Monday, June 6, 2016

Solo Super-6: Lynn Kristianson Memorial (Skyline) SR600k

Skyline Drive's legendary -- a national park often rated as one of the top 10 cycling routes in the United States -- and for those of us in the D.C. area, pilgrimages are frequent.  It traces the ridgeline from Front Royal south to its terminus into the Blue Ridge Parkway 105 miles later.  To the west lies the Shenandoah Valley, with its alpaca farms, meandering rivers, and verdant country lanes all juxtaposed against the sawtooth ridges of West Virginia.

The Virginia piedmont, with its rolling hills, unfolds to the east.

And so it goes, vista titration for over 100 miles of road with nary a flat foot to be found -- cruising on perfect pavement where cars are few and face a 35-mph speed limit.  A paradise for climbers!  And then it turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is more of the same.

Skyline Drive elevation profile.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I set out to tackle Gary Dean's Super Randonneur 600k, i.e., the Lynn Kristianson Memorial SR600k, featuring those roads.  A SR600k is, as it suggests, 600 kilometers long (375 miles), and it follows most of the usual rules of a brevet; the main difference is that, as a "permanent," riders arrange to ride it at a time of their choosing, rather than at the time the club puts it on the calendar.  But there are 600k permanents that aren't SR600s; to be an SR600k, it must have more than 10,000 meters of climbing over the course of the route -- that's almost 33,000 feet.  Another way of thinking about it is that it's a 10k road race straight up into the sky.  Another is that it must have at least 4,000 feet more climbing than the peak of Mt. Everest is above sea level.  Put simply, they are designed to be challenging, but they reward effort double-fold with scenery and adventure.

I'd ridden one SR600k before -- last September's Big Savage SR600k -- and it was pretty much the hardest thing I'd ever done in the endurance world.  Part of my misery was doubtless that I was unprepared for it in every way, having gotten virtually no sleep in the previous days due to work obligations and not having done a ride over 200k since my bad wreck four months beforehand.   I wasn't making that mistake this time: I'd been putting in the miles constantly for six months, and I'd been climbing like a maniac in preparation.  On the other hand, due to an unfortunate injury to my would-have-been riding companion, I'd be riding this one solo.  Sad panda.

Taking a look at the map, the ride starts in the NE corner at Front Royal, cruises south the length of Skyline and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it continues south to Buena Vista.  It then descends west into Buena Vista, loops back to the east, and then climbs back up to the ridgeline all the way back north to Rapine, where you descend to the west once again for the overnight stop.  One challenge with this arrangement is that the overnight stop comes at mile 227, well past the halfway point, and almost inevitably well after dark.  It makes for an exceedingly long and hilly first day, but at least the route is easy to follow!

7-Eleven breakfast for the win!
I chose to begin my ride at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, a stupidly early time, but my thinking was that, with an aggressive pace, I had a decent chance to finish the first day's ride by 9:00 p.m. or so, which would keep nighttime riding to a minimum.  Sure, I'd be climbing in the dark for the first hour, but that's pretty much just a gentle climb up to the ridgeline, so it's as easy before dawn as it would be any other time.  I had the road completely to myself for the first few hours, and I was treated to dawn breaking to the east in all its glory.  As interested as I was in making good times, I had to stop for some photos.

Red sky at night, randonneur's delight; Red sky at morning, Rando take warning.

Things went without a hitch for the first several hours.  In fact, despite my relatively heavy load, I set some Strava personal records in the early part of the southbound leg.

Peaceful as you like.
Proof of passage: I had to take photos of my bike at certain locations.
In fact, the first adversity of any sort I encountered was that I arrived at the Big Meadow Wayside about 15 minutes before it opened, so I made friends with a guy and his 10-year-old son, the latter of whom would entertain us by noting that a bicycle is like a robot that doesn't need electricity, and then laughing hysterically.  I conceded the point.

Big Meadow Wayside.  On the other side of this building, there's a meadow whose size I can't remember. 

After that, it was back on the road south toward vistas anew.

And some of these, too.

Taken over my shoulder as I rolled past.
You could spot the bears in advance because there would be a traffic jam of cars stopped all over the road as people raptly watched the poor critters lumbering around, eating grass and looking nonplussed.

It was in this area that I made my first mistake.  I hit the control at Loft Mountain Wayside, at mile 79.5, at about 9:45 a.m.   I put a couple of candy bars in my pocket, filled my three bottles, and rolled out without issue, thinking that my next refueling stop was at Humpback Rocks at Mile 111 (just over 30 miles away).  When I got to Humpback Rocks a couple of hours later, ready to restock, I found that they had literally nothing except water -- not even the sort of snack food one comes to expect.

I was out of everything, and looking at the cue sheet, the next stop was in Buena Vista at Mile 156 -- 45 miles away.  On Skyline, that could easily be a three-hour stretch.  I got some water and rolled out, hoping for the best.  It would wind up being about 77 miles between refueling stops.  Note to future riders: don't count on Humpback Rocks for much of anything.  For the next few hours, I'd be riding on pan y agua, sin pan.

Heaven looks like this.
Just as I stocked up on water, mother nature decided to encourage me by contributing to the effort.  A tendril of Tropical Storm Bonnie had reached out to touch someone, and I felt... touched.  A rain somewhere between steady and soaking settled in for the afternoon.  It wasn't terribly cold in the grand scheme, probably in the high 60s, but I had a couple of things going against me.  First, I was wearing a wool jersey and wool undershirt, which, while warm enough in general, quickly came to weigh about as much as my bike.  Second, although it wasn't too cold, Skyline is the sort of place where descents take 15 minutes, and when you're soaked to the gills, that's plenty of time to get the chills.  Finally, I was teetering precariously on the edge of Bonkville due to my not having had calories for three hours. I finally wafted into Buena Vista, shivering and as indignant as a cat in a washing machine, and parked myself at the Burger King, where I ordered two meals and a large coffee.

A couple of thoughts on this.  First, when you're soaked and shivering, sometimes it's worth it to spend some time hanging out under the hot-air hand dryers in the men's room; a warm, dry cap can be particularly welcome.  Second, not all fellow patrons will look favorably on this behavior.  Third, Burger King now has something called "chicken fries," which are chicken strips in the size and shape of French fries.  They are truly terrible.  Also, they are amazing, and I can't recommend them highly enough.  If, as I did, you pair them with two order of normal fries and a fried chicken breast sandwich, it's actually possible to form a protective layer of fat and cholesterol that will insulate you for miles.  For dessert, I highly recommend a king-sized roll of Sweet Tarts.

Thus sated to the point of waddling, I rolled out for the final 50 miles or so.  I was moving along well, and it seemed I'd have a long overnight rest to enjoy if I could make it there.  The miles immediately after Buena Vista are some of the more forgiving on the route; they aren't flat, but they're largely meandering through side roads in the valley.  Eventually, though, it was time to head back up to the ridgeline for the journey north to Raphine.

"Here come the hills, a-gain..."
Jammin' over the James (River).
The penultimate control for the day came at the James River Wayside.  They had a water fountain, so I wandered over to fill up a bottle and wound up doing a Wile-E-Coyote-like flailing, dancing, and ultimately-flipping-a**-over-teakettle comedy routine on wet flagstones right next to the water fountain.  It's moments like these that earn me so many groupies.  They also explain why, occasionally, riding solo ain't so bad: fewer cameras around.

