Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saratoga 12-Hour Time Trial Race Report

"To infinity and beyond!"  --Buzz Lightyear

In the past few months, I've been doing my best to perform the endurance-sport equivalent of Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks.  In April, two marathons on opposite coasts, 13 days apart.  In May, a 300k brevet, an Olympic distance triathlon, and Mountains of Misery.  In June, another oly, a 400k brevet, and a 12-hour mountain bike race.  All told, every other weekend since mid April, I've had either a marathon or an ultra bike ride.  Last weekend, in Saratoga, NY, I added to that trend by entering only my second pure cycling race (Cranky Monkey being the first): a 12-hour time trial in beautiful Saratoga, NY, known as the "Hudson River Ramble."  

I'd never done anything like this before.  Yes, I'd done a couple of rides of 12 hours or more, but only Cranky Monkey was a race; the brevets are distinctly different creatures that explicitly are not races.  And Cranky Monkey was a race only in the sense of trying to survive it, as I'm basically a noob at that sport.  A road TT, however, was something in which I expected to turn in a solid performance, but the longest bike leg I'd ever competed in is 112 miles, which typically lasts for fewer than 6 hours.  I recalled that, at the end of each Ironman leg, I'd been dying to get off of the bike, and often I'd been in pretty dire shape, so the prospect of hours 7-12 in Saratoga TT was somewhat unnerving.  All the more so because my tri bike is fit in exceedingly aggressive fashion: when riding naturally, my view consists of my front wheel and not much else.  How would my neck and shoulders survive for 12 hours?  Only time would tell.


My buddy and I checked in on Friday night for the Saturday race, although check-in basically consisted of signing a waiver in the race director's living room.  There were only about 20 people there at that point, and a portion of those were competing in the 24-hour version of the race, so the field looked to be rather small.  Looking around, I saw only one other person on a tri bike, and he was a 24-hour racer, so I felt pretty good about my chances.  The guys -- and they were pretty much all guys -- looked reasonably fit, but mostly in the sense of guys who like riding bikes.  No one looked like he was there to set the world alight.  We drove the course, which looked lightly rolling and altogether reasonable.  It was set up in a 32.5-mile lollipop format, with aid stations at the start and far end of the loop.  The stem of the lollipop was about 3 miles each way, which left 26 miles for the loop.

A word about these aid stations: they were well provisioned, but they weren't tri-style, fully staffed affairs with eager volunteers holding things out for you as you rolled by.  Instead, they were more like what one would find at Mountains of Misery: tents about ten yards off the side of the road with coolers of water and a few bars and gels.  This meant that, whether you brought your own stuff or relied on the course, there was no choice but to dismount the bike periodically in order to refuel.  One would think this fact might not matter in a 12-hour race, but in fact, it turned out to be the difference between first and second place.

We awoke with the sun on Saturday morning and drove the 3 minutes or so to the race start, where we began positioning our coolers and setting up our bikes.  Looking around, there was another young guy with a tri bike, and he'd gone all-out with a disc wheel.  He looked pretty fit, and although he said he wasn't looking to go very far, I wasn't quite buying it.  His wife had won the women's race the year before, and she rather radiated intensity, so I assumed he'd be very well prepared.  Aside from him, though, it was just guys on road bikes; some had clip-on aerobars, but in general, I assumed that my aerodynamic advantage would mean that they'd have to be exceedingly strong to beat me over the course of 12 hours on a reasonable course.  Things were looking good.

Things began looking less good with about 10 minutes to go before the race start, when suddenly, two dudes showed up and began frantically putting their things in place.  Maybe they'd just woken up.  Either way, they looked like they were there to play: full-on tri bikes, disc wheels, aero helmets with visors, aero water bottles, and cycling tt skinsuits.  They looked fit as hell, and suddenly I got the sense that it was going to be very much game-on in the next 12 hours.


