Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mid-Atlantic 24-Hour TT Race Report: I'd Fire My Mechanic, But I'd Be Out Of A Job

"I'm givin' 'er all she's got, captain! She can't take much more of this!"

This weekend, I raced the third annual Mid-Atlantic 24-Hour TT in Washington, NC.  From a purely competitive perspective, it didn't make sense to do so; less than two weeks earlier, I'd ridden for nearly 60 hours over four days in the California Central Coast 1200k Randonnée, and though my recovery was proceeding well enough, it was clear I wasn't in an ideal position to do my best in a 24-hour race.  In the few workouts I'd attempted in the last two weeks, I'd been well off my best numbers, and I hadn't felt like I had much to give.

Even so, I decided to toe the line in NC for two reasons.  First, I'm in a pretty competitive position in the Ultramarathon Cycling Association's 24-Hour Competition, which is a year-long, world-wide competition to see who can put together the most miles in any three 24-hour races.  I'd done pretty well in the two that I'd raced (441 at Sebring despite not riding the last hour because I was tired of shivering through a 38-degree night, and 488 at the National 24-Hour Challenge), but without a third, I couldn't hope to place well when it was all said and done.  The Mid-Atlantic 24 was the only remaining race I could reasonably attend.  Second, it was an easy 4-hour drive away, and it also was straightforward for my parents to get to from Atlanta, which is an important selling point.  And so it was that I decided to do the best I could while playing with less than a full deck (physical or mental).  

The course

Unlike Sebring and the N24HC, each of which had three loops (a long daytime loop, several shorter daytime loops, and then a very small overnight loop), Mid-Atlantic had only one 26-mile loop that riders would circle until they saw the sun a second time.  It was about as flat as it could be, and while a few miles had rough pavement and there was a bit of a wind, on the whole it was ideal for moving quickly:

One observation about this loop: it starts at the far western point, then proceeds clockwise, heading east before looping back to the southwest.  There is only one checkpoint where riders' numbers are recorded, that being at the start/finish line.  To my mind, without a second checkpoint on the far eastern side of the loop, there appear to be many opportunities to cut the course for anyone who's so inclined.  The comparable races I've seen have had such secondary checkpoints, although I'm sure it greatly increases the staffing challenge for the event; having volunteers sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere through the night is pretty thankless.  Maybe that's one reason many 24-hour races have a nighttime loop that's only a few miles long.  I suppose this race proceeded on the honor system, which is fair enough, although it seems a surprising arrangement for an official Race Across America qualifier, and it's a little disconcerting to someone who cut his teeth navigating Ironman's landscape of timing mats and course marshals.  Even randonneuring events, which are as noncompetitive as they come, take measures to ensure that riders stick to the designated route. I hoped it wouldn't be an issue.

My unintentionally well-color-coordinated setup for the day.
As always seems to be the case at non-triathlon events, the starting line was a pretty relaxed place.  I suppose there was little to get worked up about at the start of an event that would last for either 12 or 24 hours, depending on one's division.   

Me and Max, my longtime riding compadre.
Chatting with Brian Jastrebsky, the eventual winner (far right in green Zoot kit).
By now I've gotten fairly adept at recognizing fast triathletes when I see them, and one guy I noticed at the starting line, Brian Jastrebsky, fit the description.  He said this would be his first ride over 150 miles, but I also learned that he'd recently won a very competitive half-Ironman race over several strong athletes I know.  I figured he'd be moving fast for at least the first 150-200 miles; past that, anything was possible.  So much of ultracycling is getting the bike comfort, nutrition, and mindset right that it's a hit-or-miss thing on the first go-round even for strong athletes.  In an event like this, where many participants are shooting to hit that 400-mile mark for RAAM qualification, I think often riders limit themselves by focusing on that number when in fact they could do more if they aimed higher. 

My mental goal was something in the 450-mile range.  I considered that number conservative, but given my sub-optimal preparation, I didn't have much confidence that I'd be able to keep a strong pace through the nighttime hours.

The first loop of the course revealed a second sense in which this race operated according to the honor system.  The race was strictly "non-drafting," but after the official car led us through the first mile, all bets were off and all wheel-suckers were on.  What a nightmare.  A group of 50-odd riders formed the Worst Peloton Ever, riding unpredictably and yet in very close proximity.  A couple of times I upped my pace to 24 mph or so to try to create some space, but I'd turn around and there'd be 30 guys right there, chatting with one another.  It got to the point that, when I'd see guys right behind me, I'd quickly pull off to the side and touch the brakes to force them to confront the wind.

[BEGIN LECTURE]  Hey guys, here's a tip: people notice things.  If you're drafting in a non-drafting event, it's not a "hey, do what you want" kind of thing.  It's against the rules of the race every bit as much as cutting the course is, and it's disrespectful to the other riders.  If you think the people who are riding their own races don't notice and remember, you're entirely wrong.  You may be a very strong rider, and you may even win at the end of the day, but to me, you'll never be worthy of respect until you cut out the bullshit.  It's tough to claim you're not drafting when the guy 6" in front of you drifts left and right across the lane and you follow him every step of the way.  I'm embarrassed on your behalf.  [END LECTURE]  

Sorry to be bitchy.  :-)

In any case, the first loop proceeded in peloton format at about 22 mph, and I made a quick bottle change and shot out onto loop 2, pressing the pace in an effort to find some breathing room.  For the next hundred miles it was pretty much me, a couple of guys on recumbents who were riding the 12-hour race, and a guy on a road bike without aerobars who seemed to be going all-out at every pedal stroke.  I was feeling okay, and averaged close to 23 mph for the first 125 miles.  I finished the first century in 4:24, my "Ironman" 112-mile split was 4:56, and my 125-mile split was about 5:30.  It was exactly the pace I'd been on at N24HC in Michigan, and it wasn't too stressful, although my lower back was rebelling in a way it hasn't for a long time.  I knew it wasn't a good sign that I was thinking about ibuprofen so early in the event.

Looking about as happy as I felt.
And then things rapidly got worse.  My power had been holding steady at about 220w, but suddenly I could barely get it above 200w, and I found myself flailing.  I couldn't figure out what the problem was; it was warm but not searing, and I'd been downing two bottles of hydration every hour, which seemed like plenty.  Maybe the humidity was a part of it.  Eventually I realized that, although my aggressive pace in the first 125 miles might have been manageable if I were in peak form, I'd probably overcooked myself given my fatigue heading into the event.  Minute by minute, my average speed was drifting lower, and I was struggling to make progress.  This is not the sensation you want when you have 18 hours to go in a ride.  I reasoned that bad stretches are inevitable in races like this, but it's rare that I encounter one so early and emphatically.  The roadie and recumbents faded from view, and as they did, I turned my cycling computer to a simple "time and distance" readout; any speed and power numbers from that point forward were bound to be depressing.

The next several hours were about trying to salvage the race.  At one point, uncharacteristically, I found myself standing in ice water with a cold compress on my head as I tried to get my body temperature down.  This wasn't at all the day I'd hoped to have, but my mind went back a couple of years ago to a time I attempted a straightforward 200k brevet two weeks after competing in Ironman Wales.  I'd felt just fine for the first 50 miles or so, and then it was suddenly game over.  The remaining 75 miles were some of the most arduous and painful of my life.  It seems to be the case that, with lingering fatigue, you can feel superficially strong for some period, but eventually the bottom just falls out, and it can happen quite suddenly.  I was right there again.  I was only able to convince myself to keep going on the theory that the day had turned from race into mental training exercise.  There might not be an opportunity to win anything, but there was still a chance to fight through a tough situation in a way that I might be able to call upon down the road.

