Sunday, September 11, 2011

Racing Amongst The Hoodoos: Trials and Tribulations at the 2011 Hoodoo 500

On August 26, 2011, I ventured to St. George, Utah to participate in Planet Ultra's Hoodoo 500, a 517 ultra-marathon cycling race with over 30,000 feet of climbing in southwest Utah ( For me, this was my first attempt at a true ultramarathon cycling event. I decided it was finally time to make the leap from double century events to something a little bit longer! Planet Ultra is a small company run by Deb and Brian Bowling, who live in the St. George area. They are responsible for running many of California's double century events that are included in the California Triple Crown. Having participated in other Planet Ultra events in the last few years, I knew that Deb and Brian's event would be first-class, and they definitely did not disappoint!

Driving to the race, I was filled with mixed emotions. I was excited for the RMCC members who had successfully completed PBP...especially those who had earned membership to the Charly Miller Society, an elite group of American randonneurs who had completed PBP in under 56:40. At the same time, my heart was saddened by the death of Tim Kalisch during the previous week. My heart ached for Tim and his family. I must admit that my heart was not 100% emotionally prepared to ride a 500 mile bicycle race...

I knew that participating in the Hoodoo 500 would be an adventure. I was entered in the "Voyager" category. Voyager riders, in the randonneuring spirit, were expected to be entirely self-sufficient for the duration of race. Voyager riders were unable to receive outside support from event staff or solo (supported) riders. (Receiving outside support would result in a time penality.) My only means of support would be access to four drop bags that I had prepared in advance and would be placed at four different time stations along the course. It took many hours of preparation to get these drop bags ready for this event. I used small, inexpensive coolers that I purchased from Wal Mart. By using coolers, I know I could mix up my bottles of Perpetuem (in advance) and I could store them on ice in the coolers. The coolers and ice would essentially keep the bottles from spoiling. This would hopefully save quite a bit of time mixing bottles at time stations. This actually turned out to be an excellent strategy, but I ended up wasting too much time a time stations for other reasons...

I had several major concerns entering the race:

1) The heat. This was a extreme concern as riding along the Colorado front range and high country is usually considerably cooler than riding in the deserts of the southwestern US. I was definitely not used to riding in potentially 100+ degree temperatures.

2) Night riding. I struggled with riding through night terribly during last year's Colorado Last Chance 1200 km brevet, and I knew that this was going to be an issue during this year as I really had not practiced this skill very much this year.

3) Competition. There were some very strong riders entered in the Voyager category, including Alberto Blanco and Andy Palmer. Alberto is a 30 year-old Category 1 cyclist from California who finished fourth in this year's Race Across America (RAAM). He probably would have finished second in RAAM had he not developed a severe case of "Shermer's neck" and was passed on the last day by the second and third place finishers. (Alberto did not start the race...he probably most certainly would have won the Voyager division). Andy is a Category 2 cyclist who lives in Highlands Ranch, CO. Andy is an excellent time-trialist and would routinely place very highly in the Cherry Creek Time Trial series in the Pro-1-2 category. Andy was also no stranger to long-distance cycling events, finishing second at the Texas Tejas 500 two years ago. The only time I had ever beaten Andy in cycling event was the 2005 Chilly Cheeks Duathlon, a winter duathlon series at Cherry Creek Reservoir...obviously much shorter than a 517 mile bicycle race! 

The morning of the race, my first concern about the heat became a reality with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees at 5 am. (Temperatures the day before the start of the race peaked at 108 degrees!) And temperatures on race day were only expected to be a few degrees cooler. As a result of the heat, I made a last-second decision to ride with a camel back, something I had never done before. I knew that if I could fill the bladder of the camel back with ice, I might be able to keep my core temperature a bit cooler. Ultra race Andre Michaud from Durango, a Hoodoo 500 veteran who was participating in this year's event as a Solo (supported) rider, also offered some great advise for helping to survive the heat. Andre suggested filling panty hose with ice cubes and wearing the panty hose as an "ice necklace" around my neck. The ice would melt quickly, soaking my jersey to keep my core temperature a bit cooler. Andre's suggestion turned out be extremely helpful!

