by Joan Grant Deitchman
After DNFing Race Across Oregon last year due to pretty miserable weather conditions both days plus some major lower back problems (which turned out to be due to a saddle height change that had happened in the lead up to the race without me knowing), I needed to go back and get that monkey off my back. RAO was by far the hardest thing I’d endured, and I’d made it 456 miles before throwing in the towel, but I needed to go back and finish it. Before I knew it, I had an all star crew lined up – Sandy Earl and Lee “Fuzzy” Mitchell – wow, how’d I bag them???? Add to the crew Jason “Pudu” Pierce (a bad assed cyclist – for example he did Death Ride on his fixed gear bike this year – and bike mechanic who we’ve gotten to know on the California double century circuit) and my husband Mike, and I knew I was going to be in good hands. I was almost more intimidated by the awesomeness of my crew than by the badass-ness of the ride itself! Not to mention fear of tarnishing Sandy’s 100% finish rate in all her crewing efforts! I had my work cut out for me – I didn’t want to disappoint!
Race morning I got up a bit earlier than last year (3:30am) so that I’d have more time to digest my breakfast before hitting the course. Everyone gathered for the start just before 5am. It was perfect early morning conditions – not too cold, but nice and refreshing. The first 9 miles were the “parade route” where we were all supposed to stay together as a group – I was going into the race with a questionable knee after injuring it 3 weeks before RAO, so I wanted to take things super easy at the start until I got properly warmed up. I knew there was a short steep climb right near the start, and I didn’t want to aggravate my knee trying to power over it with the pack. So I comfortably dropped off the back, but never lost sight of the group.
Right before the end of the parade section there was a pee stop. It had been planned to be behind some trees, but of course by the time me and one of the other women (Karen Armstrong) got there, all the guys were at the trees, so we got to squat in the ditch facing a farm house – lovely!! Oh, but it gets better. I didn’t realize the foliage in the ditch was prickly and had thorns on it. First I got tangled up in one and got a scratch on my leg, then I realized I was getting brambles all over my chamois – great!!! This was my reward for hydrating enough in the morning to actually be able to pee this early on – I was now to be known as Bramble-Butt!! I quickly tried to de-bramble my chamois, but the group was ready to leave and head across the highway to start the real race, so I figured I’d continue with them and then once everyone took off up the climb I’d stop and continue the de-brambling. So I huddled behind Terri’s van trying to pick the remaining brambles out of my shorts while everyone else bolted up Mt. Hood. This was a little bit of extra stress, but I tried to just laugh it off and think of it as a good story to tell afterwards.
I was at the back of the pack, although it didn’t take me too long to catch up to a recumbent rider, Dennis Johnson, and pass him (climbing on a recumbent is much harder than climbing on an upright bike). I settled into my pace, and enjoyed the scenic views of Mt. Hood, knowing full well that within hours there would be much less scenery to look at. I started in on hydration/nutrition with a vengeance – I knew that I needed to eat/drink as much as I could while it was still cool out, because when it heats up it’s a lot harder to take in food, and so you want to go into the heat of the day with your tank topped off. I downed both my water bottles and 2 packets of Cliff Bocks in the next 15 miles. My crew gave me more Perpeteum and blocks, and I continued to try and down everything. The only downside of this was that I found myself having to stop and pee every hour or so! From the start to the top of Mt. Hood, which took just over 3 hours, I’d stopped and peed 3 times, and then I had to stop again within the next hour too, and the hour after that! I was starting to get concerned that I was going to be spending all my time watering the vegetation along the Oregon ditches rather than riding – I’ve never had to pee that frequently on a ride before! But of course as the heat of the day set in, while many of the other riders would be puking and suffering from dehydration, I would be in much better shape thanks to my due diligence in the hydration department.
