Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ironman Cozumel Race Report

Welcome to my Ironman Arizona Cozumel race report!

What happened in Arizona:
Wow... what a crazy couple of weeks it has been. For the past year, I had been planning on Ironman Arizona 2012 as my return to Ironman racing after taking two years off. I volunteered at IMAZ in 2011 in order to gain entry for the race. I knew the course well, I had previewed my competition (I wanted a Kona slot) and I knew what it would take to complete the race in 10hrs 15-20mins or so and I thought I was capable of that time, depending on conditions. I completed this race and won the AG with a time of 10:33 in 2008.

My husband and I were staying with his younger brother in Scottsdale and his parents (my in-laws) were also in town for the race. With the family gathered, they wanted to cook an early Thanksgiving dinner on the Friday night before the race. I figured two nights before the race, it would be fine. The following morning, my husband, Rich, and I headed to transition to rack our bikes and hand in the bike and run bags. I remember telling him that I felt *off* and that I thought it was just a little bit of nerves. Neither of us felt hungry so we headed to the movie theater and planned to eat a bigger meal immediately after watching Skyfall (new Bond movie). Unfortunately, we barely made it through the movie as we both got sick... projectile vomiting and diarrhea. We barely made it back to my brother-in-law's house as we were both feeling pretty nauseous. In the meantime, my brother in law had taken his 5 month pregnant wife to ER as she was experiencing the same nausea and diarrhea... the entire family was sick. Rich and I spent the rest of the evening barely moving from the couch and then to bed... the room was spinning around us :(

We set the alarm for 4am and decided we would reassess the situation at that time... if we could eat some food, we would try and race. However, we both continued to be sick throughout the night, and after one of my visits to the bathroom, I turned off the alarm. There was no way either of us was in a state to race... and certainly not race to our capabilities and goals.

The next morning, we gravitated from our bed to the couch but barely moved from the couch all day and we were not able to eat until later that night. Over 24 hours with no food. All day, I watched the race online/twitter updates but my personal disappointment in not being out there seemed to add to my nausea. I was psyched to see friends doing so well out there but I was intensely curious to know how my current fitness would have fared. It was much harder to deal with no race than a bad race... at least a result of some sort would have provided me some fitness data!

How I got into Cozumel:
Despite my weakened physical state, my A-type personality had already kicked into gear, problem-solving for another opportunity to race. I sent an email to Ken Glah's Endurance Sports Travel (EST) to see whether he had slots left for Ironman Cozumel the following weekend: two close friends - Beth Walsh ( and Brent Lorenzen - were planning to race. I also started looking into Ironman Los Cabos (but I didn't want to train through the winter) and Ironman Mont-Tremblant (it's too close to Kona) as possible alternatives for a race to qualify for Kona. I finally reached Ty at EST on Monday afternoon and he confirmed he had two slots remaining for Cozumel. I was still in a quandary... it would cost $2,000+ that I had not budgeted for, I had not planned time off from work and I knew little about the Cozumel course or conditions... I feared terrible heat and humidity... conditions that do not agree with me. Also, my husband had no interest in going to Cozumel... he wouldn't be able to get the extra time off work as easily as me and he seemed to have moved on from Arizona and was ready to get out on his cyclocross/mountain bikes for some winter fun. After a few texts with Beth and Brent, a call with Kim Schwabenbauer ( and word from my boss to "get my ass to Mexico", I took the plunge and signed up for Cozumel on Tuesday, flying out there solo two days later on Thanksgiving day.

I cannot say enough great things about EST... everything was taken care of. Normally, I would want to organize everything myself, pick my own place to stay/eat, but given the situation, I was more than happy to hand off all responsibility to Ken and his team. It was a perfect set up for my last-minute situation.

