First paragraph is the readers digest version -
Wow, the Silver State 508 has been completed and I would have to say it was a tremendous success. We covered the “508 miles” in 32 hours and 8 minutes - the clock started when we left the Atlantis Casino in Reno at 7am on Saturday, kept ticking until we had travelled to Eureka and back. Linda Spina and I won the 2x Mixed division and we were 6th overall amongst all 2 person teams (20 teams entered, 17 finished and 3 DNFs). It also put us in the top half of all 2 person teams that have raced this course, not bad for rookies. During that time, we climbed 19,663 feet of vertical, I would race 249.6 miles and 11,024ft of climbing, while Linda traversed 260.7 miles and 8,639 vertical feet. Endurance cycling is not what you would call a mainstream sport and to undertake these efforts you have to convince several others to come along for the ride as your crew - not an easy task. I have to say we had the best crew a team could ask for - while we were endurance cycling rookies, our crew had tons of experience competing and crewing in these gruelling events. Great crews can get any racer to the finish line and our crew did that with tremendous skill, passion and care - a special call out to Peter Oyler (Endurance Athlete (2x RAAM finisher), Coach, Mentor and Motivator extraordinaire), Janet Wilson (accomplished cyclist, RAAM crew chief and Ying to Peter’s Yang) and Carol Ann Weis (Jill of all trades, master of getting the knots out) - without whom we could not have raced and delivered such a successful performance in this event. Should anyone ever get the bug to do this type of event, you need to call Peter (and spend time at his cycling studio - you will forever thank yourself) and negotiate bringing this team back together. Ok, now for the long race report version.
It is important to remember this is just one half of the athlete’s view of our journey, Linda’s take on this is really needed to have a full racer’s perspective. Of course, our crew would need to chip in to really understand what happened during those 32 hours. I have not recounted many bodily details, but as you might imagine there are certainly a lot of challenges in this regard along the way :).
The race experience began on the Wednesday (9/14/16) when we made our way to Reno, for the Saturday start. It is funny to say the race began on September 14, 2016 as Linda had committed herself to training at Mindset Cycling for this event almost 2 years earlier and persuaded me (with the help of Peter) almost 12 months earlier. We had rented a home for the 5 of us in Reno that was reasonably close to the start/finish line. Of course, when you travel to events nothing seems to be easy and nor was it the case here. Getting to the airport with all of our stuff was a relative breeze, checked in the three bikes (my road and TT bike and Linda’s road bike) and a ski bag full of roof racks, roof top lights, a bunch of other things necessary to make this work. As a side-bar It amuses me that an Int’l airport as large as Toronto’s does not have x-ray equipment that is big enough to handle bike bags! Get there early so they can open everything up to inspect.
Our flight through Denver was uneventful until about an hour outside of Denver, when the pilot announced we were going into a holding pattern. Extreme storms in Denver might force us to an alternate airport - not good! After about 45 minutes of doing circles, we got the clearance to land in Denver. Our arrival at the gate was now less than 15 mins from departure time of our Reno flight, which left from another terminal. Five of us went into action, sprinting down to the train, over to the other terminal and then about 500M to the gate just before it closed. Good news, we were going to make it to Reno that night, bad news - our luggage was not making it until Thursday. Clearly one of the reasons to get to locations well ahead of the event start is to deal with the uncontrollables.
The next 2 days we spent building the bikes up, getting in a couple of rides, shopping at Walmart for all of the supplies necessary to support the event and getting the Grand Caravan ready (it is now a secret desire to own a highly customized Sprinter van for these events - I will let all you cyclists borrow it - for a price :)). For anyone not familiar with these events, just getting the van ready to pass race inspection is a huge undertaking - but with our experienced crew it was a well oiled machine. CA and Janet took care of the shopping and getting the van prepped, Peter took care of the bikes and Linda and I just needed to ensure that we had all of our stuff with us and get it ready and organized for race day.