The climb back up to the ridgeline was an 1800-foot grind, although it was tranquil enough.  I was chasing daylight but on pace to get to Raphine by 8:30 pm.

Sadly, it was not to be.  As soon as I regained altitude, the rain started dumping again, and it felt like, no matter how far I went, I was seeing no sign of the turnoff for Raphine.  Eventually I figured out why: in the rain and descending darkness, I'd gone miles past it, and of course, those miles were straight uphill.  Wet and irritated, I turned around and headed back, but by then, it was dark and the tropical storm was in full effect.  Worse, to get from the ridgeline down to Raphine, I had to descend the notorious Vesuvius climb (named for the tiny town at its base).  It's several miles long, with grades that regularly exceed 15%, and on a potholed country road under dense tree cover.  It's also exceedingly technical, with switchbacks and terrible sight lines.   With pitch darkness and wet roads that seemed to suck up the lights from my headlight and helmet, it was one of the more terrifying times I've had on a bike, picking my way down the mountain at about 5 mph, dodging potholes full of water and trying to figure out where the edge of the road became a precipitous drop into the woods. Yuck.

In all, the detour and conditions cost me nearly an hour; I reached Raphine at about 9:30 p.m. and had a Wendy's banquet before mucking my way down the road to the hotel.  There, after a decadently long shower, I spent about an hour desperately trying to figure out how to get my clothes dry.  I laid some of them out over the A/C vent; other items, like my shorts, were hung in the direct blast of the hair dryer.  If you've never smelled "cooked day-old chamois," I assure you that you're better off for the ignorance.  Eventually I decided that the remaining items were just going to have to air dry; I hung them and hoped for the best, noting with some dismay that my theoretically waterproof shell was doing its best sponge impression.

With a 4:00 a.m. wakeup, I'd gotten 4+ hours of sleep, which ain't half bad in this sort of endeavor.  My clothes were no longer dripping, and the storm had passed overnight.  Frankly, I'd have been comfortable starting earlier, but given the sketchy weather and the fact that the first control (the market at Wintergreen Resort) didn't open until 7:30, I figured there wasn't much point in rolling out before 5:00.  So I had a leisurely breakfast at Dunkin Donuts, filled the bottles and pockets, and headed back toward Vesuvius -- the hard way this time.

Vesuvius -- not ideal first thing in the morning when you've ridden 230 hilly miles the day before.  But there it was, 3 miles, 1500 feet of elevation gain, and an average grade of 9% (and upward of 15% in places).  I'd climbed it twice before, and each time it just seemed to keep going, and to keep getting steeper, at every turn.  This time, I managed to get up it at a steady rate despite being weighed down by 3 full water bottles and all other manner of cargo.  No speed records for sure, but that's ok.

Having regained the ridgeline, there was a straightforward 15-mile stretch to the north before the biggest challenge of the day: the route dropped down the ridgeline to the east, where it found the base of the Wintergreen Resort, and duly told us that the next control was at the top.  Sweet!  I knew Wintergreen, and it's just a beast.

2.3 miles at 9% average -- like a continuation of Vesuvius.  Thing is, the full Wintergreen climb starts in the valley and climbs fully a mile past the market, where we'd stop -- it's 7 miles of unadulterated beastliness.  Our portion was just a sample, though it wasn't exactly straightforward.  I managed to set a personal-record time up it despite being far from fresh -- woot!

It turned out that I'd gone a little faster than I predicted; the market wasn't open until 7:30, and I wasn't in the mood to wait around for 20 minutes, so I took off and trusted that I could get by in the cool morning temperatures.  

But first, one more challenge: from the base of the Wintergreen resort back up to the ridgeline is a mile, and it is absurdly steep.

A solid mile at 12-15% grade.  Yeesh.  Got it done; didn't fall over.  Minimum requirements met.

Having reached the ridgeline once more, I headed north: 125 miles to victory!  And a beautiful morning it was.

At times, I was far above the low-lying clouds filling the valleys, and it looked like distant hilltops were ships flowing on a sea of mist.

The remainder of the day was, dare I say it, gorgeous and straightforward.  I mean, look at this road:

It doesn't get better.  Somehow, despite the objective difficulty of the ride, I felt stronger as the day progressed and home got closer.  I even blew away a couple of my all-time personal best times on climbs toward the northern part of Skyline.  For example:

A 3-minute personal-best time on a 3-mile climb, and it came past mile 350 of a 2-day ride with 35,000 feet of climbing.  Crazy!  But fun.

The literal beauty of Skyline Drive has been well-covered, but there's also a figurative beauty in that the route is like a giant savings account.  When you start in Front Royal and head south, the first thing  you do is climb straight up, and you keep climbing, up to a total of about 3,500 feet.  When you're heading home, your effort is returned: most of the last 20 miles, and all of the last 5 miles, is a screaming descent.  It was the perfect epilogue to the adventure.
35 hours and 33 minutes later.
Man, what a ride.  The only downside came about 2 hours from the end, when I started getting a twinge in my right Achilles tendon.  I thought I had just tweaked it somehow, but it kept getting worse, and I could barely push the pedal on the half-mile ride from the 7-Eleven back to my car.  I was limping for days afterward, but I think I have it under control.   It's a weird injury for a cyclist (more common for a runner), but I think it was just overuse given that I'd climbed more than 60k feet in the previous 14 days, much of it up grades of 15% or steeper.  I'd tentatively planned to ride a tough 600k brevet with the D.C. Randonneurs the following weekend, but that just wasn't in the cards if there was any chance of making the injury worse or getting stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Final thoughts?  This ride was tough physically but pretty easy mentally.  With the exception of Vesuvius and Wintergreen, the climbs weren't too hard, even though there were many of them and they did stretch on for miles at a time.  The pavement is great, which makes a huge difference, and the descents are largely joyful, relaxing affairs.  The scenery is hard to beat, even if it does risk repetitiveness at times.  And there's something to be said for having a cue sheet that amounts to "go straight for 150 miles."  The interior of Alaska was the last time I've seen anything comparable.

In terms of comparisons between this SR600k and the Big Savage, I think the latter is clearly harder.  My GPS put that one at 37k feet of climbing to this one's 35k feet.  RideWithGPS puts them both at 37k feet.  But whatever the case, I think the main difference is that, no matter how tired you get, you can pretty much just crank up a 5-6% grade, which is mostly what this route demands.  Once things get up above 10% -- which Big Savage does all day long -- it becomes considerably tougher.  The descents on Big Savage are also more demanding -- more technical and rutted.  My only hesitation in this comparison is that my fitness for this ride was vastly better, and the temperatures were more moderate.  Those things matter tremendously.  Even so, on the whole, I'd award this ride the "King of the Vistas" prize, and Big Savage the "King of the Mountains."

