The balancing act
So many things had gone well for Shu and the crew this race; the nutrition and hydration were great, there were no major physical issues and she was coping with the pain and persistence required for non stop endurance racing. She was focused and positive about the challenges ahead to get to the finish line. The crew believed she could do it.
When she rolled into the second checkpoint, at the Mississippi River, with over 8 hours to spare before the women’s cut off time we used some of that time for an extended break off the bike. We fed Shu properly, she had a shower and a couple of hours of sleep. Then she continued on her way into her 7th State, Illinois.
The two previous nights had seen Shu struggling with the sleep deprivation. It seemed to be at its worst during the darkest part of the night; the early hours of the morning. During Race Around Ireland Shu saw goblins at the side of the road. Here it was like déjà vu, feeling confused and anxious about the route. It is easy to understand the brain getting confused with the long straight roads, even the road kill looks the same. We were talking to Shu about trusting the crew to navigate and for Shu to concentrate on the pedalling.
It was unnerving for Shu and her crew when the confusion struck. It was very different talking to her on the radio during these episodes, it almost didn’t sound like Shu and it could happen very quickly. She snapped out of it just as quickly and you were back to having a rational conversation with her.
Shu says she hadn’t expected that she would need to trust so much to the crew and that the sleep deprivation would mean she wouldn’t be in a position to make decisions around sleep and the route herself.
She also found that things appeared in her peripheral vision that weren’t really there. At best this was distracting, at worst she swerved to avoid them. She had also seen vehicles coming towards her on the carriageway in front and the crew asking her to stop when neither are really there. This different version of reality has also seen Shu thinking she is commuting to work, not riding across America. Seana Hogan, a 6 times women’s solo winner, described this part of racing RAAM as dreaming while your eyes are open. It is confusing and scary and added to a sense of anxiety for Shu.
She also suffered from the simple effects of so much exertion and so little sleep needed to keep the mileage up. She was tired and had to try to fight the drowsiness, particularly the involuntary closing of eyes and falling asleep while cycling. It is exactly this which caused her fall. Having fallen asleep she drifted off the road and hit the rough surface of the hard shoulder knocking her from her bike.
This wasn’t the first time we know she had fallen asleep on the bike. Earlier in the week, during a particularly hot and humid period, the drowsiness caused her to fall asleep and ride on to a verge. She woke quickly and jerked 90 degrees back towards the road. With the follow car behind her she was able to hop back on to the hard shoulder no problem. On Thursday we weren’t so lucky.
In preparation for RAAM Shu did lots of research about sleep deprivation; what to expect and what she could do about it. The sleep centres she contacted didn’t really seem able to help or interested in studying the impact of the sleep deprivation. The advice was very much not to try to function on so little sleep for so long.
Ahead of the race Shu working with Matt, from the gsk human performance lab, used sleep monitors to identify that Shu sleeps best in the first 20 mins and third hour of any sleep break. We used this information to inform the sleep strategy.
Unfortunately Wednesday nights longer sleep wasn’t enough to re set and refresh. The crew’s focus had very much been on safety and the sleep strategy, based on the data about Shu’s sleep pattern, had been designed with the need for flexibility for when Shu felt really tired. So, ironically, when Shu fell from the bike on Thursday we were 10 mins from a shorter sleep break.
At the hospital Shu desperately wanted to get back on the bike and start riding again, broken collar bone or not. The X-Ray showed a complete break and miss alignment of the bones and the doctors were worried that putting any weight through that arm could cause further movement of the bones internally or through the skin. Reluctantly Shu and the crew accepted the finish line was no longer possible for Shu this time.