Ohio RAAM Challenge… Year 2
Ohio RAAM Challenge 200-mile Race
Saturday, September 27, 2014
This time last year I competed in my first ultra-cycling event, the Ohio RAAM Challenge. It was the longest ride I’d ever done, and my first taste of riding over half the day, with a crew navigating a course and keeping me going. And it was a blast. That race helped me realize that Team RAAM would be an incredible experience, which it indeed was.
After RAAM, however, it was time to rest. And time, perhaps to move on. Back to work, maybe stay off the bike for awhile, maybe not don the kit for awhile. Just take time to recover from the whole experience – physical, emotional and so forth. In cycling there is a syndrome called over-training. Athletes can push themselves so hard that they get diminishing returns. Push to increase fitness and workload too quickly, and you overtrain, risk injury physically or mentally, and feel like crap. So I purposely took time off the bike and away from the team scene for a bit. But then this idea came into my mind. After a couple of months of not riding I realized I was feeling kind of empty, and that it was time to turn the pedals again. To train and push myself again. To test limits. To race for PHA again. To race for my team again (I often think of my teammates and crew mates from when I ride.) To race for myself again. To get my focus back on the bike that would help energize my work and life as well.
The questions became: Could I get ready for a solo 200-mile race in about a month? Would it still be fun? And what kind of shape was I in? Could I beat my time last year? My own personal RAAM challenge, well, consider it accepted.
I finally snapped myself out of this recovery-phase-almost-turning-into-a-funk on August 30 at a Labor Day weekend brevet ride. This was a test ride to see if I still could do the distance not only physically but mentally. It was a ride that I knew would hurt but would get me back. After 8 weeks off from training, this was the couch-to-300km that shook me back onto the bike, with heat and humidity that made me tell myself “Okay, RAAM is over, it’s okay if the season is over too. It’s almost September. You can do other things now.” And then when it was over, when I pulled into the last check point I realized that ride was truly mind-over-matter, and then the matter totally changed my mind. I was back.
So the next ride would be a return to the New Jersey for the Gran Fondo New Jersey, my favorite gran fondo from last year. And it did not disappoint this year. I treat the weekend as a weekend vacation, relaxing car trip listening to an audiobook (this year I was inspired by Chrissie Wellington’s A Life Without Limits), then riding a ride with thousands of people through the beautiful New Jersey Highlands. Ride went well. I started getting my nutritional strategy back. The distance and climbing was a bit of a hurt still (bouncing back from the recovery period), but overall it went well.
The next weekend I rode at home, then a final riding weekend with my friend Jim in his hometown, Johnstown. We rode 75 miles on Saturday, and 55 miles on Sunday. He ripped my legs off on Saturday, and somehow I put them back on on Sunday. Again, doubting a little whether I’d be able to ride. But like RAAM, you sometimes come back the second day a little stronger and surprise yourself. I had a couple of shorter fitness tests in the midweek periods in between that indicated I just might be better off than I thought I’d be, so I was ready. As ready as I’d be, for the Ohio race.
As the week leading up to the race sped by I felt myself getting excited. First endurance race since RAAM. I’d see my folks who agreed to crew for me again this year. We were going to have fun. We converged in Dublin, they from Illinois and I from Pittsburgh, got the car ready with race number, flashers, etc, and passed inspection. We saw Lee Kreider, one of my favorite people, as well as old friends from last year’s RAAM Challenge and RAAM. Then at the check-in with Fred and Rick Boethling, Jon Reiling, Jim Harms I felt myself getting pumped for Saturday. I heard about half of what they said I think. That night I could not sleep. At first I was so “freakin’ excited to race.” And then after I laid down I kept worrying my headlight battery wouldn’t charge (it did), or that I’d oversleep (I didn’t). But I’d done the sleep-deprivation-prior-to-racing before, so I didn’t let the < 3.5 hours of sleep rattle me. At 3:40AM I got up, got dressed and met my folks soon after to head to the starting line. Breakfast: black coffee and a packet of Justin’s almond butter. 200 calories. Ready to go. Thank goodness we’d gotten Chipotle late the night before.
It doesn’t matter the athlete you were yesterday, nor who you want to be tomorrow. What matters is the athlete you are today.
Last year’s goal had been to finish. I had one goal this year going into the race: Ride fast and beat last year’s time (13h 12min). My crew and I knew the course, and knew that there was a lot of climbing and rollers, mostly in the 2nd half. The weather predicted a high in the low 80s in the afternoon, so my race plan was to actually go out fast, get in a sub-6-hour century, and then go from there.
At the countdown at the start I felt that same sense of excitement at the beginning of an ultra race. That feeling of here we go, let’s see what happens. As we went off, I started chasing the red tail lights on the vehicles ahead of me. Illuminated rabbits to chase and pace at night. With just coffee in my stomach and the almond butter, I started sipping the liquid mix of Generation UCan, Jarrow Whey protein and almond oil early in my ride. Good calories, not a lot, but steady fuel to keep the energy going in the right direction.
The first 70 or 80 miles flew by – and so did many racers. It was a FAST group this year. Many were really cruising. I rode for a bit of back-and-forth with the leader (and eventual winner) of the 400-miler, Kristen Jukowski from Michigan, super nice racer and super STRONG. She eventually dropped me going into time station 2 (and also went on to win the 400-mile race, setting a new women’s 400-mile course record). I also found myself join back and forth with an accomplished strong triathlete named Carmen Vega, who drove up to Ohio from Kentucky. She is a talented triathlete who has taken top spots in several triathlons and was taking on her first ultra race. She is a lean climbing machine on a TT bike, and also – by the way – totally sweet. I’d get ahead of her, then she’d climb by me dancing on the pedals like I was pulling a piano behind me. We’d back and forth for awhile then I lost her up in the distance. There were these guys as well who were racing the 200-km race unsupported and were oh-my-goodness strong. The final ~20 miles of the race began to have some climbs, and by the time my team rolled into time station 2, I was feeling it. I took a brief break, fueled, shed my layers, got some sunscreen and we were off. Time to get to the second half of the course. By now my friendly competitor Carmen was ahead of me on the course. I told myself, “Just ride your own race,” and I pushed myself, but with just under 100 miles to go, it definitely was not going to be a sprint.
