by Sarah Cooper,
I hardly know where to begin, I’m so overwhelmed by my experience. I had never even heard of this event until mid-December when our family schedule necessitated some big changes to my planned events. Several very cool opportunities came up for our kids, so two big events that I had planned on I was no longer going to make it to, and then the Death Valley Double Century was cancelled. Just like that, I had a gaping hole in my event schedule that I needed to fill. I was very interested in working out any issues that I might have with riding thru the night prior to Trans Iowa, so a 24 hour time trial in the winter actually sounded like a good idea, and a great learning experience. Such is the strange world I am living in these days! A quick google search turned up Bike Sebring. The timing was decent; I still had seven weeks to get ready and theoretically would have enough time to recover after and not interfere with my Trans Iowa prep. It all happened so fast, one minute I’m asking George Vargas if he thinks this would be a good event for me, and the next thing I knew I’d been introduced to and adopted by Rev Endurance Cycling team mate Rob White who filled me in on all of the race details and logistics, and had me set up with his friend Brian Arnold to crew for us both during the night. They also planned to bring the equipment that I would need but couldn’t carry on the plane. It just couldn’t have worked out any better than that.
I didn’t have long chunks of training time available this winter, mainly 3-4 hour blocks of time either before the kids went to school, or just after they left for school. So most of my training rides started at 4am, and although I managed to get in a sufficient volume of cycling, any training rides over four hours were broken into two or three separate rides with an hour or more in between. That’s probably not ideal training for a 24 hour event, but it did allow me to ride at a higher wattage and was challenging in it’s own way. I think it got the job done. On the rare day it got near 30, I rode outside on my cross bike. I trained with a power tap on a trainer or rollers, and used modified workouts from triathlon training plans, or from the book Training and Racing With a Power Meter, by Allen & Coggan. Really anything that I found interesting and was motivated to do. My trainer was set up in the unfinished corner of our basement near the hot water heater, so it was essentially just me, the power tap, and music. My husband plays guitar, so after the last few years of listening to him practice I’ve gotten in the habit of mentally pulling apart the different guitar parts and trying to hear just that one section of the song. I listened to the same albums and the same songs for each interval set, over, and over, and over… That’s how I kept myself entertained. I put a few pictures and race numbers up on the wall, and a white board next to me for my workouts. It’s not a plush set up, but narrowing down the distractions really helped me to focus on cycling, instead of trying to count the minutes until I could quit. Once the end of January was near, my resolve faded… I hope none of my friends that received my texts really worried about me having a fork in my eye
I got into Sebring late Thursday, built my bike, and bought the groceries and water that I would need for race day. Somehow I managed to remember my torque wrench, but forgot arm warmers! Rob immediately replied to my text and said that I could use his. He and Brian were on the spot with anything I needed, all weekend long. I seriously wanted to ask them if they had organic, MSG free alligator jerky just to see if they could put together a plan to get that for me They were truly amazing!
Friday morning I drove the 11 mile short loop of the course, then met Rob and Brian for the first time. We were supposed to meet to ride with his friends, but he neglected to tell me his friends were all legendary Race Across America (RAAM) athletes… My jaw about dropped when they all started getting out of their cars. After introducing me, Rob quietly asked me if I knew ‘who they were’…Um, YEAH. I just tried to keep my mouth shut and not say anything stupid, although I’m not certain I was entirely successful. It was just a very cool experience, it was awesome to ride with them, take in all of the helpful information they shared, have dinner with them, and then share the race course with them. Totally amazing experience, and way more than I expected when I entered this race.
A few weeks prior to Sebring, my friend Greg Grandgeorge had sent me an excel spread sheet where I could plug in my planned wattage and planned rest stops over the 24 hour period to get an idea of how many miles I might accomplish. It’s awesome to have geeky friends that will do this type of stuff for you! He has seen a number of my power files, and calculated the ratio for how my watts translate into mph. It also calculated TSS, so I could see how much stress I was going to be putting on my body over the course of 24 hours. I really had no idea what TSS I could handle before I cracked, but I knew that my Ironman TSS had been in the 900 range for an 11 hour event, so spreading more stress over 24 hours might be ok. It’s just guesswork really, since this was my first 24 hour race.
I had to laugh, because when he originally sent me the sheet he had plugged in 10 minute breaks every three hours. 10 minutes?! GREG, IT’S A RACE!!! You don’t plan to stop that long if you can help it I played with the chart a bit, left some breaks in there, and came up with a few different plans based on how the weather might be over the course of the day. If the winds were high, I strongly favored riding at higher wattage on the road and cranking out as many short loops as I could before hitting the track for the night. Give the constant turns, rough surface, and 1950′s pavement on parts of the race track, I doubted my ability to ride that well on the track in the dark. I knew the winds would die down at night, hopefully making it easier to maintain speed at a really low wattage. My goal was to get in 300 miles by midnight, then just hang on til sunrise. I wanted to RAAM qualify, and I was going to ride however hard I needed to in order to make that happen… and hopefully not fall to pieces before dawn.
