Some women prefer to go shopping, others to a SPA, but I like to go on long bike rides. Therefore a twelve hour bike race sounded wonderful, and I signed up for Bike Sebring without really knowing what to expect.
This is how it works: you start at 6:30AM and ride three loops around the Sebring racetrack. Next you head out and back for 89 miles and return to the racetrack with 100 miles down. Then you ride on an 11-mile loop as many times as possible until time runs out. Whoever rides the most miles, wins.
It was going to be cold which made packing easy … I had to take everything I had to try and keep warm. I also had to run to the store and buy more winter weather gear.
I drove up with my friend Stephanie for an untraditional girls weekend. We got to the Chateau Elan Hotel on Friday night. It’s not what you expect; it’s neither a Chateau nor a really tacky place pretending to be a Chateau in the middle of central Florida. If you are going to do Sebring, spare yourself the extra trouble and just stay there.
The hotel lobby was filled with very fit looking men; I barely saw any women. I looked at Stephanie and we immediately realized we were completely out of our league. Bike Sebring is also a RAAM Qualifier – that is, cyclists race 24 hours alone to qualify for the Race Across America, deemed by some as the toughest race on the planet. I didn’t let any of it really bother me, my attention was turned to the freezing cold weather.
The next day, we were told to park our car with whatever supplies we needed on the grass in the “pit.” I still wasn’t sure about the details because the instructions assume you’ve been there before. Yet everyone was friendly, and helpful to the ambiguous level they could be. Or maybe I was just too nervous to understand what they were saying.
Since Stephanie and I are at different paces we said our goodbyes as we headed to the start line; I was surprised there were so few competitors. At exactly 6:30AM, Valentines Day morning, I started riding at the back of the pack.
It was dark and freezing cold. My feet immediately went numb, and the thought of “WTF am I doing here” crossed my mind within the first five minutes. I met up with Sheryl, a woman in her sixties doing the twelve-hour race which was on her bucket list. Since drafting is legal, we decided to ride together and take turns pulling.
It’s pretty cool to ride inside the racetrack. As the sun came out, you could see the black tire marks on the pavement and the turns that test a driver’s ability. I thought my kids would’ve gotten a kick out of that.
As we headed out to the 89 mile loop, we met up with another rider, Jarred from Texas. I thought: “this is great! We go picking people up along the way to form a pace line. This will be fun.” Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Sheryl fell back while Jarred sped ahead. I was on my own.
And it was perfect. Though my feet were frozen, everything else was fine. The sun began to shine and the ride was gorgeous through orange groves. There were some gentle hills that lasted forever, with a few shorter and higher inclinations but nothing difficult or unmanageable. It was the terrain I love to ride but seldom do. I couldn’t be happier.
There were barely any cars, and every once in a while you would meet up with a rider along the way. Though drafting is legal for the twelve hour, everyone did their own thing. I would mostly pass, with all due respect, older people. I was surprised at how many grey haired cyclists where out there and thought “when I grow up I want to be like them.” There’s hope.
I was accomplishing what I came to do. I wanted to ENJOY the ride without stressing myself out about competing, without exerting pressure on my psyche, to fall in love with this stuff again. And I am pretty sure I smiled the entire time.
Until I hit mile ninety. It was a busy road, with lots of traffic, and the shoulder where we had to ride had rumble strips. The choice was to either go through them or scoot into the road and into traffic. Admittedly I am a wuss, but this did not seem safe to me at all. And if I don’t do this in Miami, I certainly didn’t want to be riding along speeding cars in Sebring. All the wonderful feelings of riding disappeared as cars literally flew by me. At one point, I had to cross a short bridge with no shoulder, and a truck honked at me from behind. In these situations, there is safety in numbers, but I was on my own and facing a headwind to make things that much more miserable.
In the distance, I saw bikes getting back on the road from the raceway. I realized that I was approaching the turn to finish the long loop, but would be getting back on this road as part of the short loop. That was discouraging.
I made it into the raceway and finally it made sense to me. You rode along the pit with cars lined up on your left, then came a u turn over a timing mat, and you rode back out onto the short loop passing by the pit lined with parked cars, tents and people.
A word to any crew people reading this: YOU ARE SAINTS. I didn’t go with a crew, and I am not sure I would put my family through that. You guys sat there, waiting for your cyclists to come and bark orders. One guy in front of me yelled at his crew as he cycled towards the timing mat “protein bar and HEED.” This was not a RAAM qualifying super athlete, it was an older guy. It shocked me that he was so bossy; no “please, thank you, or hi.” And his crew had his stuff ready for him as he approached from the U-Turn. They gathered around massaging his neck and rubbing something on his legs. As much as I love my athlete friends, I’m not sure I could put up with that.
I headed out onto the eleven mile short loop with 102 miles on my Garmin, still as happy as I could be. You head South on that crazy road for a mile or two, then turn to ride along a lake, an orange grove, go up a steep short hill, and fly back with tailwind into the speedway. At 112 miles I thought “at least I don’t have to run a marathon now.” I had gone the distance I ride at Ironman.
The nice thing about the short loop is that you see many other cyclists and get looped by the RAAM qualifying beasts. On the long loop, you could go for miles on your own.
And then it came. My wall. I felt tired, and was no longer having fun.
The body achieves what the mind believes
I know how to get over the wall and continue on. I am trained to do that. But my thought was “Why?”
As I wrote here, I’ve been in a funk and my Doctor recommended I dial things back a notch and do things I enjoy for the sake of enjoying them; not to prove to myself, or anyone else, that I am capable. It was Valentines Day and my family was home while I was going to spend the night at a hotel in Sebring.
I was at a crucial point. If I went another loop I would be at 125 miles – further than I have ever ridden in one day. The couple of times I got to 120 miles I was not alone so this would really be a personal best and I wanted it. I took some reviving salt pills and headed out for another loop.
On that one, I realized that if I stopped at 125 miles it would still be early enough to make it home for dinner. If I went for a third loop, I’d probably miss my window to make it home so I might as well do the twelve hours. I had a choice to make.
Completing the race would give me bragging rights and a higher number of miles to add to my personal record. But I couldn’t see how that would be make a happier, healthier or better, individual.
Until that point I had an amazing day. Why not finish on a high note, where I got a personal best and still made it home for dinner. Wouldn’t that be balance?
Stephanie had finished the century with a hurt knee and since it was her wedding anniversary, she was okay with leaving.
As we drove out, we saw cyclists on the short loop. I second-guessed myself a couple of times but quickly got over it when Joe and the boys seemed happy I was coming home.
I checked the results and Sheryl finished her twelve hours. I couldn’t be happier for her, and as I snuggled on the couch with my family watching Shane for the millionth time, I couldn’t be happier for myself too.
I would absolutely do Bike Sebring again … but in a group. It gets lonely out there, and a group would be able to keep a good solid pace. The Rotary Club organizes the race and they do a great job. The price is right, the distance is close, and if you like riding … I wouldn’t hesitate a single second to tell you to go for it.