And so it was.  Drafting was allowed in the first couple of miles for safety reasons, but rather than sit in behind the roadies who'd started in front of me, I sank down into the aerobars and rolled on past them.  I wasn't pushing too hard, but I also didn't see the point of soft-pedaling when I could easily be going faster.  I led through the first three miles and thought maybe it would be an easy day after all, only for about half of the race field to blow past me on the large, steep roller a few miles in.  It gained 100 feet in about 1/4 mile, which made it a pretty serious kicker.  Given how easily I'd pulled away at the start, I was surprised to see guys out of the saddle and hammering past me, especially when I was putting out about 350 watts myself.  This isn't exactly unheard-of: frequently, in triathlons, I'll leapfrog with guys who drop me on the climbs repeatedly before wearing themselves out and fading away, so I assumed the same thing would happen here.

When things leveled off into a series of more moderate rollers, I found myself alone with a guy named Matt, who looked pretty fit, but who was in cycling gear on a road bike, so I thought he'd have a hard time keeping up over the long term.  He wasn't having any trouble at first, though; in fact, he put about 1/3 mile into the field by halfway through the first loop, and it turns out that the joke was on me.  I rounded a corner and spotted him in the distance, pulling out from behind a black SUV on a tri bike with disc wheel and aero helmet and taking off down the road.  I heard in my head the famous line from the Princess Bride, "I am not left-handed!"  It turns out that the SUV was driven by his wife, and he'd brought two bikes with him for the occasion.  All of this was perfectly legal, but I suddenly became quite convinced that I was in for a tough day.  If he'd dropped the field easily on his road bike, he had no greater difficulty on his tri bike, and he quickly faded into the distance.

At the end of the first loop, I saw Matt bombing back toward me on the beginning of his second loop, and I put him about 1/2 mile ahead of me.  This was distressing, because we were 32 miles in, and my bike computer read 21.8 mph, which was a rather aggressive opening 90 minutes on a 12-hour day.  If he was really planning to hold 22+ all afternoon, I'd simply have to congratulate him on kicking my ass and move on.  I could only hope that he couldn't hold it, and that I'd reel him in eventually, so I consciously avoided trying to chase and simply settled into a sustainable rhythm, holding easy Z2 that would drift into Z3 from time to time, and the occasional Z4-Z5 wattage on short rollers, where I'd get out of the saddle and hammer a bit just to shake things out.

Toward the end of the second loop, Matt's lead had grown to just under a mile.  I cruised through the 56 mile mark in 2:33, an average pace of just under 22 mph, and I was in second place.  But only barely; in fact, at the end of loop 2, a guy on a road bike shot past me, and then a guy on a tri bike -- one of the skinsuit dudes whom I'd thought I dropped awhile back.  So there I was, 65 miles in, and wondering if I was about to get my butt handed to me despite an average speed of 21.8 mph.  To make matters worse, at that point I was forced to stop for a couple of minutes to swap out bottles, throw away old Gu Roctane and Dr. Will Bar wrappers, and restock.  The two other guys had full bottles ready, whereas I'd noobishly just brought a couple of gallons of water, so they took off a minute or so ahead of me.  I rolled out in 4th place, knowing that I was about 1.5 miles out of 1st.

Fortunately, the metaphorical wheels soon began coming off of the guys in 2nd and 3rd, and I blew past them on the steep climb a few miles in.  I put in a hard effort for 10 miles or so in order to discourage them from tagging along, and found myself in clear 2nd and feeling strong.  In fact, toward the end of the third loop, I started catching glimpses of Matt, the lead rider, and realized I was making up ground.

At this point, however, my ditziness intervened.  I pulled up to a stop-sign at a "T" intersection near the end of loop 3, the place where we had to turn left to ride back to the start on the lollipop stem, and saw the familiar black SUV to my right.  I also saw a car coming from my right to my left, and it had no stop sign, so I slowed down to allow it to pass, envisioning that I'd swing in behind it when I turned left.  But the car saw me, and began decelerating despite its lack of a stop sign.  So I slowed even more.  As did the car, which in fact came to a stop.  This caught me sufficiently off-guard that I failed to realize that I wasn't moving, and then I fell right over in the middle of the road.  I cursed a bit, unclipped myself from my bike (which was on top of me), and assured Matt's wife that only my dignity had been damaged.  After brushing myself off and putting my chain back on, I took off, having lost about a minute on the leader.

