Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Four Amigos: Diabolical Double 2017 Recap

It's rides like the Garrett County Gran Fondo's "Diabolical Double" that sold me on cycling.  I bought a bike in 2005 to train for an Ironman in 2006, and after finishing that in one piece, I found myself drawn inexorably to the long, painful, and stupid.  Whereas in my first year of cycling a rolling hill constituted a daunting challenge, by 2007, I found myself signing up for Mountains of Misery, a ride in Blacksburg, VA, over Memorial Day weekend that started in a valley and ended on top of the most ridiculous climb in the world (and the filing location of Dirty Dancing!).  MoM offered a 100-mile route with two awful climbs and a 125-mile route with four, so I chose the longer one because it was longer than the shorter one.  Sound logic.

That first year of MoM was a blast.  I didn't know anyone else riding, but I met a colorful cast of folks along the way who knew what they were doing.  Too dumb to know better, I rode faster than I should have but somehow held it together, thus finishing both my longest and hilliest ride in one swoop.  In the final miles of that ride I met a guy, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Laura, who seemed to be riding pretty hard.  When we got to the base of the final climb, a 3-mile monster that ascended at an average grade of 12% or so, Kyle quickly vanished up the road.  I remarked to Laura that he seemed to be a strong rider, and she agreed before dropping me as well.  Sheesh.

In future years, MoM became a mainstay on my calendar -- every Memorial Day, I talked a different group of friends into giving it a go, and most of them came back for more.  I rode it seven years consecutively, and only in the last year, 2013, did I crank out a quick time as I was chasing my buddy Mike around like a dog after a frisbee.  He's Canadian, so he doesn't get tired, apparently.

Sometime around 2010, Kyle, whom I'd first met on MoM a couple of years earlier, apparently decided that MoM wasn't hard enough and that he could do better.  He had a house on Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, near Wisp Mountain in far western Maryland, and he advertised a 125k ride that would make MoM look like child's play.  The first year was a "beta" year, i.e., one in which the ride organizer was still perfecting things, so he invited riders to come out and give it a whack in exchange for gaining a new perspective on the concept of suffering.  I toed the line with Max, Mike, and perhaps Seb, and we trundled our way through never-ending grades of 15% or more, followed by descents that weren't much more relaxing.  At one point we found ourselves in a valley with 50 miles to go, looking at a digital board that proclaimed the temperature to be 95 degrees, and facing a series of miles-long climbs in the brutal sun.  The only way home was forward.  Grim effing business.

The gang and I rode the Diabolical Double two or three more times in the ensuing years, often camping near the start.  Each time was memorable, but when I stopped racing triathlons and joined the ultra-racing scene, I found that each year the DD coincided with the National 24-Hour Challenge in Michigan, the biggest of the American 24-hour races, so I didn't make it back for a little while.

2017, then, was the return of the prodigal moron.  Due to work commitments, I couldn't make it to Michigan, and besides, I learned that the DD had innovated in my absence.  In 2013, it had been a 125-mile sufferfest with little to shoot for except survival, but in the last year or two, it had started keeping track of riders' times up certain climbs and ranking riders' performances afterward in connection with "King of the Mountains" and "Queen of the Mountains" awards.  That sounded intriguing.  Better yet, 2017 was the pilot edition of a team competition wherein teams of at least four riders would compete over about a dozen climbs scattered throughout the day.

I put a team together consisting of the ever-enthusiastic Sebastian; a local climbing superstar, Chris; and one of his friends, Matt, whom I didn't know.  I looked forward to a social ride, because I haven't had many of those lately.  Between the R60 chase on the randonneuring front, which had me riding solo off the front for 6-20 hours at a time; ultracycling races, which are monastic by nature; and my usual indoor training regimen, I realized I'd been something of a cycling hermit.  The beauty of the DD's team competition was that we could ride together all day, enjoy the plentiful aid stations, and then work hard on the designated climbs before regrouping at the summits.  A perfect summer day on a bike!  If only Max hadn't been in Europe.

I wasn't sure what to expect performance-wise.  I felt like I was in pretty good shape after my win at the Maryland Endurance Challenge 12-hour race a month before, and my base fitness was unquestionable after my springtime randonneuring exploits, but the Diabolical Double's KOM competition was an entirely different beast.  Ultracycling and randonneuring, like Ironman racing, prize long, steady efforts that, while uncomfortable, never require anything approaching an all-out effort at a given moment.  Climbing steep grades as fast as one can is just the opposite: you find a highly uncomfortable place and force yourself to live there until you reach the top.  It's something I don't train for in any direct sense, and I hadn't done much hard climbing this year.  Indeed, I hadn't ridden these notoriously difficult climbs in several years.  So, I eyeballed the Strava times for the relevant climbs, reviewed my past times, and took a stab at some goals I hoped to be able to reach.  Off we went!

Because I'm me, the night before the DD brought a tropical storm to the area that dumped All Of The Rain on the course, washing gravel across the road in certain places and generally making a muck of the first couple of hours.

KOM Climb 1: Overlook Pass (0.7 miles, 12% grade)

Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long: the first time climb, Overlook Pass hit us at mile 2.5 or so.  It was a steep effort of 0.7 miles, so I revved it up and let it rip.  About halfway up, I realized this was going to be a long day, but the result was a pleasant surprise:

My previous best time up the climb was 6:31, and my ambitious goal was 5:25.  My actual time was 4:59, with an average power of 365 watts.  What a result!  Maybe I could climb after all.  Of course, that's easy to say on the first hill of a 125-mile day with 16,300 feet of climbing, but a good start was better than the alternative.  My lungs and legs burned.  Le ouch.

KOM Climb 2: White Rock Road (0.9 miles, 10% grade)

We didn't have to wait long for our second shot at glory: White Rock Road awaited us just a few miles later.  I walked across the wet metal grate bridge just in front of it -- fool me once, and all that -- and Chris, who'd started behind us, met us on the other side.  At last I'd be able to ride with the legendary Chris, the climbing hero and cheerful masochist about whom I'd heard so much, but with whom I hadn't ridden.  I imagined he'd dispatch me easily when the grades pitched up, but we'd see.  White Rock Road was just as advertised: a little longer, a little less steep, but with lactic acid still flooding the muscles from the past effort.  Oh, well, up and at 'em.

Previous best: 7:28.  Goal: 6:53 (looking back on it, could I possibly have been more arbitrary?).  Time: 6:41!  Victory is mine, at least over me.  Plenty of folks beat me, but at least I beat past me.  That guy sucked.  And an average power of 360 watts for 6:41, another personal best, and an even stronger effort than the first climb (5 watts more, but 1:42 shorter).  This was fun!  And completely awful.  Seb found me doubled over the handlebars wondering if we could go home now.

After White Rock's torture, we enjoyed a leisurely ride to the first aid station.  I got to know Chris a little, made fun of Seb (because that's what one does on a bike ride), and caught up with a bunch of local triathletes I hadn't seen in too long.  It was refreshing not having time spent at aid stations count against us in any sense -- I ate a sammich and some M&Ms in leisurely fashion, then off we went, to infinity and beyond!

KOM Climb 3: Limestone Hill (3.5 miles, 5%)

Infinity wasn't very far at all.  In fact, it started about 1/4 mile after the aid station.  This one was longer: 3.5 miles at a relatively reasonable average grade of 5%, but is there a more misleading statistic in cycling than the concept of average grade?  In this case, it meant extended sections at 10% punctuated by brief descents and lengthy flattish parts that would have been relaxing if ridden slowly, but ridden hard were anything but.  I took off like a flash, leaving Seb, Chris, and Matt behind, and I was feeling pretty good about myself for a couple of miles, at which point Chris came cruising past me and flew into the distance, beating me handily.  Wow.  Hats off, the guy can ride.

I'd never ridden Limestone Hill before, so I had no past times to compare it to.  My educated goal was 20:04 (again, there must have been some reason for this), but I spanked it with a 17:57 effort at a healthy 310w average.  Chris and I both recorded top-10 overall Strava times (i.e., rankings against everyone who's ridden the climb), with him pipping me by 5 seconds.  I was delighted with my time, but I was feeling like my quads had been run over by a semi.  Red wizard needs food, badly.  (Sorry, 80s video game reference.)

KOM Climb 4: Sam Friend Road (1.3 miles, 8% avg grade)

Not friendly at all.  I was still pretty cooked from Limestone Hill, and Chris was bobbing over distant hilltops effortlessly.  Sam Friend wasn't going to be pretty.  It wasn't.  Just get it done somehow.  How long could 1.3 miles be, after all?  (Answer: 1.3 miles too long.)

Again, no past times against which to compare my performance, but at least I handily beat my goal of 9:27, chalking up an 8:34 with a 319w average power.  Hardly disastrous, but I was feeling thoroughly sorry for myself at that point.  Chris had plenty of time to wait at the top while deciding how sorry for me he wanted to be -- he beat me by nearly 30 seconds.  At this rate, he'd have to save me a beer at the finish line, and perhaps drink it while I laid in a ditch somewhere.

My only solace lay in Chris's assurance that the next aid station came before the fifth KOM climb.  I intended to sit down for awhile and suck down Coke while I collected myself before taking on the next climb, which was a 4.7-mile slog.  And then, just where I thought the aid station would be, I saw a timing mat.  Well, crap.

KOM Climb 5: Keyser's Ridge and Pig's Ear (4.7 miles, 3% avg grade)

Again with that average grade.  Sure, the average was 3%, but nothing on it was 3% -- it was hundreds of yards at 10% or more, then meandering flats and mild descents on which we had to push the pace because we were being timed.  It was a combination of climb and time trial on legs that wanted to be anywhere else.  Meanwhile, Chris had missed a turn at the start, so I was pretty sure he'd be buzzing past me at any moment.  It never quite happened, but by the time I reached the top (and the long-sought aid station), I was shattered.  I'd never climbed that hard so many times in succession.

Still, not a disaster!  Out of 3 previous efforts, my best time was 23:20, and I'd set an audacious goal of 21:46.  My actual time was a sprightly 19:47, good for 18th overall.  Wattage of 285 wasn't anything to brag about, but I was tired and there was a downhill section where it was hard to push the pace, so I had to be pleased.  Whether I could climb anything else, though, was far from clear.

KOM Climb 6: Bowman Hill (1.6 miles, 9% average grade)

Bowman is notoriously nasty.  I'd ridden it several times before, and it was always the piece de resistance of an incomparably difficult set of challenges.  You know it's bad when one aid station is only 11 miles after the previous one -- it's guaranteed that nothing good will happen in those 11 miles.  And it didn't.  Bowman is efficient in that it just goes straight up the mountainside with no thought for  mitigating the grade through switchbacks.  This presented an additional challenge in that riders ahead of us were drifting back and forth across the road in a desperate attempt to stay upright.  Gah.  I wasn't sure what I had in me, so I just sat down and cranked until the cranking was done.

Woof!  Previous best - 13:08.  Goal: 12:31.  Actual time: 11:36.  My power meter didn't register for some reason, but heck, who cares.  I was alive and had kept alive my streak of beating every goal time with flying (ok, slowly disintegrating) colors.