The water was choppy and the current looked as strong as the prior day's practice swim. These were by far the roughest conditions the race had ever experienced. However, Kim had given me great feedback on where to line up for the swim and that advice was reiterated by Ken Glah so I was not at all stressed. I lined up to jump off the dock but the line was moving incredibly slowly so I jumped in without any time to spare. However, when I jumped into the water (6ft drop), my goggles flew off and I lost them. Oh crap. I turned into a total drama queen, panicking and asking for assistance in locating my goggles. Thankfully, 3 guys sprung into action and within a minute or so, my goggles were retrieved (thank goodness for the clear blue waters of Chakanaab). It did mean that I was not where I wanted to be when the gun went off but I just had to go with it. The swim is effectively a rectangle where you swim into the current for 800m before swimming with the current for about 2km and then turning back into the current for another 1km or so. I never look at my watch during the swim but it felt like I reached the far buoy at the 2.8km mark fairly quickly. However, when we turned back into the current, I felt like I was making zero progress. I was horrified to see 1:18 on my watch as I exited the water. WTF? Okay, J, just move on and forget about your swim time.

Coach's instructions were for me to ride a pyramid of watts by lap (1@ 170w, 2@ 180w and 3@ 170w) so I set off focused solely on my SRM. For some reason my HRM was not picking up my heart rate but I didn't really care since I never focus much on heart rate early in an ironman race. The power targets felt comfortable and I was focused on staying aero, eating and picking off fellow competitors. I was also chuckling to myself that I must be so far out of the AG race, that this was now all about having some fun, enjoying the scenery and putting some *data* into race practice so that I could use it in training for Los Cabos (Blanco had just signed up for the race so I was thinking I'd be doing the Mexican double).

I had read Sonja's race report ( and for some reason 1hr 52 per larger lap (39mi) was stuck in my head as a reasonable target so when I hit 39 miles in 1hr 45mins, I figured I was doing okay. I had not been passed during the lap either... though my interpretation of that information was that my swim *had REALLY sucked* rather than the notion that I might be riding well! LOL. The winds were strong and therefore my speed varied quite a bit throughout the laps. From T1 to Punta Sur (about 13-14miles), I seemed to average 24-25mph (I may even have seen 27-28mph) but once you hit the coast, my speed seemed to be more like 19mph. I recalled from Sonja's report and from talking to Kim that once you hit the orange building and make a left-hand turn back towards town, there would be a strong tailwind and you'd be going 24mph+ again. This was not the case last Sunday. While, we no longer had the strong headwind, the wind didn't seem to give much of a benefit either and I was only able to ride in the 22-23mph range.

The second lap was my only experience with packs of drafters but I did hear from those that swam faster than I, that there was some major drafting going on throughout the race. In my case, a few miles after I hit the coast on lap two, a group of about 8 guys came by hanging on one another's wheel... and I mean right on the wheel... there was no attempt to maintain a gap. They passed me but then seemed to slow so then I had to hit the gas and ride ~260w for 30 seconds to get back in front. I settled back into my watts and I glanced back and then they were on my frickin' wheel. Luckily, bike special needs came up and they chose not to stop while I went in to pick up my bottles with Osmo nutrition and some more Clif Bloks. I was glad to be rid of them because I just didn't want to be inadvertently caught up in their cheating.

The wind seemed to pick up even more on the third lap and all I could think is that I had not seen or passed anyone I know... I had scoped out the ladies in my AG and knew that Susanne Davis, Becky Paige, Alexandra Mitschke, Sophie Whitworth (listed entrant but did not race) and Tanya Houghton would probably be my major competition. I also knew Anne Thilges from San Francisco was a strong athlete in an older AG so if I were to pass her, it could be a good feedback on how I was doing... but I recognized no one and had zero feedback. I did realize that I was going to complete the bike in 5hrs 20mins or so, and that would be considered a decent ride in past years, so maybe I was doing okay.

I entered T2 to an empty tent and soon had about 6 volunteers answering to my every need. I speak fairly fluent Spanish from spending time in Spain and Latin America as a student and in my pre-race mental prep, I had thought through how to say everything in Spanish. I think it helped that I was confident in saying exactly what I needed in their language. I was out of T2 in just over 2mins. My legs felt great and I was thinking to myself that the bike seemed to have been well paced and I had not pushed too much at all. I hit the first mile in 8:30 (into a slight headwind) and I thought all was fine... I was just beginning to get my legs under me. My goal was to run as many 8:30s as possible and try and keep ALL the miles under 9mins. That plan did not last long as I needed to pee during mile 2 and hit that mile in 9:21. Same thing on mile 3, had to pee again and the split was 9:39.

