The RAW Truth About the Toughest Race in my Life
Race Report – Race Across the West 2015
Somewhere around midnight on day one, I was lying in my space, feet up, on the floor of the RV with a bag of normal saline running in, counting drops like one counts sheep (and not having to get too high before I was asleep). Just 12 hours into what would be the hottest in RAW history, I was behind in fluids despite drinking close to 2 full bottles of water an hour. The crew put fluids into me, not only to make sure my kidneys were working, but also to re-energize me going into daybreak, and at 3AM the plan worked in both regards.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
This race report is a long time coming, it is now over a month since we crossed the finish line in the Race Across the West (RAW), and honestly, there is so much to write about, so many experiences that happened, that I’ve felt a bit of a writer’s block in getting it into print.
How to express what it meant this year… What it really meant to come back and race in arguably the most challenging race of my life with an incredible team… What it really meant to race with the PH community for a second year? What it meant to overcome significant challenges to get to the starting and finish lines… So with that, I’ll give this my best shot.
After our team’s success in RAAM 2014, I was excited to be asked by Pete to race again with my racing partner Anne-Marie (AM) in RAW. It was important to make sure our work continues and that Team PHenomenal Hope continued to have a place in the races that were our roots: RAAM and RAAM-related events.
And I was pumped by the idea of trying to take this on as a duo, racing the most scenic parts of RAAM, and being able to see and experience the other parts of the course, from the California and Arizona deserts, to the epic climb up Yarnell. I knew it would be a challenge racing as a duo with little recovery time, though I didn’t know how much of a challenge it would be.
To prepare, I raced in the RAAM Challenge races in Ohio (200 mi) and Florida (400 mi). Solo races to put some tough miles under my belt and feel what racing at night without rest felt like. As I’m also preparing for a solo endurance ride in August known as Paris-Brest-Paris, I used my PBP qualifiers to put miles in the legs for RAW as well.
The long miles were all chances to tweak my fueling, a crucial part of any endurance cyclist’s performance. On the team side, our crew chief Pete carefully put together an amazing crew, many returning from RAAM the year before, and new people in the fold who were each amazing. Our final practice in Ohio where we staged a portion of the race on the RAAM route assured me that we could do this – our crew was amazing and AM and I were ready.
And finally, we were so excited to race with PHA and the pulmonary hypertension community. Going out to California felt like a reunion with old PHriends, and again to me that was the coolest part of all of this effort. This was the reason we’d be racing in the desert and through the heat – with the PH community, to raise awareness and offer hope in this race toward a cure. These people, with this crew and AM, this community, and my family – provided the motivation I needed to get me not only to the starting line, but – as you’ll soon find out – to the finish line, of the hardest race in our lives.
It was fun to return to the pre-race pageantry of RAAM and RAW. There is nothing like rolling into Oceanside, seeing old friends: RAAM’s own Rick and Fred Boethling and Jim Harms, checking in and putting your feet in the surf. And then you meet all these athletes and teams from all over the world, all here for this moment, our moment. There is nothing like it at all, really. All the hard work, all the preparation, and then you’re there, and it’s real, and you’re surrounded by amazing people, family, friends, crew, community.
And from there it took off: The crew prepared the vehicles while racers rested, spun out the legs and settle our nerves, last minute prep work. Coming from Eastern Time to the West Coast meant that each morning I’d find Peter at the Starbucks, either he or I opened them at 5AM with the other one walking in soon after – he going over final logistics, me running through the first 20 or so miles of the course, visualizing and putting in mental prep work. The day before the race was devoted to inspection, press conference and interviews, lunch with the PH community, and a practice ride on the first part of the course.
On race day morning, my stomach was doing the usual race day excitement thing, so I didn’t take in as much as one would like before setting off into the desert. When we rolled up to the starting line, the stomach settled, and I realized I needed to start drinking fluids, like hours ago.
The race began and we were off, AM and I starting together on the trail part of the course, and then after the neutral section, hitting the open road. I saw the woman on the other 2-woman team ahead, and it was fun to have a bit of a carrot in the first part of the race. We climbed and descended the rolling hills, having long left the 70s of the coast for the high 80s of inland California. You race the first part of the race unsupported, so you can’t miss a turn and also pray for no flats until you meet up with your crew. Neither of those happened, and I found my crew just after the turn, and AM took off then I hopped in my support van.
