The women at the starting line are young. I pretend not to look interested but I am secretly sizing them up. You can’t tell how good someone is by the shape of their legs. Whether or not they are wearing a team jersey doesn’t help either because some of the best cyclists in this part of the country don’t race for a team. I wonder where I would be now if I had been a bike racer at their age. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s my five-speed was rusting with flat tires in the back of my parent’s garage and I was on my way to work with a brief case and high heels.
We are in Logan, Utah and the race today will climb over three mountain passes into Idaho and then on to the finish line in Jackson, Wyoming. The route is 206 miles and no matter what time you start, you must be off the road by dark.
This is a dangerous event if you are not prepared.
I first heard about The Lotoja Classic bike race after finishing a 100 mile charity ride a few years ago. At the time a century was the longest bike ride I had ever done or thought I would ever do. I was in my late 40’s then and had just traded in my heavy commuter bike for a road bike. The extent of my training for that hundred mile event had been hour-long rides on the bike path near my home, gradually increasing to three and then five hours until I felt ready to try. But it was not until a fellow cyclist asked me if I would ever consider competing on a bike did I entertain the idea of racing. Plenty of women race in their 50’s, he told me.
The sun has been up for 15 minutes. We wait. I look again at the racers around me. Are any of them wives and mothers as I am? What jobs or roles will they return to when this is over?
I know I’m the only woman from the “flatlands” of the Midwest. The others come from Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho. They’ll have better climbing legs than I and they’ll be used to the altitude which is going to average about 6,000 ft. above sea level. But I’ve thought about that and I have a plan.
In the last year or so I have learned that racing is as much about strategy as it is about strength. Maybe that is why when I tried it I liked it. So much of the accomplishment is made possible by the muscle between the ears, the one that tries to talk us into giving up or not even trying, the one that also helps us to overcome pain and keep going. I’ve been working on that muscle all my life.
I have trained for this for two years now. I gradually increased the number of hours I spent on the bike from 5 to 12 a week. I don’t eat meals anymore but rather several large snacks throughout the day: carbohydrates before training and protein after. The former gives me energy, the latter helps to repair sore muscles. I’ve learned how to feed while riding on the bike and what to consume that doesn’t upset my stomach. I sleep a lot. When I decided to race 206 miles through the mountains I knew I needed help. Hiring a coach seemed a bit indulgent at the time, but now I am glad I did it because figuring out what to do on my own would have been naïve. My goal today is to finish this race safely and if possible under 12 hours or the amount of time it takes to drive from Detroit to New York, or fly from Chicago to Beijing.
The count-down starts: 10-9-8-7… My stomach contracts, my breath skips and we’re off. I squeeze through the starting gate, find my place in the pack and roll out of town behind a police escort. I’m not nervous. It’s going to be a long day and a lot will happen. I say to myself: You love to ride a bike. So if nothing else - enjoy the ride. This calms me.
I chat with the woman riding next to me. She’s from Salt Lake City and has raced this before. We will all form alliances today because we cannot finish alone. But as easily as we ally, we will betray each other in the final thousand meters as we fight for the finish. We know that.
The first 34 miles meanders through the flatlands north of Logan into the southern part of Idaho. While the blue morning mist lies low in the fields, shadows of mountains emerge in the distance as we streak through the quiet waking world. The air has a damp chill and my fingers and toes are numb. My nose runs.
At the first feed zone we pass cheering crowds. My husband is waiting and he lunges into the road to take my empty water and electrolyte bottles and give me full ones. Total stop time is less than a minute and I am on my way, rejoining the race pack. We have held together nicely until now, taking turns being at the front of the pace line so as to give each other a rest. But that is about to change as we approach the first big ascent: twenty miles of continuous climb up to Strawberry Pass. Even before it happens I know that the 40 of us who started together will splinter into shards of 3 to 5 racers.
I stay with the fastest girls as long as I can but my legs and lungs are screaming. It’s a long day. It’s too soon to give it everything I have. If I do, I may not be able to finish. I fall back and watch with disappointment as 15 women disappear ahead. About 25 are still behind me.
The road up is beautiful but I see it only in short glimpses. The coolness is deceiving and I remind myself to drink. One bottle an hour. At the top I execute my first strategic move. While many of my fellow racers pull over to refill, I keep going. Most carry two water bottles, maybe three. I carry four. Though it is more weight, it means I don’t have to stop as often. Many are faster than me, but I can make up time if my stops are shorter than theirs. Two of my bottles carry water, one has an electrolyte mixture and the fourth is for liquid carbohydrates. I carry enough liquid food to last me five hours and have marked lines on the bottle so I know how much of it to drink an hour. If I don’t drink enough, I will be depleted of fuel and there will be no way to recover. I know this because it has happened before and I had to quit and go home.
My descent from the pass is at 40 mph. Half way down I see a crowd. There’s been an accident. We are waved around it. Ambulances line the road and a body in a red jersey and white helmet lies on the pavement surrounded by paramedics. He is not moving. I keep going and don’t look back. I’ve learned from other racers that if you don’t keep your eyes ahead you risk causing another accident.
