Wednesday, August 29, 2012

RMCC's Ryan Franz Rides Amongst the Hoodoos

On August 24th and 25th, RMCCer Ryan Franz participated in Planet Ultra's Hoodoo 500 in St. George, UT. The Hoodoo 500 is one of only a handful of 500+ mile ultracycling races contested in the U.S. each year. Ryan participated in the Voyager category of the race. As a voyager, racers are entirely support or follow vehicles. Voyagers are allowed four drop bags that may be accessed at check points along the course, but voyagers must otherwise be entirely self-sufficient and provide for their own provisions along the way. Below is Ryan's most-excellent account of his race amongst the hoodoos of southwestern Utah..... 

The Hoodoo 500 course doesn't look that formidable on a map, but it's long...519 miles, longer than the distance from Denver to the junction of I-70 and I-15 in western Utah (which is 509 miles)! The route certainly isn't flat either, featuring 30,000 feet of climbing!

Every year I choose a big event to motivate me for the season, an “exclamation point” to look forward to. This year I chose the Hoodoo 500. I had heard the course was very scenic, with lots of great climbing, and the unsupported “voyager” division is very appealing—just me and the great desert, dueling it out! I’ve certainly enjoyed supported ultra racing in the past, and my wife is a great crew chief, but with an 8-month-old now it is much harder to arrange. Planet Ultra provides drop bags for voyagers at four locations, which seemed plenty: during Paris-Brest-Paris last year I only had access to drop bags at two locations over 767 miles.

After months of training, endless hours of bike preparation, and meticulous equipment and drop bag planning, it felt good to wait at the start early Friday morning. A much cooler weather pattern was in place than in 2011, so the temperatures were pleasant. The seven of us (voyagers started at 5am, separately from other divisions) rode off into yet-unknown adventures. For a while we rode together and chatted; my old friend and mentor, Kevin Walsh, broke away from work at the last minute to make the ride, so I enjoyed catching up with him.

Starting lineup, from left: Mark Lowe, Ryan Franz, Rick Ashabranner,  Rick Jacobson,  Kevin Walsh, Andi Ramer, Ton van Daelen
Shortly before Hurricane the group spread out rapidly, everyone riding at their own pace. I watched Mark Lowe vanish into the distance with his standard fast starting pace. We had been warned about a troublesome new rumblestrip installation between Hurricane and Colorado City, but it turned out to be only a minor nuisance and traffic was on the lighter side. Rick Ashabranner passed me at a good clip on his unique TitanFlex bike, looking very efficient on the flats.

I was surprised to see Rick at the first drop bag location, Kanab, looking frustrated. Our drop bags weren’t there. Mark had obviously continued on; Rick spoke to race HQ on the phone and they said they would do their best to get the drop bags to us down the road. This was concerning, as I had started with minimal water and food to reach Kanab. I still had a bit of water and some calories, so I continued on, noting that the next gas station was only 35 miles ahead.

As I left Kanab, I marveled at the fantastic scenery. Recent monsoon activity had brought the desert alive, producing nearly neon green foliage to contrast the stunning reds and browns of the sandstone.

Just north of Kanab, UT, views toward the east of Zion National Park. Rick Ashabranner can be seen ahead. 

At the next gas station I filled water, hopeful that I would get my drop bag soon for calories. Sure enough, 100 yards after leaving the station, a race official pulled up. “I’ve got your bags here! What’s your name?” He looked in the car a bit… “Oh, I don’t have your bag, there was some mix-up.” He indicated my first drop bag would be with my second drop bag in Escalante, over 100 miles away! Exasperated, I continued on, noting that the next mini mart was 20 miles away. Unfortunately I missed that one, as mileages were a bit off and I didn’t want to backtrack—things were getting dire. I started rationing. I was down to one bar with 10 miles to the next gas station when Deb Bowling (from Planet Ultra) finally brought my bag—thank goodness! This was at the start of Red Canyon, an incredibly scenic canyon with a very nice bike path but lots of climbing. I immediately inhaled four gels and several bars, I would have bonked hard if Deb hadn’t saved me!

