Saints to Sinners – 522 miles through the Utah/Nevada Desert

Prologue

The email read, “Congratulations on your registration for Saints to Sinners”. The name intrigued me, as did the fact that I had never actually registered for this event. But since the race organizer was so nice as to have sent me an email, I went to the website to check it out, and found that (no real surprise) my brother Terry had signed us up the night before at something like 1:20AM, for a bicycle relay that covers 522 miles from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas. I’m sure there was no alcohol whatsoever involved in that decision! Oh, and one more thing…this race through the desert was scheduled for the end of July!

Ok, so the fact is that we had been talking about doing this race for several years, and Terry just finally decided to pull the trigger. The relay event is mostly entered by 5 or 10 person teams, but every year there are a few solo racers and two-person teams that turn up as well. Together, my brother and I would be the latter, and to my knowledge we were the first ever entry in the “two brothers over 50 who both drive VW Golfs” division. We planned to use Terry’s enormous and incredibly plush motorhome as our leapfrog vehicle and racer lounge, and Terry was already working on recruiting a crew.

All painted up and ready to race.  Thanks Tera!!

All painted up and ready to race. Thanks Tera!!

Terry decided to start his own personal odyssey by driving Betty (that’s the 40’ rolling Taj Majal he calls a “camper”) from Phoenix to Salt Lake City, via San Diego to pick me up “on the way”. When he arrived at my place, I saw that his fiancé Tera had decorated Betty to let everyone know what we were up to. There were “Saints to Sinners” logos, a declaration of the race length of 522 miles, and one window had been scrawled with four words that succinctly and quite accurately describe our relationship: “Faster than my brother”. The phrase immediately became our team slogan.

To the Starting Line

Like a rolling dorm room

Like a rolling dorm room

So Thursday morning at 4:00AM, we hit the road. The drive to the race start was reasonably uneventful, and after something like 16 hours of cruising and jabbering about bicycles, bike racing, ultra racers we know, have ridden with, crewed for, or otherwise brushed up against (and now blame for our current predicament…you know who you are), we finally arrived at the hotel where the first two members of our crew had already arrived.

Crew member #1, Bill Wrona, is a longtime friend of ours, who first met Terry while working at Discount Tire Company about four thousand years ago. Bill started in that company as a part-timer changing tires, working under Terry. He somehow survived the experience of having Terry as a manager, and since that time has worked his way from a hired wrench into one of only 28 Senior Vice President positions in a company that now employs over 11,000 people. Just your average bike wrench.

Rich Ward center, Mark Smith on the right.  Bill Wrona to the left, sporting the hot pink reflective suspenders.

Rich Ward center, Mark Smith on the right. Bill Wrona to the left, racking bikes

Bill had invited a friend and fellow Discount Tire Vice President named Mark Smith to ride along and help out. Neither Terry nor I had met Mark before, but if Bill wanted him along that was plenty good enough for us. I love Bill Wrona like a brother (which may or may not be a good thing if you ask Terry), but I hadn’t actually seen him in quite a long time, and I was interested to see how a VP and an SVP of a major corporation would hold up to being asked to fill water bottles, rack bikes, and make sandwiches for a couple of guys racing for something like 30 hours straight through the Utah/Nevada desert. And so, we were all about to find out!

Our third crew member would be arriving later that evening, as he was hung up at the airport with a delayed flight. This final cog in the “Faster Than My Brother” machine is Rich Ward, who happens to have a Commercial Driver’s License, and has been driving large trucks in his various jobs for the past 20-or-so years. That skill would prove to be essential to our success as he was tasked with maneuvering Betty through some beautiful but sometimes rather tight back roads. But being an experienced driver isn’t all that Rich brings to the table. He, too, is a wildly successful business man who owns his own Snap-On Tools franchise and has held numerous annual top sales records over recent years. To sum up this crew as a power house would be a bit of an understatement.

