This was my third year at the 24 hour RAAM qualifier in Sebring, Florida. I don’t often repeat races more than a few times, and I was mentally prepared for this to be my last year racing there. Now that it is all said and done, I cannot say with certainty that I feel done with this race. 479.4 miles is a course record that the next lady can feel very good about breaking; I am happy with that mileage on a road bike. But I may be back next year with a TT bike, or I may instead be racing the fat bike at Tuscobia and Triple D. Only time and opportunity will tell.
I have not manufactured any more time in my schedule to train, so this winter was much like last winter. I rise in the night, do a little laundry, and get a few hours of training in before dawn. I feel like a creature of the night, doing laundry at 2:45 am and keeping vampire training hours, but at least I am guaranteed a few uninterrupted hours before I get the kids up for school. Some days I am back on the bike a second time after the kids leave for school, and Sunday is the long ride. My coach Greg puts each week together by TSS (training stress score). Each ride has a purpose and objectives, and when I reach the TSS score for the day, I get off the bike. After doing a few races this way, I am confident in this approach. It has resulted in a lot less worrying for me about whether I’ve trained enough, and fewer junk miles.
Comparing my Performance Management Chart from last winter to this winter, there is a much larger cluster of rides at a much higher intensity during this past December and January. When you start ultra cycling, you can get a lot better (as I did at least initially) by riding a lot. After a certain point that becomes less beneficial on its own. Over the winter I did a lot of longer, harder intervals than I had done the year prior. Greg also introduced me to the Sunday race pace trainer ride. I had done something similar prior to Sebring in previous years, but Greg put it in my schedule weekly and made it much harder and a little longer. He is fun like that. My longest rides in the last 8 weeks before Sebring were just under 6 hours of nausea inducing work. I wanted to throw up for most of December, and all of January. It was really hard, but it worked. By the time February arrived, I was fast, healthy, and uninjured.
While I was back home training in Iowa throughout the winter, I was following the adventure of my crew, Kelsey Regan, as she journeyed around the west and then headed south to meet me in Florida. You can read about her adventures on her blog, and follow @ridingultras on Twitter. Kelsey and I are about as different as two women can get. I am a middle-aged stay at home mom, and she is a young, free-spirited wanderer. But despite our differences we always get along great and have fun together. It was a great weekend, and logistically it all worked out perfectly. Her dad arrived in Florida in time to loan her his truck for the weekend, so I was able to cancel my rental car and save a few bucks. Travel went smoothly for me, which is so unusual it deserves mention. Flights were entirely on schedule and no bike fees from either airline coming and going. Good fortune smiled upon me. I flew with the Venge, and shipped a spare bike to Legacy Bikes in Sebring, which I had never done before, and we picked that up on our way into town.
A few weeks before the event, my friend Mark Pipkin from Florida contacted me about helping out with crewing. I met Mark and his family when I raced Sebring for the first time in 2014. They were set up on the miracle strip right next to me and my friends, and were a big help to me that year. This year, Mark rode the century ride in the morning, and helped Kelsey crew for me all of the afternoon and part of the night, giving Kelsey a break now and then, and covering the time she was absent to move the truck to pit road for the night. It made the day flow seamlessly in terms of support for me, and I wanted for nothing. Mark is a positive, upbeat guy which is always a good thing as the day gets long.
Sebring has historically been one of the most fun and competitive races I attend each year, and always draws a good mix of elite men and women. A fast ride at this event is a great way to kick off the season. With it being a loop course, there are no vehicle inspections or any of that type of procedure to suck up every pre-race moment. We tend to gather and socialize much more than at any other event. The Friday ride has become a thing now, and a group of us met for dinner, too. My friend Rob White had not really trained much for Sebring this year, and when asked why he would show up for an event that long and difficult without training for it, he replied that it was because of the people. The people are worth the trip, and I would have to agree.
As with previous races, Greg put my race plan together using the program Best Bike Split. It has been surprisingly accurate at predicting my performance for ultra distance cycling. If I stuck to the plan, my mileage would end up between 470-480 miles.
I made a few changes to the equipment I used this year. I rode the Venge with Zipp 808 front and rear wheels; the last two years I had ridden the Tarmac. Kyle had given me a set of CEP compression cycling socks that significantly decreased the discomfort in my feet. They were a definite win, and I’ll be using them in the future. I also used an Ice Chain from Ruster Sports. It is a lubricated chain designed to reduce friction and improve efficiency of the drive train. I am not certain yet how much benefit it provided to me, but I did enjoy how it performed on my bike, and I will use it again in the future.
