Seeking Ultra – Ohio RAAM Cycling Challenge
This year the race schedule was much different than in years past. Since joining Team PH, I have been “seeking ultra,” choosing events with longer distances than road races I’d done in the past. About two months ago I decided that my ultimate race this summer would be the Ohio RAAM Cycling Challenge, a 200-mile race in Dublin, Ohio – less than 4 hours from Pittsburgh. My longest ride ever had been the Diabolical Double, at 130 miles with 17,000+ feet of climbing. If I could just manage to get the training in with work pressures, and tune my nutrition, I thought maybe this was within reach. I nervously queried my coach, Jim Bruskewitz, and when he agreed this was a good goal to reach for, well I was in. Something inside me just wanted to get out and do this. As legendary ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek says, “Sometimes you just do things.”
Jim filled up my training calendar with workouts and weekend rides were either gran fondos (100+ mile events) to stretch the milage. I found I enjoy these events – it is fun to ride with new folks (one highlight was riding with George Hincapie at the Gran Fondo NJ for a bit), and see new parts of the country. From Deep Creek to New Jersey to Annapolis, I enjoyed riding several of these events. Later in the summer, as daylight shortened, I changed my workout schedule to ride in the early mornings before cars hit the road. When I was rounding in the hospital on a more fixed schedule with 12-14 hour workdays, I commuted by bike to get in at least 10 miles each day. In the weeks leading up to the race I shifted my workout schedule to mornings. Donned in many watts of lights on helmet and bike, I enjoyed taking to the city streets at 5AM before Pittsburgh awoke and before cars were out on the road. In addition to filling up my training calendar, as always my coach Jim was the steady voice when I’d email about missing workouts because work ran long that day or feeling nervous because my 60-min power was X on this date versus when it was Y back in May (yeah, pre-race jitters in a scientist combing through her own data, it happens). I truly appreciate my coach, and knew that once it came to the day I would have to just trust in the training and preparation and enjoy the race.
As for nutrition, well that has been a project approximately 3 months in the making. It was my experience of the “bonk” and intense carb craving in Deep Creek that led me to experiment with nutrition, and ultimately led me to a new place in cycling. In a bold move contrary to popular endurance fueling, some of my teammates had adopted a new nutritional strategy called No Sugars No Grains (NSNG), advocated by celebrity coach and ultra-endurance athlete, Vinnie Tortorich, author of best-selling book Fitness Confidential and co-host with Anna Vocino of America’s Angriest Trainer podcast, and they had fabulous results, each achieving personal bests in their events this year. So after Deep Creek, I decided to go “all-in” as well, eschewing sugars and grains (no bread, pasta, rice or even… quinoa), and replacing them with more vegetables, salads, protein and – yes – fat. More on this nutritional strategy in another post coming soon, but a huge thank you to my teammates, friends, and especially Vinnie Tortorich who helped me get on track with NSNG.
In addition to training for this, preparing the bike of course was crucial. In the week prior to the race, Nick from Fiks:Reflective hooked me up with some sweet reflective tape (RAAM regulations) in our team colors. (Got a few comments about it on the bike.) And a couple trips to Big Bang Bicycles to visit Craig, Soupie and Glenn got the Cervelo S5 ready, with the Zipp race wheels checked out and new tires on the backup set (the old tires were worn through the tread). I am grateful to our sponsors for the help getting the machine in top form.
Selecting a Crew
Ultra-endurance races are truly team events, even if there is just one racer on the road. You see, RAAM and RAAM Challenge races are on unmarked courses, and without aid stations with food, water, etc. So it is up to the athletes to bring their own support, or crew. Some of the racers did the 200-mile course unsupported (randonneur style, packing their own food, hydration, etc), but knowing my own directional challenges, and having specific nutritional needs that could not be replenished at a convenience store on the route, I knew I’d need a crew.
Approximately one month ago during a weekend visit home, my folks and I were finding a time to visit next. The calendar was packed with races and work, so that’s when I hit them with “Would you want to crew for me in Ohio at the end of the month?” Being the loving parents they are, they agreed to meeting me in Dublin, Ohio for a weekend and driving a support vehicle. “Just tell us what to do,” they said. I don’t think any of us realized exactly what I’d gotten them into…
I read and sent them the modified RAAM race rules that we were to follow, along with a last minute “Hey, um, can you guys go find orange lights for the roof and a slow moving vehicle sign?” My mom printed and highlighted the rules, and they studied up. But none of us quite knew what it would be like until we met at the racer check-in and vehicle inspection. We listened to the orientation from Fred Boethling, RAAM President, and everyone started to feel the butterflies, although I think my folks felt it a little more than I did at that point. You see, being a racer is easy, but crewing a race, well honestly that is the true challenge. If the crew doesn’t succeed, you can get off course, and likely won’t finish the race. No pressure. They chose their roles – Dad would be crew chief (meaning he has the final say and he signs the paperwork) and drive the vehicle, and my mom would be navigation and support, as well as call/text in the time station arrival times to HQ.