Over the next 2 days we were able to do some reconnaissance of the course, but given it is 510.5 miles of an out and back course it is very difficult to see much more than the first 30-40 miles without investing a lot of time. Here again, having the experienced crew of Janet and Peter who raced this course 2 years ago, we had insight into the course specifics that we could not get otherwise. As in any race, the tactics are important and in this race a key tactic is when to use the TT bike (long-flat sections) and when to use the road bike for climbing and descending. Given Friday night’s pre-race briefing went well beyond its scheduled time, I won't go into those boring details, (yes Chris that meeting should be an 60 minutes or less) needless to say there was anticipation in the room for race day. I did get to say hello to Chris Carmichael, who was competing in a 4 man team and who would compete against me in stages 3 and 7. He would beat me in stage 3, i got the better of him in stage 7!
Saturday morning arrived early, and with a starting time of 7am, Peter wanted us at the start line for about 6:30. I was up with the rest of the team at about 5:15am brewing coffee, making oatmeal and getting things ready to go. We were out of the house just after 6. We got to the start line and Peter did some last minute adjustments to the bike.The 7am start time was for the teams as the solos went out at 5am (yes Virginia some crazy people race this solo). Chris Kostman, the race director, said some words, they played the national anthem and then we rolled out with a pace car.
Stage 1 Reno to Silver Springs is 47.65 miles (76.3 Kms) and 2,723ft (829m) of climbing
The first 6 miles are in the local community and the pace was very easy, really not a great warm up given the climb that was ahead of us. Peter had suggested that I use the time to drop back of the group and do some accelerations to get the legs ready - great advice from a race veteran. Finally the pace car veered away at the start of Geiger mountain climb and all hell broke loose. 10 riders went to the front immediately. My focus was on delivering 260-275 watts with a controlled heart rate. That went out the window when my stages power meter stopped working (not the first time this has happened, but I just changed the batteries!!) and this group of riders was crashing the front. So i figured that I would just try and climb smoothly, keep the heart rate sub 150 and hope that I could hang with the front group until we were descending..…hahaha. As i watched the riders climbing aggressively in front of me - i thought don’t panic this is 510 miles of riding, nothing is being lost here, I hoped that my descending skills and weight - could rule the day on the downside of this mountain. For the first stage, the crews are not allowed to follow the racer until they get off the mountain. The climb is 11.2 miles long and rises from 4,380ft to 6,780ft - a good test but one that is quite manageable. It was cool and a beautiful sunrise was climbing over the mountains. I was being passed by a few riders but I was able to keep my eye on all but 2 of them. Finally after climbing for a good hour, we began descending - I love the speed and the adrenalin that comes from bombing down a mountain on a bike. To be sure, it can be dangerous but so can cycling across streetcar tracks in Toronto (right Andy, Lynn?!). I hit a maximum speed of 76km/h. As i had hoped I was able to pass 5 different riders on the descent and figured I still have 3-4 others in front of me. During the descent, I understood why the race doesn't allow the team cars to follow the racers on this part of the course as I got behind a logjam of race vehicles that couldn’t make a pass of a racer. They finally made their pass about 30 seconds before I pushed past that cyclist. At the bottom of the mountain, we would roll through Virginia City and then out to Hwy50 (the loneliest road in the country) where i reeled in 2 more riders before making the turn at Hwy50. My crew was waiting for me with my TT bike as I made the turn on to the highway. We switched bikes and off I went driving hard to catch the two riders ahead of me. I was now time trialling for 18 miles trying to catch those two teams. It was at this point that it became very clear what it meant to be part of a team for a race. Every 5-8 mins as they leapfrogged me in the van, our crew and Linda were at the side of the road, cheering me on, supporting my effort to get to the next time station. Unfortunately I was not able to close the gap and so we got to Time Station 1 in 2hrs 27 mins, 3 mins behind two teams but 5 mins ahead of the other mixed 2 person team. It was now Linda’s turn to push the pedals.
Stage 2 - Silver Springs to Fallon is 31.35 miles and 266ft of climbing
As Linda powered off, I got my first taste of a supported ultra event as I was treated to a nicely catered potpourri of options - chocolate milk, some gels, water, eload, watermelon, rice, maple/brown sugar oatmeal. I wish I would have recorded all that I ate and drank along the way, it might have provided some further insight for future races. Needless to say my crew put my bike on the top of the van, put me into the van after changing out of my jersey and base layer and took off after Linda. During the outbound portion of the race to Eureka, team cars can only leapfrog their riders while on the way back from Eureka during the night (6pm to 7am) the team cars must direct follow their racers. So we would spend the next 1hr 27 mins getting just ahead of Linda, have her pass us, make sure everything was ok and then move forward. Each time Peter, CA and/or Janet would jump out of the van and yell encouragement, determine if there were any needs, take pictures then jump back into the van and off we would go (just think of when you were a teenager, would come to a stop light and have everyone jump out of the car and race around to another door - that is kinda what this is like with some cheering in between). During this time, I laid down in the van getting treated by CA, and trying to close my eyes and get ready for my biggest stage. Linda was able to add to our time lead on the other mixed team, our lead was now 15 minutes.