OK, so we’ve all heard those stories where a bunch of guys with varied and unique backgrounds are thrown together under a stressful situation, but then somehow find common ground when tasked with a singular goal…and against all odds, come together and meld into a finely tuned machine that works together better than anyone could ever imagine. Well, this isn’t one of those stories. The fact is that the five of us felt like a team the moment we got together. Terry was the common thread for all of us except Mark, but Mark also fit in just as well as the rest of us. We shared dinner and a pre-race beer at a local restaurant, then hit the sack as early as possible, knowing that come tomorrow, we’d be racing!

Rock Star Bus

Rock Star Bus

Race Day

Terry and I awoke to the alarm and 3:30AM, and immediately started in with the jokes about how we could have taken up golf and still be sleeping. It never seems to get old between us. We had everything set to go from the night before, and in just a few minutes we walked out of the hotel to meet the crew who were already downstairs getting Betty warmed up and set to roll. As I exited the hotel, my bike and gear bag were taken from me by the crew, and I was escorted out to what suddenly looked like a rock star bus. I felt like a pro rider. If this was any indication of what was to come, I hoped I didn’t become some kind of egomaniacal prima donna.

At the race start, we met up with Michael Conti, who was the first person ever to finish this race as a solo racer, and who I had met last year when he stayed with us (at my cycling B&B…check out www.roadieshideawaycom if you don’t know), in the days leading up to his first solo RAAM endeavor. Michael made the effort to get up early and come down to the start to see us and all the other racers off on our adventure! He also brought me one of his RAAM Team kits (something I will treasure for the rest of my life) and a jacket, which would prove useful very shortly.

I took the first leg of the race, and rolled out with the rest of the first wave of teams at 5:00AM. A few of the racers jumped out front immediately and established a brisk pace for the first few miles. I hooked up with another recent friend, and one of Michael’s RAAM crew members. Craig Riddle is an ultra-racer who had originally planned to make a bid at the solo Saints to Sinners this year, but had some trouble with carving out adequate training time, and also didn’t have a full crew compliment, so he planned to treat the race as a training ride. I was able to ride and chat with Craig for a bit, and it was nice to have a friend next to me as I acclimated to this new race.

Just another perfect day on a bicycle

Just another perfect day on a bicycle

I stayed in the lead pack for the entire first leg (10 miles), and as a result I made good time and did very little work. None of those other teams stopped to exchange at the end of leg 1, however, and so Terry was left to ride off on his own, trailing some distance behind the lead pack. I felt sorry for him and mourned his difficult predicament for a solid 8 seconds before I settled back into the rockstar bus to relax and be driven up the road to the next exchange point, while being waited on hand-and-foot by our amazing crew. Rich Ward took the driver’s seat, of course, while Bill settled into the passenger seat to handle navigation and team morale. For the next 24-plus hours, every time we passed another racer, crew, or volunteer, Bill hung out the window of the motorhome and hollered and screamed his enthusiastic support. No matter how we performed in this race, people were going to remember us for our spirit! Mark took on the task of pushing calories, salt pills, liquids and information at me and/or Terry while one or the other of us lounged about on the couch.

Me and my bodyguard Bill

Me and my bodyguard Bill

I had devised a spreadsheet which spelled out my very rough estimate of how we would perform across each of the legs of the race. The total race time I had estimated was just over 29 hours, a time of which I would be very proud for our first attempt. Each time I got off the bike, I would ask Mark to report on what the estimated length of Terry’s current effort was going to be, as well as what kind of ride I had coming up next. The spreadsheet reported the distance, total gain and loss of elevation, and an estimated ride time of each of the legs. It took Mark only minutes to absorb the significance of the numbers, and to begin to report to us not only what info I had organized, but also to record our actual times and then give us encouraging reports when we had beat the estimate, or cleverly conceal any time we had fallen behind, by reporting how far ahead of the overall time we might be. Even after I figured out what he was up to, I soaked up his encouragement. I imagine that Mark is a great leader of people in his day-to-day life, just from observing him not only providing for our physical needs, but also looking for ways to keep us motivated and “in the game”. What a lucky stroke of good fortune for us that Bill was able to convince him to join our rolling party!

