This is my story of the crazy event called Race Across Oregon. It is a 535 mi bike race (individual time trial / no drafting) with 40,000 feet of climbing (over 15 mountain passes). While there are numerous categories to enter: 2 person teams, 4 person teams, etc. I choose what seems to be the craziest: Solo. This means, for me at least, riding 30+ hrs without stopping for more than a bathroom break.
As you might imagine an event like this takes an enormous amount of physical training and logistical preparation both of which, if time allows, I cherish and love. I was provided support by many and to all I am eternally grateful for. Without the support of friends, family, and sponsors these types of adventures can’t even enter the dream/fantasy stage.
My preparation was a bit different than my normal bike race training program. The differences centered on nutrition and identifying the level of effort I could sustain for 30+ hrs. In testing I identified a very narrow window of intensity that I could sustain. Determining this specific window of intensity was done by using a bicycle computer that is able to accurately measure output of effort in the form of watts. I was able to determine that I could sustain an effort of 275watts. While this is not a lot for anyone riding hard up a short hill or putting in a hard short effort on the flats it is quite a lot to produce hours on end. I tested this “PROGRAM” on several long rides: Bham to Mt. Baker and Back (115 mi) and Bham to Mazama and back to Colonial Creek (200 mi). Both rides proved that, if I could stay fueled, I could likely sustain this wattage. Big learnings were that it would not be helpful nor would it pay off to go much harder than the PROGRAM.
Nutrition work was all about indentifying what high calorie race food I could ingest in large amounts without upsetting my stomach. Again, it is one thing to eat a fair amount on a five hour ride yet another to fuel up for 30+ hours. I was able to settle on 2 high caloric drinks: Sustained Energy and Ensure. Both are liquid based and very dense with calories. Thankfully I received HUGE sponsorship support from RunningShoes.com who helped with entry fee and nutrition demands. As always, they step up and support many soles that live to race and compete.
I packed and labeled almost everything I had: one tub for winter/foul weather gear, one tub for nutrition with labels telling how to mix everything, one tub for electronics: lights, radios, batteries, and more lights, one tub for warm weather cycling clothes. Each wheelbag was labeled with type of wheel and gearing ratio, 3 coolers filled with drinks and food for both rider and CREW. As a side note, we placed a special order with Banidito’s Burritos and they hooked us up with a cooler of 25+ incredible burritos! Good work guys!!
A few pre race logistics meeting with the CREW (Paul Clement aka Chief), Dave Bishop (aka Bish), and Jen Hampton (aka Jen). Paul is a top notch driver, mechanic, and all around adventurous guy. Bish is Mr. Easy going, game for anything and Jen is well…..married to Bish and just as adventurous. Additionally, she is a nurse by training whose expertise we hoped not to use! All in all, a top notch crew whose rookie status was never apparent.
After over a month of planning, gathering supplies, and more planning we were all finally ready and anxious to take a whack at this thing call RAO!
The day started early with a 5 am neutral start. There are about 20 or so solo entries. We had a nice slow easy rollout along the Columbia River. About 40 minutes in we crossed a bridge and the race was on. I got on the wattage PROGRAM and into the aero bars and just started plugging away. Lots of racers together so folks were drafting, etc but all seemed ready to get this thing underway.
After a few miles in I spotted my CREW and dumped my spare tire, tools, etc and lights. It felt good to get the weight off. I continued on the PROGRAM with a few guys hanging around, including last year’s winner Al. Some of the folks seemed to think drafting was still ok which I thought was a bit odd but nonetheless I just kept to the PROGRAM and tried not to pay much attention.