Stage 3 - Fallon to Austin is 106 miles with 5,049ft of climbing -
My toughest stage as it was my longest, most climbing and hottest. As some of you know, I don't like the heat and here I was in a desert, in the middle of the day, racing my bike for 6 hours+….hmmm not a great outcome. The good news, relative to other races, is that I had a crew by my side to make this as palatable as possible. Ice, blinding sweat, tough climbs, bonking; rejuvenation, hot feet; bad chip seal roads, road bike, TT bike it had it all. Endurance anything is tough but weather conditions are really the greatest friend or foe. In reality, these conditions were probably as good as I could have expected. While it was hot it wasn’t scorching (88F was the top) and while there was a breeze you couldn't define it as wind. During training, I didn't find time to ride in similarly hot dry conditions although Linda did - I was regretting that omission as I felt the heat baking on my back. As you looked around this spartan, desolate part of the country all you saw was brown soil, white scraggly bushes, tumbleweeds and white ribbons of “colour” all around you. I was creating my own ribbon of white on my black cycling kit as my sweat soaked my kit leaving my own salt flats to tell the story. Before I started to make the first significant climb (although i had already climbed 600ft) I was looking for help - i wasn't taking in enough calories and gels were tasting like…well….not good. Each time the crew leap frogged me, the request went out for what I needed and all I could ask for was cold water. Janet filled some stockings (yes the feet of women’s hosiery is useful for something else) with ice and slammed it on to the back of my neck (a lifesaver) and this would now become a routine every 30 minutes or so. I was now climbing for 20 miles from 4,600ft to 7,200ft, which is the Caroll Summit. This was just a nasty effort of watching riders pass me, trying to get food into me, liquids, ice packs. The amount of sweat coming off my head was now creating problems as it brought sweat and sunscreen into my eyes blinding me. Take oakley’s off, rub eyes with gloves, put oakley’s back on, take them off, rub eyes with jersey sleeve - repeat, blink, blink, blink - no good. Finally i had to stop and get the crew to wipe me down. Peter had Janet try to dry the helmet band, while he put a towel on my head and proceeded to pour ice cold water over me……wow what was that all about? Ok, get on with it Buttercup, you signed up for this race. Just before the summit there is a meaningful switchback on the climb that apparently has a gorgeous view - I saw nothing of it, I was just in the pain cave looking for the light of descent. I would drop 1,000ft in the next 5 miles, which gave me the ability to regroup a bit. Unfortunately the local town council (if there is such a thing) decided that the next ribbon of road doesn't really need to be smooth for tractors, wild horses, snakes or wild rabbits to travel down. Of course cars traveling at 55mph don’t really notice the chipseal vibration that travels up from the tip of your toes, rolls around the footbed of your carbon soled cycling shoe, runs up into your tired quads, plays with your shoulders and neck and then deposits itself into your forearms and hands gripping the handlebars so that the front wheel doesn't break loose. I could tell my crew was getting a little concerned at this point as they started doling stuff out to me without really asking what I wanted. I was getting bottle changes, bananas, watermelon and double ice application. It was getting to the point that I couldn't apply pressure to the peddles, I could only stand up for one turn before my “hot foot” would hit the pain button and put me back in the saddle. Finally I called out to the crew that I had hot spots on my feet and thankfully again Peter’s experience gained from thousands of miles in the saddle (2 RAAM finishes in addition to a myriad of other endurance races) was a lifesaver. The response was quick, take your feet out of the shoes for 5 minutes and pedal! It worked! I would start to get a second wind now that the pain had left my feet. The last bit of this stage was still a huge challenge for me. For each of these stages going out to Eureka, the crew would leave you with about 3-4 miles left in your ride in order to get to the next time station and get your partner ready to go. In this case they seemed to leave a little earlier as now Linda’s bike had to be readied for night riding. The idea is that as soon as I reached the transfer point in Austin, I hand over the GPS tracker and she leaves. What i didn't realize is that you climb 500ft in the last 3/4 mile - just nasty after baking for 105 miles. That last 4kms of the stage, took me almost 20 minutes and the entire stage took me 6 hours and 50 minutes to complete but good news, we gained another 2 minutes on our direct competition. The fastest team on this stage was 6hrs 11mins and the slowest was 9hrs 13mins. We were now in 6th place amongst all of the 2 person teams, 5 mins out of 5th and 58 mins out of first.
