We had a very excellent trip to the Coachella Valley, where I raced the 2013 World Championship 24 Hour Timetrial. We had a lot of surprises (good and bad, as ever) along the way, and lived to tell this tale.
The race had a Friday evening start. We got to Thermal in good order, leaving just after work on Wednesday, and arriving just before dark on Thursday with a good load of groceries. We'd scoped out a pretty nice campground which was perfect for hanging out in The Red Pearl. Pearl had auspiciously turned over 100,000 miles on the Grapevine, which we duly noted and celebrated. She was running like a champ.
Dinner was chicken and salad and baguette under the stars, and we turned in early. After an incredibly good night's sleep, we woke up, showered, and started down the list. Bikes detailed - check. Lights – check. Car systems: heating, cooling, lights, music – check. Clothing, glasses, helmet, shoes – check, check, check, and check. When we ran out of thing to check, we headed up toward Mecca to get final supplies (ice, gas, pizza) and to kill a little time before the pre-race meeting.
In the spirit of “killing time”, we stopped in at Brown's Date Garden – a cute little out-of-the-way place that's right on the race course. The sign at the road said that they were open 9-4. We rolled up a slightly dusty driveway and peeked in the screen door. People came out of the back, apparently quite surprised to see us – they were just getting the place ready as a retail storefront. What followed was a very thorough and gracious “tour” of the facility, followed by the opportunity to taste varietal dates. After we'd made our selection the proprietress asked us where we were from. We started in with our standard, “Oh, Arcata – it's a tiny town WAAAAY up north, almost Oregon, you've probably never heard of it...”. What ensued was a 20 minute reminisce on the “old days” - both she and her husband and Bill had been at HSU in the 1970's. Her husband had been on the football team, and do you remember getting “fog passes” at the drive-in, and did we know any Sundbergs? (Of course – Bill works for a company that deals with every contractor in the county...) Yes, sports fans – there is probably precisely ONE date grower in the Coachella Valley who's got a tie to Humboldt County, and that's where we landed. Go figure.
|The lady in the back ("Little Donna") sold us our dates|
|Sign at road. Eat Local!|
|Dates Are Great!!|
Except. About a mile down the road, 10 miles from the checkin, the engine...stopped. As though it was out of gas. I got us semi-gracefully perched off the road. By the time I had my blinkers on, and Bill was reaching for the door handle, the first police officer had arrived. I'm guessing that being stranded and alone in the desert doesn't end well. We explained the situation, and Bill hitched a ride with some locals back to the gas station to start finding help. Within minutes, the second officer arrived. He offered to stay with me, which I figured was overkill. Then he headed back to the gas station to verify that Bill hadn't expired and was actually finding help, and came back to the spot of the foul to let me know that, indeed, against what must've appeared to the officer to be long odds, Bill had been able to make a couple of calls and help was on the way. Then he offered, again, to stay until Bill got back. I told him I would be fine.
I did the two things that I could think of to do mechanically: I checked the oil (it was fine) and the fuel pump relay (it looked fine, but who can tell, really?). That left me to bag up the slices of pizza and the mountain of dates (we bought a 12-pound box 'cause they were SO GOOD), drink three bottles of water, pee, and fuss. Just about the time I figured I might as well take a quick nap, Bill showed up, having gotten a ride from the Guths, who were headed for the start line as well. Not far behind him was the mechanic guy in his pickup truck. I did not get his name, but I'll call him Angel. That's what was tattooed on his right arm in what I swear were 8” tall letters, owing to the sheer size of the canvas. Angel mainly works on big rigs, but he's happy to moonlight. He has me crank the engine (nothing). Again (nothing). He makes a couple of noises, grabs some tools and a gas can. We explain that we just fueled. Like – JUST fueled. Undeterred, Angel detaches the air filter and hands it to Bill. Bill wants to do something – ANYTHING – useful, so he methodically whacks the filter to remove dust while Angel dumps gas into the engine. “Crank it!” (vrooom-vroom-sputter). He adds more gas. “Crank it!” (vroom-vroom-sputter). “OK”, he says. “It's your fuel pump.” He winks at me: “Mexican diagnostics, ma'am”.
|Not actual arm. Not actual tattoo. Not actual size. Not even close.|
Well, when the car initially sputtered to a stop, I figured that the worst case, literally, was a fuel pump. That would require a part, and it was Friday afternoon, and we're in the middle of nowhere, and the local cops already fear for our lives, and...well, you get the picture. This is where Angel grows his wings. After a long ten minutes of phone conversations with several different folks, Angel agreed to tow us to the race start. His tow truck was not going to work (remember, it's for big rigs, so it's too wide), so he attached a tow strap to the Astro and off we roll behind his pickup truck. By now it's a bit after 3:00, so we're right on schedule (I guess...)
