This last year has entirely changed my perception of difficult, and what I thought I knew about my own personal limits. What I thought I could do and what I have accomplished are surprisingly similar, but the how has been more challenging than I ever imagined, and painful in ways I could not have anticipated. I’m not prone to drama, nor do I participate in the celebration of suffering as do many cyclists. Having seen true human suffering, I have a hard time categorizing anything I do on a bike for fun as suffering. But the unique combination of weather conditions and terrain at Heart of the South 500 put me as close to the edge of what I can do physically as I think I have ever been, and I reached a state of misery that really defies explanation. Yet still as I sit here to begin writing this less than 48 hours after finishing, I am eager to ride again and well on the way to physical recovery. The human body is an amazing thing.
Heart of the South (HOTS)500 is 517 miles over, around, and back over the Appalachian mountains in Alabama and Georgia. You are either riding up or down the entire event, with very few sections of road that you could call flat. There is everything from rolling hills to miles of continuous climbing and 38,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. The pavement varies from good to bad, with chip seal and wheel eating potholes in a few sections. The race begins in Birmingham, Alabama at 8pm on a Friday evening. The night time start is essentially to avoid Birmingham city traffic, but only adds to the difficulty as racers are awake for a much longer period of time before the start and the need for sleep will likely hit everyone before the race is over.
Finding crew for these longer events has been surprisingly easy for me for the events I have done thus far, yet I find asking people to crew to be very difficult. Crewing is a busy job and a lot of work without any of the physical exertion that we all thrive on, but so far my friends have embraced the challenge and the opportunity to try a new adventure. For HOTS, I had one experienced crew member and two rookies. Paul Black is a Race Across America (RAAM) finisher, a very experienced and successful ultra cyclist, and has crewed for Race Across the West (RAW). Joe Robinson is an Ironman, fellow Triracer, and my original mentor when I began racing triathlons back in 2008. Greg Grandgeorge is also an Ironman and fellow Triracer, and we became friends after I beat him on the bike leg of a local triathlon and we began sharing power files. That led to lots of discussions about everything related to triathlon, and I have learned a great deal from him over the years. He is super organized and a real data geek: the perfect crew chief.
Paul and I drove to Alabama from Iowa, arriving late on Wednesday. Greg and Joe arrived Thursday, and much of that day was spent preparing the vehicle and bikes for the race. Ideally we would have met farther in advance of the race to review my gear, but there was just no time. So the day before the race they had to learn about the rules, route details, lights, chargers, Di2 electronic shifting, my clothing and nutrition, and the Cardo bluetooth communication device. It was a lot of information to throw at them last minute. It was so helpful to have Paul there, and his RAAM and RAW experience was a priceless asset.
Thursday I went for a short ride in the neighborhood where we were staying. In addition to being the hilliest neighborhood I had ever seen, the pavement was in terrible shape. I dumped the front wheel of the Venge in a large pothole on a steep descent and the Di2 shifting quit working. It’s not the first time I’ve had to hike up a hill with my bike, but it was the first time I’ve hiked up a hill with something other than my gravel bike. I’m sure the cars driving past me had a nice laugh at me on their way to work. I made a few panic stricken calls to Kyle Robinson (Kyle’s Bikes) and Mike Wilson (my coach), and Paul and I ended up at Bob’s Bikes in Birmingham. One of the cables in my right handlebar had been jarred loose, and the slam into the pothole had caused the system to need a reset. Both simple fixes and they had me on my way in minutes. It was a good learning experience, and the only really bad thing about it was that it caused me to miss completing the workout that would allow me to sleep well that night, and hopefully sleep in a little on Friday. My daughter had broken her foot earlier in the week which also caused me to miss a few workouts and had me feeling both more stressed and more rested that I ideally would have been at that moment. Fresh legs are normally a good thing going into a race, but for this race the ability to sleep beforehand was a high priority, and if I’m not worked I usually don’t sleep.
Friday morning I woke up at 4:55 am, after about 6 hours of sleep. That was better than I expected given the circumstances. I hoped for a nap later in the day before the start of the race at 8pm, but it never quite happened. I lay down twice, and started to doze off but never managed to fall asleep. I had not ever reached a point in a race where I could no longer stay awake, or felt like sleep deprivation was impairing my ability to ride. But with over 15 hours awake before the race even started, it looked quite likely that I would reach that point in this race. But this was one of the reasons Mike wanted me to do this race. I am planning on entering 860 mile Race Across the West next year, so it’s best to figure out how to deal with sleep in a multi-day race before I get there. I did not feel any anxiety about it, or dread. I was curious to see what would happen to me.