Unfortunately, my TT bike was not feeling so great on the back and hamstrings but I hung with it until the preplanned switch at mile 40 which is where the real climbing starts. This is where Al took a dig and jumped ahead. I continued on the PROGRAM which, thankfully, kept him well within site. At the top of government camp it was warm enough to make a helmet switch; off with the TT helmet and some fresh air with the regular one. Climb # 1 done ( el. 3995), quick decent and onto climb # 2 Barlow Pass (el. 4161), another quick descent and onto climb # 3, Bennett Pass (el 4647) which was a small paved forest service (BLM) road. It was a great windy road with lots of green forests, wildlife, and pleasant climbing. Over the top and now we start descending toward Dulfur and on the east side of the mountains. It is about this time when I notice PowerTap # 1 is not reading correctly and thus I radio to the crew and ask for a wheel switch. They oblige and are quick to manage the chaos and switch the wheel and head unit out. A bit later, more chaos ensues as I am descending at 45 mph the PowerTap head ejects itself. Luckily my CREW is close behind, I radio that it is lost. They hit the brakes, Bish piles out of the van and runs back up the road, Jen opens the slider door and peers into the ditch and Paul slams it into reverse and begins back tracking……crazy enough they find it within minutes. I get a call on the radio “Hey, we got it”…..totally shocked. I pretty much would have guaranteed that it was gone forever. Yet one example of many of why this CREW rocked!
Back on track, I get the notion that my back may have loosened up enough to try the TT bike again. Controlled chaos ensues and we do a bike switch. I try to settle in on the TT bike and Al is still in my sites. While his location is important my main focus is to stay on my PROGRAM. It is something that I have confidence in and it is basically the hardest pace I think I will be able to maintain.
We then enter the town of Dulfur, mile 95. Both Al and I make a wrong turn which requires a backtrack of about 1 mi and some amusing chat between Al and I. Shortly thereafter we start some small climbs and I realize that I will probably need to retire the TT bike for the good as my back and hamstrings are still very tight and uncooperative. As I swap bikes again, Al gains a bit of time on me. I stick to the PROGRAM and before you know it we are at mi 120 and entering Maupin, Time Check # 1. So far we have gone 122 race miles in ~6hrs or right around 20 mph average. The time check approaches, I ride right through and my crew stops for the check in. Al is about 1.5 min ahead and easily with in sites. The next section of the course crosses over the Deschutes River where folks were jumping off a bridge and into the river….some 40+ft below. That is one way to beat the impressive and increasing heat! It wouldn’t be the last time where I thought of how nice it would be to rest the legs in the nice cool waters.
Riding out of Maupin is probably the worst section of the whole ride, Bakeoven Rd. Definitely aptly named! A big climb, desolate landscape, and screaming hot temps. It is here that my support vehicle is not with me. They are checking in at the time station and probably gassing up. Al puts in a very hard effort on the climb to put some distance into me, and I begin to wilt in the heat. I am very surprised, yet aware, of the isolation of not having support immediately with me. All I can think about is that I have been on the road for 7 hrs, I still have 400 miles to go, and I am on the hottest, most desolate road in the world. To their credit the CREW would only leave me for one additional time during the entire race. Almost immediately, I am keenly aware of the immense isolation their departure brings. The impact surprises me. It is like I am a child in a department store that has just lost his mother. The world is now a strange and hostile place.
Soon the heat gets to my stomach. I throw up a few times (small amounts). Big learning/realization #1 kicks in. During a race like this, one is going to have bad sections and one will have good sections. Don’t react, don’t force it, just listen to your body and let it do what it needs to do. This gets me motivated to stick with the PROGRAM. As I crest up high on the plateau Al is FAR out of sight, my stomach sucks, and for the first time I think that maybe this can’t be done by me. To pour salt in the wound, shortly after my CREW catches up they pass me and I immediately flat. I radio ahead, they do a quick wheel change once I catch them. They offer their encouragement and off I go. Luckily this road which lasts forever is finally over and rumor has it we are 12 minutes down. That is actually a relief as I was expecting more to the magnitude of 20 minutes or more. With spirits lifted, I continue with the PROGRAM. At this point in time my crew is a bit worried. I am far behind my nutrition schedule and they are unsure how much to encourage me to eat/drink. Luckily my stomach settles a bit and I start taking in caffeine (via a mix of coke and water). This helps immensely. My crew dutifully provides me with my new nutrition schedule which I would not waiver from for the next 24 hours: 1 bottle of GU2O (Electrolytes and sugar), bottle of coke and water, and 3-4 packets of GU gel. Additionally, my crew navigates me over several more passes plenty of turns all with lots of encouragement and perfect execution. The caffeine boost, improved stomach and sticking with the PROGRAM has me in good spirits.
