|Ride start, pretty in pink! Photo credit: Ed F.|
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Sunday, April 9, 2017
I'm also happy to report that the Selle Anatomica Carbon Series saddle worked perfectly -- I think it's a keeper. It's noticeably harder than the leather hammock that the traditional S-A offers, but it never was uncomfortable. This may be because of the Mummy Tape I apply to my sitbones before all long rides, but whatever the case, it was nice to finish a 600k and be able to sit down comfortably.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
It's been awhile since I've posted anything, but I've had irons in the fire. Work and travel demands caused me to take almost two months off of the bike after Race Across Oregon in July, and when I emerged in mid-October, my fitness was in Nowheresville. But, for the first time in nearly a decade, I renovated the Pain Cave both physically and virtually.
On the physical front, I picked up a Tacx Neo smart trainer to replace my 2006-era Computrainer, and I've been using the heck out of it. In my mind, the direct-drive setup is categorically superior to the older wheel-on technology, and the Neo is a beautiful beast.
On the virtual front, I signed on with Trainer Road and Zwift, following a structured training plan for the first time in recent memory. I've gotten to be reasonably proficient at prescribing workouts for myself over the years, but there hasn't been much periodization to it, and overall things had just gotten a bit stale. Between October and late January, I was able to ride 6 days a week with consistency, recording about 700 training stress/week, which is about 50% more than in years past. And the result showed: my power/weight ratio jumped from ~3.8 to ~4.4, which was the highest it's ever been -- an auspicious place to be in January -- and I was getting stronger by the week.
All told, although nothing is ever guaranteed, I was confident that I could put in a serious showing at Sebring. I'd initially planned to ride the 12-hour, but I was feeling so strong that I'd mentally committed to switching to the 24 and taking a shot at that magical 500-mile day. I started my taper late, putting in a hard weekend only a week out with the idea that I'd take it easy for a few days and then give it a go. The Sunday before the race was my last long ride, a 5-hour trainer session that I entered tired but knocked out with no problem. Then it was off to a Super Bowl party to enjoy the fruits of months of discipline.
The following day (Monday), though, I found myself feeling like I had a bit of a cold. I do get the occasional head cold, and it's common to feel a little under the weather during a taper, so I didn't think much of it. The hard work was done, and a scratchy throat was nothing to be concerned about.
Tuesday brought no improvement -- I was definitely fighting something. What had been a mild, generalized sore throat had become more focused in an area in the back corner of my throat, and it was acutely raw when I swallowed. Still, I figured, no big deal. I even knocked out a 3x15' sweet spot session on the trainer as planned, and did so without drama. I reasoned that the workout might even help clear out my head and throat. The workout wasn't easy, but I *was* in taper mode with the fatigue it entails, and nothing about the experience suggested anything more than a cold.
By Wednesday, I'd put myself into the category of sick, as much as I hated to draw that conclusion. I'd busted my butt for months to put myself in a position to try to win Sebring outright a few days later, and the idea of being sick for the first time in years was unbearable. I was blowing my body weight in snot on an hourly basis, and when I swallowed, it felt like there was a spiked golf ball in the back of my throat. It turns out that we swallow a considerable volume of saliva and mucus each day, and when swallowing is to be avoided, you become pretty disgusting, because it has to go somewhere. I bought some cough drops and made the best of it, even dropping my bike and supplies with a friend for transport to Sebring. That evening, though, I had a fever for the first time, felt achy, and the rest of it. (Crap.) Still, my philosophy was that all I needed was a solid night's sleep and I'd be on the mend.
Unfortunately, Wednesday night brought almost no sleep. I felt like I was drowning -- imagine the worst cold in the world where you can't swallow without an explosion in your throat. Amy slept on the couch that night, but I didn't even notice until the next morning. Pretty much sums up how out-of-it I was.