I got to time station #1 in Tygh Valley 73.4 miles into the course at 10:08am – 10min slower than last year, but with 3 additional pee stops, time lost waiting at a traffic light on Highway 35 due to road construction, and a slight mis-navigation regarding the turn from Highway 35 to Forest Road 48 (the crew said they’d be at the turn, and when I got there they weren’t, so I was confused about what to do since I could have sworn that was the turn – I nearly missed it last year so was on the lookout for it this year – but pretty quickly the BikeVan reappeared and all was well – with all the construction cones in the pullout they’d not seen that it was the road and had kept on going). From Tygh Valley we continued on towards time station #2 in Moro. It started to heat up in this section, and near the bottom of the Grass Valley climb my stomach started to feel not so good. Perpeteum was no longer palatable, and I was feeling the beginnings of a bit of nauseousness. I switched to more plain water, some Doritos and other saltier foods, and V8. We passed the road sign “Payne Loop” just after the climb – Mike had seen the sign last year and taken a picture, but I’d not noticed it – this year I did though, and it seemed to fit my mood right then! The next section of rollers was much better than last year, as there wasn’t anywhere near the head winds that we’d had a year ago, so it seemed to go by a lot quicker. I got to time station #2 in Moro 121.4 miles into the race at 1:33pm, 6min faster than my time last year – guess I’m consistent if nothing else! Since I was 10min behind my pace at TS1 though, it means I’d made up 16min on this stage compared to last year.
I knew the next section was going to be the hardest part of Saturday – it would be the hottest part of the day, and there was a tough 9 mile climb coming up from the John Day River where it was over 100deg last year. First though there were a few shorter climbs and a longish descent before getting there. Along here I traded spots a couple of times with Alex Kohan on his recumbent – I’d pass him on the uphill, and then he’d pass me on the downhill. Tim Woudenberg was on his crew, so it was great to see a friendly face. Alex, like me, had DNFd last year, so I was hoping that we could both have a great race and finish. Dropping down to the John Day River I felt the blasts of hot air, but this year I was expecting it. On the way down I saw a sign for “Starvation Lane” – I thought of Jason’s experience crewing for Bruce last year when I saw that sign – Bruce had been having stomach problems the entire race last year and couldn’t keep any food down – in fact it kept coming back up repeatedly! I made a mental note to tell Jason about the sign when I got the chance. At the bottom I started up the climb. I’d been holding off on taking an ice-sock (a tube sock filled with ice that you wrap around your neck to help keep you cool in the heat), as I knew it would get my shorts wet, and bring on chaffing earlier. I knew this would be where I’d want it for sure though. The temperature this year on the climb was only 96deg – a little bit cooler than last year’s 100+deg, but still hot. The climb flattens out in the middle, and then pitches up again the last mile or so. At the top I stopped to do my first shorts change – we were about 150 miles in, and I was starting to feel a bit of discomfort. We continued on towards Condon. I was still feeling a bit nauseous, probably because my electrolyte intake had dipped after switching to mainly plain water and V8 during the heat of the day. I also was feeling a need to make some room in my lower digestive tract and was feeling a bit of pressure in that area, so I decided I would make a beeline for hopefully a flush toilet at the gas station in Condon. I felt much better after that stop! Onwards and upwards after that – there were a couple more climbs to knock out before time station #3 in Heppner. On the first big climb after Condon I was passed by Paul Vlasveld’s 2 person team vehicle with Paul Duren and Louise McCracken in it – again, it was great to see some friendly faces out there! Just before the last climb before Heppner we reached 7:30pm and so the BikeVan had to start direct follow. This is when the van drives immediately behind the rider any time the rider is riding. The BikeVan is equipped with an external PA system and speakers, so this meant they could talk to me and play music for me over the speakers – really cool!!! I made my way up the last climb before Heppner climbing to the tunes of the Arrogant Worms, a Canadian group that does parody kinds of songs similar to what Weird Al does. I made a special request for the “Last Saskatchewan Pirate” since we’d been riding past a lot of wheat fields during the day! (Lyrics here) Race Director George Thomas also pulled up next to me on this climb and asked how I was doing – he said I was looking much better than I had at this point last year – and I knew I felt much better too! Woohoo!
