Operation Colorado > COVID Race Report
June 19-20, 2020
483 mi from Utah to Kansas
I was in my tuck behind Alex doing my best to be as small as possible to slice through the air as fast as possible as we bombed down Highway 24 from Woodland Park down toward Colorado Springs. We were alternating coasting and spinning in our biggest gear but we were going so fast that pedaling was doing little to nothing. We’d latched onto the draft of a motorbike going somewhere in the neighborhood of 55mph/88kmph and he began to pull away. We put down just a little power to try and stay in the draft and suddenly I felt the timing chain pop off. “Fck!” I’m pretty sure I screamed. (The timing chain is what connects the pilot and stoker pedals and is how the pilot generates power back to the drive chain which turns the gears attached to the rear wheel.) Alex briefly unclipped thinking he could kick the chain back on with his shoe, but we did the smart and safe thing by pulling over to the side of the road and fixing the chain. Barely three minutes after we got back up to around 50mph/80kmph though I felt the thing that I really hate feeling on a bike—the snapping of a chain. This time I’m positive I screamed “Fck!” Along with some other four letter words and invoking the name of multiple deities. I really thought our race against the sun was over.
It was our coach, Derick Williamson, who dreamed up Operation Colorado Over COVID. We were roughly seven weeks into our new normal of self isolated COVID life. The Olympic/Paralympic Training Center was nonoperational except for feeding the handful of athletes who’d chosen to remain living on campus in hopes that we’d be able to resume something resembling training in the near future. There was no word from the USOPC or any International Governing Bodies on projections for getting things back up and running. I’d come off a pretty solid block where I’d again increased my 20 min power and I was now finally pushing better than 3.5 to 1 watts per kilo but had pushed myself so hard that I was now nursing a very tender IT band.
I lived in this limbo of wanting to stay on top of my training and wanting to just curl up in a ball and feel sorry for myself. The times I looked forward to the most came when I could talk to my girlfriend over FaceTime audio, and the three times a day I went to collect meals from the cafeteria when I had some form of human contact when I interacted with the cafeteria workers who made it their mission to keep our spirits up and bellies full to the best of their ability. They have no idea how much I looked forward to conversing with them and how sane they kept me.
I knew my fellow Paratriathlon Resident teammates had to also being feeling something similar so I was beyond stoked when Derick proposed a relay style bike ride across the State of Colorado. Not only would we have something to set our minds on to train for, but we could use this opportunity to raise money for those who weren’t as lucky as we were during COVID. The triathlon/endurance community has been hit pretty hard and the USA Triathlon Foundation had set up a relief fund to try and help race directors, coaches, and athletes who had lost their primary sources of income due to the cancellation of so many events across the world. We also recognized that with the massive loss of jobs across Colorado, food was critical to peoples survival. We were lucky that we had so much food prepared for us and we would never go hungry, but there are so many who rely on food banks for mere fractions of what we had available. So we wanted to do our best to help both causes. We set a goal of raising $20210 and splitting the proceeds between the USA Triathlon Foundation’s COVID Relief Fund and the Care and Share Foodbank for Southern Colorado.
And so we set our sights on preparing for and completing our own race.
Having taken part in the ultimate bike relay race just two years earlier (Race Across America) I did my best to help square away some of the logistics of actually getting us from Utah to Kansas. I recruited Paul Majors, who’d been our head mechanic for RAAM and was a general logistics guru having been on multiple RAAM crews, to help as well. The plan was to begin at sunset on June 19 and finish by sunset June 20. Our reason was that June 20 was the summer solstice and therefore gave us the most daylight in which to ride. I recruited my primary training guide in Colorado springs—former pro triathlete—Alex Libin to be my pilot and we were able to get permission for Alex to come on complex once a week to collect me so we could ride the tandem together. We dubbed our ride Operation Colorado Over (>) COVID and it gave me in particular something to focus on besides how incredibly bored and miserable I could become just sitting around my room all day. Finally, the day arrived.
“Race week!” My strength and conditioning coach, Sam, emailed me the morning of June 19 in response to my email announcing the beginning of the race against the sun that evening. Sam had been in Florida with us eager to watch us race when our Tokyo Selection event was canceled due to COVID. All week he’d been amped up and every time he saw any of us on campus he’d yell “Race week!” It was a reminder to me that we as athletes weren’t the only ones eager to get out and compete. Those people who’s jobs it was to train us, and keep us as strong and healthy as possible were eager to see us compete again, even if it was just against the sun.
