by Janice (Wooshkeetaan) Sheufelt,
As two friends and I were riding our trainers through another Alaska winter, one afternoon we watched the “Bicycle Dreams” DVD; RAAM looked much too extreme but it did start me thinking about doing an ultra. Over the years I had considered doing an ultra, but I always figured that I didn’t have enough time to devote to the training. But I already had some long races on the schedule for the summer of 2011, and I would be doing a lot of training anyway – perhaps this was the year for an ultra?!
After researching ultra races on the internet, I was most interested in the Furnace 508 – because of the history of the race, the fabulous course and 35,000’ of climbing. I love to climb. However, I was so intimidated by the application process and selection criteria, that I almost didn’t apply at all (my credentials were minimal – my longest race ever was 185 miles and that was in 2002); but then I noticed that the Furnace 508 has the Nancy Dankenbring award for the fastest rookie woman of the year – so I figured that the race organizer must be willing to take a rookie woman, so it couldn’t hurt to apply.
I was given a provisional acceptance to the Furnace 508. Chris Kostman informed me that I had to prove myself, by riding at least 300 miles in 24 hours, no later than August 31, 2011. I was scared to tell too many people that I was planning to do this race, because it seemed so outrageous – 509 miles?! I noted that there was only one other rookie woman on the start list, and she looked really tough on her website….
A week in the Santa Monica mountains was a great training week in March (www.cyclingescapes.com), then back to the trainer until I was able to start riding outside in mid April. In June I was humbled at the Trans-Alp 7 day road race (www.tourtransalp.de). After a week or two to recover, it was time to start training for the Furnace.
My coach, Hunter Allen, recommended that I do a 16 hour, overnight ride in late July – my first ever overnight ride. The ride was a success – 232 miles, despite the fact that for the second 8 hours I was riding in constant, cold, pouring rain (an exceptionally miserable ride).
After a number of wet, cold, rainy rides in Juneau, I opted to travel to Washington State for my “qualifying ride”. I was very happy to achieve 366 miles, riding from Arlington (north of Seattle), across the North Cascades Highway to the Methow valley, through Chelan and Wenatchee, over Blewett Pass to Ellensburg, Yakima, and back to Ellensburg. It was an incredibly hard ride – the climb up Blewett Pass in the hours between midnight and dawn was the worst – I really suffered for hours. At the end of the 24 hours, I thought that if my life depended on it, I could have kept going, but otherwise….
A week after my 24 hour ride I was surprised to meet some Furnace 508 riders and crew (Michael Melville and Becky Berka) at the Ride of the Immortals (www.sonofdeathride.com); I felt somewhat shy to tell them that I was signed up for the Furnace too, as I still didn’t feel worthy of attempting the feat!
My final 24 hour ride was just three weeks before the Furnace…I again flew to Washington state, and rode a route starting in Cle Elum, going through Yakima, Mattawa, George, Ephrata, Brewster, Chelan, Wenatchee, and I finished at the top of Blewett Pass: 361 miles, in 23 hours and 58 minutes. I didn’t suffer quite as much as my first 24 hour ride, and I felt like could have kept going, so I figured that was good progress.
Finally, after packing, and checking my lists for a third time, it was off to the airport in Juneau. I felt a huge sense of relief when my crew and I, and my bike case, and all the gear arrived at LAX at 4:00pm, Thursday, October 6th.
Friday went by really fast – a 20 minute ride to make sure the bike was fine; registration, the pre-race photos, vehicle and bike inspection, and induction into the Furnace 508 cult at the pre-race meeting. Just before going to bed I received an email from my father, who told me that all I had to do was finish – the other rookie woman had disappeared from the start list! That was my goal all along anyway, just to finish. My last instructions to my crew were “whatever happens, don’t let me quit”.
Saturday morning, October 8th, 6:45am – as I line up near the back of the group, a rider next to me points out a woman who is at the front: “that’s Seana Hogan, she’s won RAAM 6 times”. I am suitably awed and impressed; I also think that his information is totally irrelevant to me, as I’m sure I will never see her again the rest of the race.