Next up for me is the National 24-Hour Challenge in Michigan on June 18, and then the 520-mile Race Across Oregon on July 16.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ride Review: Devil's Wicked Stepmother 414k Permanent

Being somewhat of a wimp when it comes to riding in cold weather, I've traditionally hung out on my Computrainer until the trees are in bloom.  But, when I saw that early March would serve up a midweek day of 80 degrees and sunshine, I had to go big.  As Val Kilmer memorably put it, "it's a moral imperative."

The question was, what route to ride?  It's hard to get excited about routes leaving from D.C.; while pleasant enough, they're ridden so often that it feels more like a workout than an adventure.  The most appealing rides were in the Shenandoah Valley, but that was far enough away that I wanted to make the drive worth it.  Finally, with this year's focus on a couple of truly mountainous events, I wanted to climb.  Searching the RUSA permanents, the answer quickly became clear:  Crista Borras's 414k permanent known as "Devil's Wicked Stepmother."  With nearly 18,000 feet of climbing over 258 miles, it's a route that would be challenging at any time of year, much less in March.  But, the way I saw it, I could keep the pedals turning and finish eventually.  I guessed I might be able to finish it in around 18 hours, but who knew?  Only one person had ridden it previously, and given that I didn't recognize his name, I figured it might have prompted him to retire from cycling.

After an indecently early wake-up and drive from D.C., I rolled out from Strasburg, Virginia at 4:00 a.m.  One disadvantage to long rides early in the season is that the nights are long -- the first 2+ hours were ridden in the dark.  Riding west toward Moorefield, West Virginia, the climbing began almost immediately with a 1500-foot grinder.  But it was hard to keep my spirits down: the road surfaces were terrific, the sky was full of stars, and traffic was minimal (although what vehicles there were tended to be massive gasoline tankers, which were not much fun).  Unfortunately, although the overnight lows had been predicted to hover around 50, my GPS unit and various billboards showed that the actual temperature was in the high 30s for several hours, which was an entirely different ballgame -- my decision not to wear knee warmers was a misstep.  It's a lesson I seem to need to relearn periodically: weather forecasts do not apply in the mountains.

The first control, a Sheetz in Moorefield at mile 53, took longer to reach than I hoped it would; riding in the mountains at night is no recipe for speed.  After wolfing down a breakfast burrito the size of my head, I turned south toward Monterey, Virginia, some 90 miles away.  This section, through Lost River, WV, is God's Country for any cyclist ambitious enough to take it on: endless vistas, mountain rivers, cliff faces, wildlife, and not a car to be seen for dozens of miles at a time.  It's my favorite place to ride in the mid-Atlantic.

There's nothing quite like cruising with a rock face to one side and rapids to the other, and that was the scene for hours on end.  It's roads like this that cause me to be sad when people talk about cycling on the trails around D.C. -- to me, that just ain't what it's about.  Miles 53-90, to the Brandywine control, were as good as it gets.

The toughest part of this adventure was miles 90-143, i.e., from Brandywine to Monterey.  There are virtually no services in this stretch; there is literally no cell service, and West Virginia's ambivalent attitude toward paving roads is on full display -- there was loose pea gravel over much of the surface, and certain stretches were exercises in mitigating damage.  Making matters tougher, the temperatures rose quickly, as did the elevation reading: this stretch is essentially 50 miles of false flat, into a strong headwind, punctuated by a series of 1,000-foot climbs.  It is excruciatingly slow-going at times.  Luckily, there was a country store at mile 120 or so, which allowed me to refill my bottles before continuing the southward slog.

Unfortunately, while I was stopped at the store, I noticed something alarming: apparently the rough pavement of the previous 30 miles had dislodged my flat kit, which was nowhere to be seen.  Not good: I was 120 miles from my car, 135 miles from the end of the ride, in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service to speak of.  If I'd have flatted, it could have been truly ugly -- without tire levers, I'd have been hard pressed even to get the tire off of the rim.  That's one clear benefit of riding in a group -- the ability to help each other out -- but I had no choice but to press on in the hope of finding a small-town bike shop at some point. 

The scenery did its best to cheer me up, but in truth, I was pretty nervous about the situation.

Fortunately, no news was good news on the tire front, and after seemingly climbing forever into a diabolical headwind, I rolled into Monterey on fumes.  My goal had been to stay in the saddle and make steady progress, but I needed to cool off and fuel up -- to that point, the ride had been much more difficult than I'd expected, and my 18-hour guesstimate was looking profoundly implausible.  Given my tire situation, I'd hoped that Virginia's pavement would surpass West Virginia's.

Delightfully, from Monterey, the route turned east and headed into the George Washington National Forest, i.e., The Best Cycling on Earth.  There was a toll to be paid in the form of two gut-punch climbs out of Monterey replete with switchbacks that would have been at home in the Alps, but the views from the summits were incomparable, and that immutable cycling truth paid big dividends: what goes up must come down.  The descents were just heavenly, complete with the sun speckling through trees and a gentle tailwind. 

The saving grace of this route is that, if you can hang on through mile 165, the last century will take care of itself: the Shenandoah Valley guides one home along immaculate roads, and the gravitational pull of the finish line ensures that one stays motivated.  I never did pass through a town with a bike shop, but my worries were for naught.  To the extent there was a downside, it was only insofar as darkness fell hours before I finished, an inevitable by-product of the season.

The ride finishes at a Denny's, the last refuge of cyclists wearing coral arm sleeves and, um, heavily tattood skinheads.  As I sat waiting for my late-night omelette, I was amazed to see that my 18-hour guess had been off by... 2 minutes.  Maybe I'm getting the hang of this after all.

Viewing the ride as a whole, I have to say that I think the D.C. Randonneurs are missing a step by failing to include it on the calendar at some point -- it is simply too good to lie dormant on the RUSA website for years on end.  The only downside to it is that, yes, it is difficult.  But it's surely no more difficult than the Mother of All 300ks, which has nearly as much climbing in a shorter span, and the scenery is well worth it.  Congrats to Crista on putting together something special. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dancing in Coral Shoes: 24 Hours of Sebring, 2016 Edition

Valentine's Day weekend of 2016 marked my third annual trip to Bike Sebring, one of the best attended and most competitive ultracycling races on the calendar.  (My 2014 report can be found here.)

Any 24-hour race is difficult by definition, but this one poses a unique challenge: the peak training months are December and January, which is the holiday season and one where it's tough to put in huge outdoor miles.  Compounding that difficulty has been my tough work schedule this winter, which didn't allow me to ride longer than 6 hours at a time, and the fact that my fitness was in a deep hole at the beginning of November following a long injury layoff, wedding, and honeymoon.  Essentially, I was trying to lose weight, build base miles, and get faster, all at once.  Not an easy task.

And then there's the competition -- at the top end, it's tough.  Sebring is often used as a destination race for those neck-deep in training for RAAM in June.  For a healthy portion of those individuals, RAAM training is literally their full-time job.  It's not that they get paid for it -- quite the opposite, there's no prize money and it's notably expensive -- but they've arranged their affairs in such a way that the main focus of every day is building bike fitness.  For a host of reasons, that's not the world I live in.  A better sense of my schedule that, in the first two weeks of January, my life consisted of 10 depositions, 2 arguments in the D.C. Circuit, trying to keep my new wife from reconsidering that whole "I do" decision, and maybe a little cycling.