We finally arrived in Heppner at time stations #3, 207.5 miles into the ride, at 8:36pm, 8min faster than my time last year, but the difference was that instead of taking a 45min break because I’d felt awful at this point last year, I felt relatively good and kept on going. We did stop so that I could change into a dry shirt and eat some cup-o-noodle soup though, then it was back on our way. Last year I’d started to get really sleepy along this section, but this year I wasn’t having much trouble staying awake. The music really helped a lot. When we hit the steeper climb though, my knee started to bother me a bitâ€¦.ugghhhhâ€¦.!!! I guess I was lucky that it had held out this long, but it would have been nice if it had stayed cooperative the whole ride. Oh well, I’d have to deal with it. We stopped for more cup-o-noodle soup at the top of the steeper climb before dropping down to the longer more gradual climb up Battle Mountain. Going up Battle Mountain I started getting the first real signs of sleepiness. I asked that we try playing an audio-book over the PA system, hoping it might engage me. I’ve never tried doing this before, but Michele Santilhano, who’d done RAAM this year, suggested it when I’d seen her the week before RAO. So I’d downloaded “The Life Of Pi” at Mike’s recommendation. This did work in terms of keeping me awake and alert for a while, but I don’t think I was far enough into the book for it to be captivating enough yet, so after several chapters I asked that we switch back to music. At least it did work for a while though. Nearer the top of the climb I really started struggling to stay awake more, so I asked for some music by Aqua – I knew it had a techno/dance kind of rhythm to it that really seems to help keep me awake. So we started in on what Sandy called “All Aqua All The Time”! This totally woke me up for the rest of the climb, and the first half of the descent. But then with about 10 miles to go before Dale I just started losing the battle. I hate that feeling of losing control when you’re trying to stay awake and your body just won’t listen – you feel so powerless!
We finally pulled into Dale at 3:57am, 285.6 miles into the race, elapsed time now just under 23hrs. I was 59min ahead of my pace from last year, but I wasn’t in very good spirits – in fact I was downright negative. Even though we were over half way, I was doing the mental math wrong, and thought it was less over the half-way mark than what it was (267.5 miles was the half way mark, so we were already almost 20 miles past the half way mark – I thought it was less than that though). And even though I knew we were almost an hour ahead of pace from last year, I knew that last year I ran out of time, and that there was still a lot of hard riding to come, so I didn’t think I’d built up enough of a time cushion to be able to finish. This is a good example of why when you’re doing these things you should NOT start trying to do mental math and analyze what remains in front of you – that’s for the crew to do. Doing so just makes things seem insurmountable, and makes you feel negative. Anywayâ€¦.we kept going out of Dale even though I could hardly stay awake. I was zig-zagging all over the road, and couldn’t for the life of me keep my eyes open. Finally my crew decided it was time to take a nap. I got off the bike, laid down on the ground on a thermarest, and before they’d even finished covering me up with some blankets I was out cold. Next thing I know they were waking me up to get back on the bike 20min later. The nap helped, but the next several hours were still a struggle. It wasn’t until a couple hours later that I finally felt like I was awake. This next section was where I’d had the worst of my back pain last year – several sections where I was literally riding and crying at the same time, and where I’d ended up sitting in a ditch thinking my race was over, before somehow continuing on for another 150 miles. Without the back pain, this section passed remarkably faster than last year. We dropped down into the one flattish section of the race – the section leading up to and after Spray. The temperature here was only apparently in the 70s or low 80s at this point, but it already felt like the 90s to me. I needed to get out of my warmer night jersey and into something cooler.
We pulled into Spray at ten-something in the morning (last year this was a time station, but not this year, so I don’t know exactly when we arrived). Last year I hadn’t got to Spray until 12:38pm, so I’d gained another hour or so on my cushion. I was feeling pretty overheated at this point, so we went into the mini-mart to change clothes and use the bathroom. Even though I was trying to hurry, I felt like I was barely moving, so the pit-stop was probably much longer than it should have been. But there were some good things that came out of this stop – Dill Pickle Potato Chips, and Freezie Pops – oh, and a mouthful of Pudu’s soft serve ice cream! Having fresh clothes on, and an ice sock around my neck, I headed out from Spray. Sandy also had me put a knee brace on my sore knee (the kind that is a narrow band that sits under the knee cap at the base of the knee and helps it track better) to see if that would help with the pain. It did seem to help a bit, so I left it on the rest of the race.
