Throughout my life, there has been a clear pattern that the longer a race is, the better I do. I've always been curious about the limits of that. How far could I go if I tested my endurance in its purist form, without trying to test speed at the same time? Over the last few weeks, I've finally had the opportunity to find out.
Amid a myriad of race cancellations, I read about the Solitary Confinement Ride: a 40-minute loop on Zwift every hour for 12 or 24 hours. Starting at hour 25, anyone still going could continue into the Eliminator Round. No more 20-minute breaks. No getting off the bike for any reason. Just keep going until you can't go anymore, and the last one to quit gets the yellow jersey!
The idea intrigued me, and I immediately signed up for the Eliminator Challenge. During the first 24 hours, we would be going 300 miles. I had never ridden that far, but was in the shape of my life, since I had been doing Ironman training full time the past few months. Publically, I said I wanted to last an hour or two into the Eliminator Round. Privately, my stretch goal was to hit 400 miles, and maybe get the yellow jersey.
I had done my homework on the bike; now I did my homework on Strava, researching the competition. Most people's longest ride was around 110-150 miles. Except for someone named Chris Calimano - according to Strava, his longest ride was 766 miles! Two thoughts crossed my mind: "Crap, no yellow jersey for me" and "If I want to do really well, this is who I need to emulate."
When the event started, my focus was on conserving energy. We had to ride 12.4 miles each lap - but if we finished before 40 minutes, we had to keep riding until we got to the 40-minute mark. My plan was to ride at exactly the required speed, which felt unnaturally slow on such a pancake flat course. Most of the riders were going ahead, and doing extra distance each lap - did they know something I didn't? Out of 50+ riders, there were only a couple of people behind me. Then I realized one of those people was Calimano. Whew - I was doing the right thing after all.
As I settled in for the long haul, I tried to predict any problems I might have, and fix them before they appeared. Drink before you're thirsty, eat before you're hungry. Put on anti-chafe cream before you start chafing. We had to log in for each lap 5 minutes before the lap actually started. Early on, I realized that it made no sense to sit on the bike for those extra 5 minutes. The saddle was likely to become a limiting factor, and 5 × 24 was 2 hours of extra time sitting on it. I adopted the practice of lying on the floor watching the clock until 20 seconds before the lap started. It was all about saving energy, right?
Except for sprint stages. There were a number of laps where the fastest male/female on a certain segment would be awarded a green jersey. I knew it would be stupid to race all of them, and needed to choose my sprint carefully. I sat out the first few, but on lap 6, the 12-hour crew was showing signs of getting tired, so I went for it. It worked!! Now, I needed to not get greedy. One green jersey was enough, and it was time to go back to energy-conservation mode. No more match burning for me.
I was relieved to not be tired yet, but was worried about how I was going to feel pedaling through the night and into the next day. On the Zwift chat, Calimano commented he was going to be sleeping next to his bike starting at 9pm. I decided I'd better do that, too.
At 12 hours, most people finished and logged out, leaving only the 24-hour riders. The feel of the group changed. You know how, if you're out running on a 70-degree day in a residential neighborhood, and you see another runner, you might smile or wave. But if you're out running on a 10-degree day, in a blizzard, in the middle of nowhere, and you see another runner, you somehow feel a deeper connection. I felt that connection with the other riders.
A few weeks beforehand, I had read Hell on Two Wheels, by Amy Snyder. It's a book about superhumans. People who compete in Race Across America, riding their bikes across the country in only about ten days. As the clock ticked on into the wee hours of the morning, I realized this breed of superhumans was the same people I was riding with now. They casually talked about RAAM, and 500-mile qualifying races, and 60-hour training rides as if they were normal things. My legs still felt surprisingly good, and riding through the night felt somehow magical, in a way I hadn't expected. Maybe, just maybe, I could be superhuman, too.
