By Drew Clark, Records Chairman and Board member
The award of Ultra Cyclist of Distinction is the highest award conferred by WUCA. Past winners of the UCD award include Russ Loomis, Dan Driscoll, and Hugh Gapay. And WUCA is proud to announce the latest winner of this prestigious award: Ross Muecke.
I recently conducted an email interview with Ross to find out more about his quest for this award.
DC: When did you first learn about the UCD award?
RM: In 2007, I had gotten it into my head that I needed to be RAAM qualified. At the time I had no interest whatsoever in actually riding RAAM. I was pretty new at Ultracycling and was still struggling to get through 500 miles without catastrophic bike fit issues, so to be cool enough to wear a RAAM qualified t-shirt seemed like the pinnacle of what I could achieve. I was unable to finish my first attempt at Race Across Oregon, but, with the wife’s permission, I climbed back on the bike for the start line at the Tejas 500. I finished, and qualified for RAAM – barely.
2008 was my first big year personally, with all kinds of excitement and drive to ride well. I found out that year that it is far easier to ride a century-a-week than it is to ride a century-a-month, and I was determined to conquer RAO. I managed third place that year, and pushed out platinum miles for the Year-Rounder. So, it was late in 2008, as I was randomly browsing the WUCA website looking for something cool to do the next year that I spied the UCD award. As I read through the requirements I realized I was already successful on the riding tasks for two years running. And, actually, it had been fairly easy to get the Year-Rounder miles – though RAO had tasked me pretty hard.
DC: What motivated you to earn this award?
RM: Quite simply, the statement on the website said the UCD was the “highest award an ultracyclist could achieve”. Who wouldn’t jump at THAT?
DC: Which of the standards was the hardest for you to achieve?
RM: I’ve ridden a lot of really difficult miles through the years, with every challenge thrown in that any ultracyclist has experienced: Sleet storms that freeze your hands, making it impossible to feel your brake levers; desert heat that leaves your water bottles empty 40 miles from home; headwinds that blast your forward progress to nothing (I once stayed on the bike simply because I could go forward at 7 mph, while walking only yielded 6); stomach shutdowns that suck every last calorie out of your system – while your crew knowingly shakes their heads and tries yet one more PBJ on you; tack-weed infested roads that use up every spare tube and patch you brought; and of course the ever-present hallucinations as you pray the sun would come up soon.
But the most difficult ride I ever did to get the UCD was actually a cake-walk ride: Washington State S-N-S, over the Labor Day weekend in 2011. Just a quick weekend jaunt from a start line 25 miles from my house, up to Canada on an essentially flat route, then back. 525 miles or so, 3 or 4 of your friends along to enjoy the scenery, and two officials to keep track of rules and progress. Pretty simple after having ridden RAAM itself in 2010.
Well, 2011 was the year I had pegged as the year I would do my volunteer hours. You still have to hit the riding goals during the year, but also have to put in some hours giving back to the ultra community. Quickest way to get that done was to volunteer to officiate RAAM, which I ended up doing along with the help of my son and first crew member, Brandon. Turns out officiating RAAM has it’s own special set of challenges – it is every bit as stressful as crewing for a solo rider. So by the time I got home I had lost a full month of riding – and about half a month’s worth of sleep. By now I knew I wasn’t going to get the Year-Rounder miles I needed, so instead of buckling down and riding harder, I volunteered to help officiate RAO. Another couple weeks of riding gone. It was early August before I was able to consistently put in any miles.
I realized that I was in peril of losing 5 years worth of work on the bike, but still couldn’t generate any interest to go out and suffer on the bike. I went back through the standards and realized the only thing I had left that would qualify me was a state record attempt of at least 500 miles – which is what planted me on the Columbia River at the Washington/Oregon border early that Saturday morning. The first hours of the ride went fine, the crew and I having fun teasing each other, my Bianchi rolling up-course into a slight headwind. But late in the afternoon, the heat of the day started it’s games with my stomach as I tried to stay hydrated and fed. Night came on as we made a crew exchange, then the turnaround in Canada.
What made this ride so very hard for me now began to surface: As the night wore on, I started getting drowsy, but was reluctant to stop and sleep on such a “short” ride. Every time I ate, though, I got so drowsy I could hardly ride in a straight line. As I laid down for my first nap, all the minutes and hours that I had lost during RAAM with useless napping came crashing down on me, and I never did truly rest. In the morning a horrible, cold headwind attacked me as I climbed the one and only hill on the course – Labor Day weekend and a frost pocket was pouring over the top of the plateau down the canyon I was climbing. We got to the top and found the irrigation sprinklers had coated the fields with ice. Fortunately the sun was up and I was able to warm up while I napped, and awoke feeling better.