So, with a hat tip to Teddy Roosevelt, I did what I could, with what I had, where I was.  I did zero outdoor rides after mid-November, but I hit the Computrainer 5-6 times a week for a variety of endurance rides and interval sessions.  I also did plyometric workouts 3x/week, which I've found to be particularly effective and time-efficient full-body cross-training.

In all, I was basically preparing for a marathon by training to run a fast 10k.  It's better than nothing, but far from ideal.

Despite the training challenges, by the time the race rolled around, I felt pretty optimistic: my power numbers were where I wanted them and I was healthy; I just hoped I could hold it together for the whole 24 hours.  In 2014 I went 441 miles, and I followed it up with 475 miles in 2015.  The course record for my new age group was 483 miles, which I thought was in the realm of the possible.


When it comes to bike setup, I'm an inveterate tinkerer -- each race I do things a little differently in an effort to go a bit faster and stay on the bike longer.  It doesn't always work out, but at least it keeps things interesting.  This year, my approach focused on aerodynamics.  I bought an affordable disc wheel from Flo Cycling, found a behind-the-saddle hydration system that would mount to wide Selle Anatomica rails, and put a between-the-aerobat bottle mount on the front.  The idea was to get the bottles up out of the wind while allowing me to go for at least a couple of hours between refueling stops.  Given that the course was flat, I wasn't concerned about weight.  My final tweak was to tape my Cardo BK-1 (now Terrano X) communication system to my aero helmet -- it's meant to strap to vents, but I didn't have any of those.  Given the moderate predicted temperatures, I wasn't worried about overheating.

As an added "I just gotta be me" touch, I found some dandy coral shoe covers and arm sleeves that would make me visible for my crew.  Yes, they're Rapha.  (Shush.  I sleep just fine at night.)

I am extremely fancy.

The race at Sebring starts with 3 quick laps around the racetrack (a total of 11 miles or so), and then a 90-mile lap through the orange groves of central Florida.  In both 2014 and 2015, I'd been blown out the back of the pack in the first mile.  The trick is that there are several races starting at once, including a draft-legal 100-miler and 12-hour.  The guys at the front of those races ride blisteringly fast in a pace line, and the fastest 24-hour racers go nearly as quickly.  The result was that, in the last couple of years, I was already 30 minutes behind after the first century.   This year, I decided to try to hold the pace a bit better.  Surprisingly, I was able to keep in touch with the lead pack on the track while keeping my wattage in a reasonable range.  Maybe my aerodynamic tweaks helped more than I'd anticipated.

To Frostproof and Beyond!  Well, to Frostproof, anyway.
As we set out into the countryside, things were going well -- alarmingly so.  I was in a small lead non-drafting group consisting of Marko Baloh (Slovenian, course record holder, multiple world record holder, multiple RAAM finisher, training for RAAM 2016, and different species of cyclist), Erik Newsholme (440 miles last year and training for RAAM 2016), and Fabio Silvestri (highly experienced Brazilian rider training for RAAM 2016).  Notice a trend here?  Tough crowd.

Briefly leading the 12-hour train, which we leapfrogged periodically.
The four of us stayed in touching distance through the turnaround at mile 55 (at nearly 24 mph), at which point I started getting a little concerned.   My concern was named Marko -- he was still there.  I'm not insecure about my riding ability, but I am not in his class based on the several times we've competed, and last year he was 15' ahead of me by that point.  My power was reasonable, if maybe 5-10 watts above target, but I was relaxed, eating well, and didn't feel as if I was pushing things.  I'd have preferred if he pulled away, thus restoring the order of the universe and confirming that I wasn't riding stupidly, but one can never tell: maybe he was sick or training through the race.  I decided the mere fact that he was there wasn't reason enough for me to slow down -- that would basically be adopting an inferiority complex as a race strategy -- so I went with it.  Eventually he pulled away a bit and Fabio went with him, although they were in sight for the most part.  Erik took a little additional time refueling at the turnaround, but I suspected he wasn't far behind.

I will say this: despite my lack of mileage, I'd rarely felt so strong on a bike.  It was flow state to the horizon.  In 2014 and 2015, I rolled through the century mark in 4 hours and 42 minutes (21.3 mph).  This year, despite feeling like I was trying less hard, I rolled through in what was, for me, a scalding 4:14 (23.6 mph).  Where had an extra 2.3 mph come from?  God knows.

Unfortunately, things got a little more challenging at this point, because my power meter died.  I'd noticed in the days beforehand that it was eating batteries, and I put in a new one the morning before the race, but it crapped out 5 hours in.  (The battery life is rated at 200 hours.)  So, I was faced with riding the final 19 hours on perceived exertion.  I'm not an "addicted to a power meter" guy, but it serves the critical purpose of telling you objectively when you're pushing a little too hard, an important thing to know in a race that lasts all day and all night.  So, I just kinda eyeballed it, trying to push forward deliberately without stopping longer than absolutely necessary.

The 11-mile daytime loops are, historically, my strongest portion of this event.  They reward disciplined riding and provide a little variety: hills to climb, winds to combat, nutrition handoffs to manage, and so forth.

Getting a little loopy.
Nothing about the loops is hard, but they wear on you, and this year the temperatures crept up to nearly 80 degrees -- very pleasant, really, but also warmer than I've ridden in for quite awhile.  For the first time ever at this event, I can say that no one passed me over the course of my 13 loops.  (Indeed, last year, I only managed 12 loops before getting routed onto the track.)  I didn't think I was pushing too hard, but without a power reading, I was only guessing.

Buzzing right along!
By the time I reached the track again at around 5:45 pm, my only conclusion was that I was having the ride of my life.  I was winning the race among humans (second behind Marko), and I was 20 miles ahead of where I'd been at that time in 2015's 475-mile effort.  Here are the splits:

                                               2015           2016  
Long loop (101 miles)       4:46:54       4:17:35
Daytime 1 (11 miles)            32:56          31:27
Daytime 2 (11 miles)            32:05          31:21
Daytime 3 (11 miles)            32:36          31:46
Daytime 4 (11 miles)            32:23          30:52
Daytime 5 (11 miles)            32:25          32:32
Daytime 6 (11 miles)            32:05          32:49
Daytime 7 (11 miles)            32:51          34:08
Daytime 8 (11 miles)            32:19          32:06
Daytime 9 (11 miles)            33:19          31:04
Daytime 10 (11 miles)          33:12          32:07
Daytime 11 (11 miles)          33:48          32:49
Daytime 12 (11 miles)          33:56          33:32
Daytime 13 (11 miles)                             32:55

I don't have power numbers to confirm, but these loops look pretty good to me -- about 75% were faster than they'd been in 2015, but not outrageously so; it's tough to compare loop-for-loop because I stopped to refuel at slightly different points, but the bottom line was, I think I executed about as well as I could have hoped to.  I was going consistently faster than in 2015, but my splits weren't falling apart in any significant way, as they would if I'd overcooked the first century and first few daytime loops.  All I had to do was have an average overnight ride by my historical standards and I'd be in the 500-mile club.

