Meticulous training and planning are no guarantee of a successful (ultra) bike race.
The 2011 Race Across Oregon (RAO), held the weekend of July 23-24, was a 515+ mile epic with ~44,000′ of climbing into the hinterlands of central and eastern Oregon. This year’s field raced as solos, 2-person, and 4-person teams. (In the past there have also been alternative categories such as 4-tandem teams and teams with recumbents in the mix.) This year’s women’s solo field included big names such as Karen Armstrong, Dani Genovisi, Seana Hogan, and Leah Goldstein who was fresh (?) from winning the women’s solo division of the 2011 Race Across America (RAAM) in June. Competitors from the Seattle area included Mick Walsh (solo this year, and 2010 solo winner), 4-man teams Kronies Krew led by Chris Ragsdale, and Woodinville Bicycle led by Jiri Rabas.
My previous experience with RAO was as part of a 4-man relay team in 2008. This year I was a rookie on Mick’s crew, which included veteran ultra directeur sportif Paul Clement who has also crewed for Brian Ecker, and Mick’s wife Martha. Spouse-as-crew is typically frowned upon in ultra events because the combination of sleep deprivation and the tension of the race can rupture marital bliss, but if nothing else Mick and Martha’s relationship has competitive cycling as a foundation, and crew roles work for them.
If you are a regular reader, you will remember that Mick competed as a solo in the Race Across the West (RAW) in July. Severe heat nearly ended his race, but he averted disaster with a cold shower and a long nap in an air-conditioned motel room in who-knows-where in the California desert.The solo race started at 5:30AM. Paul and I were out of bed at about 4:45 to attend to some last-minute packing details. Mick’s support vehicle was a rented minivan loaded with labeled boxes of clothing and gear, coolers of food and drink, spare wheels, and a spare bike. Mick, Paul, and Martha’s ultra experience showed in that they had included almost every conceivable detail. We even had a radio set up to communicate with Mick while he was on the bike.
The race began with a neutral start followed by an initial stretch when racers were unsupported. Racers and their support vehicles reconnected at mile ~21, at which point crew could provide “leapfrog” support: We’d drive a couple miles ahead of Mick, find a safe pullout, and if he needed resupply, hand him food and fresh bottles as he pedaled past.Watching the race progress was, as Paul put it, just like watching a conventional road race, but in ssslllooowww motion. The eventual men’s solo winner, RAO rookie Dean Kindorf took an early lead and finished a mere ~6 hours behind the overall winners Kronies Krew. There was a bit of back and forth amongst the other solo men, though Leah Goldstein methodically “chicked” most of the men and finished third out of all the solo racers.
As we rolled behind and around Mick, we talked about the concept of “ultra” racing: What makes an event “ultra?” In my mind it’s a broad, vague category since what might be “ultra” for one person is just a long day (or day and night) on the bike for another. Mileage-wise Paul and I thought the lower end of an ultra cycling event is about 200 miles. Other distinguishing characteristics might include limited sleep, and pushing through physical extremes that cause the body to lose control of basic functions that result in involuntary vomiting, excretion, or bowel movements. Our consensus from that discussion was ~12 hours on the bike is plenty.Given Mick’s history with heat, he wore an ice vest during the heat of the day to help keep his core cool. It was heavy but Mick said he felt that the benefits of staying cool were greater than the adverse effects of the extra weight.
After mile ~101 we were allowed to provide “direct follow” support, and from then on we did a combination of leapfrogging and direct follow. Most of the day was uneventful and rather routine as far as supporting Mick; RAO routes include a seemingly endless series of climbs (and descents) and Mick looked strong and relaxed on the bike all day long. The scenery was amazing, and at one point we were able to identify a string of Cascade peaks stretching all the way from the Sisters in Central Oregon to Mt. Baker in Northern Washington.
At about mile 100 Mick took a brief nature break and made a slight costume change to add the ice vest. Paul and I traded driving duties about every 3 hours, and I had my first experience driving alongside a moving cyclist as we handed him food and full bottles. The Tour de France incident with Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland was fresh in my mind and I was paranoid about launching Mick into the barbed wire fence, but after a couple of trials I got the hang of safely driving alongside him.We refueled the van at every opportunity (there weren’t many) and after gassing up in Condon Paul had the great idea to get Mick a soft serve cone. He bought two gigantic servings, but it was 85 degrees and by the time we caught up with Mick they were reduced to soft serve puddles, and it turned out Mick didn’t want one anyways. Paul and I enjoyed what was left of the cones instead!
