WSU researcher, ultra-cyclist takes it to the extreme Pullman woman wins 508-mile ultra-cycling event

By Halley Griffin, Daily News staff writer, Moscow-Pullman Daily News
Posted on: Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Anna Catherina Berge couldn't feel her feet as she bicycled through flash floods, lightning and thunder in California's Death Valley.

Her feet were chilled to the bone, but she still was taken aback by the lightning, describing the view as the most spectacular she'd ever seen.

Berge, a veterinary researcher at Washington State University, is an "ultra-cyclist."

Earlier this month she competed in the Furnace Creek 508, a 508-mile, 48-hour, nonstop bicycle race. Berge was the overall winner of the women's solo competition, finishing in 29 hours, 43 minutes. Two male riders were the only ones to finish ahead of her.

"Often people ask 'Well, doesn't it hurt?' Yes, of course it hurts," she said. "You kind of learn how to embrace the pain rather than to fight it."

Berge, a transplant from Sweden, has been in the United States for 10 years. She lives in Pullman with her two cats.

She competed in her first Furnace Creek 508 in 2001, only a year after she'd taken up cycling. She said she'd never ridden more than 100 miles consecutively before her first Furnace Creek experience.

"Just by chance I met this guy and he tricked me into this race in 2001, so I kind of slipped into ultra-cycling on a banana peel," she said.

The Furnace Creek 508 touts itself as "the toughest 48 hours in sport." The race begins in Santa Clarita, Calif., at 7 a.m. on a Saturday each year. The course forms an inverted "V," peaking in Death Valley National Park and finishing by 7 a.m. Monday in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

"The clock doesn't stop for anything," said Berge, who estimates she was off her bike for less than 30 minutes over the course of the weekend.

She completed the race in just under 30 hours.

"I was only off my bike for a clothes change and to go to the bathroom," she said.

Her crew handed her energy drinks and other forms of liquid nutrition through the window of the car they drove alongside her, or while jogging next to her.

To keep going, Berge needed to consume 250-300 calories per hour.

"It's my job to pedal and it's their job to keep me pedaling," she said of her crew, a group of three friends responsible for feeding, hydrating and motivating Berge along the route.

The 508 uses animal totems rather than numbers to identify its riders. Berge races as "Bumblebee."

Berge said she trained by riding about 100 miles a day on the weekends and 350-400 miles throughout the week. According to the race's Web site, cyclists climb the equivalent of 35,000 feet over the course of the Furnace 508, so Berge also tried to include a lot of climbing in her training.

"You don't necessarily have to train mega-miles ... it's all quality. I train hard," Berge said.

Berge tried a few road races when she first began to realize she had a talent for cycling, but didn't enjoy the racing mentality.

Then she found ultra-cycling.

"It's kind of a pure sport," she said. "There's no drafting and you can't really win by chance."

She also prefers the mentality of other ultra-cyclists.

"I realized every single guy who crossed the finish line was a winner in some way, so this was kind of cyclist against course," she said.

Berge said she loves cycling because the "harmonic motion" helps her wind down from her academic life.

"It's relaxation for the very sort of intelligent work I do," she said. "When I get on the bike, I can just be."