The Sebring raceway is 3.7 miles long, and it's the flattest place it is humanly possible to ride a bicycle.  After the hills on the daytime loop, that flatness seems completely inviting, but it is deceptive.  With such a flat course, there's no time to stop pedaling without paying a penalty, no opportunity to shift your weight, and mentally, it can be profoundly taxing.  It's dark for 13+ hours in Sebring in February (compared with maybe 9 hours in a summer event), and you're going in loops for that entire time with nothing at all to look at.  What's worse, each year I've struggled mightily to stay warm -- there's something about the damp Florida air that soaks into my bones no matter what I wear.  (I'm told the crews feel the same way, which is of minor comfort, although I wish they didn't have to experience it.)

Anyway, I set off like a man on a mission, and for the first several hours -- until 1:00 a.m. or so -- I executed just as I'd hoped to.  My splits held reasonably solid:

Loop   Split    Elapsed time
1         10:09   11:27:05 
2         10:06   11:37:11  
3         10:57   11:48:07  
4         12:58   12:01:05  
5         10:29   12:11:33  
6         10:21   12:21:54                                                     
7         11:03   12:32:57  
8         10:22   12:43:18  
9         11:03   12:54:20  
10       10:15   13:04:35  
11       10:13   13:14:47                                                      
12       10:16   13:25:03  
13       12:59   13:38:01  
14       10:41   13:48:42  
15       14:45   14:03:26  
16       10:15   14:13:40                                                      
17       10:11   14:23:51  
18       10:08   14:33:58  
19       10:08   14:44:05  
20       10:11   14:54:16  
21       10:13   15:04:28                             
22       10:19   15:14:47  
23       10:12   15:24:59  
24       10:30   15:35:28  
25       10:56   15:46:23  
26       16:29   16:02:52                           
27       11:28   16:14:20  
28       11:22   16:25:41  
29       10:54   16:36:35  
30       10:53   16:47:27  
31       11:05   16:58:31                                                   
32       11:07   17:09:37  
33       12:51   17:22:28  
34       11:10   17:33:37  
35       11:03   17:44:39  
36       11:18   17:55:56                             
37       11:55   18:07:50  
38       11:27   18:19:17  
39       11:37   18:30:53  

Sure, by 1:00 a.m. my pace was about 10% slower than it had been at 5:45 p.m., but that's to be expected. The problem was, at that point, things started trending downhill quickly. I was still clinging to second place by my teeth, but Erik was blowing by me ridiculously quickly, and I was struggling to keep pace with folks I'd been passing all day long.  It was highly demoralizing.

My thoughts turned to the cardinal rule of long distance cycling: whatever you think the problem is, the actual problem is probably nutritional -- specifically, not enough calories.  My mother, loyal crew member that she is, heated up some chicken broth with carbohydrate power in it, which had saved me in the past in similar situations, and then she encouraged me to have some hot chocolate too, which I did.  Unfortunately, over the next hour, I wound up on the side of the road twice, horribly sick.  I just wasn't absorbing any of it, and the longer I went without getting calories, the harder it became to push the pedals, which made it increasingly difficult to stay warm.  It's a pernicious cycle that's critical to arrest. 

The bottom line is, I just couldn't get the ship turned around.  From 1:00 onward, my splits fell apart entirely:

Loop   Split    Elapsed time
40       12:12   18:43:05  
41       15:35   18:58:39                                                      
42       12:10   19:10:49   
43       16:54   19:27:43  
44       11:23   19:39:05  
45       12:22   19:51:26  
46       16:46   20:08:12                                                     
47       12:55   20:21:07  
48       15:18   20:36:24  
49       13:55   20:50:18  
50       13:17   21:03:35  
51       13:52   21:17:27                                                
52       13:50   21:31:16 

It's normal to slow down somewhat toward the end of one of these events, but from compared to hours 12-18 (when I was already long into the day), hours 19-21.5 were about 30% slower and heading in the wrong direction.  I tried every trick I knew, including standing in the saddle for extended periods, but I just had nothing left to give.  Couldn't keep food or liquid down, couldn't warm up.  Just ugly.   

Just after 4:00 a.m., while contemplating next steps, I suddenly found myself rolling across the grass. Odd -- that hadn't happened on previous laps.  Turns out I had just failed to notice that the road turned, and off I went, cruising to who-knows-where.  I managed to find the course again, but I realized that things were going from bad to worse.  I stopped and sat down in the crew area for a couple of minutes to try to solve the puzzle, but doing so just made me colder, so I eventually went to sit in my parents' car for a couple of minutes to heat up.  Those minutes stretched on, and I decided I'd had enough for this year.  It was all I could do to get my bike without shivering uncontrollably.

In the end, I went 449 miles, good for third place among men.  (Sarah Cooper, who is rapidly becoming a legend, also beat me soundly, overturning a 30' deficit heading onto the track to finish with a 479-mile course record).  Erik Newsholme went 491, up from 440 last year, and Marko... well, what can you say.  He destroyed everyone last year with 521, and this year he went 533.  Frightening.


I have mixed feelings about this year's performance.  It's difficult not to view it as an opportunity lost -- I've never ridden so well for so long, and it's frustrating not to translate 18 hours of terrific work into 24 hours of final results.  Having said that, as of the beginning of November, I was as out of shape as I've been in a long time; I'd just had an effective 6-month layoff following a terrible bike wreck and recovery, engagement, wedding, and honeymoon.  And, since November, work and other commitments only permitted me a handful of training rides of 5 or 6 hours.  When work hasn't been burying me, my priority has been to spend time with my wife rather than on the bike.  

In light of everything, I think the only reasonable way to view my performance is to be delighted that I put together an exceedingly strong 18-hour race.  Indeed, this year I beat my 2014 ride by 8 miles even though I rode for 1.5 hours less.  The strength will come eventually; it's February and I'm not racing RAAM.  All three riders who beat me will be toe'ing the line in Oceanside in June (Cooper is racing Race Across the West this year, although RAAM seems inevitable for her), so they're just in different places.  The competitor in me finds it a little difficult to accept that my life just doesn't allow me to train the way some of these guys do -- I have to cut corners in ways that sometimes don't work out -- but life is about striking a balance and that's what I'm trying to do.  

Many congratulations to Marko, Erik, and Sarah on huge performances, and also to the D.C. folks who had personal-best days or gave ultracycling a try for the first time.  I hope there's more to come!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Big Savage" Super 600k ride report

Sometimes I was the balloon on the left, but mostly I was that other one.
2015 has been a heck of a year, in the best and worst of ways.  It started out in spectacular fashion: after a hard winter on the trainer, I cranked out 475 miles at the 24-hour race at Bike Sebring, setting a new age group course record in the process.  Although that total would have won the race in 2012-2014, this year it was good enough only for fourth overall, behind these characters.
Scott Lukart, Marko Balloh, and Anders Tesgaard.  Photo credit to Marko
(Note: as it turns out, this picture is deeply poignant.  Since it was taken in February, disaster has befallen two of the three men in it.  Scott, on the left, lost a battle with depression and is no longer with us.  He was one of the strongest ultracyclists alive.  Anders, on the right, was hit by a car toward the end of Race Across America, and has been in a coma for nearly three months.  Sometimes it is hard to make sense of how cruel life can be.)

