the next climb. I didn’t want to take a long break, but I did want to “recharge” before the next climb, because I remember that the next climb was one that I struggled with sleepiness on last year, and I was trying to figure out a game plan that would prevent that from happening again. A “comfort food” power stop can do miracles in terms of perking me up, so I told Isabelle that this is what I wanted to do, and she agreed. The thought of that soup waiting for me in Prescott really motivated me to power through the remaining rollers on the ridge line.
Then we got down into Prescott though and I was told we weren’t allowed to stop – we had to keep going, and maybe we’d stop at the base of the climb. Wtf!!!! Was no one listening to me?? Stopping at the base of the climb given the issues I was having with my IT band sounded like a recipe for disaster – I wanted to have some time to get/keep it loosened up before the climb – stopping right before the climb was definitely not something I wanted to do. And as for the soup, well typically my cravings are pretty good indications of what my body wants/needs right now, and right now it had its sights set on some condensed beef barley soup!! Everything that the crew started offering me instead just didn’t have any appeal. Not to mention the fact that I’d spent the last 15+ miles looking forward to that soup and using it as a motivator. I was not a happy camper to say the least! Then we hit a bunch of miserable road construction that I had to ride through, and I was just getting angrier and angrier. My stomach was churning and for the first time I started to feel a bit nauseous.
I recognize that once the race starts I’m no longer in charge, and decisions are made by others, but I at least like to be told the reasons for certain decisions – if there’s a good reason for it, then I’m more than happy to oblige – just don’t lie to me or keep me completely out of the loop. I was planning to not stop before the climb, terrified that my IT band would tighten up again, but unfortunately I had to go to the bathroom and was feeling upset to my stomach, so I did have to pull over. I was really upset at this point and didn’t know how to convey my frustration.
In hindsight, this was the first sign that perhaps things were not going to go well with my crew chief, and that we just weren’t a good match (on it’s own, this isolated incident is fairly normal for RAAM, but unfortunately it wasn’t the last such incident and things eventually became much worse). The last thing I needed was conflict on my crew, much less with the crew chief, but as I’ve said before, it’s RAAM – you have to expect the unexpected, deal with it, and move on, no matter how ugly things may get (remember that RAAM is a stressful situation and everyone is operating in a sleep deprived mode, so emotions can run high). The relationship between rider and crew chief is very important, and it’s something that is hard to predict until you’re actually out there doing the race. If things don’t work out, it doesn’t mean that either person is a “bad person” – it just means that you’re not compatible for this kind of situation. Everyone has their own philosophies and ways of doing things, and what works for one person won’t work for someone else. I want to take this opportunity to express just how honored I was that Isabelle gave up 2 weeks of her life to come and be my crew chief, and say that I’m really sorry that things between us didn’t work out. I want to thank Isabelle for inspiring me to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Hopefully some good will come of all the fundraising that we did (as of the time that I’m writing this, we’ve raised over $13,500).
Anyway, we finally got on the road again and made it to the top of the climb – I didn’t get as sleepy on the climb as I did last year, but I definitely did once we started descending. Just like last year, I had to stop a few times on the descent to wake myself up because I could feel myself nodding off. We finally pulled into Cottonwood at 7:53 EDT – a full 3hrs off my pace from last year. Part of this was due to a longer sleep break in Congress, and part of it was due to the issues I had with my IT band. I was frustrated that we were this far off pace already, but given how exhausted I felt I was glad when I heard that I was going to get another sleep break in Cottonwood before pressing on to Flagstaff.
After another REM cycle of sleep in Cottonwood, I hit the road heading towards Sedona and Flagstaff. The crew wasn’t allowed to direct follow me though, and after getting me out of town they disappeared back into town to refuel or something. Of course Murphy’s Law, as soon as I was on my own with no crew in sight, BAM, I got a rear flat. I had no seat bag on my bike anymore, so I couldn’t even work to change it myself. Fortunately the crew showed up within a few minutes, got me a spare wheel, and I was on my way again.
