Last fall Sarah Cooper did the Silver State 508 race. She was the first female to finish the race, beating second place by more than 10 hours. I had made some race projections for her using Best Bike Split based on the course profile and expected power numbers, and I was completely caught up tracking (or stalking) her via the race website, Twitter or Facebook. I wondered what she was really going through on the course… what is is like to spend over 30 hours on a bicycle? I’d eventually get the answer to these questions and more, when Sarah asked me if I’d be on her crew for the Heart Of The South (HOTS) race out of Birmingham, AL.
Sarah and I became friends after I joined the large group of men who have been “chicked” by Sarah on the bike during the 2012 Bluff Creek triathlon. She was kind enough to share her power files with me, which gave me a chance to review my own strengths and weaknesses. With Sarah’s depth of experience, she has been an important part my performance improvement, particularly around racing nutrition as well as managing / recovering from injuries. As part of coaching that I provide, I assist people with race pacing and projections and Sarah’s willingness to share her data with me has been pivotal to improving my modeling processes. Sarah’s selfless assistance toward me is inspiring, so when she asked if I could help with the HOTS race… of course I agreed.
I have to admit I had some concerns about my ability to fulfill the support role. The first was that I had never been on a support crew before and really had no specific endurance cycling experience. My background is triathlon and I’ve never personally gone more than 130 miles on a bike. What was I really bringing to the party? I was also concerned about the potential for getting motion sick in the car, as well as the sleep deprivation. I did have some Friday-to-Sunday sleep deprivation in college, but that was 30 years ago and may have been fueled by a “couple” of beers. I wasn’t sure how my body would react to it now… even if I was just sitting in a car.
Sarah lined me up with some great crewmates. The first was Paul Black, who had all the cycling and crew experience that I lacked. He has finished Race Across America (RAAM), as well as setting some of the cycling records for riding across Iowa. Sarah, Paul and I met at my
office several weeks prior to the race to discuss the race in general, and it made me feel more comfortable. I assumed that I’d do most of the driving as this would alleviate my motion sickness concern and we could rely on Paul’s expertise for strategy. Sarah was also able to get Joe Robinson to join the crew as well. Joe helps coach our Tri group, TriRacers of Iowa and he’s been an endurance athlete most of his life. Joe has a top 25 finish on his resume from Kona… which puts him in a very elite group. Paired up with two endurance super stars certainly helped build my confidence.
My personality is such that I’m a strategic person… who also sweats the details. During the week prior to the race, I was tweaking and modifying the projection of Sarah’s time. I downloaded the GPX route from the race site and used it as the basis for the BBS software. I ended up breaking it into segments and essentially recreating the route on the RideWithGPS website. Being obsessively geeky, I also then verified the cue sheet against the GPX route and discovered that they didn’t match. Not huge differences, but the GPX route did have a few instances where it was adding extra distances (and more turns) to the overall route. I wanted to use RideWithGPS on my iPad to help us navigate, so I then modified all the GPX files per the cue sheet and updated the projections for each segment. This process was very helpful as it made me much more familiar with the route. The route itself had a lot of turns and/or comments on the cue sheet… 145 in total. The longest part of the course on one road with no turns was only 27.9 miles and the shortest was 25 feet. It was apparent that navigation would be critically important to this specific race.
We all met up in Birmingham on Thursday night and went through all of Sarah’s gear. She did a fantastic job of packaging up her items and organizing everything in a logical manner.
For example, she had a night bags with warmer clothes, a day bag with cooler clothes, and winter clothes bag for heavier coats and leg warmers. She also had a box for nutrition, med kits, bike repair kits, electronics (spare Garmins, chargers, batteries, etc), all specifically labeled. She had also created a tracking sheet showing each hour with a place to write down what she ate and how many calories she was consuming. We reviewed basic maintenance items required on the bikes, as well as the intervals that the electronics would need to be charged (Garmin, lights, headsets, etc.). Sarah is a “belt & suspenders” type of person (as am I), so she had a lot of backup gear, for the “just in case” scenarios. Overall, there was a lot of information to take in. It was extremely important that the crew was able to find and stow her gear in an organized manner so she’d have the gear she needed, when she needed it… nobody wanted to slow her down.
