by Rich Staley,
Since 1990, I’ve been a mechanic at Great Basin Bicycles in Reno, NV. In 2004, I purchased the business and have been running it with my wife (Shauna Marie, one of my fantastic 2014 crew members). In 2008, we purchased a new building for our bike business & a few years later, Team Lion Fish asked me to crew their 508 solo tandem. This brought me back into the ultra distance world. I crewed, as their mechanic, for their first attempt in 2011 and crewed again, as their crew chief, for their second successful attempt in 2012. This re-energize my interest, and the next year I retried my solo Nevada crossing (crewed by Team Lion Fish & Jami Horner) and finished my first ultra distance of 409 hrs in 27 hrs 22 minutes total time.
In 2013, I completed half a dozen double centuries, and convinced my crew and fellow biking enthusiast, Jami Horner, to join in my insanity and attempt the 508. However, due to the Federal Shutdown, the 508 turned into the Trona 356 and we completed the race 3rd in the two person-mixed category. This year, I decided to do my first 308 solo race. For three years, I’ve spent each winter instructing, riding and training using the CompuTrainer classes at our shop. I’ve trained with Garmin Power Pedals and have come to know my power abilities at many different distances. So for the 308, I decided to try to keep around 250 watts for the entire ride. My goal was to peg 250ish watts for the climbs and flats, and take whatever I could on the downhills.
We started the 308 at the Hyatt in Santa Clarita, Ca. at 6:30 am, and rolled out at a beautiful 52 degrees without winds. We calmly rolled out of town, turned up San Francisquito Canyon, and the pace picked up. I set my watts and started my climb at 260 watts. I held that pace, 4 riders went out in front, and the rest of the peloton quickly fell off the pace. I watched as the four leaders slowly pulled away, but my strategy in this race was to hold my pace through the whole event. I realized quickly that I had to race the 308 against myself and no one else. I had to pick a power strategy and stick to it.
By the top of the canyon, the temps slowly increased to about 70 degrees. It was a quick descent to the first time station at Rosamond where I was sitting in 5th, seven minutes behind the first place rider, Solo Randonneur Sean Cuddihy, totem, “Crow.” The other riders in front of me were part of either two- or four-man teams. I passed through the time station, and continued towards the Windmill Climb, and as I started to climb, so did the winds and temps. I brought two bikes with me, a Cannondale Super Six DI2 Dur-Ace with a standard crank (with which I started the race), and a Focus Cayo DI2 Ultegra with a compact crankset (better for steeper climbs). Starting the Windmill Climb, the road turns directly into the slowly increasing winds, so I switched to the Focus with the compact crank for a little lower gearing. Again, setting my pace at around 250 watts, I steadily ascended the climb, switching back to the Cannondale at the top of the climb. Here the road turns to the east, starts to line up with the winds, and the bigger gears of the Cannondale come into play. I dropped quickly into California City, and was now sitting 2nd overall with only Crow out in front by nine minutes. He was so far out in front that he’d disappeared from sight and mind. I rolled through California City at 95 degrees and increasing tailwinds. As the winds and speeds picked up, it became increasingly difficult for my crew (Shauna and Jami) to hand (run) off water bottles from the side of the road. So, as a little test, I decided to keep upping the speeds of the hand-off’s, just to see how fast Jami could run uphill. I started her at 27mph, upped it to 28, 29, finally tapping out her running sprint at 30mph! (We have since changed her name from Jami to Cheetah.) These are the “little” things that keep you going for hours on your bike.
Halfway to the third aid station, Brian (half of the two-man team of Rock Scorpions), caught me. We rode side-by-side for a couple of minutes where I learned that Crow was a previous 508 winner and all hopes of possibly winning the 308 left my mind. Crow was nine minutes ahead of me, nowhere in sight, and probably continuing to move away from me. So, I just stuck to my plan, parked at around 250 watts, and continued to ride my race at my pace. When I pulled into Johannesburg, I was still nine minutes behind Crow with the 3rd fastest time into the time station, and sweltering under temps of 106 degrees. Passing through the time station, I was off to Trona. Now, the winds were howling and blowing us all into Trona.