As AM headed further towards the desert she climbed up the side of the mountain, and our 20-ish minute exchanges started. We pedaled to the Glass Elevator, and this year’s descent was less windy but just as scenic as last year. As I raced down the descent and into the desert, the cross winds were there but not terrifying, and I felt the temperature climb from 90s to well into the 100s. When I arrived at Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs I found AM and our team, and coming to a stop felt the full heat of the desert as I walked back to the vehicle. To me, this was where the race began.
AM and I rode our TT bikes through the desert. At times it felt like false flat downhill, and in the 115+ heat, we cut our intervals to the sweet spot of 12 minutes on, 12 minutes off. Enough time to put in our best effort to keep moving forward, and then enough time to cool the core down in the vehicle. I would drink on the bike, then lie down and – as the race progressed – nod off for even 2-3 minutes between my shifts.
When night came it brought coolness, but I realized I hadn’t seen any output from my kidneys since before the race began. Scott and Ryann kept telling me to take in fluids, and everything I did evaporated on the bike. You think that on day one you’d be too amped to sleep at night, but around midnight in the cool weather I started getting sleepy on the bike. Like really sleepy.
At this point AM carried our energy and pulled the first longer night shift, allowing me to sleep and get some needed fluids into me. After the liter of normal saline, I felt like a new person. And after a solid 1.5 hours of sleep (it’s all about sleeping in the 90-minute cycles), now as we got into the early morning was energized. Plus Scott kept me awake with awesome stories that had me almost laughing myself off my bike, literally. After a crew exchange at a kind of scary abandoned gas station, I was off with Pete and Greg, riding in their headlights in the strangeness of the desert night.
We continued into day 2, passed through Hope, Arizona with good pace, and on this day hit the most challenging point in the race (at least for me). Time Station 6 to 7 – from Congress to Prescott.
First you approach Congress and there is an oasis of awesomeness – the volunteer who man this station in the heat, with cold lemonade and a kiddie pool out there for racers and crew as they come by. More than the refreshments, when you see these friendly people the kindness is a little overwhelming. And that extends to seeing my parents and our dear PHriends Ornah and Jonathan – both here and along the way. Truly, there are moments when it is this kindness, or the kindness of well wishes on our Facebook page or sentiments sent via text, that keeps you going.
I needed all I had to keep going as we started the climb up the Yarnell Grade. Last year Stacie and Ryo rode this, and my respect for them deepened (again) now that I was experiencing this with my own lungs and legs. The climb isn’t the hardest part – it’s the climb in the heat that is the kicker. We got to the top of the climb, but what you soon realize is that it’s the last part of this section, miles down the road, where you climb another 10 miles or so, at about 6-8%, sometimes 10-12% grade before the descent.
At the end of the climb, low on fuel the other vehicle had to get to Prescott, so I was lucky to take the last few miles or so of what would be a 45+ minute climb. In the heat, the air was just heavy (not sure how else to describe it), but the views over the edge of the mountain hazy yet spectacular, and I have Pete and Greg to thank tremendously for keeping me going. Their voices through the radio kept me smiling and kept my legs moving.
It was hard but I was pumped, and we all felt happy when we crested the peak and took that descent (LOVE DESCENDING) into Prescott. When we arrived at Prescott, our team was ragged. AM and I were nearer than we had known to heat exhaustion, and Pete made the call to set us both down for 3 hours or so in the Walmart. Both of us got IV fluids, refueled, and slept, and then at 7PM we were off again. That 3-hour rest may have been the hardest choice a crew chief makes, but I would argue it was also the choice that may have allowed us to finish the race at all.
After she had real food in her and rehydrated, AM took off out of Prescott. We started our interval exchanges again, and were off and running toward Sedona. Again around midnight my sleep clock started to overpower, and while I thought I was going down for a 20 minute nap, 3 hours later I woke up to find out AM had climbed up to Flagstaff, riding one of the most incredible nighttime climbs of her life through the scenic Oak Creek Canyon. The crew and AM decided to let me sleep.
Again, I was amazed and reinvigorated, and excited to take my pull, this time trying to get us to the next time station and the next after that before she woke up. I rode into dawn and felt the Arizona sunrise as we entered Navajo nation, descending out of the mountains. We were cruising and there were parts I couldn’t pedal because I was geared out as we descended so fast. Again we felt the Arizona heat, and realized that Arizona is a big state, at least in RAAM and RAW it sure is.
When we crossed over the Utah state line, our team was together. Truly together. And this moment was one of the most memorable for me, summing up this year’s team. We would hit Monument Valley on Thursday afternoon, about 48 hours into the race.