I really enjoyed the police escort through town – it’s so fun to ride through all the stop signs and red lights, with the police blocking the intersections. I also noticed that on the first hill I quickly ended up at the back of the pack, as I wanted to keep my watts below 200. As we turned into San Francisquito Canyon and the race started for real, there were only 2 people behind me, and about 65 people in front of me! My thoughts were “what was I thinking signing up for this race? I don’t belong here, and I’m going to get last place!” But, I put those thoughts out of my head and just settled into my own comfortable pace. I passed a few people, but most of them passed me back, so I wasn’t making much progress. Along the way I met Butterfly and Gyrfalcon 2, who were friendly and welcomed me to the race, which I appreciated. I was quite happy to meet up with my crew, after 2 hours of riding. My awesome, stellar crew included my husband, Jim; daughter Megan (age 14) and friend, Peter Apathy.
Crossing the desert towards the windmills climb, I was happy to see the other solo rider from Alaska, Leonard “Coho” Fancher, who I had just met in person at the grocery store on Friday. His crew was helpful when I had a sudden flat tire just before the windmills, and luckily my crew was with me in about a minute too. I was quite glad that I had brought spare wheels, so that I was back riding quickly.
After reading lots of the rider reports on the Furnace 508 website, I had decided ahead of time that I wouldn’t stop at any of the time stations, as I didn’t want to end up spending too much time there. An hour or so after rolling through time station 1 in California City, I realized that there were quite a lot of riders around me, and I must not be nearly last place anymore. I remember seeing Pudu, Sun Bear, Unladen Swallow, Butterfly and Wiener Dog, quite often the first afternoon.
Time station #2 – Trona – again I didn’t stop, and I was feeling fine. I primarily ate real food – lots of cheese and salami sandwiches, as well as pop tarts, chips, Coke, some shot blocks and gels, candy bars and fruit. I was drinking lots of Ironman sports drink – my crew filled out my camelback each time I stopped, which was at least every 1-2 hours (Men have one advantage in bike racing – they don’t necessarily have to stop, in order to take a “nature break”!).
Saturday 6:00pm – time to put on the lights, and for the crew minivan to become the official follow vehicle. I was happy to be able to do the fun descent into the Panamint Valley in the last few minutes of daylight.
After sunset, I was pleasantly surprised to start steadily passing other riders. Some of the riders were quite memorable – shortly before the right turn to start Townes Pass, I passed a rider….only to have him blow by me 30 seconds later, out of the saddle, hammering. I think that he may not have been happy to have a woman pass him. I knew that he was burning a lot of matches….I passed him for good at the top of Townes Pass and he ended up finishing over 2 hours behind me in 29 Palms.
Townes Pass was long and steep; I was very glad to have my huge “pie plate” gearing (34×32). Near the top, a race official pulled alongside of me, and started asking me questions. After a minute, I noticed the fine print on the sign on the car door: “Race Director” and I realized I was meeting Chris Kostman for the first time. He remarked on my “smooth pedaling”; I asked if he could drive with me the rest of the race to continue the compliments, but he only laughed at that suggestion. He asked me what my totem meant and I explained that I am from the Tlingit tribe in Alaska. Wooshkeetaan is my Tlingit clan, and it means shark (within the eagle moiety), so Wooshkeetaan is my real “totem” (in the Furnace 508 race every rider chooses a “totem” or animal, instead of assigning numbers to the racers). We chatted about Alaska, and how I almost didn’t even apply for the Furnace, etc. He advised me on the upcoming 5000’ descent into Death Valley and took some photos of me; meanwhile my crew was wondering “what in the world are they talking about?!”.
After putting on a few layers at the top of Townes Pass, I had a blast on the descent. I thought to myself how lucky I am, to be able to fly down a 5000’ descent that I have never ridden before, in the pitch dark, with virtually no traffic on the road. The descent was harder for my crew; for me it was just pure fun!