The climbs all had a tailwind assist and were well suited to the larger gears of the Cannondale. Once I cleared the last climb and started the decent into Trona, you could feel the hot winds blowing up from the valley floor. The winds before were cooler, but now it felt like a I was cycling into a convection bake oven, especially when the pavement changed from white chip seal to new, black, heat-absorbing, smooth pavement. The smoothness was a welcome relief for my shoulders, but the heat from the valley floor and the radiating roadway made the 106 degree temps feel significantly hotter.
On the road leading into Trona, I kept looking for Crow to be making his return trip back to Santa Clarita, but I never saw him. I rolled into the Trona time station and met Crow who was about to roll out! A quick bathroom break (where the cold water was as warm as the hot), and I was back on the bike as quick as possible. No offense to the residents of Trona, but that day, it was the closest place to Hell that I have ever been. With the convection bake winds howling, the black pavement radiating, and the 106 degree temps (climbing to 112 later that day) I was off… as much as that was possible, as I was now fighting brutal headwinds. Hell, it turned out, was reluctant to let go of its newest inhabitants. The headwinds felt like they were sucking us back into Trona as all the riders were blasted with blistering heat and ferocious winds. The winds and heat took a heavy toll on the whole race, as 22% of the field dropped out between Trona and Johannesburg. At the Trona time station, I had opted for the Focus with the compact crank, knowing full well that I was going to be battling hills and wind most of the way back to the finish. I struggled in the wind and heat, and my crew was handing me water bottles full of ice and either water, Gatorade, coke, or Dark Chocolate Ensure, ziplock baggies of ice cold watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew. They were also giving me ice socks (tube socks filled with ice) to drape over my shoulders to try to keep my body temps down. I had no idea that my crew were managing their own tightly controlled concern – we’d brought three ice chests, two for drinks and food and one designated only for ice. They knew ice would be at a premium and had well planned, stocking up again in Johannesburg, but with the constant ice socks I was running through, and at the significantly slower pace that was the best I could maintain, they weren’t sure the ice was going to make it on the return trip back to Johannesburg. But good as they were, I didn’t know any of this until the next day.
Every time they would hand me a newly iced water bottle, I would take the remainder of the old water in my bottle and spray it all over my body. The remaining water in my bottle was so warm that I would not feel it hitting my body until it started to evaporate and cool me off.
I continued to struggle against the winds to Johannesburg where I had now fallen 15 minutes behind Crow, with the 3rd fastest time for this leg. However, the temps still at 106 degrees and the howling incessant winds were taking their toll. I stopped at Johannesburg and sat in the vehicle, trying to rest and eat, and trying desperately not to throw up. I was failing miserably, and could feel my body temp start to climb. Realizing that I was over-heating quickly, I decided to remount the bike and get the wind across my body as sweat started to pour out in a desperate attempt to cool off. I could feel the clouds closing in around my vision, my ears ringing, and I knew I was seconds from passing out. While I was looking for a soft landing on the side of the road, the raging wind turned into a life saver, and I could feel my body temp plummet as evaporation started to take over. Quickly, I recovered and cleared the climb to Randsburg, knowing that I had a long gradual descent back into the valley to recover. I took the downhill easy, trying to overcome the desire to throw up, and continued to attempt to take in fluids and “food” (watermelon and cantaloupe) while trying to hold it all in.