Happily, however, I did catch him.  At exactly the 100-mile mark (race time 4:40), I passed him just as he was reaching out to grab a cold bottle from his wife, who'd been acting as both a leapfrogging aid station and spotter by waiting until I passed, and then driving up head to tell Matt how far ahead he'd gotten.  I said a friendly hello, and then decided to try to cement first place by putting in a hard effort.  So, from miles 100-115, I held a solid 22.5 mph figuring that, if Matt had been fading before I caught him, he wouldn't be able to go with the move.  Every now and then, though, I'd look over my shoulder and there he'd be, about 20 yards back, cruising along like he didn't have a care in the world.  "Crap," I thought.  I was working hard.

My Ironman bike leg P.R. is 5:26, and that was set on a course easier than the one in Saratoga.  I'm a faster cyclist now than I was then, so my "reach" goal for Saratoga was about 5:30 per 112 miles (20.5 mph or so).  When the computer clicked through the first 112 miles in Saratoga, though, the race time was a mere 5:08 (21.5 mph), a split that included a couple of minutes stopped for refueling.  I was feeling good, but was concerned -- I had no idea how long I'd be able to keep up that level of effort.  At the end of the 4th loop (mile 126, just over 200k), I'd been riding for 5 hours and 40 minutes, and I had to stop again to refill my three bottles.  Matt cruised past me, but held out his hand for a high-five and remarked, "Great lap!"  I decided he must be a pretty good guy.  I chugged a cold 20-ounce Coke, refilled my three bottles as well as my gels and Dr. Will Bars, and shot off after him again, figuring I was probably a mile down due to the stop.

Laps 5 (miles 125-157) was pretty solitary, and the miles faded into a blur of moderate discomfort.  The morning drizzle and rain had burned off into sunshine, and the temperature had climbed into the mid 80s.  The only way to stay sane in an event like that is to identify intermediate goals that seem reachable, and for me, it was the fact that I'd be able to stretch my legs for a moment and have another Coke at the end of Lap 6.  (Small luxuries seem very large at those moments.)  I'd be out of the saddle on anything resembling a hill, and I'd try to push steadily on any moderate descent.  I also kept my cadence very low for me, in the high 80s and low 90s, in an effort to relax and simply click off the miles.  Every hour, I made sure to down a Salt Stick or two for good measure.  I was moving well, but I began to have to make strategic decisions.  I knew that each time I stopped for more water, I'd lose another mile or so on the leader, ground that wasn't easy to make up.  But, if I didn't stop often enough, I'd simply die in the heat.  I split the difference by stopping every 2 loops (65 miles), and since I had 3 bottles, that worked out to about 24 ounces/hour.  Not enough, but it would have to do.  As Teddy Roosevelt put it, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

As it turns out, I caught Matt again exactly two loops after I'd caught him the first time, a few miles into loop 6 (mile 165 or so).  Yet again, I pulled up next to him as his wife was handing him a bottle, and I said hello.  We rode side by side for about a mile, chatting about the day and our respective backgrounds.  I'd managed to push myself thus far by channeling my indignance at not having a personal aid station following me around, but he surprised me by holding out a bottle of ice water, and remarking that he knew I was out there unsupported.  I accepted gladly, and was further surprised when he said that, if I needed anything else from there forward, simply to let his wife know.  As he put it, "we're together at this point, so let's rip it and look out for each other going forward."  To put it mildly, I was extremely impressed with that show of sportsmanship.  After all, despite my disadvantage, I'd caught him twice, which suggested that I was riding slightly faster overall.  What's more, the two of us had a 5-mile lead or so, and we were about 20 minutes ahead of course record pace.  He must have known that he'd beat me if he simply waited for my nutritional disadvantage to take its toll, but instead, he offered to help me out in any way possible.  Class act all around, and I decided at that moment that I'd be completely happy for him to win if it came to that.

