Climbing Mountains and Making Memories at the Silver State 508
September 15-17, 2017
I am an ultra cyclist, and I proudly race for Team PHenomenal Hope. In 2017, my season culminated with my greatest challenge yet, the Silver State 508.
The Silver State 508 has been on my bucket list for years. It’s a 508-mile race in the Nevada desert, and competitors have to finish it in less than 48 hours. An epic event organized by ultra legend, Chris Kostman, the 508 is a true test of one’s grit and determination. One of its traditions is that it lists athletes not by names, but by their spirit animals. For years I’ve wanted to race as —who else?—Gingercat, after my own spirit animal, Presby, my sweet orange tabby of 12 years. The challenge was not to just to finish the race in less than 48 hours, but to prepare and train for it since I’m also a physician who is in my first year of a new position and also in a new home.
Once the decision was made to do this race, the training began. I embraced the work-hard-play-hard culture of my new home in Colorado, riding with colleagues and friends and participating in local rides and races. I literally rode in the Front Range or drove I-70 to ski towns to Vail Valley almost every weekend through the summer. Training for an event like this while also being a physician is challenging because you don’t really get recovery days. It’s full time at work, and then a full two days on the bike on the weekends. I’d signed up for the Mt. Evans Hill Climb and rode it post-call after a busy, sleepless night in ICU, which was actually perfect training for the 508. Labor Day Weekend, I stayed in Vail Valley and spent two days climbing on long-road rides in the mountains. It turns out my new hometown was the perfect place to ride and train for this event.
But, while I love riding my bike, this amount of training was extremely difficult. Training for ultra racing can feel isolating, because not many people can go ride more than eight hours a day with you, and when you’re done, you’re exhausted and need to recover (or get work done), so it ends up consuming much—almost all—of your free time.
That can lead to some mental challenges. You can lose willpower at times, which is what happened to me when I rode the Vail Octopus before Labor Day weekend. I went out there with a group of people, and after the fourth climb, I didn’t want to ride anymore. I didn’t care. I didn’t even care about the 508. I was sick of the bike. I ended up pulling the plug on the day. I stopped at a Farmer’s market for the first time all summer, ate ice cream, went home, and didn’t ride for a week. Afterwards, I was okay. You can have too much of a good thing, and it can lead to burnout on the bike. In ultra training, I think you skate that fine line at times, and luckily I did not fall over the edge and give up or get injured.
As I’ve said before, racing is truly a team effort, and it all comes down to who is in your crew van. After years of dreaming of the 508, months of training, and weeks of planning, it all came down to a few amazing days spent in the Nevada desert with three incredible crew members— Joe Knopinski, Peter Kochupura, and Greg Flood—plus our remote crew member and huge supporter, Julie Lyons, who brought this race to people through our social media, and our incredible support from Ornah Levy, Jonathan Broome, and Alison D’Souza and her family. Joe had been the crew chief of several Race Across America (RAAM) race teams for Love, Sweat and Gears and also had mentored Team PH when we were preparing for RAAM 2014. Now he’s a neighbor and friend here in Denver. Julie is a racer with Love, Sweat, and Gears and, similarly, a huge friend of Team PH and to me personally. She supported me throughout the prep and during the race. She also donated our rental wheels! Pete and Greg are great friends from Pittsburgh, who were both huge on the RAAM 2014 crew and the Race Across the West 2015 crew. Joe was the crew chief. As soon as the group all got together, they clicked. Each of them brought different perspective and focus to get us across Nevada and back. And all of them cracked me up. Seriously.
The night before the race was all prep—getting the van ready, doing a test ride, and passing inspection. With this veteran crew, we were in great shape. At dinner, I met up with Ornah, Jonathan, and Alison and her parents for a wonderful, relaxing pre-race dinner. We shared stories, and I felt humbled they drove out to support us in this race. Having them there reminded me why I was doing this race. Honestly, on Team PHenomenal Hope, we are a community. We are a family.
We started at six o’clock in the morning, leaving Reno and climbing up the first climb while it was still dark. The start was a neutral start to get out of town, and I enjoyed riding with Pam, the Silver Fox, chatting about our thoughts for the race. For the first part of the 508, the racers are without their crews, so I was riding in a line of bike lights winding up Geiger Pass. When the sun came up, we were at the peak and descended a long and steep descent down into the desert.