Meanwhile, Bill continued to squeal with great glee at anything on a bicycle, Rich Ward drove Betty like a pro, and me and Terry just pedaled.

Chaos meets Calculation

I set up to take over from Terry at the end of leg two. Several other racers were milling about as well, getting ready to take over from their own racers. After a short time, I saw Terry heading for the exchange point, out in front of the pack. Apparently he had caught the lead group once again, passed everyone else, and struck out on his own. However, as he approached, a pack of four other riders bore down and sprinted past him just before they all reached our exchange spot on the side of the road. Terry pulled up to me, handed me the timing chip and said, “Jeez, those guys came flying by me!” I said, “nice job” and meant it, then rolled out slowly, waiting for other riders to jump out on the road with me so I might grab a wheel for the third leg. However, there was so much turmoil and confusion with the other teams that nobody else was ready to roll. I heard riders shouting, “where do I go”, “where’s so-and-so?”, and even “that was stupid!” And so amidst the chaos, I decided to just ride out on my own and see if anyone caught me. That would be last time we saw another racer for the next twelve hours!

So it went for several legs throughout the morning. Michael Conti leapfrogged with us in his car for several hours, bouncing around in the race talking to and snapping photos of me, Terry and Craig Riddle as we pedaled along. Thanks for the company and calming presence Michael!

Taco Time!

Taco Time!

Taco Time!

At one of the exchanges around the middle of the day, Bill wandered off to get lunch for the crew. He came back with and enormous bag emblazoned with the logo “TACO TIME!”. This being so early in the race, my stomach felt fine and I was hungry, and so I joined in the taco party. These were not the very best tacos I’ve ever eaten, but I will say that I enjoyed them quite a lot at the time, and for several hours afterward.

The start of the race was organized into three waves, each starting an hour apart. This gives slower riders more time to reach the various time cutoffs, and ultimately the finish line. As a two-man team, we launched with the first wave at 5:00AM, and had been off the front of that wave of slower teams since Terry had pulled out ahead in the second leg. I knew there were faster teams who had since begun, both at 6:00AM and 7:00AM, and I wondered how long it would be before we were caught by them. Even though we had nobody to chase and nobody to draft off of, it was fun being out front, pretending that we (the only two-man team this year) were actually leading the race.

The Big Climb

There is a fair amount of climbing, about 13,000 feet, stacked into the first half of this glorious course, with one major climb up to the 9900’ summit of Cedar Breaks at mile 220. I began to speculate as to whether we might be able to reach that summit and plunge down the other side before being caught by any of those faster teams. When you are off the front, there is no way to know where other teams are during this event, as there is no real-time tracking. The teams behind can ask at each of the exchange points about what teams had come through already, but for us, no intelligence was available (actually, a pretty familiar feeling). So folks coming up from behind knew about us, but we didn’t know squat. All we could do was put our heads down and pedal.

Waiting for Godot - those skies don't look so friendly

Waiting for Godot – those skies don’t look so friendly

I waited at the exchange point just before the start of the big climb, and wondered why Terry seemed to be taking so long. I could see storm clouds gathering rather quickly around us, and wondered if, as they say at the Pirates of the Caribbean, “ye may be gettin’ wet”. Then a crew car from one of the other teams pulled in and told us that Terry was back up the road just a few miles, changing a flat. Well, that explained the delay then, at least in part. When Terry finally did make it in, he also complained of massive headwinds for the past long stretch. He said he had only been able to maintain 16MPH, when our overall average had been just over 20MPH up to that point. He was frustrated, but as I yelled out to him, “it is what it is”, and I was off to start the climb.