Mechanical Numero Uno

Eventually, after 9 hours or so, after eating and drinking everything I could and riding gingerly, I started feeling a little bit better, but for some reason I wasn't able to go any faster.  I began to hear the telltale pulsing squeak of a brake hitting the rim, and cursed to myself that somehow my ongoing campaign against brake-rub had hit another setback.  Getting off my bike at the far side of the loop to inspect my rear wheel, though, I noticed two odd things.  First, my wheel wasn't just off-center, such that it was rubbing only one brake pad.  Instead, it was, at various points, hitting both pads -- the wheel was warped.  Second, from inside my wheel cover came a metallic rattling whenever the wheel rotated.  Broken spoke inside my wheel cover.  Crap.  I'd never broken a spoke before, believe it or not, and I couldn't figure out how it had happened on this ride.  Maybe on one of the railroad track crossings?

I didn't have a spoke wrench on me, and even if I did, the spoke was inside the screwed-on wheel cover.  On most bikes I could simply have loosened the rear brakes to give the wheel more clearance, but my bike has integrated rear brakes that are adjustable only by a guy named "You And What Army." I knew I had a spare rear wheel in my car -- thank goodness for my having taken that precaution -- but my car was 13 miles away and I was on a bike that was rattling, wobbling, and topping out at 10 mph.  I struggled with it for a couple of miles, trying to pretend I was just going with the flow, before I decided I'd had enough.  I pulled out my multi-tool and entirely removed the rear brake pads and holders, which I stuffed in my jersey pocket.  Rear brakes?  Who needs 'em.  I reasoned that it wasn't as if it were raining, which was true enough for 15 minutes or so.  And then it was! 

My backup rear wheel got things going in the right direction once again, although it was hardly ideal; it had a climbing cassette instead of a flat-land cassette, meaning that the gear spacing was uncomfortably wide and I often couldn't find the one I wanted.  I hadn't brought the tool to change it.  

The good news was that, as the halfway point approached, my legs had finally come around and I was passing people constantly.  The bad news was that I'd covered only 240 miles (compared to, for example, 268 at N24HC).  Given the almost unavoidable drop-off in speed for the overnight portion, I reasoned I'd be lucky to hit 450-460 total miles, and the race leaders were beyond distant horizons.  I figured all I could do was soldier on and hope that the guys up front encounter night terrors.

Fortunately, the nighttime portion turned out to be my personal happy place.  I felt markedly stronger in the early evening hours than I had at any point until then, and I was flying around the course, reeling riders in like rabbits.  Unlike most 24-hour races, this one permitted crews to follow their riders, and I therefore invited my parents to follow me for a couple of nighttime loops, keeping me in their headlights.  I reasoned that it might stave off sleepiness for me, and it would probably make them feel better as well, given the recent incident in which a cyclist was killed by a truck during a ride I was on.

Mechanical Dos: Revenge of Mechanical

About 11:00 pm, 15 hours into the ride, I was buzzing right along, but I suddenly began to feel inexplicably unstable when going around curves; the bike was just handling strangely.  I stopped to feel my front wheel, thinking that maybe it had partially deflated and was therefore gripping the road in odd ways, but it seemed fine.  Maybe I was just getting loopy?  Strange.  I started back down the road, but when steering with one hand while getting a drink, I nearly fell right over.  The bike was jumpy and twitchy.  What the hell?  

I stopped to inspect things more closely, and rotated the handlebars from side to side.  When I did, this is what I encountered (video taken post-race):


As far as I could tell, the bearings in my headset had suddenly been replaced with gravel.  There was a stiff crunching sound as I turned the bars from side to side, but even worse was the fact that the steering was "sticky."   Specifically, when the bars got anywhere near straight, they would suddenly snap in into the straight-forward position, and it would take a lot of force to turn them again.  When they did finally turn, they did so suddenly and violently, like breaking free a stuck pedal -- they would pop sideways, causing the bike to swerve sharply.  It was extremely disconcerting, especially considering the fact that I was missing a rear brake.  For the final 8 hours of the race, it was a constant war to keep my bike from throwing me to the ground.  Each meaningful turn or curve required coming to an almost complete stop and then wrestling the bars to get pointed in the new direction.

Somehow, despite it all, I was still moving fast when I wasn't trying to stop, turn, or get my bike working properly.  I averaged 20 mph or so for several hours straight overnight, flying past other riders merrily, and I realized that, despite all of the problems I'd encountered throughout the day, a final number in the 450's might be possible.  That would constitute a major victory considering how the day had gone, and with an hour to go, I was hammering as hard as I could.  I had 436 miles, and I wanted 456.  It was the final push!  The dawn was breaking, I had a third or fourth life, and I was ready to smoke the final lap.

Mechanical Tres: Competence Lacking

And then my front tire punctured.  (Of course.)  Dejectedly, I pulled off to the side of the road, where, illuminated by headlights, I went to change the tube.  My tri bike has massive lawyer's lips on the dropouts that require greatly loosening the skewer in order to get the front wheel off.  My exhaustion and exasperation with constant mechanicals left me with little patience for my wheel's refusal to release from the bike, and somehow I must have loosened the skewer nut a little too much.  Not thinking clearly, I laid the wheel down and pulled out my flat kit, but when I picked the wheel up again, the skewer fell out.  The cam end landed in plain view, but the nut -- which was black, naturally -- dropped somewhere into the dense knee-high weeds where I'd laid the wheel.  Utterly ridiculous.  I decided to go ahead and replace the tube before looking for the skewer nut, but again my fatigue must have gotten the better of me, because despite my working the tire back on by hand, the tube exploded when I inflated it.  Destroyed spare tube.  No nut to attach the wheel to the bike.  Outstanding.

And so it was that, against my every intention, I abandoned the ride with fully an hour to go, leaving me with a total mileage of 436. 

Considering it all

I'm not thrilled with a final result of 436, but examining my data file afterward, one number told the story:


21 hours and 22 minutes -- that's how long I'd been moving out of the 24 hours in the race.  I'm usually very good about staying on my bike in these events.  At N24HC, for example, I'd been rolling for well over 23 hours.  I'd lost the final hour of this race, and I'm quite confident that my brake rub/broken spoke/brake removal/tire change/wrong cassette fiasco, combined with my inability to control my bike, had cost me a lot of time as well.  

Had I been able to ride for as long as I normally would have, i.e., 23+ hours, the additional 1.5 hours at 20 mph would have yielded me another 30 miles or so, which would have put me in the mid 460s.  It's not an exact science -- after all, maybe the mechanicals gave my legs a small break -- but a 460+ number would have been an outstanding day given my lack of rest heading into the race.  In light of that, I have to be content with what I was able to do, especially given the depths of trouble I was in during the afternoon hours.