Up comes TS # 2 – Fossil. Time of day is 4:15 which means we have been racing for 193 mi in 10.5 hrs (18.4 mph avg). I am now 10 minutes down on Al.
Of interesting note, ½ way up the Butte Creek Pass climb (el. 3788 ft) I get a call on the radio that the wheel I flatted is now ready to go. The tire has be replaced (new one glued) on an is ready to go. By this time I am a bit fatigued so I don’t think to ask the typical questions one might ask upon getting such news, ie fresh glue….is it dry? I gladly accept the wheel change, take on more nutrition and a quick bio break (1 out of 50+ pee stops I would have to take!). We crest the climb, with new tire JUST GLUED ON, which I still am not registering and just rip the descent which is ~6-8% grade with numerous sharp switchbacks, a total corkscrew decent. About, ½ way down it dawns on me….90+ F, new FRESHLY glued tire, crazy descent….can you say Joseba Beloki……I radio back and ask….Hey, is this tire solid. QUICK response, 100% totally fine! Um, ok….enough talking, let’s get back on the PROGRAM!
Soon, we drop down along the John Day River for a 40 mi section of windy flat roads and I have Al in my sights. It is here that I continue to stick with the PROGRAM until I bring him to within 1 minute. I am a bit surprised to bring Al back. Although I have been riding at a good pace, the most recent part of the course has been flat and windy; ideal for the TT bike. Al is almost always down in the aero bars. Instead of being in a slick aero position my back has and hamstrings have demanded that I stay on the road bike and actually ride on the tops of the bars for the majority. While it is far more comfortable it is less efficient and costing me lots of energy as I have to push more wind to go the same speed. Soon, the limits of just a position or two of riding has my wrists hurting with tendonitis, my triceps aching, and my shoulders getting full of knots. All very atypical for me but nonetheless a barrier I need to deal with. Bringing Al back, under these conditions, is the first hint that he is starting to slow.
As I continue to follow Al from a short distance, I make a very conscious choice to step off the PROGRAM to take on more calories, salt, etc and just re-evaluate the whole situation. Feeding can now be done directly from the car so we settle into an absolutely awesome routine. I radio back for more nutrition, wait 2-3 minutes, the van pulls up next to me and I unload all of my empties and take on new stuff: ( 1 bottle of Gu2O, 1 bottle of coke/water, 3-4 Gu gels, and a straight water (for pouring on my head). We repeat this scenario with perfect execution every 40 minutes or so for the next 6-8 hrs.
After about 30 minutes or so I can see clearly that Al is not going as good as he was. He looks to be pushing hard, although hard to tell, but he is not putting any distance into me. Soon we start climbing again and it is obvious that he is struggling. I continue to wait with the intent of waiting until the sun begins to set, the temp will drop, and I will then resume the PROGRAM. The temp is in the mid 90s. My performance and the heat have a very specific relationship – an inverse one….the hotter it gets the slower I go. My strategy is to wait (remember….good sections and bad….just listen to the body). This works to perfection as Al begins to struggle more and more and I ride easier and easier to make sure to stay behind him. Half way up a big climb I radio back to the crew that it is time to resume the PROGRAM and I pass Al quite easily and put well over a minute into him by the top of the climb. It is full dusk now and I take time for a full change of clothes as I know it will be cool enough where I won’t be dumping water over my head any more. The CREW is perfect in their support and gets me back on the road just 20 seconds behind Al. I quickly pass him on the descent and enter the 3rd time check, mi 272 8:50 pm and an average of ~19.4 mph.
