Monday, May 27, 2013

Mountains Less Miserable

Yesterday marked my 7th consecutive Double Metric Century -- actually 126+ miles -- at Mountains of Misery in Blacksburg, VA.  What started in 2007 as a giant leap into the unknown has started to mark time each year and to serve as a mark of progress (or, depending on the year, regress).  

Back in 2007, my second year of cycling, I really had no idea what to expect, aside from pain.  I didn't have any real friends in the cycling world and didn't know anyone doing the ride.  So, I showed up, tried to meet some folks along the way, and hoped for the best.  It actually turned out pretty well: I rode 9:30, a time that I'd struggle to beat for years thereafter.  My first five times were:

2007 -- 9:30
2008 -- 11:03 (a friend and I took a very big wrong turn)
2009 -- 10:48
2010 -- 9:23
2011 -- 9:46

I think in part these times prove that ignorance is bliss.  The first year, I knew it would be hard, but I wasn't "smart" enough to pace myself.  I just tried to keep up with those around me and wound up skipping aid stations and riding harder than I otherwise would have, on the logic that if that's how hard others are going, that's what one should do.  I didn't know how hard the climbs could be, so I didn't hold back in anticipation of getting my ass kicked.  I still managed to get up them somehow.

Starting in 2008, though, I'd started to train like an Ironman-distance triathlete, which is to say, I'd bought into the notion that going too hard is a ticket to blowing up and disaster.  Training that way imprints in your mind that, if it feels hard, it's too hard.  I also knew exactly how nasty the third and final climbs were, so I held back considerably in order to save something for them.  The result?  After a 9:30 my first year, I didn't get close to 10 hours the next two years.  I remember a conversation with a friend in which we jointly speculated how on earth I'd managed to ride 9:30 my first year.  I had no real idea.

Things got a little better in 2010.  I spent all winter working on my cycling wattage, skipped a couple of rest stops on the ride, and wound up riding with some friends who were extremely willing to suffer.  We all did better as a result, and I considered my 9:23 a huge breakthrough.  It was, however, very much a group endeavor: we'd regroup at the top of each climb, make sure no one got dropped, wait at aid stations until everyone was ready to go, etc.  It was an enjoyable social event, but the pace was the lowest common denominator.  The same thing happened in 2011, only I went a bit slower (9:46).

Only in 2012 did things suddenly change (8:37 finish).   One thing that changed is the realization that the number of rest stops is grossly excessive to what one actually needs.  There's a stop every 15 miles or so, and if one spends only 10 minutes at each one -- which is very easy to do -- you're talking almost 90 minutes on the side of the road.  As long-distance triathletes, I reasoned, we routinely ride 56 or 112 miles without stopping.  Sure, we get water and such handed to us along the way, but the key fact is that, unless one is actually out of water or food, there's no reason to stop.  So, I didn't stop much: only three times or so in the course of 126 miles.  I found that, as tempting as it was to stop, I never regretted passing a rest stop.  Quite the contrary, when I stopped, I'd frequently tighten up and feel worse than before I'd stopped.  Also, I found that I got a huge boost from riding past people stopped on the side of the road -- maybe it was a demonstration to myself that I wasn't hurting as badly as I was tempted to think.

I was pretty thrilled with my 8:37 in 2012.  I had some friends who'd ridden in the lower 8's, but there was a key difference between them and me: in the first 20 miles, they'd managed to hang with the very fast peloton that blasted through the rolling hills at a pretty ridiculous effort level.  I simply couldn't hang on, and part of reason why, I think, is that on some level I considered it suicidal to essentially time-trial for the first 90 minutes of a ride this difficult.  So, the difference between me and the others was that I'd wind up getting dropped early on each year, but I'd remain strong as the day went along.  I'd frequently be riding at least as strong as anyone by the end, but by then I was miles behind.

This year, I'd planned to take a year off of Mountains, and to ride instead a 600k brevet in order to qualify for the Big Wild Ride in Alaska.  But my normal riding buddy jumped the gun early and signed up for Mountains, which meant I could either join a couple of riding companions in Blacksburg, or ride 600k by myself.  I resigned myself to ride Mountains again.  Inevitably, of course, the guy who'd convinced me to choose Mountains instead of the 600k decided not to ride after all.  Sigh.

