For the past two years I’ve done the Heart of the South 200 out of Birmingham. I like the race and Tom Robertshaw puts on a good, no frills event that tests your metal with some of the best in hills in Alabama. In both 2010 and 2011 I had epic battles with triathlete Ed Walker from Ohio. He won in 2010 and I won in 2011 while setting the course record. After winning my first two events of 2012, Sebring 12 hour and Texas 200 mile, I decided it was time to step up and take on a bigger challenge - Enter HOS 500.
For those that don’t know, the HOS 500, (Heart of the South 500), is the hardest RAAM Qualifier in the world. It covers 517 miles from Birmingham, AL to Fort Mountain State Park in GA and back via a climb over Mount Cheaha, AL, which is the highest point in the state of AL. The route has approximately 35000’ of climb with more than 50% of that climb in the last 140 miles. Since I had done the 200 miler twice and knew the hard climbs were at the end, I thought I knew what I was facing. I was wrong.
I guess the place to start this Tall Tale is in Little Rock as we pick up Brent Findlay for his first crewing job. I met Brent last year at an Adventure Race and he is on my RAAM crew for 2012. HOS was his first experience with crewing for an ultra race. Trish and I had the Sprinter RV packed and my son Allen was also joining us as our 3rd crew person. His job was to keep the driver awake at night and pass me bottles.
We cruised out of Little Rock at about 3:00 on Thursday afternoon headed for Tupelo, MS. Tupelo is just over half-way to Birmingham for me which makes it a great stopping point. They also have a great restaurant selection. We lit at the Comfort Inn at around 7:00 and walked next door to Vanneli’s which is a great Greek/Italian restaurant which had some live music. We settled into a nice table on the patio for some good food and discussed how to best get the crew some sleep for this race since the event starts at 8pm at night which insures two nights on the road.
The plan we formulated has us taking Trisha to Piedmont, AL which is about 90 miles into the race so she could sleep and relieve Brent just after midnight. This plan meant that we needed to leave Tupelo around 9am and I would have to drive an extra 180 miles before the race, but after analyzing all of our options with a 3 person (2 driver) crew we went with It.
I woke up Friday morning about 7 to a nice little rain storm in Tupelo and the rain and weather were to play an interesting part in the coming adventure. After starting the day out with some yoga, I headed to the hotel breakfast room where I ran into a group of cyclists from St Louis that were down to ride on the Natchez Trace. They had a group of 8 riders and it made for some good breakfast conversation. The rain was definitely putting a damper on the start to their weekend.
We left for Alabama at just after 9 in a pretty good downpour and Brent kept a close eye on the weather forecast for Birmingham. It was looking like the rain would move thru Birmingham before the start of the race and we could only hope it would be over by the finish. We drove out of the rain at the Alabama border and after 4 hours of driving we were in Piedmont. We got Trisha dropped off and headed back to the race start in Birmingham.
At this point the GPS for the RV decides to die so I start driving the route backward to get back to the host hotel. While the route is great for cycling it isn’t designed for optimal vehicle speeds and when we hit highway 431 we decided to head south and pickup I-20 to get to the start. This turned out to be a mistake because 431 was nothing but traffic lights all the way to I-20, then I-20 west was road construction. Finally the rain storm, which we had been out in front of all day, hits. An easy 90 minute nice drive in the country turned into 2+ hours of traffic jams.
We arrived at the Marriot at about 3:15 in the middle of the rain storm. This gave us just enough time to get registered for the race and get to the solo racer meeting at 3:30. Tom Robertshaw, the race director, did a great job of making the meeting short and sweet. The only point of discussion was how we would start the race. The HOS 500 uses a 2 minute delay between riders to start the solo racers so we had to decide who would go out first. It was decided that we would be started according to our race number. Since I registered on site, I had the highest race number. This was good news for me on two fronts: First, it allowed me to delay leaving as long as possible and hope the storms would clear out, and second, it meant it would be easier for me to follow Dan Driscoll’s advice and pace myself if I didn’t have to worry about staying in front.
