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Going Long on the Bike. Meet Ultra-Cyclist Janie Hayes

Posted: Mar 20 2017

We asked Hawaii Ironman Finisher and Coeur Ambassador Ellen Wexler to interview someone who inspires her and wow...did she deliver!  Meet Janie Hayes. The witty, inspiring, and super cool athlete who likes to go long on the bike. 

Janie! Thanks so much for chatting! Tell us a little more about your background growing up in athletics and how that translated to your love of endurance events. What are some athletic highlights for you?

Growing up, I actually wanted to be the first female professional baseball player of all time. I practiced with my brother in the backyard every chance I got, and collected baseball cards and kept statistics for all the Atlanta Braves’ games, and would watch the games on TV every night!

For most of college, my only sporting activity was Stairmastering, which I mostly took up in an effort to lose the Freshman 15. But one morning during the summer before my senior year, I was struck by the inspiration to run a marathon – despite knowing nothing about running or anyone who had ever run one. I wasn’t sure how to start, so I went to the store and bought a book called “How to Run a Marathon.” I read it cover to cover and started the plan the next day. Six months later, in 1996, I ran my first marathon in Austin, Texas.          

I found triathlons in 1998 when I met my now-husband Jimmy. He talked me into doing the Danskin sprint triathlon, where I rode a borrowed steel-frame bike with downtube shifters and was happy to encounter a foam noodle during the swim. Despite using only my big chain ring and then waddling through the run, I crossed the finish line grinning – to which Jimmy said, “Well, if you liked that…you’ll love a half ironman!” Three weeks later, I did my first half ironman at Buffalo Springs Lake (Point of pride: I drank a beer during the run).

I was hooked after that – on the challenge, adventure and general messiness of endurance sports. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have had some traditional successes as an amateur triathlete – with a good run of podium placings in ironmans and half ironmans, including a 2014 Kona qualification and top 10 in my AG at the 70.3 World Championships that same year. Standing on top of a podium admittedly can be a rush (especially when you’re wearing a squirrel shirt).

Despite those successes, probably the greatest highlight of my endurance sport “career” has been the dozens of amazing relationships I have formed through various sports communities over the years. So many incredible people have entered my life in this way. There is simply no substitute for forging relationships over a long run in the woods or hours on a bike saddle.  

Tell us about this wacky new sport of self-supported endurance cycling you’ve gotten into over the last couple of years – and especially the Trans Am Bike Race last year. What is that all about?

After 2015, I decided to take a break from triathlon. I love the sport, but I was ready for a new adventure. Somehow, for me, lots of things about triathlon felt sort of “knowable” after 15 years of training and racing. While every race is new, and there is always something to be learned, training and racing were starting to feel predictable, and a bit stale. I needed to be challenged in some new way.

About the time I was mulling this, I happened to see a movie called Inspired to Ride, about a 4,300 mile bike race from Oregon to Virginia across the US. This race is totally self supported, which means you carry all your own stuff, deal with your own lodging, food, mechanicals, everything. It looked like a total freakin’ blast – I got so excited watching it I almost jumped out of my seat. By Christmas, I had paid the $40 entry fee (what?!) and signed up. Watch it, and see if you don't want to do the same!

Doing the Trans Am Bike Race last summer changed my life – rather, it changed me. I wrote all about it in excruciating detail on my blog, so I won’t subject Couer readers to the details of a month-long diet of Twinkies, or midnight mountain descents. But I will say that the sense of being out there in the world, completely responsible for myself, and RACING, just brought this immense sense of freedom and adventure that I had never had before. It was a tough 22 days, but it was also mind-blowingly awesome. (As I said during the race, it was 85% fun, 15%, well, something else.)

Trans Am Bike Race

Arriving in Yorktown, Virginia at the finish line, was one of the most peaceful, satisfying experiences I have ever had. I looked back at the previous 22 days and I felt – maybe for the first time in my life – that I truly had nothing to prove to anyone, most especially myself. A very zen sensation.

Sounds like a pretty transformative experience. Are there many women who participate in this kind of bike racing, and how do men and women stack up against each other? 

Ultra endurance racing is still a pretty young sport – and it is still male dominated. For example, there were less than ten women that started the TransAm, out of a field of about 70.

But I think this is starting to change. Any from my perspective, more women absolutely should be doing this kind of racing – for two major reasons. First, the nature of the sport itself makes it an incredible forum for self-exploration and confidence building – which is what many of us are searching for from our athletic pursuits.