Our team of cyclists were as follows:
Hailey Danz: Paratriathlete, 2016 Paralympic Silver Medalist and Tokyo hopeful
Melissa stockwell: Paratriathlete, 2016 Paralympic Bronze Medalist, and Tokyo hopeful
Kendall Gretsch: Paratriathlete, 2x 2018 Paralympic Nordic skiing Gold Medalist, and Tokyo hopeful
Kevin McDowell: ITU able-bodied pro, and 2020 Tokyo hopeful
Jack Oneal: Paratriathlete, future Paralympic hopeful and our youngest teammate (only 17, but strong as an ox)
Renee Tomlin: ITU able-bodied pro and 2020 Tokyo hopeful
Rocky Harris: USA Triathlon CEO
Allysa Seely: Paratriathlete, 2016 Paralympic Gold Medalist, 2020 Tokyo hopeful
We also had tons of help from volunteer crew as drivers and navigators and mechanics. Derick and Joseph (one of our mechanics) stuck behind or right around each rider when we were out on the road acting as our follow van/support wagon while the rest of the riders were shuttled up the road. Just like we’d done with Team Sea to See in 2018, riders were put on teams of two or three bikes to maximize speed with short pulls ranging from 20-40 minutes in duration. Hailey, Melissa and Kendall got us rolling beginning at 6:30 PM at the Utah/Colorado border and trading off pulls for 93 miles until they reached Montrose, where the rest of us had congregated to wait. Then it was up to Alex, Kevin and myself to get us through the middle of the night over some gnarly technical terrain.
Team 2, shift 1
Alex and I stood by my Chinook Time Trial Tandem as Hailey and Kendall seemed to bounce out of the shuttle van with excitement. Melissa was out on the road finishing up the last pull of the shift. Then it would be mine and Alex’s turn to ride. Melissa came cruising into the parking lot of the Toyota Dealership we’d posted up in and enthusiastically screamed “Go Kyle and Alex! Go! Go! Go!”
Alex and I clipped in and pushed off. I had that old bubbly excitement that comes with the first real steps of an adventure. Our first pull was longer than I would’ve liked for speed purposes, but logistically there weren’t any safe places to pull over to do an exchange with Kevin. So Alex and I started off pedaling easy but ramped it up the steeper the road got. We wound up climbing the majority of the first 12 miles (20km) or so. All the while Derick was in my ear giving encouragement and updates as what to expect coming up ahead. Our shuttle van manned by Joseph L, Sev, and Tracy were also in contact with our follow van and us via radio letting us know where they were located and staging Kevin. Alex and I finally ground our way up over the top of a particularly long steep ascent that topped out around 8000 ft in elevation and bombed downhill for the next 5 mi (8km) or so. It had taken us more than 50 minutes to go just a hair over 20K and a fraction of that time to cover the next 8k. We averaged better than 40mph downhill and briefly touched 50mph before having to lay on the breaks as we slid to a stop and sent Kevin on his way. Kevin attacked the next 25K section with gusto and then handed it off to us again.
It was by now the coldest part of the night and I’d put on both arm and leg warmers to stave off the chill. We time trialed for about 25K holding about 42 mph on average as we only had a couple of little steep kickers. For the most part this section was flat or rolling allowing us to hold quite a bit of speed. Plus we didn’t want to get cold so we had to pedal hard to keep warm. We handed it back off to Kevin to pull into Gunnison and leap frogged ahead to Gunnison where we met up with the RV that Hailey had secured for the team. Kevin rolled in and turned duties over to the team comprising Jack, Renee, and Rocky. This team had a tough slog of a shift as they began riding around 3:00 AM and climbed up and over Monarch pass which at over 11000 ft would be the highest elevation point on the route. According to some projections Derick and Paul had drawn up prior to the start of the race we were ahead of schedule. Kevin, Alex and I started playing a little game looking at the projected time for our next shift and seeing if we could beat it. Our first shift was to have taken 3 hours 48 minutes. Kevin challenged Alex and I that we three could complete it in 3 hours 28 minutes. So we tried and I’m pretty sure we beat that goal. But now it was time to fuel up and rest. Knowing the importance of rest in 24 hour relays I quickly changed out of my sweaty kit, grabbed a quick bite and curled up in an RV bunk doing my best to nap.
