Rider’s Narrative Summary – HAM’R Month
Alan S. Johnson
I’m a big fan of the WUCA Highest Annual Mileage Record (HAM’R). This year-long record is so far out there, and so hard to comprehend, that it fascinates me. And the athletes! I mean, who are these amazing people and what motivates them to do something so incredibly difficult? I love to read about them. But that’s it. It’s certainly not anything I could ever do myself. But the HAM’R Month is different. It’s only 30 days. With the right planning and preparation, and the help of a really good Crew Chief, it’s doable by even an average rider like me. I recommend it for anyone considering a record attempt and who enjoys riding their bike a lot. Only thing is, and I can’t emphasize this enough…..you have to schedule it for the right time of year if you expect a good result. I didn’t.
My primary goal for 2016 was winning the WUCA Year-Rounder mileage competition. Back in late January, while visiting ultracycling.com, I noticed that the great Gary Gottlieb of Texas had not yet submitted any rides to the WUCA Year-Rounder. Now, anyone who follows the Year-Rounder knows Gary. He’s won it so many times it might as well be named for him. I mean, he owns it. It’s his. But this year it looked like he might be sitting it out. So I decided to put my name on it. Only problem was, another rider named Rusty Yeager of Indiana had the same idea. And I soon found myself way in over my head trying to compete against someone so fast and so talented.
For five long months Rusty and I pushed each other for the Year-Rounder lead. Each week I’d accumulate four to five centuries and establish a lead, only to check online and see that Rusty blitzed me with double and triple centuries and retake it. I lost count how many times this happened, and how often the lead changed. I soon realized there was no way I was going to beat Rusty that way. I needed to come up with something special. Then in late May I read about Andre Goeritz of California and his record-setting HAM’R Month. I was fascinated by how far he rode, and how after a bad crash he switched to a recumbent with no prior experience. But what really got my attention was how his HAM’R record propelled him from 19th to 2nd overall in the Year-Rounder….ahead of me and immediately behind Rusty. I sent Rusty an email, commenting on Andre and his record, and he responded saying “Not much I can do to respond to an effort like that.” And with that I thought I had found a way to possibly win the Year-Rounder. I would ride the HAM’R Month as late in the year as possible, hopefully out-distancing Rusty at a time when he probably wouldn’t have enough good riding weather remaining to react.
Only problem was…..Winter is the absolute worst time of year to schedule an outdoor record attempt. Shorter days, extreme cold and rain, exhaustion from having already ridden hard all year. And good luck finding friends willing to come out and help pace you. But it would become my “Ace in Hand” strategy for winning this year’s Year-Rounder competition. And becoming the first 60+ to challenge the HAM’R Month would be an added honor.
For the next four months, I worked hard to stay as close to Rusty as I could, riding night centuries throughout the hot summer months. But sadly, the final showdown between us didn’t happen. In mid-October, Rusty wrote to tell me he had crashed after hitting a fox on a night century, badly breaking his femur and ending his season early. He congratulated me on becoming the likely Year-Rounder champion. And with those kind words, I knew I no longer needed to ride the HAM’R. The Year-Rounder was mine. But in his last email, Rusty also asked me to do him a favor and finish out the year strongly. He said his absence was no excuse for me to cruise. So I decided to follow through and finish my season with an attempt at the HAM’R Month, and do my best in what would likely be poor conditions.
I scheduled my HAM’R attempt for the 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas so I could spend the holidays with my family. I planned to ride consecutive laps on a 23 mile loop right outside my home in Phoenix, the same loop I train on for lap races like Bessie’s Creek, Texas Ultra Spirit, and the Tejas 500. With 750 feet of elevation gain each lap, it’s not exactly an ideal course for setting mileage records. But it’s a route I know well, and the scenery varied enough to remain interesting. Additionally, I could remain close to home in case of mechanical problems.