We left the meeting just before 4:00 and Johnny Boswell was doing Vehicle Inspections, so we pulled the Sprinter up under the front portico of the hotel, put on the race numbers and signage, added the lights and we were good to go. I talked for a while with Steve and Peggy Petty and some of the other 200 and 500 racers in the lobby. The Marriot wasn’t going to open their restaurant until 5:00 so we drove down to the race start and headed into the Fox and Hounds to grab some food.
I usually have a prerace ritual that I go thru regarding what to eat, drink, etc from about 12 hours before race start until they say go but, with an 8pm start, I had no clue what I wanted to eat. Brent ordered some fish and chips and that sounded great to me so I decided to order the same with a Cuban sandwich and Allen went with the burger and onion rings and then another order of onion rings. I wolfed down my food and then headed out to the van to see if I could catch some sleep before race start while Brent and Allen finished up at the restaurant.
I laid down in the RV but could only toss and turn thinking about the race, trying to figure out what to wear, mixing up some bottles and general faffing around. Around 7pm Allen and Brent showed up back at the van after visiting the local bakery. All of the other racers started trickling into the parking lot and huddling under buildings hoping the rain would stop before the race began. I made a trip up to The Cracker Barrel with some other crew to get some coffee for me and Brent and then we waited.
The rain stopped at 7:45 which gave me about 25 minutes to get the bike from under the bike cover and ready to roll. At 8 on the dot, Steve Bugbee lead us onto the race course, followed by Ed Garrison at 8:02, Kelly Parham at 8:04, Jay Yost at 8:06, Valerio Zamboni at 8:08 and finally 8:10 rolled around and I was able to take off and get the party started.
We headed out on the race course and I started just riding at a nice pace. It seemed like a slow pace compared to the start of last year’s 200, but I was trying to keep it easy. I didn’t see any tail lights for about the first 20 minutes, but I started catching glimpses of flashing lights ahead of me. I started closing the gap at around Zeigler Road and finally caught up to what looked like two sets of riders on Elliot Lane just before Rte 25.
Ed Garrison was the first racer I caught up with. I was tempted to stop and say hi, but since I was more worried about safety and Brent’s first pass with a follow vehicle, I sprinted past Ed so that Brent would have plenty of room to pull in behind me. I also think that Ed let up so that the pass could be made efficiently and safely. Kudos to Ed and the other safe riders.
Following the pass of Ed, we made the turn onto highway 78 and I cruised up to the back of Valerio’s vehicle and rode past him on a slight climb and tried to sprint away so Brent could make a safe pass. Valerio had other plans. He decided that he was going to try to race me, which left my support vehicle stuck behind his. I’m not really sure what was in his mind at the time since I had erased the 2 minute lead he had in under an hour while riding easy. He kept up the back and forth for what seemed like 20 minutes. Once we got to the cross over for I-20 he dropped back but my crew couldn’t tell that I was free enough to pass. We came to the road intersection after the interstate and Johnny Boswell was there and asked where my crew vehicle was. I used a few expletives to describe the situation, but pulled off the road and waited for my vehicle.
I then passed Valerio again. This time I told the driver of his support vehicle to pull over and let my vehicle by and told Valerio to please stop and went by him. Well that didn’t sit well so he and his crew passed me back again. I just waited for the next hill climb and blew by him and rode away. I’m not sure if I should thank him for getting me mad and riding hard or just be pissed that he was being such a pain and his crew was so unprofessional.
The ride was very uneventful for the next hour or so, just cruising through the countryside and enjoying the night. I caught up to Steve Bugbee somewhere on 144 before Ragland, which is about 44 miles into the race, and had a couple of polite words as we made another safe pass. As we were coming into Ragland I could see another set of flashers off in the distance and I kept rolling on. I finally decided to look down at my Garmin to see how the night was going and realized that I was rolling at a 20.5 mph pace down the road.
I caught up to Jay Yost at the red light on 431 which was about 65 miles into the race. I had been slowly closing the gap, but didn’t want to get trapped by the light so I sprinted hard up to the back of his vehicle as we were coming to the light. It didn’t matter as we both sat there for a couple of minutes and chatted. Jay let me take off from the light without pressing the issue - Thanks. We continued on into the night – I was just riding and listening to my I-pod.