By Thursday morning, it was becoming increasingly clear that Sebring was a stretch. (Many people would doubtless say "of course" at this, but I think endurance athletes are used to just working through challenges in a way that alters how you view things.) Amy and my parents thought I might have strep throat; I was undeniably miserable. Awkwardly, I had to go to work on Thursday because I had a hearing in court that afternoon that I felt I needed to attend. By this time, I couldn't really talk without coughing spasmodically, and swallowing was almost entirely out of the question. I managed to communicate to the judge that I was sick, and that was pretty much all that was required of me that day, but I went straight from court to a primary care doc to see what the heck was going on.
The nurse practitioner saw me quickly, noted that my tonsils were swollen, and performed a strep test that everyone expected would be positive. But it wasn't -- negative as could be. She consulted with some other folks in the office and recommended that I go to the ER based on the fact that something was clearly wrong, but there was no obvious answer as to the "what" of it. By then, things were so bad that I dialed Amy's cell and asked the nurse to tell Amy what she'd just told me, because I couldn't speak more than a couple of words at a time.
Amy met me at home about an hour later; I took that time to stand in a hot shower and just try to stop shivering. We drove to Sibley Hospital ER, where I was admitted about 8:00 p.m. on Thursday night. I got a CT scan, which showed several large peritonsillar abscesses (essentially pus-filled pockets of infection) in the back of my throat, some of which were dangerously low in my neck and thus close to my vocal cords and chest. Also, I had a 103-degree fever. After hours of deliberation, the folks at Sibley determined that I needed surgery immediately but that they weren't equipped to do it -- given the scope and location of the problem, the ENT docs needed a full-fledged facility that could deal with collateral chest infections that might arise from the initial surgery. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it took hours for Sibley to find another hospital that could take me.
During this time, which stretched until about 1:00 a.m. on Friday morning, we'd decided it made sense for Amy to go home to try to get some sleep. I promised I'd let her know where they took me for surgery and when it was scheduled to happen. I didn't see the point in her destroying herself to sit in an E.R. indefinitely while nothing happened.
Ultimately, in the middle of the night, Sibley decided to send me by ambulance all the way to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was a pretty surreal scene staring out the back window of the ambulance as it bounced through deserted streets as I was tranquilized on morphine. The only comparable instance was nearly 2 years ago -- coincidentally, in connection with another 24-hour bike race, in Texas, following a particularly nasty crash. At least this time I was headed to a real hospital. I let Amy know that I was in Baltimore with surgery scheduled for Friday morning. Communicating that was about all I could manage between my misery and narcotic haze.
I don't remember much from that point until Saturday afternoon. The surgery apparently revealed problems significantly more severe than the surgeon had anticipated. Among the several infected abscesses was one that was about 4" long -- one of the largest the surgeon had ever seen -- and it was necrotic, meaning that the tissue was dying. It also was in a particularly sensitive area. They had to remove a tonsil just to get to it, and it was very close to the nerve that controls my vocal cords. The doc was alarmed that such an extensive problem had developed so quickly, and feared that I may have contracted a flesh-eating bacteria. The phrase "necrotic fasciitis" was thrown around.
I vaguely remember a conversation with the doc after the surgery in which he expressed concern that he might not have taken care of the entire problem. Scans showed additional swelling further down my neck, and if the infection continued to spread, more surgery would be required. My hazy recollection of that conversation involved my telling the doc to do what he needed to do -- if was another surgery, it was. But my memory is pretty hazy, as I was on several different kinds of potent painkillers, had a breathing tube down my throat, and could barely even write on a board, much less talk.
Amy's experience was even more alarming. Apparently the doc told her that the next surgery could require going into my neck from the outside, through the vocal cords, which meant that I'd never talk again, assuming I survived it in the first place. He asked her the odd question: "Is Damon risk-averse?" and also whether being unable to talk would significantly impact my career. As a lawyer who appears in court regularly, I think the answer to that is pretty damn clear. I have no memory of this.