The first stage of the race was a 83 mile leg from St. George Utah to Kanab, Utah, passing through a small section Arizona along the way. Riding through the early morning hours, I established a pace that felt sustainable, alterating pacing with Wisconsin rider (and eventual Voyager winner) David Haase. David is an extremely smooth rider, staying very aero and never wasting any energy, as opposed to my frequent sloppy, out-of-the-saddle efforts. Andy had fallen back a bit as he was already experiencing problems with cramping, an ominous sign early during the first morning of a very long bike ride. Andy has an uncanny ability to recover, however, and I knew he could never be counted out! About 40 miles into the ride David and I started to experience brisk headwinds from the east, which made our voyage more challenging.  During one pull, David commented that the headwinds were brutal. I told David that I was just trying to ignore them, but they were definitely taking their toll on me as well. David and I pulled into the Kanab time station the same time, however, he was a bit more organized than me and rolled out of the time station a few minutes ahead of me. Still no sign of Andy...although I knew he wouldn't be too far behind. 

The second stage of race ventured 72 miles north from Kanab, Utah to Bryce Canyon National Park. After a relatively smooth start to the race, things would begin to unravel a bit. A quickly caught up with David after about 30 minutes of riding. The terrain had become noticeably more "hilly" at this point in time, riding over an endless stream of large rollers and short climbs through the scenic desert landscape. In spite of gradual rise in elevation, temperatures were starting to heat up...although they were nowhere near as "toasty" as they were the previous day in St. George.  I had pulled ahead of David a bit during this section, but he was never very far behind. About 112 miles into the ride, however, I experienced my first setback...I looked down at my front tire in dismay, which was starting to flat. I had ridden many double century events and long brevets this year without a single flat, so I was probably overdue....David cruised by and politely asked if I had everything I needed. I told him I would be "okay." That was the last time I saw David during the race...

I changed my flat as quickly as possible, and had no sooner started to ride again when the front tire immediately flatted again...likely a pinch flat...I dropped a few choice curse words. My morale began to go flat as well, especially as temperatures continued to heat up! I nervously changed the second flat, realizing that I was out of tubes until I could access my next drop bag in Escalante, which was still almost 80 miles away. I road a few miles up the road and stopped at a Chevron station along the side of the road, exhausted and dehydrated. I ate a sandwhich and refilled my 70 oz camelback, which I had completely drained in only 30+ miles from Kanab! As I regrouped, I watched Andy cruise by, looking fairly smooth and unphased by the heat. He was oblivious to my tire flats and mental decompensation.

As I continued to venture north, I encounted some cooling thundershowers which dropped some very welcome rain. The rain and slightly cooler temperatures definitely improved my spirits as I continued to trek northward. I eventually reached the turnoff for Bryce Canyon National Park, riding along a beautiful bike path surrounded by amazing red rock formations on the outskirts of the park. After passing Bryce Canyon, I reached the next time station, an unmanned Chevron station. I took my time reloading my bottles and camelback and ate a Cliff bar (or two). As I prepared to pull away, Andy pulled into the time station. He had apparently flatted while riding along Bryce Canyon National Park and I had unknowingly re-passed him. I asked him how he was doing and he was apparently suffering from the heat as much as I was...

I pulled out of the time station, and after only three additional miles of riding, I made my fatal mistake of the race. Rather than paying attention to the cue sheet, I followed the course markings that had been left on the course for the previous weekend's Desperado Dual Double Century...Before I realized I had made a mistake, I had ridden 10 miles down the road. I was dumbfounded! I've never been superb at on-the-bike navigation. Ask anyone from the RMCC...if there's a turn to be missed, I'll likely be the one to miss it! However, this mistake was heart-wrenching. It was a truly ominous feeling adding an extra 20 miles (10 mile out-and-back) to a 517 mile ride! At that point in time, there was nothing I could do...the damage was done. My moral was crushed. I regretfully turned around, returning to the course and resumed my pilgrimage to Escalante.

I rode extremely flat and uninspired the rest of the way to Escalante (203 miles). The afternoon skies had become much more ominous as the thunderstorms had increased in intensity, kicking up some nasty headwinds and heavy showers for nearly 25 miles up the gradual climb before Escalante. After cresting the climb (which had become rather steep towards the top), I began the long 20 miles descent to Escalante with the cooling rain pouring down on top of my head. I must admit that I've never liked riding in the rain very much, and after two flats and a badly missed turn, these thundershowers were not a very welcome experience! I frowned at the skies as the rain pelted down around me. I arrived in Escalante nearly 2.5 hours behind the time I had planned to get there, my front tire starting to go flat again. I was definitely ready to quit...but as a voyager I was  responsible for finding my own way back to St. George. Given the fact that I was over 200 miles into the race, I decided to keep riding...

