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.

PRE-RACE

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.

THE RACE

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.

POST-RACE

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?