This was not going well and I am only 3 miles in... Miles 4,5, 6 were a little better at 8:55, 8:51 and 9:02 but I seemed to be dwelling a little too long at aid stations (it was warm and I was intent on getting cold water and ice each km). I saw Susanne Davis when I was at mile 4 or so, and I figured she was about a mile ahead of me, possibly less, so that gave me a boost that I might be doing okay, but I still had no clue where I was in my AG. I don't think I saw many other AG women but I couldn't really tell who was Pro or AG.

The next next few miles did not improve but neither were they getting much worse with mile 7-9 at 9:02, 9:10, 9:03. I was now on lap two of the run and had started hitting the coke (actually it was Pepsi) pretty hard. I had to go to the bathroom somewhere between miles 10 and 11 and my split times slowed: 9:37, 10:05. However, I felt much better after the stop in the porta-pottie and mile 12 was back under 9mins at 8:54.

I was now in no-man's land... my longest training run was 12 miles (admittedly I ran/shuffled 13miles at Vegas 70.3) and I was really worried about my run endurance. My stomach also began to rebel big time and I visited the porta-pottie and the bushes at least 4x duing the next few miles. Miles 13-17 were 9:28, 9:51, 10:10, 11:16, 9:39. I even had to wait at one porta-pottie because the course was now getting quite crowded. Ugh!

Time for lap 3. Nutritionally, I went into damage control/problem-solving and stopped taking anything besides cold water for my head to cool down. No more coke, no more clif bloks, no more gatorade... NOTHING. I had seen Brent and Beth out on the course (both had lapped me) and I noted the gap to Susanne was also growing as she seemed to be running well but I still had no clue what position I might be in. It could be 2nd place... it could be 10th place?!? I was feeling tired but I knew I was on my final lap. I also took strength each time I stepped over a timing mat since it would send a little signal to Blanco that I was trucking along... it was nice to think about him tracking me from afar.

In town, I remember thinking how slick the concrete pavement had become as water from aid stations/runners was now making the roadway quite damp. Mile 18-20 was 9:56, 9:34, 10:01 (another porta-pottie stop!). By now there could not possibly have been anything in my stomach, so I was beginning to feel a bit more confident about running stronger... though I was barely able to pick up the pace: miles 21-22 were 9:40, 9:22. After rounding the far turnaround with just 4.5miles left to run back to town, I finally saw Alexandra Mitschke (I don't know her but I saw Alexandra as the name on her bib with the German flag) and realized that I was getting run down from behind. Again, I still didn't know what place I was in but I did not want to get passed in the final miles. Time to focus and not look back. I felt like I was moving quickly (faster than most others left on the course) but the mile splits were telling me otherwise: miles 23-26 were 9:31, 9:54, 9:44, 9:32. For those last four miles, I didn't take anything from aid stations, I didn't look back, I was just trying to inch myself closer and closer to the finish line without falling apart.

Post race:
I crossed the line in 10hrs 58mins and collapsed immediately onto a chair after the finish line. I saw Alex finish a minute or so after me and I was pleased that I had managed to hold her off... even if I was fighting for 10th place... I had no clue!

I won't bore you with too many details but I was shuttled off to medical with a temperature of 95f and blood pressure of 80/50 (very low for me). Nurses and red cross volunteers changed me into dry clothes then I was administered an IV and fed some cup-a-noodle soup to try and warm me up. I made it out of medical by around 7:30pm and collected my bike/belongings and met up with Ken Glah's group. I had my phone in my morning clothes' bag so that was my first chance to speak to Rich and confirm I was okay. He broke the news that I was 3rd in my AG behind Becky and Susanne. I was shocked and excited, knowing that last year there had been 3 slots in my AG (thanks again Sonja for the details!) and my AG was also the largest female AG in 2012. I was really hopeful there would be 3 slots.

Slot allocation:
The next day, I attended slot allocation/rolldown with Susanne (2nd W40-44) and Brent (won M40-44) and was mortified when I saw the actual slot allocation.

