Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fireweed Race Across Alaska, Great Alaska Double Century - Race Review

A 200-mile cycling relay race that crosses two Alaskan mountain ranges and three climate zones may not seem like the typical starter race for four novice women, but, then again, when three of them are staring middle-age in the face, there’s not a lot of time to waste working up to something notable.  You might as well just jump into the deep end.
Staged bikes

That’s what two of my sisters, Saree Timmons and Paige Van Wie, my 18-year old niece, Beth, and I may have been thinking when we decided to form a four-person team for the Great Alaska Double Century, a division of the Fireweed Race Across Alaska series, in 2010.  Actually, Saree gets credit for introducing the idea sometime around the time we were training for her first-ever-race-of-any-kind, the 25K cross-country skiing Tour of Anchorage, a few months earlier.  At that time, we thought we’d ride the course on mountain bikes (indicating just how green we really were).  That idea disintegrated when we did the math and realized that at our mountain biking speeds of around 10 mph, we’d be crossing the finish line in the vicinity of 20 hours.  We entirely reworked our racing strategy and soon all four of us were buying or recycling new or new-used road bikes.  With only eight weeks until race day, we were not only trying to get into shape to ride fifty miles each through mountainous terrain, we were also learning to ride fast, light weight road bikes, figuring out how to clip in and out of the racing pedals, and mastering the art of pumping up and changing the high pressure Presta tubes used on skinny-tire bikes.

The race takes place in early July when its namesake flower, the ecstatically vibrant purple fireweed, is blooming in vast carpets across Alaska.  A relatively new race that launched in 2003 with the flagship 400-mile solo race (a qualifier for the Race Across America), the Fireweed has grown to include divisions for mountain and tandem bikes and 50-, 100-, and 200-mile races. 

The race course couldn’t be more scenic.  The portions of the Glenn and Richardson Highways traveled during the Fireweed are Federal and State Scenic Byways.  Sheep Mountain Lodge, location of the official starting line, sits under red and green eroded mountain slopes where Dall sheep are frequently seen.  From the Glenn Highway, views south into the Chugach Mountains are spectacular, with the Nelchina Glacier flowing out of its valley.  Mount Drum rises majestically as riders head into Glennallen and then, upon turning south, the views become increasingly dramatic.  By the time racers reach Thompson Pass, mountains enclose the highway and, even in marginal weather, rugged peaks and glaciers loom everywhere. 

Considering its youth, the complexity of managing 750 riders and summertime highway traffic over these distances, and the fact that new features and options are still being added each year, the logistics were surprisingly organized.  The website (redesigned in 2011) provided ample information, registration was seamless, and those of our team who attended the required pre-race safety meeting felt informed and prepared for the event.  Aid stations appeared to be well stocked with food and water.  I tend to judge races by the free goodies and the Fireweed did not disappoint.  At the welcoming check-in station the night before the race, we picked up packets that contained lots of rules, yellow safety signs for our support rigs, numbers for our bikes (our team was, ironically, assigned 911), power gel, high quality t-shirts, discount coupons for REI, and logo water bottles.

Safety is a real issue for race organizers and participants.  In 2009, a cyclist died when he fell off his bike and hit a steel guard rail post.  In previous years, as a passing motorist, I have seen vehicles drive perilously close to cyclists at high speeds and I’ve seen cars and RVs with their impatient drivers backed up trying to get around cyclists.  The roads are all two lane rural highways with a handful of passing lanes.  For the most part, the highway features wide shoulders with rumble strips and race officials encourage riders to use these shoulders.  However, many cyclists opt to ride on the inside of the white lines, where the surface is smoother and less likely to hold gravel. 

My teammates and I found traffic to be manageable in the 2010 event.  We elected to take an early start, putting us on the road at 6:00 am, well before normal traffic, thus avoiding the congested and hectic mass start.  There were no more than thirty riders in our early wave and within the first half hour we were well spaced along the roadway.

The course begins on an uphill to Eureka Pass summit.  It’s not a particularly steep climb, but there’s no question it provides a very quick warm up.  Relay racers need to plan for the first hand-off to be seven miles up at the first legal pull off for vehicles.

Saree and Bernie unload a bike for
the next relay whie Beth hydrates.

The typical relay strategy, which we adopted, is to rotate riders approximately every 10 to 15 minutes, thus keeping overall cycling speeds as high as possible.  The relay hand-off is not a casual affair.  The goal is to lose no time as the arriving rider hands off to the departing rider.  Paige, Saree, Beth and I quickly got into the swing of the frantic relay sequence.  We’d drive the truck ahead and begin looking immediately for a suitable pull-off, putting the truck in park when situated.  The passenger and fresh rider would hop out and unstrap the next bike.  Then, the rider would buckle their helmet, pull on gloves and mount up.  When the approaching rider was within earshot, the departing rider would clip in and start pedaling.  Once the exchange was made, the arriving rider and passenger muscled the retiring bike onto the rack, jumped back in the cab, and the driver would hit the road (looking carefully behind for other riders and vehicles).  While driving, we’d guzzle water, eat cinnamon bread and bananas and get ready for the next relay. 

To make the relay even trickier, race rules only allow support vehicles to pull off on the right side of the road and they must pull clearly off the shoulder so that an opening driver’s side door won’t wipe out passing cyclists.  This limits options for exchanges.  In some areas, pull offs are few and far between and, at times, already filled with SUVs and pickups carrying teams and bikes. Because of the unpredictable space available at pull-offs, on several sections, one teammate or another had to take a much longer pull than normal.

