Two weeks ago, Jimmy and I parked our car at the cold Denver airport and headed to Sebring Florida for the Sebring 12-hour bike race on February 11.
The annual Sebring races are an early-season racing opportunity for the cycling ultra-endurance set. Four races happen concurrently – a century (100 mile) race, a 12-hour draft-legal race, a 24 hour draft-legal race, and a 24-hour non-drafting race. (“Drafting” means that you can ride behind another rider in their draft, which makes riding faster easier.) Multiple categories exist within those races, depending on type of bike ridden. “Upright” bikes – regular bikes – were the most common, but there were also quite a number of recumbent bikes, tandems, a few “human-powered vehicles” and even an Elliptigo.
This format of bike racing was an all new adventure for me. The rules are simple: ride as far as possible in twelve hours, and whoever ends up with the most miles wins. You do this by riding in a series of circles – first in a very small loop on the Sebring Formula One race track, then in an 89-mile road loop, then in a series of 11-mile road loops, and then eventually on more race track circles at the end.
In the 12-hour race, you could choose to ride alone – as in a traditional time trial – or with a group – as in a traditional bike race. “Support” – which means someone to hand you food and water – was also allowed, and Jimmy had agreed to be my race day sherpa.
The race started at 6:30am, which meant I would ride all day and finish at 6:30pm. The first three laps of the race were in the dark on the race track. In discussions with my coach Greg, we had decided that I should go out hard, in the hopes of finding a group to ride with that would allow me to ride fast while also conserving energy in the early hours of the race. Riding hard at the beginning of a twelve-hour effort scared me, because it seemed to increase the risk exponentially of blowing up early. Still I knew that finding a group of fast riders was the only way that I would be able to ride as fast as possible.
Also in my awareness was the knowledge that the women’s 12-hour course record was 244 miles, which had been set the previous year by Amanda Coker. I know who Amanda is, and that she is an amazing cyclist – in fact, she is currently in the process of setting cycling’s highest-ever-mileage-in-a-year record. So I was not at all confident that the record was within my reach, especially given my lack of experience with this type of racing. But the number did give me something to aim at, and be inspired by.
So I went out hard. So hard, in fact, that within 10 minutes I was struggling to stay with the front group of riders. The 3.7 mile track has 17 turns and several sharp corners, and I realized quickly that braking at all would allow a gap to form between me and the next rider, which I would have to push as hard as possible to close once we came out of the corner. So, I concluded within ten minutes, no braking – just lean to the outside and hope real hard.
Off the track and onto the road, I was surprised to find myself still with the front pack. We rode together through Sebring and north on mostly farm roads towards the turnaround in a small town called Frostproof. I had never visited central Florida before, and I was surprised to see horses, trees and even a few series of rolling hills. The group I was riding with was made up of recumbents and regular bikes, probably about 12 people in total.
About halfway to Frostproof, I started to get nervous about staying with this group – my legs were already starting to hurt, my heart rate seemed high, and I couldn’t stop looking at my odometer thinking that the miles were passing by excruciatingly slowly. These did not seem to be positive signs, given another 200+ miles to ride. I made the decision to drop off the back of that pack, despite knowing that it meant my pace would slow. At the time, I was not at all confident in this decision – especially as I watched the group move quickly away and out of sight.
Nearing the turnaround, I was able to gauge where I was relative to the other riders in front of and behind me. The front pack was already more than 5 minutes ahead of me, and I mentally kicked myself for giving up my ride on that freight train. The incredible Sarah Cooper was only about 2 minutes behind me at the time – despite the fact that she was racing in the 24-hour, non-drafting race. I simultaneously smiled, waved, and shook my head in amazement when I saw her.
I rode the rest of the 89-mile road loop on my own, save a few miles with a group of three recumbent riders who caught me after the turnaround from Frostproof. At one point, we were riding in a paceline and a crew of supporters were on the side of the road holding bottles. Mistaking them for a neutral support crew, I tried to take a bottle from one of them. It turned out that they were the crew for the guys I was riding with, and that in my attempt to take one of their bottles I had caused one of the riders to miss his planned drink exchange. After apologizing, I found out that the rider I had inadvertently tried to sabotage was Allan Duhm, a cyclist who I had been hoping to meet and who is riding the Trans Am this year. (Their crew was able to leapfrog a few minutes later and get Allan’s bottle to him. Still, sorry we had to meet that way, Allan.)
Coming back into the racetrack for a pit stop to pick up food and drink from Jimmy, I was hot, tired and dehydrated. I was less than five hours into this race, and already hurting. What was I doing? I wondered. Why did I think this was a good idea? In an attempt to make myself feel better, I grabbed a donut from Jimmy and slammed it as I headed back onto the road for the first of the 11-mile loops.
