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.

Pre-Ride

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.

Fail.

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!