Editor’s note: This is the second and final part of the series. Part 1 published Wednesday, June 25.
By the time Dr. Janice Sheufelt had biked from California to western Kansas, less than halfway through the 3,000-mile Race Across America extreme bicycle race, she worried she might not be able to finish. She battled physical ailments but forged ahead anyway after taking a brief respite to seek treatment for altitude sickness in Colorado. When she reached eastern Kansas she began to feel better and regained hope.
“All of a sudden, I could breathe and I could pedal again,” she said. “From there I began to gradually make up time.”
Through most of Missouri, Sheufelt kept the same pace as the lead biker and then slowly pulled away.
“The eastern half of the course got really hard,” she said. “We wanted to put as much cushion as we could between me and the next biker. I just kept riding as much as I could and sticking with the 90-minute sleep.”
Through Indiana and Illinois the heat continued. Thunder and lightning and rain made the riding even more dangerous than the potholes, cracks, railroad tracks and vehicle traffic.
Sheufelt began wheezing again in the Appalachians and had to begin her treatments once more. Fog and rain added to the discomfort.
“Sometimes, it was so foggy I could barely see the white line in the road,” Sheufelt said. ““But we were reassured, as my lead was increasing as we went. We just pushed on. My crew was awesome. The best possible — ever.”
Sheufelt’s 90-minute breaks would come between midnight and 2 a.m.
“I usually made the call when I was tired,” she said. “At one point, I did nod off but fortunately there were rumble strips on the road that woke me.”
According to leading researchers and exercise studies, 90-minutes is one natural sleep cycle that puts a sleeper through one full REM cycle. For ultra racing athletes, either a 90-minute or three-hour cycle is advised.
“If the road was really straight or if it were really hot, I would tend to get sleepy,” Sheufelt said. “The sleep deprivation was hard but at least I did not have any hallucinations.”
Food also was a serious consideration.
“My goal was to eat 8,000 calories a day,” Sheufelt said. “I prefer to eat mainly regular food. Some ultra cyclists will go to an all-liquid diet. I was eating constantly.”
Sheufelt would eat a big breakfast and shower in the RV during the 7 a.m. crew change.
Chef, nutritionist and nurse Stacey Bjerkeset of Juneau was the cook in the RV.
“She would have an incredible breakfast laid out for me,” Sheufelt said.
If she stopped for any reason, the crew in the follow van would give her milkshakes, sandwiches, cheese, fruit and cookies.
“You name it and I ate it,” she said. “I would just say, ‘Give me anything.’”
The day crew worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The driver was Terry Ward of Juneau, the navigator was Peter Apathy of Sitka and the trainer was Anne Whitis of Chinle, Ariz. (formerly of Juneau).
The night crew were Sam Bertsch of Anderson, Ind., Janice’s husband Jim Sheufelt as navigator, and trainers Meagan Sheufelt (her daughter) and Allan Moltmaker of Mount Clemens, Mich.
John and Sara Lang of Juneau drove the errand vehicle, the Sheufelt’s own Volkswagen van. The errand vehicle was in charge of shopping, delivery and laundry, and stayed close at hand at night, as Sheufelt was comfortable sleeping in her home van.
The RV had two full time occupants, Sheufelt’s brother Ted Heaton of Seattle and chef Bjerkeset.
During the day Terry, Peter and Anne were with Sheufelt in the follow vehicle and the others were sleeping in the RV.
At night Sam, Jim, Megan and Allan were in the follow vehicle while the day crew slept in the RV.
“My brother’s job was to get the RV up the road to the next 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. crew switch and make sure that crew was rested,” Sheufelt said. “He did an awesome job. We never missed the switch. Everyone took care of me from head to toe.”
At about 5 or 6 p.m., Peter in the follow vehicle would be texting Jim in the RV as to their estimates where Janice would be at and where to park.
“It was helpful because about half the crew had done it with me last year as part of the two-person team,” Sheufelt said. “Their estimates were usually right on. It was a well-oiled machine.”
At the finish Sheufelt was ecstatic.
“Well, winning was the highlight,” Sheufelt said. “I was extremely happy to win the race more than anything. Other than that it was really important to me that it was fun for the crew, and it was. It was a ton of hard work but they had fun and that was important for me. Just being able to finish what is billed as the world’s toughest bicycle race was very satisfying.”
Directly after the Sunday morning finish, Sheufelt slept until the awards banquet that night.
“They gave me an embarrassing amount of awards and trophies,” she said.
She received the Seana Hosen Award for fastest female, Rookie of the Year Award for women, the Queen of the Mountains and Queen of the Prairies for the fastest split time through those sections, a finishing plaque, and a category cutout plaque of the United States.
Sheufelt said she did not have a chance to really enjoy the race.
“It is really just a race of survival,” she said. “I barely even looked around because it took energy to look and think about what was out there. I was just focused on the race.”
Sheufelt had two Trek Domane bikes, both from Cycle Alaska. One was purchased last year and a new one this season. Both were overhauled by Cycle Alaska before the race. Crewmember Ward was also the bike mechanic and only had to deal with two flat tires.
Sheufelt trained mostly in her garage during the winter. She cycled locally outside when time and weather permitted.
Starting in January, she took four 8-day trips. In January it was Hawaii, February and April were in Southern California and then in May Sheufelt flew to San Diego, joined her father who drove from Seattle, and then biked the RAMM course for eight days to Kansas.
“It helped tremendously,” she said. “It was invaluable. I knew the course and I knew what the climbs were like and what to expect.”
For others wishing to tackle this race, Sheufelt’s advice was to call her.
“There is so much to learn,” she said. “The logistics, the crew, the food, the medical needs. … It is a lot more than just riding the race.
“Amazingly I feel pretty good,” she added. “My legs are fine but there is some tingling in the hands and feet still.”
Now that the race is over, Sheufelt said she doesn’t have any immediate plans.
“I don’t plan to do the race again,” she said. “The training alone is incredibly hard and the race is hard and dangerous. I think it will be good to go out after this win. I will always be a cyclist, but now that I have done the longest and hardest race, there isn’t really one after this to do.”