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