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  • Joanna Sharpe

Virtual Race Across the West....we did it!

You know how sometimes ignorance is bliss? Well in this case that's exactly the story!

The Race Across America and its shorter gritty little brother The Race Across the West are raced by the hardest and most dedicated ultra cyclists in the world in June each year. Seen as the pinnacle in Ultra cycling people train for years to get to the start line. When Covid 19 meant the race had to be cancelled a world 1st was created instead.

If we cant race this in the real world how can we use a virtual platform to still compete some lunatic called Rupert Guinness asked. There are always those trail blazers who alter our landscape and adversity brings them to the surface. Together with Revolve24, Race Across America Org and Fulgaz virtual cycling platform this idea was brought to life.

Taking the real life race course, a virtual race was created, replicating the elevation and distance of the real word race putting it together on a virtual platform competitors from around the world could compete in their own covid lock down bubbles.

Now naturally some smart alec, probably Rupert, decided we should make it even harder as we'd be competing inside in "comfort" not on the road so the the elevation was increased to a staggering 26,000m and the distance extended to 1550km to provide us with challenges similar to that of the worlds toughest race.

Starting in Borego Springs California and ending in Colorado The Race Across the West was the race I picked to take part in, shorter by 600km than my world record attempt but with ALOT more climbing I thought it best suited my training and ability at this stage so off I went, bought a "smart" indoor trainer and subscribed to the app that would allow me to take part. Now I say ignorance is bliss because Id never owned a smart trainer or done any virtual riding until I signed up for this but the idea of being part of a world first and lining up on the Virtual start line with some of my heroes was something I couldn't resist, It cant be that much harder than the world record attempt I have planned I thought and it'll keep me focused on training and give me a way to support Bowel Cancer NZ during Bowel Cancer Awareness month.

So here's how the race went for me.......

Before race day I set myself up the paincave to beat all paincaves. If I was to be in this one room for days on end it was going to be fabulous.

Jude and I revamped my bike room and decked it out with my winner jerseys, medals and all the comforts I could need. I had a TV, encase i got bored (what was I thinking!!) fans to keep the smart trainer, my iPad that id be operating the app through and myself cool. We set up an easel in front of me to house the iPad and my phone so I could look at the screen that would be my window to the world for the race without straining my neck, a factor that would become an issue after days on the bike and even set up speakers and radio for entertainment options. Now, we had the advantage of having been prepping for the Long White Ride so Jude and I also saw benefit to having a table directly alongside me that we could place nutrition and hydration on together with the walki talkies we had purchased, how cool for communication is that! and I also decided, as part of my race plan that time in the saddle was doing to be key to having a chance of being near the front of the field to we even set up a bed in the room for the duration!! With the loo right next door I was set, I thought and having done everything from downloading the app to 4 devices, having trusty Spitfire, my previous bike with his own power meter, and a non smart trainer in the garage for just in case, power banks in case of power outages (yes we live in the middle of nowhere) I felt ready for a zombie apocalypse and ready to go.

Together with Coach Dylan of Training Wheels Coaching and Craig Harper, previous RAAM finisher and LWR world record holder we had developed a strong plan for the race. I have to be honest, I wasn't considering what anyone else may or may not be doing. I am a rookie, I have little experience and my goal was to race my best race. We had decided on power numbers I was aiming to ride at and sleep times I was hoping to limit myself to. We had a tried and tested nutrition and hydration plan thanks to Hammer Nutrition and were all agreed that we would evaluate as we went and adapt where needed. We were ready.

With world time zone considerations my start time was 1am 17th June 2020. I have few skills but one is my ability to sleep anywhere at any time so following a morning of fun interviews with The Crowd Goes Wild TV show and D'arcy Waldergrave for Sports talk radio I headed to bed and got a great 8hrs sleep before being up for the start time. After checking, again, all the technology and my best mate Thunderhawk, my LIV Langma, were ready Jude and I relaxed, Skyped Mum and Dad and ate before the off.

I was so ready to start that I was fizzing when 1am came around and as Jude headed back to bed I was happy to get into a rhythm, one that i intended to hold for the 1st 10hrs or so. The course was broken down into blocks each block had a theme and replicated the terrain of our locations in America. These blocks were broken down into stages, 86 in total so basically you rode a stage and when you finished moved to the next. I had downloaded them all in advance so this was a simple process and back to peddling you went. Id worked out that a lot of time could be wasted here if we weren't careful so had practiced to make sure I knew the drill and could save seconds that would add up to minutes and hours if i wasn't attentive.