Bowman was the penultimate KOM "chip timed" climb, and the seventh and final one lay some 40 miles down the road.  Of course, that section wasn't flat by any stretch -- it's just that the climbs would only count toward the team competition, not the individual KOM.  There's the famous Killer Miller, a climb I'd tackled many times before with times ranging from 10:01 to 11:20.  This time, I chalked up an 8:18.  There was the Michael Road route up Big Savage Mountain, which comprised the final 0.6 miles of a 4.3-mile climb... and it averaged 12% grade.   It was the closest I'd come in years to unclipping and lying down on the ground, but merely by surviving it I snagged a top-10 Strava result:

KOM Climb 7: Dry Run (2.8 miles, 7% avg grade)

Finally, after about 105 miles, we came to the final King of the Mountains chip-timed climb, a hard 3-mile charge up Dry Run Road.  I had nothing left to give -- I just wanted to make it to the beer at some point.  Somehow, though, when I saw that timing mat, I sucked it up and recorded an entirely solid effort:

Goal time: 18:19.  Result: 17:01 at 315w average power.  I have no idea where it came from -- there aren't many times in my life I've ridden that hard for that long, much less with so much stress in my legs.  In fact, that's a higher power than I've ever recorded in the Computrainer challenges I've taken part in at the old Multisport Expos, and I tackled those on fresh legs.  Hot damn!  The end couldn't some soon enough, but I will say that Dry Run is simply a delight.  How could you not ride well under a forested canopy with a river rushing past you?  Paradise on earth, apart from the pain.

The remaining 20 miles were a relatively tame victory lap that unfolded without incident, apart from a couple of unwelcome "team competition" hills that came out of nowhere.  Somehow I managed to snag the day's best time and 5th overall on Meadow Mountain, an 0.8-mile, 9% kicker from hell.  And, in an inexplicable turn of events, I took the Strava overall KOM on the final significant climb of the day, a 1.1-mile, 5% ascent up Negro Mountain Road:

I don't have many KOMs -- I'm not that kind of rider, and this ride had some folks far faster than I am -- so all I can guess is that I didn't fall apart as much as some others.  330+ watts for 5 minutes is, for me, miraculous at that stage of the day.  And what a sign-off for the ride!

Final Thoughts

I had more fun on that ride than I've had in a long time.  The companionship was a huge part of it: Chris, Seb, and Matt were great company -- talented riders who didn't take it too seriously.  I realized I miss riding with friends on events like these.  I used to do it pretty regularly, but it's been far too long, and I hope to have chances again soon.  Perhaps it's an argument against ultra-racing, although there are arguments in favor of that, too.  (Give me a minute.  Let me get back to you.)  But there's really something to be said for an event that lets you disregard overall time, work really hard for segments, relax the rest of the time, and finish up the same day you start.  It's almost... normal, although frankly, nothing about the Diabolical Double course is normal.

My performance here surprised the heck out of me.  I finished in the top few riders over 40 and top 10 overall out of many hundreds, and this isn't the sort of thing I train for.  It makes me think I could hold my own outside of ultracycling races, although who knows in what.  

In the meantime, I'm not sure what's next on the radar.  The Diabolical Double was an unexpectedly great capstone on an entirely successful spring season, complete with the win at the Maryland Endurance Challenge and R60 completion.  I hit all my targets, which I suppose means there's nowhere to go but down, but I'm hoping to build on my newfound strength and push on.  Maybe I have more surprises left in me yet.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Maryland Endurance Challenge 2017: Better than Bridesmaid

He's so... pretty in pink.
Cycling-wise, the past six months have been the best and worst of times.  Since November, I've been training more consistently than ever, using both new equipment (out with the Computrainer, in with the Tacx Neo), and a different training system (TrainerRoad).  I've never worked so hard, and I looked forward to trying to push some personal boundaries at Sebring in February.  Unfortunately, a serious throat infection hospitalized me for several days; instead of doing hot laps on an F1 race track, I was intubated at Johns Hopkins and looking forward to the day when I was allowed to consume ice chips.  I was off of the bike for more than a week, and I felt distinctly weak for far longer than that.  It was disheartening, but at least I lived through it.  And, hey, few better ways to lose those extra pounds than an impromptu ICU vacation.

With no racing on the near-term agenda, I refocused myself on putting together a serious randonneuring season, which featured a sub-20 hour 600k and receipt of the Cyclos Montagnards R60 honor for completing a 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevet in under 60% of the allotted time.  At times it was tough to stay afloat: at one point I'd completed rides of 300k (190 miles) or further on 5 weekends in a 6-week stretch.  It's tough to balance (i) resting for such rides, (ii) recovering from them, and (iii) putting in the hard intervals necessary to get faster at the same time.  I'm not sure I did it perfectly, but I certainly did the best I could.  It said a lot about my mindset that I worried excessive randonneuring would derail my training; I forced myself to remember that I train in order to have adventures, and not for its own sake.

Through hook or crook, I came into the first race of the season stronger and lighter than I've ever been.  But I hadn't done much racing in a long time: my last competitive event was Race Across Oregon in July 2016.  Before that, I'd had a fairly disastrous National 24-Hour Challenge in which I succumbed to heat issues and called it a day before darkness fell.

My first race of 2017, at the inaugural Maryland Endurance Challenge 12-hour event, would pit me against several extremely strong riders.  One of them, Billy Volchko, crushed me in that 2016 National 24-Hour Challenge with a ride of over 500 miles on a miserably hot day; he'd also won a couple of 12-hour races.  Another racer, Ken Ray, was new to the ultra-racing scene but was at the pointy end of training for the TransAmerica Race, a 4300-mile self-supported coast-to-coast event, and he'd been riding 25-30 hours per week since last fall in preparation.  Plus, I've found that usually an unknown-to-me superman shows up unannounced.  It would be no time to have an off day.

The race was run out of the beautiful grounds of Mount St. Mary's University near Thurmont, Maryland -- north of Frederick and almost into Pennsylvania.  That area is a cycling mecca with everything one could want, from flat cruising up to Gettysburg to climbs in the Gambrill Park region that threaten cardiac events.  It even has covered bridges!

Duncan, the race director, had designed the course to display what the region has to offer.  It wasn't hilly per se, but at 40 feet of climbing per mile in the form of constant rolling hills, it posed a monumental challenge -- many ultracycling events are flat drag-races, or at least have a couple of hills that one can conquer before relaxing.  This one, though, would require a little bit of everything and would offer few opportunities to relax.  Moreover, it was a draft-legal race, which introduced a strategic dimension that one doesn't face in the "put your head down and pedal" races like Sebring.  Working cooperatively can help everyone go further, but that won't necessarily help you cross the line first.

The 12-hour race featured two loops.  The first was a 34-mile "long" loop that we'd ride 3 times; it featured a solid half-mile climb, several punchy rollers that exceeded 10% grade, twisting country roads, covered bridges, and the Catoctin Mountains in the background.

The second was a 6.4-mile affair that we'd whip around until either we got dizzy and fell over or 12 hours had passed.  It was slightly less hilly than the long loop but still far from an easy cruise, particularly when you're tired and riding aggressively.

One enjoyable thing about 12-hour races is that they're ridden in daytime -- no overnight freezes, lights to deal with, or attacks of the sleepies.  But offsetting that convenience was a challenge: unlike in many races, I was self-crewing.  I've mostly been fortunate to have friends or family handing me food, bottles, and other sundries; without that help, I'd have to figure out how to keep moving.  My solution was to pre-mix about 20 bike bottles with various concoctions, mostly Infinit, and stack them in a milk crate for easy grabbing.  Beyond that, I had a box of Clif Bars, and the night before I'd gone by Whole Foods and raided their junk food section for croissants, donuts, cookies, and pastries, and I'd also found some Red Bull in case the going got bleak.  Unfortunately, when I got to the race site, I realized I'd forgotten the goody bag, so Infinit, water, and Clif Bars it was.  Oh well; at least I wouldn't have anything interesting to tempt me to stop for a bite.  Coulda used something salty, though.

I met Billy at the start and said hello to his sizable crew, which included his sister, girlfriend, and another guy, each of whom had more energy than I could imagine for early on a Saturday morning.  They promised to ring the cowbell for me and made good on it throughout the day.

The day was conducive to riding -- overcast and mid-60s -- but it wasn't without its challenge in the form of a flag-snapping wind out of the north.  A group of about 50 riders lined up a little before 8:00 a.m., and a rifleman sent us on our way with a single shot, doubtless to the neighbors' delight.

Billy, me, and Georgi Stoychev of D.C. Randonneurs fame, heading out.

Almost immediately, Ken (of "training for TransAmerica" fame) pulled away from the peloton and began to ride into the distance.  A few of us looked at each other with expressions that said, "Nope, not gonna be that easy" and closed the gap, thus creating a paceline of 5-6 riders that stayed together through the opening miles.  Things fractured when we summited the 1/2 mile hill at over 400 watts; by then, it was down to me, Billy, and Ken, the x-factor.

The three of us traded pulls through the 20-mile point, after which I turned around and noted a distinct lack of Ken.  Victim of a cougar attack?  Who could say?  At least it simplified the logistics: Billy and I agreed to trade pulls every 2 miles in order to keep things fair, and we made very quick time almost to the end of the first loop.

Unfortunately, our reward for being at the head of the pack was that we were first to miss a turn that was marked inconspicuously, if at all.  We didn't realize our mistake until we'd gone 3 miles past it.  Groaning, turning around, and pulling out our cell phones with Google Maps, we found our way back to the turn and corrected our error.  Along the way we passed a passel of other riders who'd made the same mistake, including Ken.  Oh, well -- it was frustrating because we were making hellaciously good time, but we're responsible for knowing the course at the end of the day, and at least most people seemed to have suffered a similar fate.  On subsequent loops, the turn was marked sufficiently obviously that the space shuttle could have navigated by it, so the organizers were on the ball.

The second long loop flew by without incident, and by the end, we were still averaging well over 23 mph -- enough for a 270-mile day if we kept it up.  Still, I confessed to Billy that I wasn't sure I could keep pushing 265 watts for 12 hours, and he admitted that we were pushing hard.  In my mind, I reasoned that if he was strong enough to keep doing that all day, I'd have to face reality at some point and do my own thing.

The third loop was a fairly painful ordeal.  The rolling hills seemed to be steeper than before, and although I felt solid, I was putting out more effort than I ever had before for that long, and it was of a spikey nature that's largely foreign to time trialists.  With TTs, the name of the game is to hold the highest steady output you can.  With a draft-legal race in rolling hills, though, this one felt more like a road race -- constant surges up hills, relaxing down the backsides, pushing hard when in front, and relaxing a little when drafting.  My wattage was all over the place, but on average it was pretty darn aggressive.

Finishing up Loop 2.
We came through the century mark in 4:19.  I've gone a couple of minutes faster over a century before, but nowhere near it on a course this hilly and windy.  Toward the end of the third long loop, I noted gratefully that Billy had stopped riding quite so hard when taking his pulls at the front, which allowed me to regroup a little bit and contemplate the short loops ahead.

At the 110-mile mark, I quickly swapped my water bottles for the first time.  Not sure how I pulled off that stunt; I guess on a cool day, it's possible.