Friday I got up around 7:30. First on the agenda was preparing Sarah’s SUV. The vehicle is required to have flashing lights on the top (these were just magnetic mounted), a slow moving vehicle triangle, as well as signs that say “Caution Bicycles Ahead”. The challenge
was that with the bike rack on the back we had to work around the bikes to make the signs as visible as possible. One of the takeaways is that I suck at Arts and Crafts and was quickly banished from using the contact paper as I butchered the “Bicycles” sign. The second takeaway during this process was the significant amount of pollen in the air. It seems that the plants had recently went into a pollen production overdrive that was coating everything outdoors. It made me concerned about how it would impact Sarah and the specific impact on her asthma.
Next we packed the gear in the back of the SUV and arranged it for easy access by the person in the back seat. Originally I had anticipated there being plenty of room the back of the SUV, but it was packed in tight when we were done.
Paul was kind enough to make the crew sandwiches for the trip. We had stopped by the grocery store and had gotten snacks to help keep us awake… ranging from healthy bars to Little Debbie’s. It sounds like a small deal, but it was critical to keep the crew fed to help avoid drowsiness or wonkiness later in the race.
We all tried to rest around noon, but nobody was really successful. We went to the 3:00 pm vehicle inspection and filled out our paperwork. Everyone on the crew has to sign a waiver (along with the athlete) and they inspect the vehicle to ensure it has the properly displayed signage, as well as working flashers and lights. They also ask for contact information for the race crew chief and I was surprised when everyone selected me to be the crew chief. Basically this was just the formal point of contact for the race… but with my INTJ Meyers
Briggs personality… it immediately shifted me into my “leader” mode. We headed home to relax a bit before the race meeting and race start and I simply went over the notes I had taken as a final preparation. I continued to track the weather as well, concerned about the predicted rain for later in the evening.
We attended the race meeting prior to the start, where we discussed safety as well as the rules. I was able to get clarification on some of the route questions and we were pleased to hear that all of the turns were marked with arrows on the roadway. They warned us
about the poor road conditions for the first 13 miles (and last 13 miles), as well as the dogs that would likely chase cyclists in some of the rural communities. As a support vehicle, we were to use direct-follow mode from 7pm to 7am both nights. This meant that we were directly behind Sarah with our hazard lights on and that we were to keep our lights on high beam (unless other cars were coming) to assist Sarah with lighting on the course. We were not allowed to let Sarah out of our light coverage, which meant that we’d be following her closely with the SUV and that if for any reason we needed to stop (i.e. to go to the bathroom) that Sarah would have to stop as well. From 7am to 7pm, we could only direct-follow if we were not impeding traffic. Otherwise we moved to a leapfrog mode, where we’d pass her and wait for her to go by, and then drive past her and wait again. In general, we were trying not to get too far ahead or behind in case she needed assistance. Strategically we wanted to make sure that any extended stops (gas, food, etc.) were done during the day so it wouldn’t hold up Sarah’s progress.
The race started at 8:00 pm and they sent the riders off in 2-minute intervals with Sarah going out second. Joe started out driving, Paul was in the back seat in charge of gear and I was handling the navigation and communication, via the headsets. It was a surprisingly fast start, given the duration of the race. I chatted with Sarah a bit about her power targets and she was riding close to (just a bit above) the power targets I had used for race planning. The roads had a lot of potholes, but she was focused and doing a great job of avoiding the rough stuff. We completely missed the first couple of turn arrows as they were pretty small, but didn’t have a problem staying on course. I had my iPad sitting on the center counsel showing the route (using ridewithgps) and also had my own Garmin 500 running with the route map downloaded in navigation mode. This gave us an overview as well as distance to the next turn. I also checked each segment off on the cue sheet manually to ensure we were on track.
For me, the first couple of hours flew by. Besides navigating, I was also chatting with Sarah about nutrition. I was getting an update from her every 15 to 20 minutes on what she had eaten and prompting her to stay on her calorie schedule. I was also checking the weather, taking pictures and updating Twitter & Facebook as well. There was always something going on.
By around 10:00 pm, the weather situation was not looking good. A fast moving storm was coming through with high winds, heavy rain, lightning and the potential for hail. We could see lightning around us (but not that close) and the radar showed the rain coming. We stopped for a quick pit stop, giving Sarah a chance to put on rain clothes. We continued on and not long after the winds and driving rain started. I was watching for lightning and hail, but fortunately neither was an issue. Sarah continued to forge ahead in some really heavy rain and at times it was practically horizontal. I’d watch the radar and tell her it was just about over and then another little rain band would pop up and the rain
would continue. Eventually the winds and rain let up, giving Sarah a break from the difficult conditions. After 1:00 am we did another pit stop to get Sarah out of some of her wet clothes. In retrospect, we should have changed her shoes as well, as the wet shoes & socks created a lot of foot problems that bothered her for the remainder of the race.