Two years and several ultra cycling races later, the start of a 24 hour event is still a very cool moment for me. As the group is heading down the track behind the follow car, I think about the fact that I am not stopping or resting until the same time the following day. My power and pace drop as the day goes on and I begin to fatigue, but the effort is always hard. I never let up for the entire 24 hours. I am using the same muscle groups and maintaining the same position for 24 hours without relief. It takes strong motivation, solid core strength, and smart pacing to maintain that level of effort consistently for the full 24 hours. I’ve gotten better at it each year, but for me the mental aspect is the most important. I have done more physically demanding events with much more climbing and hair raising technical descents. This race is distressing in its sameness; there are no descents to look forward to, and the tailwind only lasts a short distance until the next turn. If you rest, you lose miles. Only the relentless will succeed.
The race day forecast looked to be the best it has ever been in the years that I have been there. Upper 40s for the lows, and low 70s during the day, with 10-20mph winds. The start was uneventful, and I settled into my pace right away. I caught up with Rob on the track, and he shared a few motivational sentiments with me and chased a drafter off my wheel before I rode on ahead. I took the first few laps on the track out harder this year than last year, so I was behind the fastest draft pack, but well ahead of the next draft pack. It was a perfectly peaceful position that I would stay in for most of the big loop.
Once I hit the open road, I noticed a difference between my heart rate, perceived effort, and the number on my power meter. My heart rate and effort were high, but my power was a good 10 watts lower than I would’ve expected. I had noticed a similar difference using that wheel at Texas Time Trials, but I hadn’t given it too much thought considering the dental issues I was having during that race. It’s a newer race wheel, and I don’t put training miles on it. I have since borrowed Greg’s PowerTap pedals and will make some comparisons for future races.
My speed was right on predicted pace into the headwind, so I ended up targeting a lower number and hoping my instincts were correct. Fortunately I do a pretty good mix of indoor and outdoor riding even in the winter, so I wasn’t terribly concerned that I was being a big baby about a little headwind in Florida. But you never know, I could morph into a big baby at any time. Losing your feel for the outdoors is one of the hazards of indoor training. The only way I would be able to tell that would be to see my position within the field at the turnaround relative to Marko and the front of the field. Fortunately, the place where I saw Marko last year came and went, and I was a pretty good distance closer to the turnaround this year before I saw the front of the pack heading back towards me. Alexander Hernandez, a friend and future crew person, was waiting at the turnaround with his usual good humor and smack talk. I always appreciate good natured harassment.
The rest of the big loop passed without incident, until the very last stretch on Highway 98. I loathe that last section heading back to the track. It is always heavy traffic with a shoulder that comes and goes, so sometimes you are sharing the lane with fast moving highway traffic. The headwind was strongest here, and cars passing in the other direction created a pull that grabbed my front wheel. I lost some time due to the struggle, at least in that section. Fighting with that wheel in the wind can be terrifying in a high traffic situation. I was buzzed by cars several times. I made it back to the track two minutes later than predicted.
Kelsey had met me out on the big loop at mile 37 and 72, and she was waiting for me in our pit area near the timing mat as expected when I returned to start the short loops. We did quick bottle and nutrition exchanges and kept it moving all afternoon, and I ended up not stopping for more than a few seconds at a time until after 4:00 pm.
The traffic on the highway 98 section of the short loop was intermittently rotten as expected. My first few laps were nearly solo, until others began finishing the big loop. I could smell smoke on the first loop, and began to wheeze. I think they were doing a controlled burn in the nearby orchard, or someone was burning garbage. It was constantly annoying, my power dropped a little bit more, and my lap times were consistently one minute slower than I had anticipated. I held my splits pretty close to 33 minutes, with a few seconds here and there for bottle exchanges and random traffic. I got hung up at the intersection near the track four times this year, last year I sailed through every time without stopping. They were minor delays. The volunteers at the intersections were awesome as always.
A larger fire broke out in the afternoon, and firetrucks were called to the scene. After two laps of smoke, I signaled Kelsey to meet me at the bathroom and I made a pit stop. I was wheezing so badly that I could hear my breathing over the traffic on highway 98. I had her pass me my inhaler, just in case, although I never did use it. My last two short loop times after the pit stop were over 35 minutes, primarily because I couldn’t breathe even after the smoke cleared. I hate having asthma, I hate using that inhaler, and I don’t always make the best the best decisions about my health during a race. I probably should have used the inhaler instead of just resenting the weight of it in my pocket. The move to the track brought relief from the smoke, and I was able to pick my speed back up quite a bit. Kelsey and Mark kept me moving, and I only stopped briefly to pick up my Garmin charger, lights, nutrition, and warmer clothing. No resting.