Still, I couldn't have been happier with the result day.  I carried that optimism into my second race of the year, the 24-hour Texas Ultra Spirit, which I was leading by 30 minutes or so after 5 hours, only to have a truly catastrophic crash when I hit a wet metal grate bridge at 30 miles per hour around midnight.  I wound up with severe lacerations on my left leg and both arms; worst of all, my left elbow was shattered, and the muscle had to be re-wired to the bone.  After a 4-hour surgery and several days in the hospital, I was released to go home, where a second surgery awaited me.

Cycling is great!  *High five*
And thus ended my racing season, basically, as early as April.  I wouldn't be back on my bike until mid June.

But, just as things looked bleak, they turned dramatically for the better: I got engaged!

Yeah, my mom didn't believe it, either.
Amidst the celebrations, the breakneck-speed planning for an October wedding, and working an extremely demanding job, training just wasn't happening.  I toed the line for a relatively flat 400k brevet in late June, and made it 80 miles before concluding that I didn't have another 170 in me.  Not only was I not up to it physically, but I didn't have the mental drive to keep on pushing.  It wasn't good.

Since then, I've been on Project: Rebuild.  It's been ugly, but it's coming along.  I've dropped 10 pounds or so and been more consistent with the riding, including ticking off a relatively hilly 200k without undue drama.

But all of this left me with a dilemma: I couldn't imagine letting the year go by without doing an epic ride of some sort.  In 2013, it was Alaska's Big Wild Ride 1200k.  Last year, it was the Central California Coast 1200k and Silver State 508.  The crash had derailed my plans for Race Across Oregon in July, and wedding planning had kept me out of racing shape, but surely I could find something that would make for a good story.

To my rescue rode D.C. Randonneur Bill Beck, who earlier in 2015 had created and certified the Big Savage Super Randonnee 604k.  A "Super Randonnee" (or "SR") 600k is a relatively new type of ride that follows most of the rules for brevets -- including controls, and so forth -- but with a couple of additional twists.  First, there is no outside support allowed, including at controls.  (So, no loved ones meeting you with tissues to dry your tears.)  Second, and more important, the amount of climbing involved is disturbing.  Normal 600k rides are anything but flat, but SR-600s are designed to test your will to live, even if they do give you some extra time to ponder your bad decision.  Here is the elevation profile for the Big Savage Super Randonnee:

Warning: Zooming in may cause nausea.
In short, this 375-mile behemoth had 38,600 feet of climbing, or over 100 feet per mile.  To put it in perspective, that's as much climbing per mile as the legendary Savageman triathlon, which is known for having the toughest 56-mile bike course in the country -- it's just that this ride was 7 times as long.  Indeed, the similarity to Savageman is not coincidental: the Big Savage 600k traverses some of the same territory, through the perilously steep hills of western Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.

It somehow worked out that, despite wedding planning and so forth, I had a 3-day weekend free over Labor Day, so I circled it on the calendar and roped in my longtime riding buddy Max, who was preparing to take on the Natchez Trace 440-miler in a month's time.

The Plan, with Obstacles

We determined to set out at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning from Hancock, Maryland.  (It's also possible to ride it the opposite way, starting from Woodstock, Virginia, but for reasons discussed later, I think we made a wise decision.)  We'd ride in a 187-mile counterclockwise arc to Woodstock, Virginia, where we'd get some sleep before reversing our path on Sunday morning.  It looked like a tough route, but we'd both ridden extremely mountainous stuff on plenty of occasions, and there was no pressing timetable here.  My biggest worry was that I hadn't ridden anything longer than 120 miles since early April -- I was going to have to rely on my years of experience with mountainous rides.

Unfortunately, I encountered a massive setback before our pedals traced a radian.  My job carries with it the periodic risk of having disasters land on my lap, and two of them did in the three days before we were supposed to to ride.  Indeed, Friday afternoon found me in federal court opposing an emergency motion to prevent the transfer of a massive hydroelectric dam to an Indian tribe -- something I'd known nothing about 24 hours beforehand.  In short, I worked 32 hours on Thursday and Friday, and got a combined 7 hours of sleep in the two nights before the ride.  The 2:15 a.m. wakeup on Saturday was unwelcome.  If I'd have been writing on a blank slate, I'd have decided against the ride, but I'd committed to being there and I wasn't inclined to let work wreck my only remaining big ride for the year.  So, I sucked it up and got out there.  Yippee ki yay, m_f_!

My Perspective

This writeup is meant at least in part for future riders considering this challenge.  Such riders understand that, when they read someone's assessment of difficulty, that assessment must be viewed relatively -- that is, "What is the rider's measure of difficulty?"  For them, I'll briefly state that I'm drawn to sadistic bike rides like chain grease to white chinos, and I'm reasonably good at them.  I've ridden the Mountains of Misery 200k (14,500' feet of climbing) on 7 occasions, with a best time of 7:49.  The two "normal" 600k brevets I've ridden have been solo efforts of 27 and 25 hours, respectively, and they've had about 20,000 feet of climbing each.  I averaged 455 miles in the three 24-hour races I contested in 2014.  I've ridden two 1200k with no drama, and competed successfully in the Silver State 508 in 2014.  Most recently, in April 2015, I rode a 24-hour fl├Ęche with 21,000 feet of climbing in 250 miles, and I rode to the start the day before, covering 210 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing.  This isn't to say that I'm the strongest rider out there, but only that, in general, I think of challenge as a positive thing, and I'm not prone to dramatic exaggeration.

Given that perspective, here's the bottom line: this ride crushed me like no athletic endeavor I've undertaken; if you're thinking of doing it, you should ask yourself why and demand a compelling answer.  I desperately looked for any way to abandon it on multiple occasions, and I probably would have if there had been an escape button to press.  Comparisons to other challenging road rides are largely unhelpful.  I'm proud that I finished it, but two days later, I'm still staring into space and coughing fitfully.  I honestly cannot recommend in good conscience that anyone sign up for this madness.  Of course, I fully understand that, for some riders out there, these warnings only make the challenge more attractive.  For them, I offer the following tale of pathos, with bits of advice intermixed.

Leg 1: Hancock, MD, to Grantsville, MD
Distance: 60 miles

We rolled out in balmy darkness and started climbing at about the 100-yard mark.  It had been raining in the early morning, and we quickly ascended into fog, with my head-mounted Exposure Joystick light emitting a cyclops beam into the great beyond.  The pavement was great and the roads utterly deserted -- I don't think a car passed us for the first 30 miles.  The challenge was that, in the fog and darkness, visibility was terrible: the lights just caused a blast of glare in front of us.  Descending was none too stellar, either.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the damp air was that we quickly became soaked to the gills with a combination of sweat and humidity, a pattern that would repeat itself pretty consistently over the next 42 hours.

In terms of terrain, the first the first 60 miles of this ride are deceptively difficult.  None of the grades is shockingly steep, but they Do.  Not.  End.  In fact, the first 60 miles have than 7,000 feet of climbing.  (Extrapolate that out to your typical 200k, and you're heading for 15k feet, which is more than Mountains of Misery.)

I was feeling reasonably all right, but we were making disturbingly slow progress.  After a quick refueling stop in Cumberland, it was up and over Big Savage.  From the north, the climb is less an obstacle, and more a way of life.  At the second control, I realized with some dismay that I was exhausted.  It was Fritos-n-Coke triage time, and we'd only just begun.

