It's All About Limits

By Marv Tortoise Fields, 2001 60+ recumbent entrant

I came to the sport of Ultra Marathon Cycling late. My first double was finished on my sixtieth birthday. Even though I had loved bicycles my entire life, I had never done any organized cycling. My major experience in the last twenty years was two long, progressive, self-supported tours that each covered nine thousand miles and multiple years. The first tour ended with a trip back from the east coast to the west coast the year I turned fifty. That seemed like a good time to end all this crazy wandering around the country and get back to saner things. But after three years of no riding and putting back on all the weight I had so painfully lost, I got the urge to do it again. My first trip had not exceeded the limit of what was possible.

For this new adventure a new bike was necessary. I had seen and heard about these funny looking bikes that you rode with your feet out in front and they seemed just the right ticket. I bought one sight unseen from a magazine and fell in love with it. After six months of riding, I started to plan another tour, not on this bike, but a similar one more suited to traveling the open road. The plan was to follow the same system that worked so well for my first tour where after ten days to two weeks of riding, the bike would be stored at the end point of that leg to wait my next effort six months to a year later. My second tour ended in Fairbanks, Alaska, after eight years and nine thousand miles. Another limit had been reached. In this case it was the end of the road. So the bike was boxed up and sent home.

Half way through this second tour I became acquainted with Tim Skipper and learned about his various RAAM teams. He told me that crazy people actually went out in the desert on the weekend and rode two hundred miles in a single day because they thought it was fun. I could do that. Or could I? Was that beyond my limit? Even though I was riding a lot, I was still way over weight. It seems I was gaining and loosing the same twenty-five pounds each year when it was time to do another leg of the tour. It was time to get serious about loosing weight, so I started a yearlong program to loose fifty pounds.

After six years of riding recumbent bikes I began to wonder what the limits on the design were and what my limits on a recumbent were. As I was scouting the field for a better, more efficient design to test my limits I came across recumbent trikes. What a great idea. Every article out there said in spite of their compromises, they were a whole lot of fun to ride. I had to find out, so I searched out the best design and fell in love with it as soon as I tried it. What had started to become a chore, was now fun again. A lot of fun. But could I do a double century on a trike? My first double was a disaster. Tim told me to work up to it slower, but when you're already pressing the age limit, you become convinced that you have to hurry. DNF. Back to square one. Maybe I was trying to go beyond my limit.

Tim had seen the trike and was looking for a new way to do RAAM. Much to my surprise, he convinced the trike manufacturer in Australia to sponsor a RAAM team by providing four trikes and the plans for a full fairing we could make ourselves. Knowing very little about what we were doing, we set out to push the trike design to its limit. It was during the eight months it took to organize the team effort, I met John Williams and Barkley Brown. I knew a little about John's accomplishments from various articles on the internet and had followed Barkley's first attempt at the 508. The trike team was a success but we all knew we hadn't reached the limit for the trike-fairing combination. Unfortunately, there was not the desire or the resources to hold the team together for another try the next year when we would have had more time and more experience to push the limit further. That would have to be left for someone else to do.

During the RAAM adventure, and it was surely that, I became convinced that the trike had a lot of advantages that could allow a person who otherwise couldn't compete in RAAM to ride in the race. A person like me. Was that beyond my limit? Probably. But how was I going to find out? After my first double century disaster, I had gone on to finish on my trike in the next fifteen I tried, in about eighteen months. I was riding a lot, but I knew from the experiences of other riders it wasn't enough to finish the Furnace Creek 508. To get a first hand look at what I would be getting myself into, I crewed for John Williams on his year 2000 race. What a tremendous effort. What a tremendous race. Barkley Brown and Ron Bobb both finished on recumbents. I knew I wasn't in a class with these guys. I had seen Barkley ride in RAAM and had ridden with Ron on several doubles and knew he was much stronger than I was. But I had a year to prepare. How much could I close that gap in a year? Or was I already at my limit? I had to find out.

The margin was thin. It takes 10.75 mph average to finish the race within the time limit. I was in that range for hard doubles, but I knew that I needed significant improvement from three areas. First, I started a training program that would press my limits for an entire year. In the second area, I needed to gain time riding fully supported. This would be new for me but I knew there would be some improvement there. I started to work on assembling a crew. John had made the mistake of offering to crew for me after his ride if I were actually going to try this thing. Tim came onboard and I had the experienced half of the crew. I talked my daughter, Kathy, and her husband, Garrett, into filling out the roster without telling them exactly what they were getting themselves in for. It was going to take two vans and two shifts of crewmembers to do this right because it would take all forty-eight hours for me to finish. The third area that needed improvement was my trike.