The big loop was very easy to navigate, and very well marked. It was sunny and very windy, but not too hot and I wasn’t staring at a hot water heater so all felt right with the world. Brian went by me in a group of drafters a few hours into the ride. It was nice to see him having so much fun. I was averaging 190ish watts and over 20mph by that point, and they just flew by me. I had packed powder to mix bottles at the turn around, but I decided on course that I wasn’t stopping until after the 100 mile loop. It sounds a little stupid in hindsight, but I did the first 100 miles on just the 3 bottles of fluid I had on my bike. If it had been just a few degrees warmer earlier in the ride, I would have stopped for fluids.
After finishing the big loop, I picked up 3 more bottles and food for another 100 miles and hit the short loop. Highway 98 was by far the worst stretch with the headwind and traffic. It seemed I always passed the most people on that stretch, and venturing out into the traffic to pass was a little nerve wracking. No real issues with the cars though, they were considerate all day. There was a little diner on the right hand side of the road just before the turn off 98, so that was my reminder to eat something every lap. I ended up drinking a bottle an hour by this point, and Brian had taken a break during his 12 hour ride to pass me what I needed. When he went back out to ride more, the Pipkin family that was set up next to us in the JPR Mobile Services trailer handed me stuff as I needed it. It was all very efficient, and I really can’t thank them enough for jumping in to help. To keep myself entertained and celebrate every loop, I blew the timing guy a kiss every lap. I hope I wasn’t driving him crazy, but being just a little silly at the turn around helped me to blow off stress and get back into focus for the next loop.
My wattage was a little lower on the short loop due to the downhill and tailwind sections, and my speed was fairly consistent despite the nasty headwind section. I saw 200 miles on the Garmin just past 9.5 hours and felt good, ‘good’ being relative to being on a bike for almost 10 hours. As I was riding along, I thought of all of the cool things people had said to me prior to this race and how many people were praying for me. My friend Katherine Roccasecca had posted “kill it. just kill it.” on my facebook wall the day before… I probably repeated that in my head hundreds of times during the race. Rob had started me listening to Hatebreed back in early January, and whenever I started drifting out of race mode I repeated the refrain from Boundless (Time to Murder It), or Own Your World over and over.
Brian told me I was in third overall at my second pit just after 200 miles, and I just had to laugh. I’ve seen a good amount of garbage on facebook and twitter this winter about how training on a trainer is ‘fake’ riding and ineffective, and real men ride rollers or outside no matter the weather… I had read those words and felt doubt in my training but now I can honestly say what a load of crap! A trainer is just a tool, you only need to use it right to get results. I would have loved to ride outside more this winter, but all of that indoor riding was certainly not ‘fake’ or ‘mindless spinning’.
I had time for a few more short loops before hitting the track for the night, but I was growing mentally weary of the short loop, and the relentless wind. I told Brian I was ready to get off that merry go round and get on the other one. I’m glad I got in those last few laps though because I got lapped again by Marko Baloh on his way to crushing the 12 hour race. We exchanged a few words as he went by…. actually I think he talked and I just nodded like a moron. Anyway, it picked me up a little as I hadn’t been feeling very good in that particular section. He is really an amazing cyclist to watch, and I forgot all about not feeling good.
Transitioning to the track went very smoothly. The first few laps were light, then the sun set and the temperature dropped rapidly. It was pitch black outside of pit road, but strips of red tail lights laid out on the pavement lit the route around the track, otherwise it would have been easy to ride off into the wall. After a few loops, I made a longer stop to air up my tires (I had latex race tubes that bleed air quickly) and transition to winter gear. I wore a smart wool base layer, long sleeve jersey, windproof coat, full finger gloves with liners, face mask, toe covers, heavy wool socks… I thought I was dressed for your average Iowa training day in the polar vortex. I later stopped for leg warmers, Thermacare heat wraps, and hand and foot warmers. My Garmin recorded low temps in the 40′s for most of the dark hours, then dipping into the 30′s before dawn. That’s cold!
