Juneau woman wins ultramarathon bike race


Photo courtesy Janice Sheufelt. Click to enlarge.

Dr. Janice Sheufelt had no idea she could win an ultra-cycling event. After years of competing in short bike races, she just started long distance training in the last year.

“I figured, well, I’m doing all this training, it would be a good year to do an ultra – ultra meaning extra-long distance bike race,” says Sheufelt.

She found the Furnace Creek 508 on the Internet. Despite its name, the course is actually 509 miles. It starts just outside Los Angeles, and stretches through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, before curving back to the finish line near Joshua Tree National Park. It crosses ten mountain passes and has a total elevation gain of over 35-thousand feet.

To prepare Sheufelt biked around Juneau – a lot.

“To the end of the road, and then up Eaglecrest, out Thane, out North Douglas, and then to the end of the road and back,” she says.

By the end of the summer, she figured she’d been up to Eaglecrest 56 times this year. She also did a couple 24-hour rides in Washington, where the roads aren’t as hard to come by and the weather isn’t so wet.

“I did one 16-hour overnight training ride in Juneau, but the second eight hours it just poured rain the whole time – this was in July. And that was just miserable,” says Sheufelt.

Instead of a bib number, contestants in the Furnace Creek race pick a totem, or animal, to represent them. As they go through each checkpoint, riders shout out their animal’s name, and that’s how race officials keep track of everyone. Sheufelt, who’s half-Tlingit, chose “wooshkeetaan” as her animal.

“Of course, no one knew what wooshkeetaan was, but by the end of the race everyone was just calling me the Alaska shark,” she says.

Photo courtesy Janice Sheufelt. Click to enlarge.

Sheufelt had no idea she was doing well in the race until the second to last checkpoint. That’s when her support team, which consisted of husband Jim, daughter Megan, and friend Peter Apathy from Sitka, told her she was in second place in the women’s field and tenth overall.

“And I was like, ‘Oh come on, really?’” she says.

Really. And at the last checkpoint, Sheufelt’s team found out she was only 15 minutes behind leader Seana Hogan, a well-known ultra-cyclist and six time winner of the Race Across America.

“They didn’t tell me that, because they wanted me to just keep riding my own race and not change anything,” she says.

Going up a hill during that last leg, Sheufelt she caught a glimpse of a rider she didn’t recognize.

“It turns out it was her [Hogan],” Sheufelt says. “And she was stopped momentarily and her crew was tightening some bolts on her bike or something. And, I rode by her and she did a big double take and yelled something at her crew, and then I knew the race was on.”

Hogan would give chase, but finish 12 minutes behind Sheufelt, who was the only solo female racer who had never competed in the Furnace Creek 508 before.

“My goal was just to finish, so I was completely shocked to win the race,” Sheufelt says.

Beating out world class competition in her first ultramarathon hasn’t gone to her head. The win qualifies Sheufelt for the Race Across America, but she says, “I definitely know I am not doing that. Because that takes a minimum of nine days, and that’s a bit much.”

The 45-year-old – who’s administrator of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Ethel Lund Medical Center – says she may do another race similar to Furnace Creek, though, including the Fireweed 400 in Southcentral Alaska.

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