Vehicle inspection went off without a hitch, then the athlete meeting at 7, followed by the race start at 8pm. Mike had taken over as the new race director this year. He sent off the solo starters 2 minutes apart, followed by the two man team, my friends Rob White and Andy Christensen. There were only 3 solo starters this year: Brian Toone, Erik Newsholme, and me. Brian and Erik are both training for RAAM, as is Rob White, and Andy Christensen is training for RAW. I was the only woman, and the only one not doing RAAM or RAW this year. Greg had run some race projections based on my estimated power over the course, and it gave me hope that I would have a finish time I could be proud of if we didn’t run into too much trouble. Greg nailed my last ironman finish time, as well as my Silver State 508 finish time, so I have a lot of faith in his geeky projections.
Brian Toone started first at 8pm. I got to leave second two minutes later, and I knew I would soon have Erik and Rob breathing down my neck. Direct follow is required at night, so I had my crew in the car right behind me from the start. The first 6 miles of the course leading out of the city were on badly paved roads. We had been warned about it at the athlete meeting, and they were not kidding. Giant, massive, wheel eating potholes were everywhere. There were hills right from the get go, so some of these potholes were on significant downhills, or right after a curve in the road. Joe took the first shift driving behind me, but at times the headlights of the truck would still be cresting a hill while I was on the downward side. It was difficult to see some of the potholes until I was just on top of them. Even riding very cautiously I took a few pretty hard knocks.
As expected, Rob caught and passed me pretty early in the race, and it was fun to see Andy, Birgitte, and Leanne in his follow car go by. I caught Rob again a few hours later when they were stopped, and I called him a pansy for wearing a coat and leg warmers when it was in the 60s. I knew full well that I would be wearing that and more at some point during the race, but I had to get my digs in where I could since he passed me right back like I was standing still once they got moving again. That was the last time I saw them during the race. Erik got out ahead of me at one point after I stopped as well, but then I passed him back and we settled in to the order that we finished in, and never passed each other again the entire race.
The temperature at the start was in the 60s, with a light tailwind pushing us along. Storms were predicted for the late evening hours, with good chances for high winds and hail. Almost from the start, Greg was on the weather websites watching the storms build and progress and keeping me updated. After Trans Iowa last year, I swore to myself that I would never wait out a storm again unless it was truly dangerous. When the rain drops began to fall, we made a quick stop to put on my rain jacket and helmet cover and then pressed on. Pretty soon it was raining buckets, and the wind picked up. I had to take my glasses off as I could no longer see through them, and rain stung my eyes and face. There were stretches of time where I only had one eye open at a time, because water had gotten into one of them. The wind was so strong, at times I was leaning sideways to keep my bike upright, and the rain came down horizontally and ponded on the roads. It was like riding along a stream. We were crossing a dam when I got hit by a big gust of wind. That was the only moment in the storm that truly frightened me, even though realistically there was little chance the wind would actually blow me off the dam into the water below. I don’t like bridges on a calm and sunny day, so being blown around on one at night during a storm really sucked for me.
Once the rain passed, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped into the 40s. I swapped out my rain coat and short sleeve jersey for a long sleeve jersey, but left my wet bibs, socks, and shoes on. I was reluctant to change my shoes while the roads were still wet, as I only had one dry spare pair of shoes to get me through the rest of the race. I don’t recall at what point I began complaining to Greg about my feet (I think it was pretty late in the day on Saturday) but my feet were frozen and wet pretty much the entire first night. For the remainder of the race I would have stretches of tolerable discomfort, followed by waves of severe pain in both feet. There was a small wrinkle in one of my socks that eroded the skin on my left big toe over the course of the ride. It was about 400 miles of misery as far as my feet were concerned. I don’t know if the severe pain was due to the prolonged cold and wet I had unnecessarily put myself through, or from all of the climbing and pressure on the bottoms of my feet. Whatever the cause, If I had it to do over again I would have switched out my shoes as soon as the roads had dried out, which was 7 or 8 hours before we actually stopped.
