Young Guns: Profile of Ben Couturier

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, V14.2, March-April, 2005.

See below for the post-race profile of Ben Couturier.

“After 320 miles I stopped briefly to lose all forms of entertainment. I feel that Walkmans and computers and heart rate monitors and all of the other toys out there take away from the concentration and that self drive of the race...To numb your mind with electronics feels like cheating because you lose the pain.”

-Ben Couturier after winning the Fireweed 400 in 2004.

Although only 18, Ben has 10 years of ultra cycling experience in his home state of Alaska. This year he’ll put that on the line, racing against about 20 other solo men in RAAM. If he succeeds, he’ll become the youngest finisher in RAAM history. I’m the current holder of that record, as I placed ninth at age 20 in RAAM 1987, the year after Couturier was born.

Is he tough enough? At age 14 he and his Dad raced the 350-mile Iditasport Extreme. “I pushed the bike literally for the first 140 miles, got a little riding, then pushed again for 60 miles and then finally got a good trail. The first five days were spent hiking a bike. It was a fight of survival but it was great. The places I saw were great, the people I met along the way amazing, and the things I learned about my self — about the body, and about a person’s mind—were impossible to obtain any way except going through it.” They placed third bike overall in this winter endurance race held on the fabled Iditarod trail. It’s a race so tough that I dropped out at the halfway mark with an injured Achilles tendon when it was first held in 1997.

“The things I learned about my self—about the body, and about a person’s mind—were impossible to obtain any way except going through it.”

A veteran of over 40 mountain bike races with the Arctic Bike Club in the Junior Expert division, Ben tied for last place in the inaugural Fireweed 400 RAAM qualifier in 2003. The next year, at age 17, he won the race in 21:39, only 10 minutes off Reed Finfrock’s winning time in 2003. His road bike? A 1974 Eisentraut, a custom, steel road bike. Who says you need the latest technology to win?

Ben’s exuberance and mountain biking skills were evident in Fireweed. The officials had changed the turnaround location in Valdez so “I ended up hopping a curb, riding through some grass and jumping the other side of the trench for kicks.”

Ben loves hill climbing and on Thompson Pass “I knew it was my chance to make time so I threw it in mid-cluster and stood. As I caressed the top I saw my good friend Jeremiah Bell who I work and ride with, did a wheelie for the cameras and was rewarded with a nice long downhill and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

“I did a wheelie for the cameras and was rewarded with a nice long downhill and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Ben graduated high school a semester early so that he could move to Fredericksburg, TX to live and train this winter with Peter Lekisch, the Alaskan who completed solo RAAM in 2003 at age 60 and is the race director of the Fireweed 400. During high school, Ben worked as a bike and ski mechanic at REI and also took an EMT course and earned six college credits

In Texas now a normal training week is three days on, one day off, three days on, one day off, etc. It will usually go four hours, three hours then 6 to 14 hours. The middle day is high intensity. “I’ll start a taper three weeks before the race that will keep the intensity but less hours.”

“In a few weeks I’ll be leaving Fredericksburg with Shauna, my girl. We are going to tour the Rockies and train there for a while. We’ll just be living out of a tent and being cycling bums.”

Ben started with “BMX riding: grinding, jumping, being the young hoodlum, you know. Then I learned that it was softer to land with suspension so I took up free riding...I still race mostly cross country mountain biking.”

Ben got hooked on ultra when, at age 10, he and his Dad did a 360 mile unsupported tour from Eagle River, AK to Fairbanks. At 11 he tried to enter Iditasport, but was turned down because he didn’t have any experience. So he raced cross-country the next summer and at 12 entered his first Iditasport. He has finished five Iditasports (later called Susitna 100), taking second overall when he was 16.

He says “The thing I like most about ultras or cycling in general is the people. It’s hard to find a lemon in the group. Besides that, I like going downhill, fast, of course.”

He says “Ultramarathoners are the nicest breed of people. They don’t have that always competitive feel where you’re the enemy; it’s more like a gathering of friends out on a hard ride.”

When he’s not riding “I ice climb and rock climb with my two climbing partners Jory and Jose. I spend a lot of time with Shauna finding places to hike or kayak and until recent I played competitive hockey.”

