Race For the Record
SRAM Test Development Engineer, Jaime Kelleher, faced cold, rainy conditions and cross-headwinds over three non-stop days of racing to emerge as the fastest woman to ever ride a bike across Germany. Read her inspiring first-hand account of the experience below. Jaime raced on SRAM RED eTap and Zipp Carbon Clicher wheels.
After months of preparation, suddenly it felt like no time at all before I found myself on the Race Across Germany start ramp with seconds to go until my start. Was this really it? This day I’d been working for and worrying about for so long—was it actually here? I couldn’t dwell on that thought too long because in that moment, honestly I was more worried about slipping off the ramp and fantastically crashing two meters past the start line. Fortunately I kept it upright as I rode off, and breathed a sigh of relief that I had managed to get through the first ten seconds without making an idiot of myself. Alright, race time.
The day started off with a steady light rain. The sky was relatively light, so I kept telling myself “it’ll clear up any minute now,” although I knew better than to believe it. Knowing there was no way I could possibly stay dry, I went for “wet, but warm.” At some point in the night, we took a quick break under a bus stop shelter so I could change into dry clothes. While it was nice for a few minutes, it wasn’t long before I was back to being more or less completely soaked.
Having never done such a long race, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect in terms of sleepiness. My theory went like this:
- Based on experience from the 24 hour race I did, I should be able to get through the first night relatively easily with a little bit of caffeine.
- When daylight comes back (around 5am), it will be much easier to stay awake, and looking forward to seeing my colleagues and friends (around 2/3 of the way through the race) will provide me a motivational boost to keep me going throughout Saturday.
- When I get to Saturday night, we will see where I am with sleepiness and how far I am from finishing. If I needed to take a short nap, this would be the time.
- Finally, caffeinate my way through to the finish on Sunday, with the added motivation of being almost done.
It seemed like a solid plan. Until I hit a wall around 6am on Saturday. I was confused and frustrated. I had just ridden really well throughout the night, was feeling good, and suddenly I could no longer concentrate. It was still raining, and now the cross-headwinds were starting to pick up. I found myself daydreaming and not focusing on the road. Some ultra-endurance cyclists are able to ride through that, but I am not one of those cyclists. Once I lost that level of alertness, I knew that continuing to try to ride was both dangerous and unsustainable. Something had to change. Attempting to nap in a construction site.
I spent the next couple of hours trying everything I could think of to snap me out of my funk. I drank more, put some eye drops in, ate some of my delicious maple-bacon rice crispy treats, but still, I was riding pretty slowly and stopping far more frequently than I had planned. Again, something had to give. I finally decided I was probably best off trying to take a nap. The crew set me up on a sleeping mat under a small shelter and I closed my eyes. My mind raced. I don’t even remember what I was thinking about, but I can best describe it as “stressful day dreaming.” After five minutes, my eyes were wide open, so I got up and hopped back on the bike.
The not-quite-nap helped for a while, but I ended up needing two more of them before I was finally able to get my head back in the game in the early afternoon. I was lucky that I live just a few kilometers away from the race course, so I had ridden parts of it several times throughout my training. When I reached the first town that I recognized, it gave me a wave of energy, and knowing I had just a few more hours to ride before seeing my friends and colleagues was enough of a distraction from my exhaustion to keep me moving.
About an hour before reaching Geldersheim (where a side-of-the-road SRAM party was waiting for me), a friend drove by loudly cheering out of her window. I was so happy, I nearly cried. I picked up the effort, knowing I had a boost of motivation up ahead that I so desperately needed. Rolling through Geldersheim, I was in a daze. There were signs hung up on overpasses, writing on the street, and at least 40-50 people had come out to cheer for me (in the rain) as I rode through. I gave several hugs, took a few pictures, cried lots of happy tears, and was back on my bike in about four minutes. My crew was happy to enjoy the barbeque for a little while before catching back up with me a few towns later. For the next hour or so, various friends and coworkers appeared on the side of the road to cheer me along. I honestly can’t describe how good it felt to have so many people come out.
That evening was a cruel tease of almost-clear skies. The roads had almost dried up when the rain came back, and it stayed with me throughout the entire night. I passed beyond the familiar section of the course, and at the suggestion of Coach Carson, decided it was best to try to nap before I completely hit a wall like I had before. Around midnight, I curled up in the back seat of the support car and was out like a light before they even shut the door. Exactly twenty minutes later, I was woken up (still soaking wet) to a cold rush of air as the guys helped me out of the car to get me back riding. With teeth chattering and feeling more than a little bit shell-shocked, I was back on the road. After three miserably cold minutes where all I wanted to do was crawl back into the warm car and sleep forever, I had warmed back up and was back in the zone.
I rode through the rest of the night feeling good and even passed a few of my competitors as they stopped to rest. With the help of caffeine and my exhausted support crew, I managed to chug through the morning, inching ever closer to the finish line. I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but while it seemed so close, I still had several hours to ride. I knew I couldn’t afford the time to take another sleep break, so Sebastian hung out of the window asking me all kinds of random questions to keep me distracted. Finally, about two hours before the finish, I knew I was close enough that I could leave the rest of what I had out there. I actually managed to put out some decent power efforts up some of the last few hills. My knees weren’t especially pleased with me, but my muscles were doing surprisingly well.
Crossing the city limit into Garmisch-Partenkirchen was unreal. The happy tears returned. The actual finish line was on the opposite side of town, so I cried my way through the city before finally rolling into the Olympia Skistadion. Some friends of friends had showed up with champagne, and we celebrated my victory. I finally took the wet shoes and socks off of my slimy, white, shriveled up alien feet. I had done it. 689mi/1109km in 53 hours and 58 minutes. It certainly wasn’t the time I was hoping for, but given the awful conditions (and the fact that over half of the racers did not finish the race), I am thrilled with the result. I learned a lot about what it takes to compete in this kind of race, and I still managed to beat the previous women’s course record by 18 minutes.
Several people asked me after the race whether I had ever thought about giving up. Strangely, the answer is, ‘No’. When I hit my low points on Saturday morning, I had a big wave of self-doubt, but somehow it was more about the frustration of not being able to figure out how to keep going, rather than thinking that I wasn’t capable at all. There’s a line from the end of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go that I kept thinking back to: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!”
So, what’s next? I don’t know yet. I’ll attempt my work commute for the first time since the race soon, but until then, my coworkers have me covered. As far as racing goes, there’s another mountain out there waiting for me somewhere.
To read about Jaime's preparations for the event, click here. Jaime is also working to raise money for World Bicycle Relief. All donations made to her WBR page during the month of July are being matched. With WBR bikes costing just $147 each, a small donation can make a big difference. [Click here to donate in support of Jaime and WBR]
Photo credits: Markus Klier and Sebastian Reineke. The last two photographs were taken by André Gläser.