This big climb is not terribly steep but it is long; about 50 miles and 5200 vertical feet. The race organizer has broken it up into 4 legs, which meant I would climb parts 1 and 3, and Terry would take 2 and 4, also meaning he would do the final push at elevation, climbing from 8500 feet to over 9900. At the end of my first stage of climbing I was passed by a crew vehicle I had not seen before, a black truck with four very expensive bikes in the back. That, I thought, must be the first of the faster groups beginning to catch us…the real race leader. I saw no sign of other riders, even through my second climbing stage, but I was again passed by that truck.

There were some other racers at this next exchange…a sure sign that the chasing teams were getting close. One of the funny things about Terry and I is that we ride almost exactly the same bike fit, even though we’re not really exactly the same size. In this race, since Terry has an ultra-light climbing machine of a Madone 7.2, we were both riding this bike on the Cedar Breaks climb. When I rolled into the pits for the final exchange on the climb, I handed the bike to Terry and he yelled out “Cutter style” to the other racers who watched with gaping mouths as we not only handed of the timing chip, but also the bike we were both riding!

After handing off to Terry for his final push, we took Betty up the road a ways and Bill decided it was time to push his position as chief morale officer to a whole new level. Apparently one of the three suitcases he traveled with contained an amazing array of masks and costumes. He posted up along the road in a stunning ensemble and shouted out encouragement to Terry as he rode past. From that moment on, we were never certain what Bill and the others might be wearing the next time we saw them, and I’m told we never saw the very best of Bill’s wardrobe. If we were to decide to repeat this debacle again next year, I’m in great fear of what we might see!

Do these guys look like wildly successful businessmen?

Do these guys look like wildly successful businessmen?

Hey, You’re that Two-Man Team

Meanwhile, we drove the rest of the way up to the top of the mountain to wait, hoping that Terry could fend off whatever teams were now surely breathing down our necks. There, just shy of the ultimate summit, I hopped out of Betty headed for the volunteer table, to thank the kind folks there for making this whole event possible, as I and Terry had done at every other exchange point along the course. Before I had covered a few strides, a rider from a group with one of the best names in the race, “Team Halffast”, came out from another motorhome parked nearby and headed straight for me.

“Outstanding ride!” he announced as he beamed and reached out to pump my hand.

“Thanks so much,” I replied, rather overwhelmed by the warm reception from this unknown rider.

“Yeah, only two of you right?” I was shocked that he knew who we were and was making such a big deal out of it. “We’ve been chasing you all day, you guys are doing great!” I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but this racer, whose name I’m sorry to not have gotten, could not have made me feel any better or more accomplished. It was great to have our efforts recognized by fellow racers!

Volunteers make this race happen

Volunteers make this race happen

I finally made my way to the volunteers to give my thanks. One of the gentlemen there said, “Oh, you’re the two-man team, are you the one from San Diego?” I answered yes, again amazed that he knew who we were, and then he said that we had conversed via e-mail. I immediately realized I was speaking with Steven Tew, the race organizer. It was my turn now to pump his hand in great gratitude as I thanked him for his tireless efforts in putting on such a grand event. He mirrored the Halffast racer’s sentiment as to our performance thus far, and we chatted for a bit about how lucky we had been to have light cloud cover throughout the day to help keep us cool (-ish), and how tough some of the sections of headwind had been, when the call of “Rider Up!” rang out.

Since we had been out front pretty much from the beginning, I immediately trotted over to the motorhome to get on my gloves, and the jacket given to me by Michael just that morning, in preparation to take over from Terry and hit the descent. I returned to the exchange and looked up the road, and felt just a slight tinge of disappointment as I realized the first rider was not Terry, but a member of the 10-person Sprocket Rockets team. It was certainly inevitable that they would catch us, but my (somewhat random) hope of holding them off over Cedar Breaks was not to be. Their first rider came through at 7:42PM, just 4 minutes ahead of Terry. This meant they had gained the 2 hour headstart we were given, over the span of just over 14 hours. Not so bad, I suppose, for a couple of aging, beer-drinking brothers from the West side of Phoenix and their monster support crew.

