Jerry Arnold’s Report on RAW

(Jerry wrote this excellent series of articles on Facebook about his RAW adventure, and it is reprinted here. The featured photo is Jerry and his #1 teammate, his wife Judy.)

Part 1 of 5 on RAW

The Start
The Race Across the West (RAW) is an UltraMarathon bike race from Oceanside, CA to Durango, CO. Starting simultaneously with, and over the same course as RAAM, the race spans 860 miles and includes some 50,000 feet of climbing. The clock runs continuously with racers and their support crews going around the clock to make their way to Durango as fast as possible, taking rest and/or sleep breaks as needed.

We arrived in Oceanside on Sunday to do our final preparations and get bikes and the support van ready for required inspections. With that out of the way, we were ready for the start at noon on Tuesday, June 11. After a ceremonial dip of the wheels in the ocean, we got ready to go. We started the race with 13 solo riders, 8 of them in my 50-59 age group. As it would turn out, only 8 of the 13 would finish the race for a 62% completion rate. RAW has some real challenges that will chew you up and spit you out if you aren’t prepared.

The starting line is right at the base of the 2000 foot Oceanside Pier. Riders come to the line one at a time for introductions and an individual time trial-type start at one minute intervals. The first 7 miles or so is a neutral parade start with no passing and is on a paved bike path going up along the San Luis Rey River. We were then onto local streets and the racing began. Several riders went out hard early and I was happy to let them go. There was a long way to ride and I had no desire to take the early lead.

The route wastes no time getting down to business as we immediately started climbing the mountains that separate the coast from the inland desert. Starting (of course) from sea level, the 57 miles to the first time station tops out at 2700 ft. with several nice 6-8% grades just to warm you up and get your attention. Parts of this I remember pretty well, passing along hilly fields with sweet-smelling flowers and herbs. Other parts I don’t really remember much as there was heavy traffic and I just needed to focus on riding the fog line and not stray out where passing cars could put an early end to my race.

Everyone is different, but I have found from experience that early in these long rides, I need to keep my average heart rate below about 120. If I don’t, I experience severe stomach distress (otherwise known as coughing up your socks) that prevents me from getting enough calories and fluids. On a race this long, that is potentially a race-ending problem you just have to avoid. Unfortunately, these steep early climbs made it impossible to keep my heart rate under control. I just had to get into a climbing rhythm and trust that I would be able to compensate when I reached the flat desert floor later on.

I rolled through the first time station in just over 4 h. with a 13.9 mph average. I thought that was probably pretty good, but the climbs had forced me to ride harder than I expected. At this point, the climb eases off, but continues rising to about 4200 feet where you encounter one of the famed parts of the route. The Glass Elevator descent has sweeping views of the inland desert looking toward the Salton Sea. It takes you from the crest of the coastal range to the low desert floor by dropping 3100 feet in about 9 miles. The temperature at the top was about 70 degrees and 20 minutes later it was 107 in the desert town of Borrego Springs. After a quick handoff of fresh water, we were off into the desert for the next 300 miles. Fortunately, it was now late afternoon and the sun would soon drop below the western mountains.

Riding east from Borrego Springs, the elevation gradually drops to a low of 187 ft. below sea level as you approach the Salton Sea. I was having trouble keeping the pace (and my heart rate) down as low as it probably should have been. It’s so hard not to push the pace early in the race when you are still fresh. We were making good time as we came through the second time station (TS) in a total time of just under 10 h for 145 mi. and a 15.0 mph avg. but my stomach was starting to feel a little bit sour. That was probably the motivation I needed to finally force myself to back off and get my pacing under control. An hour or so later, my stomach was feeling better and my HR was under 115 – much better. It was also still 85 degrees at 10 pm. Not exactly cool, but not too bad considering what was to come.

Riding through the night we passed through the table-top flat farmland of the Imperial Valley with the sweet smell of fresh-cut alfalfa coming out of the dark. We then left the irrigated farms and returned to the desert for a 1000 ft. climb over the Imperial Sand Dunes. We passed through the Border Patrol inspection station at 2 am just 20-30 miles from Mexico. Riding a bicycle and wearing big motorcycle goggles over my regular glasses, I must have looked like an unlikely illegal immigrant. He waved us on through. We were 200 mi. down, 660 to go.