So, this year, I went to Mountains with a single goal: to try to break 8 hours, or to get as close as I could.  Through Tri360, the sponsor of my Ignite Endurance team, I'd gotten a new road bike, a Felt F1 with ENVE wheels, that weighed a flat 13 pounds.  

And my plan was to suffer as much as I could, for as long as I could, and to see what happened.  Unfortunately, I'd felt distinctly weak and crappy for the week before the ride; I think my fall at the Columbia Tri the week before had taken a lot out of me.  But, no rest for the wicked.

The first order of business was simple: Don't Get Dropped At The Start.  Somehow I managed not to, but it required riding much, much harder than I thought was smart.  Although I didn't have a power meter, it felt like I was regularly spiking into the high 300s/low 400s to keep up on the rolling hills.  The result, though, was blowing through the first 20 miles much quicker than I ever had before.  Mission One accomplished.

From there on, the plan was simple: don't stop unless I have to, and ride my own ride.  No waiting for anyone, no slowing down.  Work with anyone around in a pace line, but if someone falls off the back, wish them well and continue.   And, when I did need to stop, I tried to be strategic about it.  Rather than stop at the aid station before each massive climb to rest and refuel, I did just the opposite: I tried to ensure that I was completely out of water at the start of each climb, and figured that I'd rest and refuel *after* the summit.  That way, I'd avoid having my legs tighten up, and wouldn't be burdened with full bottles on the way up the slopes.

Mile 95, heading into Climb #3.
This worked out even better than I thought: I didn't refill my bottles until... Mile 80, which came about 5 hours in.  That seems sort of nuts in retrospect, but I felt plenty hydrated, drank as much as I wanted, and simply found that the cooler temperatures didn't require as much drinking as the normal scorching temperatures at this event.  It really helped to know the course well, because I was out of water for Miles 62-80, but knew that it contained a single climb and then a very long descent.  As long as I could make it through the climb, I reasoned I could cover the rest of the distance without any trouble, and it worked out well.

Mile 62 also marked the last time I rode with anyone else in a cooperative fashion.  Each time I'd roll past a rest stop, I'd lose everyone who'd been riding around me.  So, the last half of the ride was about a 4-hour solo effort.  That wasn't ideal: it's much faster to cooperate with others, taking turns shielding one another from the wind, and given the strong headwinds, I definitely missed having company.  But I kept the pedals turning and rolled past rest stop after rest stop, coming to a halt only once more to refill bottles and hop back on the bike immediately.

I kept trying to do the math to determine whether I had a shot at the 8-hour mark, which I'd previously considered beyond ambitious.  But things seemed to be going well.  The trouble is that the last 10 miles of this ride, and especially the last 4 miles, are *incredibly* slow.  It's almost like you can feel your dreams being sucked away by the relentless grades, each steeper than the last.

I hit the 121-mile mark after 6 hours and 45 minutes, meaning that I had 1:15 in which to cover 5 miles.  Given that I can run 5 miles in less than half that time, it would normally seem a foregone conclusion, but... no.  The last 4 miles are so steep that you're reduced to a pace that's not much more than a walk.  And, to make matters worse, this year was the first that I'd ever attempted the ride without a compact crankset, meaning that I didn't have the low climbing gear ratios I'd always had in the past.  Each pedal stroke was its own battle: sit/stand/sit/stand, just moving a yard at a time.  I rediscovered the joys of tacking up steep grades, i.e., swerving from side to side in order to create small flattish spurts amidst the climbing.  Sure, it's a last-resort tactic, but that was the world I was living in.  

Here's a video of someone employing this tactic:

It was incredibly tough to keep things moving, and it was all made worse by the markings on the road: "4 Miles!"  "3 Miles!"  Only... each one was 15-20 minutes apart.  It's hard to be struggling for your life up a ridiculous grade, and then to have it emphasized that you have at least another 40 minutes of it to go.  I reached the 1-mile-to-go mark at 2:35 pm, meaning I had 25 minutes to cover the last mile.  At that point, I reasoned the distance would take me about 15 minutes, which meant a 7:50 finish if I didn't stop.  But I was hurting in a serious way, and was very tempted to stop in the shade for 5 minutes, regroup, and still finish with a couple of minutes to spare.   But no, I reasoned: I didn't want to leave any possibility that I'd look back afterward and think, "I had 8 hours in the bag if only I didn't start feeling sorry for myself."  And besides, who's to say 8 hours was the fastest possible time?  What about... 7:50?

