Race Across the West

It’s hard to know where to start with a race report for Race Across the West. I wish it was as easy as downloading the collection of images and thoughts from my brain. Our recollections of events are always slightly random but given the sleep deprivation, the rotation of the crew in the follow car, the extreme changes in temperature between day and night and the fact that I’d pedal through the night with the new day dawning on a different landscape, it’s fair to say that my memories are somewhat haphazard! I hope the following musings will give you an insight into the most incredible experience I’ve had in my life. Enough waffle, back to the race….

The first 23 miles of RAW and RAAM are unsupported, with the first 8 being on a cycle path taking you out of Oceanside. After the frenzy of the start line, it was nice to have some time in my own head and to settle down to the business of pedalling. Just before the end of the bike path I was passed by the rider who had started behind me… who then promptly went the wrong way! A loud shout brought him back but unfortunately the same can’t be said for the next two chaps who came past me on the first climb. I assume they got back on course further along but I was glad I’d ridden the start twice – time spent on recce is never wasted!

The Follow Vehicle crew I’d left in Oceanside (Kyle and my dad) rejoined me at mile 23 and we proceeded in leapfrog mode to the first time station at Lake Henshaw. Palomar Mountain is a cheeky climb of around 7 miles at 7-8% before there is some descent and a more steady gradient. It was warm but not unpleasant, I was hydrating and eating well and as all the riders were still quite close together at this point, there were a lot of crews on the road providing welcome support. From Lake Henshaw there’s a gentle climb to the start of the infamous Glass Elevator, a 10 mile, 8% descent that takes you to the desert floor. The view on the descent was spectacular; although I’d ridden it in practice two days before, riding it “for real” has been something I had been looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. It was the first of many experiences that I savoured. I stopped in Borrego Springs to get some treatment on my neck from Zoe, my chiropractor (thanks to Reflex Spinal Health for parting with her for the week!). We’d planned the stop as descending (particularly for that length of time) requires considerable neck extension and is one of the things that starts to stress my neck muscles and could trigger a relapse of the neck issues I’d suffered in Ireland. We’d decided to be proactive and go for treatment both at key times and regular intervals to try to keep things loose and working. Given that my neck survived, I think this strategy was definitely the right one.

The initial headwind out of Borrego was soon replaced by a tailwind and having swapped the Bianchi for the Orbea with its TT bars, good progress was being made into the evening in the desert. The Bianchi had had some major mechanical issues prior to the race and sadly, the Orbea decided it wanted to get in on the act before we reached TS2; the bolts holding the gear cables sheared away from the frame leaving everything hanging limply in front of the bike. As John, the Deputy Crew Chief put it, “just as well you’ve got a bodger and fettler on the team”. All I can say is thank God for John and some cable ties! A short time later, I was off into the darkness with a new crew (Zoe and John) and back on the trusty steed.

There is something magical about riding through the night and it didn’t disappoint. It was comfortably warm (I should say that I am virtually reptilian, so this means it was about 25 degrees!). On the long stretches of desert roads, you could see the convoy of follow vehicles blinking slowly along into the distance. We played leapfrog with some of the solo males (my fellow females were all long gone and I was happy to leave them – this race was entirely with myself).

The sun came up and my first breakfast (scrambled eggs) went down when we stopped. Daryl and Adey took their first stint in the Follow Car as the temperature rose. It was during this stage that things started to unravel (rather literally) in the gastrointestinal department. Gut issues had plagued me in Ireland and for 12 magical hours I had hoped we were going to be ok…. My Torq bars and chews, coupled with some Battle Oats bars and the odd treat were going in well and seemed to want to stay put, but it became alarmingly apparent that this was about to change. I won’t go into details but suffice to say there was a lot of cramping, even more clenching and numerous stops at any handy toilet/ bush/ bit of desert going. Someone asked the other day “what do you do if you need the loo?!” – the answer is suck it up and surrender any pretence you might ever have at dignity!