Off we go to figure out what the short loops have in store.
The first short loop veritably flew by -- there's nothing quite like having something shorter and a little less hilly to attack.  We kept with the 2-mile-plan, but I was feeling stronger by the mile.  After we completed our first short loop, the course grew more crowded as the remaining 12-hour riders began to circle along with the 6- and 3-hour groups.  On the second short loop, Billy and I joined forces with 4-5 other solid riders, which made time and miles pass quickly: instead of pulling half of the time (with a 2-person paceline), we could do relatively little work and still make pretty good time.  I pondered this fact as we finished the second loop and started the third, at which time we were joined temporarily by Henrik Olsen, an accomplished local randonneur and ultracycling racer who'd come out to join the festivities for a little while.

The dilemma was one endlessly familiar to road racers but a bit novel to me, coming from a non-drafting triathlon background.  We'd ridden hard for 5 hours, leaving 7 hours to go.  We were part of a solid paceline making good time, and it would have been straightforward to be satisfied with that and to let the day unfold.  The problem was that Billy and I were the two strongest riders in the group, which means we weren't working very hard.  And, at the end of the day, only one of us could win, which meant that I'd have to try to break away at some point.  Finally, I got the sense that I was feeling a little better than he was at that point.  The time could be right to make a move, but if I was wrong, I'd expend a ton of energy doing something stupid.

Note: I'd done exactly that stupid thing on my first trip to the National 24-Hour Challenge, where I solo'd off the front as hard as I could from miles 75-125, only to find that I'd been ridden down by a group of strong riders, each of whom hadn't had to do nearly as much work as I had.  It was a fiasco.

Still, fortune favors the bold.  I figured that if I had a strength after my long season of hard randonneuring rides, it was in riding long distances solo; I was less confident about my ability to sit in a pack and then sprint toward the end.  So I decided to gamble a little.  When my turn came at the front of the paceline, I accelerated gradually and then went extremely hard up a medium-length hill and down the other side.  When I turned around, only one rider was left -- Ken, who'd stuck on my wheel but was a lap behind.  The others were some distance back.

Exiting the turn-around onto short loops.  Photo credit to Andrea Matney.
As I exited the turnaround, I saw Billy and the remainder of the peloton coming into it, which meant my lead was 20 seconds or so.  To me, that was confirmation: I had an opportunity, but to seize it, I had to bury myself to build on the lead -- I wanted to be far out of sight.  So I resolved to ride the next two short loops all-out to build whatever cushion I could.

I don't think I've ever ridden so hard for a 45-minute period.  I cut back on greeting people I passed because I was gasping for air a lot of the time, and each time we turned north into the gale, I tucked down into my aerobars and tried my best to hang onto my gear, even if it meant my wattage going through the roof.

Cruising in to finish a loop.  Photo credit to Andrea Matney.

The strategy appeared to work: by the end of my surge, I saw no sign of the chasers.  The problem was, it was a loop, so I couldn't tell whether my lead was shrinking or growing, and I had... 6.5 hours left to ride.  Good grief.  Lots can go wrong in that time period, especially when self-crewing.  I had to stay on top of my speed and nutrition and just keep focused on moving forward quickly and efficiently.

Ultimately, it was one of those days when everything came together -- I never did see Billy again, and Strava suggests that we spent the last half of the race orbiting opposite sides of the loop from one another.  Every now and then I asked his crew how he was doing, and they assured me that he was rolling along well and a few minutes back.  I'd have loved to know more about what "a few minutes" meant, but I didn't press my luck.  ;-)

My splits for the remainder of the ride were:

300k (188 miles): 8h 26m
200 miles: 9 hours
400k (249 miles): 11h 22m

At the 173-mile point, some 7.5 hours into the ride, I stopped to swap out my bottles and realized that it was only the second time I'd done so, meaning I'd ridden that entire distance on 6 bottles.  Again, having a cool day really helped matters.

Eventually, after having ridden a little over 10 hours, I began to feel the finish line: at a rate of 19 minutes per loop, I'd only have to ride 5 more -- I could understand that, and made each one its own interval.  4, 3, 2... finally, with one more loop to go and no sign of Billy at the turnaround, I knew I only had to keep the bike upright to finally win a race after five years of coming close.  No problem!  Done and done.  I even slowed down a bit to say hello to some chickens.

One thing that looped races have to decide is how to handle the "remainder" portion of a loop at the end.  Specifically, if you finish a loop and don't have time to ride another complete one before the race ends, are riders to stop, or should they keep going to get credit for part of the last loop?  Most races are in the former camp, but this one was in the latter, and I hit the tape with 12 minutes to go -- more than enough time to get in a few more miles.  So I removed my visor and enjoyed a victory lap as the sun descended behind the mountains, reflecting that I felt oddly great.  I'd never gone through a weak spell.  Maybe my simplistic diet and lack of a crew had been enabling in some weird sense, allowing me to get lost in my head and just get things done.

Winner winner, Dorito dinner!
Cyclists in medal are wearier than they appear.
Looking back over my race, it's obviously the strongest ride I've ever had.

I've ridden further in 12 hours, but only on the flat drag-race course in Sebring -- nothing like the hills and wind of Maryland.  In fact, my wattage profile looks more like a road race than a time trial: I spent more than an hour in Zone 5 and higher, which is something I'd have thought impossible for me.

I was on the bike and moving for 11:57:38 out of 12:00, which is about the best one can hope for in a self-crewed event, and certainly much better than I've done in the past.

From the preliminary results, it looks like I finished about 9 minutes in front, which isn't much after 12 hours of riding.  Almost all of it came during the "surge" of a few short loops mid-race.  Here are the first several loops (3 long loops, the first one with extra miles, and the first short loop).  It was neck-and-neck.

My surge came at the end of the 3rd short loop (Lap 6), and carried through the next few laps.  In retrospect, it looks like I banked about 8 minutes there, a gap that didn't grow much at all in the remaining 5+ hours in Laps 11-23.  My gamble paid off this time.

At the end of the day, the race was a terrific way to put a capstone on a satisfying spring of riding.  I'm not sure what event is next for me -- it's looking unlikely that I'll be able to make the National 24-Hour Challenge this year, a particularly sad fact considering that this might be its last iteration after a 35-year run.  For now, though, I need to let my mental and physical batteries recharge a bit; I've been pushing hard for many months straight.  Maybe it's time to relax for a couple of weeks and watch the TransAmerica and RAAM competitors gear up to go.  

As for the Maryland Endurance Challenge, I can't recommend it enough.  It's pretty in a way that few UMCA looped courses are, and it provides a challenging course far different from the flats that one normally encounters.  For that reason, it's not a "personal record" kind of event, but I think it's a true test of everything you can do.  It was run splendidly, especially for a first-year event, complete with electronic timing and modern touches like Strava segments.  And, arguably best of all, it's run for charity, supporting homeless youth in Frederick, MD.  I'll be back next year!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fighting Big Flat: 2017 D.C. Randonneurs Frederick 300k ride report

The Frederick 300k (188 miles) is an institution on the D.C. Randonneurs' rotation, having first been ridden back around the turn of the century, near as I can tell.  It was my very first 300k back in 2012, and I vividly remember fighting 95-degree heat throughout the afternoon and wafting in on fumes in just under 14 hours.  Back then I was definitely of the mindset that a 300k might as well be a ride across Siberia -- I was posting periodic Facebook updates to let people know I was still alive, and my bike was weighed down with about 15 pounds of energy bars, most of which went uneaten.  It took me a couple of years to realize that, as rides get longer, the only thing that really changes is clothing. 

Another thing I remember about that ride is having my first encounter with a climb called "Big Flat." The first word is accurate; the second, less so.  But I'd only had the one crack at it, and I wanted a second.

One great thing about the D.C. region is that, depending on which way you go, the character of the rides changes fundamentally.  Head east toward the shore, and you'll never find anything flatter, with windswept beaches and wildlife preserves.  To the southwest is Virginia, where nothing is flat -- there are more rollers than a Broadway production of Hairspray.  To the west are mountains of varying degrees of seriousness.  Finally, to the northwest and north, in Maryland, there's a little bit of everything, and that's what this ride had to offer -- three solid climbs broken up with some Amish country and cornfields.

The goal was straightforward: finish under 12 hours, and thus complete the third of four requirements for R60 qualification.  To do that, I'd need to shave nearly two hours off of my 2012 attempt, when Max and I finished in 13:56.  Egads!  Fortunately, the weather called for a perfect range of 50 degrees at the start to 78 mid-day, so if it was going to happen, today was the day.  

Ride start, pretty in pink!  Photo credit: Ed F.
Of course, I'm a moron -- that's the first rule.  When faced with a ride more than an hour from home starting at 5:00 a.m., many sane people stay at a local hotel at the start/finish and make sure to get to bed early.  My version of this was going to a nice dinner with Amy in D.C. on Friday evening, then to after-dinner cocktails, and then to after-cocktails dessert with another cocktail, such that I got to sleep at about 12:30 after drinking all evening and woke up a little more than 2 hours later for a 190-mile ride.  Part of the story is that I'm stubbornly short-sighted, but the slightly longer version is that I recognize doing these rides knocks out a big chunk of the weekend that I'd otherwise be available to socialize.  I'm exhausted and useless when I get home, so it seems unfair to block off Friday night as well as Saturday and Saturday night -- cycling's not the only thing in life.  Of course, there's a healthy dollop of self-loathing when that alarm goes off in the middle of the night, and I'm not getting any younger.  I'm sure I'm sacrificing some performance with this tragic habit, but I like to think it adds a "degree of difficulty" score, like Olympic diving.  

Also, there's something vaguely weird about getting in an elevator at 3:00 a.m., fully bedecked in spandex, and nearly running headlong into someone smelling of booze who's getting home after an evening of revelry.  Worlds colliding.

The ride itself began at the Days Inn in Frederick, MD, as made famous by absolutely nothing.  On the plus side, it has a Waffle House attached to it.  We rolled out parade-style through the deserted streets of Frederick, which is always enjoyable in one of those "different ways of seeing the same thing" ways that cycling sometimes presents.  It's certainly better than returning through the same streets on Saturday evening, a pleasure we'd have later.  

I was the only rider with a time-based agenda, so I began to press the pace after an hour or so, when we reached the beautiful 5-mile climb up Foxville-Deerfield in the Catoctin Mountain Park.  It's one of the best climbs in the mid-Atlantic: peaceful, great pavement, a gradual slope through the forest, and a river rushing along next to you.  Soon after beginning the ascent, I found myself alone with Eric Willams, one of the stronger riders in the group, and someone who rides probably twice the miles that I do.  He climbs like a goat, and the two of us made great time to the summit -- I climbed it in 21:41, compared to my 29:07 in 2012.  A promising start!

More promising for me than Eric, though.  The poor guy had decided that, despite a ride start temperature in the high 40s, he'd head out with a short-sleeve jersey and no gloves.  A descent that was wonderful for me probably brought him no end of misery.  Oh well -- as he said, he knows better.  This is pretty much the first time I can remember on a bicycle when I wasn't the cautionary tale.

As the two of us plowed north toward Pennsylvania, Eric realized that cycling could be enjoyable rather than an exercise in self-flagellation, and accordingly drifted off the back, where he eventually joined up with a chase group of riders who had a thoroughly reasonable day.  I pressed on, trying my best to make it home in time for a wine tasting that Amy was hosting at our place that evening.

