Tuesday, July 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 20, 2014

Race Report: 2014 National 24-Hour Challenge

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

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour Challange Start &emdash;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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