On 13th June 2017, PH drinker Penny Barker crossed the start line of Race Across America (RAAM). From Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland, RAAM is considered to be one of the toughest supported cycle races in the world. Cyclists ride approximately 3,070 miles coast-to-coast across the USA with over 175,000ft of climbing.
They cross 2 deserts, 3 mountain ranges and female solo racers have just 12 days 21 hours to finish. This makes sleep deprivation a significant challenge alongside temperature, altitude and of sitting on a bike for over 20 hours a day (good shorts and a lot of chamois cream are definitely what the doctor ordered!)
It’s been a 3 year journey for Penny and we’ve followed her progress as she’s trained and qualified for RAAM. Unfortunately things didn't quite go to plan and Penny had to withdraw from the race. We caught up with her after the dust from her epic journey had settled and she'd had some time to reflect on her experience...
So, Penny, can you remind our readers why you chose PH as your hydration partner for the ride of your life?
Well, I was very aware of the challenges that RAAM was going to present with regards to hydration, particularly in the desert. Dehydration and heatstroke are two of the main reasons people pull out of the race in the early stages. It was actually one of my crew who suggested getting a Sweat Test late in 2015. He had found Precision Hydration really helped him with cramp and it seemed worth investigating as it was more scientific than the haphazard electrolyte strategy I was using at the time!
It turns out that I lose quite a lot of sodium when I sweat and that I needed a stronger electrolyte solution than I was using at the time. It was also recommended that I preloaded with a higher concentration solution for my very hot, long or intense workouts.
And did you notice a difference in your performance with your new personalised strategy?
If I'm honest, I wasn’t expecting to as I didn’t really suffer from cramp or hydration-related issues but what I did notice almost straight away was that when I was out on training rides I didn’t need to stop to pee as much as my fluids were staying where I needed it – in my body – rather than just being lost through my kidneys.
I’d also be less thirsty when I came home from long rides, so I was confident I’d made the right choice.
I then went to the Porsche Human Performance Centre before Race Across the West (RAW) - my warmup event for RAAM - last year. They took various measurements including weight and urine-specific gravity and then stuck me in their heat chamber, monitoring my body temperature and other vitals as well as my fluid intake.
Their sums afterwards gave me a good indication of how much sweat I was losing and therefore how much I might need to drink. To give you an idea, at 35 degrees, I was losing around 1 litre per hour, which is over twice the amount at “normal” temperatures. Given that the desert can get up to 47 degrees, I was going to need to get this right!
I now had two crucial parts of the equation, Precision Hydration had told me how much sodium I lose in my sweat and PHP helped me work out how much I was sweating, so I could accurately work out my net sodium losses.
Glad to have helped! What else did you learn from your heat chamber sessions?
One of the lessons I learned is that it’s possible to drink too much. That may sound odd but it’s really easy to do in the intense heat when you have really cold liquid available.
It's just so refreshing that you want to drink it simply to cool down and moisten your mouth, but if you take on too much you can eventually upset your kidney’s ability to regulate its salt and water balance.
The longer the event, the more of a risk this becomes and I would be racing in intense heat for days at a time, so I needed to practice and monitor this.
Ok, so how did you do that?
I had several sessions in the heat chamber first, testing hydration and cooling strategies. It also helped me to acclimate to the heat. Your body needs to practice sweating as this is how we cool down.
The first real test was in the desert on Race Across the West (RAW) last year. We kept a tally of how many bottles and what strength PH I was taking on board and also monitored urine-specific gravity. I’m a vet so this was all in a day’s work! Despite having stomach problems and losing far more fluid than was ideal, I stayed well hydrated. I was really confident that I’d got my hydration strategy nailed thanks to you guys and the team at PHP.
So you were confident you could stay hydrated in the extreme heat, but what about the altitude you were going to face?
I was aware that altitude sickness and pulmonary oedema (a build up of fluid on the lungs) were a real risk on RAAM and that I was going to need to prepare for this.
