Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Heart of the South Race Report!

Today's blog entry was written by George Darden, Kacie's husband and Power, Pedals, and Ponytails crew member.  He was on the crew for the Heart of the South 500, which Kacie and Dani did over the weekend of 4/5, 4/6, and 4/7.  

Someone who is training for a marathon or an Ironman will take part in several shorter races in order to test equipment, stay motivated, and get a good workout. When you're preparing for a 3000-mile cross-country bike race, however, there are not many opportunities for such "tune-up" races.  Kacie and Dani have done a great deal of riding over the past several months, but virtually no racing.  Thus, we were all excited for the Heart of the South 500 bike race.  We took to calling it "HOTS."   

The Heart of the South 500--which was actually 517 miles--started at midnight on Friday night in Birmingham.  It looped around Ellijay and returned to Birmingham, taking in Fort Mountain, Lookout Mountain, and Mount Cheaha along the way.  Here's the map:

While Dani and Kacie rode, Anne, Beau, Keith, and I made up the crew.  All four of us will be on the RAAM crew this summer, so this was an opportunity both for Kacie and Dani to test themselves and for the crew to gain some experience.  While we were certainly hoping for good luck and a strong race, we actually wanted to encounter some difficulties.  We figured that any problems we faced and resolved in HOTS would be problems that we could prevent in the early stages of RAAM.

The race schedule made for a strange feel.  Because the race didn't start until midnight on Friday night, we all had a regular day on Friday.  I got up early and went to a masters swimming class before heading to work.  Around 2:00, I met Kacie, Beau, and Anne at our house, we packed the car, and we drove over to Birmingham.  The four of us attended the pre-race meeting with the race director, Tom Robertshaw, and the one other team that would be competing--a two-man team from California named the Gorillas. Then, we checked into a hotel where we would stay for the next four hours until it was time to go to the starting line.  Dani and Keith left Atlanta a few hours later and joined us at the hotel around 7:30 central time.  We prepared our cars:

We also tried to coordinate a bit:

The plan was to relay the entire race.  In RAAM, we'll be relaying sixteen hours a day, but at night, Dani and Kacie will each have one four-hour uninterrupted segment during which one of them can sleep while the other rider continues down the road.  In HOTS, we did not plan any extended breaks for either rider or crew.  This meant that no one would sleep much for the next 30+ hours.   

Between 8:00 and 10:30, we turned off the lights in the hotel and acted as if we were sleeping through the night.  This was a very good idea; it made it seem as if we were getting up early for a race, instead of sleeping for only a couple of hours and then starting the race in the middle of the night.  Once at the starting line, they inspected our cars, we snapped a few pictures, and then we got underway.

(Notice Kacie's sweet reflective flower, compliments of Vespertine. She also wore one in her hair.)

Kacie took the first turn:

About three minutes later, Beau (who was driving Kacie's follow car) and I (the navigator in Kacie's car) made our first mistake: we directed Kacie down the wrong road.  There were nearly 100 turns in this race, and we missed the very first one.  Fortunately, it was fixed quickly, and as it happens, it was the last time that we missed a turn for the entire remainder of the race.  Lesson: scout out the first few miles so that pre-race nerves don't make you do dumb things in the early miles.  

The process of relaying a 500-mile race is pretty straightforward.  While Rider A is followed on her bike by Car A, Rider B and Car B wait down the road at a rendezvous point.  When Rider A arrives at the rendezvous point, Rider B takes off with Car B following.  Then, Rider A gets into Car A, passes Rider B and Car B on the road, and arrives at the next rendezvous point.  It's like a big game of leapfrog with cars and bikes.  Here comes Dani, being followed by Keith and Anne in the blue Xterra:

 Here's Kacie (and me) waiting with the white Explorer for Dani to arrive:

And here they are making an exchange:

 (Once we took this picture, we jumped in the white Explorer and started following Kacie.  The blue car in the picture--Dani's follow car--stopped and put Dani inside.)

The trick is determining how long each rider will ride before an exchange takes place.  Our original plan was for Kacie and Dani each to ride about thirty minutes, or about eight miles.  Over the mountain climbs, we would shorten it significantly--all the way down to about five minutes each, or only about a mile.  Doing so many exchanges would mean that no one got to sleep much, but it also meant that each rider could go faster, and we would be making constant progress.  Given that our goal in RAAM is to break the two-woman course record, speed matters to us.  Throughout the entire race, there was less than five minutes total when either Kacie or Dani wasn't making progress down the road. 