But my lack of interest in riding in general for the year had left me inattentive to my caloric intake and I was unable to generate a reasonable forward speed. At this point the ONLY thing that kept me riding forward was the knowledge that all those years of riding were going to count for nothing. So I put my head down, tried to eat as the temps climbed back into the 90’s and resolved to finish even if it took all day.
Retrospectively, what made that ride so hard for me was all in my head. Both the lack of interest in riding plus the lack of desire to induce any more suffering took the “fun” out of it. Not that “fun” needs to be part of every ride – it certainly wasn’t fun climbing Wolf Creek Pass in 2010 on RAAM, but I was happy and motivated to be there conquering that climb. It wasn’t “fun” to battle headwinds for the last 80 miles of the HooDoo 500 in 2009, but I had RAAM to look forward to. But Labor Day 2011, southbound from Canada – it was not only not “fun” , it was something I had lost interest in enduring.
DC: Where are your life interests taking you now? What new challenges do you see on your horizon?
RM: It’s tough to craft an answer to those last questions, since in some sense I feel those who have helped me out for all those years would be disappointed to know the I haven’t been riding much. I have zero interest in trying RAAM again – there were 100 reasons a day after Wolf Creek Pass that would have been legitimate reasons to quit, but my crew and I still made it to Chillicothe before my soul needed sleep more than my person needed to finish. I don’t feel I left anything unfinished out there on that race course –to me the real triumph was knowing that I could legitimately stand on that start line.
It’s now mid-October and I think I have all of 250 miles racked up on the Year-Rounder. The last time I rode for real, with actual training intensity was back in April. Forty miles of hard climbing and long pulls into the desert winds of southeast Washington. When I got home from that ride my stomach hurt from trying to do it’s work under the duress of riding – all too familiar and disinteresting to me. That really was the last time I rode. My wife and I moved to North Carolina over the summer (that’s three complete crossings of the continent in one summer: 1 for officiating RAAM, 1 for getting home, and 1 more to move to NC!) – and it is beautiful here. I have had no interest whatsoever in exploring the state by bike, though. I suppose I could pull the “roads are too narrow with heavy 60 mph traffic, including trucks” card, but the real truth is that I need a break from the bike.
My crew and I saw some amazing things, and did some stuff that most people would consider extraordinary. I’ve trained for years in the dark of the morning before work, I’ve spent weekends riding farther than most people care to drive, and one summer I even rode farther than most people care to fly. My then-fourteen year old son crewed me out of the back of my Volvo for the entire 54 hours we were awake for the Texas Time Trials, my wife has let me use that same Volvo as a primary support vehicle – but I wouldn’t dare presume to use her new Volvo for that task! When people ask me what I did over the weekend after a race, I usually smirk and say “nothing” – but they still wonder why I look like crap for the rest of the week. I’ve commuted to work in the center of winter, I’ve ridden across deserts in 100 plus temps, I’ve gazed at the North side of Mount Ranier in the morning, then looked at it’s south face later the same day, I’ve peered over the edge of the glass elevator in California – and then passed three racers on the way down. And ridden farther than you can see from the top of that descent in one night. What’s not to be happy about?
I suppose it may seem that since I don’t want to attempt RAAM again I don’t have a reason to train, but RAAM was never the ultimate goal of riding for me. It just seemed to be the natural progression of my riding to tackle that race, and I really don’t regret a moment of it. RAAM is an amazing experience – I still can’t believe how good I felt in the midst of all that goes on in that race. Of course, just like the UCD award, it turned out to be way harder than I had thought it would be – and for reasons I never would have guessed. RAAM’s difficulties for me were almost entirely sleep-deprivation issues, which was something I had assumed I could just suffer through. Turns out I should have spent a little time before the race “training” myself to go without sleep.
The UCD’s difficulties also turned out to be in my head –sort of like RAAM. The physical act of riding the bike wasn’t too difficult, but when I got to the point where I needed a little time off the bike it became really difficult to put all the details in place to make a 525 mile record attempt.
Since our move to North Carolina we have been focused on our new jobs and our new surroundings – most weekends we spend sightseeing and finding local restaurants. Lots of interesting historical sites to explore as well. My job ended up being a graveyard shift that is really tough to get used to working. It seems to be just as disorienting to work all night as it was to ride all night, hopefully I will get used to it soon!
On behalf of WUCA, I want to congratulate Ross Muecke on his achievement of the UCD award. We wish Ross the best as he turns to new challenges.