Next up was the featured attraction: Big Flat.  Below is the elevation profile for this ride: pick out the least flat part of it, and you've found it.  To be helpful, I've highlighted it.

It's not the toughest climb out there, but it's solid work, climbing about 1300 feet over nearly 7 miles. In 2012, I'd trudged my way up it in 46:35, but I guess I've gotten stronger: this year it was 34:42, good for 8th overall on Strava.  (I'm sure I'll be getting that pro contract any day now.)  It was a tough effort, but I consoled myself with the notion that it was almost literally all downhill from the summit.

I'll say this: the Michaux State Forest was a gorgeous place in full bloom, with bursts of whites, purples, reds, and yellows speckling the dark green backdrop.  Probably the perfect place to film an ad for Claritin, actually.

After the epic, swooping 9-mile descent into Shippensburg, PA, the mountains receded and Amish country beckoned.  Buggies, farmland, and sketchy roads unfolds for dozens of miles on end, and the sun came out to teach us a lesson.  Many people love these roads, but I found myself in that awkward mental position of having ridden a hard 80 miles and remembering that there's still more than a century to go.  Fortunately, the second half of the ride was relatively flat, so I anticipated making good time.  Maybe a sub-11:00 finish was in the cards?

To make a long story short, it wasn't.  And, come to think of it, the story wasn't that long: we were riding a huge clockwise loop beginning on the southernmost point, which meant that the last 80 miles or so were heading south and then southwest, directly into one of the most diabolical headwinds I can remember.  I was working my butt off just to go 17 mph.  Usually loop courses at least afford the dignity of benefitting and suffering from the same winds, but not in this case -- they picked up throughout the day, so it was just plowing ahead and hoping for respite that wasn't forthcoming.  At some point I decided that the goal was sub-12:00, and it wasn't worth wrecking myself for an attempt at a sub-11:00 finish that wasn't in the cards that day.  I just wanted a nap.

Ultimately, I rolled back into Frederick a little after 4:00 pm, having done what I needed to.  And, in fairness, I'd done well: my 2012 moving time was 11:55, and I'd taken 2 hours off of the bike, for a finishing time of about 13:55.  This year, I was moving for 10:36, and I was off the bike for only 35 minutes, for a final time of 11:10.  That's progress.  Enjoy the video!

Next up is the fl├Ęche, a 24-hour group ride that promises lots of eating.  I plan to P.R. at least one ice cream sundae.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mike Hall Memorial 600k: Ignoring Limits

Sometimes awful things pile up and there's no way forward except to go smash something.  After three months of the hardest training I'd ever done, a calamitous throat infection knocked me out of the 24-hour race at Sebring.  I'd never felt stronger, but instead of clicking off hot laps, I was intubated and bludgeoned with every high-powered intravenous antibiotic they could find.  Things turned out "well," if by well one means losing weight I couldn't afford and struggling to complete a 1-hour easy spin.

Fortunately, after a substantial training adjustment in which I dropped the high-watt intervals in favor of extended sweet-spot sets, I started coming around after a few weeks.  In mid March, I DNF'd a 200k brevet when my routing went horribly awry, but I still felt good.  I decided to test things by leaping straight into a 600k (375-mile) brevet out of Lumberton, North Carolina, on April 1.  It was a flattish and unremarkable course apart from 30 miles of riding along the beach, but I figured it would be a good chance to test out a new saddle and hopefully check off a big box on one of my 2017 projects, i.e., a Randonneurs Mondiaux R60 designation.  

Apart from the Charly Miller Society, which requires that a rider finish the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris 1200k in under 56 hours and 40 minutes, the R60 is probably the toughest honor to achieve in the randonneuring world.  It requires that one complete a Super Randonneur series (200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k), each in under 60% of the allotted time.  That makes the requirements as follows:

200k (125 miles) -- 8:06
300k (188 miles) -- 12:00
400k (250 miles) -- 16:12
600k (375 miles) -- 24:00

I'd finished a couple of 200ks well under the required time, which left the longer rides to attempt in the remainder of 2017.  My personal best on a 600k brevet was 25:40 or so, so I'd have to go faster, but on the other hand, my previous 600s had been on considerably hillier terrain and an older bike.  In 24-hour races, which are on fully-supported loops, I'd knocked out 600k in under 19 hours, but randonnees tend to be slow -- routing, controls, and the rest of it just tend to add up.  I hoped for 22 hours and thought it possible.

Unfortunately, only two days before the ride, the cycling world received the devastating news that Mike Hall had been hit and killed by a car while racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia.  Mike was a legend in the ultracycling world at the young age of 35: he held multiple records including fastest on a bicycle around the world and course record holder in the 4,300-mile, self-supported Trans America race.  He was one of the featured riders in Inspired to Ride, a Trans America documentary well worth anyone's attention.

How completely sickening.  We're now forced to add his name to those of Jure Robic (6x RAAM winner), Bob Breedlove, Claudio Clarindo, Anders Tesgaard, Matthew O'Neill, Lynn Kristianson, and many others avid ultracyclists who've been killed by cars in recent years while doing what they love.  For me, this is one of the top reasons I do so much of my riding indoors: I love to be outside on two wheels, but the more one does it, the more likely it is that the odds will get even.  Thus, I choose my battles carefully.  In Mike's case, from all accounts, it sounds like some of the roads the racers traversed were anything but safe, and that there were a number of uncomfortably close calls before the fatal incident.  It's utterly gutting to lose anyone that way, but particularly such an inspiration.  

In all, it wasn't a great mindset to take into a 600k solo ride on unknown road, but then again, maybe it was.  There's something to be said for the knowledge that we're privileged to be able to attempt these feats at all, and it's a gift we should celebrate.  

And so it was that I reported for duty at 6:00 a.m. in the parking lot behind a Super 8 hotel in Lumberton, North Carolina, looking pretty out of place.  Especially on longer events like 600ks, randonneurs tend to favor traditional setups with plenty of cargo capacity, but I looked more like a Martian, complete with disc wheel, Zipp 808 deep-rim front wheel, and aero helmet.  Perhaps overkill, but I figured that, if I wanted to go fast, there's no reason to leave the go-fast gear at home.  

To hit my goal of 22 hours, I'd have to average 17 miles an hour, which isn't generally a problem in terms of moving speed, but it also includes all of the stops and snafus along the way.  I'd probably have to average more than 19 mph while moving in order to do it, which isn't trivial over the span of nearly an entire day.  My best 24-hour race time is 20.5 mph, but that was fully supported, draft-legal, on a looped course where it was impossible to get lost, and on fully tapered legs.  Here, none of those things was true.  (It technically was draft-legal, I suppose, but as there was no one to draft off of, it was an academic point.)

One of the things that made me slightly nervous was that I'd be riding on a new saddle, the Selle Anatomica C Series.  I'd ridden on the traditional S-A leather saddles for years, but they're heavy as bricks and the leather needs to be re-tensioned periodically, and the carbon version promised to address both issues.  It's a beautiful thing, although, as a crowd-funder, I'd had to wait about two years to get it.

So, off we went!  With a 6:00 a.m. rollout, I hoped to be done between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and sitting comfortably in a booth at Denny's across the street.  We'd have to see.

For once in my randonneuring life, things went remarkably smoothly.  Tony Goodnight's route was a joy to follow, with turns only every 10 miles or so in many places, and relatively few control points that forced one to stop.  But that came with challenges: with highs pushing 80 degrees and scheduled stops only every 60-70 miles, it was important to keep on top of the nutrition and hydration.  For me, it was a mental struggle between the desire to stop as infrequently as possible and the knowledge that the whole thing could go down the drain if I didn't eat and drink constantly.  I resolved that dilemma by ignoring my desire to stop more often, and never even slowing down between controls -- go big or go home.  The result was that, on a few occasions, I went 4+ hours between stops, which had me pretty much parched and ravenous by the time the next stop rolled around.

I've learned a couple of things about randonneuring nutrition over the years.  First, if you're in trouble on a hot day, there's little better than massive ice cream sandwiches -- cold, caloric, and satisfying.  Second, if you need a blood-sugar rush, those huge Rice Krispy Treat bars are about as close to rocket fuel as you can find.  Third, Bugles!  Enough said.  Rules to live by.

One of the big challenges in a ride this long is finding something to hold the mental focus.  Sometimes the zen silence is enough to set the mind wandering, but I've found that, as one fatigues and things start to get sore, the zen dissipates into something closer to self-resentment.  So, music is key some of the time, but podcasts and audiobooks also are great.  On this occasion, I made my way through S-Town the new release from the makers of Serial, a fair chunk of the latest John Grisham book, a couple of episodes of Freakonomcs, and some Judge John Hodgman.  And lo, the hours did pass.

The course itself was nothing to write home about -- flattish, quite windy (constant 15-20 mph), and largely along country roads lined by pine trees.  At one point we crossed the Intracoastal Waterway before riding 15 miles along the barrier islands to Atlantic Beach, and then back again.  The roads were the highest of highs and lowest of lows, mostly great but with the occasional stretch that would have insulted a cheese grater.  

It was largely a mental game.  With the wind at the back, rolling at 22 mph felt effortless, but the price was a couple of stretches of 20+ miles into headwinds that felt like a sick joke.  My power meter was on the fritz, registering zeroes randomly when I was pushing darn hard, but I gave up trying to fix it after awhile.

In terms of moving speed, things went amazingly well for the first half:

100 miles -- 4:53
200k -- 5:59
300k -- 9:25

Each of those was a personal best for me on a brevet by a considerable margin.  By halfway, I was on pace for a sub-19 hour finish, but I was self-aware enough to know that such extrapolation is dangerous.  Riding at night tends to be slow, and with fatigue being what it is, stops tend to get longer and the average speed tends to drift south.

There's a mathematical issue I've noticed on these events that never ceases to throw me for a loop.  (Many people doubtless know this already -- I'm willing to embrace the fact that it's my issue.)  The issue is this.  Given my spectacular speed over the first half, I'd dared to adjust my target down from 22 hours to 20 hours.  10 hours in, my average speed was about 20 mph.  I knew that a 20-hour finish required an overall average speed of 18.6 mph, so I reasoned as follows: since I've gone 20 mph for the first half, I can go 17.2 mph for the second half to achieve an average of 18.6!  (17.2 + 20)/2 = 18.6!

Except the math doesn't work.  After riding for 10 hours at 20 mph, I'd gone 200 miles, which meant I had 175 miles to go in the second 10 hours.   175/10 = 17.5 mph, not 17.2.  Sigh.  Not that the 0.3 mph delta was huge, but when things are falling apart at the end of a ride, things like that matter.

After a 9:25 first 300k, a sub-20-hour finish required a 10:35 second 300k.  That's an hour slower, but it was still way faster than my 300k personal best heading into this ride, and much of it would be riding at night.  To make matters worse, I encountered a road closure with a massive traffic jam due to an accident with fatalities, and I got turned around a couple of times where the route crossed over itself.  And, of course, there was the challenge I encountered at mile 300, where I completed an 80-mile stretch completely empty of water, calories, and hope.  That prompted an extended break in the welcoming embrace of an Exxon station.

