When people ask, "Could you have gone any faster?" the answer is usually, "No, but I could have gone longer at the same pace." How long, though? That's something I've always been curious about. In Virtual Race Across the West, I finally got an answer to that question.
VRAW is a 950-mile course - the first 30% of Race Across America - and by far the longest event I've ever done. While I was in the shape of my life, I wasn't sure how my body would respond to the distance. The farthest I had ever gone was 400 miles at the Solitary Confinement Ride (see Going Looooong Part 1).
Though riding on the trainer is less interesting than outdoors, the fact that the race was virtual made it simpler. I had a table within arm's reach that had my food, water, anti-chafe cream, etc, so I could reach all of those things without getting off the bike. Distractions were minimized, and I could devote all my energy to finding out just how long I could keep pedaling.
The night before the race, I meal-prepped for the week. I've always been lucky to be able to eat real foods while biking and running. I made several containers of overnight oats, a bunch of sandwiches, and bought some burritos from Trader Joe's. Also Honey Stinger waffles, gels, Clif bars, bananas, and coconut water.
We started at 9am on Tuesday. Normally in a race, you want to go as fast as possible - even in an Ironman, you're racing for ten hours. But in the Solitary Confinement Ride, I'd done well by going as slowly as possible. Now I had to figure out how to balance those two things. I decided to err on the side of caution.
After stage 1, I looked at the leaderboard. I was 7th out of 12 women. Maybe it was okay to go a tiny bit faster. Over the course of the day, I gradually crept up from 7th into 2nd place among the women. I didn't really expect to stay there for the duration, but would hold it as long as I could.
Sleep was one of the big question marks in my race plan. It sounded like in ultracycling, sleeping 90 minutes per night was the thing to do, so I decided to try that. Another piece of advice I'd taken to heart was, "If you feel good, don't stop." In any endurance event, you go through high points and low points. I would wait until a low point, when I felt like I really needed a break, and sleep then.
This came around 3 in the morning. I got off the bike, and set the alarm. I was afraid that if I went upstairs to bed, I would get too comfortable and hit the snooze button, so I slept on a yoga mat on the basement floor, next to my bike. I went to sleep in 2nd, but Sabine "Bean" Bird, from Australia, had been chasing me all day, and I was concerned I might wake up in 3rd.
When the alarm went off, I groggily picked up my phone, and examined the leaderboard. I was still 2nd, but Bean was 2km behind me - when I'd gone to sleep, she'd been 30km back! My brain kicked into overdrive. If she hadn't passed me while I was sleeping, she sure wasn't going to pass me now! I sprinted upstairs, used the bathroom, snatched my breakfast out of the refrigerator, and jumped back on my bike. I began pedaling and eating my overnight oats with just a couple of minutes to spare.
Overall, day two went more smoothly than I had expected. My legs were somewhat tired, but they were on a plateau - not getting more tired. Joanna Sharpe, of New Zealand, had taken the lead in the women's race, right from the beginning, and there were times when I felt tempted to go after her, but held back.
We were 400 miles in - the farthest I'd ever ridden - but I wasn't even halfway there yet. That was a scary thought. As we got into the second night, the going got tougher. I was concerned about my knees. They were not happy about all the climbing we'd been doing.
Fortunately I was using my road bike - a beautiful new Bianchi Infinito - rather than my TT bike for this. I'd chosen it because my shoulders had given my trouble, being in the aerobars so long during the Solitary Confinement Ride. On the trainer, you don't have to cut through the wind, so comfort is more important than aero. But it turned out to be an especially good decision, because the Infinito had a better selection of climbing gears. With the gearing on my TT bike, my knees would have been toast.
The course would normally go from Oceanside, California to Durango, Colorado, but the virtual race consisted of 83 stages on the Fulgaz App, which were all over the country. The Kona Ironman course, Pacific Coast Highway, a road to the Hoover Dam... and mountain after mountain after mountain.
Rather than battling the elements, we were enjoying the luxuries of life in the pain cave. No heat, cold, altitude, potholes, or crazy drivers. To make up for these shortcomings, the race organizers came up with the idea of adding extra elevation gain to the course. We had over 25 kilometers of elevation gain.
When I finished a stage, I would look to see what the next stage was: "Oh, 7 miles, that's not so bad... oooohhhh, 2000 ft of elevation gain - that's terrible!" For some reason we never got to go back down the mountains again. We would end the stage at the top, start the next stage, and it was another enormous mountain.