The two of us leapfrogged one another for a couple of miles, but then we jointly hit the wall in something close to a literal fashion.  In our case, we found the gates descending in front of train tracks just as we approached them, and wound up standing around for 6-7 minutes while the train rolled past.  Our average pace dropped from 21.6 to 21.4 while we twiddled our thumbs and allowed the guy a few miles behind us to make up a big chunk of ground.  While we were chatting, I noticed for the first time that Matt had an earpiece and microphone -- he needed merely press a button to speak with his wife and arrange for whatever he needed to be delivered.  It was an extremely pro setup, to put it mildly, and in a closely contested race, it's a huge advantage.  I'd long ago concluded that the two of them knew exactly what they were doing, and had given much more thought to the race than I had, just rolling up with my cooler and a couple of jugs of water that I'd bought at a gas station the night before.  They did it right, and good on 'em.

Matt and I stayed together through the remainder of lap 6, and managed to increase our average speed from 21.4 to 21.6 or so.  At that point (mile 193), however, I had to stop once again to refuel, and I wished him luck as he charged off into the distance.  I had another Coke, refueled again, and rationalized that, one way or another, I'd be done in 3 hours or so.  It's amazing how 3 hours, or 65 miles, can seem like such a short distance once one's been riding for 9 hours already, and in my experience, it's best not to reflect too intensively on the fact that it's anything but short.  Down that road, despair lies.

My 7th lap (miles 194-227) was extremely tough.  The course was no longer interesting, and being on my bike was no longer remotely fun.  I'd memorized every micron of my front wheel as it had spun in front of me all day long, and my neck and shoulders had had quite enough "fun" for the day.  To make matters worse, the dehydration had started to set in, and my legs were disappearing on me slowly but surely.  Due to the train delay, though, I knew that I had to keep pressing as hard as I could if I wanted to have a shot at breaking the course record, which stood at 250.5 miles.  For entertainment, I could at least watch my wattage and try to bump up my average speed, except... well, after just over 9 hours, my Garmin Edge 500 ran out of juice, and I found myself pedaling without companionship, either human or electronic.

In the last few miles of loop 7, I began to feel truly awful.  My vision was going slightly wonky, I was thirsty as heck, and my neck and shoulders were killing me.  I'd been riding at well over 21 mph for 10.5 hours, and hadn't been off of my bike for more than 7-8 minutes in that period.  I started to debate whether it even made sense to head back out for the 8th lap.  After all, my goal had been to cover at least 215 miles, and I'd be at 227 with an hour and a half left to ride.  I thought the chances were decent that I'd have some sort of nutritional breakdown if I were to attempt the last lap, and I knew that I had little chance of catching Matt: at that point, getting constant cold water was a massive advantage.  As I was finishing my 7th lap and trying to decide how sorry I felt for myself, however, I passed my friend heading back out on the start of his 7th lap, and I resolved to do everything I could during the 12 hours, whatever that happened to be.  I decided I couldn't feel good about simply saying that I was on pace to break the course record when I quit -- the spirit of the sport demanded that I HTFU and actually do it, even if it would mean finishing in second place.  There's no spot in the record books for people who don't give it their all.

And so, I headed out after allowing myself a brief unscheduled refueling stop between laps 7 and 8.  I gave it absolutely everything I could, however little it was, and when the clock ticked over to 8:00 pm, I'd clicked off another 28 miles, for a total of 255.5 (21.3 mph), a distance that broke the existing course record by 5 miles.  Matt won it with a very impressive 259.5.  I suppose I could be bitter that he had an advantage I didn't, but the fact is that he used every asset available to him, and I didn't.  Organization and support pays dividends.  Despite it all, he helped me every step of the way, and is a worthy winner.  Hell, the dude stayed on his bike for 12 hours straight -- his only stop was for a train.  That is seriously impressive.


Following the race, we found a great local restaurant where we got food to go, and brought it back to the finish line to watch darkness descend on the 24-hour riders.  I was extremely glad not to be among them as I pounded my salad, quesadilla, and stir-fry.  I'd been on my bike for more than 11:45 of the 12-hour race, which is about as much as I was humanly capable of doing without support of any kind.  After this race and the mountain biking version two weeks earlier, I decided that I've had enough of ultracycling for a little while.  It's a terrific change of pace, and I can only hope that it'll pay big dividends at Ironman Mont Tremblant next month.  For now, though, I just need some sleep.