I feel cold in my stomach. I am thinking of my own crash. I didn’t want to remember that today, but now I have. It happened a year ago on a training ride. I swerved to avoid a fallen rider and lost control hitting the pavement with my head. I was transported unconscious to the hospital. I had a concussion and blood on my brain. It took a long time to recover, first physically, then mentally and then psychologically. I had to start training all over again. My body returned to shape, but my memory is still not back to where it was and I can’t even attribute that to being 50. I push the horror away so I can ride on. There is nothing more dangerous than a nervous cyclist.
At the bottom the road flattens and the wind picks up. I ride alone until a group overtakes me and a woman shouts out. I recognize her. The girl from Salt Lake City. We start working together, rotating through a formation that blocks the wind for each other. We are moving at over 22 miles per hour, though it is feels much slower. My legs are burning.
After the next feed zone are two more mountain passes. The climbs are each about five miles long. The last pass is the toughest. It is very steep and has to be done in the heat of mid-day. The summit is at the 110 mile mark. I settle into position and spin my way up, overtaking male racers from other fields. I am lighter than they. There are hundreds of men racing this course today in addition to us forty women. Depending on their race experience, they have started at different times, some before and some after.
As I climb, I notice that my breathing is loud, like a metronome, tick tock, I manage it to keep me on pace. It helps me focus and push away the pain. Salt has crusted on my face from drying sweat. I lick my lips. They taste unfamiliar. I don’t think about the miles to go. I think only about what is in front of me now. I watch the clock to keep track of my drinking and eating.
At the summit I wave at a stranger who cheers me on before I pass her and take the welcome descent. Now it is almost a hundred miles of rolling pavement, canyons and head winds.
My husband is waiting at the 125 mile feed zone. I don’t tell him about the sharp pain in the bottom right of my abdomen. If I say nothing, maybe it will go away. I must have drunk too quickly, maybe I need more salt. I will work on that. He offers me a peanut butter sandwich, the same one I made for myself last night. I take a bite. It tastes like cardboard. I hand it back. I’m off.
The road is stretching into a hot dry landscape, wrapping around the base of sagebrush coated mountains. I am still with the woman from Salt Lake City. The field has spread out so much at this point that we go for miles seeing no-one. So she is my lifeline and I am hers. We share being in front to protect the other from the wind. I don’t look up; I don’t want to know how far we have yet to go. There is a searing pain in my foot as if a hot iron poker has branded my little toe. I count my pedal strokes while the effect of repetition numbs me.
At the final feed zone I stop in front of my husband and collapse over my handle bars. The pain is unbearable. He hands me a coke and I take three sips. I feel better. All that I have left to do is the equivalent of a weekend training ride. I tell myself I can do it.
My race ally says we can finish the race in 10 ½ hours if we keep going. I am too weak. I send her on saying I will catch up. But I know I won’t. She waves back at me and is gone.
I face the undulating road along the Snake River without her help. It is a welcome change of scenery but the tail wind which should have helped has swirled around to become a headwind in the canyon. My speed has dropped. I’m hot and my eyes sting. My mouth is dry. I sip water. My body is no longer under my control. Yet it is as if it knows what to do, how to survive without me.
My watch must be running slow. It says I have been riding for 10 hours. I expected at least 11 at this point. How far ahead of me are the leaders? Is there a chance I might place in the top 10? How many women have passed me? How many have I passed? I cannot calculate. As I climb over the last of the rolling hills I feel adrenaline surge.
Then I see my race ally. I have caught up. I shout. But something is wrong. I think I hear her say she crashed and her handle bar is broken, but I am not sure because the wind is muffling my ears and she is upright and still riding. I feel cold inside again. Afraid. We are exhausted now so we can make dangerous mistakes. I must be careful. She tells me she is alright but cannot keep up with me.
I am surviving. The pain is unmanageable in my hips, my hands, my feet, my stomach... But I know I am going to finish. I can see The Teton Mountains in the distance. Like blue shaded cathedrals rising from the beige landscape. My stinging eyes are washed with tears. I laugh, not with humor but with a deep sense of connection. It has taken me two years to get here, two years of struggling with the fear of the unknown and that I might not make it. How many times had I ask myself why I want to do this? Can I answer that question now?
The ten miles to the finish line is a parade. People cluster on the side of the road, shouting and jumping. Small children run beside us. I wave. Do they know how I feel? Do they know how hard it was? Do they know I had moments where I was not sure, when I was scared, when I wanted to back out? I think they do. I think that is why they are here.
Ahead is the colorful banner, stretched across the road, marking the end. My husband is in the crowd with his camera. He is looking for me. I want to ride across the finish with both hands reaching for the sky, but I am too tired and afraid I will fall.
So I just smile and feel every bit of this moment because I have never felt anything like it before.
Nan Doyal has been riding a bike for fun and exercise since the age of 5. In her late 40’s she took up bike racing for the first time andthree years later finished The Lotoja Classic in 10 hours and 36 minutes placing 9th. (The Lotoja Classic is open to both registered racers and recreational cyclists willing to take on the challenge of 206 miles across 3 states in one day.)