The day got hotter and this stage was a slog fest into a headwind. I had my homemade ice-vest (a cycling jersey with extra pockets on the back filled with Ziploc bags of ice) which helped to keep core temperature down, along with ice cold drinks and an ice pack down my bra! Nutrition was still going in, but coming out regularly and eventually the heat, glucose depletion and fatigue took their toll. I was due to have a scheduled break in the heat of the day at TS4 but arrived later and in a worse state than intended. There are few words to describe the rather comedy motel but the shower was cool and the bed was horizontal. A cooling shower, some treatment and a fitful 90min sleep later and I was back on the bike having forced down a few tinned peaches and some recovery drink. The final stage heading into the evening luckily gave me some chance to recover as we turned into a tailwind but the cramping continued, laughing in the face of the Imodium and Buscopan that I was popping like sweets.

Anyone familiar with RAAM will have heard of the Congress Time Station with its friendly volunteer staff, huge paddling pool, motel rooms, giant cooling, fans and refreshments. This was one of my “I hope I survive long enough in the race to get here” moments and it didn’t disappoint. My hot and aching feet got a good cooling in the pool and a bowl of pasta went down, topped with some water melon! Darkness descended and it was then onwards to the infamous Yarnell Grade, another cheeky 7% climb but the legs felt reasonable and I made a good fist of it before yet another unplanned toilet stop at the top.

This was the first introduction to the real difference in temperature with the desert mountains at night and during the day. The temperature plummeted to freezing and all my winter kit went on bit by bit as I descended, climbed and descended again. This was also when I hit my dreaded wall… the inability to stay awake on the bike, however much I want or need to.

It’s hard to explain to someone how you can fall asleep whilst cycling. Ultimately, cycling is a repetitive activity and whilst you have something to concentrate on (possibly like climbing or navigating a busy town), that’s fine. The minute that stimulus goes and you are fatigued and sleep-deprived, then the brain shuts down and the “nodding dog” starts. It doesn’t matter if you are then going down a steep descent, somehow your brain still feels it’s ok just to shut your eyes just for a moment….. It’s dangerous and when I get to that state, it’s generally a case of getting me down for a sleep. At this point I was 8 miles from the next TS and I just couldn’t… keep…my… eyes.. open. We tried 2 little 5min naps in the car to see if I could snap out of it and were just about to make the decision to take me down the road in the car (to come back and finish the stage after my sleep break) when I decided to give it one last go. Chanting “don’t be shit” to myself over and over again somehow managed to get me going, along with a supportive text from a work colleague which brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat – talk about just at the right moment.

Another TS, another Walmart (hooray for toilets). Treatment, sleep, more Imodium, more food and I was off wearing many layers which would gradually be shed as the day got hotter. A fantastic descent to Jerome lost us all the altitude we’d gained and we endured a main road with some very heavy (and alarmingly close traffic). A quick stop to refuel rider (Egg McMuffin) and car saw us on to the main job of the day. This stage was the extra 60 miles that had been added in, mostly a long climb (about 35miles, all around 5-7%). It started off well but the heat was unrelenting, my guts were unrelenting and all in all it was a bit of a suffer fest. My dad and Kyle, who had witnessed my meltdown the previous night, were now party to a very abject display of climbing which is the thing that I’m supposed to be good at; thoroughly depressing. The crew also had their own hassles as they had to get the waste pipe on the RV fixed which meant a drive to Flagstaff and various crews not getting their rest; not what you need when you’ve the added stress of an under-performing racer and a clock that is ticking. Unbeknown to me, calculations were being done about the likelihood of me making the cut off as my average speed was plummeting and everyone was getting worried. I was aware that time was slipping, but it wasn’t making the legs go any faster.

It was agreed that the RV would meet us mid-stage, which was very lucky for a chap called Bertrand. He was a cyclist on a massive cycle tour with a fully laden touring bike who had totally run out of steam halfway up the long climb and was hoping for a lift to take him out of the heat and up the mountain. Unbeknown to us at the time, he had previously cycled 55,000 miles in 72 countries, making RAW look somewhat insignificant! As the RV wasn’t too far away, Kyle offered that it could come and pick him up, which he accepted with relief! I stopped at the RV for some treatment for some painful spasms in my right glute and some more Imodium and headed off with Zoe and John into the afternoon. After a very near-death experience with two cars that nearly made a Penny sandwich, we had to stop again for Zoe to do some more intense work on the glute otherwise pedalling was going to become near-impossible. We lost light, and with it heat. The plan was to finish the stage to Flagstaff and then ride the next 100 mile stage which was mostly a gradual downhill before the next sleep stop – easy on paper but once again the darkness flipped a switch in my brain that naps just couldn’t sort. This time we did have to make the decision to take me to a motel in Flagstaff so I could get my head down. Another random motel adventure!