Al follows shortly behind. Up the next big climb, I quickly put Al out of sight. It raises the spirits and I continue to feel amazingly good. I surprise even myself on the many false flats, 2-3% uphill grade where I am just cranking out good numbers and a high rate of speed, 20+mph. It is now completely dark and we are cresting an unnamed summit (el. 5075). Radio crackles, that is the end of the climb for now, fast descent that should be pretty quick and clear……..HOLY SHIT….a giant Elk jumps into the center of the road. (Now remember that at night the rider and support vehicle are one. They are my headlights and are following VERY close.) This Elk is HUGE, it is dark, and we are going downhill FAST. I hit the brakes, yell out which makes the Elk scramble and fall. The size of this thing is unreal……it is cartoonish it is so big. It rights itself and tears of into the woods…..WHEW! The size of the beast is indescribable.
The remainder of the night was a Twilight Zone type of affair (X files for those a bit younger). Climb descend, climb descend all under the cover of darkness, all with a van 2 inches behind me, all on Gu2O, Coke/water, and gels. Sometime in the night a full moon rises over the mountains in full orange flare. Absolutely amazing. Something that will be forever engrained into my consciousness.
The night continues, I stay very focused and am riding very fast. About 1 or 2 am the first team passes us. (4 person teams started ~ 2hrs after our departure.) First, I see a support vehicle pass and then I catch back up to it as it is pulled over and waiting to exchange riders. I pass as they wait. It is not for some time until the team actually overtakes me on the road. Maybe another ½ hr goes by and another team passes me. They go by pretty fast but then seem to slow. I don’t want to leapfrog back and forth so I have to actually slow down for a bit and give them some distance. We reach the top of the pass, I pull off to put on LOTS of clothes as the temp has dropped steadily and is hovering at 50F. I zoom down the next descent, with CREW right behind. Some crazy corners at high speed with rocks and gravel thrown in for fun! Again, all in the middle of the night and after 300+ miles of riding.
Up another climb. It is about now that we are on Ochocho Pass (El. 4720 ft) which, unknown to me at the time, is a really long and hard climb. The temp is much cooler, I am beginning to get a pretty good wheeze in my upper chest, I begin coughing up nasty chunks of phlegm and I am getting sporadic double vision. I share none of this with the CREW as I feel I am aware and in tune with what is going on and that these symptoms are probably to be expected under such conditions and workload. I feel notifying the CREW will cause alarm and they will want to take some type of action when I feel it is really is just and wait and see thing. The climb goes on FOREVER. Some false mileage estimates by the CREW cause it to continue even further. It is a steep climb as well, significantly steeper than the other climbs. It is ~ 15 mi in length and it is really taking its toll. For the second time, I am suffering and I am beginning to question if I can make it another 160+ miles. My back continues to bother me significantly and I manage the pain with Tylenol. I radio back asking for another dose. Excitement and jubilee reigns inside the van. They didn’t hear ‘Tylenol” they heard PowerBar. They are excited because I have not eaten one solid piece of food since mile 15. I drift back, hold out my hand through the darkness, and grasp a PowerBar. “NO, I said Tylenol”. They look at me with an “Um, ok, whatever you say” type of look. Mild chaos and soon I have my trusted Tylenol.
As the night continues I am less and less confident about my mental acuity and ability to react in case of danger. As a result, I ask that we not feed from the moving car anymore and instead pull over. The CREW responds perfectly and we settle into a routine. I warn them of an upcoming stop, we pull over, Bish holds the bike, I pee, someone replaces all the bottles and jels and takes the empties. The whole time I am unsteady on my feet and have a tendency to sway back and forth a bit. Once back on the bike I am fine: smooth, comfortable, and focused.
The Ochocho continues on for eternity. Finally up and over the top. I get more clothes. This time it’s a mid weight thermal jacket, arm warmers, knee warmers, and hat. This lasts about a ½ mi of the descent and I pull over and ask for a THICKER coat and long finger gloves. The temp is now 42F and it is damn cold! The ultra thick thermal jacket works well but I still shiver uncontrollably for the next 3-4 miles. It is around here at some point that someone, I think it is real, on a recumbent passes me like I am standing still! Huh?
Screaming down the next decent and around a corner is a huge rattlesnake in the road! I mike up, “RATTLESNAKE”, Paul deadpans without hesitation “Don’t work, I ran him over for you”.
