It’s 4:15 in the morning some where near Loa, Utah, and I can’t find my gall-darn arm warmers in the back of this cramped pickup truck we call our support vehicle. Then someone says, “ya know, we are outta gas and probably won’t make it to Panguitch if we keep going!” Damn, I still can’t find my arm warmers and I’m getting’ pretty irritated because it is dark, 43 °F outside and I’m in the bucket for the next pull. Then someone says, “how many miles can you get out of this thing on a quarter tank of gas anyway?” Suddenly, my arm warmers don’t seem all that important and I start doing math in public. Although there wasn’t much public up at this hour on a Sunday! Ever tried to do mental math after 24 hours of no sleep and about 100 miles of intervals under your butt? Heck, I couldn’t even remember my own teammates’ names, much less do basic math at 4am in the middle of nowhere. Sound like a bad dream? Unfortunately for us, this was reality, and this was Ultra Cycling reality. The never ending curve balls that crop up like this, in an event like this, put in place just to test your mental resolve. You see, Ultra Cycling is not about the fastest to the line, although that is the ultimate goal; Ultra Cycling is about survival, will to sustain, and stamina to keeping going, no matter what until crossing the finish line. Ah, my arm warmers finally! Stuffed under a previously used sweaty towel. Gee, could it get any better than this? Now…where’s my water bottle?
I’ve heard some say that individual participation in Ultra Cycling is the “real” deal, and the team aspect doesn’t really live up to the essence of the word Ultra. Nonetheless, staying awake for 36+ hours; doing endless intervals; and pulling support duties for your teammates all day and all night falls into my category of Ultra Cycling so, to me, that’s the real deal!
As with any major event involving several people…in our case teammates…planning is essential to success. I’m a stickler for details and believe that Murphy was right, “If anything can go wrong it will.” Now, this is not a negative thought process by any means. To the contrary, this thought process involves taking a close look at all the things that need to get done before race day, and engaging in forethought as to how certain unplanned inputs may affect the team and overall strategy. In simple terms: why build in a level of ass-pain that could have been avoided before the event even begins. There is a wealth of information out there on planning, etcetera, on various Ultra Cycling websites that address this very issue so let’s move on and get to this year’s HooDoo.
Originally, our plan was to ride one hour intervals and vary that plan based on how we felt and what effect the weather and terrain would have on our ability to keep such a pace. Frank (the team’s Italian Stallion) talked with the race organizers at the team meeting and they offered up a different rotating strategy that would possibly make our effort more efficient and pace faster. After talking the suggested strategy over, we decided to adopt the idea with the caveat of making modifications later in the race as necessary. The idea was pretty simple actually: we would break into two teams of two and rotate 20 minute pulls each, doing 3 rotations, and then swap out with the other two teammates. During your “downtime” you would drive and navigate; make water bottles for your buds; fuel yourself, clean yourself; try to find your gall-darn arm warmers; and at the same time, try to stay awake. All of which can be somewhat challenging, especially very late at night. We decided that since Frank was indeed better looking in spandex than the rest of us that he would lead off and I would be number two man. One thing I will mention here because this is the place that I noticed the effect of starting “uphill” the most. Starting off cold, uphill is a bad plan. For one, your body is not warmed up, and for another, the lactic acid hits you right away after sitting for awhile and then suddenly sprinting up a hill. So, if possible, I highly recommend starting off the next rider on either: a downhill portion, a flat portion of road, or on a crest of a hill. Since there were no restrictions on rider handoff’s in the HooDoo, I recommend using this rider exchange technique as the rule rather than the exception.
Stretching out my legs on the downhill into Hurricane I passed a couple of riders and started my climb up to the plateau for our first southeasterly run. This is where I realized that this race was gonna be an ordeal. The ‘ole Garmin kept telling me the grade was 8%, then 10% and a couple of times telling me 12%. Yeah baby, pain and more pain, but this speed bump was only a glimpse of what was to come. A couple of pulls later I then realized what else was in store for us: wind, tons of it whirling out of the southwest at a wicked speed. On the upside though, each of us got a nice push as we turned eastbound while the sun rapidly set over our shoulders in the west. This is the time of day when reality sinks in, and you realize you are in for a very long night. When everybody else is having dinner and getting ready to watch American Idol reruns on TV, you are out on the road, inching up the climbs and ticking the pedals over one stroke at a time.
By now it was my turn to “refresh” myself so I thought I’d step into nature’s powder room, relieve some serious pressure and enjoy the setting sun. As I came up from the road-side ditch that doubled as my powder room, I noticed an RV trying to make a very tight turn onto a side-road (I was standing on) for a place to wait for their next rider exchange. All I can say is that the next sound I heard was akin to that of an imploding submarine as it succumbed to the pressure of the deep sea. The RV decided to mate with a guardrail. Thankfully, I was finished with my business because my reaction to such a sound so close by could have resulted in a very messy scene. To top things off, one of NUBS 11 year old riders went by me as I walked back to the truck and shouted a cheerful, “are we having fun yet?” comment. “Just wait you little blankitty, blank, you’ll be old like me someday!” I thought.