Arriving at an ultradistance race with your crew vehicle towed to the start behind a pickup truck is certainly memorable - just not confidence-inspiring. Factor in the distance we'd traveled, the fact that this ended up being essentially my ONLY race this year, and that it was Worlds, and – well, I was inclined to feel sorry for myself. As we got closer to the start – at Oasis Elementary – I was amazed at the sheer number and variety of cars that were lining 74th street, and the buzz of traffic. Then I saw the orange semi truck marked “FOOD BANK” and the line of people snaking down the side of the school, and I remembered how lucky I am to have all of these problems. The actual race was going on around the corner. Angel towed us to a perfect parking spot and we parted ways. If you'd like to read a little bit about the people who live in the environment I was riding through, look here.
I stepped out of the van and into my “normal”. Packet pickup. Portapotties. Inspection. Old friends, people I know by reputation, others. Swapping stories. Didn't even bother having the van inspected as it wasn't going anywhere fast. Bill loaned our spare lights to a team who was struggling with theirs. We put together a drop bag that the race organizers would have ready for me 60 and 180 miles into the race. Having a drop bag isn't nearly as nice as having Bill right behind me with light and music and all the good things that a van can provide, but it will just have to do. It's not like I can't ride by myself, after all – though I do wonder casually what odds those policemen would lay on a middle-aged lady making it back alive, out by herself on a bike all night. Drop bag highlights were pizza, Boost (chocolate flavor), honey stinger chews, water bottles, and caffeine gum. In retrospect I should probably have put more stuff in the drop bag.
I decided that in the interests of time I would forgo clothing changes, which meant that what I wore would have to be pretty adaptable to temperatures from 50 to 80F. In the end I left every one of my lovingly-selected pink jerseys in the van, and went for the long-sleeved capilene T that I'd gotten at the Badwater 135. That and a pair of light capri leggings would have to do. I considered tossing a jacket in the drop bag, but abandoned that idea: the only time I would be tempted to pull the jacket on would be at the 180 mile mark, and by that time we would be just a couple hours from sunup. And why waste time over just a couple hours of being just a little cold? In theory I would be going fast enough to stay warm down to 50 degrees.
Being immersed in the start line hub-bub always makes me feel a lot better, but all this time, the huge, unavoidable fact of the dead fuel pump in the Astro kept rolling around in the back of my head. My math said that Bill might be able to actually speak with someone who might order the part Saturday morning, and it would take a full day to arrive from (wherever parts come from down here – LA?) After that, it would take a miracle to get someone to work on it on a Sunday, and we could take off Sunday night....if we were lucky. If not – gaaaah. I just started a new job a couple of weeks ago. My new coworkers are supportive of and slightly amused by my cycling excesses at this point, but if unforeseen circumstances stretch out my 5-day weekend any further, who knows?
I did my best to stay focused on matters at hand. Not knowing many of the people there, I semi-randomly picked three rabbits to chase. I figured that my BEST rabbit, was, appropriately, Mick Walsh, (Furnace Creek totem: Irish Hare). Mick had added just a drop of gasoline to my fire when he mentioned that it was weird to be at a race where a 400-mile day would be not-so-great. Hey– it is NEVER easy, or a given, to bag 400 in a day. Too many things can get screwed up. Like...a fuel pump. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks just how lucky we were that the fuel pump expired when it did. What if it had been, say, 80 miles into the race? Yuck.