We hit Jacksonville and Brent called in the Time Station 1, mile 74, at 11:44 and then called to wake Trisha up in Piedmont. Trish walked from the hotel to the course and we stopped and did a quick driver change and continued on down the road. I asked Trish about Kelly Parham, the last rider for me to catch. She said she hadn’t seen anyone pass by but that I didn’t need to chase a phantom. As I would soon find out, the phantom was chasing me. As we pulled into Centre at about mile 100 a rider rode up to me and we talked for a few minutes. Kelly had made a stop back in Jacksonville and then rode back up to me. After a couple of minutes he dropped back 100 feet and followed. This went on until we made the turn onto 176 on Lookout Mountain. I stopped to take a nature break and he stopped too. 176 is not a route that two riders ride at the same pace, it has large rollers with long climbs, so the gap between us lengthened and shorted, but we stayed together for the most part and at Dogtown we were back within 100 feet. The next section of 176 is flatter and faster and Kelly was still there. Even with all of the climbing we were still rolling better than a 19 mph average.
At mile 129 of the ride you enter Little River Canyon. I had heard John Schlitter’s interview with George Thomas on Over the Top Radio saying it was one of his favorite places to ride and now I know why. It was more like riding a roller coaster than riding a bike. One minute you’re flying down a hill at 30, the next you’ve turned 90 degrees and hit a 6% climb that you fly up and over, then it’s a quick turn the other way and a long, hard climb up. The coolest part is coming around the corner and up a hill to where the road is split around a giant 30’ high and wide boulder. About half-way thru the canyon Kelly was still close to my vehicle so I decided to pull off and let him go by so that Trish, who was driving, wouldn’t have headlights behind her the whole time. Kelly rode by while I relieved myself. Two miles down the road Kelly had stopped and wasn’t sure about the route. I told him to keep going on this road as I went by. He dropped in behind, but the last time I remember seeing Kelly was around mile 140 at the turn onto route 35.
The next fun section we tackled was the Desoto Parkway. We were climbing up to Desoto Falls and it got really foggy so we were cruising as fast as the lights passing thru the fog would let us go. We passed TS2, mile 159.2, at 4:37 in morning. In 8 hours I had consumed 8 bottles of Spiz and I was feeling pretty good.
Somewhere between 5 and 6am I started doing battle with the sleep monster. I supplement my Spiz with a double shot espresso and sport beans and banished the sleep monster for the moment. Around 7am the crew started doing leap frog support so I was free to ride without someone around me. After a couple of jumps I sent the crew ahead to TS3 to setup for a big stop. I needed to change out of my wet clothes. They also needed to gas up the Sprinter and get food and prep for some bike work.
I pulled into the Pilot Station, mile 219.4, at 8am and up to the RV, but 2/3 of the crew was gone. Trish said I was too fast getting there so I just did the clothes change and headed down the road. After about 30 minutes of riding I was starting to worry about the crew, but they appeared and were setup for quick bike maintenance, a bacon-egg-cheese biscuit and sunscreen and I was back on the bike. They said that nobody had made it to the pilot before they had left so that I had at least a 30 minute lead going into the first big climb.
We setup for a stop at the turn to Fort Mount State Park where I got my 2nd biscuit. I now added Cytomax to the fueling regimen so I could keep my electrolyte levels balanced. Then I started the 7.3 mile climb to the top. I started the climb at mile 241 and I only had 12000’ of climb in so I knew that I just needed to spin this 2000’ climb and save my legs for later in the day. The climb up to the top wasn’t bad and I even chatted with some motorists as I was riding up the mountain. The biggest disappointment for me was that the back side of the mountain wasn’t like the front side. The front side was just continuous climb. The back side was a bunch of quick descents followed by short hard climbs and then another quick descent. This ended in Eljay and I had a nice 4 mile respite riding in the valley until the turn on 382 and the big rollers hit. The next 10 miles was probably as hard as the climb up Fort Mount.
Once I turned onto 136 at mile 280 things started to flatten out and I got a little more energetic and was able to start making some better time on the way back to time station 4. I got caught by a train around mile 286 and sat down for a couple of minutes. It was a good break. I was almost tempted to take a nap but I got back on the bike and kept pressing on. I hit TS 4, mile 302, at 1:25pm. The crew made me a pastrami and cheese sandwich and sent me on my way.