We made it to Bryce Canyon with just enough daylight left to take in some of the scenery. What spectacular views you get in this part of the country at sunset. Red rocks are much redder, and the contrasts with the surrounding terrain are amazing at this time of day. Well, after Bryce, I kinda of fell into a space time continuum. I couldn’t tell you if we were headed east, northeast or what, and I couldn’t have cared less what time it was. We just settled into our routine of driving, eating, riding, drinking, getting ready to ride, and supporting other teammates. I’ll comment here on another aspect of team riding in events like this. Organization in the support vehicle is key at night. Digging through storage bins, coolers, and backpacks while crawling through the side windows of a pickup truck was not optimum. But, it was a level of ass-pain we had built for ourselves and now we had to deal with it.
We kept a pretty good log of what rider was on the road and at what mileage point they had started so we could keep the leap froging technique going in the darkness. The rules stated that you could use this leap froging technique as long as the rider had all the reflective tape on the bike and there were two independent lighting systems on the front and back of the bike. I highly recommend leap froging because following a rider for hours at slow speeds is a death march for the driver and the poor sap who has to stay awake and navigate.
I already alluded to Loa, Utah (Time Station 4) in the first paragraph so I won’t go there again. But, if anybody can find a pay phone in that town, please let the race organizers know where it is. We hunted high and low with every light source we had and couldn’t find it. We did, however, find gas. Thank you Texaco!
Finally finding my arm-warmers, I took the next pull which, oh by the way, was another climb! This one was steep and never seemed to end. I passed a single rider on my way up and as I passed, he let out this really weird yelp. Kinda like a Coyote after a kill. I just gave an encouraging nod as an acknowledgement and pressed on with my pull. About the time we loaded my bike up for the umpteenth time, I noticed dawn’s early light peeking through the horizon in the east. Hooray! We made it through the night and you could feel the morale of the team pickup slightly as the sun rose steadily skyward.
High morale faded to seriousness again as we turned south towards Panguitch. The rode dumps out of the mountains and into what I called the Panguitch valley. The downside of heading south was the fact that we were headed directly INTO the wind. As the hours passed, the speed of the wind got increasingly stronger and made riding seriously difficult at times. About 10 miles out from Panguitch, we decided to cut our pulls down to about 5-6 miles a piece and rotate as a four person team vice two two-person teams. We figured this would be a better and more efficient use of our waning energy levels. For some reason Panguitch seemed like a milestone in this race. I felt making it to Panguitch was the point of no return, and getting there would give us a little salvation that we could indeed finish this race.
What we did not realize, however, was that the climb to Panguitch Lake and further onto Cedar Breaks would be a real beeeaaatch! Given any other day, with plenty of rest, and less wind, this 34 mile climb would have been a whole lot easier in my humble opinion. What we did not realize as well, was the fact that we were climbing from around 7,000 feet to 11,000 feet by the time we got to Cedar Breaks. I kept wondering off and on, “why is this so hard?” Duh! About ten miles into this leg, we decided to break things down even further and do 2-mile pulls, swapping out as a four person team once again. This worked out great! I was actually surprised at how fast the next 24 miles went. We were able to keep our average speed up and keep the psychological effect of really long climbs in check.
Boy was I glad to see that left turn at Cedar Breaks leading to Hwy 14. I swapped out with Frank, and then Mike took us all the way down the bomber downhill to Hwy 14. I think I had as much fun as Mike did on that downhill. Somehow, after all this riding I could “smell” the barn and we were finally gettin’ there! Steph took Mr. Toad’s wild ride down Hwy 14 into Cedar City. I kept thinking on our white-knuckled drive down Hwy 14 that I was really glad we didn’t have to ride up that road. That would have been one helluva long agonizing climb!
Hot damn! Cedar City and one more checkpoint behind us. I went up the road on Hwy 56 while the rest of the team did a little shopping for provisions in Cedar City. All was good until I got out into the open desert. Then bam! The worst wind I have ever ridden in. It was blowing so hard across the road that I got blown into the gravel twice. The sand was ripping across the road so hard that it was stinging my legs…and…the road was gradually starting a pitch upwards into the mountains in front of me. I’d been on the bike for over an hour and I was whipped and very glad to see my relief show up.
We were about 30 hours into this race and we had about 80 miles to go. It sure was a great feeling to see our mileage approach the 500 mark. What another great boost in morale. Well, at least for me anyway. At this point we maintained our 4-person rotation strategy using 6-7 mile pulls this time. Something worth mentioning here: when it is your turn to ride, make sure you take a route slip and cell phone with you. Don’t assume the follow vehicle will be there at all times, or catch up to you in a timely manner. We had a small hiccup on this part of the ride that could have potentially cost us some time, but as things worked out, we fixed everything and stayed on track.
The left turn south onto Hwy 18 was a blessing. Not only were we making our last run towards St. George, we were heading back into the mountains, and out of the wind! The sun was going down and I was having déjà vu all over again. Damn! I can’t find my arm warmers again and I’m in the bucket for another pull! Making it to Vejo was great because it meant we had 7 miles to go to the last checkpoint, Snow Canyon. Apart from my rear-tire blowout at 45+ mph, and the two failed attempts at putting another tire on my wheel, the feeling that this race was almost done was a very welcome feeling indeed.
Finally, Snow Canyon! Our last checkpoint. Hooray! Frank and Mike decided to take the truck to the finish so Steph and I took the last pull of 15 miles or so down Snow Canyon and on into St. George for the finish. The weather warmed up significantly which seemed weird to me because it was 9:30 at night. This was a stark contrast from 24 hours earlier. I took off elusive arm warmers and put them in my back jersey pocket never to be lost again. Well, at least in this race! It was a great finish to a very long ride. A big thanks and congratulations to my teammates for a job very well done indeed. See you next year!