I was given a 90 minute break, but took the opportunity to get warm under the shower first. All too soon I was awoken by John and Zoe and at that point I had my first (and only) real “how bad do I want this?” moment. I sat on the edge of the bed pulling on my clothes and thought “I can make this stop”. I think that’s the hard thing for endurance athletes; there are people suffering all the time in the world – poverty, war, disability – but for them it’s not a choice. We, however, are totally in control of our suffering. You have to find a way to ignore the little voice in your head that reminds you of this. Different things will motivate you at different times but you need to not be hijacked by the Siren’s call. Up there in that room, I thought solely of the crew and everything they were selflessly giving up to help me fulfil this dream. I thought of Kyle and his commitment to this crazy adventure and what this journey has done for us as husband and wife, both good and bad. I thought of all the support I knew I had back home from family, friends, clients and total strangers. I thought of my commitment to Hounds for Heroes and the British Heart Foundation. Gradually the clothes went on, the shoes got fastened and I got back on the bike. This wasn’t about what I wanted or how badly I wanted it, it was 100% for everyone that was behind me, and that was okay. It was zero degrees and about 1.30 in the morning. From then, there would be no sleep until the job got done.

The Imodium had finally kicked in but I was desperately short of calories. I had a Follow Car full of nutrition but none of this was tempting me; I needed real food. This was rectified after some hunting around Flagstaff by a Denny’s. A hot chocolate, a coffee, a huge portion of apple crisp (basically stewed apple with caramelised sugar) and two small donuts went down the hatch – 2000kcal go! The bounce was back and I set to the task of trying to make up my average speed and get back on track to make the cut off (which was looking a tall order at this point). There was going to be a lot of pedalling in the next 30 hours and I needed to get moving.

The day once again warmed up and layers came off. Some decent downhill and flat mileage gradually started to repair my average speed and my confidence. I stopped for some proper food (scrambled eggs, tomatoes and bread) at Tuba City and had the task in front of me laid bare by Crew Chief Kyle – I needed to pedal, eat and not stop either for the next 250 miles. With the Follow Car stocked up with cheese, tomato and mayo sandwiches, apple strudel and mini donuts, I set off once again.

My fondest memories of the race come from those final stages. The stomach felt good, the food was going in every 30min and I was just hunched down and pedalling with Daryl and Adey keeping me amused and focused. We had various comedy moments (“don’t give her all the food, we haven’t had breakfast”, “what the hell are they giving her a carrier bag for?” “there’s a grasshopper in the Follow Car”), as well as a puncture, a near-delay with a petrol tanker which involved some interesting driving and the best scenery on the race. I’d been looking forward to seeing Monument Valley and it didn’t disappoint. As we got closer and closer it gradually unfolded its majesty. To this day I will remember the red rock highlighted against the brightest of blue skies. But it was hot. Sooooo hot. I had ice down the front and back of my bra, was taking in my iced bottles and still it was too hot and I needed a short break in the car to cool down in the air conditioning. The descent to Mexican hat was steep and with hot brakes and wheels my number one concern was not getting a puncture and flying over the handlebars! At the RV, I took some time to cool my painful feet and checked my urine – too concentrated and not enough of it. I had a hydration strategy that I following from Precision Hydration, along with their products. So far it had been bang on, but I’d obviously got a bit behind with fluids due to the GI issues so I advised the crew that I needed to get a 500ml bottle of more concentrated electrolyte down before I left, be vigilant with keeping on top of my fluids in the next stage and recheck urine in an hour or so.