We drove to our next Vehicle Meet Point to wait for Team 3 to finish their shift. I think I napped around an hour but as I expected it was just enough to get me through the rest of the race.
We’d parked in a gas station parking lot and when the gas station opened for business a few people went in to get coffee. I was in desperate need of caffein, so Mark (our volunteer RV driver) brought me a large steaming cup of jo. Mark, I owe you a massive thank you and look forward to returning the favor as soon as I can. That cup of coffee kept me well caffeinated for the next 12 hours or so.
Team 3 rolled in right on time and we sent Team 1 back out on the road to tackle the stretch that would take us up and over Wilkerson Pass. This shift in my opinion was the most challenging. There was a lot of elevation gain, it was at a tough time of day and there were some pretty tricky descents. Nevertheless Hailey, Melissa and Kendall handled it like the champs they are.
Team 2, Shift 2
Alex Kevin and I waited with Team 3 at the RV while Team 1 ground their way through the terrain. We expected them to arrive around 10:00 AM, but that came and went and no one could get cell service to contact Derick or Joseph in the follow van. Radios weren’t picking anything up except the occasional direction or instruction from Derick so we kept having to guess at the girls location. They finally rolled in after Kendall did a screaming fast descent of Wilkerson Pass holding better than 40mph in her hand cycle. And people think I’m crazy for riding 50mph on a tandem. 40mph on a piece of equipment that low to the ground where car tires are taller than you?… That’s crazy!
Alex and I rolled out just before noon. We had now fallen just a bit behind our goal of 24 hours and had to push to close that gap. Alex and I rode hard but had a long climb with little descending. We still maintained a 30Kmph pace to our first exchange with Kevin who bombed downhill hitting better than 80Kmph weaving in and out of traffic as our shuttle van raced to stay ahead of him. Then Alex and I hammered away at a small climb and then got into our arrow tucks for what we’d been anticipating since we’d finalized the route we’d take—the screaming descent down Highway 24 from Woodland Parkdown to the outskirts of Colorado Springs. For a good while we were crushing the descent flying at more than 50mph (80kmph) and had even tucked into the draft of a motorbike. And that’s when near disaster struck as the timing chain came off. Alex kept the bike upright and we were able to descend a bit further while making our way to the shoulder of the road. We had to disconnect the quick link on the timing chain and with Joseph (our mechanic) helping us, we got the chain back on. Shortly after we got rolling again though the quick link failed and the chain broke apart and flew off the cranks landing somewhere on the Highway. Alex again got us to the shoulder and we stood there wondering if our ride was over. I seriously thought we either wouldn’t be able to retrieve the chain and if we did that it would be unsalvageable. Zack and I’d been having issues with the timing chain coming off numerous times in the early part of 2020 and I figured it was time to replace the chain in general. Joseph was able to retrieve the chain and had a spare quick link in his bag of tools. He tightened the bottom bracket much tighter than we generally would and we prayed another quick link wouldn’t fail. We made it down the rest of the descent and linked up with Allysa Seely who’d ride through Colorado Springs, circumstances not allowing her to be in constant rotation with us the entire time.
Alex and I were bummed that our chain had decided to fail us twice as we were really looking forward to chasing some of the best known times down 24. We knew we probably wouldn’t get the overall time, but it would’ve been fun to see how close we could safely get. I made a mental note to get new chains and maybe a bigger chain ring for downhill KOM (King of the Mountains) chasing attempts.
Allysa road from our exchange point to Colorado Springs City Hall where the entire team took a knee on the steps for 8min 46 seconds before continuing on. We shuttled up ahead to an exchange point where Kevin took back over from Allysa and then Alex and I time trialed the last pull of the shift. At around 25K and slightly uphill into a headwind this particular pull hurt quite a bit. Not to mention I was tense constantly expecting the chain to snap again. It held though and Alex and I were able to hold around 42kmph for that particular pull before handing it off to Team 3.
Now the exchanges and shift change overs were coming fast and furious.