And so the last mile became something of an all-out assault on a 14% grade.  I crossed the finish line in 7:49, 48 minutes faster than last year, and considerably ahead of what I considered my dream time.  

When it's all said and done, my 7-year run results are:

2007 -- 9:30
2008 -- 11:03
2009 -- 10:48
2010 -- 9:23
2011 -- 9:46 (32nd place)
2012 -- 8:37 (26th place)
2013 -- 7:49 (7th place)

Even better, I managed to finish 7th among riders contesting the Double Metric; my previous best finish had been 26th.  And the field was bigger than ever before!  To me, this is the clearest indication that I had a strong ride, and one that didn't result exclusively from the great weather.  I feel like I'm figuring something out, which is gratifying after so long.  I don't know whether I'll ride this next year; it could be time to change things up.  Either way, it's great to have a personal victory in the bank.

If there's a conclusion to be drawn from yesterday's ride, it's that sometimes you just have to go hard from the beginning and trust in your fitness to hold it all together at the end of the day.  Climb in the pain cave and get comfortable: you can decorate the walls however you'd like, but you're not leaving.  Sure, you may melt down and find yourself on the side of the road, but if you want to go as fast as you can overall, you can't hold back any energy for a rainy day.  Recover where you can, but this probably takes the form of rolling down hills in a tuck, not standing at an aid station.  In fact, the less time I spend at aid stations, the better I feel.  Maybe there's a lesson in that somewhere.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Recovery Boots update: Still diggin' 'em

About 18 months ago, I wrote a review of the Recovery Pump system. I know it's the time in the year when people's volumes are ramping up toward Ironman and other big adventures, so I thought it worth saying once more that I think these things are great, and I continue to use mine constantly.  

I'm at the point in the year when I'm trying to balance a lot of things: getting my running legs back after surgery, going on increasingly ultracycling adventures, and trying to hold it all together.  As a result, I'm spending a lot of time with my feet up in the boots, napping, reading a book, or watching a movie.  I've noticed that I'm not alone in finding them addictive: the system is spreading rapidly among those who try it.  For example, the newly opened Athlete Studio in Dupont Circle has a system that local athletes are using with great success after events.

Featuring Dawn Riebeling, one of my Ignite Endurance teammates!
One thing that's changed since I published my initial review is that the system no longer requires a prescription.  

If you're thinking of getting one for yourself, you can save a bit of money, get free shipping, and snag a couple of free extras by using code A11018 or using the link on the right side of this blog.

Happy training!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Epic Ride Recap: Leesburg 400k

Four States, Two Battlefields, and One Light to Live

I went into this ride asking for trouble: if it were possible to burn a candle at three ends, that's what I was doing.  In the past few weeks, I've been juggling three goals that have been, if not in direct conflict, at least in enough tension to rival an Olympic swimmer's suit:
  1. Blast myself with speedwork in all three disciplines,while also 
  2. Dropping weight and 
  3. Keeping up an ultracycling schedule that had me riding hilly 200k, 300k, and 400k rides in the space of 4-5 weeks.  
It wasn't pretty.  In fact, this 400k ride was scheduled for Saturday, and while I'd taken Friday off, I'd put in a solid 17 hours of training in the five days before.  To put it bluntly, I was completely shelled when I rolled out of bed at 3:00 a.m. in order to make it to Leesburg for the 5 a.m. start.


I was a little nervous.  Not only was I far from rested, but this ride would tie for the longest I'd ever done (previous: 256 miles in the Saratoga 12-hour time trial), and it would have nearly three times the climbing of that jaunt.  What's more, to the extent that the proverbial wheels might come off at some point, it would likely be toward the end of the ride, the last four hours of which would be ridden after dark in the exceedingly rural, twisty, and forested roads around Middleburg, VA.  A final challenge was that, unlike that clement day in Saratoga in July, temperatures for this ride would start around 45, rise to 70 and sunny, and then dip back down to around 50 after dark.  That would require two completely different wardrobes, as well as the cargo capacity to carry everything.  I took some solace in the fact that I've never yet cracked on one of these long hauls; I just hoped this wouldn't be the first time.