In the days after the race, co-workers and friends asked me what the heck is fun about racing a bike for 12 hours.  I don't really know; I'm not sure fun is the right word for it in any case.  What I can say is that, in her autobiography and recent CNN article, multiple Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington recounts the story of how, when she was starting off in the sport, a coach remarked that he needed to "cut her head off."  He didn't mean it literally, of course; rather, he meant that she needed to stop overthinking and overanalyzing and just race on guts and heart.  I think that's what ultracycling does for me: in the course of 12 hours, I'm not thinking about work or broader life issues of any kind.  While I'm on the bike, the bike is where I am.  I'm thinking about how to handle the next hill, feeling each breath, and punching each pedal stroke.  I'd venture to say that there's more "living" packed into an hour of a 12-hour race than in a day in virtually any other setting.  Every lap is memorable, and every moment is vivid.  And isn't that what it's all about?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Saratoga Dreamin'

This Saturday will bring my first venture into the saddle sore-filled world of ultracycling racing.  A friend and I will be competing in the "Hudson River Ramble," a 12-hour cycling time trial hosted as part of the Saratoga 12/24 weekend.  Other options include a 24-hour version of the race, and a 12-hour version that encompasses the nighttime portion of the 24-hour race.  The Hudson River Ramble begins at 8:00 a.m., and ends at 8:00 pm.

Conceptually, the race is the road equivalent of the 12 Hours of Cranky Monkey MTB Race in which I competed nearly two weeks ago.  The course is a 32-mile loop, and one rides as far as one can in the allotted time.  On the upside, it's not nearly as hilly as Cranky Monkey: about 20-25 feet of climbing per mile, as opposed to the simply ridiculous 160 ft/mi that Cranky posed.  Apparently there are a couple of good kickers in the range of 10-12% grade, but overall it sounds quite reasonable.  Of course, that presents its own challenges: being in the aerobars for the majority of twelve hours is extremely tough, and the course won't present much opportunity to shift weight around.

It's hard to predict how far I'll be able to go in 12 hours.  Winners in past years seem to have covered 215-250 miles, and I'm aspiring to be somewhere in that range.  Nutrition will be key, and here the plan is to do what's worked well for me in the ultra rides I've done so far this year: Drink mostly water, with the occasional Coke as the day progresses, and alternate eating bars and gels to taste.  If all goes to plan, I should be somewhere in the 400 calories/hr range.

One thing I've learned is that rides and races of this length are primarily mental.  At the beginning, excitement and novelty propels one forward, and sight of the finish line is a terrific motivator in the last hour or two.  The critical hours will be those from 4-10, which will correspond to the period from noon through 6:00 p.m.  In that time, one's beginning to get fatigued and things are no longer terribly interesting, but nonetheless one must continue to stay focused, execute on the nutritional front, and make good time.

In terms of equipment, I'm going straight-up race, complete with 808s and aero helmet.  Every little bit helps.

After Cranky Monkey and the Saratoga 12/24, who'll be afraid of a little Tremblant?  But "after" seems a long way away from where I'm sitting, with miles to go before I weep.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Race Report: Crankin' the Monkey

About 18 months ago, I bought a lightly used mountain bike from a bike shop owner looking to upgrade.  It's a terrific bike, so much so that my riding it is equivalent to a kid waking up on his sixteenth birthday and finding a Porche in the driveway.  And, much like the kid with the Porche, when I take it out for a spin, there is an excellent chance that it and I will eventually wind up in a tree.  In fact, due to an unfortunate running incident that left me with a broken hand just as mountain biking season was starting, I simply haven't had time to ride it much.  To be specific, I came into the Cranky Monkey race at Quantico having ridden my mountain bike the same number of times that I'd competed in Ironman: 7.  For a total of about 10 hours.

The situation was intolerable: here I was, a guy who loves cycling in all its forms, but who hadn't justified his ownership of his bike.  I decided to remedy the situation by signing up for the 12 Hours of Cranky Monkey, a relay race at Quantico that involved completing a 9.25-mile loop as many times as possible in a 12-hour period.  That's easy enough: if there are three people on one's team, one only rides for 4 hours, and there's a 2-hour rest after every loop, give or take.  The problem for me was that I was racing in lieu of taking on the legendary Diabolical Double, an absurdly mountainous road ride that takes about ten hours to complete, and I could hardly justify only riding for four hours.  But I couldn't find anyone willing to partner up for a two-person team, which left me riding solo.  On a mountain bike.  For 12 hours.  Previous long ride: 2 hours.  What could go wrong?