Immediately, I was hit with a wave of nausea. While the 11-mile loop is a rather pleasant route of good pavement, a couple of rollers, and even some change of scenery, I rode the first three loops feeling sick and hateful. Hate, hate, hate. My brain was stuck in that loop, and even trying to chase it out with an earworm from the band Chicago didn’t work. At the end of the third loop, I put my foot down (literally) when I saw Jimmy. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I said. He looked at me and handed me a bag of ice. “I know,” he said, “you’re having a hard day.” I think he patted me on the shoulder.
“Now get back out there and ride.”
Miraculously, on the fourth loop, my fate – and mood – made a significant rebound. About halfway through, a pack that was remnants of the front group I had been riding with earlier in the race lapped me. Pushing hard, I was able to ride into their draft and hold on to their wheels for the rest of that loop. I rode loops 5-7 with them, which had the effect of increasing my speed significantly, diminishing the tedium I was focused on, breaking the cycle of “hate,” and even giving me the opportunity to chat with a few of the guys.
I lost the group after a few loops, but by then my mindset had shifted and I was feeling much more strong and confident. Strangely, despite several hours of feeling low, I was still on track for my goal times to hit 244 miles in twelve hours. To do that, I would need to finish 13 of the 11-mile loops plus one lap on the racetrack. I rode the last three loops with a mantra, “Don’t crash, don’t bonk, don’t crash, don’t bonk.”
On my last turn of the 11-miler, I heard the sound of a gear change behind me, as Marko Baloh came powering by me. Marko is a Slovenian ultra-cycling legend – among other accomplishments he has finished the Race Across America six times and set the 24 hour World Record – and someone had told me he was out to break the Sebring 12-hour record today. This was his second time to lap me, meaning that he was 22 miles ahead, but I saw an opportunity, stood up on my pedals and cranked to catch his rear wheel.
The increase in speed was immediate. Suddenly, I was riding so fast – and having fun! Unable to contain my excitement, I yelled out “You’re an angel!” Then I was a little embarrassed, and also couldn’t breathe, so I just concentrated on staying as close as possible to his wheel.
When we arrived back at the pit, race volunteers directed us back onto the track. As we entered the track, I was still on Marko’s wheel, holding on tight. As we flew through the crowd of spectactors, I got a glimpse of the race clock: just under 30 minutes left to ride.
I knew I had to make it one lap of the track to hit the 244 mile record, and I was bound and determined to do it as fast as possible. The sun was setting, and I was hanging onto Marko’s wheel, gasping, as we flew by all the other cyclists already on the track.
About 2/3 of the way around the track, I decided that I would try to return the favor and pull Marko. As I pulled out of his draft I had to work even harder to ride by him. I rode in front for about 45 seconds, and he politely sat on my wheel, until my heart threatened to leap out of my chest. As I sat up and he passed me again on the left, I gasped, “Sorry, that’s all I could do.”
He smiled, and in his nice Slovenian accent, he said very calmly, “No, no. Very helpful.”
I was laughing as I regained my position and tried to hang on again, but I had gassed myself and couldn’t keep up the effort required to stay with Marko any longer. I was able to get in two more laps on the track alone, and as I finished my last lap the clock read 11 hours and 54 minutes. At Sebring, only completed laps count, and I didn’t have time to finish another one. So my race was over.
In the end, I completed 253 miles in just under twelve hours. I didn’t know until later that I had actually come in second overall, 23 miles behind Marko, among all men and women on regular bikes. (A human-powered vehicle and four recumbent bikes were faster.) Jimmy was waiting for me at the finish line, and I laid on the ground for a while, both relieved to be finished and confused about what the day had meant.
Two weeks later, I am still not entirely sure. I am happy to have finished, and I surprised myself with the result. This format of racing was not my favorite – I’d still definitely rather be hauling frame packs of clothes and food up and down mountains in the middle of nowhere – but I think it taught me something important about mental focus and the value of forging on despite the hard times. I was so lucky to have Jimmy there to support me – and to push me on when I wanted to stop. And there’s absolutely no way that I could have prepared for this race without my coach Greg Grandgeorge to guide me. He believed in my ability to reach an ambitious goal, even though I was entirely skeptical. I think that channeling his belief – even though it wasn’t mine to begin with – allowed me to be better than I otherwise might have been. And eventually, I think it came to be my own.
For now, the work continues. I’ll do the Texas RAAM Challenge 400 on March 25 – a 400-mile unsupported race in the Texas Hill Country. My eyes are mostly on the 2,500-mile Transcontinental Race across Europe from Belgium to Greece that begins on July 28. Adventure lies ahead!