The descent evens out and as I warm back up I re-find my rhythm and soon find myself just flying. I am in a huge gear 53X13 just spinning along. It is slightly downhill, the pavement is smooth, it is between 3 and 4 am and I am flying. It is here I see a HUGE owl take flight and I hope he isn’t coming after me. It is here that I see a bright shooting star, it is hear that I pass a tree with over 500 pairs of shoes hanging from its branches. It is here that I see and have to duck many bugs and bats. It is here the race promoter pulls up next to me, rolls his window down, and tells me “Mick and Martha say you guys rock”. It is here I relay this to my CREW and get no response as they think I am not mentally with it and have just made that up. Who really knows what was real and what wasn’t.
It is here I begin to think that my world has a circumference of about 4 feet and even that seems a bit big and vacant. It is here that I feel like I have been riding my trainer in the garage for hours on end just turning the cranks over one revolution at a time. Like I mentioned, this race is a combination of complex training, planning, and logistics while at the same time it is idiotic in its simplicity. Turn the cranks, turn the cranks, turn the cranks (It reminds me of a funny home video I saw on TV where this dog just pushes a rock around all day. They dub a voice over with the ‘dog’ saying over and over again “Um, pushin a rock, pushin a rock. I am pushin a rock’.) I think it is the combination that attracts me to stuff like this: learn, train, plan which tests the mind then tune most of the world out and listen to the body as you push it as far as you can, hopefully not too far, and hold it there. Remember, it is dark, we have been at this for 400 mi and it is 4 am. My world is small, simple and has a single focus: turn the cranks.
I continue to ride well. I am going so good that I begin to bring the recumbent team back and enter Prineville TS #4 only a minute or so behind. The time is 5:12 and we are at mile 406. We have been racing for 23 hrs and 30 min for an average speed of 17.4 mph.
The CREW fills the van with gas, I slump in the van and am tired. I gotta pee but it is too much effort to walk into the store so I just pee from where I am sitting and onto the pavement to the utter disgust of the gas attendant. I take little notice as by now I am pretty fatigued, off the bike I am unstable, and mentally very dull. On the bike I am different. I am ok.
Back on the bike we go, I feel good. Head is clear although it is hitting home that we have been at this for 24hr and I still have 120 mi to go! FUCK! I stick with the PROGRAM and am just flying towards Madras. Lots of 2-3% uphill grades where I am cooking along at 20+ mph. It is still cold out but the sun is coming up. We enter Madras and get word that we are now in the lead by 1 hr. The CREW is pumped. I too am satisfied but know deep inside that there is still a LOT of racing to be done.
A big roller through Madras, back into some regular traffic which, even though is only a few cars, seems like rush hour as we have seen very few cars that past 20 hrs. A bit longer along the plateau and we drop down a big decent into Warm Springs. Here I am thinking we are more or less just going to head up ( a lot of UP) towards Mt Hood and Timberline. Well, I was not well versed on the remaining 80 miles. We take a right out of Warm Springs (mile 450) and immediately being a 6 mi climb that is relatively mellow at the bottom and seems to get progressively steeper and hotter (even though it is only ~ 8am). About 2/3 of the way up the climb I begin to wheeze again followed very shortly by some coughing and chunky phlegm. All similar to what happened near Ochocho summit back about 8 hrs before. As the top of the climb begins to appear Mt Hood is visible and still VERY far away. By now my heartrate is super low yet I am breathing quite hard. I pull off, CREW jumps into action replacing bottles, holding my bike as I pee, and then helping me cool down with cold sponges. I am a wreck, I can’t stand in a steady fashion and I am feeling very fatigued. I coax myself back onto the bike and we hit a pretty significant descent followed by yet another climb. This one I go up even slower, breathing harder, with heart rate steady at 120 bpm. (very low). The CREW continues to provide me info but I am too fatigued to verbally respond and simply hold out a thumbs up to acknowledge.