After my practice ride the weekend before had left my legs resembling hamburger, and having several times wound up upside-down and underneath my bike, I was fully aware that it would take all of my ability just to stay on my bike; racing on the basis of abiity was beyond the question.  But that didn't mean I couldn't compete -- it meant only that my comparative advantage lay in my overall cycling fitness, and I'd have to make that count.  I couldn't go nearly as fast as most of the other guys out there, but what I could do is make them earn it by staying on my bike, moving forward as best I could, for every minute of the 12 hours that I could.

At least I had good advisers.  My friends Emily and Mike ride for the Veloworks-Spokes, Etc. team, and they were kind enough not only to avoid laughing at me too often when I'm right in front of them, but also to allow me to stash my cooler and gear under the tent with their respective relay teams.  Being around vastly more experienced riders allowed me to pick up a lot of valuable tips on the fly, which in a technical sport like mountain biking makes all the difference in the world.  Like swimming, you can be as fit as you like, but if you don't know what you're doing, you'll go nowhere.

The race itself started "Le Mans" style, which means that everyone's bikes are lined up in a field about 1/3 of a mile away, and when the gun goes off, the run serves to break up the pack into a more manageable stream by the time riders hit the trails.  I jogged very lightly, as sprinting in the first minute of a 12-hour race seemed fairly useless.  Unfortunately, this meant that, when we hit the first climb up a steep gravel fire road about 1/2 mile in, it looked like bikers charging toward a ridgeline pillbox at Normandy: people tumbling over left and right and laying all over the ground.  I tried to get clever and weave through them, but I ultimately succeeded only in joining them when I was forced off the side of the road and tumbled over into the grass.  Bueno: first fall after only five minutes on the bike.  At that rate, only 143 more falls to go!  Bring it on, I thought: my kneepads, elbow pads, helmet, and Costco-sized bottle of ibuprofen will show everyone what's possible to accomplish with a little stubbornness.

One thing I quickly realized is that the Quantico trail loop is just beastly hilly.  Here's an elevation profile taken from my GPS unit:

It's true, the first mile looks reasonably flat.  But it's not: it reflects nearly 1/2 of running and riding around a baseball field in order to get to the trail network, and it wouldn't be repeated.  In fact, my watch measured the climbing at about 160 feet per mile.  To put this in perspective, Mountains of Misery is about 105 feet per mile, and the Diabolical Double is about 130 feet per mile.  To make matters worse, these aren't long grades: as is evident from the profile, the course is a neverending series of 100-foot rollers up very narrow paths and gravel fire trails, and they are rather shockingly steep.  That's true going up, but it's also true going down the other side, and the descents were fairly technical in many places, with massive roots jutting out, tight turns, and 12" drops that force your body to act as a shock absorber.  It is a massively tough full-body workout, not least because it is very difficult to stand on such steep climbs: standing causes your weight to shift forward, which unloads the rear wheel and causes it to spin out.  In short, the day was a neverending series of quad-scorching climbs of 20% grade or more, and plummets down the other side. 

One thing I can say for mountain biking on a course like this is that there's almost never a dull moment.  There's always an upcoming swerve, climb, drop, log pile to hop over, trees to split, or trail to bomb down.  I've done considerably longer rides on a road and tri bike, but it risks circularity to state that those are just entirely different sports.  After the third loop, I found that I was getting into something of a groove, but that grove consisted of "next obstacle, next, next, next."  The mental aspect of it was extremely draining, as was the constant jarring;  as the day went on, I began to feel like a helpless kid who'd been tied to a bucking mechanical bull and left to die.
Quantico trails
It also got to be exceedingly hot.  The day was in the mid 80s, but the trees blocked all air movement and, due to my very special power of finding myself underneath my bike, I was decked out in massive elbow guards and kneepads, which meant that I was effectively cycling with a long-sleeved jersey and tights in the middle of the summer in Washington, D.C.  It was simply brutal, and I found myself steadily becoming caked with salt and grit.