Meanwhile, the bacteria were being cultured to try to identify what had attacked me, and everyone was watching my white blood cell count to see whether it was moving in the right direction. I was on four different kinds of high-powered IV antibiotics because no one was certain which one might prove effective.
I was only vaguely cognizant of this stuff. I like to think I was at least partially lucid at the time, but I can't remember much of what happened. At one point, I scrawled on a white board: I feel like post-Trump America.
For me, the most alarming part of things was that I'd gone to the doctor thinking I'd get just get some antibiotics. From there, I'd learned I needed surgery, perhaps even a tonsillectomy, and the thought of spending a weekend in the hospital was nightmarish. But now, no one could tell me much with certainty except that I'd be intubated for the foreseeable future and my hospital stay could last for weeks if things didn't play out in my favor. A week-long stay was the best I could hope for.
Fortunately, things broke in my favor, and I recovered more swiftly than the doctors' most optimistic estimates. I think my relative youth, good health, and strong immune system counted heavily in my favor. The antibiotics succeeded in driving out the infection over the course of a few days. I was intubated until Sunday, moved out of the ICU on Monday, and released on Tuesday -- 5 days after admission.
From here, it's going to be a bit of a road to recovery. I'm on a liquid-only diet for several more days, and I'm exhausted and weak. Given the blood I lost during the surgery and over the course of hourly tests, my hemoglobin levels are through the floor, and I wasn't able to sleep for more than half an hour at a stretch for 5 or 6 days. ICUs are terrible -- loud, beeping machines, a tube down your throat, 800 wires and IVs connected to you, and nurses who poke you, draw blood, change drips, and ask you how you're doing literally every hour. Several times I managed to fall asleep, only to be awoken by a nurse who just wanted to know if I was okay.
Ultimately, given the background terrible luck that put me in the hospital in the first place, I think I'm pretty fortunate. The primary care nurse sent me to the ER rather than sending me home, which isn't an inevitable call to make for someone who presents with a sore throat and fever during flu season. Had she done otherwise, I think my life could look significantly different going forward, because the infection was ballooning in a nightmarish area. I also found myself at Johns Hopkins, which is about the safest place one could be; in many parts of the country, that wouldn't have been an option. I had a tonsillectomy, but that's an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.
It's hard to know what conclusions to draw from this. It's easy to say: "If you're sick, go to the doctor," but I'm almost never sick, and when I am, it tends to last about 12 hours. Moreover, I think I have a high pain tolerance -- the sorts of athletic events I'm drawn to suggest as much -- and an allergy to drama. Put it together and it translates into a philosophy of "there's nothing wrong with me that a little sleep won't fix." I suspect many endurance athletes share some or all of these traits, so maybe this story will provide a cautionary tale to someone out there.
It'll take time to get my strength back, catch up on work, and get life back to normal. Obviously there will be a lot of rebuilding needed on the bike, although hopefully it won't be a return to zero. It's amazing how much strength you lose from being confined to a bed for only a few days.
On the whole, I'm a lucky guy. Amy was an incredible trooper at a time when she really couldn't afford to be given her situation at work, and I had a steady stream of friends visiting me in the ICU from D.C. and Baltimore. I had more messages and well-wishes than I could hope to respond to.
Perhaps this is best placed into the category of a near-miss. Life is full of those, whether we know it or not. Ten years ago, my brother Jaron -- for whom this blog is named -- presented at a primary care doctor with a headache. His experience was the opposite of mine: he was prescribed pills and sent home, and then the same thing happened again when he went to the E.R. a day or two later. No one even performed a CT scan. By the time someone took him seriously, it was too late, and a treatable cyst in his brain had become fatal. From what I'm told, my situation could have headed in that direction if my caregivers had been less concerned and diligent, and if my treatment had been delayed much longer.