Stage 4 - Austin to Eureka - 70.15 miles and 2,799 ft of climbing
Linda was back on the bike and I was shattered. CA took me over to the restroom to try and get me to go to the washroom, luckily i was able to go pee, so I wasn't totally dehydrated, the fact it was deeper yellow was a bit of a problem! I got changed into sweatpants and pullover to try and get comfortable, grab something to eat and then sleep. I was going to have between 4 and 5 hours to get ready for my next stage. With that said, the toughest part of my race was now behind me. CA made me a concoction of rice, egg, avocado and a dash soy sauce. It sounded like it would be good, bland enough but my stomach was not playing ball, I felt like throwing up. Ok maybe I sleep first and then eat. I tossed and turned for awhile, slept a bit and then went back at the rice concoction. I got it down and then had some oatmeal. Throw in some coke, pringles, watermelon, yogurt with fresh strawberries and pineapple - I was coming back alive. Linda was making good time although she was battling the dropping temperatures. She had got on the bike at 70 degrees and now it was getting closer to low 50’s. We were now in full night mode but we were also closing in on the halfway point of the race - EUREKA!
Linda finished in 4hrs 31 minutes and put another 45 mins into our direct competitors.
Stage 5 - Eureka to Austin - 70.15 miles and 2,753ft of climbing
It was now about 10:30pm, the plan on this stage was for me to get on the TT bike for 25 miles (net descent of 381ft), then ride my road bike for the last 45 miles, which is climbing (to our highest peak of 7,484ft) and descending. Unfortunately, with all of the “aero” qualities of my Cervelo P5, attaching lights was clearly not in the design specs when building the bike. Consequently I had to wear the front light on my helmet - not ideal when you have been up racing for 15+ hours. With that said, it was now my kind of temperature, when you almost feel cold when you get on the bike, but as you get moving you become cool but never warm - I find I can perform my best then. Night riding is also interesting, with very little to look at, your left with talking to yourself, trying to while away the time, unless of course there are riders up the road. Given all of the crew cars are lit up like christmas trees - flashing amber lights on top of the vans and flashing hazards over a relatively flat parcel of land, i could see my prey. It now become my goal to just keep picking off riders. I was conscious of taking in liquids and gels so that there would be no bonking on this stage. My first rider was stubborn, I passed him, said hello - he responded “damn” and I hoped that I was on to the next rider. He was having none of that and within 5 minutes I was behind him again. I waved the crew up beside me and confirmed that i was supposed to be 100yds behind the rider’s support van. I quickly asked Peter if he thought I should try to retake the lead or just wait and dial in my competitor’s pace. He suggested that until I was ready to make a strong surge, to just sit in. I sat in for a couple of minutes but my type A personality and impatience got the best of me. I decided to give it another go and this time my surge worked - I wouldn't see him again. I was able to pass another rider before we got to the 25 mile mark. At this point we debated whether we should switch over bikes. Given it probably takes 3-4 minutes to switch over, this is a good chunk of time to try and make up by believing that I could climb the upcoming mountain (1,300ft of vertical) and descend faster on my road bike than the TT bike. I was convinced i could and i wanted to get rid of the light on my helmet as my neck was hurting (not sure it was the extra ozs of weight, but psychologically it mattered), as we were pulling off the road to change bikes, my battery on the headlamp went out - decision made! We got everything changed over and I was back on the road, looking for the car lights of the teams that were still up the road. Nighttime in the desert is magical, a full moon was lighting up the sky but stars could be seen in every direction. The wild rabbits were everywhere, including roadkill to be avoided every 3-4 miles. The headlights from the follow van would play tricks on the landscape around you, cascading the silhouettes of two or three riders out on the mounds of dirt lining the highway. I asked Janet for the profile of the last 45 miles, a climb followed by a short descent followed by another steep but much shorter climb followed by a twisty descent into Austin and Time station 6. Halfway up the first climb, I got a good sighting on a rider and so the chase began in earnest. By 3 quarters of the way up i could now see two riders, one appeared stopped and the one