I had ice cream for breakfast this morning. I can barely open my mouth an inch to get the spoon in, and I am sick of scrambled eggs. The ice cream did the trick, and I feel like I want to ride my bike at least a little bit today. My face is still very swollen, but it appears that I am finally on the mend. I would like to say that I will never try this stunt again, riding 500 miles with a bad tooth. But these things aren’t entirely predictable, and I can only hope I don’t have another tooth decide to give up the fight when I’m 12 hours away from my dentist at a very important bike race. It has been a completely miserable experience. My dentist is a pretty funny guy though, and after his assistant finished drying my tears, he reminded me that pain is temporary, and at least I won the race. Yes, I did indeed win, and in far better fashion than probably everyone but my coach expected.
I signed up for the Tejas 500 in mid summer, and decided it would be my A race for the fall. It is 19 laps of a hilly, 26.4 mile loop held concurrently with 24, 12, and 6 hour races, as well as a one loop sprint. I wanted to do another 500 mile event this year, but did not want the expense of another fully crewed event that I had to fly to. The Texas Time Trials are held in Glen Rose, Texas, which is a 12 hour drive from Iowa. My friend Paul Black was available to crew for me, and willing to help me with the drive there and back. Logistically, it all came together perfectly and was far less expensive than any other fall race option would have been. I had heard pretty wonderful things about the race from my friends who had done it in years prior, and the only negative thing anyone had to say about it was related to the chip seal road surface. The race was otherwise pretty well known for having a competitive field, tough course, and fun vibe.
I definitely put more time and intensity into training for the Tejas 500 than I had into the two prior 500 mile races I completed. My spring and summer were spent racing gravel in varying stages of fitness and fatigue, and although my overall results looked pretty good, I have to say I felt like I did a lot of wandering around getting lost, falling off my bike, and injuring myself. It was fun, and yet frustrating at the same time. There was no race that I felt satisfied with, that was an adequate expression of my fitness and the work that I had put in to my training this summer. But that is gravel racing for you. It requires a hefty measure of good fortune, resourcefulness, and the ability to navigate without preconceived notions of what a road looks like and where one should or should not ride a bike. It’s a little less about fitness, and more about being one of the few people left standing at the finish. I love gravel racing, but I was ready for at least one race with a little more planning and execution, and a little less adventure.
About 10 days out from this race, Greg Grandgeorge and I started talking about race pacing and estimated finish times. The forecast looked to be hotter than usual temperatures for September, with highs in the low to mid 90’s and overnight lows in the 60’s. Greg has been helping me plan my races since 2013, and has been fairly accurate in predicting my finish times for the ultra distance cycling races I have done in the last two years. He took over as my full time coach in July of this year. I trust his numbers, but when he came back with a projected ride time of 28:30, I was a bit shocked. I’ve never doubted him before, but given the hot temperatures and chip seal road surface, I was surprised to see a number under 30 hours. I had thought that I would need to race a better paved course in cooler weather before I saw a finish time like that. Greg actually re-ran the numbers for me, modeling me as being more inefficient than I usually am both on and off the bike, and still got 32 hours for a finish time. I was optimistic that this would be a good race if I could stay on the bike, but still doubtful that I would see a time under 30 hours.
There were three options for start times, 48, 42, and 36 hours. The 48 and 42 hour started Thursday night, and the 36 hour started Friday morning at 6 am. All races would finish by 6 pm on Saturday. I signed up for the 36 hour race primarily because I disliked the idea of starting at night after driving to the venue all day, and being awake for 50 hours again, a la Heart of the South. I’ll do that when I have to, but I prefer to avoid it if possible. It’s difficult to be functional when I return home with such a huge sleep deficit.
As the projected race day temperatures rose into the 90’s, Greg sent me a spreadsheet of the temperatures for each start time over my projected duration of racing to see how this would impact my race and if I should consider switching to a night start. There was really no benefit to me to start at night given my projected ride time, and the temperature average for the 48 hour start time was actually warmer than the 36 hour start time by 2 degrees. My primary concern was when during my race did I want to ride in the heat, on the front end, or 12 hours into it, because it was going to be hot no matter what. I opted to stick with the 36 hour start time and start after a full night’s sleep.
The theme of my 2015 season has been “I sure hope this gets better by Friday.” I have been plagued with minor disasters before every single race. Fortunately all have been relatively minor, and only one injury forced me to not start a race. But still, this is beginning to feel more than a little ridiculous. I’ve had smashed toes, broken toes, a smashed ankle ligament, bee stings, and other minor ailments. I’ve broken major bike components, and trashed tires and chains at a ridiculous rate. Prior to every Ironman race, my friends and I would joke about wearing a bubble wrap suit and carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer just to make it through race week unscathed. I’ve decided I need to step up my game for ultra cycling and wear a biohazard suit and roll around in a large plastic hamster ball.
