The Official Website of Ultra Athlete Shanna Armstrong


August 31st, 2011 Posted in Shanna's Blog Entries



This bike race is a race around Switzerland.   The race is 1000k ( 620 miles) with close to 50, 000 feet of climbing.   I predicted this to be one of the hardest races to do even over Ultraman.    I never got the chance to find out.

Ultracycling is more complicated than most races.  The logistics can be a pain in the butt and there is more that goes into these races then just riding the bike.    I have a vehicle that is supposed to be following me that takes care of me and provides me with my food, lights, and anything else a cyclist might need.  I consider us a team and it takes a good crew and rider to get to the finish.   Oh…yeah……a good vehicle and computer for GPS help too.   I had a great crew and I felt strong as well but at this race there were other problems that were out of my hands.

I always have two laptops at most of my races since staying on route is crucial.   Markus (my fiancé) had his dad volunteer to be one of my crew members.   He was bringing his computer.   I only took my computer planning on downloading the route into it.  The idea of using my computer failed since the disk would not download into the computer.   I figured we would be fine and should be ok with one GPS.   I was sooooo wrong……

The day before the race Markus and my crew were all out getting our crew vehicles ready.   Markus (my fiancé) was doing the race as well.   I had only planned on using a converter I brought from the states that would plug into a cigarette lighter.  The converter was small and would be enough to power up a laptop and charge a night riding light if needed.  I don’t like to many things charging in the car for fear that things might happen. 

Markus’s crew and two of my crew members had all been having crew meetings before I arrived.  They had better plans for wiring up the car.   One of Markus’s best friends is an electrical engineer as a profession.   They had plans of setting up a small refrigerator and having an extra battery.  I came out into the parking lot the day before the race and my car was wired with all kinds of stuff.  I felt like a bitch when I was asking what was going on.  I then became calm when I found out that Yens was really a professional electrical engineer.  Markus’s crew was trying to take care of me.   I do drink lots of milk and cold milk was going to be nice if it worked.  Europe does not have ice so keeping things cold can be a problem.  I decided not to sweat out about it.   I was still worried.  Sometimes the simpler you keep things the better.

My crew was awesome.   I had a girl named Nora (Markus’s colliegue he studied with), Detlif (Markus’s dad), and then Anthony White (pro cyclist from home).   Anthony was going to be the guy to take care of my nutrition. Anothny could speak the English and knew how to mix all my hammer stuff, since sometimes the language barrier can be a problem.   I had a great crew and we were all prepared to kick some butt.   I was feeling really great myself.  I was ready to race!

Tortour-  A prelude lap of 1.2 miles was ridden the day before to determine a start time.   The start was a staggered start since we were starting in the middle of the night.   At night for safety reasons the crew vehicle is always behind the rider so it makes since that we would not start all at once.  I was the 3rd girl to go off.  My speed was pretty darn fast but I could not tell how fast until daylight came.   When I came into a town I noticed that my speedometer said 23 miles per hour.  That was too fast for the beginning of a 600 mile race.   I decided to back off the speed a little.  

Anthony went to sleep as soon as the race started.   I was getting bottles from the crew but at about 80 miles my stomach was feeling a little bloated.   I wanted Anthony to sleep so I did not bother him but I probably should have woken him up.   I call the shots on the nutrition but my crew logs it all and with the info they give me I can decide what I need next.   I use my hammer products and milk when I race.    The milk I use is the small 2 cup servings you get out of the convenience stores.    At this race I would have a 24 ounce bottle given to me…no wonder I was getting bloated.   I was so ready for Anthony to wake up.   Finally he did and I got a chance to ask him to figure up my calorie count.    My recipe calls for 200-250 an hour… more….or less.   Anothny let me know that I had taken in about 1500 calories.  I usually don’t like to do the math so I just asked him to let me know if I was between 200 and 250.   The response was….”about 250.”   Now that the race is over I know that that was closer to 400 but at the time I did not try to figure it out.   I had already decided to take less in based on how I was feeling.   I quit taking in anything to let the stomach settle.  I knew the mountains were coming and needed to get back on track.

Markus caught up to me so I was getting to ride back and forth with my fiancé.  It was kind of fun……I was planning on dropping him in the mountains.   We were starting our first climb.   My crew was sitting parked on the first switchback.  I was just going to ask them for more gels and a bottle.   Before I was able to speak Markus’s dad was yelling some German to Markus.   After this my crew vehicle left and went the other direction.   Markus told me that his crew vehicle had broken down and it was the gear box. This pretty much meant his race was over.  I did not want him to give up and so long as he was riding close to me it was not going to hurt if he kept riding as long as possible.   I told him I would share my crew so that he could keep going.   This was his first ultra cycling race with a crew behind him and I did not want him to have to quit so soon in the race.  