Of course, we still had a long way to go, and a few issues to figure out. The number one question I got before the event, when I described the Eliminator Challenge to people, was "How are you going to pee?!" With 8 hours to go before the Eliminator, I still had not figured this out. Neither, apparently, had most of the guys. I was relieved when a few of them started brainstorming about it. I had thought I was the only one who waited until the last minute to figure out my strategy!
Towels? Soda bottles? Of course, it was complicated by the fact that I was a woman - everyone else going into the Eliminator Round had an anatomy that was slightly better designed for dealing with the issue. Bottles wouldn't work for me. Or, maybe they would...
I got creative. During one break, I found some scissors, and cut up some empty containers that had contained coconut water, making little cardboard cups. I experimented. I found that if I scooted up to the very front of the saddle, and had one hand on the elbow pad for my aerobars, taking much of my body weight, then I could use the other hand to stick a cardboard cup down my shorts. I quickly realized that it needed to be a precise height - so the bottom of the cup rested on the top tube of the bike, and I rested lightly on the top of the cup. During the next break I made more adjustments with scissors.
After several tries, I managed to successfully pee in the cup while pedaling. Though it only worked because the bike was attached securely to the trainer, and I did not have to balance!
Unfortunately, between eating & drinking, trying to get a little sleep, and figuring out how to pee, I forgot to do laundry until it was too late. I ran out of dry clothes to change into, and ended up starting the Eliminator round in wet, sweaty clothes. Hello, chafing!
The Eliminator Round started at 9am on Sunday - 24 hours in. No more breaks from here on out. My legs were doing much better than expected, but my shoulders were not appreciative of the amount of time I'd spent in the aerobars. I thought I'd figured out my peeing strategy, but had forgotten one factor: anyone still going at hour 25 had to set up a webcam. Sticking a cardboard cup down my shorts was all well and good if I was in the basement by myself, but it wasn't something I wanted to do on camera, with an internet audience. Back to the drawing board.
Of the 50+ riders who had started the event, 7 continued into the Eliminator Round. Technically, I could stop any time I wanted to. I had made a wide range of goals, not knowing what to expect. Some I had already achieved: by making it into the Eliminator Round at all, I was the top female! Other goals were not going to happen. Chris Calimano said he thought he could go 72 hours. I had gone into this with the assumption that he would take the yellow jersey, and I was being proven correct. At least I had won a green jersey back on Lap 6. I focused on my other two goals: finishing top 3, and hitting the 400-mile mark.
The group dwindled from seven, to six, to five, to four. One more and I'd be in the top three! My shoulders hurt. I kept sitting up to roll them out, which I should have started doing hours earlier. I needed to pee, and eventually did so in my shorts with a towel under me, hoping it wouldn't be noticeable on camera. By this point I had also developed some chafing, and it was not a good combination. I reminded myself that the other riders were probably having these issues too.
The four of us rode on. And on. Eventually, Cory Weibel pulled the plug. He was another very strong cyclist I'd had my eye on throughout the event. Now it was down to me, Chris, and a rider named Aurimas Sabulis. I didn't know anything about him, but he'd been patiently lurking in the back of the pack, conserving his energy, and showed no signs of getting tired.
When I hit 400, my legs said they could go a bit further, but were outvoted by my shoulders, bladder, and chafed skin. I called it a day. I had achieved almost every goal I'd set for myself. I was top female, top three overall, and had achieved my stretch goal in terms of mileage. I assumed there was no way I could last 72 hours with Chris. I case you were wondering, the yellow jersey went to none other than C. Calimano.
I went home and took a much-needed nap. I had done the ride at Cisco and Tara's house - my support crew from N+1 Cyclery. That way they could check on me regularly, fix any issues with my bike, and deal with setting up the webcam. They were super helpful, and it was amazing to have them there!
After recovering for a couple of days, I did something that had been on my mind the past few months, but had not dared to actually commit to: I signed up for VRAW. Virtual Race Across the West. A 950-mile race, covering the first 30% of the Race Across America Course. It was a stretch, but I still had unfinished business in terms of testing my endurance. In Part 2 of this blog post, read about my experience with VRAW!