When my tooth first started hurting the weekend before the race, I was not at all surprised, as I had been expecting something to go wrong. I dutifully went to the dentist on Monday and he made some minor adjustments to relieve pressure on the tooth. I knew in my heart that this wasn’t going to go in my favor long term, but I accepted his optimism and instructions to come back in 10 days for a root canal if things weren’t better. I think if I had done a better job of conveying the pain I was already in by using words like ‘agony’, ‘excruciating’, or ‘eating motrin like candy’, perhaps he would have been less inclined to let me go to Texas without more significant intervention. Stoicism is a virtue in my family, and I strive to embrace most situations without excess drama. Perhaps this would have been a good occasion to be a little more dramatic, but I certainly was not in any hurry to have a root canal if I could avoid it. What I really wanted to say was “FOR F***K’s SAKE WHY?! Why this week? Why not next week? How about never? I brush my teeth, honestly!”
There are certainly worse things that could have happened to me during race week, and at least I could still ride a bike, so I stifled my inner drama queen and got busy trying to figure out how to still have a good race with a bad tooth. I had two days to train with the pain and work out some solutions before leaving town. I cut down a mouth guard to fit over the back molars to keep me from inadvertently biting down, and used wax to keep the air and cold drinks away from my sensitive tooth. Although it looked ridiculous, it seemed as if this might work out well enough if I could stick to mostly liquid nutrition. The worst part about this was breaking the news to Greg that I did not in fact make it through race week intact. I debated not telling him so that he wouldn’t worry… but I did end up telling him. My tooth didn’t get any worse before leaving town, but it didn’t really get any better. It was pretty uncomfortable on the 12 hour drive to Texas, but Paul and I made it in good time, and got checked in to race without incident.
Race morning arrived all too quickly, and there were only three starters remaining in the 36 hour start time. Everyone else had moved to the night start times, or a different race. Given the situation with my tooth, I was even more dubious about my ability to finish the race in under 30 hours, but I was determined to stick to the race plan if possible and see how things panned out. I told Paul I would ride two loops between stops as many times as possible before it got hot, and then I would need to stop every loop to pick up two bottles and put ice in my jersey. When Paul and I made plans for this trip, we brought a bike along for him so that he could take off and ride if he wanted, and also head back to the hotel and sleep at night. It should have been easy enough for me to crew for myself for a little while, as he could leave my cooler by the side of the road where I could easily get what I needed. Things were so intense during this race that he never did leave for anything fun or restful, and the only trips away from our transition spot were to get ice or drinks for me. Most of my races I try to joke around and have a bit of fun out there. Maybe if I had been acting like my usual self, he would have been comfortable leaving me, but it was all very serious for the most part.
The first loop in the dark ended up being just me and the pace car. I inadvertently stole it from the other two morning starters when I took off faster than they wanted to ride. The route was very well marked, and it would have been very difficult to get lost even without the car in front of me, but it was fun to have it to myself for the first 7 miles until the one and only left hand turn on the course. That was probably my last moment of pure joy for the entire race. Paul and I had driven the course after arriving the day prior, and my first impression of the chip seal was that it was not going to be as bad as advertised. Riding the first loop, I realized that it was every bit as bad as advertised, and driving it did not even remotely do it justice. It’s like they took gravel and mixed it with black top and then did a poor job rolling it out. There were newer sections of chip seal that were pretty well rolled out, but the older stuff was just bumpy. My gravel buddies would love this stuff. I looked down at my power meter on a descent, and it was 200 watts to go down a hill. That’s just crazy rough stuff right there.
I stopped every two laps for the first 105 miles, then switched as planned to every lap. Once the sun was up, it heated up pretty quickly and my lap times began to slow. The temperature rose into the 90’s, with a brief peak of 102 degrees in the afternoon. Fortunately the temperature fluctuated around the loop, and the occasional passing cloud made it feel at least briefly cooler in spots. I gave thanks to every cloud that gave us shelter, no matter how brief. I picked up baggies of ice every loop and stuck them in the front and back of my sports bra. The ice would melt by halfway around the loop, so the far side always felt like a trip across the face of the sun.
After my fourth lap, my left cheek started to swell on both the inside of my mouth, and outside. The pain moved mostly into the soft tissue of my jaw and face, the tooth itself was no longer terribly painful. At first I was pretty grateful, as this made the race easier to manage nutritionally and I was able to take out the awkward mouth guard. But after a few more laps it occurred to me that the nerve inside my tooth had probably died, and I now had a raging infection that might eat my face if I took too long to finish this race. GREAT. I’ve come home from all of my races this year in varying states of disrepair, but this one was going to be hard to explain to my husband.
The combined effect of the heat and the chip seal took the worst toll on my feet. By mid afternoon, hot foot had set in. I tried a number of different strategies to manage it, and all were effective for at least a little while, but then I would hit certain bumpier areas of the course and be back in misery. Anytime I descended a hill it would bring on a wave of agony. I eventually ended up off the bike for a few minutes to spray my feet down heavily with Trislide and put socks on. Once they were encased in the gooey, slippery mess, they felt much better. I definitely lost some time to this problem both due to loss of power while riding and off the bike time in dealing with it, but overall it was much improved over previous hot racing and training experiences. I don’t know if gooey feet will be the solution for future races, but for this one it worked out pretty well.
