Race Across the West…Falling deeper into the abyss
by Mick Walsh
Since getting into ultra racing I’ve always wanted to go to the next level. Last year I did Race Across Oregon, so for this year the next level would be the Race Across the West. It’s the first 860 miles of 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 crewing.
The only problem with the crew is that they are in the Salem, Oregon area, which is about 240 miles south of me. 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 a trial overnight ride to see how things might shake out.
The plan was for Martha and I to drive down to John Henry’s on the Friday before the race (start was on weds June 15th) then J-H, Elsie and I would drive down to Oceanside on Saturday-Sunday, and Paul 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 Saturday night, and arriving around noon on Sunday. From my experience last year, I figured we needed to be there then. We needed all that time to be ready for the race, as there were lots to be done to be compliant with rules, stock the van and make sure we knew the route out of town, which was different for Van and rider.
So, photo session, crew meeting, rider meeting race reconnaissance and many trips to the store, and many hours stocking the van later we were at weds morning and ready to race. I must say I did enjoy my ride on the first, unsupported part of the course with Donncha Cutriss on the Tuesday morning. What a nice guy. At this point he is looking good for a respectable finish in RAAM, the first Irish Solo entry in the race.
The race start was fun, 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 came cruising by at about 27 mph. The temperature went above 100 degrees there and I was taking in plenty of fluids and calories. About 15 miles later, flat roads and strong tailwinds, Gerhard and Marco, 2nd and 3rd in RAAM blew by me like I was stopped. There is no point in racing those guys, they are in a different league altogether.
I made a quick stop at Time Station 2 to freshen up and cool off a bit, but It was too late. About 15 miles later at around 10pm, I had to stop and lay down. My 3rd place in RAW was gone for good. I had chills and was throwing up and it was 3 ½ hours before I could start riding again. The next twenty four hours 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 yogurt and cold instant mashed potatoes (yummy eh!). In addition, 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 Time Station 5 at Salome, Arizona, my crew came up with a game changing decision. They found a hotel out in the middle of nowhere and checked me into an air conditioned room to cool off, have a shower, eat some food and take a two hour nap. Well, this put me back at the very back of the field, and with some work to do to make the race time limit; a gamble, but otherwise I would have not been able to continue. Before this "rest", I was moving very slowly on the fastest part of the course, and my average speed was already down to 11.5 mph. And and the majors 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 Time Station 6 in Congress Arizona 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 night time and cool and I felt OK most of the time. I did have one bad patch and had to stop for 15-20 minutes and I was sick there too.
I was able to maintain a better speed when we got to Arizona, 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, 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. I probably slept 2 hours a day in the last 48 hrs.
The crew were great, Paul, John Henry 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 minutes 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.