Starting up Red Canyon, just after a timely resupply from my delayed drop bag.

Red Canyon views

Red Canyon bike path
After Red Canyon topped out at 7800’, a thrilling descent to Tropic at 6000’ provided stunning views of Bryce Canyon. Clouds looked ominous, but out of sheer luck I rode through a narrow gap and stayed dry. I learned later that Mark Lowe had gotten quite wet there an hour before me. Next was a scenic climb back to 7600’, with steep grades at the top; I glimpsed Rick at the top, and passed him on the descent to Escalante as he stopped to don a rain jacket. I think he regretted his choice, as it only sprinkled briefly. Regardless, he arrived minutes behind me at the time station in Escalante, and left before me. As I was rearranging my gear in the hotel room, unbeknownst to me, solo (supported) racer Adam Bickett flew by at his record-setting pace.

Stunning views of the canyons to the east of Escalante

There is no better cycling than the section from Escalante to Loa. Every cyclist should ride this once in their life! The late afternoon late really brought out the rainbow of colors permeating the canyons before the town of Boulder. At one point the road followed a narrow spine of rock with lonely yet picturesque canyons to either side. There were also surprisingly steep grades—I was pretty jazzed on the scenery, but as I passed the double century mark I began to feel the miles I had ridden.

From the Escalante River crossing at 5300’, Boulder Mountain presents a big challenge. Over the next 25 miles one must climb to 9600’. Luckily, the climb is very scenic and provides constantly changing surroundings as sandstone desert transitions to alpine forest. A large storm only hours before left evidence in the form of large piles of hail, wet roads, and swirling mists. Halfway up the climb I switched on my lights and enjoyed the spooky ambiance. Several deer froze in my light, advising me to be careful when I got to the descent on the other side! The feeling at this point was very remote: I had not seen any supported riders pass yet, Mark Lowe was an hour ahead, and Rick had fallen back around Boulder. Twilight gave way to darkness and a starry sky, though a half moon enhanced shadows in the misty forest. I reached the summit feeling good, and piled on warm layers in anticipation of a chilly descent.

Amazing views of the canyons of Capital Reef National Park from the top of Boulder Mountain
after 4,500 feet steep climbing!

For some reason I didn’t feel comfortable with my normal “bombing” speed while descending Boulder Mountain. I rode conservatively, and was soon passed by the winning four-man team Veloce Santiago. Around that time, very near the halfway point, I really started to feel the miles and the late hour. The nineteen miles from the bottom of the descent (6700’) to Loa (7000’) climbed gently and felt like forever…finally I reached Loa and my third drop bag at 12:30am.

A thermos of warm soup and a change of clothes partially revived me. I headed out into the night, anticipating the battle with the “witching hour” I’ve come to expect. Unbeknownst to me I would fight another battle due to an oversight in Loa—more on that later! I climbed a seemingly endless road into the stars, the only scenery the roadside reflectors shining brightly in my light. My world shrank to a small bubble which my light could illuminate, though the wide desert sky made me feel at the same time like a vulnerable speck under an ambivalent cosmos. Temperatures sank to 45 degrees as the desert gave up its moisture and heat to a ravenous sky. I reached the high point at 8400’ and enjoyed a descent to the small town of Koosharem.

Shortly after Koosharem I realized my camelbak was becoming low and went to reach for a water bottle for the first time since Loa. With a sinking feeling I realized that I had left my bottles in Loa. At this point a couple of teams were nearby, and I considered asking them for water—but as I didn’t want the corresponding time penalty, I decided to stick it out and search for water along the way. Over the next 40 miles I tried to go light on the water and stopped several times to search for a water spigot in spooky, dilapidated towns. I hoped that someone wouldn’t notice me and take issue with a lycra-clad oddball searching around a boarded-up building at 3am!

