So, until about a week ago, I had been swept up in a "OMG, what is my next challenge after an Ironman?!" frenzy. I wrote previously about my decision to ride RAAM 2017.
Well, it's with a not so heavy heart that I am reporting I've changed my mind. Now, I'm stubborn and headstrong, so changing my mind isn't something that typically happens. However, part of my growth as a woman and an athlete is knowing the difference between setting a goal I really want to accomplish and a goal I am setting just because I'm Type A and always have to do the biggest/hardest/longest thing available.
I'm fortunate to have friends in the triathlon world all over the country, and when my friend Tim saw that I was interested in RAAM, he connected me with his coworker, who just happens to be now 3-time RAAM finisher Joan Deitchman. Before I contacted her, I devoured her 2014 RAAM race report. It sounded harrowing, yet exciting, and I was really thrilled to have the chance to talk to her.
She was incredibly kind and answered a very LONG email I sent her. She and I have similar backgrounds. She started her endurance career by doing Ironman races, decided she liked riding bikes the best, and began riding double centuries, eventually expanding to longer and longer races, until 3,000 miles just made sense. (As if it ever makes sense!)
My biggest issue thus far with Ultracycling has been the utter lack of information available to new people. It's a pretty small sport on the whole, which is why the sport's biggest names are reachable by simple Facebook message, but even still, to find the answers, I had to ask. Below are her responses to half of what I asked (Bless her for even getting that far- I sent a lot!)
1. Obviously everyone's biggest concern is cost. Do you have a google doc or spreadsheet you use for your budget? I'm an event planner for a non-profit, so logistics, sponsorship, budget, etc. are my wheelhouse, but I know there are costs I'm probably not aware of! If you didn't see my comment on the Ultra Cycling FB page, since I work for a nonprofit, the board is considering making it an official fundraising event with media, marketing, etc. That should help with sponsorship since it will be tax-deductible, and I will negotiate internally what is paid for by work and what is out of my pocket.
I haven't tabulated costs for this year's RAAM yet, but I will say that it is not cheap. $20,000 to $30,000 is a ball pack figure for a solo effort (not counting a lot of the gear such as bike equipment), but it is easier to spend much more too. I can share my costs with you after I get them tabulated this year. My first RAAM was over $35,000, but a lot of that was equipment cost that I was then able to reuse on subsequent RAAMs, making them a bit cheaper. Big areas of expense are lodging (start, finish, and during the race), gas, vehicle rentals, entry fee, food (crew and rider), and transportation for crew. There's also gear/equipment costs (getting vehicles setup with everything they need, spare bike parts, etc.).
2. You have great reasons for a crew of at least 8. However, I will likely be scraping by with the minimum of 4- my husband and 3 close family friends in one RV (family-friend owned, so that's nice!) and probably one vehicle for following while the RV goes ahead to sleep spots. Do you know of any advice or success stories from those using smaller crews?
I'll be honest - I would never advise anyone to do RAAM with a crew smaller than 8 or 9. You need your crew to be rested, as they are responsible for your (and their) safety. A sleep deprived crew is both dangerous and inefficient. The only person I know who's done RAAM with a really small crew is Jason Lane of Canada in 2013 - I forget how big his crew was (5 or 6 I think), and while he was successful, I heard that they agreed the crew was too small (and he had an experienced crew, and had raced RAAM before so wasn't a rookie). Also he was a faster rider, so wasn't out there 12 days - the longer you're going to be out there, the more important it is to have a larger crew in my opinion.
If you're only going to use 2 vehicles, then you could get away with 6 crew (I wouldn't have fewer than 3 per vehicle), but only having 2 vehicles severely limits you in many regards. With 3 vehicles you have an errand vehicle that can attend to errands such as shopping and laundry and whatnot, plus that vehicle can be configured to be a follow vehicle as well such that they can take over direct follow for brief periods of time such as when the follow vehicle needs to gas up so that you don't have to follow. Also, if the follow vehicle has any kind of mechanical issue (flat tire, dead battery, etc.), you still have a path forward since the errand vehicle can take over direct follow. If all you had was a 2nd vehicle that was far away with sleeping crew, you could be stranded for a long period of time.
Each of my RAAMs we've tried different crew shifts, and finally this year I found one that I think works. 8hr shifts don't work in my opinion - they don't allow crew to get enough rest (resulting in a lot of inefficiency and problems later in the race when things are already difficult). This year we did two 12hr shifts, and that worked great. It does require a bigger crew though (10 minimum for 3 vehicles - two groups of 5 so that you have 3 in follow, 2 in errand, and 5 off shift sleeping).
You do NOT need an RV to do RAAM, and in fact I really discourage it. It adds extra expense, and extra hassle, and not a whole lot of benefit. Each of my RAAMs we've relied on hotels for crew (and me) to sleep in, and it has worked pretty well. We're setup to allow me to sleep in errand vehicle if no hotel is close by, but most nights I was able to sleep in a hotel. If you already have an RV and someone who knows how to drive/maintain it, then that's great, but in general I discourage solo riders from using an RV - they're more trouble than they're worth in my opinion.