In Escalante I made the executive decision to change my problematic front tire. After fiddling around with the tire for nearly 45 minutes (I couldn't get the new tire mounted on my tubeless front wheel...a problem frequently encountered with Shimano's tubeless wheelsets), I decided to take my chances and put my old tire back on...Fortunately, I did not experience any additional flats for the rest of the race! As I prepared for the next leg of race, I watched the smooth water bottle hand-off to 54 year-old Joel Sothern, the eventual 2011 solo race winner. (Joel also holds the overall Voyager record, which he set last year in 34:21.) The solo racers had started nearly two hours after the voyager participants, which meant that Joel was already two hours ahead of my time!

I pulled away from Escalante feeling emotionally drained. The race had definitely not gone the way I had anticipated. I've always been an advocate for positive thinking, but I was having trouble being very positive at this point in time. And Loa, the next time station, was nearly 87 miles down the road. The skies were darkening quickly as night approached and there was the looming 4000 foot climb over Boulder Mountain, the second highest location on the course at just under 10,000 feet in elevation. The slot canyons and rock formations, with their steep, "punchy" climbs, became increasingly spectacular as I traveled away from Escalante. As I continued to ride into the night, I was passed by the tandem team, Turbodogs (2 tandem bikes, alternating pulls every 15 minutes or so). I would spend the next 40 miles trying to keep pace with the Turbodogs. As I began the climb up Boulder Mountain, I tried to keep the Turbodogs in sight, stopping several times to eat an energy bar. I must admit that it was the first time I struggled keeping up with tandem bikes going uphill! As soon as I would catch up with them, the team would switch bikes and the fresh set of legs would continue to zip up the mountain. It was nice having their words of encouragement, which helped boost my morale a bit! The Turbodogs eventually crested Boulder Mountain, and that was the last I would see of them...

Much of the climb up Boulder Mountain was a blur. I struggled with hunger pings, fatigue, and of course weary legs! It was a long climb. It seemed like I was climbing forever! After cresting the mountain, I took the descent down Boulder Mountain with extreme caution. I was very grateful for my Light-In-Motion lighting system, but I still had visions of a deer crossing my path during the long, chilly downhill. Temperatures on these higher mountain peaks frequently dipped below freezing, even in August, so I was prepared for the worst! Fortunately, there were no mishaps and temperatures were cool, but not frigid. During the next 30 miles, I passed through the small town of Torrey. I continued to struggle with intense fatigue and really wanted to put my head down along the side of the road. Unfortunately, the space blanket (that I was supposed to be carrying with me) was in my drop bag in Loa. So I forced myself to keep moving, although I could have used some toothpicks to pry my eyes open! The last 10 miles before Loa, the skies once again began to flash with lightning and the rains  poured down, a fitting end to difficult 287 miles of riding in 23 hours, much , much slower than I had anticipated. As I pulled into the Loa time station, I learned that Andy was still there and he was sleeping. All was not lost yet!

My careful pre-race preparation paid off in Loa as my drop bag proved to be extremely helpful. I had placed a fresh change of cycling gear and toiletries in my drop bags in Loa and Panguitch, just in case I would need to take a shower. It was my smartest move of the race! I took a quick shower, slammed down a sandwich, and put my head down for 90 minutes, just enough time to mentally and physically regroup. After my short nap, I woke up feeling mentally recharged. I had pre-driven the last half of course during the previous day during my drive over from Grand Junction. It was a huge mental advantage to have at least briefly seen the final 228 miles.  I hesitantly got back on the bike as thundershowers still lingered in the area. I began the climb out of Loa, catching Josh Talley and Rick Jacobson, two yoyager riders who had caught up with me in Loa and had opted to not take a break at that time station.  I soon began the blazing descent toward the town of Koosharem, UT, the start of a nearly 40 mile stretch of gradual downhill and scenic rollers. I had my work cut out for me! Andy had left the Loa time station two hours before I did and I wasn't going to go down without a fight!

I arrived at Panguitch, Utah (375 miles), in 5 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Loa. Upon arriving in Panguitch, I was excited that I had made up an hour on Andy during the last interval. I reloaded my bottles and camelback. As I pulled away from Panguitch, race director Brian Bowling commented that I had "so much stuff!" (He was referring to my 4 water bottles of Perpetuem, my frame bag, and my camelback.) I new I would probably need most of it...I still had 140 miles to make the final trek back to St. George. After only a mile or so of riding, the road began to tilt upward as I approached the race's longest climb...Cedar Breaks National Monument...a nearly 30 mile, 5000 foot ascent to the race's highest point at 10,400 feet. After 375 miles, a long climb can be a demoralizing experience, but my legs began to "come to life," feeling better than they had felt for the previous 375 miles. The climb up Cedar Breaks was very similar to many Colorado climbs...never very steep, but very long. This climb in particular felt very similar to climbing the north face of the Grand Mesa outside of Grand Junction , although it never had the grandiose, panoramic views of the Grand Mesa. I was climbing for nearly 2 hours and 50 minutes before I reached the summit of the climb. I passed Seana Hogan, multi-RAAM winner and eventual solo female champion along the way. She had probably passed me during my brief nap in Loa, choosing to ride through continuously.