The Big Descent

Just a short time later, Terry came through and handed off to me, so I could enjoy the 9 mile descent down from Cedar Breaks. I had decided to take two pulls here, to relieve the motorhome of having to chase me down the twisting/turning descent and get set up for an exchange right at the bottom. As I careened down the mountain, however, the temperature began to climb quickly and I knew that I was going to be overdressed for the next leg, which was a grinding 16 mile shallow ascent up toward St. George. The beautiful jacket that Michael had given me has zip-off sleeves, and I starting to wonder if I might be capable of removing them while out on the road. Luckily, it turned out that wasn’t going to be necessary because about 2/3 of the way down, I was passed by Rich Ward driving Betty as if she were a Porsche 911. They set up at the exchange and came out on the road to see if there was anything I needed before I headed on for the next leg. I stopped and with the exchange of just a couple words, they quickly helped me remove the jacket, transferred the timing chip from there to my jersey, refreshed my bottles, stuck a new ensure into my back pocket and shooed me back out onto the road in a matter of roughly 30 seconds. As I said earlier, it was as if this team had been racing together for years. Even the volunteer working that station remarked at our fantastic teamwork, while snapping a never-ending stream of photos that I sincerely hope to see one day!

It’s not all Rainbows and Unicorns

Bedding down between shifts

Bedding down between shifts

Up to this point, I had been feeling really good the entire race. My legs were tired but I felt like I was still putting out good power and had been able to maintain a good average speed. Up until this point…as I said. This next stage, which I was taking back-to-back from the long descent, was a 19 miler with just over a thousand feet of climbing. On paper, it should be reasonably easy, especially compared to the climb over Cedar Breaks that we had just completed. But a stiff headwind, oncoming darkness, and a bit of dehydration all conspired against me to make this the absolute longest pull of the entire race. To make matters worse, the Ensure shake that the boys had given me to give me fuel through the double pull had fallen out of my pocket and bounced down a ditch where I didn’t even consider stopping to try to find it, so I was also starting to run low on calories. I pushed along and eventually found my way into the pits where my crew and the volunteers gave me a hardy cheer. I immediately found my way onto the couch and started trying to decide what I should try to eat and drink to set myself back on track.

Meanwhile, Terry continued to push through the exhaustion and pain and put up incredibly strong, consistent times. We drove through the twisting, turning, climbing road out of Saint George, and came upon the next exchange point, and I lay resting on the couch as usual as Rich and Bill chatted quietly about where best to park Betty the behemoth. I thought nothing of this, as I had thought nothing of any of the concerns of driving a 40 foot motorhome through the tiny backroads of Utah for the entire race, because we had a professional driver in charge. If this sounds like a small thing, I will tell you it is anything but that. Because I completely trusted Rich, I was able to completely relax while off shift and never concern myself with whether or not he was in control of the motorhome. It was never even a question and therefore Terry and I were able to get maximum rest while off shift. Have I mentioned that our crew truly made this whole thing possible and an absolute dream come true?

So when I got out of the bus I was shocked to see the tight spot where Rich had backed Betty into, in the dark, maneuvering off a steep little two-lane road. Amazing!

The Toughest Guy I Know

The threatening rains from earlier resulted in just a few little spits and sprinkles, but never did amount to anything of note. The next few pulls through the night went well, and we kept pace as we completed the long climb out of St. George and descended down the other side. I took what would be my last night-time pull and ended by pushing into a stiff (probably 20-25MPH) headwind before handing off to Terry. As I gave him the timing chip he let me know he had been feeling pretty shaky during the last rest, with stomach cramps. His next pull was going to be a big challenge anyway, with the big headwind, and because he was facing 10 miles of Interstate which neither of us had been looking forward to. I asked if he needed me to take a double and he shrugged and said, “let’s see how it goes”.