Sometime during the night, we rode through Little River Canyon, where the storm had taken down lots of branches and there was debris all over the roadway. The road twisted and turned in addition to being up and down and it was just mind boggling. I had no idea what direction I was headed in at any point, and it seemed to me as if we we had entered a maze we were never going to get out of. Joe could not keep up with me in the truck on the sharp turns, so I put my light on high and hoped I would not run into any of the larger debris on the road. I think that is a road that would be a ton of fun under different circumstances, and I would love to ride it sometime during the day.
After the sun rose, we spent several miles talking about what needed to happen at Time Station 3, mile 219 in Resaca, Georgia. The guys needed to go on ahead in order to get the Tarmac ready, as I planned to switch bikes. Greg was reluctant to leave me too soon though, as the sun was just up and he was worried that the cars would not see me in the glare of the rising sun. There was quite a bit of traffic for a Saturday morning. Even when they were not in direct follow behind me anymore, having my truck in the vicinity with it’s lights and signs at least alerted cars to my presence on the road ahead somewhere, so I was thankful to have them near. Throughout the race, Greg was very cautious and concerned for my safety, and I felt so thankful for that. They finally left me just a few miles before Resaca, and drove on ahead to the time station to get ready for my arrival.
After I switched bikes and changed clothes in Resaca, we moved on to do a big loop in Georgia, including the most beautiful climb of the event up to Fort Mountain State Park. I say it was the most beautiful because it was the only major climb with views I could see during the day, and it was a spectacular seven mile ride up to the summit. The main downfall of the night time start was missing so much of the beautiful scenery, as the majority of my ride was spent in the dark.
The descent from Fort Mountain was slow in terms of speed, as most of them were. I would hit a high rate of speed, only to have the road tilt up again. Throughout the event, any descending was really a series of short high speed sections with sharp turns or climbing in the middle that slowed me down. Nothing like the long, sustained high speed descents out west. But although the really fast stuff was pretty short lived by comparison, it was still fun. Anytime you go fast, it’s fun.
As the race continued on into Saturday, the parallels between Heart of the South 2015 and Trans Iowa V10 were remarkable. I felt like I was in Trans Iowa, the 500 mile paved road version. I had been chased by countless dogs (some of them quite aggressive, but most just annoying), dodged deer and possums, been rained on, and the wind was relentless. The hills were never ending, and there was even gravel on the roadways in a few spots were the rain had washed it off the shoulder and across the roads. The wind speed was not as bad as TIV10, but it never let up. As the wind direction changed during the day, it seemed as if a tailwind would never materialize. The roads twisted and turned, so if you curved into a tailwind, it wasn’t long before the road turned again and the wind was blowing from the side or the front again. There was no escaping it. This race was an unrelenting challenge, from start to finish.
One thing about the south that made me progressively more angry as the race wore on is just how much trash was on the roadways. Alabama was bad, but Georgia was worse. Way worse. The state is so beautiful, if you could look past the garbage on the side of the road. I found it harder to ignore as time went on, and it really made me mad. The parks were very well picked up, the people we met along our journey were nice, but for hundreds of miles it was ugly, ugly trash everywhere. These are the things you see when you are riding a bike, and not zipping by in a car.
Our stops to that point had been only for essentials, and my crew was very efficient. I would relay to Greg via the Cardo what I needed in terms of clothing or nutrition, or if anything mechanical needed to be done with my bike. Then he would write it down and relay it to Paul in the back seat. Paul was on top of every detail. If something was taken out and used, when it returned he put it where it belonged. If a bottle came back empty, he filled it right away. He and Joe switched out driving as needed, and they both did a fantastic job with that. Greg navigated and kept me on track with my nutrition.
I never felt like we wasted any time when stopped, but I worried about them getting bored as the race wore on. They happened to be behind me at a long stop light around mile 300. Initially it started as stretching, but then I started waving my arms around and dancing to entertain them. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but Tom Robertshaw (the former race director and official for that section) happened to be there and watched the whole thing as well. I knew that Tom and Mike would be present on the course, but I hadn’t expected them to make their presence known and to cheer us on as much as they did the entire race. It lifted my spirits every time I saw them, so I was glad I could make Tom laugh as well. Watching an event this long has got to be a pretty dull job sometimes. And no, thankfully there is no video of me dancing. The photo is embarrassing enough.