We all rely on other people in life, whether we want to admit it or not, and regardless how recently we've read Ayn Rand. Life is about making the most of the opportunities and gifts we have, but it's also about being lucky in countless ways -- from having a caring family and educational opportunities to people who look out for us when we desperately need it, even if we don't know it at the time. I'm happy to say I've been deeply fortunate in all of the ways that matter.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Oddly, though, it didn't seem inclined to. I'd been visualizing riding inside of the world's largest and steepest hairdryer for 520 miles, but the weather forecast was disquietingly non-disquieting. Highs in the low 80s, lows in the high 40s, and winds of... 7 mph. I couldn't quite believe it, so I checked every location on the course I could find for a week or more out, but they all told the same story. So, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I packed my deep-rim racing wheels, reasoning that if I can't handle them in 7-mph winds, I need to turn in my man card. But I did bring along a backup set of conventional wheels from one of my crew members, because if there's one thing I've learned in my years of riding, it's that I'm the cycling version of the Bad News Bears.
Speaking of crew, my two crew members were Max and Sam, the same pair of brothers who'd endured with my nonsense at Silver State 508 two years ago. As ultracyclists and bike mechanics, they were the perfect guys to know what I needed before I did, which is the ultimate help on a ride like this.
|My pre-race serenity glare.|
|Making sure my GPS wasn't going to guide me to Corsica.|
|Mick Walsh and Nigel Press, probably debating the best arm-sleeve color.|
|Everyone's feeling good about their chances of a top-10 finish.|
|So far, so good. But not very far.|
57 Miles; 5,275 feet of climbing
The race started with a 22-mile appetizer loop to the northwest of The Dalles, running along the Columbia River before swinging inland, climbing Sevenmile Hill, and bombing back down past the Dalles before heading onward toward, well, who knew. We spun merrily through a perfect 60-degree dawn, enjoying the neutral start before George unleashed us onto the course (or vice-versus). About 50 yards into the first climb -- perhaps mile 7 -- Nigel cruised past me and moseyed on into the distance. I was holding a steady 250 watts or so, which was about the most I was interested in doing in the first 20 minutes of a 520-mile ride, so I felt confident that Nigel was getting a little over-enthusiastic. For me, the mission at that point was singular: go easy, keep the heart rate down, and eat every damn thing I could get my hands on.
Then Mick passed me, too. Well, crap. By the top of the first 500-foot climb, Mick was about 50 yards ahead, and Nigel was... actually, it wasn't clear. But nowhere that I could see. I had mental images of mushroom clouds. The 4-mile, 1000-foot climb up Sevenmile passed uneventfully, with Mick pulling away steadily.
Max and Sam had pre-ridden this 22-mile beginning loop the weekend before, and on our scouting drive, they'd warned me that the wind had gotten a little squirrelly on the 4-mile, 1700-foot descent from the Sevenmile summit. Things felt pretty still to me, but as I noted, I was riding Zipp 808s, which aren't the most stable wheels I could have chosen. I resolved to be safe above all else. My speeds crept up into the mid-40s, but with wide, sweeping turns, all was well.
Then it suddenly wasn't, in a very big way. When Oregon weather forecasts say "7 mph winds," they must mean an average of 7 mph. Thus, the winds were 0-2 mph, except for brief periods when they kicked up to about 60 mph without warning. I found myself going 40 mph down a hill into a sudden malevolent swirl, and it induced something I've since learned is called "speed wobble." It isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds. The wind twisted my front wheel sideways, and then when the bike corrected itself, it overcorrected and flipped the wheel to the other side where the wind caught it again, and so forth. The end result was that suddenly my front wheel was whipping back and forth as the bicycle shook violently. I was 100% sure that I was going to crash, and was in the state of wondering how best to fall so as not to wind up back in the emergency room.