After a couple of stops, I was getting a little better at orchestrating our actions. Sarah would tell us what she needed in terms of clothes, new lights, etc. I’d write it all down and read it back to her to confirm. Paul would get everything ready for the stop and then we’d discuss who would do what at the stop. This is very important for night pit stops, as Sarah can’t go until the crew is ready to go. This meant coordinating our bathroom breaks as well… who was getting gear ready and who got to go to the bathroom at this stop. We also performed rolling refueling, meaning we’d pull up next to Sarah, take her old bottle and hand her a new bottle (or food items) as she continued to ride. This made me feel very uncomfortable personally, due to my own history of trucks and bikes. That being said it was a “suck it up buttercup” situation for me and I personally handled all the handoffs to Sarah.
As we progressed, it also evolved that Joe did most of the driving. It seemed that he was able to handle the fatigue well and when he’d get really tired he’d turn the driving over to Paul. He’d recover fairly quickly with a little rest and then jump back into the driver’s seat. The driving really requires a lot of focus. At night you are very close to the cyclist and need to be ready to change speed quickly. Unfortunately it’s almost hypnotic at times as well. Our hazard lights were almost perfectly timed with Sarah’s cadence and the reflective bands she wore on her ankles. Her feet were going up and down to the flashing lights and the click-click on the dash. We’d work on keeping a dialog between the driver, myself and Sarah, to keep everyone awake. The challenge was of course that if we are talking… it made it really hard for the person in the back seat to sleep as well.
Paul primarily focused on the gear. He was great at finding what was needed for the next stop quickly and he’d have everything organized for the stop. After the stop, he’d make sure all the electronics were back in their chargers for the next stop. Probably more important than finding the gear originally, was that he systematically put things away as well. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is extremely important. Everything was organized and prepared for the next stop to avoid losing any extra time. Paul was also the primary mechanic, with Joe assisting as well. As we rotated bikes Paul and Joe made sure the bike tires were full of air (Sarah uses latex tubes which lose air faster than butyl), oiled chains and changed lights.
As part of the navigation process, I also ended up doing a lot of estimates on the fly… how far to the next timing station, how long will that take, etc. I also called in to the timing station, talked to race officials and corresponded with Sarah’s cycling coach (who was also the race director).
The worst part of the first night was going through Little River Canyon National Preserve. The road is very twisty and this is the only part of the course where I started to feel motion sick. I planned on simply sticking my head out the window to puke if necessary… but fortunately it never got to that point. I was thrilled to get out of the park and get a little break on straight roads for a while. The highlight of the night was simply getting through it without any issues. With the light came a renewed sense of energy, although I wondered to myself how well we’d make it through the second night.
My plan was to take a little more of an extended crew break when we reached the town of
Resaca, the third timing station. We gave Sarah a cue sheet and I went over with her verbally and on a sketched map what turns she needed to complete in our absence. The crew then got gas for the SUV, grabbed some additional snacks and were able to use real bathrooms.
Sarah asked me when I was planning on sleeping and I told her after the town of Resaca. The navigation was easier after that point, and sleeping in a car had never been a problem for me. Once we caught back up with Sarah I turned the headset and Garmin over to Paul and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. I was simply too engaged in what was going on. I kept my eyes closed a couple of times when we passed her so Sarah wouldn’t worry about me. Before long I took back the headset and we went back to normal.
Saturday was a beautiful day from the crew’s perspective. It was sunny, cool and clear, and we travelled through some really wonderful country (except the trash along the roadways… right next the the signs stating that littering was a $1000 fine). Of course it’s a lot easier riding in an SUV and Sarah was fighting a headwind and climbing mountains much of the day. What was interesting was how consistent she looked throughout the day. She was
maintaining power numbers around where we had expected (but times were slower due to the wind), and she was climbing with a smile much of the time. The highlight for Saturday was the dance she did while waiting for a stoplight near the town of Ranger. At this point Sarah had been riding for 18 hours, and still had the energy to dance… it was both inspiring and amusing. The worst thing about Saturday were the dogs. There were a lot of dogs that ran out into the road chasing Sarah. I’d hear them start to bark on the headset and I’d tell Joe to pull up close. We’d blare the horn to scare them away… which I’m sure wasn’t that enjoyable for Sarah either. Unfortunately since we couldn’t direct follow, we couldn’t always be there to help and sometimes she just needed to ride faster to keep ahead of them.