And yet, on the whole, I was having a blast.  It was mountain biking like I'd imagined it: just flying through the trees and across massive beds of ferns floodlit by beams of sunlight filtering through the canopy above.  I'd been worried heading into the race about trail etiquette, and specifically, how riders would pass one another on the singletrack trails.  Yet it turned out to be a non-issue; in fact, even the strongest of riders would casually roll up behind me and ask if they might sneak around me whenever I came to a convenient place -- there was no muscling around or pressure.  Everyone was as nice as could be.  Maybe they took pity on me insofar as the number on my calf indicated that I was riding solo, and it's also true that did what I could to anticipate people needing to pass and allowing them plenty of room to do so.  Still, I was repeatedly surprised that everyone just seemed to be out there having a great time.  Not one person called me out on the fact that I was basically being the biggest poser on earth by signing up for a race I had no business contesting.

My tactic throughout the day was to stop very briefly (5 minutes or so) after every two laps, which for me was about every 2:20.  I'd quickly refill my CamelBak, down some Salt Sticks, and scarf down as many bars and gels as I could before rolling out again.  At the halfway point I inhaled a Rubbermaid container of mashed sweet potatoes that I'd made the night before, and with two laps to go, I ate about half a watermelon.  I also had two Cokes spread throughout the day, but otherwise I avoided caffeine in the interest of staying hydrated.  

One thing that amazed me as the day progressed was that, as the sun moved across the sky, it hit the leaf canopy from different angles and the shadows on the terrain moved accordingly.  Lines down descents that had been obvious in the morning became obscured as the day progressed, but others were highlighted in their stead.  Part of this, to be sure, may have been the result of 1200 bicycle wheels plowing down the hill and carving the hill by degrees, but whatever the cause, it seemed a symbol of progress.

The most I'd ever ridden prior to the race was two loops on the course.  Heading into the day, I thought ambitiously that I might finish from 6 to 8, assuming all went well.  As the day rolled on, however, I began to do the math, and realized that, if I kept rolling well, 9 loops might actually be in the cards.  The trick was that I had to start loop number 9 by 7:00 p.m., which was 11 hours after the start.  By far the hardest laps of the day were numbers 7 and 8, when I was utterly exhausted from head to foot and yet pushing hard every minute to try to put myself in a position to attempt number 9 if I had it in me.  And, somehow, I did: I finished lap 8 at a gun time of 10:40, leaving myself 20 minutes to begin the final lap.  After a few minutes of refueling,  I forced myself to climb back on the bike to head back out to confront my tormentor once more.  Somehow, though, the last lap was an utter joy.  The light had dwindled slightly, such that there was no need for sunglasses, and by that time most people had taken off for home.  It was just the few remaining riders out in the wilderness, and the deer came out to watch us roll by.  I clicked off lap number 9 at 8:08 p.m., after having climbed on my bike over 12 hours earlier.  In that 12 hours, I'd spent about 11:15 actually on my bike, a signal-to-noise ratio that I've never approached previously on a bike ride.

As I sat in a daze at the finish line, sucking down watermelon and trying to figure out where I was and what had become of my protective blanket, I learned that, as the day had progressed, I'd moved up from 7th to 4th in my Division (Solo Male 35+).  Granted, there were only 11 people in the division, but it's also true that I think every single one of them had at least ten times the mountain biking experience I did, and likely much more. It takes a special kind of nutcase to ride a mountain bike for 12 hours in an afternoon, and that type of nutcase tends to have been a nutcase before on some level.  I'm particularly proud of the fact that, although I finished 4th -- which is a podium spot at this race! -- no one in the division rode more laps than I did.  The top four all finished with 9 laps completed; I was merely the slowest of the four.  I'd done everything I could do, and everything I set out to do, namely, push myself for as long as I could go, and let the rest work itself out.
I'm now turning back to the world of road riding in preparation for Ironman Mont Tremblant in seven weeks, but I'll be back to the knobby tires before too long.  Once it gets in your blood, it's hard not to go back.