I had not planned to stop at all the first night, but I was feeling some nausea and getting sleepy. My fluid and calorie intake was dropping off a little and I needed to take a couple of unplanned 30 minute breaks/naps. We had now crossed from the Imperial Valley into the Colorado River valley and were headed up the irrigated valley to Parker, AZ. We got to TS 4 in Parker about 9 am and my weight was down about 5 lbs. That wasn’t critical, but was borderline considering the desert heat to come. I needed to get my fluid intake up or I’d be in trouble.

Part 2 of 5 on RAW

The Desert
The next 100 miles is in many ways the most critical section of the race. There aren’t any major climbs but the terrain gradually rises from 400 ft to 3000. At the same time, depending on when you arrive, this stretch will have the most intense heat of the race. Get too hot here and allow yourself to dehydrate and you’ll probably earn yourself a quick trip to the nearest ER and a DNF.

The best solution is to ride hard the first night so you get partially across this section of desert before it gets too hot, thus minimizing the time spent in the heat. The dilemma for me is that to ride this fast raises my heart rate too much, increasing the probability that I’ll get sick – costing me even more time than enduring the heat. As an example, Christoph Strasser, who set a new record for solo RAAM this year, was completely across the desert and starting the climb into the mountains by 9 am. He thus completely avoided the severe heat the rest of us experienced. A nice idea if you can do it. This means he averaged nearly 19 mph for the first 400 miles of the race. That’s cranking it out. I’m not that fast even if I tried….

We left Parker (entering the worst of the desert) about 9 am. By 10 am it was 102 degrees and rising. By noon (24 hours into the race) the car thermometer read 116 degrees. I don’t know the official temperature, but various reports put it anywhere between 112 and 120. Let’s just say it was insanely HOT. I rode with an ice pack on the back of my neck, poured cold water on my head and back, tried to go at a steady but slow pace, keep my heart rate down and drink lots of cold fluid. Even so, I still had to stop every couple of hours, get in the car and cool down with ice packs.

The first 56 miles got us to TS 5 in Salome and took about 6 hr. At that point it was the middle of the afternoon, 113 or so and I was just too hot to continue. We decided to take a 3 hr. sleep break and hope it would cool off. That turned out to be a good call. When we started up again I was rested and cooled off. The air temp was still over 100 but cooler(?) than before and I was able to hold a much better pace the next 50 miles to TS 6 at Congress. The sun went down, we arrived in Congress about 9 pm and we had survived the worst heat with our race intact.

Even better, during the 3 hr. nap, my stomach “turned the corner” and I awoke with an appetite and was able to start eating. When this happens, my stomach seems to adapt to the stress and I can ride with a stronger pace with less worry about getting sick.

The Mountains
Leaving Congress, AZ the real climbing starts with a series of major climbs to Prescott, Cottonwood, Sedona and Flagstaff. You leave Congress and immediately start up Yarnell Hill where you gain 1800 ft. in 7 mi. There is a little break and then another 2000 ft or so climbing up to Prescott. This was all in the dark so I don’t really remember much except spinning up long, steep climbs by headlight. After recovering from the heat I was feeling pretty good and passed several other riders in this section. I think we also took another short sleep break along here. But none of us can really remember. Somewhere in the dark on this road was also the halfway point of the race – 430 down, 430 to go.

We got to TS 7 in Prescott a little before sunup. I took a break while the crew resupplied at Walmart before heading on to Cottonwood. In this next stretch we climbed 2100 ft. only to drop 3700 from the summit down into Cottonwood. The big descents are nice but you just have to climb it all over again getting to Flagstaff.

The 53 mi. from Cottonwood to Flagstaff is reported to be the toughest section of RAAM west of the Mississippi River. The road climbs continuously from Cottonwood to Sedona, then up Oak Creek Canyon to Flagstaff. It was pretty hot and exposed from Cottonwood to Sedona. This would prove to be the last time heat was really much of a factor. Once in the canyon above Sedona, it was more shaded and cooled off with altitude. The headwall of upper Oak Creek Canyon has some insanely steep switchbacks before the road finally eases off into a series of big rollers leading to Flagstaff. I was on the backup bike with a triple chain ring and using every bit of it. In a preview of things to come, narrow roads, heavy traffic and impatient drivers had me riding the fog line and trying not to get run over.