The Final Push
We were more than 350 miles into our race against the sun with less than 150 miles to go. We all knew we had to push the pace in order to beat the sunset. We weren’t going to make it in 24 hours, but we could still finish before the sun sank below the horizon at 8:30 PM. Jack, Renee and Rocky hammered their shift as we got further and further east in Colorado. Then Hailey, Melissa and Kendall had one more very short shift totaling around 20 miles. And then it was back to Alex, Kevin and I for our last shift which was one pull each of about 25K.
Both Alex and I were feeling the effects of the last 24 hours. Alex had been up since 5 AM the day before as he had to get a full day of work in before heading to Montrose to start the ride. Then he only got a brief nap between shifts. Plus, he hadn’t time trialed like this in a couple of years since retiring from full time triathlon. I was also fatigued, my legs were feeling heavy and my confidence was shaky. I trusted Alex on the front of the bike but this 25K pull was on a super busy road with lots of truck traffic and the wind had rarely been in Alex’s and my favor. Additionally, we had the suspect timing chain. Nevertheless we clipped in and pedalled. We didn’t have the strength to time trial like we would in a sprint triathlon, so we settled into a strong tempo effort, something we’d hold for an Ironman and were able to roll into our final exchange with Kevin holding around 41kmph for that final hard 25K pull. Kevin went out and hammered his 25K stretch clawing back a bit of time averaging nearly 45kmph. Then it was back to Team 3 for one last fast shift.
The rest of us shuttled up to a point a little less than a mile from the Kansas State line and cheered as Jack road in on his final pull. Then we all got on our bikes and soft pedaled the final stretch to Kansas.
A little more than 25 hours after Team 1 took the first pedal strokes we reached the eastern edge of Colorado. 483 miles averaging around 20-21mph and climbing more than 22000 ft with a motley crew of triathletes with different strengths and weaknesses we accomplished something we could be proud of. What was great was that it wasn’t about us as individual athletes. It took each team doing their part to get us across the state. Even better, just hours before we started riding on June 19 we’d reached our primary fundraising goal of $20210 and had surpassed it by the end of the ride.
Some Parting Thoughts:
There is a concept that was popularized by British Cycling over the last 15 or so years. That concept is “Marginal Gains.” The thought is that small changes or actions yield big results and differences. Funnily enough athletes and people in general know this. When we were brainstorming hashtag and fundraising ideas I proposed 1 penny per mile or $4.83, what seems very small, but multiply that out by 10, 20, 30 people it becomes a big number very quickly. I took the idea from doubling a penny 64 times. Start with and double it 64 times you wind ups with $180 quadrillion. A small change can make a big difference. The same went for what we did in the race itself. Originally the plan was to just use 15 passenger vans and for each team to sleep in those vans at each VMP. However, an RV would allow us to socialize better as well as stretch out. A little thing that went a long way. Renting radios for each rider seems like a big expense but when riders are out there cycling up a hill, tired unsure if they have 1 mile, or 5 miles left an encouraging voice in their ear helps them through. Small changes over time yield big differences.
I think that’s one of things I love most about ultra distance racing as a team. Small pieces come together and each piece plays it’s roll. I am not the strongest cyclist or triathlete on our team but brought a certain skill set that aided in us getting across Colorado in time to beat the sun. Rocky constantly joked that he was our weakest cyclist and he hoped he wouldn’t hold us back. However, Rocky was sandbagging as the combination of him, Jack and Renee blasting up Monarch Pass and time trialing their legs off on the eastern plains kept us on and ahead of schedule.
Originally we had a sprinter van that was going to act as a floater and media vehicle but they quickly jumped in to help become a shuttle van because they were the only vehicle large enough to quickly load and unload my tandem to keep us on pace. Also, Joseph L (who’s owned said sprinter van) hopped out on his bike and rode with Kendall as she tore down Wilkerson Pass down amongst the tires of speeding traffic. Everyone plays their part and collectively work together to make the team a success. We didn’t focus on any one cyclist, group or issue. We saw problems and did the best we could to fix them quickly and efficiently. Everyone who lent a hand played an important role and we can’t thank every single one of you enough. From those who helped us as volunteer drivers, to those who donated, to those of you who just virtually cheered us on, you all were part of Operation Colorado > COVID. We thank you! And if you missed out on this round, I heard some rumblings among the team that they want to do it again someday. So keep an eye out 🙂
Until then always keep an “Eye On Your Vision!”