Second, what I saw first-hand very clearly last summer is that women can absolutely be men’s equals when it comes to long-distance athletic events. The TransAm was won outright last year by Lael Wilcox, one of the best ultra endurance racers in the world today (men or women). Three females finished in the top 10 overall (Sarah Hammond from Australia was sixth and I was ninth). While I was racing the Trans Am I heard about Sarah Cooper, who had won the nearly 1,000 mile Race Across the West. It sure seemed like something exciting was brewing, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Being out there in the presence of all the other powerful women who lined up on the starting line of the race was inspiring to me. We were all out there battling it out, and pushing ourselves to our limits (no sleep, not enough food, riding through the night), but also having a flat-out raging adventure.       

 You are a cycling machine, lady! Tell us about your most recent bike race at Sebring, setting the 12-hour record, and what this was a training race for.

After the Trans Am bike race, I knew I wanted to race long again. I also knew that the next time I lined up, I wanted to be stronger, faster, and smarter. I wanted to take everything I had learned in the TransAm and put it into action. In December I found out I was lucky enough to snag a spot in this July’s self-supported race across Europe, the Transcontinental Race  (One thousand applicants had vied for 350 spots).

The Sebring 12-hour race in February was intended to be a training race towards the Transcontinental. Sebring was my first race of this kind – meaning, riding around in circles as hard as you can for a real long time (still, it’s all relative, as there was a 24-hour race happening at the same time). Part of my master plan for the Transcontinental has been working with coach Greg Grandgeorge, who really helped me figure out how to best prepare for and execute a race like this.

Sebring Bike Ride

In the end, I was able to cover 253 miles in the 12 hours, finish second overall and set a new women’s record for that race. I hope next year that record gets smashed to smithereens – whether it’s me or someone else.  

 How do you recommend others get started? What’s the first step? I have to admit, as an Ironman junkie, you’ve certainly given me the bug... but it seems kind of intimidating!

First, a little context and background on ultra endurance cycling racing:

While it’s still a small community compared to a sport like triathlon, ultra endurance bike racing is definitely growing. There are two types. The first is “supported” racing, where you have a crew that travels with you in a follow car. In this sort of racing, having a crew allows you to be totally focused on riding, while your team worries about the logistics like nutrition, the route, and how/where you will sleep. The most well known race of this type is The Race Across America or "RAAM", but there are others around the world.    

The second type is “self-supported” racing , where a crew or any outside assistance is prohibited. In self supported racing, you carry what you will need for the duration of the race on your bike with you, and you take care of yourself. As a result, this kind of racing becomes about not only racing your bike (though that is a big part of it too!) – but also nutrition, route finding, finding places to sleep, and fixing your bike. In addition to the TransAm, the Tour Divide and the Transcontinental are other races that fall into this category. On March 18, a new race across Australia called the Indian Pacific Wheel Race will begin. 

Ultra Riding

If you’re interested in this kind of racing but don’t already know you like to ride long, then start riding long. Start by training for an organized century ride, or a brevet. Most cities, and even many rural areas, have a randonneuring club that organizes long group rides. Of course, your local bike shop may offer these types of rides as well. 

For people like you, Ellen, who already have the long-distance bug from triathlon or cycling, then just do it, girl. This website, Riding Ultras, is a great resource. As far as I know, in the US we don’t have an organized ultra-racing community that caters to both self-supported and supported racers, but I hope that emerges in the future.

In the UK, the Adventure Syndicate is a kick-ass group of women who have recognized how long-distance riding, and racing, can help build women’s sense of confidence, adventure, and self. They are working hard through a range of activities to get more women involved in the sport.        

Since this is an interview for Coeur… I just HAVE to say… love that zele top you chose to race in – I just Kona qualified at Ironman wearing a different color of the same one! What did you like about it?

When I decided to do Sebring, I knew I needed all the help I could get! That meant choosing a kit that was aerodynamic and comfortable. I researched a bunch of jerseys and settled on this one. It was actually my first Coeur purchase, but definitely will not be my last. I am currently road-testing the new bibs with the fancy leg zip that allow easy peeing without dis-robing. So far they are rocking my world (while sparing the poor eyes of passing motorists who encounter me peeing in the wild). 

     Coeur Sports Zip Bib

When and where can we cheer you on, next?!

On March 25, I’ll be racing the self-supported division of the Texas RAAM Challenge 400-mile race. That will be a good chance to remember what it’s like to ride through the night and battle loneliness and tiredness in the wee hours.

Then on July 28 at 10pm I’ll be lining up with 49 other women and 300 men in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. We’ll be racing to Meteora, Greece, hitting four checkpoints across Europe but making our own routes in between. You can watch both of those races live on TrackLeaders as soon as they start.  

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Janie!

Ellen Wexler