I hit 300 miles well before my midnight goal, and was fairly consistent with pacing and nutrition. I knew my power had dropped off dramatically, but I felt ‘ok’ and couldn’t see my Garmin in the dark to see how bad it was. I was reluctant to drain the battery by lighting up the screen. I started to have some knee pain that really had me worried about making it until dawn, but then Rob pointed out that I had not yet put on my leg warmers. That seemed to help. This is why Rob is ready for RAW and RAAM, and I am not even close. He kept his brain together the entire race, while my IQ got progressively lower, and my decision making ability went to pieces. By 350 miles, it was all bad. I started to get really cold, and completely stopped eating and drinking. Brian kept asking me if I needed anything, and I just kept telling him no. Your crew can’t help you if you don’t let them! I started hallucinating, and saw translucent cats running next to bikes. I saw unrecognizable things moving in the pitch black areas of the track. The Michelin Man that was lit up on the sign above the timing mat was seriously creeping me out. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
I hung on til 400 miles, and did a few more laps to set a new record. I was so cold and stupid by that point I was starting to have trouble steering my bike and I knew it was time to stop and regroup. I hadn’t had anything more than a few sips of coke for two hours. If you’d asked me my middle name, I would’ve had to stop and think for a few minutes. Brian put me in the truck to warm me up. I told him to give me 20 minutes and get me back out there. I was in a pretty bad way, and I just could not reconcile the fact that my race was about to end with me as a shivering, stupid, hypothermic mess and quitting before dawn. Brian handed me the Ipad and I remember George trying to give me a pep talk but I was not processing much at that point. It can’t end this way. It’s not going to end this way. I didn’t spend 20 hours a week on a trainer to quit. Will this happen to me at Trans Iowa too? I knew if I didn’t get myself back out there and finish the last 60 minutes it was going to haunt me.
I asked Brian if he had a sweatshirt, and he literally pulled off the one he was wearing plus his thermal gloves. I put it on over my other layers and went back to my bike. There was one hour left, and I told Brian I would do two laps. I did the first lap super slow to minimize the wind chill, but then people started to pass me that hadn’t passed me the entire day. I found that very irritating, which made me laugh. My head was back in the race! I did the next lap faster, avoided looking at the scary Michelin Man, then had time for two more laps before the official finish at 6:30am. I FINISHED. The sun was just starting to glow on the horizon and it was so beautiful to see.
My normalized power for 24 hours was 164, TSS 932, IF .643. I burned 12,510 KJ. My Normalized power for the first 100 miles was 191, then got progressively lower as the day went on. My speed stayed near 20 mph for the first 200 miles, then thanks to the wind dying down a little, held near 18 mph on the track for another 100 miles before it got ugly. I rode in aero most of the day and some of the night, which helped me maintain speed for less power. I also came into this race reasonably light, which always pays off in terms of speed. I had great people, selflessly giving me whatever I needed. There you have it.
A lot of hard work went into preparing for this, and anyone that knows me knows that’s something of an understatement. I am so totally overwhelmed with gratitude to Rob White and Brian Arnold for taking care of me this weekend, and ensuring that my race ran like a well oiled machine. With their help, I was able to have the race that I was capable of, and that is an absolutely priceless gift. I am so very blessed to have met them, and honored to have them as friends. I am forever in their debt.
Thanks to the race directors for putting on such a great event. They really have this race dialed in, the transitions between loops were smooth, and I had way more fun than I ever imagined I would riding in circles. My apologies to the timing guy for annoying him… Thanks for putting up with my nonsense.
George Vargas! Thanks for supporting my dream! Don’t kill me at your training camp. And next time you want me to break a record, please tell me that while I’m training…. The week before was a little late
Kyle Robinson and Kyles bikes: thanks once again for getting my bike ready to roll. Every race I bring it in to you, and every race you get it dialed in exactly the way I want it. Thanks for your patience with me, and your enthusiasm for my kooky long races.
Greg Grandgeorge: Your Sebring projection sheet was exactly what I needed at the exact moment I needed it, and it gave me the confidence to believe in my training. It’s always good to start a 24 hour event with confidence, so thank you!
I didn’t tell a lot of people that I was doing this race, but my friends that knew were over the top supportive. Katherine Roccasecca, Liz Bryant, and Steve Fuller: thanks for breaking up my solo monotony and keeping me company on a few trainer rides. To my support crew at home, there are far too many people to name here, and I am so very blessed to have you. You all sent me messages before and during the race, and I saw those when I was weak and shivering in the truck. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting me, making me laugh, and giving me the strength to get back on my bike.
What’s next? Yes, I’ve qualified for RAAM, but no, I’m not anywhere near ready to consider an event of that magnitude. The other Sebring winners looked like they could have a meal and get back on their bikes… My eyes were swollen shut, I was in great pain and could barely walk straight. Recovery has been difficult, and ironically I have been so swollen that I resemble the Michelin Man that haunted me during the race. I need to get back on my bike ASAP and hit the gravel to prepare for Trans Iowa in April. I’ll need to be massively prepared for that race. It’s sure to be a bad weather year! I need to work out my issues with cold, hypothermia, and nutrition, and make sure I have a reasonable plan in place. Poor decision making at any point in that race will lead to a DNF, it’s just that hard. Beyond that, I’ve got a great list of events to prepare for, and I’m very excited about my season. My kids and husband all have cool stuff going on this year as well, so hopefully we can all stay healthy and enjoy the adventure.
Thanks for reading!