“Just dial it back some and take it easy,” I offered, then retreated back to the motorhome to rest while the others fretted about how Terry was feeling.

As I closed my eyes, I heard Bill tell Mark, “Terry is the toughest guy I know. If he’s complaining about something, it’s bad.” Rich parked the motorhome near the freeway entrance, and they all watched as Terry climbed up onto the Interstate. As the crew fretted together for Terry, and in my great concern, I dozed off for the first real sleep since we had started this whole thing. When I awoke, I heard Bill yelling excitedly. They had driven up to where Terry was, battling the headwinds on the final stretches of the freeway section. Bill had yelled out the window to ask if Terry was OK, and he replied with a thumbs-up.

“I’m OK!” he shouted.

Terry had somehow already recovered, in the midst of the worst pull of the entire race. As Bill said, Terry is one of the toughest guys we know.

S2S16

Sunrise

My next pull was pure joy. The road had flattened into gentle rollers and the sun was coming up. The best part of riding through the night is this first pull in the early morning light, as the world is waking up. I’ve ridden this shift in 3 or 4 different events now, and it is always magical. During the night, I had been having a very difficult time holding onto my aero position. My neck was aching, making it tough to keep my head up. My shoulders burned, and I felt like my power was off when down on the aerobars. But now that the sun was up and the birds were chirping, all of that pain completely vanished, and I was once again able to ride for miles in aero. Funny what tricks our mind plays on us!

Bill and the rest of the crew continued on with more costume shenanigans on the last few early morning pulls through the desert near Lake Meade, and the finish of the race.

More sinners than saints on this trip

More sinners than saints on this trip

Then on my second-to-last pull, I had another team’s support vehicle leapfrog with me for a good long while. They would bounce ahead a ways, then get out of their car and cheer me on. It was a great joy to have these fellow sportsmen out on the road giving me support! I had the chance to see them at the next exchange, and thank them for the boost they gave me in this late stage of the race.

At the last exchange, I was surprised at the power I was still able to put out, climbing through the big rollers that challenged us all the way to the very end. Unsure of how Terry was feeling, I asked him if he wanted me to take a few more miles and he immediately said no, he was feeling great. Good I thought, finish up your last pull and I’ll take it home from there!

The End

I took over the reins just 9 miles from the finish line, and after one last little stinger of a climb, coasted in to find Terry waiting at the final turn. We rode in under the banner together, to the cheers of our crew, Tera, and about six other adoring fans (who were actually just more race volunteers). That’s how it goes at these ultra events. The finish line is rarely the spectacle you might hope it would be after such an epic adventure. But that’s not really what it’s all about anyway, is it? Together, the five of us had an adventure of a lifetime. Our incredible crew minimized the stress and difficulty and maximized the fun, making it possible for Terry and I to concentrate on keeping the bikes moving, and on remembering to enjoy the ride. We finished 7th overall in a field of close to 50 teams, in 29 hours and 34 minutes. I had estimated 29 hours and 15 minutes in the spreadsheet, and I’m very proud of our work to come so close to that rather optimistic estimate on our first attempt. One of the things we did exceptionally well was to limit our time off the bike and ensure that one of us was always out there on the road pedaling, thanks in no small part to our fabulous crew. Thanks again boys, for keeping us rolling and making it fun!

Terry having fun!

Terry having fun!

The Saints to Sinners course and event are absolutely stellar, and I would recommend this to anyone who can put together a team (2, 5 or 10 riders). Steven has done a great job of balancing control and safety with simplicity, and this may just be my favorite event I have ever been a part of. I can’t say for certain whether or not we’ll be back next year, but since it ends in Vegas, I’d say the odds are pretty good. Hopefully we’ll see some of the rest of you out there too! In the meantime, come see me at the Roadies Hideaway, we’ll have a room and a fabulous stretch of pavement waiting for you!

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The Real End