I decided to tap into Zach Kaplan's encyclopedic knowledge of all things recumbent for the technical information I needed to order a new trike. When I contacted him, he already knew that Greenspeed, the trike builder in Australia, was undertaking a weight saving program on the model trike I owned which was the model I wanted to use for the race. Zach worked with Greenspeed on the weight improvements they had in mind and some of his own. It was estimated they could come in with a twenty-five pound trike. It was a go. The finished product was thirty pounds, but the additional weight was mainly components I insisted on to give me the gear ratios that were going to be needed to allow me to get up all those hills. It took six months to get the machine, but it was worth it and there was still time to fine-tune it and get me adapted to it.

Everything came together in a slow rush on the morning of the race and we were off up the canyon. Since the first part of the race was the first major climb, I knew that I would be one of the last over the first summit. My challenge was to keep from going too hard early at the expense of the legs later on. Very soon we were blasting down the hill onto the desert floor. All the weather reports indicated that we could expect a wind from the northeast, which was the worst possible direction. However, the best I could tell, there was no wind at all in the morning and very little the whole first day. That was one big potential problem sidestepped. We arrived at TS#1 a little late but right on my planned average speed. Things were going well.

Going up the Randsburg climb, the heat and the fatigue started to affect me for the first time. My nutrition plan was working well but I started to get cramps in both legs during this climb. With some help from the crew and a slower pace I was able to get into Randsburg. On to the next problem which wasn't very far down the road. As I turned off Highway 395 toward Trona, I got my eyeballs shaken out of their sockets. The trike is very stiff and didn't take well to the scarified road surface that we found there and would have for five miles or so. Conditions got much better when we deflated the tires to help take care of the rough road. It was on into Trona and TS#2 where I was surprised to find out that we hadn't lost any more time. The margin was thin but it had been thin right from the start. We were still in it.

The real challenge, of course, was on the third leg to Furnace Creek. After spending what I thought was way too much energy getting over the Trona Bump, we were on our way to Townes Pass, in my mind, the most immediate obstacle to finishing this race. On the way down Panamint road, I experienced the first real fatigue of the race. This was way too early to be this tired. The crew came to the rescue again. We stopped for a longer rest to let the legs recover. The nutrition plan and the hydration plan had worked well, but I was falling behind, so John recommended some changes to what I was eating and drinking and after a total of about fifteen minutes, we were off again. The legs felt better again. There was still life there. We were still in it.

We stopped again at the bottom of Townes Pass and used the same routine. By the time we started up the Pass, my legs were feeling good again. By the time I passed the 2000-foot marker we had developed a routine that was used all the way to the top. I would stop and stay on the trike while the crew would bring me some Hammer-Gel and some cold water. After a two-minute stop, it was off again for the next leg. I think we stopped ten times getting to the top, but I was getting stronger as we went up the hill. I knew after the 4000 ft marker that I was going to make it over and that was an enormous relief.

The only thing I can say about going down Townes Pass on a trike in the middle of the night was that it was worth the price of admission all by itself. I had ridden down the Pass once during training to get the feel for what it was like, but that was during the day and I had ridden fifty miles to get there, not the 200 miles this time. The speed, the wind, and the black quiet night made for an experience I'll never forget.

On to Furnace Creek and TS#3. To my utter amazement, we had not lost any more time on that leg. I had built in extra time because I knew I would need extra time. We were still in it. The margin was still thin, but we had enough time on the plan to finish. We even passed someone. Thunder Hawk was resting in his van as we passed. My congratulations to him for finishing from that position and that time. It was a great job that took extraordinary effort.

The irony of my race was that it was on the easy leg from Furnace Creek to Jubilee Pass, the leg where I had planned to recover from the night's work and maybe make up some time, that I started to realize how exhausted I was. I decided to stop at Badwater and pull another miracle recovery, but this wasn't the cool of the night. The heat was already starting and the second wind wasn't there. As I rode through the small rollers past Badwater, I realized that I was barely making it up each of the hills. There's one particularly nasty looking small grade before Ashford Mills that I recognized from previous rides. My van was at the top of the hill waiting for me. I had learned that the hill was not as bad as it looks so I didn't think too much about it. However, half way up the hill I discovered that I was in low gear and barely making any headway. I realized then that out here in Death Valley, on this beautiful Sunday morning, at mile 281 of the greatest bicycle race that I was ever going to participate in, I had reached the limit I had been searching for. It was pure and simple. I was exhausted and unable to continue. Nothing had gone wrong the entire race. I would never have to wonder what might have been different if this or that had not happened. I had taken my body and my trike as far as it could go. I had found the limit.

In the end I had lost my quest to finish the Furnace Creek 508. But I had gained much more. Because of the process of finding my limit, at the age of 62, I am in the best physical condition of my life. I can now participate in this sport at the level I'm capable of for as many years as I'm able to and never have to wonder if I stopped short of my limit. I can also crew for others who are looking for their limit and maybe add a perspective that others can't.

A special thank to all the people I mentioned in this report. They all helped me in different ways leading up to the race and during the race. Thanks to Chris Kostman and crew for putting on a great event where the ordinary riders can participate along with the elite of the sport. And thanks especially to my wife, Susie, who had concerns about my attempt in this race, but didn't do anything to stop me.