Finally in Circleville I found a spigot hidden in the back of a run-down cafĂ©. Though the search for water was stressful, the urgency of the situation had eased the normal fight to stay awake. As I left Circleville, however, the fight came back and I entered the doldrums…riding slowly, senses dulled, heavy eyelids. The 30 miles from Circleville to Panguitch average a 0.5% grade—not enough to provide good resistance to push against, but enough to make time slow down. A noticeable headwind made the miles go even slower. I reached Panguitch at 6:45am as the sun began to light the landscape. The 90 miles from Loa to Panguitch had taken me nearly six hours, despite having the least elevation gain of any stage!

As I sleepwalked into the hotel room in Panguitch, I was very surprised to see Mark Lowe! He had just finished a two hour nap—boy did that sound nice! Mark soon departed, and I moved with molasses-like slowness to change clothes and refresh supplies for the final stage. I was trying to get going quickly, but still spent an hour in Panguitch.

The Hoodoo 500 course is anything but flat, featuring 30,000 feet of climbing!

Past Panguitch, the Cedar Breaks climb dominates the course profile and demands attention. I noticed this as I resumed riding and glanced at my routesheet, but the magnitude of the climb, with 26 hours of riding behind me, only became clear as I toiled slowly upwards. The scenery was great, and the climb would be fantastic with fresh legs, but every cell in my body wanted to lie down in each lush green meadow I passed.

Scenic views of Lake Panguitch during the climb up Cedars Break National Monument

Amazing canyon walls to the west of Cedars Break National Monument

Finally I crested 10,600’ and enjoyed the scenic rollers at the top. Next came 20 miles of falling out of heaven into Cedar City. There was a surprising amount of traffic, but the descent was still a blast. Temperatures climbed from 59 to 95 degrees in a matter of minutes.

I grabbed a sandwich in Cedar City, and noticed the headline about Lance Armstrong deciding not to fight the doping charges. Sufficiently doped with a chicken sandwich, I continued on. The last bit is a big of a (long) blur. I remember hot temperatures, driving hail, lightning, headwinds, a poor road with heavy traffic climbing up out of the town of Enterprise…my pace was slower than I wanted but pain and fatigue prevented me from going faster.

Views of the lower sections of the stunning Snow Canyon in St. George, UT
Finally I was at the top of Snow Canyon. I called race HQ to tell them I was coming home and enjoyed the final bit of desert scenery. I was surprised how long it took to get from the bottom of Snow Canyon to the finish; headwinds and traffic lights seemed to conspire against me. But, with time I crested the final hump and coasted down to the finish line. Another one for the books!

Looking back at the race, it went quite well. My bike worked flawlessly and I was generally happy with my setup. My SON generator hub, powering my taillight, headlight, and Garmin Edge 500, meant I didn’t have to worry about batteries. Turn-by-turn directions from my Edge meant I never had to wonder if I was off-route, and I could keep the backlight on at night to ensure I never missed a cue. One thing I would do differently is turning over my stem—I’ve done that in past ultra races and it increased comfort greatly. I thought I could get away with it low in this race for less drag, but in reality I spent very little time on the aerobars after 250 miles because it was very uncomfortable.

In relation to other races I’ve done in the past, Hoodoo is a much harder course than the Furnace Creek 508. Riding unsupported added more challenge than I expected—I had to carry a lot more on the bike, spent significant time at drop bags rearranging things, and lost momentum by being off the bike so much. I ended up spending a total of 3.5 hours off the bike, and each time I had to resume riding after a stop it took time to regain a rhythm and get comfortable. By the same token, I felt way better after the race than after Paris-Brest-Paris—that second night really adds a new dimension in endurance.

To summarize, I’d describe it as the perfect vacation: good adventure, gorgeous scenery, quite a bit of cycling, and a feeling of accomplishment. I recommend it if that’s your idea of a good time!

Images of a four-man team descending Snow Canyon