By Robert Giacin
"She's done. She's not going to make it. Look at her shoulders rolling." These comments were made by a crew member of another rider at the Furnace Creek 508 as riders approached the town of Randburg (about 95-100 miles from start line.) But while he may have recognized riding behaviors and know their typical signs, he did not know our rider.
Idaho-born Mavis Irwin, currently residing in Salt Lake City, Utah, is not someone you can know from a chance meeting. I can't really recall how I met Mavis, probably through her coach "Cat" Berge, with whom I became friends during RAAM 2005. Several months back I received an email from Mavis asking me to crew for her, which was one of several crew requests for the 508, an event I've always wanted to experience, preferably as a racer, but willing to work as crew or staff, someday. I was told that Chris Kostman puts together a great event; he wanted me to come out some day and be a part of the race. I was excited because I finally was given the opportunity to experience it firsthand.
The only things I knew about Mavis was that she was a determined rookie ultra cyclist and that she was deaf. I anticipated that her deafness could pose a challenge, but a recent cochlear implant to assist her in hearing gave me a false hope that it would be easier to communicate with her. I learned that I was more naive as the event progressed. While Mavis works hard to function in our hearing world, I had to try to understand her deaf world to relate with her. Being a rookie ultra cyclist with rookie crew members made up of her parents Jim and Lorna, this would be a learning experience for them all. I may not be a rookie to ultras, but nothing prepared me for working with a deaf rider. Last year in Europe, while working on the Kish Krew, I had no real understanding of the French language or culture. Now I found myself with no real understanding of sign language or the Deaf culture.
You may ask, why would I accept the offer if I could not sign? For starters, I am always willing to help a rookie in ultra cycling and Lorna Irwin, Mavis' mother was the translator. And with her father, a physician back in Idaho, as crew chief, I thought communication would be low on my priorities. Boy, was I wrong. We had special hand signs for water, liquid fuel, bars, bananas, Clif Shots and Blocks, and Endurolytes established in the beginning, and would refine them as we went. But if you cannot sign, then you cannot eavesdrop on the conversation. This was a hard lesson to learn. Oh, just like in France, one of the most important words to learn was "toilet." I learned the shaking 'T' sign in case I was the only one that saw it and we could prepare for a potty break. When we were preparing the wheels beforehand Mavis discovered the tubes she purchased were not the right ones we needed. That is when I learned the sign for 'damn it.'
I mentioned the Deaf culture earlier. When they speak in sign language, they are blunt. And if you leapfrog too far and your rider drinks more than normal and you fail to keep them hydrated, oh boy, are you going to hear, or see, blunt. I could not understand what she was saying, but Mavis gave us a piece of her mind. Her hands and fingers were flying. Now this is not a criticism in the least. We veterans would be lying if we claimed a dry rider we crewed for politely said, "Excuse me, can I have a new bottle?" In the heat of competition, we would hear, "Give me a [email protected]#$% bottle!" Mavis was no different. We screwed up early on but got a feel for her needs in a long event and we soon were in sync with each other.
The night before the start, I shared a concern with Chris Kostman and other officials that we may spend more time beside our rider communicating in sign language and any crew not aware of what was going on might complain. Chris offered us a dry erase board to help us communicate and I turned it down, because we were tightly packed in the SUV we were sagging with. Big mistake! Mavis could have read faster than Lorna could sign and we could have communicated better to Mavis from the road side on the first day had I accepted it. We had to get out half the time just to communicate in sign language for the next hand-offs. Speaking of hand-offs, Mavis needed to learn to slow down a bit. We fumbled a few Blocks and put two bananas in orbit. Lorna and Jim handled most roadside hand-offs while I drove during the first 17 hours and managed the bicycles, which provided another interesting moment. At one point, Jim and I thought we heard weird sounds from Mavis' bike. She could not hear them so twice I got out, kneeling on the edge of the road, and listened as Mavis rode by to determine if the sound was steady, or as we later surmised, was from flexing under Mavis' powerful effort.
Deaf people do not appreciate being called disabled. They prefer to regard themselves as members of a linguistic minority. I learned many things about how things are different for Mavis. Riders and crews saw Lorna signing for Mavis at the start of the event but we made no effort to inform everyone that she was present as a competitor. In hindsight that was a mistake. When we, able hearing riders, are on the road we have to ability to determine from the sound of the vehicle coming up behind us if it is fast or slow, small or large. If we ride with a helmet mirror or a small handlebar mirror, we can use that image to confirm what our ears are telling us. Mavis found the mirrors on the market to be mostly useless, especially when in aerobar position because of their narrow range of viewing and their bad angle (on helmet, glasses, or handlebar) forcing her to sit up more than any racer would like. Thus, she built her own mirror for when she is training alone, a slight convex dish mirror positioned low down, inches in front of the front wheel. She however pointed out that she is able to ride without her nasty wind resistance cargo load by looking under her left arm or over her left shoulder regularly, especially when at intersections and other direction changing points. Likewise, her cochlear implant was done when she was 26, quite recently, not at one to two years old, which is the best age for the implant (unless one loses hearing later.) She chose to ride without the external processor (the implant itself cannot be removed except surgically), which meant there was no input to the implant, so she was riding deaf as she did her entire life.
Many riders passed Mavis and tried to say hello, but being completely deaf, she may have seemed impersonal, which is not her at all. She would give thumbs up to riders as she passed them to encourage them, but she simply could not hear a rider pass her, or their support vehicle, which made it impossible for her to know when to pull over further to let vehicles pass until too late. As a matter of safety, it was considered in a post race discussion to not only inform the competitors of a deaf racer, but also tag the vehicle somehow so every crew knows what is going on. At one moment during the first night, right after having a discussion with Mavis in sign language, a rider called out, "passing in between" and that unidentified rider squeezed between our SUV and Mavis. We could not warn Mavis and Mavis could not hear the rider call out. That dangerous move should not have happened in the first place, but if others knew our operating circumstances, they would have been more patient and understanding.
My most important role was driving down Townes Pass behind Mavis. She did not want to slow down on the descent and I was to stay on her back wheel no matter how fast she chose to go down. Topping 45 mph at times, her mother chose to close her eyes in the back seat, only opening them as her father and I announced she was passing a rider near the beginning and again near the bottom of the descent.
Most riders maintained their positions around us and despite Mavis' strong riding effort her weakness showed in the climbs. The early comment about the shoulder rolling prompted Jim to ask what that meant. After further observation, I noticed that Mavis' right shoulder dropped more than her left on the climbs. Inquiring of her parents if she was favoring her left leg, I learned that her left leg was not fully developed, her disability was her left leg more than her hearing. This young lady was riding mostly with her right leg. She planned to ride the Furnace Creek 508 in 2006 but her left leg’s weakness led to injury, so she instead crewed for Cat Berge and Paul McKenzie, team Bumble Skipper. With the help of a physical therapist over the past year, she developed her left leg well enough to compete in 2007. Exercises she was taught to do on her own by her physical therapist were utilized several times during the event. These along with massage to primarily her right leg helped Mavis finish in 41 hours 26 minutes 22 seconds as the fourth place female.
We want to thank Cindi Staiger, who served as an official, for taking the time to learn how to sign "wonderful" to show support for Mavis. She taught the sign to half a dozen personnel at the Baker time station so they could express their support for Mavis as she arrived. This year's Furnace 508 was dedicated to Cindi Staiger for commitment to the race, the sport, and "kicking butt on the road." Cindi shared how ultracycling has been her extended family. Mavis Irwin is now a veteran of the 508 and a member of the ultracycling family. I learned so much working for Mavis and hope to serve her again. Currently I am studying sign language.