The balancing act

So many things had gone well for Shu and the crew this race; the nutrition and hydration were great, there were no major physical issues and she was coping with the pain and persistence required for non stop endurance racing. She was focused and positive about the challenges ahead to get to the finish line. The crew believed she could do it.

When she rolled into the second checkpoint, at the Mississippi River, with over 8 hours to spare before the women’s cut off time we used some of that time for an extended break off the bike. We fed Shu properly, she had a shower and a couple of hours of sleep. Then she continued on her way into her 7th State, Illinois.

The two previous nights had seen Shu struggling with the sleep deprivation. It seemed to be at its worst during the darkest part of the night; the early hours of the morning. During Race Around Ireland Shu saw goblins at the side of the road. Here it was like déjà vu, feeling confused and anxious about the route. It is easy to understand the brain getting confused with the long straight roads, even the road kill looks the same. We were talking to Shu about trusting the crew to navigate and for Shu to concentrate on the pedalling.

It was unnerving for Shu and her crew when the confusion struck. It was very different talking to her on the radio during these episodes, it almost didn’t sound like Shu and it could happen very quickly. She snapped out of it just as quickly and you were back to having a rational conversation with her.

Shu says she hadn’t expected that she would need to trust so much to the crew and that the sleep deprivation would mean she wouldn’t be in a position to make decisions around sleep and the route herself.

She also found that things appeared in her peripheral vision that weren’t really there. At best this was distracting, at worst she swerved to avoid them. She had also seen vehicles coming towards her on the carriageway in front and the crew asking her to stop when neither are really there. This different version of reality has also seen Shu thinking she is commuting to work, not riding across America. Seana Hogan, a 6 times women’s solo winner, described this part of racing RAAM as dreaming while your eyes are open. It is confusing and scary and added to a sense of anxiety for Shu.

She also suffered from the simple effects of so much exertion and so little sleep needed to keep the mileage up. She was tired and had to try to fight the drowsiness, particularly the involuntary closing of eyes and falling asleep while cycling. It is exactly this which caused her fall. Having fallen asleep she drifted off the road and hit the rough surface of the hard shoulder knocking her from her bike.

This wasn’t the first time we know she had fallen asleep on the bike. Earlier in the week, during a particularly hot and humid period, the drowsiness caused her to fall asleep and ride on to a verge. She woke quickly and jerked 90 degrees back towards the road. With the follow car behind her she was able to hop back on to the hard shoulder no problem. On Thursday we weren’t so lucky.

In preparation for RAAM Shu did lots of research about sleep deprivation; what to expect and what she could do about it. The sleep centres she contacted didn’t really seem able to help or interested in studying the impact of the sleep deprivation. The advice was very much not to try to function on so little sleep for so long.

Ahead of the race Shu working with Matt, from the gsk human performance lab, used sleep monitors to identify that Shu sleeps best in the first 20 mins and third hour of any sleep break. We used this information to inform the sleep strategy.

Unfortunately Wednesday nights longer sleep wasn’t enough to re set and refresh. The crew’s focus had very much been on safety and the sleep strategy, based on the data about Shu’s sleep pattern, had been designed with the need for flexibility for when Shu felt really tired. So, ironically, when Shu fell from the bike on Thursday we were 10 mins from a shorter sleep break.

At the hospital Shu desperately wanted to get back on the bike and start riding again, broken collar bone or not. The X-Ray showed a complete break and miss alignment of the bones and the doctors were worried that putting any weight through that arm could cause further movement of the bones internally or through the skin. Reluctantly Shu and the crew accepted the finish line was no longer possible for Shu this time.

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We are not in Kansas anymore

The strong winds mean no one will be sad to leave Kansas. It has been a hard slog, and disappointing not to have made up more time.

Shu has been putting her engineering background to use developing a system of ‘tacking’ to get forward momentum in the cross winds. She didn’t see another cyclist all day yesterday and I think she found the long, slow sections hard.

The half way point was an important milestone for Shu, she is proud to be one of two women, alongside Ann Wooldridge, who have ridden more than half of RAAM. She was also pleased to get there with some time in hand, she has a full 6 days plus 21 hours to complete the second half of the race.

The men’s race is being dominated by Christoph Strasser who is 500 miles ahead of his nearest rival. The three leading women of Joan, Janice and Shu are much closer together. We have regularly seen Janice and her support vehicles on the route while Joan, the race leader, is that bit further up the road.

The time difference between the riders doesn’t really show the full picture though as much depends on each rider’s sleep strategy. For example Janice took the race lead while Joan was taking a three hour sleep break. So there could be an interesting battle today between Joan and Janice to retain the lead.

The race is characterised by its camaraderie. Shu had been in touch with several of the female solo riders before the race and the women riders all met and bonded at the start village. We have also benefited from the help of another female solo rider’s crew when we made a navigational error. Everybody wants to see each rider make it safely to the finish.

In fact we have only really seen positive reactions to the race. We have found throughout that people we meet spot the RAAM branding on the cars, or our team shirts and want to talk. Several have asked for a picture with Shu.