3. I read your report from 2014 and see you only slept 2.5hrs/night! When I do the math (admittedly, I'm bad at math) I calculate that if I cycle 250 miles/day I can do so at 16 hours/day if I keep my average around 15.5mph. That allows 8 hours for breaks/eating food not eaten on a bike/sleeping in each 24 hour period. How many hours a day were your riding between sleep breaks? Would you do it differently next time (or did you for 2015?) I know I'll have to feel it out for myself once I do my first multi-day event, but I'm cranky when I'm sleepy so this is important! :)
Not to be discouraging (after all, I don't know you, so don't know if you're a superstar rider), but riding a certain pace for 6-8hrs or even 24hrs is VERY different from riding that same pace for 20hrs/day for 12 days straight in very varied conditions. You'll likely get a sense for your abilities after doing some ultras. Basically you want to be riding as much as possible and minimizing off the bike time. The only time you shouldn't be riding is if you're sleeping or going to the bathroom. This year my on-the-bike speed was 14.44mph, and I had about 60hrs off the bike total, of which about 26hrs was spent sleeping (this includes sleep breaks as well as naps). The remainder of the time was time spent for bathroom breaks, shorts changes, as well as the time before/after sleeping (it takes some time to go down, and then some more time to get ready to go again after sleeping). So I still averaged over 5hrs/day off the bike (last year it was about 6.5hrs/day), about half of which was time spent actually sleeping.
To put this in context, my race speed this year (11.16mph) made me the 10th fastest woman to complete RAAM ever, faster than several big name cyclists such as professional cyclist Leah Goldstein or well known ultra cyclist Cat Berge (and faster than 2 of Seana Hogan's 6 RAAM finishes). Plenty of riders who are much faster than me on shorter distances have been much slower on RAAM, and many have DNFd. Again, I'm not trying to discourage you or anything like that, but rather trying to paint an honest and realistic picture. If you're a really talented athlete and can ride 15.5mph the whole way across, then kudos to you! But before doing those calculations I'd see how you fare at a 500 mile and then 1000 mile race, as these will give you some good data points. And remember that managing off the bike time is crucial, and your crew is vital to this task. It's really easy to waste a LOT of time without even realizing it.
Also, remember that while an Ironman bike course is typically pretty easy, the conditions on RAAM can be very challenging. This year the first 5 days were all over 100degF, with the hottest day being 115-120degF in Arizona (day 2). Then you have the high altitude in AZ, UT, and CO (riding at altitude when you're already tired slows you down even more), plus colder temperatures at night (30s and 40s potentially). Then you can have wickedly strong cross and head winds in Kansas (this year we were lucky and it was mostly a cross/tail wind - last year was a brutal cross wind of 20-30mph much of the way across Kasas). And you have the high humidity further east (Missouri this year was particularly muggy), as well as potentially sweltering heat too. Then there are the severe storms that you may have to ride through. This year I went through a bad thunderstorm for half a day in Indiana/Ohio, and then the last 24hrs were mostly rain including some extremely heavy rain for extended periods of time (there was actually a lot of localized flooding on the course). All of these conditions are further challenges to consider when trying to calculate your speed. Plus you have to factor in the fact that you become increasingly fatigued - both physically and mentally. And you can have physical issues develop (Shermer's neck, bad saddle sores, sore joints and extremeties, injuries, etc.). This year was my best year in terms of saddle issues, but in both 2012 and 2014 I had some serious issues. This year I got a taste of Shermer's neck which kept me off my TT bike for the 2nd half of the race. I also lost the ability to use/feel my hands (I've had this happen to varying degrees on all of my RAAMs).
So I guess what I'm saying is that while on paper RAAM may not seem that difficult (after all it's only got 125,000ft of climbing over 3000 miles), actually doing it is much harder than most might give it credit for up front. Again, this is why experience at other ultras is so important. It's good to have a plan, but be prepared for that plan to go out the window, because that's the only thing guaranteed on RAAM - that your plan will eventually have to change in some regard.
4. What was your nutrition plan? For Ironman I took about 250 calories/hour plus electrolyte pills and plenty of water, and saw a lot of success with that. No GI issues at all.