I also remembered we were approaching my favorite section from the course. A flat section with smooth, uncongested roads in a quiet valley illuminated by fall foliage. And to my surprise as we turned the corner to head to this section, I saw Carmen’s support truck. Again somehow we were back together, and more of the back and forth, though this time I’d see my crew leapfrog ahead of me, and then her support car come into sight for a bit. So I leap frogged with her crew vehicle, and picked up my speed. She was somewhere – and not very far – behind me and sure to catch up. “Ride your own race, PG. Don’t blow yourself up.” Although I started the race just racing one person – my 2013 self – and found out now I was racing a second person, who was also stronger than my 2013 self. This was fun. “Pace yourself, PG, but keep on pushing.”
I remembered Chrissie Wellington saying in her book about how the mind limits us. When it detects pain it protects us by telling the body to stop whatever is causing the pain. So when my feet started burning – the dreaded metatarsalgia – it became a game of overcoming the mind. And for the first time in a long time I was on a long long ride totally focused on the present moment. When you ride and race the mind can easily wander as you do anything repetitive. But on this day I was focused on maintaining my speed, going fast on the descents, conserving but staying steady on the climbs, riding consistently. Fueling, hydrating, taking in salt tablets. Focused. Many ultra cyclists claim there is actually bliss not only in the ride but in the pain, and in the focus it takes to overcome the pain. (Clarification: My decision-making and actions in ultra cycling are in no way an endorsement of extreme ignoring-the-body’s safety signals. As a physician, I always advocate listening to one’s body and not pushing to dangerous limits. In actuality, ultra endurance athletes do this too, but we push the bar a little further than what most would call rational and sometimes a little bit further than what is considered safe. It isn’t – nor should it be – for everyone.)
My crew and I continued through the course, going after rabbits in the distance (riders who had passed me early on and became a carrot for the mind to pace and chase on the rolling hills of Ohio). My mom kept refilling water bottles (I was going through about one an hour) and food bottles (one every 2-2.5 hours), and kept me going strong. I kept doing the math on my pace and distance left and started to pick up my pace in the final 50 miles wondering how close I’d get to 12 hours… “Drill it. Just drill it. Let’s go,” I told myself. It was going to be close.
With about 10 miles to go we ran into insane traffic, and I lost sight of my crew vehicle. I had an idea where the course was, but they were keeper of the cue sheets, so I slowed, soft pedaled and called them. My mom, the crew chief and navigator, talked to me as they caught up to me. Somehow I had gotten ahead of them on course. With about six to go we picked up the pace again, and rolled into the finish line. After the traffic at the end rattled my crew a little bit, I saw their relief at finishing safely. There is always that feeling of relief when ultra events are over – for racer and crew. And we achieved the goal, besting last year’s time by about 40 minutes. I was surprised that I finished first among the women. Honestly it was not by much, and on any other Saturday with these women, it may have ended differently for sure.
Amazing Superwomen and Sports(wo)manship
Here is the story of my amazing two competitors who came in just 28 minutes later. Somewhere after the valley and before time station 3, Carmen’s crew vehicle got in a small accident with someone who came up in her blind spot. Everyone including her driver was okay, but the vehicle unable to be driven. So Carmen found another woman, Pascale Lercangee, another superwoman from Ohio who was racing this 200-mile race unsupported. Again, this means no crew to give her water bottles, refill food bottles, or tell her where to turn. She had to stop to call in her own times at the time stations, get water at the gas stations and places when needed, and carry enough on her to keep her fueled during the race. About a third of the field was unsupported, but to be so competitive and fast without crew… well this means she is a serious athlete! And Rick Boethling told me about her Ultra Marathon Cycling Association. She came in 1st in the 24-hour UMCA 24-hour Overall standings, winning the 24-hour races in Bike Sebring, the National 24-hour Challenge, and the Mid-Atlantic 24. She is amazing, and a TRUE good sportswoman. As Carmen was now without crew, but with a huge amount of determination to finish the race, she asked Pascale if she could trail her to get to the finish. Riding without navigation, her only hope was to have a rider help guide her into the finish. Of course Pascale did, and – without drafting of course – the two of them finished the Ohio RAAM Challenge, smiling. I was inspired hearing their stories. We all chatted after the race, shared our experiences, smiled and laughed, and celebrated together at the finish a great day of racing.
Reflections in a state of post-race endorphins
This race again surpassed expectations. I relished being on the bike, racing in this focused blissful state, enjoying the Fall weather, working together with my team, riding in a super strong field, and celebrating with a feeling of relief at the finish. Sincere thanks to my folks for crewing for me a 2nd year straight, to my coach Jim Bruskewitz who got me race-ready in a short amount of time and continues to fuel the fire for cycling, to our sponsor Big Bang Bicycles for last minute same-day repairs to the bike including a new chain, new fancy bar tape, and a tune-up to get it race-ready, to my friends for their words of support, and to the RAAM Challenge officials and organizers who run a top notch series.
Congratulations to all the finishers of the Ohio RAAM Challenge. It is an honor to ride with such neat people. And oh, did I mention? Bike racing is fun.
And the season is not quite over…