We reached Flagstaff (536 mi.) a little over 48 h. into the race and now had 322 miles remaining. My stomach continued to feel good and sub sandwiches, peanut butter, ham and pickles rounded out the regular riding diet of bagels, energy bars, gel and sports drink.

Part 4 of 5 on RAW

Northern Arizona
Leaving Flagstaff, a short climb is followed by a long 34 mi. downhill that drops 3200 ft. in elevation. This was very fast as we also picked up the only significant wind of the race and had a strong quartering tailwind. It was also, for me, one of the most unpleasant parts of the race. Traffic was very heavy and the road varied from a good, wide shoulder to nothing at all, forcing the bikes out into the traffic lane. Cars and, especially, heavy trucks would often not move over for us even when they could. This led to many instances where if a bike had bobbled or swerved at the wrong time someone could have easily been hit. Scary stuff.

After 60 mi. of this we turned east toward Tuba City. But major road construction farther north near Page, AZ had all traffic detoured east along with us so it didn’t let up. Three miles east of Tuba City, a support van for Maria Parker (a RAAM solo rider) was rear-ended by a driver who later admitted to texting at the time of the accident. Fortunately, no one was hurt. This was just in front of us and traffic ended up being stopped dead for 1.5 h. When we finally got going again, the road rage directed at the bikes and support vehicles by the delayed drivers was something to behold.

The backed up traffic finally cleared and things calmed down temporarily. Twenty five miles up the road we ran into 15 miles of freshly milled road surface where they were preparing for a repaving project. There was often no shoulder and no choice but to ride on very rough, ground road bed for the entire stretch. This section of the race has a long 50 mi. gradual climb of about 1900 ft. but the road conditions trumped the climbing. After we got through the millings, I was very tired and started getting sleepy. I had ridden hard all day on the climbs and felt like the ‘normal’ 1.5 hour nap wouldn’t be enough to recover my legs. I still wanted to try and catch some riders ahead in the last day so we opted for a 3 h. rest. After that, about 4:30 am, the chase was on for the final day.

Part 5 of 5 on RAW

The Finish
After waking up, we had a few miles of downhill into TS 11 at Kayenta and we got there about sunup. The crew needed a quick stop for coffee and we headed north into Monument Valley with under 200 mi. to the finish. I had pre-ridden all the remaining route and actually looked forward to attacking the last climbs as my only chance to catch riders ahead. We knew that one rider had leap-frogged us while we slept so I set out to chase him down. The second place rider in my age group had 2 h. on us, but we knew that with a 1.5 h. time credit because of the traffic accident, a 30 min. gain on him might make the difference there too. The morning was clear and calm, temps were cool and time trialing through Monument Valley with the morning sun on the towers and cliffs was magical. Our media crew (the same as the food and water and medical and everything-else crew) got some great pictures.

We went flying down the steep descent into TS 12 at Mexican Hat, UT averaging 15 mph on the 45 mi. run from Kayenta. Doesn’t sound too fast except that section is not without climbing and after 700 mi. I felt pretty good about it. I felt especially good to be out of Arizona.

Leaving Mexican Hat the route follows the San Juan River to Montezuma Creek with some long climbs mixed in with a series of shorter, steep rollers. We knew we had cut the margin from about 10 mi. to 8 and then 4 but I still couldn’t see the guy I was chasing. I was passing some of the RAAM solos who were along that part of the route so I knew I had to be doing OK. We left Montezuma Creek with a final 7 mi. of time trial-flat road along the river and then the climbing started again. Leaving the San Juan River we headed up McElmo Creek Canyon to circle the north side of Sleeping Ute Mountain to TS 14 in Cortez, CO. This is a tough stretch with the upper 10 miles before Cortez having a series of very steep little kickers just as a reminder you aren’t done yet. The numbers later showed I had a 14.4 mph average over this 50 mi. section. I passed the under 50 leader here and arrived in Cortez still 2 mi behind the third place 50+ rider I was chasing. I told Judy I wasn’t sure I had anything left to catch him with. Like a good crew chief, she told me I had to try and I took off.

