Since my work schedule didn't allow me to participate in the Heart of the South race with Charlie, we looked at another time when we could take a sustained training ride together while closely simulating RAAM racing conditions. During the second week of May we decided to ride the first third of the RAAM race course from San Diego CA to Taos, NM; 1044 miles. The idea was to take turns riding, scout out the major climbs and descents and see what we might learn in order to finalize our strategy for the actual race in June. One major difference between this training ride and RAAM is that since we only had one support vehicle with two crew members, we decided to stop at motels briefly at night in order for the crew to get some well deserved rest.
Before I go any further, our crew for this ride consisted of Lary Stokes and Eileen Hardy who will also be on our RAAM crew. They did a magnificent job. Lary did all the driving while Eileen navigated and took care of all our nutritional needs. Charlie and I were both well cared for and knowing that Lary and Eileen will be there for us during RAAM gives me tremendous peace of mind.
The RAAM course begins at sea level and is relatively flat for the first 13 miles. But then the party is over and the work begins in earnest. The road rises over 4000 feet in the next 52 miles. Charlie and I shared climbing duties during this section with Charlie tackling the steeper parts. The temperature was cool and comfortable and the road was scenic. When we reached the 4224' high point, I rode a 10 mile, 8% downhill section known as "The Glass Elevator". The pavement on this section is in good shape and so I let the bike run. I was routinely hitting 50 mph during several of the straight-aways. I had to quickly force from my mind thoughts of what might happen if I crashed. I had an amazing view of the road way below me and off in the distance. What a dramatic change from the climb up. What lay ahead was desert as far as the eye could see. It was getting hotter and hotter and when I got down to the desert floor, once again at sea level, it was already over 100 degrees. It will undoubtedly be even hotter in June. Having crewed RAAM in '08, I was familiar with this road but I was imagining a rookie solo racer seeing that huge expanse of desert for the first time while feeling the heat and wondering what on earth they'd gotten themselves into.
The first day we rode to Blythe, CA on the CA/AZ border. The second day we rode to Flagstaff, AZ. We alternated two hour riding shifts both those days. The road rises and falls a bit in the desert all the way to the California border, but nothing major. Entering Arizona, the long climbs on the western section of the RAAM course begin and they get higher and higher along the way. First there's Merrit Pass at 2794'. Then there's Yarnell at 4870'. Then there's the climb to Iron springs, the Mingus Mountain climb, and then the climb up to Flagstaff at over 6900'. All the climbs have fairly major descents as well so its up and down, up and down. At 130 pounds, Charlie is a natural climber. He's strong, steady and consistent. At 200 pounds, I simply do my best. We generally shared the climbing duties but I rode most of the long descents. Going downhill, my weight is actually advantageous. It allows me to keep the bike steadier than Charlie might be able to and therefore gives me a bit more confidence. We're finding that our size difference makes for a good team strategy. A memorable moment during this section for me was when I was descending Mingus Mountain. I hit a very rough section of road at about 40 mph and my handlebars slipped way down. Talk about an immediate knot in your gut. Fortunately I was able to keep control of the bike and pull over and tighten things up. Even more memorable however was a particularly enthusiastic young female fan Charlie encountered while he was climbing up through Oak Creek Canyon just below Flagstaff. Be sure and ask him about it when you get a chance.
What I didn't realize until getting all the way to Flagstaff at the end of day 2 was that Charlie had been feeling lousy all day. While he was having some stomach issues, he never gave a hint of it; not a word. He just kept riding hard all day. I already knew Charlie was tough from riding with him across the country in '07; he won't quit for anything. It gives me sincere pride and confidence to have a teammate like him. The next morning he got up and looked like a new man. He suggested we try alternating riding in 1 hour shifts instead of 2 to see how it would feel, and we wound up doing just that the rest of the way to Taos.
The terrain for days 3 and 4 of our trip was very much like day 2; long mountain climbs followed by long descents. There is a short diversion from the up and down routine as the route goes away from the mountains into Utah's Monument Valley which to me is simply breathtaking. I have to say that the RAAM organizers have done a superb job with route planning. The course is incredibly challenging while at the same time offers up a wonderful variety of natural scenery. The mountain climbs are hard work physically, but the scenery is so stunningly beautiful that it often takes your mind away from your fatigue. I particularly enjoyed riding through Durango Colorado on the morning of day 4. I was born there and lived there through the first grade before we moved to Albuquerque. Later that afternoon, I rode up and over La Manga Pass in northern New Mexico which at 10,250' is the highest point on the entire RAAM course. That evening as Charlie was on his way into Taos, NM, the ending point of our training ride, he pulled off the road about 5 miles out of town and we rode in the rest of the way together. It was a very satisfying feeling.
Overall, this training ride was a complete success. We each rode over 500 miles in three and a half days, so there was a definite physical benefit. But of greater value are the strategies that we've adopted as a result of this ride. We are now familiar with the roads that we'll be racing on during RAAM. We now know quite a bit more about how we'll divide up the climbing and descending duties and we now have a greater understanding of how our bodies will feel while alternating all day between racing and resting. Our average speed for this ride was quite respectable and our goals for RAAM to not only finish within the 9 day time limit but to look at setting a new record in the 2-man 50-59 age division seem realistic.
As I write, the RAAM start is now less than three weeks away. I have every confidence that Charlie and I are physically and mentally ready to take on the tremendous challenge that lies before us. During RAAM, Team Reaching Heights will have a full time race reporter on its' crew. Jeannie Roberts is a wonderful writer and will author the vast majority of this blog from here on out. Our race begins June 20Th, so stay tuned!