Throughout the day, I could hear Sarah wheezing as she was breathing. Sarah has asthma and the pollen explosion wasn’t helping. You could literally see it floating around during the day. I put it on the agenda for our late afternoon stops and Sarah used her 12-hour inhaler, which seemed to help a bit. The frustrating thing was that she relayed a story to me that someone had warned her about using her inhaler, as it might be seen as a “performance-enhancing drug”. What? I listened to her all day and it sounded like she was trying to suck air through a straw… the inhaler simply giving her a chance to somewhat breathe normally.
As evening came, we were back to direct-follow. Frankly this is where I felt the most comfortable, as I really liked having our SUV between Sarah and other vehicles. Although Sarah had done quite a bit of climbing during the day (and had gone up the highest elevation climb), she had some big climbs coming that night as well. The first big night climb was Cheaha Mountain (or as I called it Chia Pet), which included some both long and very steep (15%+ grades). This was around midnight Saturday night, 28 hours into her ride. Some of the climbs were steep enough that she was weaving a bit as she climbed. We were going 3 to 4 mph, which was easy for us, but I was amazed at how Sarah persisted on without complaint. We were all even more amazed that she was also able to carry on a conversation while grinding up the mountains. It was great to eventually get to the top and even took a celebratory bathroom break on Mount Chia Pet. Looking at the elevation chart, it looked like a nice descent going all the way in to Talladega. Unfortunately my elevation map was too small and it was difficult to see that although the general trend was downhill, there were still rolling hills that Sarah needed to climb along the way… a frustration for all of us. The road was relatively poor in this stretch and included a lot of corners. I had talked with Sarah that she may need to brake a bit more so the SUV could keep up. Overall, Joe did a great job of keeping up, without slowing Sarah down too much.
After leaving the Talladega National Forrest, Sarah started to get cold. The temperature had dropped down to the mid 30’s and with her lower power output later in the race, she was not generating as much heat. We took just shy of an 8 minute pit stop to put most of her clothes on her. We were putting leg warmers on top of tights, multiple shirts and gloves, and even Joe’s coat. It was glaringly obvious that at this point, my aero projections were out the window, but keeping Sarah warm and moving was the priority.
Sarah continued to get colder and more tired. We stopped at a Chevron in Talladega and I ran in to buy coffee and a chocolate bar. Joe left the SUV running with the temperature cranked up and the heated seats on, to try to give her some warmth. They gave her hand
warmers to place inside her clothes, and we put the remaining coffee in her bike bottle. She got the chocolate bar down and we headed out for the timing station. This was her longest stop of the night at just over ten minutes and thirty seconds. We stopped briefly at the timing station location, again to give her some additional hand warmers and a couple minutes in the SUV.
Shortly after leaving Talladega a train was travelling parallel to the road we on. Sarah asked me if there were two trains or just one. I explained that there was only one train and a building in front of it. She saw the building… and two trains. She then matter-of-factly told me she was having hallucinations from the hypothermia. She then was seeing gnomes along the road and interesting shapes as the lights hit the grass or surrounding
area. At this point I went into evaluation mode. My big concern was maintaining safety. It was after 2:00 am on a Saturday night and there were some idiots out driving… passing us excessively fast. Sarah is a wife and a mother first, an endurance athlete second and I needed to make sure she came home in one piece. There were a couple of things that swayed my decision to let her continue to ride. The first was that she was consciously aware that they were hallucinations. She wasn’t swerving to avoid anything and was able to maintain the balance between what was real and what wasn’t. The second was that she maintained her riding skills. Her balance wasn’t compromised and she wasn’t swerving. I got a little uneasy as she rode close to the yellow line, but she explained that the road was smoother there and she was maintaining a consistent line. I didn’t share her hallucinations with the rest of the crew. My thought at the time was to see their objective perceptions of how she looked. Interestingly, Joe commented how good her form continued to be on the bike even when she was tired. It was the final piece of information that convinced me to let her continue.