Time station 4 to 5 was probably one of the best riding sections in the race, for me anyway. The contours of the land were very similar to riding at home and it was a just a great day to ride. I started to do battle with the sleep monster again around 2:30 in the afternoon. I tried the espresso and sport beans again, but by 3 in the afternoon I had been up for 32 hours without sleep. I met my crew just before the intersection with Hwy 27 and jumped in the van with instructions to wake me in 10 minutes. I climbed into the back of the Sprinter and was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Bang – I was out and Bang - Trish had me back on the bike in 10 minutes.
The next section of the ride was Big Texas Valley Road. This was a cool, lightly traveled back road that climbs up and out of a valley. It was a great time and place to be riding. I was refreshed after my nap and was cruising well. As I was getting ready to make the turn onto Friday Road at mile 340, the crew vehicles for the 4 person team were waiting at the corner. Everyone was very encouraging and my crew told me they were both complimentary and helpful with the information that the nearest solo rider was at least an hour behind me. However, with their appearance I knew that even though I had a 4 hour head start I was about to be caught.
I was finally caught by the team racer flying by me on his Cervelo at around mile 355. I was cruising at around 23 and he blew by me. His comment as he went by was “You are a beast”. It boosted my spirits to hear that from somebody flying by. I kept pushing on toward TS5. I finally hit TS5, mile 378, at 5:57pm. I was still holding onto a 17+ average. When the crew called in they told me I had a 1 hour and 10 minute lead over the next solo as of TS4.
The next section of the race is very desolate and extremely hilly. I was riding on 49/9 and we started to hear thunder and see lighting. What? Where the heck did this come from? I was riding southwest so I was trying to go as fast as I could to out distance it. Just as night fall was hitting I made the turn onto highway 55. North – wait – I don’t want to go north. The storm is north. My crew was at the corner with my night lighting and another sandwich. It was getting dark and I had just turned north heading directly into a thunderstorm.
This may have been a lucky piece of timing on my part. I turned north on that corner and rode directly into and pretty much right thru the storm front. The worst of it was over in 5 minutes and I was out of the rain in 30 as I circled back around to head southwest. I hit Red Road 55, mile 400, at around the 24 hour point. This is where the Oreos started to become a big part of the race. I stopped to get some gloves and oreos and headed on to PacASak, or the beginning of hell. I stopped at PacASak to have Trish stop and get some beer. I wanted a beer when I finished and I knew this might be the last time we could get it on the course. She said they stopped before TS5 and got a 12’er of Hiny. It’s good when the crew can anticipate your needs.
From PacASak you have a 1.6 climb to route 281 and then it starts to get hard. Here is the description from the cue sheet. “21.5 miles of rolling hills and three, 1 mile, 15% climbs, finished off with a 3 mile climb to Cheaha State Park, highest point in AL”. The first of the three 15% climbs is actually the longest and hardest. I stopped at the top and said, “I deserve a cookie”, and was rewarded with a couple more oreos before being forced down the road by my crew. I just kept riding and thinking this is crappy chip seal, but at least it’s not Texas chip seal and then would grind up the next climb. I kept thinking, wait, I don’t remember there being so many climbs last year. The only cool thing I can remember is watching the lightning on the horizon when I got to the top of the big climbs.
Finally I was at the base of Cheaha and stopped and got a 5 hour energy from the crew. I needed a little extra kick for the last 3 mile climb. I rode up to the top and thought – dang – it wasn’t that bad. At the top we switch drivers and begin the descent down. Since the storm had been through, there was a bunch of debris on the ground and the road isn’t much fun even in the day time under the best of conditions. This part of the ride seemed to go on forever too, but eventually we were in the valley on decent roads.
The sleep monster attacked again around midnight as I was pedaling on Twin Churches road. I pulled off into one of the church parking lots and said I need another 10 minute break. I just climbed into the front passenger seat and fell asleep. This time I woke myself up in 5 minutes and got back on the bike and started cruising back on toward TS6. It was like riding in a horror movie. The recent cold rain on the hot pavement was fogging up all around. It was like riding thru a giant rock concert where they use dry ice to make smoke. It was definitely easy to tell which way the wind was blowing. We hit TS6, mile 463, at 12:23am and kept pressing on toward the finish. It was time for this to be done.