In every other race that I have done, things are usually pretty friendly out on the course and everyone says at least hello as they pass, or exchanges a few words. This race, not so much. I tried to at least say hello to the other women and 500 mile racers, but it was just so painful out there, sometimes croaking out a ‘hi’ was more than I could do. I did on as many occasions as I could, but most of the time we just passed each other without a word. In general, I hurt, and I felt pretty crappy for most of the race. I was sick with this tooth infection, and I knew it. I saw and talked to Bruce Woodard (my other Iowa friend in the 500 mile race) on a few occasions, but then it was many laps of relative solitude and private misery. Most races when I am alone, I take in the scenery and its changing colors as the light of the day gives way to night, and then day again. I noticed almost none of that this time. It was all pretty intense. Chris Hopkinson in the 24 hour race lapped me once at night, and it was probably the first time I had smiled and spoken with genuine expression for hours.
During the night, the temperature dropped into the 50’s. I started to see riders decked out in full winter gear and tights. I wished I had a pair of light gloves, but never took the time to get them when I passed by Paul every loop. Otherwise the temperatures felt downright pleasant to me after baking in the oven all day.
I started to do the math on when I would finish if I maintained my current speed. I initially struggled with the math, and came up with a 34 hour finish time. Thankfully I did not give up in any way based on my crappy math, because as I neared the 400 mile mark in under 24 hours, I realized I was right on target to finish in around 29 hours. I understand that in general, it is more helpful to think of things in the positive, and not spend time telling yourself what not to do. But once I knew that 29:XX was definitely right in my hands, the last 3 laps were all about ‘don’t throw up’, and ‘don’t fall off’. Those were my primary concerns in the last miles of the race.
I did make it to the finish line without falling off or throwing up, and I finished in 29:21, good enough for first place woman, a new course record by over 6 hours, and second overall within a large male field. The race director Dan Driscoll was at the finish line waiting for me, and it was so much fun to see how happy he was to see me do that well. This race was extremely well organized, and I can’t say enough good things about it. The volunteers were so nice, and with the roving sag support all day and night, I never felt alone on the loop. Linda Middleton, the photographer, was present on the course day and night, and was so full of enthusiasm she even managed to get me to smile a few times. I can see why so many people love this race. I only wish I had felt better for more of it, and been less miserable so that I could have enjoyed it more. I guess I will have to go back for another race sometime, without a toothache or some other affliction.
I ended up putting down a little more power over the race to ride a little slower than predicted. My ride time was 28:48, just 18 minutes longer than what Greg had predicted. It was so very hot, and not an easy day out there by any means, so a sub 30 hour ride time and finish has added meaning for me. I rode well, and kept my stopped time to 33 minutes. I am so thankful to Greg for believing that I could do this, and for challenging me to believe in myself and get it done, regardless of the circumstances.
Bruce and Paul helped me get back to the hotel room. I had the chills, and could barely stand up straight. Bruce had been done for several hours, and looked fresh as a daisy and ready to ride some more. I felt like such a sissy. After a few hours and some Motrin, I was in much better shape and fairly functional by the awards that evening. I had a fever though, and every time the Motrin wore off I would start to chill.
Paul had to do most of the driving on the way home. I drove maybe 4 hours of a 12 hour drive. I called my dentist when we were about 90 minutes out of Des Moines, and picked up a prescription for an antibiotic on the way home. I had a root canal Tuesday morning, and they were able to save the tooth. The resulting infection in my face was so incredibly painful though that tears streamed out of my eyes during much of the procedure, during my trip to the pharmacy after, and for about two hours after. I think after the initial pain response, the tears were for Wade, and for every sad and frustrating thing that has happened in the last few months, and less about the physical pain. Funny how that happens sometimes.
A big thank you to Paul Black for crewing me to another 500 mile course record, and my first sub 30 hour finish. Your quiet demeanor and easy companionship make the long drive and difficult race so much better. Sorry I was not quite myself this trip, and pretty close to useless on the drive home.
I have some pretty exciting news to share before closing. Joe and Connie Mann took the last open spots on my Race Across the West crew, so I am full up with crew and very excited to begin planning and preparing for that race.
Greg Grandgeorge has made available a new website with the same planning and coaching services he has provided to me for years. It’s been exciting to see this take off for him, and to see his other athletes do so well this season. You can check it out here and his personal blog over here .
And last but not least, Kyle sold me a Specialized Fatboy. Rumors of my fat bike purchase made it all the way to the Bike Bag Dude in Australia, and I will be racing it decked out in their custom, ultralight frame bags sometime this winter. Now I just need to find a race!