Given my uncertainties, I packed for war: Arkel Tailrider bag behind the saddle, Arkel handlebar bag up front, and a massive bento box (the Revelate Gas Tank) on the top tube.  Most of the room in the Tailrider was reserved for holding gear: spare clothes, tubes, batteries, and lights.  The Gas Tank was full of Gu Roctane gels, and the handlebar bag held an assortment of my favorite endurance foods: Kirkland Cashew Clusters, Pro Bars, Dr. Will bars, dried fruit, plus an assortment of caffeine pills, chamois cream, sunscreen, and the like.  All told, I'm my poor road bike weighed in the neighborhood of 35 pounds, and with the tubeless tires set to a forgivingly low pressure, it felt like an 18-wheeler as I tooled up to the ride start.

For a 400k brevet, the start was a festive scene.  By this, I mean there were a dozen riders, up from four at the 300k.  The only things we needed from the ride coordinator were cue sheets and control cards (to record our progress along the route).  The ride coordinator, however, was nowhere to be seen at the ride start -- he'd overslept, and said he'd have to meet us somewhere along the ride.  Fortunately, another rider had thought to request the cue sheet in advance, and had had enough forethought to make copies of it for all of us.  Yes: if you're looking for an event as dissimilar to an Ironman as possible, this might have been it.

The Ride

Normally, in the DC region, people looking for a pretty ride have many choices: head west to the rolling hills of Middleburg and Marshall, northwest to the mountains and pastures around Frederick, MD, or somewhere in the middle, to gorges around Point of Rocks, MD.  An adventurous few might drive west to Front Royal or beyond, or even to Boyce or Winchester, VA.  If there's one word to describe this ride it's "All of the Above."  True, that's more than one word, but it just goes to show that this endeavor seemed fundamentally excessive.  We'd start in Leesburg, then head north through Point of Rocks, through the mountain range near Frederick, all the way north to Gettysburg, PA, before looping west back through the mountains to Antietam, then cross the river into Shepherdstown, WV, cruise past Winchester south to Strasburg, then turn east, circumnavigate Front Royal, mosey on to Marshall, and then plow north through Middleburg to Purcelville, before heading east once more to the finish in Leesburg.  That meant I had to guide my tour bus of a bike over 250 miles and 17,000 feet of climbing.

Egads.  That's the equivalent of riding the Diabolical Double, and then the Ironman Florida bike course, and then a recovery spin.

It's the distance from DC to White Plains, NY.
It's also the distance from DC to Raleigh, NC.

Finally, for those who have been in DC too long, it's 78 loops around Hains Point.
We rolled out as a group under cover of night: dawn wouldn't come until 6:30.  The beginning of these rides is always a little surreal because the end is so far away that it's hard to get a mental picture of what's coming. It's a bit like the start of an Ironman: you know that you'll be out there all day, and that crazy stuff is likely to happen along the way, but past that it's a massive blank canvas.  The mental framework is something like a haiku:

I'll ride 'til I die, 
but I'll flip the cue sometimes.
That will be awesome.

One relaxing thing about riding at 5:00 am on a weekend in a place like Leesburg is that there was no one on the roads.  Even the drunks had gone home hours before.  Although I pondered briefly whether this meant that even drunks have more sense than we did, on the whole it wasn't bad: the world was quiet in a way it rarely is, with only the crisp click of shifts and the gentle cast of bike lights on tree branches and tall grass.

The first leg of the journey took us through some truly beautiful country: north across the Potomac at Point of Rocks, MD, past the battlefields of Burkittsville, across the Catoctin mountains near Frederick, MD, and almost to Gettysburg.  There was a fairly ferocious climb when passing through the mountains, during which I definitely questioned my decision to carry All The Food along with me, but as dawn broke into sunshine, it was just perfect.  Having said that, we didn't stop until mile 67, which was more than four hours into the ride -- a little further than one expects on events like this.  It wasn't that the distance was insurmountable by any means, but the rhythm of training rides generally has one getting off the bike to stretch at least once every 30 miles.  67 was a long way to start the day.

