While 46-year-old Janice Sheufelt’s remarkable biking time in the Race Across America (RAAM) Powered By Trane is enough to take the casual pedaler’s breath away, the organization of Flying J’s, the two-person cycling team of Sheufelt and Joel Sothern (55, Thousand Oaks, Calif.), is just as incredible.
Sheufelt said the cheering of her support team got her through to the second place age-group finish.
“It was like a small army,” she said.
Sheufelt and Sothern rode the last official half-mile of the 3,000-mile race together, finishing at roughly 1 p.m. Eastern time last Saturday, after riding six days, 22 hours and 29 minutes.
Before that, the race from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., required every member of the 13-person Flying J’s to be in sync.
“The two biggest challenges were the heat and getting enough calories for fuel,” Sheufelt said. “I wish we would have kept track of how many milk shakes I consumed. I had to burn many thousands of calories per day.”
The Flying J’s consisted of Sheufelt and Sothern trading off cycling duties every hour and a finely tuned mixture of individuals that were responsible from everything from left turns on back roads to changing bike shorts.
The team had three vehicles. An RV was used for the support crew as a mobile station while an Explorer was used as a “follow vehicle” for navigation aid. An Astro van was the “leap frog” vehicle used for the off-bike racer’s food and place of rest.
James Sheufelt and John Barrett traded off as leap-frog drivers
Peter Apathy was communications director and a navigator in a follow vehicle, along with Sam Bertsch. Terry Ward and Steve Gerbil were follow drivers.
Brenda Peterson was the nurse and navigated at times in the leapfrog vehicle.
Ann Whitis was the physical therapist and sports massage expert. Megan Sheufelt acted as assistant trainer.
Matt Turner was the RV wrangler, responsible for everything involving the crew’s mobile residence, and Mike Jacob was head of planning.
The team was put to the test almost immediately after its start on June 15.
A temperature range from 108 degrees in Santa Monica and higher in the deserts outside San Diego, along with a tail wind that provided no cooling effect left Sheufelt vomiting and incoherent.
“Most of the crew thought the race was over,” Sheufelt said. “I had to learn to bike in the heat. I completely overheated. I was a complete mess.”
To add to the danger, Sheufelt’s body had expended all caloric stores, meaning it was consuming muscle to stay active.
Nurse Peterson packed Ziploc Baggies of ice and cold, wet towels on Sheufelt to bring her body temperature down.
“After 45 minutes I was back to normal,” Sheufelt said. “There were a couple of times she saved the day. She recognized the heat stroke and was very assertive in how to manage that.”
Sheufelt would begin each of her cycling portions with Ziploc bags of ice under her clothing and her crew would spray her down with water as often as possible.
In another instance, assistant trainer Megan Sheufelt noticed her mother was shaking uncontrollably during a rest stop in eastern Colorado. Evaluation revealed Sheufelt confused and with low blood sugar. A tube of glucose was consumed and crew forced Sheufelt to eat.
“After a few days into the race I did not know it but I had run out of calories,” she said. “From that point on I made sure I ate and drank all the time, and every time I was off the bike. At no point in the race did I feel hungry. I was forcing myself to eat, even though none of the food tasted good. That was one of the problems because I love to eat, I love food, and I eat all the time when I am home. I was so physically taxed after a couple days of biking that nothing tasted good.”
The race in general went smooth. Sheufelt drew on her previous shorter race experiences to help with strategy. When it was her turn to pull, roughly every hour, she put on a new pair of bike shorts.
“I put on a clean pair of bike shorts every time I got on the bike,” Sheufelt said. “I brought 21 pairs.”
Showers were taken once a day.
Crew chief Mike Jacob would plan ahead to drive the RV, with the off-crew in it, to an RV park where they would shower. The working crew and riders would meet them there, one pedaling in and changing with the other.
“Either Joel or I was riding,” Sheufelt said. “There was never a time when neither of us was. We never lost time on the exchanges.”
The riders’ system was tricky from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. when “Night Rules” required that a vehicle always followed the rider every moment.
“It was very complicated but we had a system and it all worked out,” Sheufelt said.
When Sheufelt wasn’t riding she was eating, getting a massage from Whitis and trying to sleep.
“She would work on me when I was sleeping,” Sheufelt said. “She was awesome.”
Vehicle navigators would tell the drivers where to go and also acted as the communications director, having to phone in at each time station, and coordinating with the leapfrog vehicle that contained the other rider to determine the exchange.
Crew shifts were generally eight hours on, eight hours off.
Sheufelt suffered just one flat tire in West Virginia, a derailleur replacement in Colorado, and a tiny bit of back pain from the rest time in the support vehicle. Cycle Alaska’s John McConnochie provided essential gear, equipment and supplies for the race and Sheufelt’s charity organization was Sealaska Heritage Institute. Many teams have active charities they ride for or to raise awareness of.
Sheufelt wore a Bluetooth headset that allowed her to listen to her favorite music as well as the navigator.
“They would navigate me through all these turns,” Sheufelt said. “Turn right at the next stop light, then a left on the next street and so on. We went through a lot of urban areas. I could talk to them at any time.”
In general the duo did not ride more than an hour. Sothern’s specialty was climbing and he was faster on the uphill. Sheufelt was also a good climber but is faster than Sothern on the flatter portions and descents. They averaged roughly 17-20 miles each pull. A vehicle would drive up that distance with the other rider and wait.
“The hardest part was knowing when the rider would get there,” Sheufelt said. “You are trying to eat or sleep. The tricky part was for me to be ready, standing outside with my bike, the bike lights on, the head set on, the computer zeroed out, ready to pedal as soon as he got there. The trick was estimated just when he arrived.”
Only once the riders miscommunicated. Sheufelt had dashed into a convenience store to use the bathroom in Manchester, Ohio and when she came out Sothern was standing there. They lost one minute.
The steep road grade of the Appalachian Mountains was a time burner as well.
“I had the best gearing in my bike and I just barely made it up,” Sheufelt said. “I would have been so humiliated to have to push my bike up a hill. It was definitely steeper than any paved road in Juneau.”
Sheufelt began training for the RAAM last November after Sothern contacted her. Sothern wanted to beat his two-person record and identified Sheufelt as the person who could help him achieve that.
Sheufelt’s training involved a lot of cycling in her garage and three trips south (Calif./Wash.) between January and May, where she rode her bike a week each trip.
Sheufelt and Sothern crossed the finish line wheel-to-wheel.
“I was sure glad to be finished,” Sheufelt said. “I was exhausted but of course thrilled to finish the race and was happy with the time we did it in.”
Of the dozen two-person teams competing, the Flying J’s second place time of six days, 22 hours and 29 minutes, set a new mixed-category record for any age group and was faster than the record holder in the male two-person 50-and-over category.
The Flying J’s competed in the mixed two-person 50-59 age group. Groups are determined by the average of the biker’s ages.
Their time was just off the winning two-person male team of Hans Anton Nygaard and Karsten Hoffmann (Biking Vikings) who finished with a 6:14:26 in the 18-49 age group. The time also bested Sothern’s old mixed record.
Solo riders began the race on June 11. The fastest solo female finish was 11 days, 20 hours, 54 minutes (Maria Parker of 3000 Miles to a Cure/age 50-59) and the fastest male was 7:22:11 (Christoph Strasser/ under 50).
It is a category Sheufelt may soon be training for.
“This was an amazing opportunity to do something different,” Sheufelt said. “It was the ultimate hardest bicycle race I have done. It was a challenge, and that was why I did it. I have no goal right now but trying this solo seems like the logical next step.”