I had been chasing looked like he was making a pass. Another 5 minutes and I had passed one rider and i was now trying to make the second catch. I checked again with the crew about the first descent and Peter suggested that I should try to overtake the rider before the descent, which was in less than a mile. It is funny how that suggestion got my legs into high gear and I was able to overtake him and then dive into the descent. I had great speed topping out at 68.8km/h and thought I was creating a good gap. Then came the second climb over 3 miles. I looked back as we turned on a switchback and saw the headlights of the rider behind me - whaaat? I thought I dropped him on the hill (Rich Pickering where are you when i need you). So I put some hard efforts in trying to get myself around corners so that he couldn't see our car with the hope that he would ease off some. I turned a couple of more times only to still see them tracking me down (and almost run myself off the road) at which point I heard Janet yell at me to focus on what is ahead of me, not what is behind me!!! (good advice for life in general). The descent into Austin was ripping fast (top speed of 71.2 km/h) and twisty. As i said earlier, this descending is the only reason I like to climb. This time I had Peter following hard in the van, lighting up the roadway so that I can find the right lines down the mountain - great fun. I made it into Austin in 4hrs 6 mins, adding another 27 mins to our lead on the other mixed team. We were now 5th overall, 2 mins ahead of Team Loon - the last rider I passed on the mountain.
Stage 6 - Austin to Fallon - 112.5 miles, 2,730ft of climbing
This has to be the toughest stage in this race and Linda had to get on the bike. It is tough because you have been out racing for 20 hours without sleep, it is cold (now down to mid 30s F), you have big mileage into your legs (probably the most she will have ridden in one day), you still have a rather big stage ahead of you (stage 8) and it is pitch black out. And by the way, did you notice that this stage is 112 miles, 6 miles longer than the stage I completed earlier in the day. I was feeling quite good here, I truly had my second wind, probably because I also knew that I had just one stage left to go and it was 40kms, something I should be able to deliver irrespective of conditions and sleep depravation. The routine became familiar while i was in the van. Get changed into comfortable clothes, eat whatever CA made me and then try and sleep. The plan was for 3-4 hours of sleep bookended by eating and drinking all the while, Linda was pedalling her bike. The odd thing about this race is that you want to be supportive, you want to cheer your teammate, know where the other teams are, but you really need to just rest to get ready for the next stage. I probably got a couple of hours sleep, started eating and drinking and watching Linda get us back to Fallon. She was able to complete the stage in 7hrs 33mins and put another 46 mins into our competitors. It was clear now that unless we had a major breakdown in the last 2 stages it was going to be really tough to beat us in the 2x mixed competition. We were in 6th place, 3 minutes ahead of the next 2 person team.
Stage 7 - Fallon to Silver Springs - 25.47 miles, 499ft of climbing
Given my triathlon training and the fact that it was my last stage, I was really looking forward to this part of the race. We got the TT bike off the van and prepped it for Linda’s arrival. I put 2 bottles on the bike (mistake given I couldn't drink near that much in 40km) and had a gel in my pocket. When Linda arrived we made the transfer of the GPS tracker and I pounded the pedals - for 100ft only to hit the red light! ugh! Ok, I don't need to DQ the team by blowing a red light, be patient. Green - GO! Mash the pedals, get aero, breathe - BRAKE - red light! Really, don’t they know we have a race to ride. Finally, I got out of town and created a rhythm of cadence. I started sighting the riders ahead of me and picked off two of them before i got to the turn for 50Hwy where the team van was pulled over waiting for me. I made the left and just focused on putting everything into my pedals, keeping a bit in reserve to ensure I wasn't going to fail on the small climbs that Peter had warned me about. This stage is simple, get as aero as possible, push as much power (watts) as is sustainable for 70-80 minutes. I got it done. I arrived at the time station 8 in 1hr and 12 minutes, the second fastest time split for that stage by any rider (only a 4 person team rider beat me) and was now able to turn the race back over to Linda to bring us home. We were 2hrs 25 mins ahead of the Flying Sharks (the other mixed team) and we had gained 11 mins on Desert Eagle, the team in 7th place.