The eventual winner was Brian Jastrebsky, a 29-year-old triathlete from Virginia Beach, with 471 miles.  Considering that his previous longest ride had been 150 miles, that's an astounding performance, and I look forward to seeing more of him around the circuit in the years to come.  His strong day confirms my belief that many Ironman athletes could do well at ultracycling if they gave it a try.  Mentally, there's a lot of similarity between the events -- you just have to keep moving -- and the bike training isn't actually a world different.  Having said that, I've raced against a couple of 9:20-ish Ironman guys in these events, and they didn't do anywhere near as well as Brian did.  Hats off to him.

The second-place rider, Ray Brown, finished just behind Brian, with 468 miles.  Again, a great day.  I'll see Ray again at Silver State 508 in October, where he'll comprise part of a pretty stacked field.  Hopefully I'll be able to put in a better showing.  

My plan for the immediate future is to get some rest to let my body absorb the 80-odd hours of saddle time I've accumulated in the last half-month, and then to focus on consistency and intensity for a few weeks heading into Silver State.  Once I'm there, the plan will be "ride myself into a puddle and see where I wind up."

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Long rides are revelations

Yesterday a friend from years back, reacting to the 3CR video I posted on Monday, observed that the music I chose had lent the ride a particular tone.  After watching it once through, she'd enjoyed muting the sound and experimenting with watching it again to different songs, and noting how the choice of music dramatically altered the feel of the journey.  She recommended that I give it a try, and pointed me to some songs that she'd found apropos.

My first reaction was to be flattered that she'd found the movie worth watching a second time, much less that she'd used it as an aperture through which to experiment with ways of seeing the world.  And her observation about the power of music rang true.  Years ago, before I discovered the liberation of commuting by bicycle, I'd spent 45 minutes a day in the subterranean anonymity of a Metro train, staring a thousand yards ahead of me through crowds close enough to touch.  Earbud cords dangling, I'd often passed the time by re-imagining the scene as something out of a movie, playing songs ranging from modern rock to trance electronica to Tim Burton-esque gothic meditations, and observing how the world changed from moment to moment.  There might be a well-dressed lady reading a book while huddled into a cranny of a packed car.  What was she reading?  Who was she -- what was her story -- and what was she feeling just then?  I could convince myself it was anything and change my mind in an instant, all by choosing a different sequence of notes to play as a backdrop.  With the proper music, I think one could imbue a Transformers fight scene with a convincing air of poignancy.  It's powerful stuff.

So, on a superficial level, I agreed with my friend's thought experiment: I doubtless could have told the 3CR story in innumerable ways simply by making alternate choices in iTunes.  Each of those choices might have elicited something different in the tale.  Indeed, anyone else on the ride would have chosen differently in narrating his own journey, much as he might have been looking in a different direction at a given moment and noticed a particular scene that resonated with him.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that, interesting though my friend's thought experiment might be on an intellectual level, it fundamentally misconceived what I'd tried to do.  It suggested, I think, that the tone of the story I'd tried to tell was on some level fluid and mutable, and that the choice of music was an arbitrary decision that led to a particular result.  On that theory, another choice might have been as valid or resonant, just... different.  But I couldn't disagree more.

There's an age-old epistemological debate about whether mathematics is invented or discovered.  That is, are the equations we've found to hold true mere human constructs used to describe relationships in the world as seen from mankind's perspective, or are they immutable truths that would exist whether or not we are here to consider them?  If no humans were alive ponder the question, would it make sense in any deep way to say that the principles of multiplication hold true?  Is mathematics an invented human notion or a revelation of fundamental principle?

What does any of that have to do with long bike rides?  To me, a surprising amount.  My friend's observation that the feeling and meaning of the movie I put together could be changed in interesting ways through the choice of tune struck me as suggesting that there was no "correct" music in any deep sense.  But for me, there was.  One of the most valuable things I've taken from long, solitary rides is that, when you have nothing but time to clear your mind and open your thoughts to the world, the journey impresses itself upon you in ways that are unexpected but powerful.  For me, that often takes the form of music.  When my mind is clear and I glimpse a falcon diving from the sky, I can't control the feeling of awe it creates, and what accompanies that awe is a feeling that translates itself into music -- particular music -- often inexplicably.

I'll never forget my first Ironman, in which, about 40 miles into the bike ride, profoundly alone in the alligator swamps of Maryland's Eastern Shore, I was suddenly overtaken by "Step by Step," a frivolous pop song recorded by boy-band New Kids On the Block some 15 years earlier.  I hadn't heard it in those 15 years.  But there it was, clear as day, and it was in my head for hours.  To this day, I can't hear that song without remembering a particular tree I'd been looking at when it came storming into my conscience.  And with that frivolous song came a feeling that, hey, this is an intimidating event, but it's nothing to get worked up about, and I spent hours in a mood that was veritably punchy, singing aloud to the firmament.

So, too, at 3CR.  The songs that I chose in that movie weren't random.  They weren't things I chose out of iTunes because I thought they were catchy.  No -- they were songs that were in my head for important parts of the journey.  They evoked a particular sense of exuberance and wonder that I felt while my ears were pinned back and I was flying along the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Well it's a great day to be alive...
A great day to be alive

I'll never be able to hear that song again without suddenly being back there.  The ride, the story, wasn't something I invented for this blog.  It was something that was revealed to me, hour by hour, and that I've tried to recount as faithfully and emotionally honestly as possible.

That exuberant journey took on a far different and more important tone when I learned the morning after the ride that Matthew O'Neill, a 33-year-old rider in the event, had been killed by a truck on the third day of the ride.  When I heard that devastating revelation, I spent the rest of the day, including the long train ride back to San Jose, on the verge of tears, and sometimes well beyond the verge.  I suddenly was back nearly 8 years ago, when I got the call telling me that my brother had fallen into the coma from which he never emerged.  I had all too clear an idea what Matthew's family and fiancée must have felt, and it destroyed me.  That, too, is part of this story, and the movie I created was the most profound celebration of life I could craft, while also being a violent cry of despair that such senseless a tragedy had marred this most life-affirming of journeys.  It was a tribute to the wonderful, cruel, ecstatic, senseless colors of the world.

Would you wanna, would you wanna
Come dance with me
Would you wanna, would you wanna
Fall in love with me
Would you wanna, would you wanna
Come dance with me
Fall in love with me
Come and dance with me

The truth is, the songs I chose could not have been anything other than what they were.  Nothing else would have represented the journey that I lived, the images that flicker behind my eyes, and the adventure I'll treasure until the end of my days.  Those songs chose themselves.

That's really the thing with randonneuring, and with long rides generally.  I don't know if mathematics is invented or discovered, but to me, long bicycle rides are revealed.  I've found that I can plot whatever course I want, but the fact is, when I get out on the road, I take the world as it is and the journey as it comes.  Hopefully I'll have my heart and mind open to it, whatever it brings.  And when it's done and I sit down to write about it, I'll tell what happened in a way that is as true as I can make it.  It's all I can do.

I'll see you on the road.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Central California Coast 1200k Randonnée (3CR): The Movie

On August 7-10, 2014 I rode in the inaugural Central California Coast 1200k (750-mile) Randonnée.  It was every bit the magnificent adventure I'd hoped for, and I'll have a lot to say about it in blog posts... eventually.  (That write-up will appear in printed form first!  Randonneurs, keep an eye on your mailboxes.)  