Only 2 slots for W40-44. However, I did notice that they had allocated a slot to W65-69 and I recalled from my review of results earlier that day that there were no finishers in that AG... so while I was nervous and on edge as they went through rolldown (no female slots rolled at all!), I had a sneaking suspicion that the slot would be awarded to my AG since there were no W65-69. Sure enough, after some confusion among the organizers, trying to figure out what to do with the slot, the British announcer said that it would be rolling to W40-44 and I leapt up and screamed that I wanted it before they even had the chance to call my name... that made everyone laugh!

I handed over $775, gave the organizers all the relevant details and was grinning from ear to ear that I had qualified for my 4th Ironman Hawaii... especially after the drama of the past week!   Time to head to awards with Brent and Susanne to celebrate our triple success!  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Going Pro

Article I wrote for 3/GO magazine.

Going Pro
What prompts amateur triathletes to transition to the professional ranks? How does this change their approach to training and racing? Jordan Blanco caught up with a handful of women that have taken the leap and applied for a “USAT professional license” for the 2012 season. She also caught up with two relatively new pros, Meredith Kessler and Caroline Gregory, to hear their advice for new professionals.

In the 2011 season, Sarah Piampiano, Kim Schwabenbauer, Beth Shutt, Jessica Smith and Beth Walsh not only dominated the W30-34 category in Ironman and 70.3 racing, taking age-group wins whenever they toed the line, but they also dominated the overall amateur races. They collected 5 Ironman and 8 Ironman 70.3 amateur titles in total. The season culminated with Jessica Smith winning the overall amateur women’s title at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas and Sarah Piampiano scoring a 4th place in W30-34 and finishing as the top American amateur female at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

There were probably a few North American age-groupers in the W30-34 category that breathed a sigh of relief when after the Ironman World Championships race in Hawaii these top female competitors announced via Twitter and posted on their blogs that in 2012 they would be “Going Pro”.

When asked why they had made the decision to relinquish their amateur status, it is clear that all five athletes are excited by the new risks and challenges that professional racing presents. As Schwabenbauer, explains: “After winning two amateur titles at the Ironman distance, I had a feeling with some more training I may be able to improve my times, and although it might be a tough process to get on the pro podium, I’m willing to put in the time and take the risk.” Smith also saw “going pro” as the next step in a series of challenges she had set for herself: “I’m always setting new goals and looking for a new challenge. When I started in triathlon my goal was to finish an Ironman. Then it was to qualify for Kona. After that I realized maybe I could race as a pro. Now I want to win as a pro.”

Among our group of new pros, Piampiano is perhaps taking the greatest risk, leaving an investment banking job in New York to relocate to Santa Monica, California, to train and race full-time. “Such a small percentage of people in the world are afforded the opportunity and have the ability to be a professional athlete. It is a real honor and privilege. The chance to chase a childhood dream has been put in front of me, and for me to walk away from that I feel would be a mistake.”

The path to becoming a professional triathlete varies greatly among the group. Shutt found solace in swimming and biking while nursing running injuries before finally stringing the three sports together in a triathlon. Coincidentally, Schwabenbauer also came to triathlon from running, at the suggestion of fellow new pro, Shutt. Schwabenbauer recounts: “Beth Shutt, a good friend and fellow Penn State Cross-Country teammate, had shared with me that she had begun doing triathlons the previous year and really enjoyed the three sport disciplines vs. just being a runner. On a work trip to the Big Island, I saw the sign for the Ironman World Championship starting line and I said to my husband, “I’m going to do that race one day!””

At the other end of the spectrum, both Walsh and Piampiano had a bumpier ride to their current professional athlete status. While Walsh may have been athletic in high school, as she puts it: “College was a different story. I was on a strict training regimen of beer, Wendy’s, and half a pack of cigarettes a day. I used to heckle the girls in my dorm for working out and didn’t comprehend why anyone would do that. I slept past noon at least 3 days per week. I may or may not have gained the “Freshman 15”. I never in a million years imagined I would become a pro triathlete at age 31.” Things have clearly changed since her college days as Walsh ran the fastest female amateur marathon of 3 hours and 10 minutes at the Ironman World Championships in 2010.