The crew was gone for a while and I did not have any water or gels.  Markus also had a knee bothering him so I was climbing better than him and the gap between us was getting bigger.  I felt so bad for him but needed to keep going.   I ended up bumming some water off a crew and later got a gel from another crew.   I was out of nutrition.   It was 55 minutes before is saw my crew again.  Anthony got out and handed me a bottle of hammer nutrition.   I asked how Markus was and if he would go back and make sure he kept him going and gave him some food. Woops….  I forgot to grab some gels and that is what I ahd planned on using for my calories until my stomach settled.   It was another 45 minutes or so before Anthony came back.   He had a bottle of milk with him ready.   Once again I forgot to get some gels from him.   He told me that I had about 25 miles of more climbing coming.   It was always on the tip of my tongue to ask for gels but in such a short time I would always forget to ask.   My tank was getting empty and the last thing I wanted to drink was milk on a climb. 

I was still riding good but not as strong as I was in the beginning of the race.   I love my crew being with me and was missing them.  My crew showed up at the top of the 25 mile climb before the downhill. Anthony had realized that I did not have any gels.  I was now stocked with gels…..yipee.   I caught up to a one armed guy that had completed RAAM in 2003….what a hero.   We chatted some and then I passed him.   I was riding with the same group of riders for a while.   WE did get spread out at one time and that was when I got off course.   Since I did not have my crew I did not have a way of knowing the route.  If I got to a round-a-bout I would wait until a crew vehicle or rider came by to see which way to turn.   I did this on one occasion and followed a team crew vehicle right off course.   I did eventually bump back into the same riders on course I was around but when  I did….i knew I ahd been off course.   I did not know what to do but I figured I would wait for the crew to make a decision.   I kept riding wondering if I was going to get DQed and not knowing what to do.

I rode into a what I thought was a time station.   The time stations were busy with team riders and had a guy directing traffic.   I was looking and asking for a check point but then assumed that since no one responded that …..the place I was at was for team parking.   I rode through this area and started up a mountain.  Something told me that this was not right.  I stopped and tried to call Anthony but could not get signal.   I rode back to the parking area and hollered enough that someone directed me to the check point.  I got more bonus miles.   I bummed some water at the checkpoint.   Just as I left the checkpoint I saw my crew coming backwards on the course.   They had missed me while I was off course and had to call the race organization to find out where I was. All of us riders had trackers on us….thank goodness.   Anthony gave me another bottle and let me know that Markus and I were getting to spread out and that it was getting more difficult to crew.   He was 25 minutes back.  This is why I was not seeing my crew for an hour each time.  I was not upset and glad Markus was still moving.

Anothny and the crew left to go back to Markus.   It was not long after that that I really got off course.   I got to a round-a-bout and waited for some race vehicle to come by.   I waited for 20 minutes and knew I had goofed up.  I got my phone out and text Anthony that is was time to pick Markus up.  He text back that Markus was already in the car.  My phone rang and it was Markus asking me if I knew where I was.  They had to figure out where I was but eventually they caught up to me.   I had waited 25 minutes at a shell station.   I would have loved to buy some food and fuel up but did not have any money.  When I asked for a rest room I got a funny look.  I figured I was going to need to pay to use the toilet and I did not have any money.   I just had to wait.

My crew and Markus showed up to save me.  They had contacted the race organizer about my concerns in getting off course to find out how to correct the problem.   The news was not so bad.   Since I had paralleled the course the first time I did not need to go back to that point but I did need to ride back to where I got off course the second time.   I was thinking I could hop in the van and ride back to it but I was told it has to be ridden……ok so some more bonus miles… big deal.

Markus said he had some more bad news. The bad news was that the converter had caught on fire under the seat of the van.   Apparantly there was smoke everywhere and Nora nearly burned her legs when the lap top over heated.   I heard it was pretty crazy in the van with all the smoke.   This meant that the lap top with the route on it was out of commission.  I knew at this point that is was going to be a challenge to finish….as if doing 620 miles was not a challenge enough.  

The good thing about Markus joining my crew is that I had a good navigator.   He crewed for me at another crazy race so had some experience.    Even with a good navigator the route was hard to follow with the paper route book we had.   I felt like when we got close to anytime station I was yo-yoing around up and down hills to find the time station or the right road.   It was not that bad but frustraiting for the crew and I.   Anthony got out on his bike and road for about 5 hours as well.   This was nice.  He was not riding with me but was out on the roads getting workout in.  This left more room in the van so one could sleep.  The only thing is that no one could get any sleep even with the extra room since they were having to focus so hard on keeping me on route.  

Anthony was with me one time when we got off course.   We went 5 k down a mountain and almost got on the autobahn.   My crew sent me back up the climb and then decided that I needed to go back down the climb again.   I told Anthony I was not sure how much more of this I could handle.   My crew was doing great with the resources they had.   It was just a lot of stopping and waiting for them to make a decision on which road to take.   Time was ticking and this meant my goal of 46 hours was not looking so good.