There was enough moonlight to make out the general topography of Death Valley, and since I live in a rainforest, it’s always nice to see the stars and constellations. Somewhere in Death Valley my crew informed me that I had consumed the entire container of Ironman Perform powder – 52 servings – my reaction was “that’s disgusting!” I switched to Gatorade, but that burned my throat, so I had my crew fill my camelback with slightly diluted Squirt. I had bought the Squirt on a whim on Friday; I hadn’t trained with Squirt – but it went down good, and so I drank Squirt the entire second half of the race.
I kept passing people on the long climb out of Death Valley over Jubilee Pass and Salsberry Pass, but a number passed me back when I stopped near the top to put on some warmer clothes. The highlight of Salsberry Pass was that I remembered that I had bought one carton of chocolate milk – I asked my crew to put it in a water bottle, and it tasted heavenly! I quickly put in a request to have the other two chocolate milks (which were for the crew), and they generously gave them up to me. It was uneventful riding through Shoshone, over Ibex Pass, and at 24 hours I had ridden 353 miles.
As we neared Baker, Jim asked me if I wanted some hot food, since this was the last town with any services until the finish. I mentioned French fries and some kind of chicken; he raised an eyebrow and said OK….he thought that was an interesting choice for breakfast, but I wasn’t cognizant of the time of day! Jim leapt into action, and used Yelp on his iPhone to research the restaurants in Baker; he chose Big Boy, as he knew they have real milkshakes. When the van caught up to me a few miles after Baker, I sat down for the first time (and the only time for the entire race) and ate my fries, chicken strips and strawberry milkshake, which really hit the spot! If I had known that this race would come down to only 12 minutes, I wouldn’t have taken such a leisurely break – but I think all those calories must have helped me later.
The climb out of Baker seemed to go forever; this was the only time of the race where I had low morale. I really struggled on the last part of the climb, when the road condition deteriorated to the worst road surface imaginable. On Saturday afternoon when I had asked Pudu why he had so many bikes on his support vehicle, he warned me about the descent into Kelso (he had a cross bike just for that section); but I found the last part of the climb worse than the descent. Although every part of my body did hurt as I bounced down the road heading to Kelso. Just outside of Kelso I was startled when Sun Bear’s support vehicle drove by – “she’s catching me??!” After a few minutes I figured out that she must have dnf’d.
Meanwhile my crew is thinking that I sure have passed a lot of riders, and they tried to account for all of the women riders on the start list. So, in Kelso they stopped to check the standings for the first time in the race; I was thrilled when they caught up to me and informed me that I was in 2nd place – although the lead woman was 30 minutes ahead. None of us thought there was any chance that I would catch her. Second place was much, much better than I had hoped for, so I was one happy rider.
After changing into some fresh bike shorts (I should have done that sooner!) and taking some Tylenol and ibuprofen for my chafing, the climb out of Kelso wasn’t too bad, followed by the nice long descent into Amboy. In Amboy the crew stopped again to check the standings, and after noting just a few totems on the results board, they asked the volunteer – “is this really all the riders who have come through?”. They replied, “yes, that’s it. Who’s your rider? Oh, the Alaskashark, yes she’s doing really well”. At my next stop for fluids and fuel, they told me that I was in 10th place overall, and I was incredulous – “really? Me? How can that be?!” They wisely didn’t tell me that I was now only 15 minutes behind the lead woman; they figured that I should just keep riding the way I was, and to not make any changes. Also, they thought it unlikely that I would close a 15 minute gap in the last 58 miles of the race.