Here's what speed wobble looks like from behind on a descent slightly less technical than the one I was on. Watch the full first 45 seconds, but the 30-second mark is where it gets lively:
|Outside: stoic. Inside: abject terror.|
|Needless to say, the route did not take us to "Friend."|
|This is what passes as an action shot in the ultracycling world.|
|A splash of coral and air of indignation... must be Damon.|
|A snake rancher, I think.|
|Parking opportunities on the route were... plentiful.|
|When we saw rushing rivers, we invariably went the way the water didn't.|
|Great roads, green rivers, good times.|
|Around that curve is the exact same view.|
|Max allegedly found a tree. I suspect Photoshop sorcery.|
|Lisa Bliss, a female solo rider, takes on the Grass Valley climb.|
|Skiing in July? Apparently so, on Mt. Hood. Not for us, though.|
|My drafting shot. Oh, relax -- there's no one in the stationary van.|
At the tops of certain grades, we could see all the way to Mt. Rainer, near Seattle. At one point, from right to left, I spied Ranier, St. Helens, Hood, and Jefferson, reminders all that there were tougher climbs to be found.
|A glorious solitude.|
|Just solitude. And chip seal.|
Stage 3: Condon
43 miles; 3,971 feet of climbing
What this section did have was wheat and wind farms the likes of which I'd never seen.
|Families of fan blades.|
|I tried to keep things in perspective.|
|Climbing in the aerobars, because I figured I should use them for something.|
|Mt. Hood recedes, but never disappears.|
|I read somewhere that unzipping your jersey on a climb looks pro.|
|On the other hand, pairing a Zipp 808 with a shallow aluminum front wheel is not pro.|
|Not my picture, but one identical to what I saw.|
|Rollin' on the river. Just need a river.|
|The crew waits for me to climb. That white speck is a van.|
|I've got it made in the shade, sort of.|
|The turbines are still visible on the horizon.|
|Perfect pavement, if flawless chip seal is your thing.|
Stage 5: Dale
60 miles, 4600 feet of climbing
|Cattle grid, ahoy!|
|Those cattle must be as big as railroad cars.|
The descent took us east to Ukiah, where we turned south toward Dale, and the road evolved into one of the most glorious I've ever ridden: a twisting descent for miles along a river. No need for brakes, no cars in sight -- what a world apart from the ordinary.
At one point, as I was sweeping along at 45 mph or so, I glimpsed in the road ahead a flock of doves doing nothing in particular. All but one fled as I approached, but that daredevil stuck to its guns until I was about 10 feet from it. I went left to avoid it, but the dove sprung into action in exactly the wrong manner, darting right in front of me. It flew directly into my left shin, and the crew (in direct-follow mode by then) reported a cartoon explosion of feathers. In the sort of thing that can't be made up, I then noted that my music mix had rolled over to Prince's When the Doves Cry.
|Central Oregon looks flat from 5,000 feet.|
Stage 6: Mt. Vernon
54 miles; 4,850 feet of climbing
Mt. Vernon is gas station-town at the southeastern point of the loop, and also Mile 300 or so, both of which represented mental milestones, so I was looking forward to getting there. In retrospect, I don't remember any tough climbs, just the first nighttime hours of riding. Upon review, though, I must have been suffering from the ultracycling version of Stockholm syndrome, because the stage was anything but flat. It featured, among other things, a 3.7 mile, 1200-foot climb (6% grade) that the route book describes as "formidable" and over 11% grade in spots, as well as a 5.7-mile, 1600-foot grind (5% grade). Sometimes nighttime is your friend -- if you can't see what you're climbing, you just deal with things as they come and spare yourself the drama.
Although I continued to feel strong, I was beginning to think I needed to dial it back a bit effort-wise: I was over 15 hours in, and still with watts well into the 220s. It felt like one of the best rides I'd had, but perspective is key: I wasn't even halfway done, a fact I couldn't quite wrap my head around. Thoughts like that are better to suppress.