The first half of the race went by fairly quickly.  There were some rolling hills, but it was not too terrible.  Kacie and Dani were both able to ride their time trial bikes a great deal.  The highlight was riding through Little River Canyon just after dawn:

We topped Lookout Mountain without much of a problem.  The biggest issue for the riders in the first twelve hours was letting go and allowing the crew make the decisions.  (Taking responsibility for all decisions was a challenge for the crew, too.)  The biggest issue the crew had was making sure that the odometers in each car matched and that we were each following the cue sheet.  We traded texts and phone calls a great deal, but sometimes that could be hard in rural Alabama and Georgia.  At one point, we were stopped by a train, and Anne and I used the time to get caught up.  You can see us in the background here, frantically taking advantage of the unexpected delay:

Incidentally, this was one of the only times that Kacie and Dani really got to talk to each other during the race.  They mostly talked about how my mix CD was the best one, and Dani bragged on the resilience of her nail polish.   

Things really picked up around the 240-mile mark, about fifteen hours into the race.  At that point, we hit Fort Mountain.  We had been looking forward to this eight-mile climb for a while, and Dani and Kacie each rode only a mile between exchanges:

 There are three important things to notice in that last picture.  First, check out Kacie's sweet Moxie jersey.  That model is called the "Zany" for pretty obvious reasons.  Second, notice that Kacie and Dani are quacking at each other.  Early in the race, they spontaneously developed the practice of making animal noises (ducks, dogs, cats, lemurs, mantis shrimp, etc.) when they would exchange.  It kept spirits high, and it actually turned out to be a good indicator of their state of mind (i.e. when they stopped making animal noises, we knew something was wrong).  Third, notice the man behind them on the road.  Going up Fort Mountain, Kacie and Dani passed about twenty cyclists--,mostly men--who were out for a Saturday afternoon climb.  Some of them were not happy to be passed by two women moving so swiftly, and they were especially blown away when we told them that we were in the middle of a 500-mile race.  Kacie and Dani topped the mountain a left a trail of bruised egos behind.  Fort Mountain was probably the highlight of the race.

Soon afterwards, though, things began getting really difficult.  Once the adrenaline of climbing Fort Mountain wore off, the fatigue began to set in.  To make matters worse, the area around Ellijay on the east side of Fort Mountain is relentlessly hilly.  There was small climb after small climb, some pitching over 20%.  The next fifty miles took us nearly four hours. By the time that the sun set on Saturday, both rider and crew were getting tired.  You could see it on our faces:

Just after nightfall on Saturday night, around mile 350, Dani went through a bad patch.  This was when I made what I consider the biggest mistake of the race (although I don't believe that it was entirely my fault).  A lot of things in ultra-cycling are counter-intuitive.  For example, when one rider starts feeling bad, it seems logical to let the other rider take the weight.  However, if you overload the other rider, BOTH riders will end up feeling bad, and then you're up a creek with no good riders.  Even though Dani was struggling, we didn't want to just put Kacie on the bike indefinitely and run her into the ground.  However, we had some profile sheets, which you can see me studying here:

According to the mile markers on the profile sheets provided by the race organizers, we were about to hit a net downhill section.  We figured that this would be a pretty easy section, so Kacie could take a longer time on the bike while Dani recovered.  We put Kacie on her bike, and she began riding.  Anne and Keith drove several miles ahead with Dani passed out in the back seat.  We thought we were here:

As it turns out, we were here: 

By the time we realized our mistake--which was made obvious to us because Kacie kept going uphill when she was supposed to be going down!--it was too late.  What was supposed to be a largely downhill section was actually an entirely uphill section.  While we had intended for Kacie to have a pretty easy forty minutes while Dani rested, she had to climb hard for forty minutes.  After twenty hours of riding, this was a huge mental and physical blow for her.  Fortunately, it gave Dani time to recover, and she was able to take over for Kacie.  Dani's recovery came at the cost of burying Kacie, though, which is exactly what we had been trying to avoid.  Lesson: spend a lot of time going over the race materials in order to make sure that they make sense. 

Kacie soldiered on, but by the time that we reached Mount Cheaha in the wee hours of Sunday morning around the 415-mile mark, Kacie was so spent that she literally couldn't see straight.  She got in the car after every exchange and doubled over.  She was completely non-responsive.  At the base of the climb, I was worried that we might not get up it or that if we did, it would come at a very high cost.  Then came an injection of energy in the form of a bald cop bearing McDonald's:

Jason, Dani's boyfriend, RAAM crew member, and accomplished ultra-athlete in his own right, was not planning to be a part of the HOTS crew because all Atlanta Police Department officers were on call for the Final Four in Atlanta.  As it happened, though, he was able to get the time off, and he showed up just as we were beginning the climbs around Mt. Cheaha.  We were all very happy to see him, and his arrival breathed life into the riders and crew just in time for us to do the last major climb.  