For now, I've put together a 14-minute chronicle of the adventure.  Because the incredible scenery is key here, I recommend opening the movie full-screen high definition:
  1. Click on words "YouTube" in lower right of the video.
  2. Click on brackets "[  ]" on the lower-right of the video to expand it into full-screen mode.
  3. Select 720p HD for the resolution (click on the gear shape under the movie and choose 720p HD).
Note that, due to what I think are copyright issues, playback on YouTube may be restricted on mobile devices, but it should be fine on a desktop or notebook.

Journeys like this are always deeply personal, but I've tried my best to capture the spirit of my ride.  I hope you enjoy it!  If you want more like this, check out my video from Alaska's Big Wild Ride 1200k last year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Can't Take The Heat: 2014 Saratoga 12-Hour TT Race Report

On July 12th, I headed to the idyllic town of Saratoga Springs, NY for my second crack at the "Hudson River 12-Hour," one of the competitions that comprises the Saratoga 12/24 weekend.  For a variety of reasons, I was approaching this race a bit under-baked fitness-wise.  For one thing, between my recovery from the National 24-Hour Challenge a month ago and a 10-day trip to France in the lead-up to the race, I hadn't spent much time on my bike recently.  For another, due to the unseasonably cold spring and the fact that most of my weekday riding is done on a trainer indoors, I hadn't been outside much in the heat and humidity for which the East Coast is legendary.  Finally, because the Saratoga events are not sanctioned by the Ultramarathon Cycling Association, performances this weekend wouldn't count toward any year-long aggregate competitions.  So, basically, my approach was to race unsupported, hopefully put in a solid day, and move on.

Having said that, to be blunt, I expected to win this race.  In 2012, I'd broken the course record only to lose by four miles to Matt Roy, an incredibly accomplished rider with a leapfrogging crew vehicle; Matt wouldn't be back this year.  That year I'd finished two miles ahead of John Nobile, a very strong guy who'd previously won the Tour of the Divide mountain bike race.  John had returned to Saratoga in 2013 to establish a 255-mile course record on the new Saratoga course, and while I thought he'd be tough competition in 2014, at the last minute he'd chosen to enter the 24-hour race, so he literally was not a factor.  Given those developments, I figured that the win would be straightforward; the challenge would be breaking John's course record.  I thought I had a good shot, given that I was stronger than I had been in 2012.

One big unknown was the "new" course (new to me, anyway; it was used in 2013, when I hadn't raced).  The previous course had been a 32-mile loop; the new one was a 40.5-mile "lollipop" design, with aid stations at the beginning and the 19-mile point.  It looked pretty fast, only 25 feet/mile of climbing, but from the map it looked like the course crossed a number of major roads, and I hoped there wouldn't be too much drama with traffic lights.  There's nothing as frustrating as pushing hard on the open roads, only to be forced to stand at a stop light for minutes on end as your average speed erodes before your eyes. 

I'd learned in 2012 that, when self-supporting during a race, it's important to minimize the amount of wasted time spent refilling bottles between loops.  So, I'd pre-filled 20 bike bottles with my various potions -- and one with crushed Fritos, which had been divine in Michigan -- and stuffed them into coolers full of ice.  I figured that I'd go through 2 bottles an hour in the morning and the evening, and maybe 3 per hour during the heat of the afternoon.

Things got started in mellow fashion with the 40-odd riders (spread across all race divisions) enjoying a 1/2-mile parade start through two traffic lights -- a prelude of things to come -- and then we were released onto the course, which was marked with orange arrows on the pavement just before each turn.

I immediately set off at my own pace, which is to say, hard, but not unreasonably so.  I've concluded that it's a fool's errand to try to evenly split anything as long as a 12-hour or 24-hour race; instead, it makes the most sense to give it gas when you're feeling spry, knowing that the black moments will come one way or another, and it's best to be in a good position when they do.  I quickly dropped the field, although I got caught behind another couple of traffic lights and blew past a couple of turns that I noticed too late.  I found the delays annoying, but I figured that, in terms of results, they were largely academic; the question on my mind was whether I could break that 255-mile mark that John Nobile had set last year.  

About ten miles in, after I'd looped around to correct another navigational mishap, I saw a guy on a road bike not far behind me, which was a little surprising.   But, I figured, some people go too hard at the beginning of these races, and he'd soon drop off.  Only he didn't, or at least, not enough -- I pulled away a few hundred yards toward the end of the lollipop, but the tiny gap closed when we hit the series of traffic lights heading back into town.  More ominously, he had a leapfrogging support vehicle sporting a pre-printed yellow "BICYCLE AHEAD" banner on the back of it, something I'd previously seen in exactly one place: RAAM.  I hoped I was wrong about that.

As we were waiting for the lights back into town to let us through, the rider pulled up next to me, and we chatted a bit as we rode side-by-side for a few miles.  His name was Rob Morlock, and as I figured, he'd been around the block a bit, including finishing RAAM solo three times, with a sub-10-hour finish in there back in the 90s.  "Great," I thought.  Twice I race Saratoga, and twice I wind up in a dogfight with an accomplished ultracyclist with a well-drilled support crew.  I'd narrowly lost the last time, and I resolved not to have it happen again.  Unfortunately, that would probably mean pushing harder, and sooner, than I'd planned.  I wanted to break contact to give Rob a chance to back off on his effort, as I figured it would be easier for him to push hard if I were acting as a rabbit.

Onward I pressed, keeping my average speed north of 22 mph despite the traffic lights and stop signs, but Rob wasn't going anywhere.  Worse, things were starting to heat up in a very literal sense.  I was dripping sweat all over the place, and it was only 11:00 a.m.  Every few minutes I'd see his support vehicle pass, and his wife would hop out and wait for him with a bottle of cold something-or-other.  I teased her that I was jealous, which wasn't far from the truth.  (Although, in a grand sporting gesture, Rob offered to have her hand me up some water if I needed it.)  This sequence continued every few minutes until the end of the loop, when I had to stop to swap out my bottles then sprint to catch Rob, who'd kept on rolling.

At this point, 80 miles in, I was getting concerned; I was working a lot harder than I'd planned, but my average speed was dropping by the minute and I was beginning to feel distinctly crappy.  Constantly thirsty, sweating buckets -- barf.  Recalling the apocryphal Einstein definition of insanity, I decided to change things up by shadowing Rob around the course for a loop, thinking that maybe he'd find leading as difficult as I had.

Well, he didn't -- dude was strong as an ox.  I hung on desperately through mile 120, at the end of the third loop, at which point Amy had stopped by briefly before getting ready for the wedding she was attending.  I immediately committed the cardinal sin of the hard-man ultracyclist by getting off of the bike completely, and I sat in the shade as I nursed a couple of cold bottles of liquid and downed some Fritos.  She confirmed that the day was indeed brutally warm and muggy, and that it wasn't just me falling apart for no reason.  