The first block was, well we'll call it undulating as compared with what was to come it was, and I was super happy there. I like climbing and I have a beautiful bike in Thunderhawk so I felt very comfortable and by the time Jude came down for breakfast, 6hrs in I was feeling good and going well, having covered off 160km. I had decided not to be a dot watcher as so much can happen and as I said I was really only focused on my own race so 8hrs in when Jude told me I was 5th overall and a long way in front of 2nd place woman I was surprised. A quick chat with coach and we decided to dial back the pace a little as with a a healthy and very surprising lead I didn't need to push myself now and could save myself for what was to be some very tough blocks and days to come.

I tried to keep moving on the bike and to use all the positions available to me to try to hold off cramp and pain as long as possible and to be honest the first day passed really happily as I enjoyed the climbing, the flats and the rhythm of the race Thunderhawk and I had established.

As I said, nothing like this had ever been done before so we were all, as competitors, winging it to a degree and one of those aspects what how much to drink. You sweat a lot more on an indoor trainer and so i drank more to compensate however after day 1 it became apparent I was drinking too much. I was peeing a lot and other than the pee stops I had to make Craig was advising me to keep aware of fluid retention. It may be I noticed too late as this became a much bigger issue as the race progressed. I was doing well on Hammer Perpetuim, Endurolytes in my bottles and supplementing that with snacks as I fancied. Jude was doing a great job of providing everything I needed which for day 1 was creamed rice and apricots. I love her for her constant support not least keeping me company in what was a freezing cave for spells. It was super to have her warm presence and lovely when she'd read me out messages from all my wonderful friends.

Heading into night 2 I was happy to have covered off over 600km and we decided that Id take my nap, as planned, 25hrs in. For me getting up at 3am is normal so a 45min nap at 2am suited me. I didn't care what everyone else may do, for me that was something I wanted to look forward to and have as a little reward. Other than pee stops I had been on the bike solidly since the start. I was into a solid climbing block having been covering 5000m elevation over 200km or so. Jude, bless her, came down to watch me sleep aka make sure I got up again and to have a cold coffee ready together with an Isagenix shake for me to have on the bike when I got up. I had decided to have a fast shower, change into fresh kit, put compression skins and socks on over the top before my nap knowing that getting up may be tough. Turns out it was, poor Jude! I was disorientated, i was stiff, cold and tired. We knew Jude would have to be directive of me from here on out and so it was no surprise to her. She got me up, gave me a hug and just moved me in the direction of the saddle. Not being a coffee lover, in fact the opposite, she couldn't use that as a motivator but my "why" is bigger than tiredness so once I remembered where I was and what we were doing i quit my meaningless protest and started back at it. Nausea was rearing a very ugly head but I was hopeful Id ride into the day. I had decided to make sure I ended a ride on a flat (there were no descents, well come to that) so I could warm up before a big climb and I was so glad I did that. It took me a good while to loosen up and luckily Id left just enough flat before the next big climbing started.

I was happy to start day 2 with a climbing block as I was still relatively fresh. As Craig Harper had told me, you are only fresh once, make the most of it so whilst my power was not what it was at the start I was happy with where my numbers were and feeling good to be able to work the climbs in comfort. It seemed I was still tracking well as Jude was telling me I was in 4th place and still had a sizable lead over the 2nd and 3rd placed women. To me this was not to be taken for granted. Ginger Howell is a professional triathlete and Sabine Bird has the 24hr world record so for me I just made the most of the moment and didn't overthink it. I knew it could change in a moment and just focused on riding my own race. Races like this, I had seen, are won or lost after day 3, it was still far to early to be thinking of anything other than riding my race.The men I was behind, Simon Potter, Phill Fox and Marko Bolla are exceptional athletes with many wins under their belts. The fact I was holding my own with them was excitement enough, no matter how long it lasted. I rode into the day well and with the messages of encouragement i was getting had a really fun day.

I found that there was a need to be very attentive to the app. The terrain changes quickly and unlike the road you are much more reactive than proactive even with the profile to follow . I found it really important to watch what was coming up, not just to ensure I didn't drop power through lack of concentration but to make sure I was selecting the right gears for the terrain ahead. Sharp steep inclines of +18% meant that quick gear changes were needed and I was really glad for Etpap electronic shifting as my hands were, mercifully, having a far easier ride than they would have on traditional shifters.

Food wise my love of creamed rice had, to put it mildly, diminished! My nutritional super-food was now turning me green to even think about and out of nowhere a burning desire for ham avo and cheese sandwiches, sans crusts, consumed me. Jude was like hold your horses lady, you've have had 3 rounds,lets see how that settles before we get stuck into 4ths eh. Probably a wise move and proof again as to why its so important to have a plan, share it with your crew and then let them take the reigns.