Again, I stop and we go through the same scenario: fill bottles, pee, sponge down. I am even more wobbly yet I get back on the bike and feel somewhat ok once I am pedaling. We seem to go up and down a bunch more, with each crest a beautiful yet still VERY distant view of Mt. Hood. I am suffering. Paul, knows it as does the rest of the crew. Paul begins breaking the course down in short sections. 4 miles to the next turn. We get there and I am suffering even more. I conclude, ok just spin easy and you will get through this. Remember, good sections and bad. Paul lets me know this section is 6 miles long. At this point, 6 miles seems like 600mi. The road is a bit narrower, more traffic, and I am getting to wonder what will happen if I fall over. I am wheezing even louder and continue to spit up chunks of leather like phlegm with significant blood clots mixed in. I keep thinking, 40+ miles left AND a lot more climbing. The world begins to go a bit grey, I continue to pedal (easy) but am suffering mightily. I am afraid I will fall in the road. I am halfway thru the 6 mi section and really just looking for a turnout in the road so I can stop. Soon I find one and pull off. In my heart I know I am done. I ask to speak directly and only to Jen (a nurse). I tell her my symptoms and she jumps into action taking my vitals while the guys hose and sponge me down. The entire time my eyes are closed. I can hear and understand what is going on but I am unable to muster a response. I feel as if I have drank a case a beer. The world is woozy, spinning, and all I want to do is pass out. There are some discussions, calls to the promoters, and more discussion. The entire time I can’t get my eyes open, I am coughing up larger chunks of crazy stuff. We sit and wait and nothing changes. I am done. After an hour or so we all conclude that this is so and we are all extremely disappointed. 395 miles complete and 40 miles from the finish and 30+ hours into the race we are forced to abandon.
The CREW pack quickly, locates the nearest hospital with the GPS, and races down the mountain. At some point in time I fall asleep which is probably not noticeable as I have been 99% unresponsive the whole time. We are approaching the outskirts of Gresham and I wake up. I feel 6 trillion times better. I am coherent, able to talk, and able to breathe. I feel so much better that I begin to think a trip to the ED is probably really not necessary. Jen and I discus…..I ask her “Pulmonary Edema?” and she says might be. Of course, I know that sanity requires a visit to the ED and anything less isn’t reality based. Not that I have had a grasp of reality for the past 24 hrs for that matter.
We get to the ED and me into a wheelchair. I check in and after about 15 minutes Jen and I get called back. Zillion of tests, pokes, prods, and questions later we find out that I will be staying overnight in the ICU with a diagnosis of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. Crazy shit.
My recovery, not sure what “normal” recovery is, has been slow. I didn’t really feel reasonably normal again until this past Sunday (7 days out). I have ridden several times and each time is a bit better. The circumstances of the race, hospital stay, and return trip back home really made it tough. I didn’t sleep much on Sunday night @ the hospital which only added to the misery.
I have had 1 follow up appt with a very talented Cardiologist and after a VERY long discussion he feels that my heart is ok, no long term damage and should be ok to continue competing. I have an appt with a Pulmonologist in Seattle on the 12th. Per the Cardiologist the diagnosis of what actually happen is a bit uncertain. He provided 3 reasonable explanations one of which was High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. I will look to the Pulmonologist for a more definitive answer.
Mentally, I am actually doing pretty well. I VERY much enjoyed the race (prep, logistics, the actual riding, and the challenge). I am bummed that I did not finish but at the same time I proved to myself, without a doubt, that I have the ability (physical and mental) to be very successful at these types of events. On a bit of a side note – I find it a bit eerie that I, in some ways, self predicted the outcome. Prior to the race I was asked by several folks about how I felt about the race and I had answered: excitement, dread (total hours on the bike), and fear. The fear was 100% around knowing the length of the race and knowing how hard I was willing/wanting to push. I knew that combination would be a bit risky but I also knew that is the way I race and any other way wouldn’t be any fun or fulfilling. Once it all fell apart and I knew, medically, that I was in trouble there was not a huge amount of surprise. Running the powertap and having a VERY specific wattage program/protocol was the right thing to do. I stuck with this the entire time with the exception of some strategic decision late in the afternoon of the first day when I had caught Al. Not to my surprise I could mentally and physically do it but it was at a pretty high cost obviously. Not sure how I would change that in the future…..hard to say.