Piampiano was a two-sport athlete in college, skiing Division 1 and ranking nationally as a cross-country runner. However, as she graduated and transitioned to the working world, her participation in sport fell by the wayside, succumbing to the long hours, unhealthy lifestyle and pressure of her Wall Street career: “My start to triathlon was a bit of a fluke, to say the least. In late 2009 my friend and I bet whether I could beat him in an Olympic distance race. He had been training for months and at the time I was smoking a pack+ of cigarettes a day and drinking like a fish. On race day I showed up on a bike my brother had bought in France 20 years ago for $200 and raced my heart out. I beat my friend, but more importantly I loved every second of the experience. I quit smoking on the spot and the rest is history!”

Racing as a professional affords these new pros much greater flexibility in planning their racing seasons, no longer having to sign up a year in advance and saving money on Ironman and 70.3 race entries since The World Triathlon Corporation (organizing body for M-dot branded Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races) charges a flat rate of $750 to each professional triathlete, regardless the number of races entered. These athletes are also happy that they will no longer be contending with the mass swim start of the amateur race. As Walsh colorfully puts it: “I won’t miss the trepidation that comes before an Ironman mass swim start where you know you are about to get clocked by 2000 of your closest friends.” Even the strongest swimmer of the group, Smith, is happy to no longer battle with thousands of others in the swim: “Goodbye 2,000 people kicking and hitting each other while desperately searching for clear water. Swimming might be one of my strengths, but it is still my least favorite part of the race.”

The new pros have been doing their homework to understand the different racing dynamics they’ll face this coming season. Shutt notes: “I talked with a few current pros to ask what they thought were the main differences of competing as a pro and most all said that the racing is tougher in the sense that you spend much more time on your own. I think it will also be a challenge to learn how to really push yourself even if you aren’t winning or competing for a Kona slot.” Walsh admits to a little fear: “I’m scared of swimming and biking alone in no man’s land for an entire Ironman. I tend to fall into a daze on the bike if I’m not around others who are pushing and motivating me. I may be doing lots of talking to myself and finding that “inner” strength.”

Their concern is not misplaced. Caroline Gregory just completed her first season as a pro triathlete and agreed with this view: “The pro race is so different from the age group race. As a pro you are often completely alone out on the race course. You have to believe in your training, and find the motivation from within.”

November’s Ironman Arizona was Smith’s pro debut. The day before the race, she caught up with Meredith Kessler, a triathlete entering her 3rd season in the professional field. Kessler shared some specific swim tips and friendly strategies: “The first 500 yards will be really fast. I’ll look to get in a pack with Leanda [Cave] and we’ll swim 5-7mins really hard to separate ourselves before dialing it back. Get on our feet at the start.” Smith acknowledges the change in pace and rhythm that the pro race implies: “I think racing as a pro will be challenging because the race will always begin when the gun goes off. At any point I will have to be ready to swim, ride, or run outside of my comfort zone to stay in [the race]... there is a lot more strategy involved at this level and I still have a lot to learn!”

Will our new pros miss anything about amateur racing over professional racing? We asked our pros for their thoughts. Kessler confessed that she missed some of the simplicity of racing as an amateur, but neither she nor Gregory hesitates to state that they love racing as professionals. In fact, they both acknowledge that it has helped to lift their game.

Kessler: “The bar is being raised in the sport on both the professional and amateur levels. Breaking 10 hours in the amateur ranks… is becoming the norm for many, which is just incredible! Especially, because amateurs typically do triathlon as a hobby on top of their already busy lifestyles. On the professional level, breaking 9 hours is now the new “black!” The sport of triathlon is making huge waves. Chrissie Wellington, among others, has raised the level of women's triathlon. The rest of us are working hard to be able to compete truthfully with athletes of her caliber.”

Gregory: “[Racing as a professional] is the opportunity to race amongst the best athletes in our sport, the opportunity to represent sponsors and brands to the rest of the endurance sport community, the opportunity to reach within and see what you’re really made of, and the opportunity to be a positive role model.”