Pre-race meeting, just as it's getting dark. One burning question for me was the Border Patrol checkpoint: what would happen there? When we'd pre-ridden the course in September (on our long and winding bike/van camping tour of California), I'd been stopped for a couple of minutes. Since I showed up without a drivers' license (oops – it was in the van!) I got to answer some extra, special questions, just to make sure that I wasn't trying to sneak into the US on a pink recumbent bike. Fred has warned the Border Patrol that we're coming, so in theory we should be waved through with only a minimal stop, but he's not guaranteeing anything – so we should definitely carry ID. Actually, I did get waved through both times without a holdup, which was nice.
6:05 – we're off! They did a wave start, and I was in the last wave. I try to remember my detailed notes about the road surface, and maybe I do, subliminally. There's a sliver of moon, which I know will disappear later at night. Knowing the surface really helps since I'm running a little less light than some folks, to preserve battery life – about 200 lumen. At that rate I'll go all night, no problem. Plus there is plenty of ambient light from the cars of my fellow racers – at times, too much. The scene at the major stoplight (where 66th crosses Highway 86) is pretty intense: racers and vehicles all over the road trying to get a jump on the light. Unencumbered by needing to stay with my vehicle, I sailed through that pretty well, and then had to pick my way through the field as folks were sorting themselves out on the other side.
After that, just a lot of smooth, flat racing until we reached Calipatria. Mainly there's a good shoulder and there are areas of excellent pavement. I pass the campground where we stayed last night. It seems to take forever to get to Niland, where the road turns a bit before the quick run into Calipatria. I move over for the occasional passing vehicle, including, to my self-amusement, the trains. I'm pretty sure I didn't HAVE to move over for the trains – if I did, someone was having a way worse day than I was – but it was just ingrained. Every so often I pass someone, who may or may not pass me back as they gain steam after a pit stop. In the dark it's surprisingly hard to tell who's who, but I figure loosely that I'm in the upper middle third of the race – not bad. We can get some hard data at the end of the lap.
When I get to the clock tower in Calipatria, Fred himself is staffing the drop bag site. I did a quick forage – swapped a water bottle, snagged a Boost and a bag of chewies, and shoved off. Need to make this a quick stop because I have a matter of importance to deal with down the road....
There is an actual Highway Rest Area on 111 between Calipatria and the turnoff at Rutherford Road, but it is on the wrong side of the street, so we're not going there. Rutherford Road is off the beaten path and will have to do. I can see blinking lights a ways up, where other racers have made the turn – reassuring me that I did not miss it. There are signs marking the turns but you'd have to know they're there for them to be helpful.
Rougherford Road (ooh, was that a Freudian slip?) is a truly Humboldt-worthy piece of pavement: rough, unpredictable, no fog line, no center line. The moon has just set, so it's really dark. That's great for my purposes, though: “Piss on Rutherford Road!” is my mid-lap rallying cry.
There were race staff marking the turn onto Bannister with bright lights and great enthusiasm – a very welcome sight. After Bannister, almost no navigation, so I was feeling pretty good.
I got back to the start line in just over 6:30 – a little slower than I'd hoped, but all things considered, not too bad. About 5 minutes behind the Guth 2x team, which I thought was pretty nifty. Tanked up, more Boost, quick stop at the porta, and off for round 2...which was much like the first lap, except that there were WAY fewer cars, and it was light toward the end. One of the absolute highlights of the second lap was the number and intensity of the shooting stars that I saw.
|Not actually taken during the race. But shooting stars, palm trees, and water...you get the idea.|
The guy at the Calipatria outpost (mercifully Fred didn't have to stay there all night!) said that I was something like 8th or 9th, which perked me up a bit. It had seemed at times like I was riding through molasses. I knew I was a bit slower but I couldn't find much motivation to do anything about it: no car, no music, nobody particularly close ahead or behind, and I was probably running just a bit low on fuel. I reached into my bag of tricks for some caffeine gum, and I managed to spill it before I got it down. Crap. That's okay, only 50 miles until I can get some more....
I arrived back at the start finish a bit after 7:30 – later than I wished, but earlier than I feared. Making the last turn onto Harrison, Mick passes me. I had no idea that he'd been one of the racers I'd passed in the night. With a 3 minute difference between us, I'm still ahead of him – sort of – when we get to the start/finish. There's the motivation I need! Bill sprang to life and took care of the stuff I needed: food, drink, daytime glasses. Now it was time to hit the short loop, which I would do for the rest of the time.