We raced on through towns, and when we passed through Fallon, home of one of the Navy’s Top Gun schools, we were awed by F-15 Eagle jets taking off and flying high above us into the sky until we couldn’t see them anymore. We raced through salt flats, which looked like beaches in the middle of the desert, and kept pushing up gorgeous Carroll Summit. It was getting late when we arrived in Austin, and I started wanting real food, somewhat out of hunger, but more out of being tired of UCan and Skratch mixes. I hadn’t been ready for a multi-day race in which you need food because all my training rides had been eight to 10 hours tops. But we grabbed Starbucks Sous Vide egg bites warmed in gas station microwaves and were right as rain.
We made it to the turnaround point in Eureka after ten o’clock at night. The hardest part of the race came on our return. I had hoped to get to Austin again before going down for sleep, but before midnight I was getting really tired, so we decided to take our sleep early, pulled over, put the bike on the roof rack, and went down for a 90-minute sleep, one REM cycle. We woke up before the alarm, and I got out on the bike, ready to go.
On the way back from Eureka, we met Ornah and Jonathan on the side of the road, in the cold, dark night. I remember hugging her in the headlights. My teeth were chattering, but my spirit warmed seeing her there.
We went on to Austin. It was cold, down close to freezing, but the climb up to Austin Summit (the highest part of the race) warmed me up. The descent, however, really threw me. As we descended down at more than 35 miles per hour, the cold was so intense that my whole body was shaking on my bike. My teeth were chattering, even though I had every possible layer of clothing on.
When we got to the flatland, we pulled over again, and I got into the van to warm up and eat. We brought up my core temp by holding the ends of my sleeves up to the heater, and then I got back on the road. The sun was starting to come up again, and another climb was ahead, so I’d be warm again soon.
The next climb was fantastic. I had new legs and felt great going up the mountain to Carroll Summit. We were getting close and had less than 150 miles to go. But this second-to-last stage would be the toughest. The salt flats outside of Fallon now seemed endless, and we also ran into fresh gravel and chip seal roads, which beat up both the bike and the cyclist. I struggled mentally at this point, so Joe and Pete started jumping out of bushes acting wacky and climbing onto the van roof along the side of the road along the way—anything they could to to make me laugh.
When we got to Fallon, we had ice cream treats and then—vroom —I got a new wind. The guys had to get gas for the van, so I just paced and tried to see how far I could go before they caught up to me. We were flying with less than 50 miles to go.
At about 25 miles to go, we started the climb back up Geiger Summit. At this point, I set an internal goal for us—to get up this mountain by six o’clock at night. The rules stated that at six you had to put lights on the bike, and I didn’t want to have to do it until we got to the top of the pass. The internal race was on. We needed to get up a ten-mile climb in about an hour. And this was quite the climb. There were steep sections (“steeps” as we would call them in Pittsburgh) that rivaled the grade of hills in Pittsburgh’s Dirty Dozen. These were the kinds of pitches where you’d have to stand and crank your bike from side to side and focus on one foot down in front of the other. If you stopped, the grade would make it impossible to get started again. So we climbed. And climbed. The guys yelled from the van and played music to motivate me. And we climbed. We approached and passed another rider walking his bike up the climb, which made us ride even harder. Ornah and Jonathan found us during this most difficult part of the climb, which again motivated me to get up the mountain.
At the top, I saw a turn to the right and knew we were getting closer to the main road where it would level out at least a little bit. When it did, it was all out cranking. We had about four miles to go and just under 15 minutes left. We had to push. I felt like I was flying, like my legs didn’t already have more than 490 miles in them. I literally redlined it to the mountain pass. When I pulled at the pass, the clock just hit six o’clock, and we all howled. We put the lights on the bike, added layers of clothes on my body, and then rode our final descent.
We flew down to Reno, and with about three miles to go, I had my first flat of the entire race. I hit a screw in the gutter of the road and got a puncture. We replaced the bike, and then pedaled to the finish. We finished in 37 hours, 50 minutes.
At the finish line, we saw Ornah and Jonathan, which again was completely incredible, celebrated with whiskey and beer, and basked in the satisfaction of finishing the race together.
It was an incredible ride last summer that culminated in the longest solo race of my life. But the part of the race I will remember most is that I did it with an amazing crew. With the support of family and friends all over the country, we raised over $7,500 to support the work of Team PHenomenal Hope and to help us race to make a difference in the lives of PH patients.
Thank you all for racing with us, for donating to support Team PHenomenal Hope, for helping us use events like this as lightning rods for PH awareness and the PH community, for your encouragement, inspiration, and for your thoughts and prayers. Thank you for joining us in our crew van. #The508 #SilverState508 #TeamPH #LetMeBeYourLungs #GingerCat
Special thank you to my race sponsors, including Reata, Bellerophon, Big Ring Cycles, and Love, Sweat and Gears.
Special, special thanks to Ornah, Alison, Jonathan, Rajive, and Kim. You are what this is all about.