Stage 8 - Silver Springs to Reno - 46.72 miles, 2,844ft of climbing
Ok, I suggested that stage 6 is the toughest stage of this race, but maybe it is really stage 8 (notice that Linda had the toughest stages - the cross she had to bear for getting us into this mess!). Now it is 11am, the sun is beating down, it is 32c, your body has been racing for 27.5 hours, you have had limited sleep, food intake is sketch, you just got off a gruelling 7+ hour stage a little more than an hour ago - your butt hurts, your feet hurt, you are a malnourished, dehydrated, muscle fatigued athlete that has never pushed their body to this extreme. Hmmmm, not the greatest recipe for trying to climb the height of 1.5 CN Towers! Add to this that you probably aren’t thinking straight and now the weight of the team making the finish line is on your shoulders - makes for a tough stage. I could now relax….not. This was probably my own tough part, I have never been part of a team for an ultra race, nor have I crewed for an ultra. I was doing both now as we worked to get Linda back to the finish line. She blasted down Hwy50 for 18 miles looking very strong and then made the turn on to 6 Mile Canyon Road, this is where she would start her climbing, almost 2,200ft from here. She wasn’t looking great as her nutrition and hydration wasn't supporting her body. I was in that same place yesterday and Peter was working hard to get her to turn the pedals. You could see behind her glasses that it was all she could do to keep herself in the saddle and not fall over. We pulled her off the bike a couple of times to get some nutrition into her - gobbled up watermelon, drink coke, try a gel, rinse and repeat. The heat was unrelenting but so was she. Clearly Linda had it in her mind that this mountain was not going to win, that she had put in all that work at Mindset with Peter, she had come a long way back from getting hit by a car on her bike, from crashing on the bike and breaking her arm in June - way too much sacrifice to let Geiger summit get in the way of our finish. Frankly watching her wobble, I don't know how she did it. This is probably one of the reasons why your crew and crew chief in particular shouldn't be a family member but rather an experienced coach and athlete. My first coach told Dianne that when she saw me during my first Ironman in Austria that I would probably look worse than she had ever seen me before - but that she needed to be positive and don't let me see concern in her face - i did and she did and I made it to the finish line. The was Linda’s turn to experience the huge challenge of pulling yourself up out a deep hole and get the job done that you had been training for. With some coaxing, feeding and hydration, she pulled herself to the top of Geiger summit where we stopped her one last time. Peter wanted to ensure that she had another shot of nutrition and that she was focused enough to make this 8 mile descent before the 9 mile tour of the city back to the finish line. This last bit is just painful. You know all the hard work is over but you still aren't at the finish line. Inevitably every light turns red just as you are about to enter the intersection and there is nothing in your legs to push and make the light. You stop and barely unclip before you fall over. You restart yourself and are challenged to get clipped into the pedals - your mind and body just want it to be over. I jumped out of the van and onto my bike for the last 2 blocks of the ride. Linda and I were able to ride over the finish line together, successfully completing a tough race. She finished the stage in 4hrs 2 mins.
We completed the entire event in 32 hours and 8 minutes. We finished 6th overall in the 2 person teams, 5 hours and 18 minutes behind the winners, 33 minutes behind 5th place and 21 minutes ahead of 7th place. A fantastic outcome for team Great Lakes Wolf. We had earned our finisher’s medal, a 508 cycling jersey and 2 508 water bottles!
As I said off the top, this event is not possible without having a crew. We were lucky to have had the best crew on the course during that race. Without Peter, Janet and Carol Ann by our side, I think I speak for both athletes in saying I don't believe the finish line was possible and it certainly wasn’t anywhere close to possible in 32 hours. Some have asked if this was harder than ironman - it is different. The shear time competing is daunting relative to ironman but having a crew to help make decisions for you is a huge factor making this type of event “easier”. Make no mistake, this was by no stretch easy, but with the right training, the right coaching and the right crew, we proved that it is very achievable.
Thank you Linda for taking me on this journey, I now can say I enjoyed every minute of it….ok maybe not every minute, but most minutes!