On June 15, Seattle’s Mick Walsh toed the line at a race most of us would unhesitatingly dismiss as crazy–the Race Across the West (RAW), which is the first 860 miles of the Race Across America (RAAM). Leading up to this attempt Mick has been on a 2009 4-man Race Across Oregon (RAO) team, a 2010 2-man RAW team, as well as a 2010 solo Race Across Oregon. RAW is probably an order of magnitude more difficult than RAO since it’s ~350 miles longer–and hotter–as it passes through the deserts of California and Arizona.
Ultra racers have to deal with sleep deprivation, digestion issues, and unbearable heat, all the while pedaling at race pace. Despite focused training, anything can happen once the race is underway.
Check out Mick’s account of his experience at this year’s RAW, and keep in mind that he’s in the middle of attempting an RAW-RAO double this year. RAO, July 22-24, is is next on Mick’s calendar:
Since getting into ultra racing I’ve always wanted to go to the “next level.” Last year I did Race Across Oregon (solo), so this year the “next level” would be the Race Across the West (RAW), which is the first 860 miles of Race Across America (RAAM) from Oceanside, CA to Durango CO.I put out the call for support crew early in the year, and was happy to have John-Henry Maurice, Elise Ross and Paul Renninger step up to help me get through this. I knew them all and knew they would be a great support team. I discussed with several people and decided that one vehicle and three crew would be sufficient for the race. John Henry also provided his trusty Astro van for the trip, which is well decked out for ultra racing.
The only problem was that the crew were all from the Salem, Oregon area, which is about 240 miles south of me, so the planning was not as good as it could have been. They had several meetings, but I couldn’t be there, and we couldn’t get out for an overnight trial ride to see how things might shake out.
The plan was for (my wife) Martha and me to drive down to John Henry’s on the Friday before the race (the started on Wed June 15th) then J-H, Elsie and I would drive down to Oceanside on Saturday-Sunday, and Paul would fly down, as there was not room for us all in the van.
We had an uneventful trip to Oceanside, staying overnight in a small town somewhere well south of Sacramento on Sat night, and we arrived in Oceanside around noon on Sunday. I figured we needed to be there then from my experience last year, because we needed all that time to be ready for the race. There was lots to be done to be compliant with the rules, stock the van, and make sure we knew the route out of town (which was different for the vehicle and rider.)Pre-race prep included a photo session, a crew meeting, a rider meeting, race recon, many trips to the store, and many hours stocking the van. I must say I did enjoy my ride on the first, unsupported part of the course with Donncha Cutriss (incredible video of Donncha’s race) on the Tuesday morning, what a nice guy–he finished RAAM in 10 d 23 h 57 m–the first Irish solo entry in the race.
The race start was fun, first on the waterfront and then along 8 miles of bike path, we would not see our support cars until mile 24, and we would only have direct follow by them at night, all other times would be leapfrog, meaning they pass pull over offer assistance as I pass, then repeat. I made a stupid mistake at mile 8 by running a VERY yellow light, ok it was actually red, and there was an official car in the back up, so I was put down for a 15 min penalty to be served at the Durango Time Station (TS) 2 miles from the finish, I was so mad at myself, but just tried to put it out of my mind.
I tried to ride at a reasonable pace while the weather was cool, as I knew I would slow down when we hit the desert at Borrego Springs, and I was drinking either water or HEED every chance I got; I was drinking at least two bottles an hour.
I was going well getting to Borrego, where RAAM leader Christophe Strasser (who won RAAM in a time of 8 D: 8 H 6 M) came cruising by at about 27 mph. The temperature went above 100 degrees here and I was still taking in plenty of fluids and calories. About 15 miles later, on flat roads and with strong tailwinds, Gerhard Gulewicz (who abandoned the race after 2674.8 miles) and Marco Baloh (who finished 3rd), who were 2nd and 3rd in RAAM at that time blew by me like I was stopped—there was no point in racing those guys. They are in a different league altogether.I made a quick stop at TS 2 to freshen up and cool off a bit, but It was too late, about 15 miles later I had to stop and lay down, this was around 10pm, my 3rd place in RAW was gone for good, I had chills and was throwing up, it was 3 ½ hrs before I could start riding again, the next 24hrs would be the most painful experience I’ve ever had on a bike, I just wanted to be out of the heat, it was about 109 degrees during the day, and “cooled off” to the 90s at night.
Elise was doing a great job of getting foods that would be easy on my stomach; I had Greek yoghurt and cold instant mashed potatoes (yummy eh!) HEED, Sport Beans and Vitamin Water also helped keep me going.
Finally, on day 2 when I thought I was not going to make it to TS 5, my crew came up with a game-changing decision: They found a hotel out in the middle of nowhere and stopped me to get in an air conditioned room, have a shower, some food and a 2 hr nap. This put me back at the very back of the field, with some work to do to make the time limit, a gamble, but otherwise I would have not been able to continue. As it was I was moving very slowly on the fastest part of the course, my average speed was already down to 11.5 mph, and the climbs were yet to come.
It was still 108 degrees when I got back on the bike, but at least I was able to ride faster than 12 mph for a while, I just had to make it to darkness and TS 6 in Congress AZ, at mile 395, then the climbs would start and it would be cooler at night, at least. I started to feel better as it got dark and had a rider in front of me to chase, so that kept me going.
There was a lot of climbing from Congress to Prescott, but it was nighttime and cool, I felt ok most of the time, although I did have one bad patch and had to stop for 15-20 mins and was sick there too.
I was able to maintain a better speed when we got to Arizona, where it was slightly cooler and some climbs helped too, but I still was not really moving very fast. I did manage to maintain the average speed I had at the start of the climbs at Congress, all the way to the finish in Durango, despite a missed turn that added 7 miles of riding, all the while I was slowly wondering if I had in fact taken a wrong turn. That was after Mexican Hat, TS 13, and cost me probably another hour or so.I also got by on less down time later in the race, and I probably only slept 2 hrs a day in the last 48 hrs.
The crew was great. Paul, John and Elise never mentioned that I should consider quitting, even when it was obvious I was in serious difficulty with almost 600 miles to go!! Yikes. I clearly remember them cheering loudly for me when I was riding about 12 mph and feeling and looking like crap.
I eventually arrived in Durango on Saturday afternoon for a total time of 3 days 4 hrs and 24 mins, which seemed like an eternity, and like all ultra race finishes, maybe even more so, wondered why I ever thought THAT would be a fun thing to do.
But now, two weeks later, I’m starting to get excited about the upcoming Race Across Oregon and how I can better survive the heat of the day to have a good race.
Thanks again to my support crew for getting me through this, and my long suffering wife, Martha who puts up with my crazy Ultraness!
Be safe out there, but live life for today.
Those of us who were watching the race unfold from the cool humid Pacific Northwest knew Mick was having trouble, but it was impossible to comprehend the “abyss” that Mick had fallen into. After the race, I asked Mick about his decision to carry on and why he chose not to abandon the race:
“I am very happy with my decision to keep going, I had a long think about quitting at TS3, but decided for the sake of all the people cheering for me, to keep going, for me too.
I was amazed with the outpouring of congratulations when I finished, even though I really didn’t do very well, speed wise. I’m sure I would have had an empty feeling for a LONG time if I did not finish, I thought about that too at TS3, in Parker, AZ. Stopping at the hotel that Thursday afternoon, between TS 3 and 4, saved my race.”