Kacie and Dani took short pulls over the steep climbs and descents leading up to Cheaha, and Kacie tackled the first part of Cheaha.  Dani then took the second half of Cheaha.  Since Dani was feeling good, she did most of the descent in order to give Kacie time to rest and recuperate.  In other words, we got it right this time; we had Dani ride a mostly downhill section while Kacie rested.  The arrow shows where Dani picked up and, of course, the net downhill after the summit:

Kacie woke up after almost forty minutes of sleeping and felt like a new person.  She ate the Filet-o-fish that Jason brought, and we put her back on the bike to finish off the Cheaha descent.  Kacie said that going from sleeping to navigating a technical descent at 40+ mph in the dark was one of the strangest transitions she's ever made.  It's certainly good practice for RAAM, though.  It was good practice for me, too, as a driver.  I had to stay right behind her while we whipped around corners so that she could use my headlights to see the road.   

The final few hours seemed to drag out.  We went by the last of the five solo riders, all of whom started the race four hours in front of us.  This meant that we would be the first people to finish the race, which gave us a temporary boost.  Fatigue kept slowly creeping in, though, and our eyes began to play tricks on us.  At one point, I thought that a bunch of cars with their hazard lights were in front of us on the road.  It turned out to just be the reflectors.  At another point, I slammed on the brakes thinking that an animal was running in front of me.  It was a mailbox.  Dani got back in the car and swore to Keith and Anne that there had been a goose in the middle of the road--there wasn't--and at one point, she asked me if I had hit a cat with the car--I hadn't (I don't think).  Keith thought that Dani was carrying a sparkly flashlight in her shorts.  Kacie hit herself in the face with the cooler. Some actual strange things did occur, though.  I came very close to running over a deer.  A couple of rabbits ran out in the road, and one of them seemed to be racing Kacie for about a hundred yards.  On two occasions, Kacie was chased by bats.  I'm sure that similar strangeness was going on in Keith, Anne, and Dani's car.  By the last hour or so, I had to run laps around the car and do jumping jacks to keep from nodding off at the wheel.  It seemed like the end would never come.
I know that it felt that way for Kacie and Dani, too.  To make things even more difficult, around 495 miles, there were two final climbs.  Kacie topped the first one--a 1.7 mile drag that averaged about 5%--right at dawn on Sunday morning:

Even though it got up to 70 during the day on Saturday, it was cold in the dark.  In this picture, Kacie is wearing a base layer, two jackets, and a vest, along with ear covers, a scarf, knee warmers, shoe covers, and heavy gloves.

Kacie and Dani made a few more exchanges, and then they rode the last mile or so together, just like they will at RAAM this summer.  

At the finish, we collected our medals, celebrated a bit, and took a few photos.

 (From left to right: Anne, George, Kacie, Dani, Beau, Keith, and Jason.)

After grabbing a little breakfast--is that what you would call it on Sunday morning after being awake for over 32 hours??--we got back in the car and somehow made it back to Atlanta.  Neither Anne nor I could drive.  (Of course, Kacie couldn't either.)  Beau--who took virtually all of these photos, by the way--mustered the energy to get us home safe and sound.  It's worth noting that Keith, Beau, and I all started the race clean-shaven, but we were all stubbly by the finish.  For some reason, that fact really brings home to me how long this race took.  

We learned several lessons, of course, and we will soon be gathering to debrief the race.  For now, though, we are celebrating this victory along with those who helped make it possible.  Thanks for all of your support! 


  1. So happy the race went as well as it did! Great team and crew!
    Really enjoyed reading this blog, George!
    Congratulations on a race well done!

  2. It's good you had a race like this to practice and get some kinks out. You know what you are up against and you can go over strategy ect. Congrats on a great win. Can't wait till this summer with RAAM!!

  3. Great perspective from the crew. Cant wait for RAAM. Keep digging in on the training. The payoff is just around the corner.

  4. Nice work, thanks for sharing George! It's great to hear how these things come together.

  5. wow wow wow…congrats on the race _both of you are amazing. I really need to know what sound you gals made for a mantis shrimp.