As we looped through Gettysburg and back west up the steepish Jack's Mountain climb, the second of the ride's two notable ascents, Max and I found ourselves well out front of the pack, and accompanied by a guy named Bill, who was down from CT for the ride.  It turned out that, before turning to ultracycling (including a very creditable 400-mile performance in a 24-hour race), he'd been an ultrarunner who'd finished Western States, among other notorious events.  You meet all sorts at these events -- mostly crazy, sure, but something about glass houses.

The second leg, from mile 67 to mile 117, took us from battlefield to battlefield: Gettysburg to Antietam, the latter of which we hit at about 1:30 p.m.  I find during these events that, by the time one reaches about the 200k mark -- which in this case was about 7.5 hours -- one starts to crave real food and a place to get off the bike for a little bit.  So we treated ourselves to a somewhat indulgent stop where we refueled with sub sandwiches and fries at a local cafe, reapplied sunscreen, and shed our cold-weather gear.  We probably took a little longer than we needed to, but we'd only had one previous stop and were making solid time, so none of us felt too guilty about it.

There was another consideration: the next leg would be about 55 miles, and would take place in exposed sun at a time when we were already getting tired.  It would lead us from Maryland across the Potomac to Shepherdstown, WV, then south around Winchester to the ride organizer's house in Strasburg, VA, which is west of Front Royal.  We figured that this would be the toughest leg: it's like hitting the halfway point in the race, when you're tired but still too far from the finish to have any sense that the end is near.  Clicking off the miles would be the name of the game for the next few hours.  Inexplicably, however, Max and I were both feeling pretty bulletproof as we bombed through the rollers in this section -- we wound up dropped Bill, who'd been attempting to hang onto the back of our little train, and probably held something north of 18 mph for this 3-hour stretch.  Doing so represented something of a risk, though, because there were two countervailing considerations in play:
  1. When you're feeling good, it's often best to press hard to make the best use of your spell of strength, because there will likely come a time when you're falling apart and going nowhere fast.
  2. But you don't want to press so hard that you neglect your nutrition and fall apart earlier than you otherwise would have.
Here we probably erred toward number one, remarking to one another that we had no business feeling so strong at that point in the ride.  Unfortunately, I think we gilded the lily a bit by stopping at a gas station for a quick Coke; although that stuff usually works very well for me, when I used it to wash down a handful of dried peaches, it got to be a little much for me, and I spent the last portion of that leg debating whether to puke or hope that the situation resolved itself.  This is about as close as ultracyclists come to philosophical quandries.

Oddly, the solution to my upset stomach came in the form of a bowl of chili, which was served by the ride coodinator at his house in Strasburg (mile 171).  We'd reached it at 5:30 pm, an hour or more ahead of where we thought we'd be, and we decided to get back on the road quickly to see if we could make it to Marshall, the last control (mile 213), by nightfall.  40 miles in 2.5 hours is a pretty aggressive pace for these events, so we knew it would be close, but we were aided by a truly beautiful and fast 10-mile stretch on Rt. 55, a road well familiar to cyclists in Northern Virginia.  I felt largely indestructible in this stretch, but I quickly decided that I'll never again leave home on a ride like this without having some clear lenses to swap into my glasses.  The problem is that, just as darkness falls, the gnat swarms emerge, and if you're riding without glasses, you'll spend most of your time scooping piles of bug carcasses out of your eyeballs.  One of those Japanese bird flu masks would have been nice as well, frankly.

We reached the famous-to-cyclists Marshall 7-11 just after nightfall.  Coincidentally, this very store was the turnaround point for the W&OD 200k we'd ridden from Arlington about a month earlier.  We wandered into the store, upon which the teenage cashiers asked whether it wasn't a little bit late for a bike ride.  Yes, of course it was -- but then again, it had been a little early when we'd started about fifteen hours earlier, and we had a solid four hours more to go.  I killed off the remainder of my cashew clusters and chased them with a Red Bull, put my cold weather gear back on, and got ready to head out.  We were facing 37 miles of night riding, which seemed pretty insignificant in the grand scheme.