Remarkably, I was 6 hours into a 12-hour TT, and already my average speed was considerably slower than it had been for the full 12 hours in 2012.  In fact, it was slower than it had been over 24 hours at the National 24-Hour a month ago.  The course record was a fading dream, as was the overall win; Rob looked like he could do this all day (which, in fact, probably was just his plan).  I mentally flicked the switch from "race" mode to "just go out and keep trucking" mode, and I managed to get myself around the 4th loop, but it wasn't pretty.  John Nobile, who was racing in the 24-hour division, passed me when I dropped my chain on a short climb, and that blow to my dignity took on a physical manifestation when my hands suddenly began cramping whenever I tried to wrap them around my handlebars.  As Sean Connery memorably put it, "our situation has not improved."

By the start of the 5th lap, at mile 162ish, I was riding for pride and not much else.  Well, ok; I was also proceeding under the rationale that, if I wasn't acclimated to the heat heading into the race, at least there was a good way to start fixing that problem.  Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately -- my bike put an end to proceedings shortly thereafter.  I noticed that my rear tire was slowly deflating, but it wasn't completely flat.  To change the tube, I had to deflate it, but I couldn't since: (i) the valve stem was deeply recessed inside my rim, and covered by a valve extension; (ii) I didn't have anything long enough to poke it to let the air out; and (iii) I couldn't unscrew the valve extension, as I couldn't squeeze it without my hands seizing up in cramps.  I finally wrestled the tire off the rim using tire levers in ways God never intended, but when I inflated the new tube, the tire became unseated; it looked like I'd damaged the tire bead.  Game over, dude.

After getting SAG'ed the few miles back to the start, the race director messed around with my tire and declared it wasn't going to hold up.  He offered me a new wheel to keep going, but by then I'd been off the bike for an hour on top of my already dismal performance.  I decided to cut my losses and make an appearance at the local wedding from which I was playing hooky in order to race.  I wished my buddy Max the best -- he'd taken the enviable tac of hosing himself off and lying down before starting his last lap -- and that was that.

In all, I rode 165 miles in 8-something hours, with an average speed around 20 mph.  Pretty dismal compared to what I'd hoped, but it happens.  I'd been going from strength to strength in the ultracycling world this year, so this was a useful learning experience.   Every now and then I apparently need a reminder that I sweat more than anyone else on Earth, and that drinking water needs to be a full-time job in the peak of summer.

Ah well, live and learn!  Congrats to John Nobile on setting a 467-mile course record in the 24-hour race, which is a serious performance on any day, much less one like the one we had, and to Rob Morlock for showing me how it's done while cruising to victory in the 12-hour event.

I'm not sure whether I'll be back to Saratoga.  It has a lot going for it in terms of location and friendly, low-key atmosphere, but I was disappointed in the number of major intersections with heavy car traffic on what's supposed to be a TT course -- something like 8 such intersections per loop.  If I do another of these mid-summer events in a self-supported manner, I need to lower my expectations and prioritize hydration over competing when the two priorities conflict.  That's a tough thing for me, since I tend to motivate myself in these events by pushing aggressively at every opportunity, but it's probably a lesson I need to internalize.

Thanks, as always, to Adirondack Ultracycling and John Ceceri for putting on a welcoming and well-run event.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Race Report: 2014 National 24-Hour Challenge

"To be a real challenge, the outcome had to be uncertain."
-Jan Heine

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

I knew this would be a tough one.  The National 24-Hour Challenge is a race with pedigree.  It's been held in Middleville, Michigan on the same weekend every year since 1983, and in that time, it's attracted a who's who of ultracyclists.  Over the years, the race has grown to more than 300 racers, which is enormous for a 24-hour cycling event.  By way of comparison, Bike Sebring was less than half the size, and that field was dominated by 12-hour and 6-hour racers.  In N24HC, everyone was signed up for the whole caboodle.

In a field that size, it's inevitable that some talented riders toe the line, and this year was no exception.   I knew that Collin Johnson, the 2x defending high-mileage rider, would be back again; he'd racked up 470+ miles at least once in this event and had set numerous ultracycling course records over the last few years.  I also knew that Scott Luikart would be back; he'd won N24HC in 2011 with 472 miles, and also had won the 24-hour division of the 6-12-24 Hour Time Trial Championships last fall.  Even random people I met before the ride seemed inordinately athletic.  One guy was unpacking a couple of top-end BMC race bikes in front of my hotel; he said he was a triathlete who didn't expect great things, but his Kona shirt suggested otherwise, and a quick Google search confirmed that he'd ripped off 9:20 Ironman races several times in recent years.  That kind of athletic ability and drive didn't suggest he'd go quietly into the night.  And who knew who else might show up?  It looked to be a rough neighborhood.

Finally, N24HC presented what was, for me, a novel challenge: a draft-legal race.  Sure, I'd ridden plenty in pacelines and pelotons over the years, but not once had I done so in a competitive situation.  Draft-legal bike races involve a host of tactics that never come into play in a triathlon: when to take it easy, when to make a break, where to position oneself in the group, when to chase breakaways, and so forth.  I'd be making all of that up as I went along.

The good news was that, for the first time in years, I was heading into the race feeling like I'd prepared consistently and properly.  Since I cranked things up in December after my fall layoff, I'd trained with intensity and dedication: 5-6 days a week of quality bike work, including, most weeks, 4 days of interval work on the trainer.   I'd also put in the long rides: after racing 24 Hours of Sebring in February, I'd completed 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevets with the D.C. Randonneurs, the last of which I rode straight through at an aggressive pace.  I felt as strong on the bike as I'd ever been, so I arrived at N24HC determined to push myself to see what I could do.  I'd been ecstatic with a 441-mile day at Sebring, my first 24-hour TT and a non-drafting event.  N24HC was somewhat hillier and warmer, but I hoped that with more miles under my belt I could clear the 450-mile threshold and maybe surprise some of the pre-race favorites, who doubtless would be watching each other more than me.  (Which is their loss, really, because I have nice legs.)

Given that the 24-hour racing thing is still very new to me, my only resolve is never to repeat a mistake if I can help it.  To that end, after Sebring, I resolved several things.
  1. Plan to be cold during the night, no matter the forecast; when you're exhausted, your body doesn't act like it should.  This time, I brought my Assos thermal vest and arm warmers despite the fact that temps were supposed to remain in the mid-50s.
  2. Get the saddle right.  I love my Cobb saddle for anything up to Ironman distance, but at Sebring, I could barely sit down for the last six hours.  Solution: put a Selle Anatomica Titanico X on my tri bike, just like on my randonneuring rig.  These saddles are all over the place on the ultracycling circuit, and at this point it's unclear to me why anyone ever rides anything else.  They're rapidly taking over my bike stable.
  3. Don't go so hard that I can't eat real food.  It happened at Sebring because I had brake rub issues without realizing it, and my stomach never quite recovered.
  4. Plan to want a lot of salty food.  Arrange to have hot soup for later in the day.
  5. Embrace the fact that there is no such thing as too much, or too many different kinds, of chamois cream. 

Middleville Michigan is a quaint midwestern town in the middle of nowhere, but with a lot of greenery -- just the place to hold an event where cyclists ride all night.  My trusty crew and I made our camp at the Holiday Inn Express, where there were exactly two kinds of customers that weekend: (1) ultracyclists, and (2) people who drove these things:

It's a Franklin!  (So I was told)
Gorgeous cars.
Redefining classic.

