Team Novo Nordisk Women’s Team tackles 527 mile relay
Becky Furuta sped along Utah’s Route 24 on her bike like a comet crossing the June night sky. She and three teammates, all with Type 1 diabetes and members of Team Novo Nordisk Women’s Team, formed one of three female amateur squads among the 97 teams starting the Rockwell Relay earlier that morning in Moab.
According to the race guide, 229 miles into the event cyclists would gaze at sunset-lit red cliffs. The all-white kitted Furuta, however, at that point stared at a swath of light cut out of the night asphalt by her follow car’s headlamps.
The team raced to make up time in a bid to get over marathon-length climbs to the St. George finish line before the 9 p.m. Saturday cut-off. It felt very much like a long shot.
Four months prior, 34 year-old competitive cyclist Chrysa Malosh contacted email training partner Furuta about entering the relay with a team of four and cycling 527 miles within 37 hours across Utah desert and mountain roads rising to 10,000 feet.
To meet competitive division requirements, each rider would tackle segments measuring 31 to 57 miles in a set rotation, completing three each for a total of twelve legs.
“I’d still like one more year to get up to competitive speed,” Malosh wrote Furuta. “But if you twisted my arm I’d do it this year.”
That was all the hyper-competitive Furuta needed to hear. Aiming for great results by an all-women team, she recruited ultra-endurance cyclist Kerry White as well as Anne Dowling, a runner and triathlete who switched focus to cycling.
“There is a benefit to having women visible racing,” Furuta explained. “Women are more likely to approach other women.” Mother of two and a road racer, she described the value of acknowledging publically that she lives with diabetes. “It was a lot of mental effort to hide a part of myself that, as it turns out, has actually been a service to people in my willingness to disclose it and race with this team.”
While expressing concerns about their preparation, finishing in time appeared tough but manageable on paper. Malosh, Furuta, White, and Dowling rolled up to the Rockwell start at 8 a.m. on Friday in sleek kits bearing the words “Changing Diabetes.”
As planned White leads off with 4,100 feet of ascending over the first leg’s 54 miles. The night before she cautioned her teammates: “I want the truth known that I’m very slow. But I’m consistent.” One of the women-only teams finishes the segment eight miles ahead of her.
Early into Leg 2, Furuta approaches a rider from the second women-only team. White hands Furuta a water bottle from the roadside and shouts “Go catch her!” Furuta stands on the pedals and powers away.
She hands the baton to Dowling who completes Leg 3. What looked like an easy descent on paper becomes a blustery headwind battle in 100 degree Fahrenheit heat. When Dowling rolls into the exchange area, a patch of red earth baking under early evening sun, another team calls first aid for a dehydrated rider. The Novo Nordisk team has covered 156 miles.
The 38 year-old Dowling, who would find time during the race to nurse her nine month-old daughter Claire, can now allow her thoughts to return to her family lodged nearby. Claire dislikes seeing her mom leave their California home in her cycling kit. While it’s hard to cope with Claire’s reaction, Dowling speaks for moms Furuta and White too when she says “I think it’s good for her to see her mom exercising.”
Malosh logs a slow first hour in the yellow and red rock canyons of Leg 4, complaining of stomach problems. By 10:15 p.m. White, the most experienced in ultra-endurance relay events, expresses concern about making the cut-off time. The team decides they must ditch the competitive division’s one rider per leg rule if they want to finish.
A follow car backtracks to Malosh and drops off White who completes the remainder of Leg 4 after Malosh eases into a car, eyes crusted over with desert dust. Soon she’ll realize that instead of getting angry, her teammates decided to get moving.
In a bid to make up time with fresher legs, they begin shorter turns, starting new riders every five miles on the remaining 20 to 30 mile climbs. As Furuta traces Route 24 the crew wakes up Dowling and Malosh and explains the new strategy. Still feeling unwell and worried about having slowed the team’s progress, Malosh thought, “I just died out there and now I have to get back on the bike?”
Dowling later described 3 a.m. riding through pine forest and cool mountain night air as surreal. “Why wasn’t I in bed like a normal person? The end of my first leg yesterday was not fun…I didn’t think I could do another leg. Then somehow your body recovers.”
Malosh re-enters the rotation. The rest she provides for the others rejuvenates her. “Getting back on the bike again,” she later said, “turned the tide.”
At noon, estimates put the team at the finish by midnight. A suggestion is made to drive the 20 mile climb ahead. A Race Across America veteran, White cannot accept the idea. “We don’t have a lot to go. Everyone’s stuck to their guns and rallied, done all that was asked of them and more,” White explains.
They keep going.
The extra mile
At 4:30 p.m. with 103 miles remaining, White worries that she is forcing everyone to finish. “I hope everyone doesn’t hate me at the end. I think everyone will be happier with themselves to have finished and say, ‘I’ve ridden as much as I could as fast as I could.’ What else can you do?”
She phones the race director and tells him, “Don’t forget us. We’re going to finish.”
Seconds before 10 p.m., they cross the St. George finish line. The cheering crowd has long since left, but Dowling’s husband greets the team with frozen pineapple fruit bars. Workers start dismantling the finish truss after the team poses for photos.
No matter they finished last while eleven starting teams had abandoned, including one of the all-women outfits. What mattered was they had showed up. Malosh would explain later that more women doing events encourages other women to do them, to be active competitively or recreationally.
And most importantly, a woman emerged from the finish line night, asking them about Team Novo Nordisk and changing diabetes.