Doh is Me

At this point, however, a number of things went wrong.  You just knew they had to.  First, I hit the button to turn on the backlight in my cycling computer so that I could see the turn instructions at night, but as soon as I did so, it crashed, and I had to reboot it and try to figure out whether I could get it to start following a route at mile 213 of 250.  Second, my primary headlight proved to be dead as a doornail although I'd only used it for about an hour in the morning.  Maybe it had gotten turned on while stowed in my bag during the day.  Either way, it was out of juice now, as was the large cache battery I'd been using to power my Garmin and iPhone during the day.  I was left with one light only -- my Exposure Joystick helmet light.  That could be quite bright, but I didn't dare run it at full power, because if it died before we reached the end, FUBAR wouldn't quite cover the situation.  So, while my computer was trying to figure out where we were, we headed out under limited battery power, following the cue sheet's instruction to turn left out of the control.


See, that familiar 7-11 was on the corner of two roads, and 95% of the time, when one leaves it, one turns left to head north.  And the cue sheet said only to turn left out of the control, so, amidst our lighting and navigational issues, we did what most cues mean, and turned left to head north.  But it turns out that, when this cue said to turn left out of the control, it meant to turn left to continue going east.  We didn't figure out our mistake for about 40 minutes, and didn't determine where we were for almost an hour.  The end result was that we found ourselves about 8 miles off track, far west of Middleburg, with no choice but to plow east down Rt. 50 -- not a super awesome cycling road in the daytime, much less at 10 pm -- for about 10 miles.

Well, actually, we did have a choice.  The rules of the brevet required us to re-enter the course at the point we left it.  So, technically, we were required to head back south for an hour in order to correct our mistake.  Sorry, but there was no way in hell.  To the extent we've thus contributed to our age's moral decline, we apologize.

It's funny, but on a ride of 250 miles, one wouldn't think an extra eight would be much of a spirit-crusher.  But when those eight come after dark, when you're exhausted, and they involve trying to figure out where the heck you are as your batteries trickle away, 8 miles can be a more stressful detour than you'd think.  Both of us were in a pretty bad mood for the next hour, which involved riding on hilly, narrow, pitch-black rural roads without lines on them anywhere.  Just keep pedaling -- no choice.  And it was f'ing cold.

We finally reached Purcelville at about midnight -- 10 miles to go, having ridden 250.  From there it was a straight shot east to Leesburg, on roads with decent pavement and in something resembling civilization.  We were nearly done.  My GF Chris was meeting us at the finish line with beer, pizza, and a ride home, and because of our detour, she'd expected us around 11:30.  Here it was, midnight, and we still had 10 miles to go.  So I made a snap decision to violate a second randonneuring rule by inviting her to come ride behind us for the home stretch and use her bright beams to light the way.  I tell ya, being a deviant never felt so good -- the lighting really made a huge difference to morale and gave us some sense of what the RAAM riders must experience with their crews supporting them after dark.  Max and I knocked out the last 10 miles with no problem, and rolled into the finish line at 12:45 a.m., 19 hours and 45 minutes after we'd started.  I'd predicted 20 hours.  

True to form, the finish line was a study in anticlimax.  The ride coordinator hadn't yet made it from his house to the finish, so we signed our control cards, left them in his hotel room, and hopped in the car for the warm, luxurious ride home.  Because Max's stomach was on the fritz, I had no choice but to kill an entire large sausage and mushroom pizza by myself.  The sweet taste of victory!

Upon reflection, as bad a mood as I was in during the detour, I have no question that I could have kept going if the ride required it.  That's comforting, I suppose, as we'll be attempting a 600k ride in late June.  For now, though, I've taken a solid five days off of anything resembling training, eaten an indecent amount, and slept in each day.  More battles to come!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Weapons of Choice: Ultracycling gear recommendations

Check out my new weapon -- weapon of choice.
-Fatboy Slim

On Saturday, I completed a 260-mile brevet with about 18,000 feet of climbing; all told, it took just under 20 hours, making it both the longest one-day ride I've ever done and the one with the most climbing.  I'm putting the story together, but I wanted first to discuss some of the gear I used during the event.  Much of this may also be very useful beyond the ultracycling context.