We’ve hit another milestone today, Shu has raised £6000 for the Herts Air Ambulance. This charity provides a free life saving helicopter emergency medical service for Essex and Hertfordshire. We have Erica and Arnold along with us as part of CrewShu.

Shu thinks this charity is awesome because it does so much to help cyclists and other road users. The crew would really like to see if we can increase this amount, so we’d welcome any fundraising ideas. Perhaps there is something you’d like to sponsor the crew to achieve (which is within the rules of RAAM and any State or Federal laws)?

The off duty crew have had the best shower of the trip so far – a swim in Lake El Dorado followed by a proper shower. We also now have some cables to play iPods through the car radios so, happy days.

On our way to El Dorado

Shu is back on the road after a small sleep. She is working on very limited amounts of sleep, some napping and then a small number of slightly longer breaks where she has a complete change of clothes, a wash, some food and at a maximum a couple of hours of sleep.

Here are some comparisons of the distance Shu is pedalling for RAAM.

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Shu is now further than her attempt at Race Around Ireland, her previous furthest distance pedalled (1190 miles in 5 and a half days).

There are strong gusting winds so the rules have been relaxed to allow direct follow until the end of Kansas, another 4 time stations. It is also very hot.

Our next crew changeover is at Rosalia, just past El Dorado in Kansas and around 100 miles from here. It’s much of the same in terms of roads, straight ahead, no turns!

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Halfway

Shu is halfway through RAAM, 1510 miles down. The halfway point although marked on the route book was completely absent from the road so we pulled in just along the route and got out the GB flags to celebrate.

Shu has been cycling pretty much 250 miles a day to get to this point. An incredible feat of endurance. She is in close proximity to several other racers including another female solo rider, Janice Sheufelt of the USA. She cycled to our current break for 5 mins alongside Tim Richardson another GB solo rider.

The crew, even those who drove through the night in the follow car, are buoyed by this milestone. The new crew rotations are working well, we’ve increased the length of the shifts which gives those in the support car and RV a better chance at some decent sleep. The arrival of Zoe, as our 9th member of crew, has also given the team renewed energy.

Shu is a bit sore from her fall yesterday and has stopped for some sleep now.

Kansas!

Our first crash of the ride was just before time station 23. Rail road tracks set at an angle brought Shu and Wiggo down. Shu’s first concern was for Wiggo [he’s fine!].

She has a graze on her forearm and some soreness on her hip but a full range of movement and was straight back on the bike. Her main concern was checking in at the time station to make sure she had a decent time for the stage.

Shu tells me the next song to play on her iPod was Chumbawamba, Tubthumping: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down’. No whiskey drinks for Shu or the crew until Annapolis though.

We will keep a close eye on her over the next couple of days and make sure the paramedic checks her out at the next time station.

The next couple of stages continue their downward trend, it’s around 600km of down.

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We’ve been chatting on the radio about the blog a lot today. There’s been so much good news to keep telling her to help keep her focused. We’ve also loved the distraction techniques – thank you.

Shu is surprised at how often the word ‘inspiration’ has been used in comments on the blog, it’s not a word she expected to be used about her. It brought us to talking about some of the women who have shown Shu what is possible: Eileen Sheridan, Beryl Burton, Chrissie Wellington, Judith Swallow, Dame Sarah Storey, and Ann Wooldridge. Shu has described what these women proved was possible in the Shusannah Pillinger – Road to RAAM page.

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Wildlife

Not only is the landscape amazing, but Shu and her crew have seen some pretty cool wildlife too: elk, deer, snakes, fox and mice all cross the road.

We are also keeping a road kill spotter and so far have coyote, skunk, cow, cats and dogs, snakes and rabbits.

We are currently flying across the high plains. All of Shu’s bikes have names. We have three with us and so far Shu has been riding Missi Sippi (Trek Domain) and Trevor (Trek Madone) for the desert and mountains. Now it’s time for Wiggo (Trek Speed Concept). They are powering along the straight rolling roads through flat grasslands with infinite views.

With the warm weather and monotony of the view Shu is feeling drowsy so we are giving her some caffeine and tying to think of distraction tactics.

We have Matt, James and Beth in the follow car. The view is hypnotic with the road stretching into the distance. We are looking at four turns in the next 10 hours of driving.

Time station 22 called in.

Super human endurance

This race certainly deserves its title as the ‘World’s Toughest Bike Race’. Perhaps the progress, ticking off the miles and time stations, belies how tough this is. Each pedal stroke is a battle and a bit of a victory.

So far on the road we have seen a couple of cases of ‘Schermers Neck’ where the neck muscles are no longer able to support the head. To make sure the riders can see the road there are all sorts of neck braces and improvised contraptions to support the head.

We have also seen the withdrawal from the race of several riders including Team Fat Boy on Wheels. This is the rider who suffered a fit as a result of the heat and who Erica was able to help until the ambulance arrived. This team had stayed with us at the same hotel in Oceanside so we’d been comparing notes with the crew on getting ready to race. We’d also seem them several times on the road and they were parked next to us when their rider had his fit. We are so sorry his race has ended this way and wish him the best for his recovery.