The final section from Cortez to Durango features some 2800-3000 feet of climbing before the last 10 mi. downhill run into Durango. Within 5 mi. or so out of Cortez I finally got him in sight and at that point I thought I could probably reel him in. I’d been chasing all day, had made up 10 mi. on him and figured I could get another half mile or so. As I came up behind him, I let up for a bit to try and recover some strength for the pass. I knew when I went around him, I had to drop him quickly so he didn’t try and return the favor. As I pulled alongside him we exchanged pleasantries and then I dropped the hammer. At that point in the race I guarantee it wasn’t a big hammer. It was just a little tack hammer, but I had to hope it was still bigger than anything he had left. I opened a gap on him which quickly grew to several hundred meters and then 3 minutes. There was still several thousand feet of climbing left to the summit, but I had a pretty good feeling he was done and wouldn’t try to catch back on.

As it turned out, I averaged 15.5 mph over this last time station which was about 3 mph faster than any other rider. I finished the race in third place for the 50-59 age group, 4th place overall with a time of 3 d 3 hr 23 min and an average speed of 11.39 mph.

We got cleaned up and went out to supper that night in Durango. In all honesty, we didn’t really enjoy the meal as much as you might think. We were all just too tired. Judy was actually falling asleep at the table. We finished our meal and went back to the motel and to bed. The next day was better but we still had a long drive home. It took us a couple of days to catch up and start to feel normal.

While this story seems to be all about the route and the riding, anyone who has done an ultra will tell you that the crew is just as important, if not more so, than the rider. Without a hardworking and dedicated crew you don’t go anywhere. The crew takes care of everything for the rider except turning the pedals. They keep you fed, water bottles full and cold, ice packs for the heat, massage for aching legs – they do it all and take care of themselves at the same time.

Because of the scale of this race, they recommend two support vehicles. This allows one car to do off-course errands while one car stays with the rider. We didn’t have that luxury. We had one support van with only two crew – my wife, Judy and son, Eric. This is the absolute bare minimum. Three crew would be better, but we didn’t have it. The race is a supreme physical effort but the crew truly makes it all possible. They had everything ready for me when I needed it, didn’t complain (even when I got a little grumpy), went with no more sleep than I got and finished the race still supporting me and urging me to do my best. I am extremely grateful to Judy and Eric for the hard work and sacrifice they put in to make this race possible. “Thank you” doesn’t begin to express the gratitude and respect I owe them.

Part 6 of 5 on RAW

The Race Across the West is the longest RAAM qualifier in the US and arguably the toughest. It has a lot of climbing. The heat and the length of the race present demands on support crews not matched by other, shorter ultra events. Much of the road surface is very rough – like very coarse Texas chip seal. (Without getting into too much detail, saddle comfort is one aspect of ultra racing I have yet to solve.) There are portions of the route with narrow shoulders, heavy traffic and aggressive drivers that make personal safety a legitimate concern. It’s a really tough race.

Each race you do presents its own unique challenges in terms of length, terrain, climate, competition, etc. In almost all cases, when you finish a race, you can look back and see where you could have eliminated mistakes or have been faster in various ways. There is always some way to improve and no perfect race. So, the question often arises of whether or not you want to go back and ‘do it over,’ trying to lower your time, improve your finish standing or simply finish a race you were unable to finish the first time.

There are some races I’ve repeated (or would consider repeating) because I want to better my performance, the race presents a particular challenge I enjoy, I like the venue, or it’s just a fun race. The Race Across the West is not one of those races. I may be guilty of speaking too soon after the finish of a tough event, but I told Judy and Eric right after the race that I wasn’t inclined to try this one again.

There are obviously many ways we could have improved. However, we did the best we could at the time with the resources we had. I’m proud that we were able to finish with a very respectable total time and overall standing in the race. I do not regret doing RAW. It’s a great event, a big challenge, I’m glad I did it. I’m just satisfied at this point to put it in the “Been There, Done That” category and call it good.