I headed into the darkness along a steady series of “200m rollers” (i.e. cheeky little climbs) with my dad and Kyle in the car behind me. A racehorse-esque wee confirmed that I was rehydrated and I was feeling good. We had a warning of gravel on the road 30 miles in, but nothing could have prepared us for the 5 miles of re-surfaced but unsealed road. To say it was hazardous was an understatement, particularly in the dark. There were 9% gradients both up and down and severe bends with adverse camber. This was the one time I did feel some animosity towards the organisers for not letting us all be ferried across this stretch by car (and I wasn’t the only one with this view, especially as some riders did take a tumble even in daylight). Grateful for some mountain-biking in the winter, I took it steadily with the Follow Car trying to give me both light and room; I’ve never been so glad to see normal tarmac in my life! My average speed had dropped frustratingly and although slightly miffed, we had a sense that we were almost there as I arrived in Cortez, the final Time Station before the finish.

It was cold and dark and with a lot of descending on the cards for the next stage, more layers were required. John helped my cold and tired hands with the putting on of an extra set of leggings and booties as with a 3 year-old daughter, he’s the most adept at dressing other people – at least I wasn’t throwing a tantrum! “What average speed do I need to maintain to make the cut off?” were my words to Kyle. I was told 10.4mph which was eminently achievable and I set off in good spirits with John and Zoe. I had 44 miles to do with 3 climbs and an 8 mile descent into Durango and what seemed plenty of time to do it in. The legs were feeling strong, the food was going in (and staying in, particularly as I was being virtually force-fed Imodium) and the ride was well within my capabilities even being tired. I chatted with John over the radio about the race and we talked about plans for RAAM – how the Crew had already decided on 101 things that we could do better. I was touched by the passion with which he spoke and the fact that the Crew were already 100% committed to the the next phase of the RAAM adventure and so enthused about improving. I was also somewhat humbled, given my miserable performance.

I won’t say that we were taking the finish for granted but, barring serious disaster, I would finish inside the cut-off with time to spare. If I learnt one thing in the next few hours, it was that it’s never over until you’ve crossed the line….

As we moved up the first climb, I became very aware that I was struggling to breathe and starting to cough. I just couldn’t catch my breath and I was unable to exert any effort without starting to pant –given that this was a 5% gradient, I should have been racing up it. I stopped to take a few breaths from my inhaler and assumed it was just the cold air playing havoc with my asthma. Slightly concerned about my average speed, I sped down the first descent and attempted the second climb with more gusto…. and once again came to a grinding halt. I simply couldn’t get the air in fast enough, it was like someone had replaced my lungs with those of a mouse – they just felt tiny and totally inadequate for the task. I went light-headed and nearly fell off simply through the exertion of trying to get my water bottle out of its cage and was literally panting as I was speaking. It slowly dawned on me that I was coming down with the dreaded HAPE – high altitude pulmonary oedema – and that my lungs felt small because they were gradually filling with fluid. As a vet, I know this really isn’t a good thing and I also know that it accounts for a lot of the DNFs in RAAM, regardless of your age, gender or racing pedigree. No-one really knows why some people are more susceptible than others, but in RAAM/ RAW we are above the 2000m point where it usually starts to manifest itself and we get up there quicker than the body has time to acclimatise. It ends races and puts people in hospital (and it did both of those this year – albeit unbeknown to me at the time) and here I was with under 30miles to go pedalling at the speed of a 3 year old on a tricycle. I started doing sums about finish times and average speeds and then I began to worry. I’d already been told in earlier stages to leave the maths to the crew (having managed to get into a panic as in my sleep-deprived mind there was an extra stage and I got my sums all wrong!) but clearly they had made a mistake – there was no way I was going to make it and it was all going to be for nothing. Poor John got a right earful but seeing my distress as I was literally soft pedalling up the final climb (with blue lips – although they didn’t tell me that until afterwards), he finally decided to come clean and tell me that I actually had 92 hours not 90 hours in which to finish!