After another flat section along the river, there was another 10 mile climb. Along the flat section Dennis Johnson passed me on his recumbent – it was so awesome to see another rider – I hadn’t seen anyone since before Heppner the evening before! As we started up the climb though, I passed him and we didn’t see him again until the finish (he came in just after me). Last year this climb cooled off as we got up higher because of the storm system that was moving in. Thankfully there was no storm system this year, but it did mean that it stayed hot all the way up. My crew gave me another freezie pop on the way up which was a little taste of heaven! The climb also pitches up in steepness the last mile or two. It was apparently about 98deg when we got to the top. I opted not to get another ice sock on the way down, thinking I’d save it for the next climb – after all, a descent should be somewhat cooling right? WRONG! Not when it’s 98deg it isn’t! This descent wasn’t super long though, so we passed through Fossil and I pulled off on the side of the road in some shade to down a V8, Mountain Dew, and get a fresh ice sock before tackling the next climb. I felt pretty hot on this climb, but kept grinding away.
Then came a looong descent down to the John Day Fossil Beds area and Clarno. This descent was where it rained/hailed on me last year – this year it felt like I was in a convection oven instead!! The descent was about 13 miles, and I felt like I was baking as I passed through the 100+deg heat at speeds of over 30mph. I decided that at the bottom I was going to ask if we could stop briefly so that I could get in the van and cool down quickly before tackling the next climb – another 9 mile climb with some steeper gradients – I knew this was going to be the toughest climb of the day thanks to the heat. Getting out of the heat for a few minutes in Spray earlier in the day had made a big difference, and I was hoping a quick break here would too. It helped, but not as much as I’d hoped. I got back on the bike and started climbing and felt like the sun was baking down on me. This was my “mental low point” for the day on Sunday. The temperature was apparently 102deg – and my crew took a picture of the reading in the van to prove it! At one point the sun went behind some clouds, and even though the temperature only dropped a degree or two, it FELT like a huge difference not having the sun beating down viciously on me. During this section Sandy was playing some kind of old time styled music with off the wall lyrics over the PA that at least helped keep my mind somewhat off the suffering. It also helped to see Adrienne go by in her van a few times and cheer me on – seeing anyone out there in the middle of nowhere lifts ones spirits! Finally the top came though, and then the descent into Antelope.
At this point I was in need of another flush toilet, and was hoping desperately that there would be one in Antelope, even though I know there’s hardly anything in Antelope. We were almost through town and I thought we were going to be out of luck, but then, like when you see an oasis in the desert, I saw a sign for a Cafe that said “Open”, and a placard out front that said “Marionberry Cobbler” – SCORE!!! We truly had reached a little oasis in the middle of the Oregon desert!! Here the crew was also able to get cheese fries, mierpoix beef soup, and coffee in addition to the cobbler, and I got to use a real toilet! I started up the next climb. I think my crew was trying to mess with me on this climb though, because they kept playing the same song over and over and over – all I remember about it was that the lyrics kept saying “what goes around comes around” – I was about ready to go stark raving mad after about what I thought was the 3rd time through! Near the top Pudu chimed in with a comment about how it looked like a nice descent looking back where we came from – I offered to ride back down to find out if he’d ride back up to the top! I was in pretty good spirits at this point, knowing that I was in much better shape than I had been at this stage of the race last year. The sweet moment was when we crested the hill and I could tell that the wind wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it had been last year – this was the section last year that was the nail in the coffin for me – the wind had been so strong that I could barely make forward progress going downhill. It was around this time that Pudu played the song “The Climb” over the PA. Don’t laugh – it’s a Hannah Montana song, but I heard it on the radio shortly after RAO last year, and the lyrics seemed really appropriate, so I’d downloaded it from iTunes. (Lyrics here) Pudu also offered me leftover cheese fries out of the van window along this section – and pickles!! And Mike gave me some dill pickle potato chips – yum! We passed through time station #5 in Shaniko at 6:12pm, 431.4 miles into the race.
