Issue 04: Ultra Racing and the Recreational Cyclist: Bite-Sized Chunks

By David Longdon

The basic plan for most 4-person relay teams is to have two large vehicles (SUVs or minivans), with racers #1 and #3 in one vehicle and racers #2 and #4 in the other.

In early 2008 I got an invitation to join a Race Across Oregon (RAO) 2-man relay attempt. As you can probably relate, my immediate reaction was “no way!” The idea of doing an ultra race in any format was completely outside my consciousness. But, I’m a convert. I have since competed in RAO twice (2008 and 2013) as part of 4-man relay teams, have crewed for a solo racer (2011), and consider these crazy events to be the most fun I’ve had in cycling.

To put my perspective about ultras in context, it’s important to stress that I am a thoroughly unremarkable competitor. I participate (notice I didn’t say “race”) in sanctioned races from time to time, but on a good day I am merely masters category 4 pack fodder. The main thing I have going for me is that I have maintained my fitness over the course of my life, which now pays dividends: “Old men know how to suffer.”

Not that just any cyclist can do an ultra relay, but during a debrief of this year’s race one of my teammates reflected “…if you can do RAMROD, the Chelan Century or an equivalent ride, you have the physical ability to…” do a 4-person ultra.

Race Across Oregon is a 500+ mile Race Across America (RAAM)-qualifying event that is actually more of a race around Oregon in the form of a giant clockwise loop in the north central and eastern part of the state. Oh, and it does have a wee bit of climbing: The current version boasts 45,000’+ of uphill pavement. All things being equal, a 4-person RAO works out to ~130 miles and ~10,000’+ of climbing per rider: “Hard but doable.” Most of my cycling buddies cannot imagine a solo or 2-man 500+ mile race. But a 4-man, especially when framed as a hard century ride in bite-sized chunks, is something most avid cyclists can wrap their heads around.

The current RAO course starts and finishes in Hood River.

When I initially pondered a 2-man relay, it wasn’t so much the concept of riding 250+ miles (in fact, at that time I was actively targeting “epic” century or double-century rides), but pulling an all-nighter that caught me short. I love sleep, and I couldn’t imagine the misery of pedaling my legs off at 3 AM. I (incorrectly) figured that having more racers would mean more sleep. In reality the race vibe amps me up so much it’s hard to calm down enough to get any shut-eye. Now with 2 500+ mile ultra relay races in my legs, for me at least, going without sleep is just part of the program. On the plus side, the first nap after the race is extraordinarily satisfying.

After I declined that initial 2008 RAO invite, the concept simmered for a few days, and gradually morphed from “no way” to a 2-man, into “I’m gonna make a 4-man relay happen.” Thinking about a 4-man RAO made my palms sweat, which meant that I HAD to give it a try. The buddy who proposed the 2-man wasn’t interested in a 4-man, so I cast a net out to cycling buddies from Eugene and then their friends. Within a week we had four racers pumped about the opportunity.

The basic plan for most 4-person relay teams is to have two large vehicles (SUVs or minivans), with racers #1 and #3 in one vehicle and racers #2 and #4 in the other. Ideally the team is making forward progress at all times, and each vehicle alternates having a racer on course. Relay exchanges happen when the racer on course crosses the plane of the next rider. During the daytime the next rider can be rolling, and you can do moving exchanges. At night riders need to remain in the headlights of their support vehicles, so the racer passes in front of the next rider who is standing in front of their support vehicle. Tactics such as putting all four riders on course in a paceline are possible during the daytime, though there are only a few sections of the super-hilly RAO course where pacelining is feasible.

The 2008 4-man team consisted of two other riders about my same ability, and an in-law of one of the other racers who had demonstrated promise in the previous year’s one-day version of the Seattle to Portland (STP) 200 mile event. It turned out he was our secret weapon, and has since ascended to masters category 2 level racing here in Seattle. This year’s team consisted entirely of High Performance Cycling (HPC) teammates, all of whom were stronger than me, and collectively I think the 2013 team was stronger than the 2008 team. I had more bicycle racing experience than my other 2013 teammates, though one teammate has been on the podium in some 24 hour mtb races, and another is actively competing in masters time trials. RAO was a training ride for him.

Finding racers is the easy part; finding crew is the hard part. RAO requires a minimum of two crew per vehicle, and in both 2008 and 2013 we were scrambling to find a fourth crewmember up until the final days before the race. Both years, because we were so desperate and accepted anyone who was willing, I worried that interpersonal dynamics would disintegrate as the race and sleeplessness progressed. Although there were no game-ending melt-downs in 2008, things were not as harmonious as I had fantasized. This year we lucked out by having a contingent of folks who were ultra rookies, but were mostly avid cyclists and had a sense of what they were getting into. The 2013 crew included two fellow HPC teammates, and a recovering randonneur from Portland who had crewed Furnace Creek 508 several times, and plans to compete in a 2-man RAO next year. He was using the crew opportunity as a reconnaissance mission.