Things started to get interesting after mile ~200. Mick said food was starting to make him gag and us crew started to worry that he wasn’t consuming enough calories. It was getting late in the day and Mick had just finished a long climb so we decided to get him off the bike for a few minutes, wipe him down, do a major clothing change to get him ready for cool cycling during the night, and try to get some food in him. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to keep down any of Martha’s “ultra smorgasbord” and instead he went through a long spell of vomiting. Paul and Martha were familiar with this as part of the competitive ultra cycling routine, though since Mick was puking he wasn’t keeping calories in his body. His belly needed to settle down, or he’d eventually run out of energy.
Although he was 2 hours ahead of his plan, Mick was slowing down and looked to be in trouble. The route turned south as the sun set and in the golden light of the early evening we could see him periodically throw up while on the bike. Paul used the radio to urge him to fight through the difficulties. We reached time station 4, mile ~264, in Dale at about 10PM and Mick said he needed sleep, so he got off the bike and we put him in the backseat of the van.
Dale consisted of a lone 1930’s-looking gas station and a handful of nearby houses. The gas station was also the local hunting headquarters and I could see a stuffed bear and several stuffed big horn sheep heads on display. Guns were NOT allowed inside.
After about 30 minutes, Race Director George Thomas arrived, which meant that the 4-person teams would start passing us soon. Mick and George had a “male bonding” (?) experience as a 2-man team at last year’s RAW when both of them suffered nearly race-ending issues. With this as backstory, George had some encouraging words with Mick and he rallied to get back on the bike and started up the next climb, Meadowbrook Pass.
From the vantage point of the follow van, the ~7-mile Meadowbrook Pass climb looked difficult, and it was easy for us crew to empathize with what Mick must have been feeling as he struggled uphill. George continued to lighten the mood and encourage Mick with a set of stuffed animals and by running alongside him. As we neared the top of the climb it was getting harder for Mick to move in a straight line and us crew decided it would be unsafe for him to descend. Paul radioed Mick to tell him we were going to take a break and Mick nodded in the affirmative. We rushed out of the van to catch a now very unsteady Mick as he dismounted.
We put Mick in the back seat of the van again and let him sleep. Many of the other competitors and teams passed us while we were on the summit, and those who knew Mick shouted encouraging words as they passed. One of the Kronies Krew’s vans briefly stopped and the entire contents piled out to chat with Mick and see how he was doing. As things quieted down Martha and Paul also got a bit of shuteye while I hung outside to look for shooting stars and listen to the singing coyotes.
At about 2AM Mick woke up to vomit, except there was nothing left to heave. Everyone agreed that after about 273 of the 515 total miles it was game over. We were in the middle of nowhere, and we deliberated the options–follow the course back to the start/finish area in Hood River or return to Seattle? We decided to drive towards Seattle via Pendleton. Paul and I quickly reorganized the van for the late-night retreat. I felt pretty cooked and slept most of the 2-hour drive to Pendleton; thank goodness Paul had gotten just enough sleep to safely pilot the van, while Martha was powered by adrenaline.
We got settled into motel rooms at around 5AM, and it was apparent that Mick was still unsteady, which confirmed we had made the right decision to withdraw from the race. The next morning Mick was able to take small amounts of food, but he said it was a bit of a struggle to keep it down. His face still looked pale the next day, and he slept a lot in the subsequent days.
During the drive back to Seattle Martha and I talked a lot about a cleansing diet I had done in January, which among other things involved eliminating nightshade vegetables–tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. Nightshades seem to cause inflammation for some people and this can result in digestive problems as well as joint pain. I now avoid wheat and nightshades and feel better as a result. Mick and Martha are doing a similar experiment to see whether eliminating nightshades will decrease Mick’s tummy problems during ultra events. So, while Mick withdrew from the event, maybe the experience will turn out to be a catalyst that at least reduces stomach issues in future races. In the context of ultra competition, maybe this can be considered a “success.”
Mick is talking about getting “redemption” by doing the 24-hour version of the upcoming Ring of Fire Time Trial, September 9-10.