My mom started studying the cue sheet (a turn-by-turn sheet to navigate the race). The race would start in the dark, so they had to do direct-follow behind me, with a car length between the car and my back wheel, and direct me on the course. We determined one honk would be left, 2 honks right. During the day we would do leap frog, where they would drive about 2 miles ahead and wait for me to pass, then leap-frog ahead again. “Direct follow,” “leap frog,” “cue sheet” – all new words incorporated into the George family lexicon. This was the first time for all 3 of us, and thankfully we had help from the RAAM officials and other racers in the parking lot. We shamelessly asked questions, and they answered all of them. Due to my late arrival from Pittsburgh, were the last vehicle to get prepared for the event, and seeing the Team PH blue Prius in all its RAAM Challenge glory gave me some butterflies, happy butterflies. The ultra-endurance community is just amazing. It is one of the nicest groups of people for sure. I think the calmness of the fellow racers and crew helped settle our team’s nerves, as everyone we met was so positive and helpful.
At dinner that night I told them, “Look, this is a first for all of us. And you know one thing is certain, no matter how much you prepare for the race, they say that in ultra events there will be something – at least one thing – unexpected that will happen that we will just have to deal with. Our goal is just to have fun, stay safe, and finish the race.”
We awoke around 3AM, each of us preparing – as I ate breakfast (coffee, 2 hard boiled eggs, and 1.5 links of chicken sausage with cheese inside), filled water and nutrition bottles, and got dressed, my folks were packing the vehicle and getting it set up with its lights. At 4AM we drove to the starting line and then drove the first 5 miles of the course in the dark. There were several traffic circles and turns to get out of town, and so doing this before the race definitely helped. Pulling up parking lot, I got my bike ready and went to the starting line, and my parents pulled into the line of follow cars. Racers started at 5AM and then 30 seconds apart, time-trial style, and I was fourth in line. Fred noticed my smile, reminded me I didn’t have to sprint right away out of the start making me laugh, and then counted down, “5-4-3-2-1-go.” And we were off into the night. And I tried not to sprint out of the parking lot, so excited to start this race and finally being in this event I’d been building for that the smile felt like it might actually make my face explode. I was riding in the night in the headlights of my parents’ car, hearing the cicadas and night sounds, and taking in the cool fresh air and starry sky. It was beautiful. We would see red tail lights in the distance up ahead and spinning yellow car lights and steadily move toward them. It was fun to see racers along the way. When you are riding with another racer one has to pass, and you’re not allowed to draft (meaning ride in another’s slipstream allowing them to break the wind making it easier for you), but it’d be nice to chat briefly “How’re the legs?” as we crossed in the night and early morning. The starry sky was really gorgeous. I pointed to the slit-like moon and stars wishing my folks could see it as well.
From the bike in Ohio I saw the most beautiful sunrise. The horizon was pink, and a fog lifted off the farm fields. It was cool but not cold, and it almost did take one’s breath away. And then the unexpected happened… I went to shift my bike and nothing – no movement on the rear derailleur. Uh oh. You see, shifting one’s bike, gearing, is kind of key in a long race like this. Fred warned us about the new detour after time station 2 with some hills “If you like climbing, you’ll like the detour.” Double uh oh. I won’t be able to shift so will have to grind up the hills. One thing was certain – even if I had to ride this without shifting and walk a steep climb, I was not going to drop out. I was going to finish what I started. I moved alongside the car and talked to my mom through the window. “You know that unexpected thing that was going to happen? I’m having bike issues. I can’t shift my rear wheel. Can you call the HQ and ask if there is a bike shop near a town where we might be around 10 AM? They’re going to roll their eyes when they hear about it, but anyway we should call. And tell them no matter what, I’m finishing.” We heard back that there was a bike shop at time station 2, and that I would want to shift for the next part of the course. <gulp> Okay we at least had a plan. Then as I pedaled I looked down and saw the problem – my rear wire was flapping in the breeze so no connection to the bike. I got off the bike, fixed it, and could shift again. <whew> It must have come loose with the travel. Crisis averted. We let the HQ know, and I happily pedaled knowing I could climb better with full use of the gears.
I will not recount the entire race turn-by-turn like a cue sheet, but just list a few more highlights:
Nutrition: The entire race I was fueled by water and electrolyte tablets (Salt Sticks) for fluids, and a concoction of coconut oil, whey protein, and a superstarch called UCAN (3.5 bottles of this for the 13h ride). After time station 2 I craved food not out of hunger but body just wanted it, so I listened and ate some cashew almond clusters – salt, sweet, fat and protein. Just before time station 3 I enjoyed a half banana with Justin’s peanut butter. And at time station 4 another handful of cashew nut clusters. One more nutrition note: I was never hungry, not even when I crossed the finish line. I made myself eat the mixes to help keep myself from cramping (success – no cramps).
The course: For the record, Ohio is not flat. I keep thinking it is, but it isn’t. Although sometimes the climbs were steel they were steady, and the descents a nice pay off. The course and day were beautiful. From the bike you see all sorts of beauty in the countryside. My favorite part was the valley between time stations 2 and 3. No wind, fast – I was going 22mph at over 100 miles into the race.