My primary bike for the attempt was my Schlitter Encore carbon recumbent. I’m one of those rare people who ride both uprights and recumbents equally well, but I prefer recumbents for ultras because they’re more comfortable over longer distances. And their design helps prevent many stress-related injuries. Occasionally, however, I would switch to my Volagi Liscio rando bike just to sit up straight and break up the monotony.
In my planning, I forecasted winter temps to range between highs in the 70’s and lows in the low 50’s, normal for Phoenix that time of year. But this year temps ran 10-15 degrees below normal with persistent rains. On day one I rode 238 miles to simulate the pace Steven Abraham of Great Britain rode to set the current overall record. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue that pace in the cold. I’m a desert boy and not at all comfortable in such conditions. As soon as the sun set, the temps would drop into the low 30’s and my production plummeted. So I lowered my expectations to something more attainable, eventually deciding on a more realistic goal of 5,000 miles before eventually settling on much less after rain storms affected my average pace. My final few days were spent riding in freezing rains just trying to work my way past the 4,000 mile mark. Under better conditions, I know I can ride much farther. But even then after riding every day for 30 continuous days, my 60 year old body started breaking down and I found it more and more difficult to keep moving without injuring myself. Other older riders know what I’m saying. We discussed the possibility of returning for a do-over in the future if someone breaks this record right away. But if we do, it will be in the Spring or Fall when conditions are more suitable for this kind of attempt.
Julie, my Crew Chief and better half, did an outstanding job managing my down time, monitoring the weather, and keeping me motivated. She’s a great Italian cook and the best part of my day was returning home after riding my miles to be surprised by some amazing new Italian dish. My diet was pretty much anything I craved….pastas, casseroles, soups, and sometimes Chinese food for a change. On the bike I prefer to eat light, typically sandwiches or snacks supplemented with Ensure and Infinit custom-blended nutrition; the best product I’ve ever found for preventing cramps.
Each day I would ride a pre-planned minimum number of miles, and then decide on how many more miles to attempt depending on my progress and how I felt. Weather played a big part in that decision, as most storms rolled in at the end of the day. Several days were partially rained out and I then had to try and make up the miles later. Making up miles meant riding further into the night, and less sleep. You can only do that for so long before you reach your limit. Sleep is a very important part of this kind of record attempt, and not something that can be disregarded.
Unlike other HAM’R Month riders, who remained consistent with their daily mileage, I found I did better alternating longer days with shorter recovery days.
The biggest problem I had out on the roads, beside weather, was drivers’ breaking glass bottles on the shoulders and bike paths. I don’t understand why people do that, and it caused me lots of lost time repairing flats.
Like the Year-Rounder, the HAM’R Month is ideal for my style of riding. And the HAM’R Month is much easier to pull off logistically than many other record attempts. You don’t necessarily need an official, a follow car, or a crew. You can do it with the help of one person, like I did. You can ride any route, and even draft off others (I never had that advantage). But you do need a Spot Tracker or other acceptable tracking device. And Drew Clark, the WUCA Records Chairman, makes applying for and reporting very simple. The hardest part about it, in my opinion, is just staying consistent. Each day you ride, eat, sleep, and that’s about it. It gets old. And at some point you just want to take a day off….but you don’t. Time-management is very important.
Riding the HAM’R Month gives you a different perspective, and a greater appreciation for, the HAM’R Year. Riding continuously for 30 days is hard. Riding continuously for 360 days is too hard for me to imagine. I have so much respect and admiration for those great athletes who attempt the HAM’R Year.
My good friend and RAAM Champion Dennis Johnson of Texas told me during the attempt to not worry about distance and just do my best and have fun with it. I’m glad I took his advice because having fun made the ride so much more enjoyable and memorable.
As for Rusty Yeager, I really hope he recovers from his injuries and returns to ultracycling. Had he not pushed me this year, I would not have known what I was capable of. And if he had not crashed, he may very well have beaten me in the Year-Rounder. I imagine it would have come down to the final few days, and would have been very close. He’s a great competitor, and I’d love to watch him make another go at the WUCA Year Rounder. If he does, I will be cheering for him all the way.