Want to hear more about these women as they train and race in 2012? Check out their websites and follow them on twitter… and most of all, look out for them at the races! Website Twitter handle
Caroline Gregory @ckgregory
Meredith Kessler @mbkessler
Sarah Piampiano @SarahPiampiano
Kim Schwabenbauer @fuelyourpassion
Beth Shutt @bethshutt
Jessica Smith @ jesssmithtri
Beth Walsh @IMBethWalsh

Meredith Kessler’s five words of wisdom to keep our new pros centered as they challenge themselves in 2012:
BELIEVE… that you have what it takes to compete with the very best.
LIMITLESS… answers are limitless, find the answers you need in order to prevail.
GUMPTION… you might fall but it’s how you get up that counts and that takes gumption.
SIMPLICITY… keep it simple while figuring out what works best for you.
RESILIENCE… the body is resilient so your head needs to be too!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Keep the Ocean on your Right: The Coast Ride

Published in 3/GO magazine: Click here

There’s no more iconic starting point to an epic adventure than the Golden Gate Bridge. Riding my bike 370 miles from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to downtown Santa Barbara in three days counts as epic in my world. This is The Coast Ride.

The Ride was scheduled over a three day weekend, taking advantage of the Martin Luther King holiday to be absent from my job as an investment manager without taking a vacation day. On Saturday morning, my husband Rich, a couple of overnight guests who had traveled from San Diego and I caravanned to the Ride’s start point at the Golden Gate Bridge. Even as an 11 year San Francisco resident that rides across the bridge on a regular basis, seeing the tawny red paint of the bridge and the lush green of the Marin headlands in the background, brought a smile to my face. I was excited for a *destination ride*… three whole days of cycling that would not include a loop, a lollipop or even worse, the dreaded out and back route!

There was plenty of excitement and buzz among the 70 or so cyclists assembled to start the Ride. As professional triathlete, Beth Walsh notes: “I do The Coast Ride because I love incorporating adventure and life experience into [triathlon] training. I love to blur the line between vacation and training and get the best of both worlds.”

After handing off our backpacks containing post-ride clothes and fresh cycling kits to the SAG Monkey (a company that describes itself as a “personal bike concierge”), Rich was anxious to start riding and so we made a quick exit to avoid being at the tail end of a pack of 70+ riders, when the group pushed off moments later.

Knowing I had 370 miles of riding ahead of me in the next three days, my plan was to ride within myself, but hopefully stay with a group of riders in order to conserve as much energy as possible. The first few miles from the bridge are fairly hilly – think Escape from Alcatraz bike course – and not the smoothest of pavement. As I descended towards the landmark San Francisco restaurant, the Cliff House, my wheel hit a pothole and I heard a clattering of metal. My rear light had fallen from my seat post and skidded into the middle of the road. I rested my bike at the side of the road and planned to dash into the roadway to retrieve it… but first I had to wait for the entire peloton of 70+ riders to pass me by. It was mile 3 and I was already off the back. Not the way I wanted to begin this adventure. Luckily for me, a fellow rider and friend, Monica, had an early mechanical that put her towards the back of the group. She saw me at the side of the road and slowed her pace to allow me to catch up. I cannot lie… while I was thankful for the company, I was annoyed that my husband was at the front of the large group and our little group of two was bringing up the rear. The law of numbers pointed to the fact we would only get further behind as the miles wore on.

And then it struck me… I was so focused on my *destination ride* and how quickly I would reach the *destination*, that I was forgetting the journey aspect of my adventure! I needed to reframe things in my mind otherwise it would be a long 20 hours in the saddle to cover those 370 miles over the next three days

The journey on day one of the Ride would take us from San Francisco to the coastal town of Seaside on the edge of California’s Monterey peninsula. 125 miles that would largely hug the Pacific coastline. The best phrase to describe the first 75 miles of day one would be “Surf’s Up!” The cycling route takes us past some of the best surf beaches that Northern California has to offer, including the world renowned big wave break, “Mavericks”, off the coast of Half Moon Bay. The waves were drawing big crowds on this sunny Saturday morning and cars lined both sides of the road as we passed the main beach in Half Moon Bay. Surfers in neoprene with boards wedged underarm were jogging across the road and down the beach. It made me consider the passion and focus that surfers have for their sport, not unlike our little group of cyclists. It was heart-warming to see so many people outdoors, enjoying what they love to do.