With the crew in direct-follow mode, I was living in the headlights, which is a rare treat for overnight cyclists. So often, in nighttime brevets and 24-hour races, your world shrinks to a corridor in front of your relatively meager bike headlight, which can have a trace-like effect. The situation is different when the world is floodlit from behind, particularly on descents, where the follow vehicle would move left a bit and I'd stay to the right, thus ensuring that my shadow wouldn't be cast in front of me to obscure hazards. The key for the crew is to stay alert so that if the cyclist has an issue, they have time to hit the brakes. That was necessary on at least one occasion when I spied a pair of eyes in the darkness to the right of the road and made the universal "slowing!" sign, when a massive elk lumbered across the road not 15 yards ahead. It made out better than the dove did.
We stopped briefly for gas at the Mt. Vernon mini-mart, which had long closed. Unfortunately, due to a miscalculation, we'd neglected to fill our thermoses with hot water for overnight coffee or chicken soup, but we hoped for the best. 300 miles in the bank!
Stage 7: Mitchell
61 miles; 3,100 feet of climbing
The first 30 miles of the westward stretch toward Mitchell were a flat-out drag race, a false-flat downhill where a rider could pin the ears back, get low, and hammer toward home. I had no sense of how far ahead of me Nigel might be, but I figured that, if he were close, this was the stretch where I'd be able to make up the ground. I held 28 mph or so for an hour, feeling like suddenly this race was a reasonable thing to undertake.
|Chasing a Canadian!|
Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and the road pitched back upward. Because I didn't have the route book in front of me, I didn't quite realize what I was in for: a 25-mile climb. Going forward, that's the sort of thing I need to make sure I understand, because the following conversation took place at about 1:30 in the morning, after I'd climbed a 5% grade for about 45 minutes.
Me, to crew: "Is there any possibility that the top of this climb is nearby?"
Max, after ominous pause: "Um, it looks like about 14 more miles."
Max: "But it looks like it isn't all this steep."
Me [thinking to self]: "Less steep -- great. Fine, Max, you have a bike in the car. Let's trade and you go ride it."
Upon reaching the top, I put on another layer of clothing for the descent, then picked my way down the mountain toward Mitchell. Despite my grumbling, I was holding it together.
Stage 8: Fossil
43 miles; 4300 feet of climbing
George describe the 43-mile stage to Fossil as the hardest mile-per-mile of the ride. It's a "net downhill," but that's surely the most misleading term in the cycling world.
On one of the initial 500-foot climbs, I simultaneously had both pleasant and depressing realizations. The positive was that, at the 375-mile point, I'd ridden a 600k with more than 30k feet of climbing, i.e., about as much as a "Super Randonneur 600k" like the ones I'd ridden in 43 hours in September 2015 and 35 hours in May. This time -- albeit with a support crew -- I'd knocked it out in 22 hours and 40 minutes. That's moving!
On the other hand, this toughest stretch of the course also came at exactly the worst moment, i.e., those hours between 3:00 and 5:30 a.m. when the body just wants to shut down. That's just what mine was doing. I was managing to stave off the drowsiness for the most part, but I just couldn't put out any power. Climbs that I'd been crushing in my big ring were suddenly grinding affairs in my smallest gear, and looking back on the prior 23-24 hours, I realized that I'd spent probably 80% of the time climbing. That's the deceptive thing about hilly courses -- in terms of mileage, it might be 50% uphill and 50% downhill, but because you cover the downhill portions so much faster than the uphill portions, in a truer sense such efforts boil down to "climbing with periodic breaks."
The bottom line was, I had all the tell-tale signs of bonking. I was eating everything I could, from fruit bars and apples to croissants with turkey, plus drinking plenty of carb mixes, but after so long in the saddle, small periodic calorie deficits are enough to bring the needle down to empty, and that's where I was. For me, the surest sign of bonking is a sudden black mood -- whereas all day it had been "Climb! Ok, no problem, knock it out," now it was more like, "George, I get it, Oregon is hilly, but this is completely stupid and ceased to be interesting a long time ago."
Eventually I got off the bike and announced to the crew that I was going to sit in the car and eat a damn meal -- if Mick caught me, fine, but I needed to right my listing ship.
|Me, after 24 hours. Be glad you can't smell internet pictures.|
The stage finished with an 11-mile, 2150-foot climb, because of course it did. I craved sunlight. 407 miles ridden; "merely" 115 to go, including something called the "Clarno climb," which sounded just swell considering that none of the climbs to that point had had names worth mentioning.