Now having competed in two RAOs and crewed for one, I’d recommend assembling racers and crew simultaneously. Make a list of cycling buddies you think can maintain zen-like calm at 3 AM, have a natural attention to detail, and competent organization skills. Spreadsheet and meticulous planning skills help because ultra racing is as much project as athletic event. Bonus points if everyone already knows one another and can smile through the good, bad, and ugly when things go sideways in the middle of the night.

The 2008 RAO was a success, and we finished first in 28 hours 48 minutes. That race exceeded my expectations and was the most fun I’d ever had on a bike: We were neck and neck with another team through the wee hours of the night up until the final time station. I expected the sleep deprivation to drive me nuts but it didn’t. At the final time station we were ~20 minute ahead, and in a confident show of solidarity, we rolled across the finish line at Timberline Lodge together as a team. Racing was fun, but the real revelation was how much satisfaction everyone, crew and racers alike, got out of the team effort. I came away from that first team ultra looking forward to making it happen again in the future.

Later in 2008 I joined Seattle’s High Performance Cycling (HPC) team. HPC fills a niche in the Seattle cycling scene for strong recreational riders who don’t identify with the racer crowd, yet are not fulfilled by typical club rides. As the team roster matured, I started to pitch the idea of an HPC 4-man RAO. After a couple years of cajoling, an RAO 4-man team finally gelled in early 2013. To emphasize the point, the other racers on the 2013 team (except for me) were ultra rookies at the speedy end of the recreational rider spectrum.

The rhythm of an ultra relay team is tied to the frequency of rider exchanges and the time of day. During the first 6+ hours of the race everyone is firing on all cylinders, but as the race progresses into the inky depths of night and early morning it becomes extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to go full throttle. In the support vehicles the conversations become less animated and the mood irritable. Eventually, as the new day dawns the mood lifts, the pace on the bikes accelerates, and everyone strives to push through the groggy hangover of having just pulled an all-nighter.

Both in 2008 and 2013 the strategy was to have each racer do 30-minute efforts followed by ~90 minutes of rest, hydrating, refueling, and getting ready for the subsequent effort. We didn’t try to “script” the race to match riders with the terrain, which might work on other courses, but since RAO is so hilly, the team’s “climber” would end up riding most of the race. Plus, since there is no way to know how riders are going to perform once the race is underway, it makes more sense to improvise as the race progresses. This improvisation is a major component of the an ultra relay crews’ responsibilities–continually estimating the distance to the next exchange point, communicating with the other support vehicle, and then finding a safe turnout. It’s definitely more art than science, but in reviewing my race data the 2013 crew timed the pulls to within 3 minutes most of the race–and any pulls that were longer or shorter were intentional.

Although we religiously held to ~30 minute efforts for the first ~24 hours, in both years we changed the duration of the efforts the second morning. In 2008, since we were neck and neck with the competition, we switched to ~15 minute efforts for the last ~30 miles, which helped expand our lead from 9 minutes to 20 minutes. In 2013, on a different course, we had quite a lead, but were still motivated to finish as fast as we could. With about 150 miles to go we were on track to finish under 28 hours. During a quick 7AM conference in Maupin, we decided to go with 3 mile efforts whenever the road tipped upwards, which was most of the remaining miles to Mt. Hood. This translated into slightly faster racer turnover, and kept everyone on their toes during the final hours of the race. Like 2008, in 2013 we finished with all four racers on the road. After ~26+ miles of spirited pacelining from Mt. Hood to the finish line in Hood River, we crossed the line in 28 hours 33 minutes.

As cycling becomes increasingly popular in North America, the sport is naturally evolving in new and interesting ways. Although it defies the logic the swirls around in my addled nervous system, the cool and rainy Pacific Northwest is home to some of the strongest ultra endurance cyclists around. The Seattle International Randonneurs is one of the largest rando organizations in the world, and we are home to top ultra cyclists including Chris Ragsdale, Mick Walsh, and Brian Ecker. Exposure to these riders’ accomplishments is contagious. Although the emphasis in ultra events is on solo competition, the team format makes an audacious cycling goal with cycling buddies completely accessible. And you just might find that a team-format ultra can satisfy a piece of your cycling soul that you never knew existed.

Ed. note: David Longdon co-manages Seattle’s High Performance Cycling (aka “HPC”) team and produces Velocity: The Seattle Area Cycling Blog.

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