Approaching the summit of the climb, I began to experience some additional hunger pings. I stopped for about 10 minutes to eat a couple of Larabars, which I had stashed in my jersey pocket. The skies had become increasingly threatening as I approached to summit of the climb. During the final few miles of the climb, the skies opened up and the chilly rain poured down, lightning crashing around me. Temperatures continued to drop as the rain turned to small hailstones. I felt more "at home" with the cooler Colorado-esque temperatures (and thin air). I crested Cedar Breaks National Monument and began the long descent toward Cedar City.

The descent down Cedar Breaks amazing! It was easily one of the fastest descents I have ever done. With only minimal turns, it was very easy to "open up" on this descent, reaching speeds of 50+ mph. The only downside was that traffic descending the Cedar Breaks was fairly heavy! Many of the cars driving toward Cedar City were going considerably faster than I was! Southwestern Utah drivers have a tendancy to be a bit oblivious to speed limit signs as there was nary a police car ticketing speeding drivers. 

As I pulled into Cedar City (433 miles), temperatures had once again tipped the scales in the low 90s, in spite of the passing thundershowers. And I knew that it was only going to get hotter from this point on! I refilled my Camelback at the Chevron time station in Cedar City and headed out to complete the next leg of the race, a 70-mile stretch to Snow Canyon. The initial stretch though the town of New Castle was a challenging, gradual 30 mile climb with pesky headwinds. Headwinds had picked up considerably, as well as the temperatures. As temperatures continued to rise, cracking the 100 degree barrier, I began to feel extremely flat again. During this section, I made the mistake of not refilling my Camelback, which I had almost emptied in only 40 miles. And unfortunately, I had lost my craving for Perpetuem, As I continued to ride, I became increasingly dehydrated and I had to stop briefly on several occasion for "hot foot" problems, which occurred in spite of my custom D2 shoes. Without a functioning computer, the final 40 miles became an act of attrition as I impatiently pedaled toward the final turn down Snow Canyon toward St. George.

After what seemed to be an eternity of riding, I reached the turnoff for Snow Canyon (mile 503), beginning the final 14 miles descent into St. George. My body was beginning to shut down at that point in time due to dehydration. Every bump in the road made my body ache! The descent down Snow Canyon--with its stunning red rocks formations--was amazing...hoodoos at their finest! I pulled into the Best Western Abbey in St. George as dusk was setting with a time of 39:13, 2:51 behind David and 16 minutes behind Andy. At that point in time, however, I was less concerned about my finishing time. I was just glad to have finished this year's Hoodoo 500!  My hats of to David, Andy, and all of the other voyager riders! And thanks to Deb and Brian Bowling and all of their hard-working volunteers for hosting a stellar event!

Things that I went well:
1) Riding with a Camel Back...a real life-saver for the tough conditons, although I could have used my space blanket before reaching Loa. And I really should have refilled my camel back in the Veyo, the final convenience store before St. George.
2) Drop Bags were well prepared. I had all the necessary supplies to complete the race!
3) Brief nap and shower in Loa. Although this was not the most time-efficient measure, it rejuvinated my moral, making the second half of the race much more enjoyable.
4) I actually rode pretty well during the second half of the ride, with negative splits, finishing less than 3 hours behind Voyager winner, David Haase and only 15 minuted behind Andy Palmer. (I still have yet to beat Andy in a bike competition. He's one tough rider and a genuinely nice guy too!)
5) Nutrition. I survived pretty well on energy drink, energy bars, and 4 small sandwiches. I never had to stop to buy food, although I did grab a well-deserved Pepsi at the time station in Cedar City!

Things that went poorly:
1) Waaaaay too much time off of the bike at time stations!
2) Heat. No control over this one, but definitely my comfort level for riding in the heat could be improved with practice.
3) Flats. No control over this one either. My tires were new. Luck wasn't on my side!
4) Poor navigation. Missed turn was a deal breaker!  I should have pre-driven the first half of the course too. Live and learn...
5) No functioning computer after Panguitch. Having pre-driven the second half of the course the day before was a life saver!
6) Nearly succumbing to adversity early in the race. Having ridden so many events this year without a single mishap, I wasn't used to having things not go as planned. Sometimes it's best to "pray for the best, but expect the worst!"

Please note: pictures used for this post were taken by Planet Ultra volunteers.