Further proof of this was about to hit me. Craig had given me good advice in the lead up to LWR. He advised me that once the race started that my job was simply to peddle, share feedback but let my crew be in control. Mid afternoon I started to feel pretty rough and put it down to fatigue but for the blood nose (that had started as an intermittence thing and was now permanent) and the knives in my throat. Between this and the loo roll stuck up my nose to stem the bleeding it was proving hard to breath. Jude took a look at my throat and immediately diagnosed a fairly significant tonsil infection. We were later to learn that some of the other lead men were experiencing blood noses too and we all put it down to the fans we had running to cool the equipment and us during the race. My tonsillitis seemed to have been born from the same conditions. Thankfully we had the Navy Seals of antibiotics on hand, in case of saddle sores actually but here they were needed for this other purpose. Jude quickly got me started on the course and told me no, I was fine, i was looking fine and was good to keep going. With hindsight I cant imagine how frightening this must have been for her. Its one thing to be a crew chief and make a call but as a loving wife it must have been so tough hoping she had made the right call and that I would in fact be ok and not headed for a chest infection that was spreading by the exertion. For me, the confidence that if Jude said I was fine I must be made me have no worries about keeping going. I just hoped that the knives that made me not want to talk or swallow would disappear soon and I tried to focus elsewhere. Its true that there becomes a point where so many things hurt that its only the one that shouts the loudest that gets your attention so I counted my blessings and focused on the areas I was feeling strong. My legs and feet were feeling good, my hands were fine and surprisingly my shoulders were great. As Jude went to bed I retreated to my zone focusing on what I was doing and the challenges of the terrain. I must have done such a good job of this that at about 9pm I realized I had actually fallen asleep whilst peddling! There was a long climb, not too steep at about 8% and I had got myself into a groove as to power and cadence. I put my head on my hands and next thing I knew I was approaching the top of the climb with my average power having remained constant to within 2 watts of where I had started! How crazy is that, not something I could do during the LWR but a pretty cool trick, if I could replicate it hahaha.

A few things I noticed overnight caught me as funny. As I mentioned I didn't watch TV, I liked to be focused on the ride but I did have the radio on alternating between stations and talk back. Firstly, how many times an hour do people really want to listen to Harry Styles "Watermelon Sugar" and Justin Beiber???? Secondly, have you ever listened to talk-back at 3am??? No??? You should, there's a whole world out there, a parallel universe you could say, of people with interests in things like "how one ruler (the thing you measure with not leaders of nations) differs from another and the merits of a custard cream over a Bourbon biscuit. Fascinatingly bizarre. It also became clear to me that I had lost the differentiation between night and day as I was staring at a screen where all the rides were filmed in daylight. This was pretty cool to be honest and felt like it would being in a casino with fluro lights on 24/7 you just loose track of time.

I had hoped to ride through until about 7am to prevent Jude from having to be up in the night but by 3am I really felt like I needed a nap, my power was dropping and my throat was driving me crazy. 45mins sleep seems like nothing but for me its the sweet spot that gives me a quick recovery but isnt so long I fall into a deep sleep.

It was actually easier to get up this time, although it felt like about 2mins had passed. I was a little disorientated but Jude had an Isagenix shake ready for me to have on the bike and I got rolling again. My bum was more than a little tender by now but it really is a matter of just doing what you have to do to get by. As uncomfortable as I was I fell into a rhythm and remained focused on the moment, not getting caught up on how many more blocks or stages I had to go.

By this stage people were beginning to message me things like your in 4th!!! Youve got a 100km lead on 2nd woman but it still seemed far to early to me to get excited. My love of ham and avo had been and gone and it was now a matter of just eating and drinking whatever I could. This is why I love Hammer Nutrition. Sipping a small amount per hour gives the nutrients you need to perform and I knew that as long as I stuck with that Id be ok even if I couldn't manage anything else. Jude was of the mindset that come day 3 we would just adapt as we needed to, it was still a learning curve for LWR after all, our main goal, and she kept making sure I was hydrated and had whatever I could manage. Thank goodness for Calipo mini ice blocks, Isagenix and Coke as those things certainly perked me up throughout the day, its fair to say I was entering unknown territory here and finding it challenging.

Some things that I think we didn't expect in this race were the effects on the body of being on a stationary bike for so long. Lets take aside the fact that nobody knew if you could run a Wahoo smart trainer for 3-4 days non stop without it overheating. How would an iPad manage driving an app non stop and could the app cope with all the demands. What about the body with none of the little micro movements that we all take for granted when we ride on the road, those movements that keep us from getting stiff. How about the bikes with the dramatic gearing changes and challenges of reactive gear changing as opposed to proactive shifting.