How it felt: Throughout the ride, I felt good. Yes, my legs felt tired especially after 130 miles, but I could still go. Discomfort crept in at miles 150 on with all the contact points (hands, seat, and feet – I had hot foot for a bit) but it was never painful, and so you adjust, stand on some climbs, and just keep going. I was bouyed by the fact that my folks were there, felt the support of my good friends and teammates who had wished me luck or reassured me in the weeks leading up to the race, and felt the pride of racing in the Team PHenomenal Hope jersey, representing not only myself but our team, PHA, UPMC, and all our sponsors and supporters. The reason I refused to give up, even if my bike issue had not been resolved, was that the people for whom I ride – those who live with PH – can’t give up if they are having a rough day. You. Just. Keep. Going.
What you think about – In a long race like this, I was thankful for my crew, and also thought about all the support that Team PH has had along the way. I felt thankful that our team, in riding for PHA, is a part of something big. I felt energized by thoughts of people with PH getting out and raising awareness through Unity Miles events. I thought of my teammates, very special friends and amazing athletes who are on this big journey with me. You think about a lot of things, and this ride was all positive. It was like I could feel the positive vibes from my parents’ car and from friends back at home.
Crew highlights: My folks were amazing. My mom read the cue sheets and navigated like a star. We found a rhythm and made it start to finish. My dad – totally steady – somehow knew how and where to pull off to check in and be available to give aid. It’s tricky, because you have to find a place where the shoulder is wide enough. But then, he told me, he would not want to be at the middle of a hill because he knew I would not want to stop in the middle of a climb, or at the bottom of a hill because I’d want to use the momentum of the descent. We never talked about that stuff. He literally was a natural. My mom’s bottle hand ups – at one point she was standing on the side of the road and had a bottle. I told her: “hold it like this, from the top, loose” as I approached. She did, and then – bam – I grabbed the bottle while pedaling 18mph. Yeah, we didn’t practice that either. As they passed to leap frog ahead I shouted “YOU ARE SO PRO!” and was beaming. After that we were passing bottles through the car window, and yeah, clipping along. Fewer stops, fewer chances for the legs to go dead. Literally everytime I’d see the car my spirits would lift. I’d wave or give a thumbs up or they would wave back. Sometimes we’d ride side-by-side and talk through the window, “There is a turn in about 2.3 miles at a stop sign… etc etc.” Finally, Mom and Dad seem to fit right into the ultra community. They would chat with riders and racers and other crew people along the way. In the valley, I passed a local rider not in the race who said, “Good luck in your race next year across the country!” I asked “How did you hear about it?” “You’re mom told me,” he answered. My folks would pull alongside other riders and chat with them, sometimes offer one of her amazing gluten-free cookies at a rest stop, and just share in the day. Ultra racing is like that. You’re a community out there, all trying to finish.
At time station 3 we again regrouped, and I asked “I wonder where we are in the race?” We haven’t seen an official car or racer in a long time. Then I said, “Nah don’t tell me, it won’t change anything.” But my mom didn’t hear and said “you were in 3rd at time station #1.” “Well, I said, maybe it does change a little. Let’s finish this bad boy.”
Although we would regroup at time stations, me stretching my legs, etc, we didn’t stop at Time Station 4 for very long. I wanted to get 200 miles in under 13 hours (a secondary goal). So I said “let’s keep going.” My dad was like “yeah let’s go!” so we were off. What I didn’t realize was the race was actually longer than 200 miles. We had 26+ left, but only that left. Just the distance of a marathon. As we closed in, I crossed the 200-mile mark at 12h 25 min. Just 10 miles left to go. Mile-by-mile, climb-by-climb we closed in, and my folks stayed closer with their leapfrogs through the end. Again, my dad just knew what to do. It helped mentally to have them in sight, and there were a lot more turns so it was crucial.
With the finish line in sight, my pace picked up again. I saw the finish line, pulled in and found a happy RAAM team there at the finish line. “Congratulations!” they said. Fred told me, “You finished 1st in the women’s category and 2nd overall. Great ride.” “What did he say?” I thought. “Whoa, really?” I was just happy we finished, huge smile on my face, but that news shook me a bit. I looked for my folks and wanted to make sure we had our moment and picture together at the finish. I was so proud of them. They jumped right in and did such a fabulous job, learning the complexities of crew on the fly, and getting us all to the finish line. We were all happy with the result.
Our goals: Have fun, ride safe, and finish – all completed.
We celebrated that evening, and I enjoyed my first “grains” in a long time – a glass of the most delicious wine with dinner, and one of Mom’s (actually 2) homemade gluten free cookies (deliciousness) for dessert. We recounted the day and I asked them if they had fun. “Yes,” they said, and they’d do it again if asked (my Dad pointing out that this was true evidence that they had fun). I thanked them over and over. We all slept well that night.
And on my drive home I thought to myself, if this is how good it feels to finish 200 miles in one day, just imagine how it’ll feel to finish as a team of 4 racers, with a crew of 12, crossing the country in under 9 days in the Race Across America in 2014. That, my friends, will be amazing.