Over time, Sarah got back to a more normal state of mind. The combination of coffee and chocolate bar seemed to have a positive impact. She picked up her pace a bit and once again things were looking up. We then got to two hills that didn’t look that big on the elevation, but turned out to be 1.7 and 1.2 miles in length (see elevation chart above). Although not a steep as previous climbs, these were within the last hour and a half of the ride… mentally these were substantial obstacles. At this point Sarah was so tired she was afraid she’d fall asleep while riding up the hills. She asked me to keep talking to help keep her awake, so I was blathering on about anything I could think of, reading Facebook status, etc., just to try to keep her engaged.
After getting past the last climbs, Sarah had to remain focused as she was returning on the pothole filled road. This was the hardest point of the race for me. At this point the headset had run out of battery and there wasn’t much to navigate now (just a couple of roads), so I really didn’t have much “purpose” left. To stay awake, I even agreed to eat one of Joe’s Little
Debbie’s. Sarah and I collectively decided that morning that Joe’s fountain of youth probably exists in the multitude of excess preservatives in his Little Debbie’s. The biggest challenge we had at this point was that the crew had to take a bathroom break with less than 10 miles left (impact of the caffeine)… and I had to break the news to Sarah by yelling it out the window at her. Since we were stopping, she would have to stop, which had to be agony that close to the finish.
I called in to the race director and told him we were down to the last few miles. He was ready for us at the finish line, where we took a few pictures. We packed up the bikes (and
Sarah) and headed back to the house. I crashed at 6:30 am, 47 hours after getting up Friday morning. After 4 hours of sleep I got up, got a shower and got ready to head the airport. Sarah had already showered, cleaned out the SUV and had herself ready to go. She is the energizer bunny. 🙂
I had several questions about the race when I got back, not covered in my rambling dissertation above. I thought I’d include these for reference as well:
What did Sarah eat?
The goal was for her to consume around 350 calories as long as she could, with a minimum of 200 calories per hour. Most of the time we were able to stay within these limits, but did have one hour late in the race where she only got in 120 calories. This was during a long climbing section where she just didn’t have time to get anything down. Early in the race she focused on more high carbohydrates, which included CarboPro drink and Gels from a Flask. She also consumed coke, pancakes, rice bars and larabars. We threw in sliced turkey and cheese sticks from the cooler, and the chocolate bar and coffee from Chevron (she had coffee earlier as well). Her calories per hour are shown at right.
How often did you stop?
I discussed some of the stops earlier in the blog, but listed left are the specific stops during the race. Note that Sarah’s original Garmin locked up, so this was reconstructed from multiple partial files, and is my best estimate overall of our stops.
How do you pace a long race like this?
I believe that trying to maintain an even power distribution on a race like this is an unrealistic goal. From previous long events, I have a general idea of Sarah’s power decay over time. This is to be expected as the muscles fatigue and become damaged over the course of the race, the depletion of virtually all stored glycogen, as well as general physical fatigue. I have looked at Sarah’s competitors’s results from the Sebring in February and found her decay to be similar to all the top riders, with less experienced (or overly aggressive riders) having higher speed decay rates (implying higher power decay). If you think these riders are plodding along at very easy intensity levels for the entire race, you would be very wrong. For comparison for my triathlete friends, Joe Friel theorized that the optimal TSS values for an Ironman race is a value of 280, which Sarah exceeded in the first 5 hours of the race… with almost 29 more hours to go. For many age grouper triathletes to stay below the 280 TSS value requires intensity factors (IF’s) below 0.7 for “only” a 112 mile bike leg. Sarah’s average IF didn’t drop below 0.7 until after 15 hours of riding. What is unique about Sarah (and these ultra endurance cyclists) is that they have very flat fatigue curves, meaning they can maintain power in low zone 3 (tempo) and high zone 2 (endurance) for extremely long periods of time. Genetics? Nope… seat time (high volume training) is the key! I’m keeping Sarah’s actual power numbers confidential, but attached is her IF’s by the hour, along with calorie consumption as well. Note that as intensity drops, the need for extra calories diminishes as well.
Overall, I appreciated being included on Sarah’s support crew. I was on a great team (and nobody got on anyone’s nerves), I learned a lot along the way and it’s truly inspiring to see Sarah’s dedication and perseverance. For more, you can read Sarah’s race report here.