If Tri Team Z had a Franklin, this would be it.
See how the rear-view mirrors are mounted?
Yep, they're strapped to the spare tires.
Never pass up an opportunity to mug for the camera in neon shoes.
Then there was this guy, who went with 2 $10k BMC race bikes.  He's probably slow.
We trekked over to the middle school where the race would be hosted the next morning, and the scene was like a Woodstock of ultracyclists pitching up tents all over the place.

A beautiful evening in Michigan.
After getting checked in, we huddled at Applebee's to discuss tactics.  My straightforward request to "give me what I need before I know I need it" was met with bemusement; it's a wonder that they didn't hand me a therapist's phone number at any point during the race.

On race morning, as is often the case before big competitions, I was sufficiently nervous that I had trouble eating much.  There was a time in my early triathlon days where I'd literally dry heave before every event. Things aren't quite that bad anymore, but the fact is that 24-hour races are flat-out intimidating endeavors.  In Sebring, the only one I'd done to date, I wound up shivering all night in the damp 40-degree Florida air, as I was too exhausted to generate any body heat; I desperately hoped not to face another round of that misery. But, even on the best of days, the time and distances involved are too large to wrap my head around.  I do my best to think of it as just another long ride, but my subconscious knows otherwise, and it seemed to be spending the morning spinning furiously while I stared into space.

We took some team photos for prosperity and/or for Missing Persons posters that may be need later in the day.

The team: Bill, Our Lady of Suffering, Amy, and Joyce.
Barry Benson, a fellow DC Randonneur, had graciously invited my crew to spend the day under his canopy, which would prove to be invaluable.

Barry Benson in hi-viz jersey.
Dad and Amy, feeling less nervous than I did.
And then it was time to go.  I sauntered up to the line and began giving people the evil eye, until I realized there was something different about them.  Something brighter.  Something... that would enable the race officials to tell who the heck they were as they made progress throughout the day.  Helmet stickers! Dammit, I had no idea where I'd put my bag, and the race was about to start.  Somehow, though, Amy was standing right there with precisely the packet I needed.   The first sign of a good crew member!

I actually don't mind when people label me.  Note the rider trying not to laugh.
The starting line was a nervous but friendly (and Fredly) scene; I was the only guy I saw with a disc wheel, and the less said about my mirrored visor, the better.  There were several teams of athletic-looking roadies. I knew Collin, last year's champ, was sporting number 2 (number 1 was last year's top female), and I was surprised to see him wearing a Camelbak.  I later found that he preferred to ride long first loop (125 miles) self-supported, so that his crew could have a leisurely morning.  Apparently he's a nicer person than I am, or maybe just less terrified of the whole thing.

Freds looking nonchalant.
"Hey, I can see my knee socks in your visor!"
"When I say 'go,' head that way until tomorrow morning."
Loop 1 ("We can have lots of fun")

From reading race reports from years past, I knew the front pack would set off quickly, but that there would likely be a break before long in which the eventual winners would ride off the front.  My strategy was just to stay in touch with those guys; in Sebring, due to mechanical issues, I'd lost 5 miles in the first hour and had never seen the front of the race again.

The first loop was a 124-miler (200k) through rural Michigan.  It could fairly be described as lightly rolling hills; nothing too much to worry about climbing-wise, but enough change of pace that it didn't turn into a grind.  Crews could meet their riders at the three designated checkpoints along the way, where our bibs also would be punched to mark our progress.

The opening miles, through the town of Middletown, were a lovely, crisp spin in a peloton of 30-40 riders.  I hung out near the front taking pulls when it was my turn, and otherwise just tried to relax.  I found to my pleasant surprise that my longtime riding buddy Max had latched onto the front group; he'd had knee surgery this spring and wasn't expecting great things on the day, but I was happy to see that he was pushing the pedals from the get-go.

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Through the first 20 miles, things went smoothly, if quickly; we were averaging more than 22 mph, which can be a little bit hairy in a large group of riders who don't know the course.  That challenge suddenly became apparent when I was sitting second wheel as we bombed down a country road.  Suddenly, the lead rider shouted "right turn!" and dove into it; apparently he'd seen the yellow arrows on the ground very late.  I thought for a split second about trying to decelerate in time to make the turn, but I realized that I'd very likely cause a massive pile-up by doing so.  With a groan I rolled past the turn as every rider behind me had time to make it, and turned around to climb back up the hill to get back on course.  By the time I got going the right way again, the peloton was a good 100 yards in the distance and moving fast, which forced me to take off after them at full speed in order to avoid getting left behind.  I caught back up after a mile or two, having worked quite a bit harder than I wanted to, but as I made my way back up toward the front, one guy thanked me for not prompting carbon carnage by trying to make the turn.  I'm a regular humanitarian, I am.

The peloton rolling into the first aid station.
Lookin' purdy.
The peloton rolled with startling speed through the first aid station at mile 34; I got my bib punched and paused only long enough to exchange bottles with the crew, but already the front riders were 1/4 mile down the road when I pulled out.  Desperate to avoid getting dropped, I surged back to the front, but it wasn't necessary; soon enough, the peloton was back up to its previous size of 30-40 riders.

This wasn't how I'd imagined things going.  In prior years, the front few riders had broken away early, but this year, there was a huge pack just sticking around.  In some ways it was helpful, because the large group made it easier to make good time.  In other ways, though, it was annoying as hell.  I'd estimate that, of the 40-odd riders in the group, only five had any interest in pulling.  I'd take a turn at the front for a mile or so, flick the next rider through, and he and several behind him would immediately pull off and drift to the back as well.  To their credit, Collin and Scott, the two pre-race favorites, were among those willing to put in some work.  But it was increasingly galling that self-evidently strong riders would glom onto our wheels without making any effort to do their part.  Eventually I got sick of sacrificing myself without reciprocation, so I planted myself toward the back of the pack and drifted along in the slipstream, trying to figure out how to make something happen in the race.

Checkpoint 2: Preparing for takeoff.
All systems go.
My chance came at the second checkpoint, around mile 70, and I made my move.  Just before that point, Scott and Collin had dropped off the pace for a bio break, and I rolled through the checkpoint in first place.  I quickly grabbed two new bottles from my crew, then sprinted back out onto the course, blowing by a couple of riders who were waiting for the peloton to regroup.  I then TT'd the next five miles all-out, looking back to confirm that no one was following me.  It looked like I'd gotten away, and I had the pace car all to myself.  Liberty!!!

In some ways, I think this move defined my race.  I reasoned that one of my only advantages over Scott and Collin was that neither of them knew anything about me, and neither of them likely thought I'd be around very long.  Based on that anonymity, I hoped that they'd continue to roll along with the peloton, and that maybe they wouldn't notice anyone had broken away until I'd built up a lead of several miles.  I figured that, if I could build up enough of a lead, it might wind up sticking; I was confident in my ability to ride solo at a good pace all day and night, and these ultra races are largely mental.  I wanted to give Scott and Collin every opportunity to write the day off, or to start mentally racing for second place.

For a long while, things went great; I was flying down rolling country roads speckled with sunshine streaming through the canopy of leaves, unencumbered by wheel-suckers, and feeding off the endorphin rush of putting power to the pedals and feeling like I had bottomless strength.  I stole glimpses behind me on occasion, but by all appearances, I'd snuck away.  Best of all, the pace car was saving me the trouble of navigating through the unfamiliar terrain, and the driver was motivating me with thumbs-ups every now and then.  My average speed had crept up from 22.8 at the start of my breakaway to over 23 mph.