The short loop is even flatter than the long loop, but there are complications – specifically, DOGS. There is one area where the race officials actually marshalled folks through since there wasn't any way to restrain the dogs. I figured that eventually they would wear out (the dogs, not the officials!). I was right.
On Saturday morning, an organized century ride is using part of our route (66th street). The first lap I encountered them, the riders were fresh and fast – passing them was quite a challenge. Every succeeding lap, the riders were a little slower and easier to pick off, which made for fun “target” practice. Everyone was having great fun and enjoying the sunshine and the nice weather.
With the new day, Bill's job went from fairly easy (be awake and helpful every 6 hours) to incredibly difficult (be awake and helpful every 50 minutes or so, ingratiate yourself to the folks who can help us out of the jam we're in, grab some internet time from the race director, start calling around to figure out how to get the car fixed....). He made it look easy. Of course I only saw a tiny fraction of the action, and when I was there he was 110% there for me. One lap when I came in Ron Swift's truck was re-charging our batteries so that we could keep refrigeration going (thank you so much!!!!)
As the day wore on, my lap times were up, then down, then up a bit, depending on shifting winds, porta-potty stops, and the like. I was right on the edge of being able to do 11 laps, which would've been a great result. Eventually when I came in, the Astro was on a tow dolly, ready to be hauled up to Indio to be repaired. Against very long odds, Bill had managed to find a place that would replace the fuel pump on Saturday, and have it ready for us after the race! He made the tow truck driver wait while I pitted, which amused the driver quite a bit.
At some point he mentions that “Vic is here”. Vic Armijo (if you know him, you probably know him from RAAM Media One) is a Humboldt guy, too. He's currently living in Big Bear while Kathy is on assignment down there. He's an amazing photographer, and took these pictures of me during the race. He took a lot of other people's pictures, too, but they have their own stories to tell.
|Aaaw, he even turned his signature pink for me (-:|
|Vic nearly called this photo "in the pink". Unfortunately, I was already feeling a bit green.|
Now our stuff – or at least what of it was spread out on the lawn in front of the school, yard-sale fashion. Ron Swift's team (thanks again!!!) let us store our popsicles in their freezer, which was great because that is exactly what I was craving. If you have never had a rice pudding popsicle, you should. In Spanish, the word is “paleta” - little shovel – which is good to know since I've never seen these morsels in places where English was the predominant language. They are available in many flavors. Look for “Arroz con leche” if you'd like to try rice pudding!
|Paleta Arroz con Leche - YUM! About 300 calories in this little gem...|
In the early laps, I pressed to build up some time cushion. Sometime late morning to early afternoon, the hotfoot monster got to be a little harder to handle. More ibuprofen – okay, a little better. Eventually it got warm enough outside that dumping water on my head and torso seemed like a good idea. I never felt hot, exactly – but it did occur to me that the conjunction of 2PM + slightly sleepy might have something to do with the heat of the day. Winds picked up in the daytime and in the moment they seemed very capricious – seldom the same two laps in a row. In retrospect, there was a very orderly progression of valley winds from NW to WNW to WSW to SSW. One or two laps it seemed like a headwind was dogging me the whole way around – then the next lap a friendly bit of tailwind would appear where one had never been. Pretty typical racing stuff.
In mid-afternoon the hotfoot came back with a vengeance. By this time I was starting to feel a bit nauseated, so I knew that more ibuprofen would be a bad idea. I had underfueled a bit and it was catching up to me. I asked Bill for some “where am I” guidance: 400 miles was going to be a soft target so long as I kept riding, none of the other female competitors was close, and my main rabbit was about 45 minutes back. Dialing it back served both my feet and my stomach, so that's what I did. In the end game, you have a choice: cater to the weakest link, or risk catastrophe. This is why I worked hard early on – to have the option to play it safe.