The ride around Sedona is pretty spectacular. It felt warmer than when I’d ridden this section last year, but that was probably due to the fact that we were several hours later coming through. The crew stopped and got me breakfast at McDonalds in Sedona – the breakfast sandwich, potato patty, and orange juice tasted heavenly! Then there was the steeper climb up to Flagstaff – I was hot and tired, but managed to get up it. On the rollers into Flagstaff I concocted in my mind what I wanted my next meal to be – I wanted some KFC drumsticks and a strawberry milkshake from Dairy Queen! I let the crew know, and they assured me that they would oblige – woohoo! There was a bit of tough navigating through a detour in Flagstaff, then a long, busy stretch through town with a lot of semis – I was having flashbacks of this road last year when I felt so unsafe with semis tearing by me. We stopped at the McDonalds near the time station so that I could do a shorts change and deal with some butt issues in preparation for the next stretch which was going to include what would hopefully be a long, fast downhill – I wanted to feel fresh and comfortable to be able to pedal through this section and make good time. I scarfed down a KFC drumstick before hitting the road again.
I was extremely happy that I was going to be allowed direct follow on this section this year – it was probably the most unsafe section last year without direct follow allowed. There was one little climb out of town, and then the long downhill started. Unfortunately I got another flat part way down the downhill. We stopped and changed wheels again, and the follow vehicle ferried the flatted wheel to errand vehicle so that they could change it since they had the bike tools. The rest of this stretch was fairly uneventful, although it was HOT! My bike computer was reading temps that were a degree or two hotter than I’d seen the day before on the stretch between Parker and Congress. We stopped at a gas station for a bathroom stop at one point, and while we were stopped Janet passed us (we’d been going back and forth with each other throughout the race). When I got back on the road and saw her out in front, she was a bit of a carrot to keep me going. Shortly after the turn towards Tuba City I caught up with her, and since I was climbing a bit faster than she was I passed her just before Tuba City. Seeing another racer on the road always provides a bit of extra motivation. We arrived in Tuba City at 20:51 EDT, almost a full 4.5hrs slower than my pace last year. Last year we’d got to see Monument Valley just at dusk, and I’d really wanted to see it in the daylight again this year (in fact I was hoping we’d get there a bit earlier even), but clearly it wasn’t going to happen. Instead of watching the sun set in Monument Valley we watched the sun set just outside of Tuba City.
On the stretch between Tuba City and Kayenta we had our next unexpected bump in the road – a car rear ended the follow vehicle. Thank goodness the car hit the vehicle and not me! Willy and Isabelle were in the follow vehicle, and Tracey and Wayne were in the errand vehicle. They quickly turned me over to errand vehicle so that I could proceed down the road while they called the police and waited for that situation to be sorted out. The spare bikes were on the back of the follow and got rear-ended, but it seems like only the one wheel on the Trek was damaged (the rim was bent). Wayne, Tracey, and I proceeded to Kayenta, and follow didn’t catch up with us until there, then they still had to deal with some issues so errand continued to follow me as I entered Monument Valley. There was a nice tail wind and I felt like I was moving along pretty well.
At this point some butt issues that I was having were really starting to get pretty serious. The problems started shortly after Prescott and then intensified in the run up to Flagstaff. Many of the stops from Flagstaff onwards took more time as we tried to deal with these issues. This was to be the start of a couple of days of significant unpleasantness until we finally found a system/routine that seemed to keep things in check. Again, this was something I had NOT had to deal with at RAW last year – sure, my butt had gotten a bit sore at times, but nothing like what I was experiencing this year. Just one more unexpected problem (or at least unexpected this soon) to deal with. To quote the French – “c’est la vie”! Or perhaps it should be “c’est la RAAM”!
Anyway, we stopped in Monument Valley to try and deal with the issue enough to get us to Bluff, Utah where we had a hotel and where we’d be next stopping. I climbed out of Monument Valley and then proceeded towards Mexican Hat, Utah. The sun came up on the way to Mexican Hat, so I actually got to see Mexican Hat this year (last year it was all in the dark). After Mexican Hat there was some pretty spectacular scenery as we headed towards Bluff – again, this was all new to me since we’d covered this ground in the dark last year. I got to see the Valley of the Gods which was really spectacular. We plugged away, and as my butt got worse and worse I found myself just standing out of the saddle for really long periods of time. I credit all the work at Integrate Performance Fitness at the winter spin classes that Liza Rachetto taught for preparing me for this – I did one stretch of about 15 miles all out of the saddle!