Leg 2: Grantsville, MD, to Keyser, WV
Distance: 28 miles

The second leg was one of the more forgiving ones -- riding along the Big Savage ridgeline, descending a bit, summiting again, and then plummeting down through Westernport, MD, and crossing the river in to West Virginia.  Only one thousand-foot climb in this stretch!  Indeed, anyone who's written the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo will recognize almost all of this.  

The tragedy here was a tragedy indeed: after climbing for so long, the descent was harrowing.  In fact, as we approached Westernport, the road changed to something like pea gravel, which is not good when you're descending a 15% grade with sharp turns.  And then we plummeted into Westernport itself, down a road that's almost unspeakably steep.  In the rain, I'm not sure it would be rideable.  By the time we reached the control, my hands were cramping.  

Happily, however, I was feeling better, and the sun was finally beginning to do its part to dry us out.

Leg 3: Keyser, WV, to Mooresville, WV
Distance: 41 miles

It doesn't look like much, does it?  In fact, it looked downright great after one leg of endless climbing and another of "hide the children" descending.  Finally, a chance to make some progress over some light rollers.

Well, yes and no.  The challenge was that, with our 5:00 start, we began this third leg at about 1:00 p.m. on a sunny summer afternoon, as the heat climbed toward 90 degrees.  There's only one climb, but the rollers were vicious, and my two bottles were not nearly enough.  As it turns out, there's a water spigot available at a church halfway through this leg, but because Max and I were using GPS guidance, we failed to note it the first time through.  In my opinion, this spigot is utterly mandatory.  Skip it at your peril.  

In all honesty, this stretch was not much fun: it was long, hot, exposed, and fairly uninteresting.  It was largely a process of sweating out every molecule of liquid in my body.  By the time we reached the Patterson Creek climb toward the end, I was utterly toast -- disoriented, cramping everywhere, and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into.  That climb, for the record, punches up near 20% grade in sections, and there is no shade to be found.  For the first time in many years, I dismounted my bike halfway up a climb, bent over the bars, and waited for the world to stop spinning.  

Max waited an unduly long time at the top of the climb, and then we made our way down to Fox Pizza in Mooresville, West Virginia.  By the time we got there, my feet, calves, quads, hip flexors, and hands were cramping so badly I could barely hobble off my bike and crash in a booth.  Red Wizard needed food, badly.
If this is heaven, we're in trouble.
Now, let's be clear: Fox Pizza is terrible.  And, on top of its being terrible, I could barely eat because my system was shutting down.  So, we agreed to stay there until things got better -- that took an hour.  In that time, I drank fully a gallon of cold liquids and ate what I could.  I couldn't remember the last time I'd been cracked so badly, but there we were, at mile 129, with 62 miles left to go.  And we'd just finished the easy stretch.

Leg 4: Mooresville, WV, to Lost River, WV
Distance: 28 miles

The 28-mile segment to Lost River was a one-trick pony.  That trick was a 2,000-foot climb up South Branch Mountain, which I'd never heard of.  Bill Beck, the organizer, had rated it the toughest climb on the route, but I was feeling better, and I'd climbed some tough stuff in my day.  It was only one climb, so HTFU, right?

As it turned out... no.  Not even a little bit.  This climb utterly crushed me.  Neither one of us made it up without stopping, but for me, that wasn't the half of it.  I wound up walking my bike almost a mile up this thing, something I hadn't done in the history of my cycling career.  (So much for the squeaky clean new bike shoes.) Not that walking it up was straightforward, frankly.  I still had to stop periodically to double myself over against the railing while the world came back into focus.

Here's the bottom line: If you don't have a triple or the gearing equivalent, this climb will almost certainly break you.  It is easily as difficult as the final climb at Mountains of Misery, and your legs will be more tired when you get there.  If you're riding this route the other way, such that you hit this on Day 2, may God have mercy on your soul.

I've rarely been in as despondent a frame of mind as I was on South Branch Mountain -- cracked, cramping, exhausted, dehydrated, with 60 miles to ride before sleep, and then facing the prospect of doing it all again the next day.  If I'd had a "pick me up" button, I'd have pressed it, no question.  In fact, I told Max I had no idea how I could possibly ride the next day -- I'd already had one very bad outcome on a ride this year, and I couldn't face another.

We did finally make it to the top.  I don't want to talk about it.  This climb shouldn't exist, least of all on this ride.  The descent was ok, to the extent I could ride straight, which was to no extent.  I hit a few potholes. Yay.

If there was any silver lining, it was that, at mile 155, we reached the control at the Lost River Grill.  The place is a shelter from the cruel world outside, with comfortable booths, a terrific menu, a refrigerator case of pie slices, and endless coffee.  We stopped for dinner, and stayed there resolutely for a good long while.  Afterward, we'd head out in the dark for the final 33 miles to the overnight control in Woodstock -- a stretch that, naturally, contained two more climbs.

Leg 5: Lost River, WV, to Woodstock, VA
Distance: 32 miles

I feared the worst, but thankfully, the worst was behind us.  The two climbs, through Mill Gap and Wolf Gap,  were nothing compared to what had come before, and the 15-mile cruise between them was about as beautiful a nighttime ride as I'd ever seen: silky tarmac, stars in the sky, and no traffic to be found.  I figured I could just about get myself to Woodstock.  The descent down Wolf's Gap wasn't straightforward at night, but my Exposure Strada headlight did the trick, and Woodstock arrived after a celebratory spin along roads that almost could be termed humane.

As we rolled toward the overnight control, I tried to figure out how I was going to find a ride back to the start.  Saturday's 190 miles -- with 19,000 feet of climbing -- had been by far the hardest 300k I'd ever ridden.  I'd somehow managed it on patently inadequate training and vanishingly little sleep, but I saw very little chance of riding it the other way the next morning.  More to the point, I truly, deeply didn't want to.  Max convinced me to get some sleep and make the call the next morning, which I agreed to do.  I was in a dark place in every respect.

We reached Woodstock around 11:00 p.m., 18 hours after we'd rolled out.  Ridiculous.  I might not be a competent ultracyclist, but I was going to stay at a Holiday Inn Express that night.

Leg 6: Woodstock, VA, to Lost River, WV
Distance: 32 miles

After a decadent (by randonneur standards) 6+ hours of sleep and a raid on the continental breakfast, we rolled out.  I was feeling stronger after a solid sleep, and Max had none of my self-pity, so I figured I owed it to him to give it a go.  We were rewarded with what has to be one of the most perfect early morning rides I've ever experienced: crisp air, sunlight speckling the road through the canopy of trees, and a fresh layer of asphalt that made it almost like... floating.  It was exactly like that for these folks.

It was that kinda morning.
There are few prettier roads in the Mid Atlantic, and it almost made it seem like we'd made a wise decision in how to spend our weekend.

Leg 7: Lost River, WV, to Mooresville, WV
Distance: 28 miles

Back to Lost River Grill for second breakfast: dessert!  Max went for some apple pie, while I attacked a slice of red velvet cake.  My goal for the day was no more dehydration and no more bonking, and this was the first salvo in the glycogen war.