Day 3, things were getting hard. My left quad was not happy. My butt was not happy. It was getting a lot harder to walk up the stairs to the kitchen. Fortunately my roommate, Chante, was really helpful with refilling water bottles. I hoped my legs would make it the rest of the way.
I took my 90-minute sleep break a bit earlier this time. When I got back on the bike, my legs told me they had had enough. I tried to get them to come around.
Me: Come on, this is what you were born to do. Long distance is your thing!
Legs: Not this long!
Me: You always told me you could go forever, as long as the pace was slow.
Legs: Yeah, but you didn't tell us about all these mountains!
Indeed, there seemed no end to the mountains. Stages 60-67 were the most brutal part of the race, and my body was on the verge of giving out. Much of my left quad had locked up. Within a couple of hours, my left glute and left calf followed suit. I was doing more than half the work with my right leg, which meant my right knee was not happy. In order to unclip my left foot from the pedal, I had to pull my heel to the side using my hand. To mount and dismount, I used my arm to help lift my leg over the bike, to avoid full-blown cramping.
I had signed up for this race with the goal of finding out what my limits were. Now I was discovering the answer. In any other situation, I would have concluded that this was as far as I could go, and called it quits. But this was one of the toughest races out there, and I desperately wanted to stay in 2nd. The mountains had taken everything out of me, and I was running on fumes - but I had less than 100 miles to go, and it was mostly flat. Somehow, I was going to find a way to drag myself to the finish.
Those last 100 miles, I was walking a tightrope between finishing the race and avoiding injury. Early in the race, I had coasted every tiny downhill to save up little scraps of energy I might need later. I didn't know just how badly I would need them. Every pedal stroke hurt. Even on flats, I took a few pedal strokes at a time, and then coasted for as long as possible. I was monitoring the leaderboard. Bean was gaining on me, inevitably, but I had a couple of hours lead. I hoped it would be enough.
Finally, I reached the last stage. Even a 1 or 2% grade felt brutal at this point. We ended by going across the Golden Gate Bridge. It took great effort to do the first half of the bridge. At the centre point, it turned to downhill.
I realized, "That's it. I did it. I can coast from here." With that thought, I started crying. I don't usually get emotional, but I had never, ever worked that hard for anything.
When I reached the finish, I saved the ride, and collapsed on the basement floor. My phone rang. It was my parents. They had stayed up all night to virtually cheer for me. Part way through the night my dad had gotten on his own bike trainer, and announced that he was going to keep pedaling with me until I was done. For each of us, it had been our longest ride ever.
I had signed up for this race with the singular goal of finding out what I was capable of. Now I had an answer: 94 hours, 32 minutes. 950 miles. I don't think I could have made it to 960. It was also the best result I'd ever had at a major race: 2nd female out of 12, and 7th out of 82 including the men. In the process I had completely fried myself. My body would need some serious recovery time - I could barely walk the day after the race.
I'm taking the rest of June as an off season, and will start rebuilding mileage again in July. I am definitely interested to try more ultracycling races, but will have to put some thought into how to balance that with Ironman racing. I will likely go back to my plan of focusing on Ironman the next several years, and then doing more ultras once I get into my 40s. While I was absolutely thrilled with this result, I still have a lot to learn about the sport. The only ultras I have done are on the trainer. I don't know where to start in terms of getting a motorhome and support crew and racing across the country while navigating on unfamiliar roads. I'm toying with the idea of doing RAAM as part of a 4-person relay, since that would give me the opportunity to learn from more experienced racers.
Whatever happens next, this experience has changed my perception of what is possible. Things I've dreamed about, like swimming the English Channel, or doing 100-mile trail races, seem a tiny bit more possible than they did before. My legs still feel dead a week later, and it will be a process to rebuild. But I think that mentally, this will give me a boost when I go back to Ironman racing. Knowing I can go for 94 hours will give me a different perspective on a 10-hour Ironman race.
Of course, I couldn't do this by myself. Thank you to my roommate for cheering me on and refilling water bottles (and not complaining when I ate all her ice cream sandwiches during the race!) Thank you to my sponsors: Honey Stinger for the bars and waffles, and N+1 Cyclery and Bianchi for all your support leading into this. Swapping out my saddle, getting set up with the Fulgaz App, etc. I love the new Infinito; worked like a charm! Thank you to my parents for staying up all night, cheering me on, and sending me good vibes. And congratulations to the other finishers, especially Joanna Sharpe and Bean Bird. It was inspiring racing with you, and I look forward to racing together again sometime!