I tried to consume at least 300-400cal/hr, and was shooting for at least 30oz/hr of fluid. In the heat of the desert I was consuming over 40oz/hr. I don't have my nutrition stats yet since my laptop was accidentally drowned early on during the race so my app that we were using to track everything could no longer be used, and we had to revert to paper tracking. My husband is still driving back across the country so I don't have access to those papers yet to analyze anything. A big thing with nutrition to remember is that what works for 12-18hrs may not work once you get into several days of it. The last 2 RAAMs I've had plans of sticking to a maltodextrin based fuel source for the majority of my calories, and then 3-4 days in have had to abandon that because it was causing issues. So have several backup plans. I ended up eating a lot of real food after day 3 - everything from hamburgers to milk shakes to cookies to yogurt to sandwiches to fruit to energy bars to you name it. Also, on each of my RAAMs my mouth has gotten really messed up to the point where things start to taste funny. Plain water tastes awful, so I end up switching to sodas and juices mostly. Many foods also start "burning" my mouth, so I have to eat a lot of neutral food - this year I went through a lot of rice pudding and tapioca pudding since it was soothing on my mouth. I also use Biotene dry-mouth spray to help with the symptoms, and chew a lot of gum later in the ride because my mouth tastes so awful. Again, nutrition is something that you have to figure out for yourself, which is again why getting experience at other ultras is so important.
5. Besides obviously racing ultras to oil the machine, get a crew dialed in, etc. what else do you do to prepare? I'm commuting to work 2x/week for 50 miles/day plus long rides on weekends mixed with my swimming and running for now.
As mentioned earlier, getting a coach can really help with this. My training was anywhere from 20-40+hrs/week (all cycling, and with at least 2 full rest days per week). This year I did less volume and more intensity training. Recovery and sleep are vitally important - I think too many people crank out crazy mileage but don't let their body recover/adapt. Many RAAM riders this year were riding upwards of 2x or more the mileage I was, but I finished strong and several of them DNFd.
6. How many days do you dedicate to RAAM? As in, outside of the 12 for the race, how many days before and after? Will need to make sure I stack up enough leave time (and/or see if I have tot take the hours since I'll be "working!")
I was back at work the Wednesday following the race (I finished Saturday night), but I'm not "100%" yet. It takes a while to fully recover. I took the 12th-30th off from work.
7. How many outfits for riding did you bring? Did you wear something different each day or do laundry and re-wear things?
I had over 10 pairs of shorts along, but was changing shorts as frequently as every 3-5hrs (we started off every 7-8hrs, but then switched to more frequently to help manage butt issues - and this paid off as I had the least amount of discomfort as any of my RAAMs). Shorts I changed the most, followed by gloves (the 2nd half of the race I'd be changing gloves almost as frequently as I changed shorts). My crew were doing laundry pretty much daily (this was one of the tasks of the errand vehicle). The rest of my clothes (socks, jersey, bra, etc.) I only changed once per day unless weather warranted otherwise. Its important to have clothes for all conditions, as you can have everything from extreme cold to extreme heat to extreme dry to extreme wet.
Phew- that was a lot! I felt so lucky to get such a thorough response, and assured her that I was absolutely not offended by her comments at all! I sought her out as an expert on something I've never even tried, and took each of her answers to heart.
The biggest concern I have is the cost- a factor that makes RAAM prohibitive to many. Although my sweet, sweet fiance said immediately that we'd find the money somewhere if it was my dream, I just can't. He has put his dreams on the back burner for four years while I chase mine, and it's his turn. He is in to auto racing and wants a car. THAT takes priority over any of my future crazy schemes. Also, the time and dedication required of a crew made me step back. I don't yet have the connections to reach experienced crew, and I can't ask that of my friends, family, and especially not Bryce (although he'd do it, no questions asked!) That's a LOT of vacation time spent doing a LOT of work.
I also have about a million other adventures I want to go on. I want to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail, ride horses through Big Bend, run Big Sur. Those things all cost money and time as well, and I know deep down the more diverse my experiences, the happier I'll be.
The deciding factor was how I felt once I started to think on it. I wasn't that sad or incredibly disappointed. If someone had thrown a hurdle in my way when it came to Ironman, I'd have found any way around it I could. But when this came up, I basically just shrugged my shoulders. That right there told me this wasn't something worth personally pursuing right now. I knew in my heart that I had made the proclamation about RAAM as a means of doing the next biggest and baddest thing, not necessarily doing what would further my passion for cycling.
|Looking forward to reading this!|
Ultra Cycling has so many cool races that I want to check off, including the HooDoo500 and Natchez Trace 444. I've already got Bryce to agree to ride the Washington-Colorado portion of the Trans Am Bike Race with me within the next three years. :)
These are all goals I'm really excited about, and greatly looking forward to. All of that next year combined with Ironman Boulder and I think I'm accepting a big enough amount of challenge to stay busy!
Although I've decided RAAM isn't for me (for now!), I'm happy with that and don't regret my direction change at all. I've already met some incredible people, and hope to get a group of women in the sport together to help give direction to newbies like me who want to dive in.
In the mean time, I'm focusing on finishing out my tri season and loving all three sports equally (pshhh, not happening, to be honest!) I did get an awesome deal on a dog jogging harness/belt combo on eBay, so my Blue Heeler Hammer is helping me love running again. He's MUCH faster than me, so he's a good partner to have!
|"You're killing me with these 10min/miles, mom!"|
I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, and picking up next year with more miles in the saddle. All this activity is keeping me sane through wedding planning, too!
|New shades for my new outlook!|