Ultimately, though, I've rarely felt this strong.  I finished in 19:38, fully six hours faster than my previous best at the distance.  After my 9:25 opening 300k, my second 300k had clicked off in 10:13!   Thus, my best and second-best 300ks were ridden back-to-back, which has to say something positive about my training.

I'll confess I'm pretty over-the-moon about this outcome.  As far as I can tell, it's the third-fastest official 600k brevet ever ridden in the United States -- the first is a 19:30 and the second a 19:34, so I was just a handful of minutes away.  Part of me thinks that, given that I was stopped for about 1:50 over the course of the ride, I surely could have gone 10 minutes faster, but I had no idea I was so close to the record, and frankly, who knows.  As a statistical matter, this graph puts things into perspective:

This shows the official 600k completion times in the United States from 1999-2011, and the chart begins at 20 hours, with the median up in the mid-30s.

I'm also happy to report that the Selle Anatomica Carbon Series saddle worked perfectly -- I think it's a keeper.  It's noticeably harder than the leather hammock that the traditional S-A offers, but it never was uncomfortable.  This may be because of the Mummy Tape I apply to my sitbones before all long rides, but whatever the case, it was nice to finish a 600k and be able to sit down comfortably.

So, mission accomplished!  I felt strong virtually the entire way, and I truly loved finishing before 2:00 a.m. and thus avoiding the witching hours that come later in the morning.  It's been a very long time since I've been at a Denny's at 3:00 a.m., but such was my reward.  Next up, trying to get my legs working again and recalibrate myself toward an upcoming 300k, where I'll try to put the next brick in the R60 wall.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Surviving a Scare

It's been awhile since I've posted anything, but I've had irons in the fire.  Work and travel demands caused me to take almost two months off of the bike after Race Across Oregon in July, and when I emerged in mid-October, my fitness was in Nowheresville.  But, for the first time in nearly a decade, I  renovated the Pain Cave both physically and virtually.

On the physical front, I picked up a Tacx Neo smart trainer to replace my 2006-era Computrainer, and I've been using the heck out of it.  In my mind, the direct-drive setup is categorically superior to the older wheel-on technology, and the Neo is a beautiful beast.

On the virtual front, I signed on with Trainer Road and Zwift, following a structured training plan for the first time in recent memory.  I've gotten to be reasonably proficient at prescribing workouts for myself over the years, but there hasn't been much periodization to it, and overall things had just gotten a bit stale.  Between October and late January, I was able to ride 6 days a week with consistency, recording about 700 training stress/week, which is about 50% more than in years past.  And the result showed: my power/weight ratio jumped from ~3.8 to ~4.4, which was the highest it's ever been -- an auspicious place to be in January -- and I was getting stronger by the week.

All told, although nothing is ever guaranteed, I was confident that I could put in a serious showing at Sebring.  I'd initially planned to ride the 12-hour, but I was feeling so strong that I'd mentally committed to switching to the 24 and taking a shot at that magical 500-mile day.  I started my taper late, putting in a hard weekend only a week out with the idea that I'd take it easy for a few days and then give it a go.  The Sunday before the race was my last long ride, a 5-hour trainer session that I entered tired but knocked out with no problem.  Then it was off to a Super Bowl party to enjoy the fruits of months of discipline.

The following day (Monday), though, I found myself feeling like I had a bit of a cold.  I do get the occasional head cold, and it's common to feel a little under the weather during a taper, so I didn't think much of it.  The hard work was done, and a scratchy throat was nothing to be concerned about.

Tuesday brought no improvement -- I was definitely fighting something.  What had been a mild, generalized sore throat had become more focused in an area in the back corner of my throat, and it was acutely raw when I swallowed.  Still, I figured, no big deal.  I even knocked out a 3x15' sweet spot session on the trainer as planned, and did so without drama.  I reasoned that the workout might even help clear out my head and throat.  The workout wasn't easy, but I *was* in taper mode with the fatigue it entails, and nothing about the experience suggested anything more than a cold.

By Wednesday, I'd put myself into the category of sick, as much as I hated to draw that conclusion.  I'd busted my butt for months to put myself in a position to try to win Sebring outright a few days later, and the idea of being sick for the first time in years was unbearable.  I was blowing my body weight in snot on an hourly basis, and when I swallowed, it felt like there was a spiked golf ball in the back of my throat.  It turns out that we swallow a considerable volume of saliva and mucus each day, and when swallowing is to be avoided, you become pretty disgusting, because it has to go somewhere.  I bought some cough drops and made the best of it, even dropping my bike and supplies with a friend for transport to Sebring.  That evening, though, I had a fever for the first time, felt achy, and the rest of it.  (Crap.)  Still, my philosophy was that all I needed was a solid night's sleep and I'd be on the mend.

Unfortunately, Wednesday night brought almost no sleep.  I felt like I was drowning -- imagine the worst cold in the world where you can't swallow without an explosion in your throat.  Amy slept on the couch that night, but I didn't even notice until the next morning.  Pretty much sums up how out-of-it I was.

By Thursday morning, it was becoming increasingly clear that Sebring was a stretch.  (Many people would doubtless say "of course" at this, but I think endurance athletes are used to just working through challenges in a way that alters how you view things.)  Amy and my parents thought I might have strep throat; I was undeniably miserable.  Awkwardly, I had to go to work on Thursday because I had a hearing in court that afternoon that I felt I needed to attend.  By this time, I couldn't really talk without coughing spasmodically, and swallowing was almost entirely out of the question.  I managed to communicate to the judge that I was sick, and that was pretty much all that was required of me that day, but I went straight from court to a primary care doc to see what the heck was going on.

The nurse practitioner saw me quickly, noted that my tonsils were swollen, and performed a strep test that everyone expected would be positive.  But it wasn't -- negative as could be.  She consulted with some other folks in the office and recommended that I go to the ER based on the fact that something was clearly wrong, but there was no obvious answer as to the "what" of it.  By then, things were so bad that I dialed Amy's cell and asked the nurse to tell Amy what she'd just told me, because I couldn't speak more than a couple of words at a time.

Amy met me at home about an hour later; I took that time to stand in a hot shower and just try to stop shivering.  We drove to Sibley Hospital ER, where I was admitted about 8:00 p.m. on Thursday night.  I got a CT scan, which showed several large peritonsillar abscesses (essentially pus-filled pockets of infection) in the back of my throat, some of which were dangerously low in my neck and thus close to my vocal cords and chest.   Also, I had a 103-degree fever.  After hours of deliberation, the folks at Sibley determined that I needed surgery immediately but that they weren't equipped to do it -- given the scope and location of the problem, the ENT docs needed a full-fledged facility that could deal with collateral chest infections that might arise from the initial surgery.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it took hours for Sibley to find another hospital that could take me.

During this time, which stretched until about 1:00 a.m. on Friday morning, we'd decided it made sense for Amy to go home to try to get some sleep.  I promised I'd let her know where they took me for surgery and when it was scheduled to happen.  I didn't see the point in her destroying herself to sit in an E.R. indefinitely while nothing happened.

Ultimately, in the middle of the night, Sibley decided to send me by ambulance all the way to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  It was a pretty surreal scene staring out the back window of the ambulance as it bounced through deserted streets as I was tranquilized on morphine.  The only comparable instance was nearly 2 years ago -- coincidentally, in connection with another 24-hour bike race, in Texas, following a particularly nasty crash.  At least this time I was headed to a real hospital.  I let Amy know that I was in Baltimore with surgery scheduled for Friday morning.  Communicating that was about all I could manage between my misery and narcotic haze.

I don't remember much from that point until Saturday afternoon.  The surgery apparently revealed problems significantly more severe than the surgeon had anticipated.  Among the several infected abscesses was one that was about 4" long -- one of the largest the surgeon had ever seen -- and it was necrotic, meaning that the tissue was dying.  It also was in a particularly sensitive area.  They had to remove a tonsil just to get to it, and it was very close to the nerve that controls my vocal cords.  The doc was alarmed that such an extensive problem had developed so quickly, and feared that I may have contracted a flesh-eating bacteria.  The phrase "necrotic fasciitis" was thrown around.

I vaguely remember a conversation with the doc after the surgery in which he expressed concern that he might not have taken care of the entire problem.  Scans showed additional swelling further down my neck, and if the infection continued to spread, more surgery would be required.  My hazy recollection of that conversation involved my telling the doc to do what he needed to do -- if was another surgery, it was.  But my memory is pretty hazy, as I was on several different kinds of potent painkillers, had a breathing tube down my throat, and could barely even write on a board, much less talk.

Amy's experience was even more alarming.  Apparently the doc told her that the next surgery could require going into my neck from the outside, through the vocal cords, which meant that I'd never talk again, assuming I survived it in the first place.  He asked her the odd question: "Is Damon risk-averse?" and also whether being unable to talk would significantly impact my career.  As a lawyer who appears in court regularly, I think the answer to that is pretty damn clear.  I have no memory of this.

Meanwhile, the bacteria were being cultured to try to identify what had attacked me, and everyone was watching my white blood cell count to see whether it was moving in the right direction.  I was on four different kinds of high-powered IV antibiotics because no one was certain which one might prove effective.

I was only vaguely cognizant of this stuff.  I like to think I was at least partially lucid at the time, but I can't remember much of what happened.  At one point, I scrawled on a white board: I feel like post-Trump America.

For me, the most alarming part of things was that I'd gone to the doctor thinking I'd get just get some antibiotics.  From there, I'd learned I needed surgery, perhaps even a tonsillectomy, and the thought of spending a weekend in the hospital was nightmarish.  But now, no one could tell me much with certainty except that I'd be intubated for the foreseeable future and my hospital stay could last for weeks if things didn't play out in my favor.   A week-long stay was the best I could hope for.

Fortunately, things broke in my favor, and I recovered more swiftly than the doctors' most optimistic estimates.  I think my relative youth, good health, and strong immune system counted heavily in my favor.  The antibiotics succeeded in driving out the infection over the course of a few days.  I was intubated until Sunday, moved out of the ICU on Monday, and released on Tuesday -- 5 days after admission.

From here, it's going to be a bit of a road to recovery.  I'm on a liquid-only diet for several more days, and I'm exhausted and weak.  Given the blood I lost during the surgery and over the course of hourly tests, my hemoglobin levels are through the floor, and I wasn't able to sleep for more than half an hour at a stretch for 5 or 6 days.  ICUs are terrible -- loud, beeping machines, a tube down your throat, 800 wires and IVs connected to you, and nurses who poke you, draw blood, change drips, and ask you how you're doing literally every hour.  Several times I managed to fall asleep, only to be awoken by a nurse who just wanted to know if I was okay.

Ultimately, given the background terrible luck that put me in the hospital in the first place, I think I'm pretty fortunate.  The primary care nurse sent me to the ER rather than sending me home, which isn't an inevitable call to make for someone who presents with a sore throat and fever during flu season.  Had she done otherwise, I think my life could look significantly different going forward, because the infection was ballooning in a nightmarish area.  I also found myself at Johns Hopkins, which is about the safest place one could be; in many parts of the country, that wouldn't have been an option.  I had a tonsillectomy, but that's an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

It's hard to know what conclusions to draw from this.  It's easy to say: "If you're sick, go to the doctor," but I'm almost never sick, and when I am, it tends to last about 12 hours.  Moreover, I think I have a high pain tolerance -- the sorts of athletic events I'm drawn to suggest as much -- and an allergy to drama.  Put it together and it translates into a philosophy of "there's nothing wrong with me that a little sleep won't fix."  I suspect many endurance athletes share some or all of these traits, so maybe this story will provide a cautionary tale to someone out there.