I tore into checkpoint 3 at mile 96 with no one in sight behind me, got my number punched, and looked around for my crew.  Hmm -- not good.  They were always right at the front waiting for me, but not this time.  I really needed new bottles, but things were what they were, so I began to accelerate back out onto the main road.  Just as I did, I glimpsed them in an adjoining parking lot carrying the cooler toward the checkpoint; apparently I'd beaten them there! I was flattered, but also slightly panicked that I'd be chased down, so I quickly grabbed some supplies, and when my mom asked (incredulously) if I was in the lead, I merely pointed toward the checkpoint entrance, where a stream of riders was then barreling in.  (Oy vey.) But I wasn't going to make it easy for them.  I ripped back out onto the course and set sail for the end of the first loop.

Century split: 4 hours and 20 minutes (23 mph) (PR).

Ironman split: 4 hours and 51 minutes (23.1 mph) (PR)

The final 28 miles were a blur of effort and emotional swings.  Sometimes it would look like I'd gotten away from the chasers; other times, on long straightaways, I could swear I saw a speck in the distance that could only mean bad news.  I looked for motivation wherever I could, and found it in the idea that I was having to fight off a chase group could work together to run me down.  Indignation is a powerful thing.

First one back!  Feelin' both punchy and punched, in more ways than one.
I pulled into the final checkpoint at the end of the daytime loop -- mile 124 -- by myself, and prepared to start the 24-mile short loops that I'd traverse until dark.  Unfortunately, as I was about to get my number punched, I looked back and there, just behind me, were Collin and Scott, the very people I'd hoped wouldn't track my breakaway.  So busted.

200k (125-mile) split: 5 hours and 25 minutes (23 mph) (PR)

This wasn't good.  I'd worked tremendously hard over the last 50 miles of solo riding, and all I'd really managed to achieve was parity with the pre-race favorites, who'd been matching my pace but doing so by trading off pulls.  So much for my clever move.

Has anyone seen my matches?
I was in a hole and there was a long day ahead.  As we refueled, I proposed that the three of us work together for awhile instead of beating each other up, and they quickly agreed.  We set off on the 24-mile loops with no one else in sight.

Loop 2 ("There's so much we can do!")

The second loop was a 24-miler that we'd ride until 8:00 pm, halfway through the race.  In my head I'd imagined that, with three of us working together and well out of sight of the rest of the field, things would be a little calmer.  I was both right and wrong.  I was right in the sense that the three of us worked very well together, taking honest 2-mile pulls, no one shirking his duties, and we made very good progress.  I was wrong in the sense that, holy crap, Scott and Collin ride like locomotives.  On certain hills it was everything I could do not to get blown off the back of the train. We stormed through the first loop of rolling hills just under 23 mph.

Game face on!  Behind me, Collin Johnson.
When heading out on the second short loop, Scott and I agreed that we were riding a little hot; we didn't want to go so hard during the daytime that the (12 hours, dear God, of) nighttime riding would only involve drifting down the road.  So, we set out to be more cautious, and finished the second 24-mile loop at the same damn ridiculous speed we'd ridden the first one.  Oh well.

Amy, probably telling me to get my shit together.
And so it continued.  At the end of each lap I'd be virtually certain I'd wind up in a ditch if we didn't back of the pace, but it never died down much.

Al Stover Photography: 24 hour Bowens Mill &emdash;
Pulling the train.  With Collin Johnson and Scott Luikart.
Al Stover Photography: 24 hour Bowens Mill &emdash;
Clinging on for dear life.  With Collin Johnson and Scott Luikart.
300k (188-mile) split: 8 hours and 15 minutes (22.8 mph) (PR)

200 mile split: 8 hours and 48 minutes (22.7 mph) (PR) 

400k (250-mile) split: 11 hours (22.7 mph) (PR)

Altogether more reasonable than how we were spending the day.
By the time the daytime loops closed on us around 7:50 pm, our speed had fallen only 1/2 mph, down to 22.4 mph, and we'd covered a ridiculous 268 miles.  To put that in perspective, at Sebring 24-Hour in February, I'd covered 245 miles in that time.  In fact, at the Saratoga 12-hour TT in 2012, I broke the existing course record with 256 miles -- 12 fewer -- and that race ended after 12 hours.  This one was just getting started.

Finishing the daytime loops with Collin (L), Scott (far R), and a mystery man.
Unfortunately, I started falling apart in rather disastrous fashion on the final 24-mile loop.  My new leather saddle had stretched so much that I was riding almost an inch lower than I should have been, which prevented me from recruiting leg muscles properly.  I had the wrench to re-tension it, but I couldn't use it without getting dropped, which would have been game over.  And, due to what I later realized was my grabbing a wrong bottle from the crew, I was incredibly nauseated and dehydrated, to the point where I felt like I was wobbling down the road.  Note: I know now what happens when I accidentally drink 1,000 calories of sludge in an hour instead of water, and I have no desire to repeat it.

The three of us agreed to take a bit longer at the checkpoint before setting out on the nighttime loops; we needed to get our bikes set up for the night.  This brief rest was pretty much my only hope of staying with them, but almost as soon as I got the tool to fix my saddle, they were shooting off back down the road.  I guess we'd had different ideas of what "a bit longer" meant, but in truth I was relieved to see the back of them.  I'd ridden harder in 12 hours than I thought possible, and I knew there there was no way I could keep up any longer.  Their taking off was doing me a favor, because I took a few needed minutes to down a couple of bottles of water, re-apply chamois cream, drink some hot soup chased with Red Bull, and eat as many Fritos as I could stomach.  Living the dream!

Dad and Amy preparing my nighttime spread.
Amy, ready to go with my nighttime gear.  Perfect!  What a crew.
Actually, no dream.  I desperately wanted to call it a day and go back to the hotel, crawl into a warm bed, and watch World Cup games.  I was a total wreck; I reflected that my 50-mile breakaway stunt had been a serious mistake, and I was sorely tempted to say, "Hey, I rode 268 miles in 12 hours -- my day is done."  I knew intellectually that a very dark moment would come sometime during the race, but knowing that fact doesn't really help you cope with it when it happens.  It's always possible to rationalize that, "Well, I knew it would be tough, but I couldn't have anticipated going this hard or this fast, so my previous resolve to keep going wasn't really very informed."  But there I was, in rural Michigan, with parents and a gf who'd traveled across the country to stand on the side of the road for me for 24 hours; I couldn't imagine the thought of telling them that I was quitting after 12 hours just because a bike race that lasts all day and night was tougher than I'd anticipated.

And so, with a distinct feeling that nothing good would come of this, I decided to roll the bike around the 7.3-mile short loops a couple of times to see whether I could salvage anything out of this pacing debacle. The last thing I wanted to do was be on my bike shivering at 16 mph all night, which is what had happened at Sebring.

Loop 3 ("It's just you and me!")

The 7.6-mile nighttime loop is basically a flat drag-race around a rectangular course.  There's one lovely, cruising downhill and chippy uphill on each loop, which actually is great in terms of providing some variety.  Otherwise, with quiet roads, good pavement, and no navigational requirements, it's just about perfect for nighttime cruising.