Monument Valley is truly one of the most beautiful places in this country. Majestic land formations, lone roads, desert. You just have to see it. And I think all of us on our team felt that this year. When we got to Utah and then Monument Valley the entire team – including off-shift crew members who usually drive ahead to refuel and sleep – were there, taking in this moment of our team racing through the desert. It was truly epic.
It was together. It was all of us. Team PHenomenal Hope.
The road winded to Montezuma Creek then we headed towards Western Colorado. The finish line was just 2 time stations away. We could taste pizza and ice cream of victory. However, sometimes when the finish line is so close it can take even longer to finally get there.
We hit an ascent up toward Durango, and climbed at night with cold now upon us. In less than 12 hours we went from 115 degree heat to 52 degrees and our teeth were chattering as we took climbs and then descents toward the finish. Again, I’ll never forget Floodsie and Pete talking me up the climb, almost making me laugh myself off my bike.
And then came my final lone interval, bundled up in my winter jacket and gloves I enjoyed the fast 35 mph descent out of the mountains into the outskirts of Durango. There I met AM, and together we rode the last mile of the course, not really believing what had happened, what our team had accomplished in the past 2 days of adventure, and that it was almost over.
We crossed the finish line together, racers and crew, welcomed by Jon Reiling and the RAW staff. Also there were Ornah Levy and Jonathan Broome, who joined us on this adventure, ringing cowbells and keeping us going, as well as my parents, who have been an integral part of this adventure long before Team PHenomenal Hope.
Together we all had traversed 860 miles in 2 days 13 hours 7 minutes. To be honest even more significant than finishing the race itself was the sense of having done this as a team, racers and crew. The feeling of crossing the finish line together, knowing how integral every member of the team was to the effort, overshadowed the sheer physical accomplishment of crossing that finish line. Without our crew of drivers, navigators, mechanics, photographers, athletic trainer and nurse, we would not have finished, to be certain, and every person contributed to this success. I am grateful for the sense of togetherness and what felt like a shared sense of accomplishment that I felt the next day when we celebrated with other athletes at the banquet, then at our final team dinner and post-dinner chillin’ with celebratory beers, the Colorado air, and lots of laughs sitting on the balcony of our motel.
In many ways this was the hardest race I’ve ever done. The fact that we got from start to finish rests largest on our crew who took care of us, motivated us, and kept us moving – and safe. The fact that we continued when it was challenging, that my mind didn’t start entertaining the idea of not finishing this, well that rests in large part on our crew and the PH community with whom we continue to race. When our team races in these ultra races in extreme conditions, pushing the limit, putting our bodies through pain and fatigue, it does not escape me that there are many out there with pulmonary hypertension who may not be able to ride bikes like we do because of their disease, yet they work with physicians and push themselves day-to-day, without it being a choice, as they have chosen not to give in to PH. They live it, whatever shortness of breath, fatigue and discomfort that may come, day after day.
I would like to thank:
Our team: Anne-Marie, Peter, Greg, Ryann, Scott, Soupie, Carolyne, Brian, and Chuck. AM I love racing with you. Pete, thank you for taking on the role of crew chief. You’re likely still catching up on sleep.
All of you are family to me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
My friends, family and PHamily – My mom and dad have always been in my personal crew van, and I am grateful to continue in this life journey with them. I also want to again thank the Pulmonary Hypertension and PH Community for supporting and joining us on this adventure. You are the reason Team PHenomenal Hope exists and motivate us more than you will ever know.
Our sponsors: We thank all our sponsors for believing in us and supporting us.
Additional thank you’s for extra help in our RAW effort go out to:
– UPMC for financial and technical support having our media support embedded in our crew, and video production before and during our race.
– Bayer Healthcare for continuing to support our efforts in this race against PH.
– Big Bang Bicycles for keeping our bikes in tip top condition, helping us ride with amazing equipment, and providing us with all the spare parts we would potentially need.
– Fort Pitt Web Shop and Bons Eye Marketing for connecting us with the community through all the work through our website and social and traditional media.
– UPMC Sports Medicine for sending along Scott, an amazing certified athletic trainer, to help keep us healthy through the desert.
– Radio 360 for providing us with essential race radios to keep us connected with each other through the race.
– Coach Jim at Endurance Performance for supporting us through challenging times pre-race and ultimately providing a training plan that got me to the finish line.
– Printscape for providing the graphics for our vehicles.
– Generation UCAN for our super starch carbohydrate fuel, and Beet Boost for the awesome natural supplement that kept us going through the race. We believe we can with UCAN and love the BOOST.