Some weeks prior to the race, a new route for the stage to Flagstaff had been released which took the distance from 860 miles to 928 miles. No extra time had been added…right up until the route books were released. The Crew had seen this and had checked with Race HQ when it was all starting to go a bit pear-shaped and had then decided to keep the extra 2 hours to themselves to keep me motivated and pushing. John showed me the page and even called Race HQ to confirm…. Relief swept over me and I inched my way up the final climb, laughing to myself at my pathetic attempt at pedalling (so much for all those Strength Endurance sessions on the turbo and in the mountains- where were those Watts now??). We stopped at the top for me to put on my hat and big gloves, have a final donut and exchange hugs. All I had to do now was survive a long, cold descent to the finish and we’d be home. Celebrating our achievement up there felt right; those last 3 climbs epitomised the effort and the worry of both racer and Crew and the fickle nature of the RAW and RAAM course.

We rounded the corner, started the descent and the view across the forested mountains of Colorado unfolded. In the early morning sunshine it was spectacular and I hope that memory will live with me forever. There was no racing for the line (although I know that many who were following my little flag were screaming at it to move faster as they didn’t know either about the extra 2 hours!). I reflected on the race, the achievement and just took time to savour it. Coming into Durango I knew that I was cold and tired and just had to be wary of the Saturday morning traffic. As we headed towards the Finish, a familiar sensation started… that of my head just starting to drift downwards and a slight difficulty in extending my neck. There was none of the spasm and excruciating pain of Ireland and I smiled wryly inside – my neck was literally going to last to the end and no further. Once again, the RAAM/ RAW course teaching me that you can’t take anything for granted.

I look at the photos of the Finish and am struck by the absolute brilliance of the blue sky. The clarity of the sky will be one of my abiding memories: through the desert; during the nights; through Monument Valley in stark contrast to the red, rocky landscape and finally against the dark green of the trees and mountains. It was one of the many things about RAW took my breath away (sometimes a little too literally). As for the race itself, yes it was tough and yes there were times that I wondered if I really wanted the end result that badly – but that is all part of the package of endurance events. Without it, the humour, the camaraderie with the crew, the stunning scenery and the enjoyment in the achievement would not shine as brightly. More than anything now, I feel at peace with myself. I confronted some inner demons/ goblins/ gremlins out there and have come through it with a better sense of self. These things are never really about proving yourself to other people, they are always about proving it to yourself… and I did. I’ve a whole troop of monkeys, some dating back to school days, that are no longer on my back and that’s quite a considerable weight I’m no longer carrying around – no wonder I feel emotionally lighter.

As for RAAM, I’m now even more excited about the challenge ahead. People have asked whether it’s achievable given how close I was to the cut-off and some of the issues I experienced; the answer is “absolutely”. There is work to be done on all areas, not least on working out a nutrition strategy that my guts will tolerate. There’s more work in the heat (we realistically got lucky with the temperature being in the low 40s this year), work at altitude, more work on overall strength and power on the bike and more treatment and training to ensure the neck can survive for longer. I’m looking forward to the next training phase with my coaches Nick Thomas from The Endurance Coach and Andy Pike and Jules Sterling from Crossfit Reading. There are changes to be made in crew strategy, different bike set-ups, slicker vehicle organisation, better sleep strategies… you name it, we will be looking into it. No stone will be left unturned and no idea dismissed. That’s not to say a RAAM finish is guaranteed (you only have to look at the quality of riders who have DNF’d both this year and previously to see that) but it is definitely possible and I will be doing everything in my power to achieve it – maximising strengths and minimising weaknesses. Beyond that, it’s in the lap of the Gods or the Fates depending on your beliefs.

RAW has galvanised my desire to finish RAAM, not so much because of the race but because I want to have the other 2000 miles of this crazy adventure and I want to share that with my Crew. This is about going on a journey, having unique experiences for life and inspiring people to follow their own dreams. Strangely, what the journey to RAW and the race itself taught me most of all is that I do really quite like riding my bike! Whereas I once saw RAAM as the totality of my cycling journey, I’m now looking at all the other ultra-cycling races out there and thinking about what sort of adventure they could be too….

Thank you all for your support. This was your race too.
Pen

“Life is like riding a bicycle… to keep your balance you have to keep moving.” Albert Einstein

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