Ben definitely seems tough enough to finish RAAM, but that’s not all he has going for him. Racing through the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter takes enormous resilience, composure, and the ability to self-motivate. It also takes an enormous amount of adventurous spirit and enthusiasm for getting “out there.”

For the past 18 years since I completed RAAM at age 20, I’ve told people that I was able to do the race because the right people took me under their wing, taught me the things I needed to know, and supported me along the way. Importantly, I also had an inordinate desire to finish the race. Honestly, though it was tough at times, racing RAAM was the most fun thing I’d ever done.

With enormous personal talent, RAAM veteran Peter Lekisch as his mentor, his family, friends, and girlfriend at his side, the free time to train and focus, and even a new TitanFlex bicycle to ride, Ben has everything he needs to make his RAAM dream come true. I wish him all the best and I look forward to seeing him cross the finish line.

Young Guns: Profile of Ben Couturier, the
Youngest Ever Finisher of Race Across America

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, V14.4, July-August, 2005.

Ben Couturier of Alaska, age 18, crossed the finish line of the Insight Race Across America in Atlantic City, NJ, on June 30, 2005, becoming the youngest ever solo finisher of RAAM in the process. His effort eclipsed the record I held until that day, as I was 20 when I completed the race in 1987, back about when Ben was being born. I was able to call Ben on the finish line via race director Jim Pitre's cell phone and give him my congratulations over the phone. I also had the pleasure of riding out from the start of the race with Ben in San Diego, sending him on his voyage with my best wishes.

Chris Kostman poses with Ben Couturier at the 2005 RAAM start line in San Diego

Ben completed the 2005 race in 11 days, 3 hours, 10 minutes, placing 7th of 25 entrants. The race was 3051 miles long, giving him an average MPH of 11.42. Back in 1987, I placed 9th of 32 racers with a time of 10 days, 23 hours, 58 minutes, for an average MPH of 11.84 over the 3,127 mile course.

The winner in 1987 was Michael Secrest with a time of 9 days, 11 hours, 35 minutes. The winner in 2005 was Jure Robic of Slovenia with a time of 9 days, 8 hours, 48 minutes. Therefore the winners in 1987 and 2005, plus Ben and I in those same years, rode almost exactly the same pace. But those are just numbers. The real story is always everything that leads up to the start of the race, then completing the race itself. Nobody gets across the USA without a deep level of commitment and great support. Ben and I were both lucky in that regard.

With an incredibly consistent pace all the way across, Ben turned in an absolutely stellar performance that impresses and pleases me greatly. Good job, Ben! Here is my post-race interview:

What were your sleep patterns?
In the beginning of the race, I slept once during the heat of the day for about an hour, then again at around 3 a.m. for an hour and a half. Later in the race there was two longer sleeps I believe at around 3 hours, but my during the day nap slowly disappeared. I had a lot of small breaks as I wasn't out to race RAAM as much as I was out to enjoy it. I stopped at a few nice lakes in Colorado, I chatted with the volunteers, and tried not to miss much.

What did you eat?
Everything and anything, including cheeseburgers, ham sandwiches, Snickers, licorice, go-gert, and jelly beans. I usually drank Gatoraid, then Cytomax, then water, rotating through along with orange juice. When not riding, such as right before going down (to sleep), I had a lot of tortellini with alfredo sauce, mac and cheese, and the like.

Did you have any physical problems?
At times, knees hurt, butt hurt, hands hurt, mouth hurt, head hurt, etc, but for the most part I didn’t feel too bad. All the acidic foods and the hot desert played havoc on my mouth, but a brilliant fix by my EMT Allen fixed that half-way through. It was to the point that I was barely gumming the foods and I road with my tongue hanging out so it wouldn’t tap my teeth.

I didn't wear cycling gloves and didn't over wrap my bars, but my hands were fine until the humidity made them start to come apart, along with the rain and the hills that forced more rubbing on them.