No longer were we doing 30 mph handoffs for water bottles. In fact, at one point, Jami was handing off a water bottle, and between feeling miserable, fighting the wind, the slight climbing-roller, and the temps, it was all I could do to catch up to her slow jog to take the bottle she was handing me. I continued to struggle into California City knowing full well that there were only two major climbs left, and only about 80 miles remaining with the sun sinking behind the hills to the west. I was hoping that the temps and winds would drop as the daytime heating from the sun began to diminish. Well, at least I got one right, and the temps did start to drop, but the winds continued their onslaught. I left the California City aid station with 88 degree temps and 24 minutes behind Crow. Any hopes of being the first male solo into the finish line quickly left ten miles outside of California City as I sat on the side of the road, crew at hand, throwing up anything and everything in my stomach. This is when I realized that honeydew and cantaloupe are not great food choices for me (it is amazing the things you learn about you body by looking at the results sitting in the sand). I quickly dropped to the sand, head resting on my helmet, realizing that I only had 70 miles left and the temps were dropping. I quickly rebounded, feeling much better after ridding my body of the offending food sources, and I was off with the setting sun. I realized that I had to self monitor my nutrition closely as I really hadn’t taken in any nutrition. So, I took a water bottle full of ice and ensure, and a water bottle full of ice and water. As an experienced athlete, you learn to read your own body’s signs. I have an odd little quirk that involves gnawing on my tongue. When this happens, I realize I am not far from bonking. So, whenever I would start to gnaw on my tongue, I would take a drink or two of Ensure, and as the night wore on, my crew would give me a water bottle full of ice and a Starbucks Refresher which has enough caffeine and ginseng to keep me awake, but much less sugar than a coke. (After awhile, cokes are just too sweet for me to take.)
I continued to the Windmill climb, now full lights on the bike, with refreshing temps around 65 degrees, winds still trying to blow me backwards, and a rider’s taillights visible in front of me. Still sticking to my power output, and trying desperately to race my race, I continued to gain on the unknown rider. Taking short sips of Ensure, water, and Refreshers. I summited the climb and quickly dropped the Windmill descent heading towards the last time station at Rosamond. At Rosamond, I suddenly realized I’d caught up to Crow! And while I stopped briefly to sign in, I was moving before he was in the lovely now 66 degree temps with moderate crosswinds. However, we were motivating each other and he quickly caught and passed me after a series of two stop signs – with my excitable crew cheering us both on and reminding us both that the cross traffic didn’t stop.
Once Crow had cycled out of sight in front of me, I looked behind, and saw no one behind me either. I was fairly sure I could hold my position to the finish. We went through a series of turns in the rollers and as we cycled on, I realized that I had a shadow being cast from a riders headlight behind me. I looked back, and out of nowhere was a rider only 10 feet away. I had no idea where this rider came from, he just suddenly appeared. It turned out to be Crow.
Unfortunately, he missed a turn, and while my crew divided and conquered, (Jami on foot signaling my turn while Shauna drove off down the road to turn Crow around), I had caught and passed him, only to be over taken by him yet again. At this point, Crow had about a half mile lead on me as I was transfixed on his flashing lights in the distance. I still stuck to my guns, holding my wattage, and continued up the climb. I then realized that I was slowly gaining. Keeping my head down, I continued to pursue, keeping as steady as possible and watching the lay of the land, trying to predict the summit, and realizing that once I summited, it was 28 miles downhill to the finish. At each turn I would think I was at the summit, only to realize it was around the next corner, then the next corner, then the next. I finally quit looking and just kept to my power output, and tried to focus on the flashing lights of Crow getting ever so slowly closer. Then suddenly, he stopped. With about 200 yards from the summit, he pulled over, both legs straddling the bike, his head on his handlebars. My crew pulled up behind him and as I passed him agonizingly slowly, I told him that they would be happy to provide him whatever they had. I continued to the summit, and started the descent knowing that Crow was behind me, and probably right behind me. Relying on my downhill abilities, I started down San Francisquito Canyon where temps would drop to 52 degrees, and speeds would top out at 46 miles per hour (in the dark, I was really hoping not to encounter any deer).
I finally dropped into the city of Santa Clarita, and my Garmin showed about 3 miles to go. Looking behind me, I could not see any lights from any other riders, but stoplights could change that in a hurry. Keeping the pressure on, my crew would move ahead to try to trip or keep the stoplights green so that I didn’t have to stop. I finally got stopped at the last stoplight before the finish line, but seeing no lights behind me let me sigh in relief that I would be the first solo male across the finish line in my first Ultra Endurance Race. What a fantastic challenge, and I hope to see you all next year.