Nighttime came and I started to get into a rythme.  The climbs began to get tougher and steeper and this is when I began to ride really strong again.   I have always enjoyed riding in the mountains and loved long climbs.   I was starting to forget about the problems in the day and have fun.  I had my music and lights on my bike and was enjoying the evening.   I could see the full moon on the mountain and was in a zone.   Markus told this one mountain would be steep for 9 miles and then get even steeper for the last part.  I had no idea how long the steeper part was going to be. On this particular climb just as I was thinking it was almost over I saw a car coming from up above on a switchback.  I could see them come down two switchbacks and was hoping that was going to be the top.   It looked so steep.  I was sort of wondering if I could do it.   I slammed a red bull (for caffeine) and put some tunes on.    The switchbacks were fun and they just kept coming.   I never sat down and felt like I was moving pretty fast up the mountain.   I reached the top 10 miles later.  I am not sure how many switchbacks I did but it was more then 2.

When I stopped to change at the top Anthony jumped out of the car and was jumping for joy after watching me climb.  He said I stayed out of the saddle for 10 miles.   This is why I assumed I rode the switchback part of the mountain was 10 miles….not sure the exact facts.  He was so proud of me and so was the crew.   I changed clothes to get ready for the downhill.  Good thing Markus (the fiancé) was there to help dress me…..this was practice for when we get old together. I was not sure how I was going to do on the downhill.   I had memories of crashing at the Race Across the Alps a few years ago and was not sure if I was over the “ chicken blood.”  “Chicken blood” is what I call fear.  

The downhill went great and I was even getting aero between switchbacks.   I was getting an adrenaline rush from hauling ass downhill at night.   I was loving riding the bike and having a great time.  I think that the crew was even sort of enjoying it as well.  We entered another time station.  We did have some problems but I was not that bad.   I had to sit on the side of the road while the crew searched for the road.   Markus got out with me so it was not all bad.   I was in and out of the time station in no time and on my way to another climb that was going to be just as tough as the one prior.


This last climb that I did went just  as great at the climb before it.   I was having a blast and seemed like it did not take long to get to the top.   At the top I asked Nora how long the downhill was.   She let me know it was 10 k.  I figured that I could do that without a full change of clothing and just changed jackets.   I was on a roll.   We took off for the downhill and it was all fun again.   The van honked at me.  They thought I had missed a turn but were mistaken.   I kept descending and followed an official down the mountain.  Later I heard a car horn honking going on and the crew informed me that we had missed the time station.  They saw people up the mountain.   This meant I had to go back up….gosh was I getting tired of this…………

My teeth were chattering since i rode down the mountain with slightly wet clothing.  I got in the van to warm up.  I felt like crap and figured up how many red bulls I had had……oops… was way too many.   My heart was pumping.    I found out that the hardest and coldest climb was yet to come.   I wanted to do the climb but Anthony was showing me that I was going to have 60k of downhill afterwards….just what I needed… crank up the air conditioning. I got back out of the van on the bike hungry to attack the next climb.   I wanted to do the climb…I was more dreading the cold.   It was going to be 30 degrees or so…..I hate cold!

I hopped on the bike and not even 10 yards from the time station there was confusion as to which right to make.   I started getting chilled again and noticed that my sports bra was still a little damp at the seams.   I opted to change clothing.  I changed and was ready to go.   The crew figured out the next turn and then we came to another decision to be made to stay on route.  The crew opted that I go straight.   I went straight into a parking lot.   Detlif got out and was trying to see where we might go with the naked eye.   Markus and Nora were looking at the route book and Anothny was out running around in circles in the parking lot trying to stay awake.  We had already made so many mistakes.  I knew that it was not going to be the end of them either.   This was when I decided that the best decision was to quit.  I consider my crew and I a team so I did meet with them on the subject.   If they demanded that I kept going to would have for the team.   I think the team knew that this was not happening as well.  

Ultra Cycling is hard enough on its own.   The GPS was essential for us.  The crew gets more rest and can focus on the rider when they are not worrying about if we are on route or not.   The crew did not get any rest when they were going back and forth between Markus and I either.  I think I would have finished if I had my second lap top.  I just might have been last.  I have 4 tiny computers at my house and just happened to grab the one that the CD would not download in.  If we had not wired the car up so much then the first GPS system would not have failed.   Hmmmmm……well the list goes on of excuses as to why I did not finish.

 I think that most people would have been throwing their bike with some of the things that happened earlier in the race.   I am proud that I kept my cool and kept going. I knew my shots of winning were gone early in the day when I first got lost but still kept going.   I am still proud of what I have done but at the same time terribly bummed about not finishing the race.   We could have gone on….nothing was physically wrong with me, the van, or the crew. I just did not want to hassle with it anymore.   It is always hard to quit a race….especially when you know that your body is able to.  I felt fine.  Well what can I say……life goes on.  

Will I ride this race again?   I sure would hate for my last ultra cycling race to be a DNF.   I am not so sure if I could train for this again mentally.   The heat was really bad this year and lots of my bike rides were when the temps were over 100 degrees.   i am also getting older….and married.  Maybe plans for a baby in the future.  The bug to do this race and finish is there. If I ever decide to do another ultra cycling race again it will be Tortour.   It was absolutely an amazing race.