The ride for the next 30 miles was mostly uneventful. I knew I had two more big climbs left but felt that I had enough to spin up and over and finish the race. I stopped at a post office about 2 or 3 miles before the climb and asked if they had checked to see how far ahead I was when they call in TS6 and if I could catch another quick nap. Trish said they didn’t check so I decided I had best just keep riding. The climb would keep me awake.
It’s now 3 in the morning and I’m 20 miles from the finish, spinning up a 1.7 mile climb. My crew pulls up beside me and says – there is a rider coming up behind you. I’m like, no F’in way. I turn and look and Bleep. Adrenaline rush kicks in. I go from climbing this hill at 6 miles per hour to running the hill at 18 – I didn’t even know I could climb like that. We crest the hill and are flying down the back side at 40mph in the dark around corners with my follower RV trying to keep us in the lights. We turn a corner and start a sprint up the next hill and the guy – Mark Pattison – pulls up beside me and says –“ Damn, you’re riding strong for having been going for 30 hours – I’m on a team”. Thanks Mark, you have just given me and my crew a heart attack, but you have propelled me over the last obstacle to finishing the final 20 miles of the race twice as fast as I would have done if you hadn’t shown up.
From that point I kinda just finished cruising in at 4:14am for a total time of 32:04. Tom was in the parking lot along with a couple members of the team that had just finished. We chatted for awhile. Results haven't been posted for the event as of writing this, but as of 4am Steve Bugbee had gotten caught in a hail storm and withdrawn and no other rider had made it to TS6 yet. Lori Dailey, the only female to attempt the course had pulled out at TS4 and Jay Yost had gone missing. I think, but am not sure, that I saw Jay leaving TS3 as I was coming into TS4.
That’s the end of the race, but not the end of the odyssey. We drive across the road to the Hampton Inn to look for a hotel room to crash in, but alas, there is a car race in Birmingham this weekend and all of the hotels are booked, so we called Tom and he met me at the Marriot so I could get a shower and Trisha starts to drive us back toward home at 5am. Trish has put down the rear bed and Brent and Allen are crashed out on it and we drive up to a gas station so we can fill up on gas and coffee.
Then the road trip begins. It only lasts about 10 minutes before we are stopped in downtown Birmingham where we get caught at a construction site for 10 minutes. Once we get thru this I try to stay awake with Trish for a while, but doze off. She only makes it about 20 miles west of Birmingham before she decides It’s safer to stop. We pull off the road around 6 and I laid down on the floor to sleep and Trisha stretches her legs across the passenger seat to get comfortable. I’m not sure how long we crashed out, but Brent woke up first and was completely disoriented because we were next to a 6 lane interstate with nothing around and no traffic. I think Brent took over driving at this point but I’m not sure. I just know that I moved back to the bed.
Our next stop on our odyssey was a Huddle House just before crossing back into Mississippi. We ordered so much food that the table was covered with plates. My breakfast was served on 5 different plates: one for the waffles, one for the eggs, bacon, sausage and hash browns, one for the chicken-fried steak, one for the biscuits and gravy, and one of toast and grits. I was a bit hungry. Everyone ate well and Brent, Trish and I filled up on coffee. Then it was back to the van where I slept through most of the state of Mississippi.
The final bobble in our adventure was courtesy of the Arkansas Highway Department. On the way out to the Race I had taken the detour around a major area of construction on I-40 and the trip went smooth. Brent said he had been on this stretch of I-40 headed west two Sundays before and the construction wasn’t bad so he was going to stay on the interstate. Of course, since he made that decision we were treated to a good 30 minute rest stop – complete stop – on the interstate. We joked about rolling the awning down and getting out the lawn chairs and grill and having a party. But it was all good. All we had to do was get home and sleep. Which we eventually did.
Last, I need to say thank you to Brent, Trish and Allen. This was a fun and successful adventure because of the 3 of you. I needed this race under my belt to help prove to myself and others that I am a legitimate ultra distance racer. I think this performance pretty much speaks for itself - I CAN race long as well as race short and fast! This comment is for a few select people ;-)