There is almost a sense of becoming accustomed or desensitised to what the riders are going through. The crew, focusing on the practicalities of supporting Shu and cheering on other riders, almost forget how extra ordinary it is to ride solidly through desert and the Mountains for 5 days.

Then, every now and again, the enormity of it hits you. You feel guilty turfing her out of the RV at 2am into the pitch black and cold of a Safeway car park. This morning she woke up after a sleep break feeling nauseous, tired, cold and in pain with her knees and an injury to her groin and these are just the most severe aspects on top of the general muscle fatigue, pain in her feet and sleep deprivation.

She left this morning worried her knees wouldn’t warm up and start to work. Riding at night is a challenge in itself; last night was cold and it is difficult for the riders to stay awake. Even though riding in the light of the car headlights and lights on the bike visibility is still reduced and perhaps reaction times too due to fatigue and sleep deprivation. This is also the time where the emotions can be toughest to deal with, and the brain can play tricks. On previous endurance races Shu has suffered with hallucinations which can be really unpleasant and scary for her.

The crew are looking out for anything which indicates potential problems including wobbles on the bike and talking to her regularly on the radio. If she starts to look or sound sleepy we try to get her to talk to us.

The nausea makes it difficult for Shu to eat, which is a serious concern as keeping her fuelled and hydrated is key. We think she may have had too much fructose a couple of times too which creates too much acid for her stomach and again makes keeping up the fuelling strategy difficult.

The time off the bike is really limited. Shu is getting very short breaks during a ride where we might pause with the bike to change drinks or clothing. Here she is simply putting a foot down but staying with the bike.

Then there is a break for solid food where Shu can sit down in a camping chair or in the car for between 15 to 30 mins and perhaps including a 10 min power nap. The longer two to three hour breaks, where Shu lies down for sleep, solid food and maybe a massage or medical care are much more infrequent.

We know that we are here to do a job for Shu, and that she is completely committed to the race. So we try to remember this when putting her back on the bike and pushing her onwards. The race is entirely consuming for all concerned. The crew barely think of anything other than RAAM and getting Shu to Annapolis.

It is in the 2am starts, and riding through the night or fighting against a headwind, climbing a mountain, or ignoring the pain in her feet and groin that we really see the scale of Shu’s determination.

1085 miles down

She’s made it 1085 miles to time station 19. The scenery is again incredible. This morning we have driven through a huge, perfectly flat, valley with almost a full circle of peaks around. This afternoon the blue skies have been replaced with some cloud and the possibility of some rain.

A tremendous tailwind which blew her to time station 19 has now become a hindrance as a vicious crosswind at the beginning of the stage to time station 20.

We heard this morning that one of the lady solo riders, Janice, had to go to hospital with altitude sickness. We think (and hope) she is back on the road now. Shu also found the altitude really tough and did walk about 300ms of the climb last night.

Now we head to Cuchara Pass which the route book describes as the prettiest of the major Colorado passes. After a steep, narrow climb we descend for 40 miles to Trinidad.

We are still struggling with the wifi and mobile coverage, so not able to load photos direct to the blog. Please have a look at Shusannah Pillinger – the Road to RAAM page for photos from today’s ride.

Finally some gentle descending

She’s made it! She battled amazingly over this tough section, even riding the last 300m of the Wolf Creek Pass with Arnold the Herts Air Ambulance tucked in the front of her jersey (photo to follow). The crew ran with her for several sections of the climb trying to help with cheering her on.

Now a stop for some fuel for her and a very short rest. Luckily the profile for the next stage is a much better triangle shape, a fairly gentle descent all the way to the San Luis Valkey. So it’s aero bars and the deep section wheels.

Pippa and James Middleton are starting today as part of an 8 man relay time. They will ride 377 miles each and are likely to overtake us so we’ll be looking out for more Brits on the road.

Epic Night of Climbing Ahead

We are on the road heading up to the continental divide. Shu will be tackling the epic combination of Baldy Mountain followed by Wolf Creek Pass tonight. I understand this is legendary on Strava and in the history of RAAM. The idea is to make it over the two climbs tonight so she can descend with some daylight.

Wolf Creek Pass is the highest point of the route at 3,300m and higher than any paved road in Europe. We are conscious there is the potential for altitude sickness so we’ll keep a close eye on Shu.

We made it through Dorango without any penalties. Dorango is one spot where the rider can be required to be with their bike in the penalty box. It’s not completely dead time, the rider can sleep in a car or use the time to eat. While no penalties for the team we have had two warnings. Warnings are given by an official pulling over the follow car and rider and explaining the rule infringement. We had one warning this morning for continuing direct follow when we should have been on leap frog support with the follow vehicle.

Erica, James and Matt did a long stint today getting Shu to Dorango, so now we have Chris, Ele and Beth in the follow car. We also have a new crew member arriving tonight – Zoe has flown in to Dorango airport.