Right before Time Station 5 at mile 378 was where I finally admitted to myself that I was beginning to struggle, although I’m sure it was apparent to my crew before that. I only had 140 miles to go at that point, which sounded possible but only because I was naively optimistic about the difficulty yet to come. I remember telling Greg that I didn’t feel well. Usually when I have a lull or don’t feel well, I have some idea of what to do to make that better, but I was pretty much at a loss. My feet were in agony, and my right knee hurt a little. I was checking out mentally at times, and not responding to Greg when he spoke. That concerned me, and I made a big effort to check back in and was successful for awhile longer at least. We had to separate for a time, and I went on ahead while the guys prepared the vehicle and bikes to be in direct follow for the rest of the night. At 7pm they were required to be behind me again, so any stops they needed to make after that would require that I stop too. It was always such a relief when they came back after a departure. The beep of the Cardo switching back on and the sound of Greg’s voice was just such a relief…you’d think I’d never ridden alone before. It was evident to me that this race was giving me quite the smack down, and I needed them near me more than they may have realized.
As we neared Chiaha, a section before Talledega with some significant steep climbs, I swapped out my Tarmac for my old Trek Madone. It had a compact crank, long cage derailleur, and a 32t cassette. I hadn’t been able to emotionally part with the bike to sell it, so I had Derik Spoon at Kyle’s Bikes revive it for me as a climbing bike. I mostly intended to loan it to Rob for RAAM, but brought it along just in case I needed it. I was hoping the low gearing would give some relief to my feet and knees, but it really didn’t, and the fit wasn’t quite right so I swapped back to my Tarmac before the big climbs. It was worth trying, and it might be a good thing for Rob for RAAM, but I didn’t like it.
I felt a little better climbing up Chiaha with only 100 miles to go, and I perked up a bit. Greg was being quite funny and started calling it Chia Pet instead of Chiaha. For the rest of the ride we called it Mount Chia Pet. The Chia Pet had many long and steep sections over 15% grade. I weaved up several of the steep sections, and I could hear the truck fall behind and wait because they literally could not drive that slow. Or maybe Joe was afraid I would tip over in front of the truck.
I can’t recall when I first became interested in what the guys had to eat in the cooler, but at some point during the race I began to feel intermittently starving despite having stayed on track with my hourly calorie goal, and it seemed to happen at the tops of the climbs. I became convinced that the guys had something delicious in that cooler, and I WANTED IT. Greg ran through the list of what they had, and the pack of turkey lunchmeat was a winner. I am a big fan of processed meat. Kielbasa, hot dogs, lunch meat… it is the food of my people. Greg started feeding me lunchmeat at the tops of the climbs until we reached the summit of Chia Pet. My dad will be so proud! Next time I will pack Kielbasa! It was a fairly slow and pathetic climb up to the top, but I did not tip over and I made it up everything without stopping.
I put on my full winter gear I believe before climbing Chia Pet, and I remember being comfortably warm before beginning the descent. The descent was just like the other park roads; it was confusing, winding, and endless. The surface was chip seal with potholes. I would speed up and lose Joe on the tight turns, only to have to climb again before descending more. Greg told me several times according to the map, I had miles of descent but each time he would say that, the road would turn up again. It was funny and frustrating at the same time. We decided downhill meant uphill in Alabama. The Chia Pet was slowly killing me with it’s delightful road surface and steep climbs, and then I got cold. I was REALLY COLD on that descent. Although I had on the same layers and windproof coat that had gotten me through subzero windchill back home, it was not getting the job done even though the air temperature was a balmy 35 degrees. I’ve done 9 hour rides in temperatures colder than that, so it was so frustrating to me to be getting hypothermic at a temperature that would I would ordinarily consider just fine for riding. At some point Joe gave me his coat too, so I had normal winter cycling gear plus a tall man coat on top. Not very aerodynamic, which I’m sure drove Greg nuts.
The rest of the event is a blur of hypothermia and hallucinations with a few small doses of reality. I remember perking up and talking to Greg, and then not. At one point in an attempt to make conversation, he asked me a simple question about how long I was a nurse. I could not answer it. He asked me again a little later, and I just could not remember. I refused to even talk about it, because I could not access that part of my brain and it scared me. I don’t recall if that happened before or after Talladega. I zoned out on a descent just before reaching Talladega, and I remember feeling like I was on autopilot and not really riding the bike. Greg said I never swerved or misjudged a turn, and I am certain he would have pulled me off the bike if I had, but I felt like I wasn’t far from that. It was time to stop and pull myself together.