Facilities along the route are scarce, but adequate supplies and gas are available in Glennallen (about half way).  Race organizers provide strategically placed aid stations along the way.  Though we didn’t take advantage of the aid stations, they all appeared to be well staffed and stocked with plenty of food and water.  Prior to the race, my three teammates and I had visions of taking side trips to the Fishing Widow in Copper Center for lattes, lounging at pull-offs, writing entries in our journals, and chatting with our support teams (our parents and my brother-in-law).  Instead, conversations amongst us were limited to hurried plans for our next stop and rapidly throwing bikes in and out of the truck.  My parents, Ralph and Joy Gregory, who were driving their Toyota, and my brother-in-law, Bernie Van Wie, driving a Subaru, darted in and out of traffic, helping with logistics, and taking action photographs.

We found the first half of the race to go much quicker than expected.  From Sheep Mountain to Glennallen, there was substantial flat land, smooth surfaces, and significant miles of down hills.  Once we turned south from Glennallen, though, a perpetual headwind hammered us from the coast and the road climbed steadily uphill all the way to Thompson Pass.  We slowed down considerably after leaving Glennallen and even more so once we passed Tiekel Lodge at milepost 56.  Here, the wind picked up forcefully and the sky produced chilly rain squalls.  Saree, Paige, Beth and I all had plenty of clothing and were constantly in and out of layers.  One minute it was cold and raining, necessitating rain jacket and long pants, and the next relay it was sunny, prompting a change to t-shirts and shorts.  We had sunscreen and sunglasses along with wool gloves and fleece blankets and used them all. 

Beth summits Thompson Pass
Beth took the last hill of the ride, summiting Thompson Pass in the late evening while the skies took a momentary break from raining.  Here, we made one of only two stops for group photographs and then, once we’d snapped our pictures, Saree and Beth sped 8 miles from the 2,678’ summit to sea level in a glorious whoosh of yellow raingear.  At the bottom of the pass the sun burst through the clouds, and I (unwisely) shed my layers and took the next pull.  Within five minutes, as I pedaled into Keystone Canyon, the clouds socked in and pouring rain drenched me to the skin.  By the time Paige took over for the next leg, I was soaking wet and freezing.

When we reached the final pull-off six miles from the finish line, the four of us piled out of the truck, bundled into our fleece jackets, hats, and gloves to stave off the chilling wind, and headed out single file in a tight pace line.  At nearly 9:00 pm, we reached the Valdez Duck Flats where gray seagulls cried and dove at the ocean’s surface and sodden grasses swayed as we pedaled by, quietly and synchronized.  The finish line came into view:  a balloon archway, timekeepers, a volunteer guiding us in.  Fourteen hours and fifty-three minutes after starting the race, we rode across the finish line, exhausted and elated.

Later, we heard that racers behind us had encountered the same storm that soaked me in Keystone Canyon.  At 2,678’ elevation on Thompson Pass, the storm produced snow and sleet and some riders, near hypothermic, bailed off the course.  We also heard that the stiff headwind along the last half of the course had throttled the enthusiasm of some teams, causing them to scratch.  On Sunday morning after the race, over a celebratory brunch, our two teams and support groups reveled each other with stories from the event, compared notes, and discussed sore muscles.  Our stories took on a universal theme:  we had toughed it out – elusive pull-offs, broken pavement, rain, headwinds, and never-ending uphill grades – and, to a person, would never regret taking on the Race Across Alaska.

Lodging:  Many riders drive in from Anchorage on the morning of the race.  However, it makes for a more relaxed start to drive in the night before.  As the starting line, Sheep Mountain Lodge gets booked almost as soon as race day is announced.  As an alternative, try the comfortable and clean Slide Mountain Cabins, an easy 15 minute drive from Sheep Mountain.  For our party (consisting of two teams of four people each plus three family members driving support vehicles), we rented three cabins, two of which had small kitchenettes and bathrooms. 

Take a Tour:  If the idea of racing doesn’t attract you, Fireweed organizers have added a 200-mile (300K) tour dubbed the Great Alaska 2Day300K.  This ride starts on Friday.  Cyclists overnight at the Tonsina Lodge (camping or cabins available), are treated to a hosted breakfast on Saturday morning, then mount up for a 74-mile ride on Saturday along what is arguably the most beautiful section of the course.  If you start early on Saturday, you’ll be waving to 400-milers on their way back to Sheep Mountain and you’ll have the road to yourself almost all the way in to Valdez.

Training Plan:  The race course is challenging with numerous long up hills.  Our team used training plans for riding a half-century (50-miles).  Even though relay riders are on and off their bikes every fifteen minutes or so, training for that distance will give you the time in the saddle necessary to complete the ride.

Race Times:  The course closes on Saturday at midnight.  That means all riders must have crossed the finish line by then, otherwise, you’ll be forced off the course.  Additionally, all riders must be past Tiekel Lodge by 9:00 pm or you won’t be allowed to continue.  If you have any concern about meeting these times, take the early start time.  This gives you a two-hour headstart.

Rules and Safety:  Pay attention to all the rules provided by race organizers.   The precautions and regulations are clearly based on experiences managing the race over the past eight years.  See official race website

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