Garmin's new Edge 810
One thing I've found to be invaluable is Garmin's line of GPS cycling computers with street-level maps.  On some level these are a luxury: it's certainly possible to get by with a cue sheet and simpler device.  But a major part of the game in ultracycling is making things as foolproof as they can be, and the new Garmin Edge 810 offers a number of critical advantages over the traditional cue sheet.  First, it is extremely easy to upload routes and receive prompted turn-by-turn directions.  When backstopped with a cue sheet, this method is pretty much infallible, and I love the "distance to next turn" field, something a cue sheet can't provide.  There's a related, but less-advertised, benefit to riding with a GPS, in that the screen automatically zooms appropriately to your speed.  This means that, when you're bombing down an unfamiliar descent, a split-second glance down will show the shape of the road for the 1/2 mile or so in front of you.  I found this capability gave me considerably more confidence about laying off the brakes and making the most of my momentum.  A related ability is the scrolling elevation profile: when you upload a route, the GPS cross-references the upcoming roads with a topographical map, meaning that you can easily see what the next few miles of road have in store.  If you see that a hill is only a minor blip, there's no reason not to hoof it over with some effort, but a spike going off the top of the screen is very effective in mellowing one out for a few minutes.

The mapping and elevation features aren't unique to the Garmin 810; they're also available on the older, and slightly cheaper, Garmin 800.  But the 810 does add a couple of features that the 800 lacks, in particular the LiveTrack system.  LiveTrack uses Bluetooth to connect the GPS unit with your cell phone, and then leverages the cell's signal to upload coordinates and other information to a realtime tracking website.  You can then email the link to that website to anyone you want, or post it to Facebook; when the recipient clicks the link, he or she will see your current location (refreshed each minute), and also the ground you've covered.  Here's what mine looked like at mile 213 of Saturday's ride:

LiveTrack feature
Because I'd been on the road so long, LiveTrack had broken up my route into 5-mile segments, and it showed where I was down to the minute.  The blue bar at the bottom, labeled "graphs," opens to reveal realtime stats on speed, heart rate, power, cadence, and whatever else you choose.  In the picture below, mine shows a chart of speed imposed on an elevation profile.  (Had I been moving at the time, it also would have showed current speed, etc.)

LiveTrack with performance metrics

LiveTrack is an extremely useful tool not only for long rides like this, where it acts as a safety backstop and lets people check in on you from time to time, but it can also be a killer app for spectators at races.  All you need to do is start the LiveTrack application before the race, start your computer with the Autopause function enabled, and stuff your cellphone somewhere on the bike, perhaps alongside the spare tube.  Email the link to spectators, and they'll be able to tell where you are every minute and be ready when you zip by.  No more missing people as they blow by on the bike, and no standing around unnecessarily.  It's great stuff. In my case, I emailed the link to a few friends and also posted it, just as a precaution.  

I also installed an App on my iPhone that is similarly useful: Find My Friends.  It is a terrific stalking tool that allows anyone you choose to ping your phone's location, which is then superimposed on an extremely detailed street or satellite map.  It appears accurate to within a few meters, and is yet another way for people to find you should the need arise -- valuable peace of mind when you're riding in remote locations after dark.  I also think that Find My Friends could be a very useful tool for anyone sagging a group ride.  You'll never be forced to set off in search of the missing cyclist!  Note that you can turn the app on and off with a tap of a button, so there's no need to worry about privacy unless you want to.

A pretty obvious question: with Find my Friends, is there any need for LiveTrack?  It depends.  Find My Friends shows only a location; it provides no breadcrumb trail or performance metrics.  It also doesn't provide a webpage link that's constantly viewable by anyone -- it requires much more micromanagement.  So LiveTrack does provide additional value, although the two apps are redundant to some extent.

Mophie Juicepack Powerstation Duo
If there's a downside to this reliance on technology, it's that one needs to power the various devices.  The Garmin 810 has a battery life about 15 hours, which is more than plenty for most purposes.  But it wasn't going to be enough for this ride, and the 15-hour figure itself is wildly optimistic in that LiveTrack's bluetooth connection with the cell phone drains battery life like wildfire, and using the backlight at night is also a massive burden.  So I needed a way to recharge both the iPhone and the Garmin on the fly, and the perfect solution was a gadget I'd picked up to recharge my iPad on an overseas flight: the Mophie Juicepack Powerstation Duo.  This thing is amazing: it's compact, has two USB ports that allow the recharging of multiple devices at once (including rechargeable lights), and its massive 6000 mAh capacity is more than enough to get through the day.  By way of comparison, an iPhone 5 battery is rated at 1440 mAh, and the Garmin Edge 810 is 1100 mAh.  The Juicepack can recharge both devices twice-over, with room to spare.  It's an outstanding insurance policy.  If you bring a wall-to-USB plug to recharge the Juicepack during stops, you can probably keep riding close to indefinitely.
Exposure Joystick mk7