The 75 miles to the Davenport lunch stop passed quickly as Monica and I swapped updates on family, work, training and triathlon racing plans as well as enjoying the views. Her positive energy and enthusiasm were infectious, quickly dispelling any frustration I had felt earlier. In her words: “I love the Ride. I love just waking up, eating, riding, eating, sleeping, and doing it all over again without having to pack lunches for kids, get uniforms ready, carpool,'s 3 days of focus allowing myself to be alone and think, or to hang with a group of like minded individuals.”

After lunch, I joined a group of riders which included my husband. The route south from Davenport pulls away from the ocean, through downtown Santa Cruz and smaller neighborhoods until buildings start to thin out and the road flattens. The land wedged between Watsonville to the East and the Pacific Ocean is predominantly farmland. In the summer, you’ll find yourself riding through strawberry fields but in mid-January, it appeared that kale or another dark, leafy vegetable was the crop of choice. At this point in our ride, the wind had picked up and was coming from the southwest, causing a challenging mix of head and crosswinds for those seeking protection in the group. Sitting third wheel behind two Cat 1 guys, I was able to take advantage of the wide shoulder to position myself in echelon to the left of the rider ahead and remain protected from the wind. Those positioned further back in the group were less fortunate. With the boys in front pushing a strong pace and me hanging on for dear life, our group of fifteen splintered into two groups, with just four of us left up front. By the time I realized this we were less than ten miles from our destination and our route had realigned us with the ocean on the right-hand side. We soon exited the main road and jumped onto Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Trail for the last five miles into Seaside. Rolling along the bike path was the perfect cool down to a 6 hour riding day.

The SAG Monkey had arrived with all our gear and the goal now was to check into our hotel room and begin the process of recovery so we could do it all again tomorrow. Typically, my recovery comprises chocolate milk, some nutritious food, compression socks and chilling out on the couch for an hour or two. However, Rich and I were lucky enough to be testing some “Recovery Pump” boots ( so by the time I was finished with my shower, he had hooked up the boots, switched on a sports channel and was officially recovering!

After a good night’s sleep, the alarm sounded at 5am the next morning. Having spent about two hours wearing the recovery boots the evening before, I was excited to find my legs did not have that heavy feeling typical of the morning after a long ride.

The journey on day two would be the longest and hardest day in the saddle: another 125 miles with 8,000ft of climbing. With my legs feeling quite spritely, I was anxious to get going and navigate through the town of Monterey and get a start on those hilly miles before the larger pack of cyclists. I convinced Rich to push off in the dark about 30 minutes before the main group’s planned departure. Why else had we brought our bike lights if weren’t going to use them?

The first 15 or so miles are a little tricky, until you join highway 1 in Carmel. A few miles later we reached the Carmel Highlands and the ocean was once again on our right. At this point, and for most of the day’s ride, the shoulder would be almost non-existent so I was thankful for the early morning sunshine to enhance our visibility to motorists. The 90 or so miles that comprise the Big Sur coastline not only offer breath-taking views but also leg-breaking terrain for cyclists. There are just two Category 3 climbs in those 90 miles, so the 8,000ft of climbing comes largely through a relentless succession of rollers as Highway 1 clings unsurely to the jagged coastline.

Rich and I were trading off pulls consistently every mile, though he would let me to set the pace on the hills, lest I fall off his wheel if he were climbing upfront. As we ascended a small climb, he called me to look to my right towards the Pacific Ocean. I was ecstatic to see a small group of whales a couple of hundred yards offshore. January is in the middle of whale-watching season in Big Sur as California Gray Whales migrate south towards Baja California from their summer home in Alaska. I have cycled these roads numerous times but seeing whales was a first. The excitement re-energized my legs and we soon reached Ragged Point near the southern end of Big Sur for a well-deserved lunch break. I devoured the saltiest, grilled ham and cheese sandwich, I have ever tasted. Washed down with a diet coke, it hit the spot and I was ready for the final 45 mile run-in to Morro Bay.