It'll take time to get my strength back, catch up on work, and get life back to normal.  Obviously there will be a lot of rebuilding needed on the bike, although hopefully it won't be a return to zero.  It's amazing how much strength you lose from being confined to a bed for only a few days.

On the whole, I'm a lucky guy.  Amy was an incredible trooper at a time when she really couldn't afford to be given her situation at work, and I had a steady stream of friends visiting me in the ICU from D.C. and Baltimore.  I had more messages and well-wishes than I could hope to respond to.

Perhaps this is best placed into the category of a near-miss.  Life is full of those, whether we know it or not.  Ten years ago, my brother Jaron -- for whom this blog is named -- presented at a primary care doctor with a headache.  His experience was the opposite of mine: he was prescribed pills and sent home, and then the same thing happened again when he went to the E.R. a day or two later.  No one even performed a CT scan.  By the time someone took him seriously, it was too late, and a treatable cyst in his brain had become fatal.  From what I'm told, my situation could have headed in that direction if my caregivers had been less concerned and diligent, and if my treatment had been delayed much longer.

We all rely on other people in life, whether we want to admit it or not, and regardless how recently we've read Ayn Rand.  Life is about making the most of the opportunities and gifts we have, but it's also about being lucky in countless ways -- from having a caring family and educational opportunities to people who look out for us when we desperately need it, even if we don't know it at the time.  I'm happy to say I've been deeply fortunate in all of the ways that matter.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Chasing a Canadian: Race Across Oregon 2016 Race Report

This is my pet elevation profile.  His name is Spike.
The Race Across Oregon bills itself as the "best qualifier to prepare you to compete in [the Race Across America," and the defense of that theory is that it's the toughest event you can find in the 500-mile range.  People think of Oregon and imagine hipsters, pinot noir, and verdant forests; those are to be found, but not on this course.  RAO starts in The Dalles, which is about 90 minutes east of Portland on the Columbia River, and it's the beginning of the end as far as green goes.  George Thomas, the race director, is an institution in the ultracycling world -- he hosts several endurance-cycling podcasts and often serves as the finish line announcer for RAAM.  RAO has been his insidious plaything for the last 19 years; next year, for the 20th anniversary, it sounds like he's planning a "difficult" version.  God help us.

The thing is, this race is a beast from the first mile to the last -- 520 miles and 42,000 feet of climbing, some 13,000 more than the peak of Mt. Everest is above sea level.  Commercial airliners cruise at 39,000 feet.  The Silver State 508, which I raced in 2014, is 10 miles shorter and "only" has 20,000 feet of climbing, i.e., less than half as much.  Complicating matters further are the temperatures and winds.  RAO is notorious for having 100-degree climbs without a tree for 50 miles in any direction, and you ride through some of the largest wind farms I've ever seen, which suggests something about the breezes one might encounter.  The combination of distance, climbing, heat, and winds makes this about the toughest "single day" ride around, not that anyone can actually finish it in a single day.

Why race it?  It's gorgeous in an "I hope I don't die out here" kind of way, and sometimes it's fun to go primal and see what you're capable of conquering.  Plus you get to experience the third grader's dream of eating literally whatever you want for a couple of days, assuming the unlikely premise that you're capable of keeping food down.  Who wouldn't sign up for that in a heartbeat?

I'd signed up for RAO in 2015, but my losing encounter with a wet metal bridge in Texas derailed that plan.  This year, though, I was focused on it and about as prepared as I'd ever been for anything.  So far this year I'd taken on 2 separate 24-hour races (Sebring and National 24-Hour), ridden a 200k, 300k, 400k with 18,000 feet of climbing, and SR600k, and most recently, I'd cranked out 450 miles with 45,000 feet of climbing over the course of a week in the desert heat of Corsica.  All told, I'd ridden 5+ days a week, week-in and week-out.  RAO could bring its worst.

Oddly, though, it didn't seem inclined to.  I'd been visualizing riding inside of the world's largest and steepest hairdryer for 520 miles, but the weather forecast was disquietingly non-disquieting.  Highs in the low 80s, lows in the high 40s, and winds of... 7 mph.  I couldn't quite believe it, so I checked every location on the course I could find for a week or more out, but they all told the same story.  So, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I packed my deep-rim racing wheels, reasoning that if I can't handle them in 7-mph winds, I need to turn in my man card.  But I did bring along a backup set of conventional wheels from one of my crew members, because if there's one thing I've learned in my years of riding, it's that I'm the cycling version of the Bad News Bears.

Speaking of crew, my two crew members were Max and Sam, the same pair of brothers who'd endured with my nonsense at Silver State 508 two years ago.  As ultracyclists and bike mechanics, they were the perfect guys to know what I needed before I did, which is the ultimate help on a ride like this.

My pre-race serenity glare.
As the race field shaped up, it looked like there were three favorites to win, in one order or another.  Mick Walsh, a past winner and veteran ultracyclists from Ireland by way of Seattle, was one of them.  The second was a Canadian randonneur, Nigel Press, about whom I knew little; I gathered from the pre-race meeting that he was a vegetarian, so I asked my crew to surreptitiously spike the route with beef jerky fragments.  The third was me, but let's be serious here -- I've found ways to finish third in solo training rides.

Making sure my GPS wasn't going to guide me to Corsica.

Mick Walsh and Nigel Press, probably debating the best arm-sleeve color.

Everyone's feeling good about their chances of a top-10 finish.

So far, so good.  But not very far.
Start to TS-1 (Almost Tygh Valley)
57 Miles; 5,275 feet of climbing

The race started with a 22-mile appetizer loop to the northwest of The Dalles, running along the Columbia River before swinging inland, climbing Sevenmile Hill, and bombing back down past the Dalles before heading onward toward, well, who knew.  We spun merrily through a perfect 60-degree dawn, enjoying the neutral start before George unleashed us onto the course (or vice-versus).  About 50 yards into the first climb -- perhaps mile 7 -- Nigel cruised past me and moseyed on into the distance.  I was holding a steady 250 watts or so, which was about the most I was interested in doing in the first 20 minutes of a 520-mile ride, so I felt confident that Nigel was getting a little over-enthusiastic.  For me, the mission at that point was singular: go easy, keep the heart rate down, and eat every damn thing I could get my hands on.

Then Mick passed me, too.  Well, crap.  By the top of the first 500-foot climb, Mick was about 50 yards ahead, and Nigel was... actually, it wasn't clear.  But nowhere that I could see.  I had mental images of mushroom clouds.  The 4-mile, 1000-foot climb up Sevenmile passed uneventfully, with Mick pulling away steadily.

Max and Sam had pre-ridden this 22-mile beginning loop the weekend before, and on our scouting drive, they'd warned me that the wind had gotten a little squirrelly on the 4-mile, 1700-foot descent from the Sevenmile summit.  Things felt pretty still to me, but as I noted, I was riding Zipp 808s, which aren't the most stable wheels I could have chosen.  I resolved to be safe above all else.  My speeds crept up into the mid-40s, but with wide, sweeping turns, all was well.

Then it suddenly wasn't, in a very big way.  When Oregon weather forecasts say "7 mph winds," they must mean an average of 7 mph.  Thus, the winds were 0-2 mph, except for brief periods when they kicked up to about 60 mph without warning.  I found myself going 40 mph down a hill into a sudden malevolent swirl, and it induced something I've since learned is called "speed wobble."  It isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.  The wind twisted my front wheel sideways, and then when the bike corrected itself, it overcorrected and flipped the wheel to the other side where the wind caught it again, and so forth.  The end result was that suddenly my front wheel was whipping back and forth as the bicycle shook violently.   I was 100% sure that I was going to crash, and was in the state of wondering how best to fall so as not to wind up back in the emergency room.

Here's what speed wobble looks like from behind on a descent slightly less technical than the one I was on.  Watch the full first 45 seconds, but the 30-second mark is where it gets lively:

Speed wobble is just terrifying, and mine lasted easily twice as long as the episode in the video.  The mental process was: "Holy crap, the whole bike is shaking... front wheel bucking... can't steer... going to flip over handlebars any second, how do I survive this... help... haven't flipped over yet, so at least it will constitute a valiant effort... I'm running off of the road because I can't steer, but maybe that will make the landing less painful... maybe if I relax a bit... bike shaking less... whoa, stay on road... brake... I'm still alive, but I have no idea why... ok, I've got it."  7-mph winds, my *ss.  

Meanwhile, Mick was well out of sight as I rode my brakes to the bottom of the hill, where George was waiting with his camera.  He seemed happy to see me, but I was far happier to see him, or really anything except stars.

Outside: stoic.  Inside: abject terror.
Well, this wasn't going to plan so far, but I was still on my feet (so to speak), and I linked up with my the crew to cruise through The Dalles in pursuit of a Canadian and an Irishman across the high desert of Oregon.  Call it the Ultracycling Theory of Globalization.

Needless to say, the route did not take us to "Friend." 
As we headed south from The Dalles, we shortly began a climb that couldn't decide whether it was a false flat or a protracted slog.  The cue sheet said "generally ascending for next 21.5 miles/2300 feet," but I didn't have that in front of me.  All I knew was that I was going nowhere fast, and very occasionally going fast toward nowhere.  At some point I rolled past Mick as he took a nature break, but he slotted in right behind me and was riding well.

This is what passes as an action shot in the ultracycling world.

A splash of coral and air of indignation... must be Damon.
Max managed to catch me hoofing up the climb with Mick in hot pursuit.

Eventually we reached the Tygh River Summit at mile 49 and began the long, gliding descent toward the first time station.  By all rights, this descent should have been a blast -- little traffic, great visibility and pavement, and a shoulder to keep one out of harm's way -- but I found it incredibly stressful.  In general, there was little wind, but especially after my earlier bout with speed wobble, it became apparent that any break in the hills would bring a vicious crosswind from one direction or another.  Also, there were large trucks and semis passing at 50 mph or so; they weren't close enough to be dangerous themselves, but they created strong, swirling gusts that would play havoc with my front wheel about 5 seconds after they passed.  

In general, I started to think of the wind on this course as an invisible ninja who'd attack unpredictably and from a random direction.  (To those who protest that ninjas are always invisible and unpredictable, I salute your wisdom.  Namaste.)  I'd be riding on my merry way, then suddenly my bike would be possessed by demons.  At that point I began to realize that, if the pattern kept up, my wheels were a categorical disadvantage: they were heavy, so they weren't the right choice for climbing; there was nothing flat, period, ever, to make use of their benefits for time-trialing; and on descents, any aerodynamic advantage they might have conferred was negated by the fact that I had to brake constantly to control the bike in the swirling winds.  You know it's a perverse situation when you're looking forward to the next climb because at least then you'll be safe.  