We stopped at a gas station in Talladega and I told the guys I wanted coffee and chocolate. I sat in the car with the heat on high while the guys went into the store. It was the first time I had sat down since the race started. I remember thinking I didn’t know if I wanted Greg to hurry up, or take his time. He was back pretty quick, so I ate super fast and got back on the bike, but didn’t get far at all before I was too cold to continue. I asked Greg if we had any of the hand and foot warmers left. Paul found some, and Greg hopped out of the truck and handed me a few packs of Little Hotties. I put a pack in my bra, and a big clump of them in my shorts on top of my tail bone. I thought for certain that this was a funny moment, being in Talladega in the wee hours of the night with a Little Hottie in my shorts, but there was really no energy to laugh about anything at that moment. The artificial heat helped a great deal, and I was finally able to ride with some momentum. I wish I had thought of that sooner. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve finished a ride with a Little Hottie stuck somewhere unusual.
I had my first hallucination sometime before Cheaha, and then none for a long time. The floodgates opened in Talladega, and everywhere I looked there was something strange. I either hallucinate on a grand scale, or Talladega is one incredible town. The stuff I was seeing was very detailed, and quite fascinating. I have hallucinated at other events, but this was by far the best show I have ever seen. The streetlights and the lights from the truck shining on buildings and vegetation caused them to transform into animals, trains, and all sorts of weirdness. Once we got outside of town with less light, the show stopped. I was also a little warmer, which may have helped. I shared some of this over the Cardo with Greg, and I think I completely freaked him out.
There were 2 climbs over a mile long in the last 50 miles to the finish, plus the same relentless hills that had been present throughout the event. It was a pretty slow and sucky ride, but we finally made it to the finish. My finish time was 33:47, which is a new women’s course record and 11.5 hours faster than the old record. My time was just over an hour longer than my Silver State 508 time, and on a much harder course. I was awake for a grand total of 50 hours straight. It was another 36 hours after I finished before I slept more than a few hours in a row. In hindsight, stopping for longer in Talladega to warm up would’ve been a good idea. Had this been a longer event, that would’ve been a good time to sleep. Had I warmed up to the point that I could ride without Joe’s coat, or even just a little bit faster, I don’t think it would’ve negatively affected my finish time by as much as I thought.
Anytime I go to pieces at the tail end of an event, I have a difficult time celebrating the overall accomplishment. Physically I’m fine; I only had minor muscle soreness after the first day and some bruising on my feet. I’ll be just fine for Trans Iowa. But even though I’m being fussed over a bit with the TV interview, Facebook, etc. I am still stuck on Talladega. For weeks before this race, I found myself listening to the same few songs, again and again. A lyric in one of them was “split you wide open, just to see what you’re made of”. I had a feeling that this was going to be that kind of event for me, and it definitely was. Mike said this was the hardest 500 mile race in the country, and I don’t doubt that. Even without the additional challenge of less than perfect weather, this race would’ve been a challenge for me. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to participate, and to my crew for supporting me along the way, and for sticking with me when it got rough.
A big, heartfelt thanks to my crew for supporting me. Joe, I gave you nothing but a date and an address, and you showed up with absolutely no idea what you were in for. I knew I could count on you to be there when I needed you, to do what needed to be done, and to do it well. Paul, I’ve never cold called someone I don’t know before and asked them to crew for me, but I felt very strongly that I needed you. Your experience was a huge asset and I knew you could jump in with little direction. Thank you for keeping things together in the truck, and for doing so much of the driving on the way home. I really enjoyed your company, and I’m glad I can now call you friend. Greg, thank you so much for all of the time and planning you put in to this event with me. Thank you for embracing the role of crew chief and running the entire show in your rookie start as crew, for keeping me going, and for getting me to the finish line safely. You were simply outstanding.
Kyle Robinson, thanks once again for the last minute repairs to my wheels, and for helping me trouble shoot the problem with my Di2 over the phone. I keep trying to not break stuff, or at least break it at a more convenient time, but it’s not working out. Thanks for your support!
Mike, you put together a fantastic event. It was amazing, beautiful, and as every bit as difficult as you said it was. Thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for your guidance. It was an incredible experience, I learned a lot, and I hope to be back next year.
Katherine Roccasecca, thank you for your unwavering support and tireless enthusiasm for my races. Thank you for all of the work you put into editing my writing, and for your honest feedback. Any remaining grammar errors in this report are entirely my own fault.
Thank you to everyone that participated in the Facebook and Twitter nonsense during the race. Greg read me your comments, and it was very amusing to hear what some of you were doing while I was riding my bike. Thank you for your interest, your humor, and your support!