Before I took off for what would be my last lap, Bill informed me that he would probably not be there at the finish – he was heading to Indio to retrieve the van via – I kid you not - “Yellow Cab of the Desert”. He'll leave stuff for me at the start/finish. I imagined him being swept away by Omar, the camel, the whole nine yards, but evidently he had a very smooth, fast trip with a guy who was a local and an excellent tour guide. It's starting to get dark. Lights on, I head off one more time.
|Despite my concerns, the Taxi of the Desert was apparently a Crown Vic.|
Down the long stretch of Harrison toward 66th. The wind is totally flat, which I appreciate. A couple of 6 hour guys pass me, fast and furious. Turn onto 66th. Still calm, starting to get darker. Then a car flashes its lights at me. RATS! After 12 hours, my headlight has finally conked out. I know that I've got a 20-minute emergency reserve on it, but I guess I'd better save it for when it's REALLY dark. Pull over and switch it off. Fortunately the back-up light (a Blackburn Flea) is still lit. Just to be safe, I switch it to flash mode; that way it will last a bit longer. Past the turn onto Pierce, past the official at the Rez road intersection. Still no wind. Oh. It would be a bit LESS dark if I took the sunglasses off....just about then, the Flea sputters from dim to dark, too. Now I've got to get home quickly – I don't have much reserve light power at all, and the very last thing I want to do is to race 400 miles into a DQ. Soooo....pull over again, switch the light back on, and do my very best impression of someone who's riding a bike kinda quickly.
It worked – at least, I arrived at the finish line with my light still on, and rolled through at a little past 5:30, leaving about a half an hour on the clock. I was okay with that. I'd punched over 400 without long-loop support, I'd beaten my rabbit, and I was the womens' world champion. Enough already! Getting off the bike was comical. My legs wanted to keep spinning. Then my stomach wanted to keep spinning. Guess who won that battle? Yup.
After I puked, some adventurous soul put a camera in my face and interviewed me. I have not seen that video, but I imagine it's hilarious. I got into some clean(er) dry(er) warm(er) clothes that Bill had left and took up a cheering position next to Vic (my actual cheering was on the feeble side, but I was there in spirit) until Bill got back. After what seemed like a very long time of me sitting and alternatively sipping 7Up and NOT sipping 7Up, The Red Pearl sailed back to the race site. Bill packed everything up, then we said our goodbyes and thank-yous (not enough of the latter, sorry if we missed you!) and headed home.
The trip home was supremely uneventful. We made it as far as the top of the Grapevine before hanging it up for the night. I managed to sleep a little bit and woke to a much happier stomach. You'd think I'd sleep like a stone after being up for so long; not so! The Sunday drive was LONG, but we made it. I actually drove for an hour or so when Bill finally wore out in southern Humboldt county. We picked up Cog, our faithful dog, who was staying at the El Rancho Turk.
A couple of notes about the race. People presume that a flat race is an “easy” race; not necessarily so. On flat ground, you are either pedaling or slowing. In a race, slowing isn't so good, so you are pedaling constantly. I figure that my feet were turning nearly 23 out of the 24 hours. Training specificity is something that I think a lot of people overlook for a long, flat timetrial. Climbing hills is great training, but it does give you occasional relief. I am actually blessed with some really flat, boring places to train here: my 10x Samoa loops, 150-lap neighborhood 200k, and even the long, headwindy trips back from Breakfast in Miranda runs put the right kind of load on my legs.
I also benefited greatly from having a very simple bike setup. Friction shifting, fresh chain/cassette and tires, and a dialed-in bike all meant that I had zero mechanical issues. I have a light system with more than enough light to make it through the night (if I'd have been thinking, I could've turned it off the last hour of the morning before I came in from the second loop and avoided the problem in the final lap...), so I didn't have to do any swaps. More light might have been better/faster, but I think I maximized what I did have by using less early (when there was a moon and there were other racers in the vicinity) and more on the second lap.
I cut it pretty close on clothing (almost too chilly on the second lap), but I think the capilene tee was a great choice - just warm enough, and it had already been well tested in the heat.
And...dates are really good race fuel.
Bill was a total rock throughout this whole adventure. Never panicked, always there, always upbeat, always taking care of business. You'd imagine that after this experience I would never, ever even consider doing a race without Bill on the crew. Guess what? You'd be wrong. And you'd be wrong because I happen to know that if there is anything that Bill is better at than crewing, it's being an AWESOME teammate. Next up...Bill and I are racing RAW as a 2x team. We've already rented out the Adobe Cottage down at Oceanside, and we're expecting to have a Most Excellent (if slightly pirate-themed) Adventure. We're recruiting crew....
Still the luckiest person in the world, and signing off....Sandy