I hit the first time station and turned east toward Moro.  Nigel the Canadian Vegetarian(TM) was long out of sight, and although I'd hoped to pull away from Mick a bit, he was firmly on my tail.  Still, wind issues aside, I was executing well by keeping my heart rate firmly in check and my wattage in the "comfortable" range.  All of the food was gettin' in mah belly.  55 miles down and about 465 to go.   

Stage 2: Moro
48 miles; 3,300 feet of climbing

Stage 2 began the long eastward portion of the route's clockwise loop.  We were now in the region where there are roads, but it's not clear why -- there is virtually no civilization, unless you count the periodic hyper-toxic-looking snake sunning itself on the road.  It's pretty, though: the trees finally yielded completely to wild grasses, and we had the horizons to ourselves. 

A snake rancher, I think.
Parking opportunities on the route were... plentiful.
When we saw rushing rivers, we invariably went the way the water didn't.

Great roads, green rivers, good times.

Around that curve is the exact same view.

Max allegedly found a tree.  I suspect Photoshop sorcery.
At mile 5, we met the Dechutes River and began the 4.5-mile, 1350-foot "Grass Valley" climb, which ascended the walls of a rocky canyon.  Due to the narrow roads, no support was permitted on this stretch, so the crews hung out at the bottom while riders wound their ways skyward.  It was a meditative, solitary hike, punctuated periodically by glimpses of Mick's neon-yellow arm sleeves on lower switch-backs.  

Lisa Bliss, a female solo rider, takes on the Grass Valley climb.
Upon summiting Grass Valley at long last, we felt we had the world to ourselves, and it was pretty spectacular.  Mt. Hood's snow-capped peak towered in the distance, adding a layer of disconnect between it and the parched desert foreground.

Skiing in July?  Apparently so, on Mt. Hood.  Not for us, though.

My drafting shot.  Oh, relax -- there's no one in the stationary van.

One thing I hadn't realized was how visible the "Ring of Fire" peaks are from interior Oregon.  Mt. Hood was ever-visible, but it's only one in a string of volcanic peaks on the horizon.  To its north was the dome of Mt. St. Helens.

At the tops of certain grades, we could see all the way to Mt. Rainer, near Seattle.  At one point, from right to left, I spied Ranier, St. Helens, Hood, and Jefferson, reminders all that there were tougher climbs to be found.

A glorious solitude.

Just solitude.  And chip seal.
Somewhere along the line, Mick Walsh's support vehicle stopped overlapping me, which I took to mean he'd dropped back a little bit.  It was just me, trying to catch the Canadian.

Stage 3: Condon
43 miles; 3,971 feet of climbing

Stage 3 continued our eastward trek toward Condon, legendary on this route for the fact that it has a gas station.  On the way, though, was what the route book describes as a "generally ascending 21-mile, 2600-foot climb."  Sweet!  At least it was shady, right?  Well, not so much.

What this section did have was wheat and wind farms the likes of which I'd never seen.

Families of fan blades.

I tried to keep things in perspective.  
Having passed the 200k point and getting progressively baked in the sun, I started to think of the clusters of wind turbines as lonely colonizing families on an inhospitable planet, gazing stoically into the distance and pining for companionship.  It's possible I was projecting.  Still, the turbines were my only friends out there, and I wondered: do wind turbines dream?

Things were getting strange.  

Climbing in the aerobars, because I figured I should use them for something.

Mt. Hood recedes, but never disappears.

Eventually it became clear that this whole region was ruled by farmers and their rolling hills of golden wheat.

The wind turbines created odd studies in perspective.  At one point, on a distant hilltop, I saw a vertical shaft with what looked like dozens of spikes shooting out of the top of it from all angles, like the world's deadliest flower.  I couldn't quite imagine what it was, but as I continued on, I realized I'd seen a row of wind turbines aligned so perfectly that they looked like a single column.  And, because the turbines were pointed in slightly different directions, the blades appeared to thrust from all sides of the top of the spindle.

Finally, about 100 miles in, I'd had enough of invisible wind ninjas.  I'd handled an 808 front wheel in all sorts of conditions, but never in a situation where there were zero clues about when the wind would hit you or from which direction.  Of course, wind is always invisible unless you live in Beijing, but usually you have trees or grass to give you some idea of what's going on.  Not here -- I'd get violently buffeted but the scrubby shrubs were models of placidity.  So, swallowing my pride, I asked my crew to switch out my front race wheel for one that wasn't an EMT full-employment device.

I read somewhere that unzipping your jersey on a climb looks pro.  
On the other hand, pairing a Zipp 808 with a shallow aluminum front wheel is not pro.
As I approached Condon, the crew darted ahead of me to take advantage of the gas station and other indicia of civilization.  But just after they left, I noted something I couldn't quite understand.  In a field to the left of the road, about half a mile in front of me, was what looked like a geyser shooting hundreds of yards into the air from the middle of a field.  At first I thought it was smoke, but it had an odd motion to it.  And, as I drew closer, I saw that parts of bushes were swirling upward within the column, and the column itself appeared to be moving toward me, looking like nothing so much as a small tornado.  It was my first encounter with a dust devil.

Not my picture, but one identical to what I saw.
As I barreled down the road, the dust devil swung across the field to intercept me.  Finally, wanting no part of colliding with it, I stopped on the side of the road as the mini-twister crossed about 20 yards in front of me, jumped up an embankment, and continued on its way.  Wild!

After about 145 miles, I reached Condon, where I found Max and Sam refueling.  I shouted something about a dust devil as I rode by, and Max replied with a look that said, "Why aren't you pedaling harder?"  Point taken, I plowed onward toward Heppner, the northeastern corner of the route.

Stage 4: Almost Heppner
42.5 miles; 3,289 feet of climbing

By now things were getting toasty.  Nothing I couldn't handle, and I still felt solid, but I took my first shot of Skratch Hyper Hydration, which is like gold powder on hot days.  It's a 1700-milligram nuclear blast of electrolytes, but it doesn't taste the least bit salty.

As the wind turbines faded into the distance, I realized I hadn't seen another rider for hours, and mentally I began to shift from racing to the randonneuring mindset of clicking off miles as efficiently as possible.  No more pedaling the descents -- I was happy to cruise down them on my new non-alarming front wheel.  When I'd see Max and Sam standing down the road, the "heat lakes" rising from the pavement made them look as if they were walking on water in the least likely of locales.

Rollin' on the river.  Just need a river.
This segment of the route was far from flat, but the stand-out features were two climbs of about 3.5 miles each with not a drop of shade to be found.

The crew waits for me to climb.  That white speck is a van.

I've got it made in the shade, sort of.
The crew prudently started icing the water, which made a substantial difference.  I was drinking so much that nature breaks were beginning to eat into my progress, which I decided was the lesser of evils.

The turbines are still visible on the horizon.
Not a tree to be seen, and not a cloud in the sky.  Just me, the open road, and if I'm honest, probably snakes.

Perfect pavement, if flawless chip seal is your thing.
Toward the end of this segment, I began to realize why this race is so tough mentally.  I was prepared for climbing, but the terrain on this ride never really gave you a good idea of where you were climbing to, or how long it might take to get there.  There are no mountaintops or ridge lines in sight; instead, you just find yourself grinding upward and realize it's been a long time since you've done anything else, and there's little sign of when the situation might change.

I reached the 300k point, "Almost Heppner," after 10 hours and 45 minutes, having climbed about 15,000 feet.  More than 1/3 of the way there!

Stage 5: Dale
60 miles, 4600 feet of climbing

Just when I'd begun to wonder if I'd ever see a tree again, things changed on a dime as I turned onto the Scenic Byway and approached the Blue Mountains.  The brush gave way to gorgeous Ponderosa pine forests.  I vaguely recalled something about a climb in this region, but I didn't realize what a climb it was -- 24 miles, gaining 3300 feet.  But I felt great, and with gentle grades ascending into verdant woods, there was no place I'd rather have been.  I kept up a happy spin and enjoyed the scenery, climbing for nearly two hours straight to the summit at 5300 feet.

The only thing more fun than this climb was the descent, a sweeping, gliding affair entirely without crosswinds due to the buffering trees.  The only trick was the cattle grids, which were more frequent than I'd have liked, particularly given my heightened sensitivity to such things following my 2015 wreck.

Cattle grid, ahoy!
Those cattle must be as big as railroad cars.

The descent took us east to Ukiah, where we turned south toward Dale, and the road evolved into one of the most glorious I've ever ridden: a twisting descent for miles along a river.  No need for brakes, no cars in sight -- what a world apart from the ordinary.

At one point, as I was sweeping along at 45 mph or so, I glimpsed in the road ahead a flock of doves doing nothing in particular.  All but one fled as I approached, but that daredevil stuck to its guns until I was about 10 feet from it.  I went left to avoid it, but the dove sprung into action in exactly the wrong manner, darting right in front of me.  It flew directly into my left shin, and the crew (in direct-follow mode by then) reported a cartoon explosion of feathers.  In the sort of thing that can't be made up, I then noted that my music mix had rolled over to Prince's When the Doves Cry.

Central Oregon looks flat from 5,000 feet.
We reached the mountain non-town of Dale shortly after sunset fell.  248 miles ridden and more than 20,000 feet climbed in 14 hours and 15 minutes -- a solid 400k any day of the week, and on pace for a 30-hour finish.  I was riding as strong as I ever had; in fact, my normalized power was well into the 220s, when at prior races it had been under 200 by that point.  In fact, I was riding more powerfully than I had in my best Ironman, and that bike segment had only been 5 hours long.  There was no sign of Nigel, but by then I knew that it was out of my hands.  He'd blow up or win in a remarkable time, and all I could do was what I could do, so that's what I did, dude.

Stage 6: Mt. Vernon
54 miles; 4,850 feet of climbing

Mt. Vernon is gas station-town at the southeastern point of the loop, and also Mile 300 or so, both of which represented mental milestones, so I was looking forward to getting there.  In retrospect, I don't remember any tough climbs, just the first nighttime hours of riding.  Upon review, though, I must have been suffering from the ultracycling version of Stockholm syndrome, because the stage was anything but flat.  It featured, among other things, a 3.7 mile, 1200-foot climb (6% grade) that the route book describes as "formidable" and over 11% grade in spots, as well as a 5.7-mile, 1600-foot grind (5% grade).  Sometimes nighttime is your friend -- if you can't see what you're climbing, you just deal with things as they come and spare yourself the drama.

Although I continued to feel strong, I was beginning to think I needed to dial it back a bit effort-wise: I was over 15 hours in, and still with watts well into the 220s.  It felt like one of the best rides I'd had, but perspective is key: I wasn't even halfway done, a fact I couldn't quite wrap my head around.  Thoughts like that are better to suppress.

With the crew in direct-follow mode, I was living in the headlights, which is a rare treat for overnight cyclists.  So often, in nighttime brevets and 24-hour races, your world shrinks to a corridor in front of your relatively meager bike headlight, which can have a trace-like effect.  The situation is different when the world is floodlit from behind, particularly on descents, where the follow vehicle would move left a bit and I'd stay to the right, thus ensuring that my shadow wouldn't be cast in front of me to obscure hazards.  The key for the crew is to stay alert so that if the cyclist has an issue, they have time to hit the brakes.  That was necessary on at least one occasion when I spied a pair of eyes in the darkness to the right of the road and made the universal "slowing!" sign, when a massive elk lumbered across the road not 15 yards ahead.  It made out better than the dove did.