Stage 9: Imperial River Company
68 miles; 5400 feet of climbing
The penultimate stage had 4 distinct challenges. The first, a 5.5-mile, 1000-foot climb, was a gradual affair that brought the dawn with it. Oddly, it was only in these early daylight hours that I truly started getting drowsy. Caffeine had long since ceased having any effect except upsetting my stomach, so I was simply holding out for the sun and circadian rhythms to bring my system back online. The other challenge was that the temperatures were in that awkward low-50s range where climbs make you sweaty and long descents bring shivering. Sunlight was great, but I wanted the sun on me for heat. I'd soon get my wish.
The second challenge was the 0.7-mile attack on "Totally Useless Hill," so called because that's exactly what it is. It interrupts a terrific descent for reasons that no one can justify, then drops you straight onto the base of Clarno, which was billed as the toughest climb of the route. Naturally, it came at mile 426.
|Climbing toward Clarno, where there would be clarnage.|
Finally, after Clarno, there was one more to go: a 4-mile, 1000-foot grade. Easier than Clarno, yes, but not easy, and mentally I found it even tougher because it was billed as an afterthought to Clarno. In fact, it was plenty challenging in its own right, but Max knew me well: he and Sam met me at the top with an ice cream cone they'd managed to find at a local shop. It was like being in Corsica all over again!
After finding the ridgeline, it was time for what was billed as a "17-mile, 1700-foot rollercoaster descent" down Bakeoven Road. And that road, my friends, is the epitome of nominative determinism, because an oven is just what it felt like, and bake is what it does to cyclists. Indeed, plowing into the headwind, I learned it's possible for a 1700-foot descent to feel like it's mostly uphill. Coming around one curve at about 40 mph, I hit a wind gust so strong that I was blown sideways; if I hadn't changed my front wheel, I'd have been toast before I knew it.
At long last, I reached the penultimate time station at the Imperial River Company, at mile 475. 45 miles to go! But before taking it on, I chilled out at a convenience store for 15 minutes or so, putting my legs up, eating Coke and more ice cream, and generally preparing myself for the last leg. If someone caught me there, that was fine; I was just making sure I had enough gas to reach the finish.
Stage 10: Finish
40 miles; 3,050 feet of climbing
In fact, it looked like maybe I'd threaten the 34-hour mark, but I wound up flatting, for the first time in years, on the side of a relatively high-trafficked road. The crew leaped into action admirably, but they wound up having to change the tire a couple of times due to air leaking around the valve. I was happy to camp out on a guard rail and gaze into the distance, secure in the knowledge that the hard work was done.
The last hour or so of the ride brought out my best -- back in the aerobars and pushing the pace at every turn, finally feeling like a bike racer again instead of a lost explorer being stalked by a van. Finally, 34 hours and 31 minutes after I'd set out, I reached the start once again, where George was waiting for me with a handshake, a medal, and bottle of local hard cider, and more good cheer than I'd thought possible.
|Max, Sam, and me; it looks like I'm starting my nap early!|
As far as RAO goes, it's a heck of a race. The race field was on the small side for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the course is notoriously difficult, but George lives and breathes these events, and he does an amazing job of making everyone there feel like a legend.
Overall, compared to my expectations, I was struck not only by the consistent beauty of the course, but also by its variety. I'd expected 500 miles of high-desert desolation, and while there certainly were points where I was ready to stop seeing scrub brush, things evolved from wind farms and wheat fields to pine-lined mountain climbs and arresting canyons, always with snow-capped volcanic peaks on the horizon. It's a hard place not to love. Compared to Silver State 508, my other experience at this distance, there really is no comparison: RAO is an order of magnitude more difficult, but also offers another level of beauty and variety. I'd love to go back.