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.