We stopped briefly for gas at the Mt. Vernon mini-mart, which had long closed.  Unfortunately, due to a miscalculation, we'd neglected to fill our thermoses with hot water for overnight coffee or chicken soup, but we hoped for the best.  300 miles in the bank!

Stage 7: Mitchell
61 miles; 3,100 feet of climbing

The first 30 miles of the westward stretch toward Mitchell were a flat-out drag race, a false-flat downhill where a rider could pin the ears back, get low, and hammer toward home.  I had no sense of how far ahead of me Nigel might be, but I figured that, if he were close, this was the stretch where I'd be able to make up the ground.   I held 28 mph or so for an hour, feeling like suddenly this race was a reasonable thing to undertake.

Chasing a Canadian!
At one point on this stretch, I blew past a tree to the right that was distinctly odd-textured, seemingly with objects hanging off of it in every direction.  With the headlight glare, I couldn't quite make them out -- bats?  Barnacles?  (Beets?)  Strange.  After the race, I realized the unidentifiable objects had been shoes!

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and the road pitched back upward.  Because I didn't have the route book in front of me, I didn't quite realize what I was in for: a 25-mile climb.  Going forward, that's the sort of thing I need to make sure I understand, because the following conversation took place at about 1:30 in the morning, after I'd climbed a 5% grade for about 45 minutes.

Me, to crew: "Is there any possibility that the top of this climb is nearby?"

Max, after ominous pause: "Um, it looks like about 14 more miles."

Me: "*$%!@!@#$"

Max: "But it looks like it isn't all this steep."

Me [thinking to self]: "Less steep -- great.  Fine, Max, you have a bike in the car.  Let's trade and you go ride it."

Upon reaching the top, I put on another layer of clothing for the descent, then picked my way down the mountain toward Mitchell.  Despite my grumbling, I was holding it together.

Stage 8: Fossil
43 miles; 4300 feet of climbing

George describe the 43-mile stage to Fossil as the hardest mile-per-mile of the ride.  It's a "net downhill,"  but that's surely the most misleading term in the cycling world.

On one of the initial 500-foot climbs, I simultaneously had both pleasant and depressing realizations. The positive was that, at the 375-mile point, I'd ridden a 600k with more than 30k feet of climbing, i.e., about as much as a "Super Randonneur 600k" like the ones I'd ridden in 43 hours in September 2015 and 35 hours in May.  This time -- albeit with a support crew -- I'd knocked it out in 22 hours and 40 minutes.  That's moving!

On the other hand, this toughest stretch of the course also came at exactly the worst moment, i.e., those hours between 3:00 and 5:30 a.m. when the body just wants to shut down.  That's just what mine was doing.  I was managing to stave off the drowsiness for the most part, but I just couldn't put out any power.  Climbs that I'd been crushing in my big ring were suddenly grinding affairs in my smallest gear, and looking back on the prior 23-24 hours, I realized that I'd spent probably 80% of the time climbing.  That's the deceptive thing about hilly courses -- in terms of mileage, it might be 50% uphill and 50% downhill, but because you cover the downhill portions so much faster than the uphill portions, in a truer sense such efforts boil down to "climbing with periodic breaks."

The bottom line was, I had all the tell-tale signs of bonking.  I was eating everything I could, from fruit bars and apples to croissants with turkey, plus drinking plenty of carb mixes, but after so long in the saddle, small periodic calorie deficits are enough to bring the needle down to empty, and that's where I was.  For me, the surest sign of bonking is a sudden black mood -- whereas all day it had been "Climb!  Ok, no problem, knock it out," now it was more like, "George, I get it, Oregon is hilly, but this is completely stupid and ceased to be interesting a long time ago."

Eventually I got off the bike and announced to the crew that I was going to sit in the car and eat a damn meal -- if Mick caught me, fine, but I needed to right my listing ship.

Me, after 24 hours.  Be glad you can't smell internet pictures.
Following my carb infusion, I waddled back to the bike and hoofed onward.  Still not having fun.  If this were a looped course, it's the point where it would have been very easy to say, "I've had enough riding, thanks," and punch the clock.  In these 500-milers, though, there's a more tangible sense that the journey must be finished, and that was only going to happen by getting up the hills and rolling down the other side.

The stage finished with an 11-mile, 2150-foot climb, because of course it did.  I craved sunlight.  407 miles ridden; "merely" 115 to go, including something called the "Clarno climb," which sounded just swell considering that none of the climbs to that point had had names worth mentioning.

Stage 9: Imperial River Company
68 miles; 5400 feet of climbing

The penultimate stage had 4 distinct challenges.  The first, a 5.5-mile, 1000-foot climb, was a gradual affair that brought the dawn with it.  Oddly, it was only in these early daylight hours that I truly started getting drowsy.  Caffeine had long since ceased having any effect except upsetting my stomach, so I was simply holding out for the sun and circadian rhythms to bring my system back online.  The other challenge was that the temperatures were in that awkward low-50s range where climbs make you sweaty and long descents bring shivering.  Sunlight was great, but I wanted the sun on me for heat.  I'd soon get my wish.

The second challenge was the 0.7-mile attack on "Totally Useless Hill," so called because that's exactly what it is.  It interrupts a terrific descent for reasons that no one can justify, then drops you straight onto the base of Clarno, which was billed as the toughest climb of the route.  Naturally, it came at mile 426.

Climbing toward Clarno, where there would be clarnage.
Clarno was an 8.3-mile, 2500-foot ascent, which is enough to make it a Cat 1 on Strava.  At 6% grade, it wasn't the steepest thing I'd ever ridden, but it was totally exposed to the sun and came at a post-bonk time when I didn't have much left to give.  Happily, though, my energy was coming back, and I spun up Clarno with no problem at all.  I couldn't get my heart rate over about 110 BPM, but that's typical after riding a bike for more than a day; the key thing is that, when I reached the top after an hour or so, I realized I could easily have done it again.  If I'd have felt that way for the previous few hours, there's no telling how far up the road I'd be.

Finally, after Clarno, there was one more to go: a 4-mile, 1000-foot grade.  Easier than Clarno, yes, but not easy, and mentally I found it even tougher because it was billed as an afterthought to Clarno.  In fact, it was plenty challenging in its own right, but Max knew me well: he and Sam met me at the top with an ice cream cone they'd managed to find at a local shop.  It was like being in Corsica all over again!

After finding the ridgeline, it was time for what was billed as a "17-mile, 1700-foot rollercoaster descent" down Bakeoven Road.  And that road, my friends, is the epitome of nominative determinism, because an oven is just what it felt like, and bake is what it does to cyclists.  Indeed, plowing into the headwind, I learned it's possible for a 1700-foot descent to feel like it's mostly uphill.  Coming around one curve at about 40 mph, I hit a wind gust so strong that I was blown sideways; if I hadn't changed my front wheel, I'd have been toast before I knew it.

At long last, I reached the penultimate time station at the Imperial River Company, at mile 475.  45 miles to go!  But before taking it on, I chilled out at a convenience store for 15 minutes or so, putting my legs up, eating Coke and more ice cream, and generally preparing myself for the last leg.  If someone caught me there, that was fine; I was just making sure I had enough gas to reach the finish.

Stage 10: Finish
40 miles; 3,050 feet of climbing

The last stage brought with it one goal: make it 25 miles, to mile 500, at which point it was downhill to the finish.  The first climb, immediately out of the control, was a 5-mile, 800-foot affair that had no chance against my ice-cream-fueled enthusiasm.  But the second one reversed the descent we'd first hit more than 24 hours before; I recalled its being long, but it turned out to be nearly 9 miles and 1600 feet.  Sigh.  I was feeling good and cruising up it, but frankly, I was long past ready for this whole thing to be over with.  Max mentioned that a 35-hour finish was in the frame if I rode well, which itself was not so great given that I'd been on a 31-hour pace until a few hours before.  But it was a goal, and I used it as an excuse to hammer to the extent I could.

In fact, it looked like maybe I'd threaten the 34-hour mark, but I wound up flatting, for the first time in years, on the side of a relatively high-trafficked road.  The crew leaped into action admirably, but they wound up having to change the tire a couple of times due to air leaking around the valve.  I was happy to camp out on a guard rail and gaze into the distance, secure in the knowledge that the hard work was done.

The last hour or so of the ride brought out my best -- back in the aerobars and pushing the pace at every turn, finally feeling like a bike racer again instead of a lost explorer being stalked by a van.  Finally, 34 hours and 31 minutes after I'd set out, I reached the start once again, where George was waiting for me with a handshake, a medal, and bottle of local hard cider, and more good cheer than I'd thought possible.

Max, Sam, and me; it looks like I'm starting my nap early!


I wound up finishing second overall to Nigel, who really never had a weak moment from the look of things -- a 30:30 finish put him fully 4 hours ahead of me, and given that this course was longer and hillier than recent iterations of RAO had been, it's just a massive accomplishment, particularly for a guy racing his first ultra event.  Not that he was inexperienced on long rides; I learned that he'd ridden hilly 1200ks in the 52-hour range before, which made me feel better about being owned so completely.  Even when I was at my best, riding more powerfully than I thought possible for the first 23 hours or so, he was well out of sight, and I was never going to catch him.  I fell off the pace a bit in the last few hours, although I probably could have finished mid-33's if I hadn't indulged in the ice cream stops and avoided the flat tire.  It wouldn't have mattered in the final analysis, of course.

Still, I'm proud to have finished this one.  It's my longest "single day" ride to date had had twice the climbing of my previous "single day" best effort.  42,000 feet is no joke.  My time was an hour faster than the 375-miler with 33,000 feet of climbing that I'd done in May, so adding 150 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing while subtracting an hour represented an effort to which I'll happily sign my name.

Astonishingly, the one thing on my body that wasn't killing me was my feet.  This spring I ordered a custom pair of D2 shoes with orthotic inserts, and they arrived a week or so before the race.

I only had a chance to do one ride in them before RAO, so I didn't feel comfortable racing in them for 500 miles, but I did pull the custom orthotics out and put them in my older shoes for the race.  (I brought the older insoles in case of trouble.)  And, man: 520 miles with no hotfoot issues or any other type of discomfort, period.  Even with fairly exotic insoles, I've almost always suffered from hotfoot to the point that I've been forced to ride with my feet on top of my shoes for extended periods toward the end of ultra events.  If the shoes wind up living up to the insoles, this is going to be my best upgrade in years.

As far as RAO goes, it's a heck of a race.  The race field was on the small side for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the course is notoriously difficult, but George lives and breathes these events, and he does an amazing job of making everyone there feel like a legend.

Overall, compared to my expectations, I was struck not only by the consistent beauty of the course, but also by its variety.  I'd expected 500 miles of high-desert desolation, and while there certainly were points where I was ready to stop seeing scrub brush, things evolved from wind farms and wheat fields to pine-lined mountain climbs and arresting canyons, always with snow-capped volcanic peaks on the horizon.  It's a hard place not to love.  Compared to Silver State 508, my other experience at this distance, there really is no comparison: RAO is an order of magnitude more difficult, but also offers another level of beauty and variety.  I'd love to go back.