The next section on Bakeoven Road I’d done in the dark last year, and I remembered seeing all the weird desert vegetation on the side of the road blowing violently in the wind like ghoulish creatures beckoning me to hell! This year I was able to see what the vegetation looked like in the daylight – much less scary and animated! We kept going and arrived in Maupin just before 8pm – last year I’d pulled in to Maupin at 11:25pm, and had dropped out here because there wasn’t enough time to finish under the cutoff. What a difference to get here 3.5hrs earlier still in the daylight! I knew there was still a tough section with a lot more climbing still to come though, but at least I’d made it further than last year. I quickly did a clothing change here before we hit the road again to try and get as much done in the daylight before it got dark. We completed the climb out of Maupin and the descent towards Tygh Valley. Just at dusk we stopped for soup and cobbler (that the crew had bought in Antelope), then I tackled the next climb. This climb seemed harder to me than the climb out of Maupin – my knee was starting to get sorer, and I was also feeling hungry and a bit out of energy. Finally the top came though, and we descended towards Dufur. Then came a little bit of flat/rolling terrain before the last big climb up Mt. Hood. This climb is about 15 miles or so, and almost 500 miles into the ride the legs are a wee bit tired! I felt relatively chipper though. We stopped for more cup-o-noodle soup at the base of the climb. It was nice knowing there was essentially just one climb left, even if it was a long one. The climb took about 2hrs 15min to get to the top, and near the top it was hard to tell whether we’d even reached the top, as there were several false summits. For one of them you came over a little crest, and there was the peak of Mt. Hood bathed in the moonlight – I figured that HAD to be the top since it seemed so poetically perfect, but no, it wasn’tâ€¦. About 1:45am or thereabouts we reached the summit – woohoo!!! I stopped to put on my knee warmers, arm warmers, vest, and down a 5hr energy to try and help me power through the last 30+ miles. Part of the descent was on Forest Road 44, which I wasn’t quite as comfortable descending on as I was once we hit Highway 35, a major highway which had a good road surface and wide sweeping turns. From the turn onto 35 it was about 25 miles to the finish, with just one slight rise on the way down. I bombed down 35 – it was awesome having essentially no traffic on the road, and getting the whole road to myself. I felt like I was flying, and I hit my max speed of 45mph on this section. I felt fairly alert, but I did ask the van to use the PA system to talk to me on the way down just to help keep my mind engaged so that I didn’t fall into a trance and get sleepy. That did the trick.
I pulled into Hood River and the finish line at 3:28am, clocking a total time of 46hrs 28min for 535 miles with over 40,000 feet of climbing and top temperatures near or above 100deg both days. I was 3rd female (out of 3 – 100% finish rate for the women – woohoo!) and 8th overall (out of 9 finishers – 16 solo riders started the race). Even though I was the only one on the bike, I don’t consider this a solo effort – this was a 5 person team – I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew! Any crew going forward is going to have very large shoes to fill – and I’m not just talking about Pudu’s clown shoes! In all seriousness though, having such an experienced and entertaining crew was the best and most memorable part of this event. Everyone on the crew brought something different to the table, and at least from where I sat, everything went smoothly throughout. Anyone who’s fortunate enough to have Sandy crew chief for them is in for a treat – she’s the best at what she does, and I couldn’t have done it without her guidance and encouragement! She’s been an inspiration in my ultra-cycling career, and I certainly hope I’m lucky enough to have her crew for me again in the future! As for Fuzzy, he and his BikeVan are legendary in ultra-cycling and need no description – it was an honor and a privilege to have Lee on my crew, and to get to lead the BikeVan into Hood River and that finish line! Pudu got things done out there, and was a jack of all trades – when he wasn’t snoring and eating/buying gummy bears that is – I’ll never look at another gummy bear and not smile and think of RAO! And Mike, well he’s my soulmate, and I’m so glad he was able to be there and help me make it through this year. It’s in tough times that you catch a glimpse of someone’s heart and soul, and last year at RAO I saw to the depths of his and it solidified the notion that he was “the one”. Thank you to everyone on my crew – you’re all rock stars and I’m forever indebted to you! To steal Sandy’s quote – “I’m the luckiest person in the world”!!!