I can say that yes I did keep fans on all the equipment all the time but I had not one single issue with the smart trainer. it was the same at the end as at the start, the beauty of top end equipment. The app was flawless, not one hiccup, stall or splutter. Thanks to Revolve 24 and VRAAM organisation we not only had weigh-ins before hand to make sure nobody could cheat on weight, other parameters were locked in in advance to prevent other matrix being altered to cheat, we were also pinging power and distance data to Fulgaz app every 30sec to make sure we were not cheating here, and to allow people to follow us. It was incredible to know that we were all racing on a level playing field and all working our best for whatever result we earned. The body was getting a beating though. By early on day 3 everything was hurting. Its hard to describe really as it was so intense and immense that I cant pinpoint a single area really. I had started to retain water badly, as I talked about over hydrating on day 1. I now had to wear kit a size larger, I couldn't wear socks only trainer liners as they were cutting off the circulation in my legs. I had lost the feeling in my toes and I had actually stopped breathing heavily as my body had simply decided we lived here now and that it may as well resign itself to a life of exertion. Luckily my tonsillitis was under control at last and whilst the nose bleeds remained I could breath through my throat easier. As we moved into the evening I started to experience a lot of dejavu which I know is the precursor to hallucinations. Id been told by Craig to expect such a change and so wasn't concerned but it was odd, I was convinced Id heard what was on the radio before and whilst this was certainly the case with Harry Styles and Justin Beiber Im pretty sure I couldn't have predicted the score in the Warriors game of Rugby! (although fans would say there loosing streak is so prolific maybe I could have lol)

Going into my final night I knew that I was facing the largest climbing block before a flat block to the finish. To explain, the race required us to climb the equivalent of Mt Everest 3 times. In order to create this amount of climbing over the distance the descents were clipped. What I mean is a stage may entail a 20km climb. That climb may give us 500m elevation. When, in the real world, you crest the climb you descent but here that was where the stage stopped, to then start a new stage with a new climb and rinse and repeat. I didn't mind this, I like climbing and feel its only as hard as how fast you try to ride it but there becomes a point when tacking 18% on very tired legs you almost stop. I cant say I've ever climbed so slowly but I kept telling myself that there was bound to be someone doing it harder so just keep going. It was a blessing and a curse being in the lead as lots of my very enthusiastic friends and family were cheering so loud by now I could almost hear them but with those behind me on flatter stages (I say this relatively speaking) I was getting a lot of messages telling me people were gaining on me. Now as I said I was honestly just focused on being the best I could be and knew that those other riders still had those stages to come but I think it did cause some angst for some of my friends who were like, whats wrong with her, the others are going so much faster hahaha.

At some point in the evening, when I had just started this particularly challenging block I got a message from the event organisation telling me that Marko Boll, a true legend of RAAM had pulled out. Marko has the Race Across the West record and is a multiply RAAM finisher. The news was both sad and humbling. He was tacking the same block I was currently on and I knew therefore that I was going to have to dig deep. He would not have pulled out lightly and would have given it his total all. I took no pleasure from the fact Id moved into 3rd place. I felt disappointed for the great man and was hoping he was ok. The toll this was taking on my body was now beyond what I had imagined and i was concerned he was going to be ok. My dejavu was getting greater and I had started talking to my dressing gown! Ok so its grey and fluffy but its no Greyhound, still we had some good chats and given the quality of night time radio was a pleasant addition to the evening routine. I was convinced someone was coming into the room behind me all the time and kept turning to check but the good thing is that Id become very aware earlier in the day that I could no longer be trusted to make good choices for myself so was simply following Judes instructions about when to eat and drink and trying to get off the bike as little as possible in her absence. This was a) because i had no balance left b) unclipping from the pedals was purgatory and c) I didn't think I could be trusted to stay awake whilst on the loo!

I thank goodness for friends with insomnia and also coach Dylan who I think has become the king pin dot watcher. They kept me perked up with messages and encouragement. Anyone who knows Dylan knows that you have to work really hard to get a well done. I txt him in the night....I better get a well done for this coach its really hard. His response....well you better hurry up and finish then hahaha. That was enough for me. When RAAM radio asked me how I was feeling, I was in 3rd overall, had a sizable lead as 1st woman and that Marko had pulled out my reply was....Don't worry, I aint quitting. I was gonna get that well done if it killed me!!

