Anna Catharina “Cat” Berge excels at the far reaches of endurance. She can ride a bicycle from sunrise to sundown and then do it again at will – with a surprising competitive twist.
With technology having propelled cycling toward gadgetry critical mass, Berge is immersed in an athletic renaissance.
A native of Sweden and a former graduate student at the University of California, Davis, she welcomes the challenges of 100-and 200-milers. She thrives on the rigors of 24-and 48-hour journeys. And daylong, two-wheel voyages into the hottest hells of unforgiving desert and into oxygen-thin mountain air? Why not?
But never mind cycling techno-wizardry. Berge won’t have any of it.
“My approach has always been very unscientific,” says Berge, 38, who soon will stretch her talents into a cycling challenge few women have undertaken. “I don’t have an odometer on my bike. I don’t have a heart-rate monitor. My schedule is pretty much nonexistent. I take a day off when I think my body is going out on me.”
“I’m not one to promote proper nutrition or proper training or anything. You’ve got to love the bike. If you want to do ultra-distance rides, you’ve got to love the bike. If you don’t like it, what’s the point?” she says.
Seven years ago, Berge, a former recreational runner, hiker and cyclist, was persuaded by a college roommate to attempt a 60-mile ride.
“I went out and I had a real great time,” recalls the 5-foot-5, 130-pound Berge. “It was up in the Napa Valley, and (the roommate) got me hooked.”
For Berge, 60 miles now is a warm-up. A veterinarian and Ph.D. who works as a postgraduate researcher at the UC Davis Veterinarian Medicine Teaching & Research Center in Tulare, she has entered Race Across America, or RAAM.
The transcontinental event begins June 19 (for individuals) and June 21 (for teams) in San Diego. The 3,047-mile route crosses 14 states, includes more than 109,000 feet of climbing and concludes on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J.
Twenty-one women (some more than once) have completed the solo event 36 times in RAAM’s 23-year history. Berge, this year’s only solo woman entrant, hopes to be the first female finisher since Australian Cassie Lowe in 2001.
A two-time women’s winner, Lowe completed that year’s shorter route (2,983 miles) from Portland, Ore., to Gulf Breeze, Fla., in 10 days, 7 hours, 42 minutes, at an average speed of 12.02 mph. Berge believes a 10-day finish is feasible on the new, longer course.
Four riders – all men – participated in RAAM’s debut in 1982. Tandems and varied team divisions have been added through the years, but the solo trek remains the showcase race. The largest starting field, 39 participants, was in 1988. The 22 cyclists who completed the route in 1990 represented a record number of solo finishers.
This year’s route includes three major new sections. Passage through southern Colorado replaces crossing central Arizona and New Mexico. Also new is a “bike-friendly” route between Hancock, Md., and Rouzerville, Pa. And near the finish in New Jersey, the route follows Highway 40 instead of Highway 322.
While supported by multiperson crews, riders can face triple-digit heat in sand-whipped deserts, lightning, torrential rains and unfriendly motorists. The terrain ranges from 100 feet below sea level in the Southern California desert to 10,550 feet at Wolf Creek Pass in the Colorado Rockies.
Berge says she can’t wait for the challenge. She’ll spend approximately $20,000 for herself and a crew of 10, which will transport food and clothing, medical supplies and two spare bikes.
“I want to treat my crew real well,” Berge said. “I want them to have a real good time and be in real good condition. I don’t want my crew to break down on me.
“I want them to feel this is not my race; it’s our race. We’re doing it together. They’re just as important as I am. All I’ve got to do is pedal; they’ve got to keep me going.”
Two years removed from her first ultra-long ride, Berge began competing and winning regional road races. In 2001, she entered her first “mega-distance” event, the Furnace Creek 508. It’s a treacherous, out-and-back adventure that crosses through parts of Death Valley. Berge won the women’s division and placed second overall among 32 solo finishers.
“I hadn’t done anything longer than a 200-mile race,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be so tired. I’m going to have to play mind games with myself. It’s going to be so psychologically hard. How am I going to keep myself awake at night?’ “
“You know what? I wasn’t bored for one second. For 32 hours, it was a blast. There I was; I had a whole crew. They were hosing me off with water. They were supporting me. I wasn’t alone out there. All I had to do was pedal. Doing races like that – it’s a treat.”
Preparing for the RAAM requires a well-balanced combination of ultra-distance rides and rest. Berge trains about 25 hours per week and also pedal-commutes the 30-mile round trip between her Visalia home and Tulare. She doesn’t count the commuting miles as training. Instead, she thrives on the benefits of repetitive long training days, such as three consecutive 100-milers.
“She’s a very fit athlete,” but she doesn’t need the lung capacity of an elite road cyclist, said Dr. Massimo Testa, Berge’s sports-medicine physician at the UC Davis Medical Group in Sacramento.
“For her, it’s about being comfortable on the ride and staying healthy and not getting knee or back pains over those longer distances. It’s almost like it’s a different sport.”
Although Berge’s lack of attention to technological factors is unorthodox, she has experimented with various approaches to nutrition. During RAAM, she’ll consume about 220 calories per hour, primarily from liquid supplements. Other road treats will include bagels, energy bars and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
“After a while, probably anything that is palatable, I’ll eat,” said Berge. “Because I expect that I will get pretty tired of eating. I may be increasing my intake if I find myself running low on energy, or hungry.”
Berge plans to pedal 21 to 22 hours per day during the RAAM, with 300-mile riding days punctuated by short rest breaks.
She will tackle several RAAM preparatory competitions, including the Davis 24-Hour Challenge on April 9 near Winters and the 36th annual Davis Double Century (200 miles) May 21.
Participants in 24-hour races have a single task – compile as many miles as possible in one day. The Davis Double Century is a primarily noncompetitive, 1,000-rider, out-and-back ride that includes 7,500 feet of climbing. Berge plans to ride it on a three-seat bike with two sponsor friends.
While she’s uncomfortable touting her accomplishments, Berge’s Web site lists her several ultra-distance victories as a solo and tandem rider. Last year in the Davis 24-Hour Challenge, Berge and riding partner Mark Patten rode 456 miles, an unofficial world record.
“She’s very strong and determined,” said Patsy Inouye, the 24-Hour Challenge race director. “I don’t know Cat well, but when she comes through checkpoints, her legs move like pistons, she’s got a single-minded look on her face and yet she’s smiling.”