More like it.
The curse of this route was its out-and-back shape: if you have to climb 2,000 feet over a ridgeline on Day 1, you can be pretty sure what you're in for on Day 2.  And so it was that we had our second encounter with South Branch Mountain.  Fortune, though, was smiling on us: South Branch is quite asymmetric, and the approach from the southeast, while long, posed no undue hardship.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the descent: the grade that broke me, complete with switchbacks and gravel washed across the road, was the sort of thing you just hope to get down in one piece.  Max seemed undaunted, but descending at speed isn't my strength, and my memories of April's wreck were only too fresh.  I was glad to make it down intact, but the journey made me feel a little better about what had happened to me the day before.  I'd had no chance whatever, a dead cyclist walking.  Well played, South Branch Mountain.  You need a more memorable name.

Leg 8: Mooresville, WV, to Keyser, WV
Distance: 41 miles

We couldn't bear the thought of pizza for brunch, so we skipped Mooresville's Fox Pizza the second time through and instead set up shop at Food Giant.  We'd have given our kingdoms for a deli, but Food Giant isn't particularly good on the whole "food" front, so we made do as best we could with another round of potato chips.  Mooresville is a bit tragic.  I did force myself to drink a couple of bottles of water more than I wanted to, in light of the upcoming reverse pass down the desolate 40-mile stretch to Keyser.

Given our dismay at the grade up Patterson Creek the first time through and our failure to recollect any steep descent on the other side, we hoped it would be a replay of South Branch Mountain: a kinder, gentler Day 2.  In fact, though, Patterson Creek was every bit as steep from the south, and I drained one of my two bottles in the first 10 miles -- not auspicious.  Fortunately, we found the spigot at the church the second time through, which was a blessing (so to speak).

Meanwhile, the stretch to Keyser proved to be just as soul-sucking the second time through; if anything, this time it was hotter, with temps cresting over 90 degrees.  For an allegedly uneventful stretch, it is pretty damn nasty, and it's made worse by the fact that, in the steep downhills, the roads are rutted and pitted in such a way that you hope your wheels and fillings come through it.  Good riddance.

Happily, just when we'd had more than enough, we reached Keyser, home of the wonderful Stray Cat cafe -- a perfect place for a long lunch.

Leg 9: Keyser, WV, to Grantsville, MD
Distance: 28 miles

88 miles and 2 legs to go.  I knew 88 miles.  I understood 88 miles.  Hell, I'd ridden 88 miles before, and I figured I could do it again.  After all, next was just the climb up Big Savage Mountain -- nothing intimidating about that name.

Actually, I'd ridden the Big Savage climb probably 10 times before.  It's the first climb of the Savageman Triathlon, although it's a beast, it's never proved an undue obstacle.  I tentatively assigned it to the "will be tough, but no problem at the end of the day" bucket of "things to do before I can be done with this g-d d-mn ride."

I put it in that bucket because, as amply demonstrated on this blog, I'm a moron who never learns.  In retrospect, the climb up Big Savage was always the first one in every ride; before it had come a 10-mile descent, so I'd arrived ready to attack.  This time we hit it at... mile 294.  After 30,000 feet of climbing.  And I may as well have been asked to climb up the side of the nearest 150-story building.  Never has the name for a climb been so apt.

Looking at the elevation profile of this stage in retrospect, I understood why it seemed as though, around every corner, another shockingly inhumane grade awaited: in the 28-mile stage, about 25 miles of it is climbing.  We somehow made it through, but we were in distinctly poor cheer by the time we slumped into the Pilot control point with 60 miles to go.  Darkness was descending, and it seemed we were getting weaker with every passing mile.  Not good.  We resolved to make sure we were thoroughly fueled before rolling out -- we could do 60 miles come hell or high water, but we preferred neither.  One thought rattled around in my despondent mind: last time I'd been sitting at that control, at mile 60, I'd been exhausted due to the 60 miles before.  And, at that point, I'd only been 60 miles in.  What would those 60 miles do to us this time?

Leg 10: Grantsville, MD, to Hancock, MD
Distance: 60 miles

Big Savage rescued us.  After grinding along the ridge for a few miles, we got to experience the singular joy of a 10-mile descent when you're on your last legs.  Best of all, the descent was down a wide road with a great shoulder, and apart from the brief stretch through Frostburg, traffic was a non-issue.  Spectacular!

But it was not to last.  The stretch from Cumberland to Hancock is a stage in Race Across America, and it's the stage with the most climbing per mile of any stage in the country.   The elevation profile tells the story: it's a series of 1,000-foot-high saw teeth that lasts pretty much until the moment the ride ends.  It got to the point that I lost track of whether the climbing was done; each time, the answer turned out to be, "Well, yeah, except for this 3-mile climb."  I had all the joy of a cat in the rain, and when I rolled into the final control some 43 hours and 20 minutes after I'd left, I felt little joy or pride -- it was more the sensation that comes when someone stops hitting you with a hammer you asked him to wield.

Final thoughts

To restate what I noted at the beginning, I was not in shape for this ride.  I probably had no business doing it.  And, to make it worse, I was coming off nights of 3 and 3.5 hours of sleep, which is about the worst thing I could have done heading into this thing.  None of that was my fault, but it was my choice to do the ride anyway, because it was the one chance I had to do something epic this year.  In light of all that, it's unsurprising that this thing wrecked me.

But that's not all that's going on here.  I've talked to some people after the ride about how to express my thoughts about it.  They're complex.  On the one hand, Bill's done an impeccable job putting together a ride unlike anything else I've ever attempted.  By and large, it's a pretty one.  The roads have virtually no traffic, and the nighttime riding was some of the best I've ever had.  He set out to make a beast of a challenge, and he succeeded in every respect.

Having said that, in all candor, I think the Big Savage SR-600 is beyond the pale of reasonable challenges.  It is simply too difficult.  Having been through it, I can't think of a reason anyone should want to endure such a thing.  After every challenge ride I've done -- and I've done many -- the experience has faded into a fond glow, but that's not happening here.  Instead, I've spent the last several days coughing fitfully and feeling like I just want to sleep forever.  I guess on some level I'm proud I finished it, but I'm equally glad that I no longer have to keep riding up, up, and up, all in the desire to get home.

So, I guess I'd say this.  If you're thinking about doing this ride, ask yourself why, and make sure you have a compelling reason.  "It'll be a fun challenge" is not a good enough reason, because this ride is not "fun."  There will be many times that you're wondering what the hell you've done.  I think the only reason to do this ride is if, on some level, you won't be able to live with yourself if you don't give it a go.  If that's the case, then have at it, and godspeed.  I would say that unless you can cruise through a typical 600k in close to 30 hours, you may have trouble with the 50-hour cutoff.  (This one took me about 16 hours longer than my slowest previous 600k.)  

This is the hardest endurance event I've ever done -- forget Ironmans, marathons, 1200k, 24-hour races, Silver State 508, and the rest of it.  None of them matches this thing.  Having been through it, I feel like I've escaped its clutches more than triumphed over it.  There are no victors here, but for one: congratulations, Bill -- I've always taken pride in organizing the hardest damn rides I could find, but you win.