So at 3am I took my 3rd and final nap. I had thought of riding through but as this hilly block was taking me a lot longer than I had expected and my power was dropping i felt it was best to take a rest. Fresh kit certainly makes a difference and with a brush of the teeth Jude was on hand to help me hobble back to the bike. It really was physically hard now to move. I honestly thought I had broken myself the pain was so intense and deep.The good thing about quitting not being an option is that you just do what you have to do. Jude and I had decided that, as with the LWR, I wouldn't stop unless an actual medical emergency demanded it. No stopping cos your sore, or tired or its hard its not an option, so together we just kept going, well me physically and Jude sending my all the love and encouragement she had within her. She told me I was fine, that I could do this and just needed to keep going and not focus on anything other than finishing. For the second time she made a call. Shes an incredible wife to stand by me even when what she was seeing in front of her must have been so hard.

I knew I was on the home stretch now and that i just had to do whatever it took to keep moving. Thankfully I had a strong lead, which continued to surprise me, and the two guys in front, Simon and Phill must, I thought, be digging deep too so I just focused on one peddle stroke at a time and keeping on keeping on. I liked all the stages and each block as they all gave a different challenge. Heading into the last block that was flat was certainly a change from what the past 3 days had been like. I've not been to many places in America so I have to say it was hard for me to envisage how far id traveled but I was enjoying the scenery on Fulgaz and I was pretty sure Thunderhawk would like sitting in one gear for more than 2 minutes. We had changed gear so many times that even my newly charged SRAM batteries had had to be recharged on day two (yes I rode the entire Iron Man Kona course in a single gear whilst they charged!) so I was glad to think that the pressure was off his poor derailer for a while. Peddling on the flat was actually quite a challenge I found as you couldn't stop peddling due to the nature of the virtual race or you would stop so really it was like being on a hill for my tired legs. I settled for a pitiful 2 watts per kg and just held that remind myself that slow was better than stop.

I knew that I would be caught by Tucker who was sitting behind me in 4th place and was content. He was one hell of a rider, hat off to him. I had nothing left to throw at the race, Id ridden my best and felt like I had paced myself as well as any rookie could so I continued to focus on riding my best race and doing whatever it took to keep going. This mainly entailed drinking a fair bit of coke, keeping up the Hammer Perpetuim and not getting off to pee until I absolutely had to. The pain was all consuming by the last 4 hrs and I was not my usual chirpy self for a while. The wonderful Ohio RAAM show, hosted by Lee, had a super idea to live stream my last 20km and thought it would be fun to talk about the race, take questions and have a chat. I thought so too so with a swig of coke to perk me up we got technology working to stream to all my friends and family together with my new friends made through RAAM. Jude can take all the credit for this because I certainly wasn't in any state to set things up but we got there. Positioned on the easel in front of me, Ive looked back on this interview and am so amazed by how alive and in control I look. Its incredible where we can galvanise strength from I think. It was s such a pleasure to chat with Lee and to hear comments from so many lovely people wishing me well as we came into the finish. One wonderful man even had cow bells ringing for me when we crossed the virtual finish line in Colorado. Those last few km were ridden in a haze. I was overwhelmed with pride that my Mum and Dad could see me finish and also so proud of Jude, Dylan and I that we had achieved what we did. 3 days 13hrs and 11mins......Thats how long it took me to finish this adventure and to earn 1st woman and 4th overall. Jude and I have a thing, I cant stop until she tells me i can stop peddling now. Fair to say Ive never been happier to hear her say those words. I was not all too enthusiastic to see any more of Colorado or anywhere else in America just now. My dressing gown (or dog Ash depending on how you see it now) was thrown on and from then things were different. Thats a blog for next week but for now this is the end of my race.

To Training Wheel Coaching - Dylan, Evo Cycles, Especially the Pukekohe crew, Liv Cycling, Hammer Nutrition, Tootkit and all my wonderful friends thankyou so much for helping me on this journey. I honestly have the easy part, the glory job - the peddling. All the hard work is done for me in the preparation and behind the scenes. Jude is the quiet calm and wise influence and my biggest cheerleader and with her Id never have even contemplated this. Thank you all of you.

If you feel inspired by my adventure, please take a moment to look at more information about Bowel Cancer. Bowel Cancer NZ have links on this website and my biggest goal is to spread awareness for this horrid cancer. It takes so many lives due to the lack of awareness of signs and symptoms both by us and Drs. If one life can be saved by improving awareness any of the temporary pain I suffered will be worth it. This cancer need not be terminal so please learn a bit more and share with your family and friends.

For now its over and out, next week, if its not too raw still Ill fill you in on what its like when you have finished this great race, spoiler.....its not wonderful hahaha

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