The climb up Sheephole Pass was the hottest part of the entire race – I poured water on my shoes and over my head, while my crew sprayed me down with a spray bottle from the van window – it evaporated within minutes. Not only was it hot, but I was having trouble breathing – at first I thought that my camelback straps were too tight, because I couldn’t take a deep breath. Then my brain, just a little foggy at this point, said “that’s stupid, the straps can’t all of a sudden be tighter”. I was perplexed why I was breathing so hard, given the level of effort that I was putting out. A couple of miles from the top I suddenly realized that I could hear myself wheezing! I have never had any type of asthma before, so I was quite concerned. I mentioned to my crew that I needed an inhaler, and they drove up to the next rider to ask their crew. A little while before I had briefly thought about the rider ahead of me – I didn’t recognize the rider or the vehicle and I didn’t remember anyone passing me recently…..when my crew went up to ask them if they had an inhaler, my crew realized it was Seana “Hoopoe” Hogan, the lead woman. Meanwhile I had stopped to ask a crew vehicle (of the four man team “Western Wood Pewee”) if they happened to have an albuterol inhaler– luckily they did, and I tried a couple of puffs. I’m not sure if it helped; a week later I looked at the canister they gave me and it had expired in 2008! So, I think it had no real effect….but that was OK because when my crew came tearing down the road they were yelling at me “It’s her! It’s her, right up the road, you’re catching the lead woman!” The resulting huge surge of adrenaline was the best medicine for my wheezing! At the summit, Seana was on the side of the road while her crew was adjusting her bike – she looked startled when I rode by, and I knew that now the race was on!
I made my way down Sheephole as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast enough, since my biggest gear was only 50×13. Then it was 22 miles to the finish line; I put my head down and rode as hard as I could (just below the cramp threshold and just below the vomit threshold). My crew gave me one last coke to help me power through. The Western Wood Pewee team was following my race with Seana, and gave me time splits – the first was only 48 seconds. I couldn’t believe that after 490 miles, I was in a race separated by only 48 seconds! After the race my crew later told me that initially Seana was closing the gap on me, then held steady, but she eventually dropped out of sight. I never looked back, which is race rule #1! I was encouraged when the next time split was 1:05, and awhile later my crew informed me that the gap was up to 2:45, which was very reassuring – I knew that I just had to sustain my pace…..I must have been doing OK as I passed a two man team shortly before the left turn onto Utah Trail!
My crew was sweating bullets over the route finding, as a missed turn at this point in the race would be disastrous, and there weren’t any riders to follow. Also it was almost 6:00pm, when race rules mandate lights on the bike. I was concerned because I would have to stop to put my lights back on; but my crew came through – at a stop sign, where I had to stop anyway, Jim jumped out and put the front and rear lights on in just a few seconds.
We made the right turn onto 29 Palms Highway, and were immediately blinded by the sun that was setting directly in front of us. None of us could make out any street signs or landmarks at all. Here I appreciated the fact that Jim can yell really loud, as he shouted out instructions to me through town. None of us had ever been to 29 Palms before, and in the excitement, Jim was looking at the wrong column in the race handbook – I was desperately looking for the left turn at Burger King for at least 3 miles…..the last steep hill was a surprise and it was back into my 34×32 one last time – my crew drove up and tried to calm me. They let me know that Seana wasn’t in sight, and I eased off to avoid cramping. Also a race photographer drove up on this hill and took a series of pictures; he said “you look great!” while I’m thinking, “where’s the @#%Burger King??” But at least I knew that I still must be going the right way, since the race photographer was there.
Finally, after an eternity, the Burger King materialized, and there was the frontage road and the Best Western – the finish line, at 35 hours and 14 minutes!!! As I crossed the line I really couldn’t believe that I had just won this race! I didn’t know it, but Jim had posted a few facebook updates along the way (when he occasionally had cell service), so my parents, brother and some other family and friends were following the race, and saw my finish, and the post-race interview on the live webcast!
A huge thanks to my crew – Jim, Megan and Peter – they were totally fabulous, awesome, and they came through for me at every point in the race! And thanks to Jim, for allowing me all the time that I put into training this year, I really appreciate it. This ultra racing could be addictive….