After a few hours, I started to slow a bit. I pulled in to get a fresh bottle and asked Mark if he would mix some whey powder into one of my next bottles since I was starving. As I was leaving, I made an offhand comment that I would really rather have a cheeseburger. Rubin Randel overheard the comment, and offered to go get me one. I’ve never eaten anything quite that substantial during a race and the idea made me nervous, but it is really hard to turn down a cheeseburger after riding your bike for over 16 hours. Rubin had been cheering me and all of the other racers on all day, even though I had never met him. His enthusiasm was inspiring.
Rubin brought me two cheeseburgers, and I ate one and saved the second one for later. I peeled the bun off it since I’m intolerant of wheat, and rode a slow lap while I ate it. At the time, it seemed like the best thing I had ever eaten. I had also taken a few Tylenol for back pain and a caffeine tablet, so those three things combined gave me enough energy to surge through faster laps for several hours. I started to lag again later, and the second cheeseburger was effective, but not nearly as amazing as the first. I probably will never do that during a race again though, and I’ll have to find a completely wheat free substitute in the future. I did the same thing after the race too, eating a couple burgers that had been peeled off the bun, and I ended up developing sores in the back of my mouth and throat, and probably all the way down my esophagus and into my gut. Revenge of the burger bun was a miserable three days post race. I’ve always been able to deal with a small amount of gluten contamination, but perhaps the stress of the racing situation made that unbearable, or I ingested more wheat than I thought. At any rate, I was fortunate to learn this lesson at a 24 hour race. I was long done before symptoms set in.
In previous years, my pace has slowly drifted downward as the night progressed, never getting any faster. My pacing plan was set up much the same way for this year, but I was able to hold my pace higher than predicted, and for longer during the night. Instead of staying slow when I slowed down, I was able to rally. It was pretty painful, but Kelsey and Mark were both positive and upbeat, and kept me moving. I rolled in for a quick bottle exchange, and Kelsey asked me if there was anything else I wanted. As I was rolling out, I said “I want to die,” and Kelsey said, “Well, you’re doing great. Keep it up!” The entire pit area started laughing. Good times.
I had some fun with many of the other athletes on the road and on the track at night. My Panache teammate Robert Baldino challenged me to a sprint to the timing mat on the track. Robert is 71 years old, and still recovering from being hit by a truck during RAAM four years ago. And I have not had a chance to talk with Valerio Zamboni outside of racing, but for some reason during this race we always tease each other. I always sing his name when I lap him, or give him a big grin. When he passed me as I was stopped on pit road, he called out, “Take your time!” so I wouldn’t lap him again. It’s the little interactions along the way that make the race fun. I saw Rob several times, and one time Rob, Erik and I came together briefly out on the track. It’s pitch black out there, and we all felt like hell, but we immediately started giving each other grief. Rob’s number on his bike was a source of much amusement… very similar to his serial killer Caution Bikes Ahead sign from Heart of the South. He is arts and crafts impaired.
My Garmin had shut off during the night, so my mileage was inaccurate. I asked Kelsey to keep track of my total, and she let me know when I had passed 460 miles, my mileage total from last year. There was about an hour to go at that point, and enough time to finish another 5 laps. I finished with 479.4 miles, and 6 minutes left on the clock. I was the first female finisher, and third overall. I believe my total stopped time was 20 minutes or less, but with my Garmin file missing some data that is only my best estimate. It was definitely less time off the bike than last year.
I am very happy with how my race went this year. I finally felt strong during the night, and my pace didn’t degrade nearly as badly as it had in previous years. I feel stronger than I did last year, and I am in a good position going forward with training for Race Across the West. Staying injury free will be crucial. That has always been a struggle for me.
Immediately following the awards ceremony, Erik, Kelsey and I began packing my bikes and equipment. Erik was so tired, as was Kelsey, and they were real troopers. Kelsey and I got everything packed, slept for about 90 minutes, and then she drove me to the Fort Myers airport for my 6:00 pm flight. I made it back to Des Moines by midnight. I was so tired, I walked in the door and fell right on to the couch. I didn’t even make it upstairs to my bed.
I’ve had a few days of catching up on sleep, but now will be back to more disciplined training, and monitoring what I eat, and what I weigh, and planning…. always planning. “See you in Oceanside” are words that carry a weight and meaning all of their own. You can’t say it without a little tug at your emotions, whether you are going to crew, or going to race. Whether you will be there for Race Across America, or Race Across the West, I look forward to seeing you in Oceanside in June.
Thank you Kelsey Regan and Mark Pipkin for crewing me to another course record. You both were fantastic, organized, efficient and fun. I can’t thank you enough for taking care of me, and taking the time to help. I look forward to many more adventures with the both of you!