I just didn’t realise how fast it strikes and also how much it can have at an effect even at what I would consider to be lower altitudes at say around 8000ft. On the final stage of RAW we were already at 7500ft and we climbed to 8500ft within the space of a few hours. I started going blue, having problems breathing and nearly passed out with the exertion of just getting my bottle out of its cage!
That must have been scary!
It was, for both me and the crew. Luckily I was able to take it slowly to the finish and, with hindsight, I was very pleased that it happened as it showed that I needed to take the altitude seriously as I was clearly going to be susceptible.
What did you do next to help prepare you for that then?
I went to the Altitude Centre in London for a consultation. As well as learning more about my personal response to altitude, I learned a lot more about its potential effects.
One of them is that it causes your body to produce more lactate to buffer the effects on your system. Your kidneys have to deal with this, which they do by flushing it out. You also pool fluid in your tissues (high altitude oedema).
You therefore need to ensure you stay really well hydrated before, during and after being at altitude. That night on the climb to Durango I was freezing cold and not drinking very much from my cold bottle as a result. As I was then struggling to get it out of the cage I drank even less, making the situation even worse.
I rented a hypoxic generator from the Altitude Centre so I could do altitude training at home. I knew that, realistically, altitude sickness could end my race and damage my health so it was worth the expense. It gave me a chance to practice my hydration as well, simulating the hot conditions at altitude on the Wattbike with the machine... seriously sweaty stuff!
Interesting. Did it work?
Most definitely. I didn’t suffer noticeably on the lower climbs and climbed well up the 3 major passes at 9,500 – 11,000ft, chatting away to my crew on all but the very highest one up Wolf Creek Pass.
I did suffer from oedema in my legs and body, but far less than some around me. I had been told that you gain the oedema in the Rockies and then pee it out all the way through Kansas - and they were right – I’ve never had to stop so many times! I kept up with drinking my Precision Hydration and and also had hot drinks in flasks during the cold nights. I also had things like cereal and porridge with milk which helped with my hydration.
So, let's talk about the race itself. It didn't quite go to plan did it?
No, unfortunately I developed a condition called Shermer Neck at around the 800 mile point. This affects ultra-cyclists due to the long periods spent with your head cranked forwards (particularly on aerobars, even if you have them quite high). It’s incredibly painful as everything from the chest upwards goes into spasm and you lose the ability to hold your head up!
My crew did an awesome job to keep me on the road by bodging a head-rest with a Pringles tube and a plastic bottle gaffer-taped to the aero bars. I could either be forwards resting on that or bolt upright holding on to the arm rests. I was very Mary Poppins! Neither position was comfortable or aero, but we persevered to the 1,844 mile point when I decided to end the race for my safety and that of my crew, as the neck wasn’t going to survive to Annapolis and I risked doing long term damage.
This was, of course, incredibly disappointing but it was still the most incredible adventure. I pushed myself mentally and physically to the limit, had an amazing experience with my crew and built memories that will last a lifetime. I saw the USA in a very unique way and so, for all of these reasons, it was still a success.
That's the spirit! What would be your big learning points for our readers then?
Dream big. You don’t need to know how to achieve whatever that dream is, just know that you want it and you'll find a way.
I’ve definitely applied that to my next challenge, I’ve no idea quite how I’ll do it, but RAAM has taught me that anything is possible if you really want it, you're prepared to work at it step-by-step and you're flexible when things go wrong.
The bigger your dream, the more chance there is for growth and learning. Success and failure are big words but ultimately for me it’s about growing as an individual and a human being; that’s where the magic happens.
Inspiring stuff Penny, thanks for sharing your adventures with us and we look forward to supporting you on the next one...
Penny Barker is a performance and resilience coach working with individuals, teams and businesses who want to be better, do more or make a sustainable change to their performance. You can follow her next adventure on Twitter, Facebook or at www.pennybarker.com