One challenge that I recognized from Sebring is that, when you see your crew every 7 miles, it's very easy to stop and chat with friendly faces often, and that's deadly to a fast pace.  The beginning of each loop is a small battle of will with one's self to roll out into the night once again, away from the friendly embrace of loved ones and hot soup.  But, as much as seeing my crew frequently represented a challenge, in a greater sense it was the main thing that kept me going.  When you're on your bike for an unreasonably long time, the only way to stay sane is to find things to look forward to in the near term, be it a swooping section of road, a downhill where you can relax, or an amusing mailbox shaped like a manatee.  For me, the biggest of these things is that I looked forward to seeing Amy and my parents; each completed lap met with their cheers and constituted a small victory.

In the first several of overnight loops, from 8:00 until sundown around 9:30, I was content merely to make steady progress around the course, and to try to rejuvenate myself with the savory delights my crew handed me.

Some people bring knives to a gunfight.  I bring Pringles.
The best of these unexpected treats was an entire Pringles can full of crumbled Pringles and Fritos.  It fit wonderfully into my downtube bottle cage, and it was more delicious than I can convey with words.  That's definitely a trick I'll repeat in future events.  The bottles of hot chicken broth also were divine.

The Michigan sun sets on N24HC.  But the fun starts after dark!
Red sky at night, a cyclist's delight.
Around 9:30, as the sun was setting, I was getting a little drowsy.  Riding with a headlight can have a mesmerizing effect, and after a long day in the sun, I was having trouble focusing.  Two things brought me around: a quick rest stop in which I had a bottle of Coke *and* a Red Bull, and firing up my new toy for this event, a Scosche Boombottle.

The Boombottle.  Badabing, baby!
N24HC had a "no headphones" rule, which was sensible in light of the pack riding.  (Although some riders ignored this rule and used headphones and radios to communicate with their crews throughout the event.) For me, though, music is pretty key for getting into a flow state on extremely long rides, and I don't think I'm the only one; the top RAAM guys almost uniformly have massive speaker system strapped to their follow vehicles.  Jure Robic, the great RAAM champion, was known to blast Slovenian military marches for days on end.  (Oh, his poor crew.)

So, I went with a non-headphone music solution -- the Boombottle -- which I pre-cleared with the race organizers.  It's pretty cool, a bluetooth speaker that fits into a bottle cage.  Its volume isn't massive, and it can be hard to hear when you're riding fast if it's not near your head, but putting it in my "between the aerobars" cage was perfect.  It more than exceeded its 10 hours of predicted battery life.  I'd just hit the pause button whenever I was riding near anyone for more than a moment.  Otherwise, I got some whoops from people I passed at 3:00 a.m. while channeling Bon Jovi.  And hey, if nothing else, it let people know I was coming.

Amazingly, only an hour or two after I'd been at my lowest point and considering whether to continue the race, I found myself at my highest point, feeling great and just flying down the road as I sang along to whatever embarrassing thing was coming out of my speaker at the moment.  I held 21-22 mph for a couple of hours straight, which was incredible given the state I'd been in not long before, and I felt invincible.  Of course, I knew that that high, too, would pass.  That's the thing about ultracycling: no matter how good or bad you feel, that'll change.  You just have to ride things out, as impossible as that task may seem in the moment.

600k (375-mile) split: 17 hours and 50 minutes (21 mph) (PR)

I'm happy to report that I rode strongly throughout the night.  I didn't see much of Collin or Scott, but I played a solid 10-hour game of "catch the rabbit" with the headlights in the distance ahead, often overtaking them with surprising speed.  Even at 2:00-3:00 a.m., the traditional witching hour when any trace of fun drains from the event, I felt capable of pushing hard; there was no "Sebring drift" going on here, and my morale was good.  I guess my inevitable black period had occurred earlier in the evening.

From 3:00 a.m. until dawn around 6:00, the number of riders on the road diminished substantially, but when the morning rays broke in the east, suddenly the crowds came back out to play.  It was a glorious morning, and the last two hours felt positively easy.  Making it through the night was the mental challenge; after that, it was just a matter of finishing it out.

The glorious morning hours.
I started my last lap at 7:25 a.m.; only partial laps counted, and given that my best lap times were around 20 minutes, I knew that getting two more before 8:00 was impossible, but one more was a gimme.  I cruised it as a victory lap, soft-pedaling and chatting with fellow riders about the day.  It was a reward for a very long day's work, and I drank it up.

Finish line in sight!
Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Finish Line &emdash;
It's all done, but for the sleeping.
Amy, sensibly hesitant to touch me.  She learns quickly.
Concluding thoughts

I finished at 7:50 a.m., 23 hours and 50 minutes after I'd started, with a total distance of 488 miles (20.5 mph average).  My goal had been 450 miles; what a day!  The tally was good for 1st place in the age group by 60 miles or so, and 3rd overall.  Collin broke the old course record with 503 miles, and Scott smashed it with 511.  (Good grief.)

I took a quick rinse the public showers, then headed to the awards ceremony, which turned out to be an endurance test in of itself.  The announcers were in great cheer, and they'd put together a very nice raffle. The trouble was that the raffle took fully 30 minutes to complete, and the riders had long lost any ability to stay conscious.  I felt especially sorry for my crew, as they'd been up all night on my behalf and I'm sure were simply hoping to get to bed as soon as they could.

Can you identify the riders in this picture?
Clearly the best part of the race.
Gold medal, M35-39.
Left: Scott Luikart, the new course record holder.
Me with Collin, with whom I'd ridden much of the day.
On the whole, I couldn't be happier with how this race went.  I successfully fought through the black period I encountered around 12 hours in, which is much more difficult to do in the moment than it sounds in the abstract.  I don't think I could have done a damned thing more to keep up with Scott and Collin on the day.  It's possible -- ok, it's almost certain -- that I screwed up with my 50-mile solo effort on the first loop.  Maybe without torching myself that way I'd have had more to give later on, but I don't really regret it; it was fun to make a move and see what happened.  I'm still very new to these 24-hour events, and this was my first draft-legal race, so I have a lot of learning to do yet, both about myself and about race strategy.  If I were going to make a mistake, I'd have wanted to make it in the direction of riding too aggressively, so I'm at peace with it.

And, frankly, it didn't hurt me all that badly.  I rode 268 miles in the first 12 hours and 220 miles in the second 12 hours.  That's a big dropoff in pace, but I don't think there's any such thing as even-splitting or negative-splitting a 24-hour race.  Taking a global view, that's still a 350k in 12 hours, which is very solid.

From this point, I think my main goal has to be to continue to work on my wattage.  My endurance is okay, and I'm figuring out the nutritional and mental aspects of the race, but the fact is that the people I'm competing with are often more powerful than I am.  I'm usually more aerodynamic than they are, which is how I'm able to compete, but I think I'm still leaving a lot of time on the table.  It's only in the last few months that I've really started to focus exclusively on my power output, and I'm making steady progress.  There's a lot more to do, but life wouldn't be any fun if there weren't.

Next up: a return to the Saratoga 12/24 in July, which I last raced in 2012.  I'll most likely be taking on the 12-hour event there, although it's possible I'll jump into the 24 at the last minute.  Who knows? Maybe I can even win one of these things...