With iPhone timers running, a collection of people stood in an empty parking lot in Borrego Springs, Calif. with bottles and energy bars on hand. The temps were in the 90s Fahrenheit, with stiff winds whipping to the point of throwing 10 x 10 tents into to dusty air, knocking over the event podium backdrop. It had been close to an hour of… waiting.
Suddenly, a cyclists would approach, and it was all hands on deck. Stopping in the lot, their crew members would pull empty water bottles off their bike, load them with fresh, cold bottles, maybe put an “ice sock” down their back, and send them back out onto the road, for another lap under the California desert sun.
On Oct. 8th, Donna Phelan was one of those athletes powering away through the heat and winds on her PRsix2 Disc and ran through NASCAR-fast pit stops for fresh bottles to earning her second female overall at the 2021 Time Trial World Championships.
Phelan’s name is a familiar one in triathlon circles; a former Canadian ITU and Ironman pro, she now coaches a cadre of athletes to their own podiums and PRs, and races age group. But the last few years, she’s sought out new challenges, and found them in the form of long-distance time trials. While it’s still fringe, Phelan has found them to be challenging, both in the form of competition, and venue, which tend to be far-flung. The Race Across America (RAAM) is the most well-known event, with a start in Oceanside, Calif. crosses 12 states, three mountain ranges and spans over 3,000 miles, finishing in Annapolis. Md., but their sister events—the Race Across the West (RAW) and the Time Trial World Championships with its 24, 12 and six-hour variants are gaining acclaim. They’re all big bites—only smaller.
“When I first did RAAM TT Worlds in 2016 , it sounded like a fun challenge,” Phelan says. “The training is very similar to 70.3 and Ironman training, so that didn’t really need to be altered,” Phelan said. “It was, and still remains, a chance to test my bike fitness without it being influenced by a swim beforehand or a run afterward.” Since then, Phelan has taken on the RAAM six-hour event, as well as won the Stagecoach Century 100-mile time trial in 2018 and 2019.
For the RAAM six-hour TT, the venue in Borrego Springs, California, is as formidable as it gets. Located in the desert an hour and a half drive from the balmy beach weather of San Diego, slung low on the floor of the Borrego Valley, it’s brutal. The desert town generally is hot (with average temps in the mid-100s F in the summer) it’s windy, and with nothing but scrub brush for miles as it sits along the edge of the mountains, it’s dry and desolate. Who wants hospitable?
For Phelan, she’s part and parcel to it all. In fact, the hotter, the better; she finished second at Ironman China in 2008 when conditions reached well into the 100s F. Her nickname “Diesel” is for good reason; when others can’t cope and slow down, she keeps rolling. When former ITU World Champ Siri Lindley set up a training camp in Borrego Springs, Phelan was there for a winter in the sleepy tourist town. And it grew on her.
“I spent a winter training in with Siri’s group in 2011, so I’m familiar with the roads, the community, she says. “It’s a friendly community, very low-key. I’ve been back several times over the years, and this place, it’s just a great place to relax… when you’re not training or racing!”
The RAAM TT operates differently than a triathlon; there’s no course support, so any extra fluids or hydration is on the athlete to furnish, and it can only be taken on in the designated “pitting” area. Some time trialists are self-supported, with their own coolers of drinks, where they peel off, refill their bottles, and set off back on course again.
And there are those like the RAAM races, with a “crew.” The crew’s job is to make everything faster. As an athlete rolled into the pit, they would toss clear their empty bottles while their crew members ran alongside with fresh bottles to shove into the bike, and like a NASCAR pit stop. the riders were off again.
Others would simply stop and get an “ice sock” (a pantyhose filled with ice and shoved down the back of the jersey) a can of Coke, and a word of encouragement from their crew… or would simply take a breather before setting off again.
“It’s difficult doing your own self-supported race, but it’s impressive for those that do it,” Phelan says. “Stopping in the pit for extra bottles and calories can be a key factor in the outcome of close races. You really have to weigh the advantages of stopping and getting more fluid versus how much time will it cost in the end.”
This year, Phelan took on a cadre of women in the six-hour event, and as she always has done, settled into her own pace. While she was marking a top contender, another woman blasted past her.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know who that is, but that’s not gonna last,” Phelan said. “A few laps later I rolled right past—she was done.”
While she chased hard for the lead, Phelan was content to finish second for the fourth time in five years. Afterward, she recounted the race with her competitors, a group with a level of camaraderie.
“For me, it’s a different scene to experience outside the triathlon community, “ Phelan says. “In the past, I’ve been out there with the 24-hour and 12-hour racers, and it gives you a mental push knowing they’ve been out there for so long, plus to balance to know that what I’m doing in the six-hour race isn’t necessarily the toughest thing in the world.
“But it’s fun meeting different endurance cyclists, in a friendly, laid-back approach to cycling before and after the race,” she adds. “Of course, during the race everyone is super-competitive, but it’s a really supportive group of athletes, all of whom have a lot of respect for one another.”
What’s next? While Phelan wants to move out of the bridesmaid role of second place—earned four times in the last six years—and aims toward more Ironman 70.3 races, she’s looking at new TT challenges. “It’s created more interest for me in long-distance cycling. I’m looking at maybe doing a 12-hour race next year as a relay, and maybe doing a two-person relay for the Race Across the West.”
The payoff at the end of any of these TTs? A big feed. Namely, burritos. And in Borrego Springs, they don’t get any better, Phelan says. “There’s a lot of great restaurants in Borrego Springs, and Carmelita’s has always been a favorite,” she says. “Their chicken burritos are the best I’ve ever had. 10 of 10, highly recommend!”
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