The rollers taper off after you descend from Ragged Point and the visible landscape widens out. Combine that with a steady tailwind and the first twenty five miles from Ragged Point are fast and fun, a welcome boost to our average miles per hour. While less dramatic than the Big Sur coastline, the scenery remains appealing including an entire beach of sunbathing sea lions north of Cambria, just before the road heads inland for a few miles. The ocean is on your right once again for the final 10 mile push to Morro Bay. You immediately notice the town’s distinctive Morro rock, a 500 foot volcanic plug that sits at the harbor’s entrance. I was excited to see the rock but its sight belied the remaining distance. The last 10 miles seemed to pass by slowly. Rich and I were surprised that the large group had not yet caught us as we rode into town in search of our hotel and the SAG Monkey with all our gear. Next door to the hotel was a small taqueria so we delayed checking in for 20 minutes while we replenished with some fish tacos, chips and guacamole and some ice cold Tecates.

After 45 minutes in the recovery boots and a brief stop by the hotel’s *happy hour* wine-tasting, we joined the group dinner picnic tables assembled in front of the hotel and caught up with our fellow cyclists, swapping stories on the sights of the day: I caught up with a friend, Natalie, and she shared that “scarfing down a grilled ham and cheese at Ragged Point after all that crazy climbing was the highlight of the day!”

Day three brought the final leg of the journey: 120 miles from Morro Bay to Santa Barbara. I’ve done this ride before and while it’s the shortest day and the climbing is half of the day prior (4,000ft), it doesn’t feel any easier. What is more, the navigation is much more complicated and the route keeps you away from the Pacific Ocean for most of the day. The first 12 miles from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo (SLO) are spent on the wide shoulder of highway 101, a two lane highway that is open to cyclists. We left with the main bunch and the pack of 70 cyclists riding two by two down the freeway must have been quite a sight for passing motorists.

Many riders stopped for coffee and bagels in the cute college town of SLO but with more than a hundred miles to go, a small group of us continued on. As the day warmed up, so did the legs of the stronger cyclists and the pace began to quicken. I was determined to hang on as long as possible, even if it meant burning every match in my book. The group of forty quickly splintered but I managed to stay with the front group of 15 or so, in spite of seeing my power meter read 300+ watts more times than I usually find comfortable. While I could never spell out directions for The Ride without a map, I knew which way to point my bike at each turn… that was a comforting feeling since I feared being dropped by this group at any point!

After a water stop in the farming town of Guadalupe, we plowed on towards the designated lunch stop in Lompoc. About 15 miles in, a couple of guys that I didn’t know well, went to the front and pushed the pace on the increasingly rolling terrain. I quickly found myself unhitched from the group, staring down 20 miles of solo riding to Lompoc. I half-expected to be caught by one of the grupettos behind. Indeed, I half-hoped I would be caught as the terrain was hilly and I was feeling the accumulation of miles in my legs from the prior two days. Misery loves company!

I put my head down, reminded myself to enjoy the journey and was quickly rolling by the Lompoc city limits sign. I was elated to reach Subway and find a bunch of cyclists in line to order. I grabbed a quick bite of my husband’s turkey sandwich and, rather than take a leisurely lunch, the two of us jumped on our bikes to tackle the final 40 miles. We pushed off at an easy pace with another rider, professional triathlete Kate Major. However, our departure had prompted a few others from the group to rally and they quickly joined us to form a group of 10 or so. I was amazed to find that a few guys were still feeling frisky after 300+ miles and disappointed that my plan of a steady pace with just 1-2 other riders had been so quickly foiled. I was soon ejected out of the back of the group on another solo journey. It was now a familiar pattern. The next 15 miles included a steady, stair-step climb but with a strong prevailing tailwind, it seemed easier than any prior ride and I was quickly descending to the coast for the final stretch to Santa Barbara: a 20 mile sting on highway 101. Rich had waited for me at the rest stop just as we joined 101 and I was thankful not to be riding on the highway solo. It was great to have the ocean once again on my right and we enjoyed the last few miles looking out on the Channel Islands and counting the oil derricks off the Santa Barbara county coast. We reached our exit in under an hour – thank you tailwind! – riding through city streets to the hotel where SAG Monkey was waiting with some victory beers!

Three days, 370 miles and 19 hours of cycling. I had completed my fourth coast ride. I handed off my bike to the crew to transport it back to San Francisco, grabbed a shower and then loaded up the minivan. An hour later, we set off on the journey north, keeping the ocean on our left.