I’m not sure what time we finally arrived in Bluff, but it was a couple hours after sunrise, and already warming up outside. I got to shower, clean up, eat, and take a sleep break before heading out again. When we headed out from Bluff it was already quite warm, and it proceeded to get hotter and hotter….. Having gone through this section in the dark last year, I wasn’t expecting the heat. We passed through Montezuma Creek, and then made the turn onto the road that last year was a gravel road – thank goodness it was paved this year!!! This whole section felt much tougher than last year – probably because of the heat. I got the crew to put on some “heavy” music to help get me through it – I listened to Eminem, Green Day, Creed, Peal Jam, and others on this stretch as I tried to channel my anger and frustration into turning the pedal cranks. Somewhere along here we finally caught up to Janet again (she’d gone through Tuba City while we were stopped, and I hadn’t seen her since). It looked like she was taking a sleep break on the side of the road. Along this stretch the errand vehicle also started trying to entertain me by dressing up in costumes and doing silly things on the side of the road – this was a welcome distraction! Mike even donned the infamous coconut bra and grass skirt!
We continued on, and I was oh so happy when we finally crossed into Colorado – it was still stinkin’ hot, but the temperature did drop a degree or two. The terrain also changed and we started passing more farmlands. I changed from the “heavy” music playlist to some country music. Somewhere just inside of Colorado I also picked up a new friend – a ladybug landed on my shorts and stayed with me for a while. I took this as a sign of good luck and let it stay there. I also noticed that my butt was feeling a little bit itchy – I took this as a good sign too – hopefully it meant that some healing was going on!
The stretch of road in Colorado leading up to Cortez is rolling, and I was still trying to alternate standing and sitting to give both my butt and my feet some rests (both were pretty sore). The last 15-20 miles into Cortez were a real struggle though – my feet were extremely sore, and my butt wasn’t much better. We didn’t want to stop before Cortez though, so we kept pushing along, even though it was at a snails pace. I’m pretty sure there were some tears shed along this stretch of road… I can’t remember if these were the first, but they certainly weren’t the last!
We finally got to Cortez at 19:00 EDT – a full 9.5hrs off my pace from last year. This time last year I was already in Durango, we’d attended the awards banquet, and we were getting ready to go to dinner – far cry from where we were this year! I asked for a tuna sub from Subway which the crew jetted off to get while I was doing another shorts change at a gas station. They also got me another Dairy Queen strawberry milkshake – mmmm! All of this made me feel much better as I left Cortez. The temperature was also cooling off, and I was able to enjoy the beautiful scenery between Cortez and Durango. I felt better than I had all day, and was able to do the climbs at a steady pace. I also didn’t seem to notice the altitude as much as I had last year – perhaps because it was cooler since we were passing through much later in the day. And the antics of the crew continued – the “hula girl” made another appearance, this time with reflective vest and ankle bands!
We got to the summit of the last climb before Durango just around sunset, and we stopped quickly so that I could put on some warmer clothes for the fast descent into Durango. We got into Durango just at dark at 23:23 EDT, 9.5hrs later than I had last year at RAW. Wow. And that was supposed to be the “easy” part!!! Mind you I slept a lot more this year than I did last year – last year I only slept for 2.5hrs total on this stretch, this year I think I slept for about 5.5hrs, so that accounts for some of the difference, but the list of adversity we faced in this first section that slowed us down (but didn’t stop us!!) is quite impressive – lower back pain, IT band issues, butt issues, follow car rear-ending, some rider/crew-chief conflict, and relentless triple digit heat every single day. If this was how RAW had gone last year, then I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have signed up for RAAM – funny how things like this work out!
As we reached Durango and I contemplated all of this, I didn’t know what to expect going forward – I was certainly hoping that things would get better, but I knew that on some level things would continue to get more difficult from this point just given how far we’d already come and the cumulative miles and sleep deprivation that I was experiencing. I was glad that we made it to Durango 6.5hrs before the cutoff, but I’d hoped to have a much bigger cushion, so I knew I had my work cut out for me to make the subsequent cutoffs at the Mississippi River and at the finish.
Continue reading about RAAM in the next installment:
RAAM Race Report – Part III: Mississippi Ho!