Next up on the new-gadget train was a new helmet light: the Exposure Light Joystick mk7.  This is by far the most elegant light I've ever used, and any lights I get in the future will be from Exposure -- it was that impressive.  These lights aren't cheap, but when you're riding fast on dark roads at night, the reassurance is invaluable.  The Joystick has an integrated, rechargeable battery, and puts out a maximum 400 lumens despite having a weight of only 87 grams (about 1/5 pound).  Even on the lowest power setting -- which lasts a whopping 10 hours -- it's more than bright enough to light the way on most roads.  The small touches are great as well: the light simply clips on and off, so that you don't need to have it weighing down your head all day (not that it weighs much), and it has a "smart port" in the back that, in addition to recharging the light, doubles as a power source for various accessories, such as a flashing rear red light that attaches to the back of the joystick, or a backup battery that piggybacks on top of it.  As a year-round bike commuter, I've become firmly convinced that helmet mounted lights are the way to go if you don't mind a bit of weight on the head: having the light go where you're looking is crucial.  Oh yeah: the Mophie Juicepack can recharge this, too: its battery capacity is 2900 mAh.

Rounding out the new equipment purchases for this ride is... a handlebar bag.  I'd long held out against using these despite their popularity among randonneurs, as I knew them to be about as aerodynamic as a barn door, they aren't light, and they don't exactly scream performance.  Having said that, after this ride, I'm kind of in love with mine.  I opted for the Arkel Small Handlebar Bag.  It's waterproof, holds a cue sheet and cell phone right in front of you, and allows easy in-ride access to pretty much anything you could want: food, chamois cream, batteries, sunscreen, control card, or whatever.  The weight is noticeable, but when the rides get this long, for me it stops being about speed and starts being about ensuring that my nutrition is on track, I don't lose my control card (as happened last June), that the cue sheet is readily at hand, and so forth.  I'm a fan.

A rear bag is also very valuable, especially when the temperature's expected to vary widely during the ride.  It's great to have a place to stash jackets, arm/leg warmers, gloves, caps, and that sort of thing.  My choice is again by Arkel: the Tailrider Trunk Bag.  It's compact, waterproof, sturdy, and expands to hold an amazing amount of stuff.  There's a convenient loop on the back onto which one can clip a couple of lights, it's easy to remove and carry, and in general it's a great piece of kit.

Of course, one also needs a rack to hold it.  Topeak makes a common one, but I didn't care for it when I tried it: the single-beam clamp mechanism causes it to sway intolerably.  I'm a much bigger fan of Arkel's own Randonneur rack, which clamps to the seat rails as well as the seat post.  The whole system looks like this:

Arkel rack and tailrider bag
Finally, although I've mentioned them before, I've come to think that two pieces of equipment are indispensable for all-day rides.  First, I've become a huge believer in tubeless road tires.  I've now been riding my Hutchinsons for about 1.5 years, and they're about ready to be changed.  In that time, I've had exactly zero flats.  Equally important, tubeless tires can and should be run at about 90 psi, as opposed to 100-110 psi for regular road tires, and that lower pressure makes all the difference in soaking up road imperfections and smoothing out the ride.  It feels like a Cadillac rolling down the road.  And, with the imminent release of Hutchinson's Secteur 28 tubeless tire, which is 28 mm wide, the ride will be all the better.

Arm coolers in action at Mountains of Misery
Second, I think anyone who's not riding in arm coolers is missing out.  I use the Zoots, which provide warmth when it's chilly and reflect the sun when it's hot.  UV ray protection aside, it's amazing how much less tired you'll be at the end of a long, hot afternoon when you're not getting baked, and they keep the skin cooler as well.  No need to take them off: just put them on and forget they're there until you're done with the ride.

Next up: the epic ride itself!