My knees got so stiff that it was usually hard to walk and, if I stopped for 2 minutes, it took 20 minutes to get them warmed up and moving freely again. This, too, healed itself by the end, though. I crashed on day two so I had a 3X3 inch chunk about 4mm deep out of my palm and a nice raspberry on the hip that became a nuisance to keep clean through the race. The hand wound got pretty gross and a little infected, so I ended up cutting away some more skin off it. The hip stayed good the whole way; it just took a lot of extra time to dress the wound each time I wanted to change shorts or take a shower.

What got you into ultra distance racing and what do you enjoy about it?
I started when I was ten, doing a 350-mile, unsupported, week-long tour with my day. Next it was the Iditasport races at age 12. For the most part I enjoy the people and testing my limits. I have accepted that I most likely wouldn't excel in the competitive road races, so endurance riding is perfect. Also it’s adventure: I love getting out there to places I would never otherwise get to.

What was most fun about RAAM?
Meeting all the quirky people that are the legends of the race. The quiet Kish, the intellectual Petrie, the juvenile Kostman, the always competitive Chew: all with their different ideas. Most people probably do it for the adventure and the self-gratification and not a numbers game.

What was the hardest part?
That painfully boring finishing stretch.

Did anything particularly interesting or unusual happen?
Some where in Colorado or Ohio or in between, some redneck was going by and threw a brick of firecrackers at me, waking me up. I wasn't sure what to think of it; I wasn't mad, but I was confused, like maybe they were in need of help, so they were signaling me. Well, I chased them for the next 3 hours so I guess I should thank them for being dicks.

“Ben Couturier gave me the time of my life in RAAM ’05. I’ve crewed 19 previous RAAMs which were just as full of "pain, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation," in other words just as awful, as RAAM brags that it is. This time young Ben gave me an enjoyable, invigorating race by doing everything right, which turned out to be mostly doing everything conventionally wrong. He was so much better on the bike than everyone else that he could stop and enjoy his celebrity at every time station, sleep three times as much as the other riders I've chased, eat whatever he wanted instead of reprocessed animal feed, and still achieve the "official" finish which he set out to do on his rookie ride. His approach was nicely reflected in the Bicycling magazine feature. After every RAAM up until this year I would swear never again. Not this time.”

-Peter Moffett

Will you come back and do RAAM again? I heard, that between Pagosa and Wolf Creek you told John Hughes "not until at least age 30." Why or why not?
Peter Moffett (who crewed for Ben; see sidebar) taught me that you should never waste your time doing anything twice. This doesn't mean I will not do RAAM again; it just means it’s going to be different next time. The next time will not be a tour, but a race, I will either do it in two years if I feel ready and can afford to, or in a longer time down the road, but don't expect me to turn my life into revolving around RAAM like a few others.

What about other ultra road events? e.g., Furnace Creek 508?
At the moment I am more interesting in the adventure riding idea. I am looking at getting a Surly Pugsly and trying the Harding ice field on bike next June, Hope to Homer, and I will be doing the winter races this February. There’s a race in Costa Rica that is in October that I may look into next year (La Ruta) and as for road, Le Tour Direct is calling me because it’s in Europe. The 508 sounds like the hell part of RAAM with desert, you'll have to sell me on it, then you may see me there.

What do you think would attract other young racers to the sport?
Honestly, ultra racing is not something that young people are attracted to typically, and not much about it has a good chance at grabbing them. What trapped me is that I wanted to get deeper into the backcountry then ever before. (When I did that at age 12), the attention that my age and the event brought kept me doing more. As a 12-year-old, having some sponsors (hotel sponsorship like Microtel that paid $500, which covered entry fees and gear), newspaper articles, being on the news, and even “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” was cool enough to have me trapped. Typically, though, kids are lazy and even if they’re motivated, it only lasts so long.

What role did mentorship and close, personal support play for you?
Getting started, I had all the support of my Dad going along with me on these rides and pushing me to finish. I was taught from age 10 ‘til 14, with him by my side, that quitting wasn't an option and that I can do anything if I am still breathing and that idea stuck. It programmed me not to quit.

When not riding or racing, Chris Kostman produces a series of endurance events in Death Valley each year, including centuries and double centuries, charitable events to support Challenged Athletes Foundation and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the world-famous Badwater Ultramarathon foot race, and the venerable Furnace Creek 508.