Wednesday, July 3, 2013

600k Solo: From Sunrise to Sunrise

One of the hardest things I've ever done, but man was it memorable


The word "epic" is a towering monument of cliche these days -- some might even say it's the most "awesome" adjective one can deploy in the world of endurance sports (boom!) -- but sometimes it fits.  Sunday was one of those times, as was Monday; indeed, both days fell during the same bike ride, a 600k/375-mile solo voyage from just west of DC nearly to Roanoke and then back again. 

(Garmin crapped out at mile 341 of 376)

PROLOGUE

Many people -- friends, relatives, and my cats (who also are people) -- have observed that this was a nutso plan, and I can't really disagree. The distance is certainly part of it: my longest rides to date had been 400k/250 miles, but those typically involved finishing in 18-19 hours, which means riding for only a couple of hours after dark.  In contrast, 600k rides take most people 33-35 hours, which means that the extra duration falls overnight and into the next day, which is a different animal entirely.  

What's more, although my 400k rides had certainly been challenging, in one respect they were much more comfortable than this one, as I'd ridden them with a group in an organized brevet.  In that setting, if you're on the quicker end of the field, you might cruise along alone for a good portion of the day depending on your pace, but at least you know that there are others following the same route who'll be along eventually if you have issues.  

Beyond safety, the solitude also can present profound motivational challenges: when you're exhausted, other people can be valuable motivators both on the bike and off of it.  When you're sitting at a gas station chewing dazedly on a Snickers bar, feeling sorry for yourself, and idly pondering whether a particular bird flying around is happy with its life, an impatient riding buddy can be a valuable kick in the ass to get up and get moving.  Everyone in the group will have bleak patches, but they'll likely come at different moments, so people can take turns dragging each other along.  When you're on your own, it's all on you.  It's only you who decides to push harder or not to waste time sitting around, and only you who resists the urge to crash in a hotel for a few hours overnight instead of pushing through the darkness.  In short, it's only you, period, to stare down the demons when they come -- which they most certainly will.

Oh, and just to add a final fun twist, I couldn't even say that I was truly rested for this ride, as the weekend before I'd gotten the snot kicked out of me in the Diabolical Double, itself one of the hardest single-day rides in the country.  Oy vey.

Yet... despite it all or maybe because of it, I was looking forward to the ride on a meaningful level.  Having been around the endurance sports scene for awhile now, there aren't that many things that jolt me out of my comfort zone, and there's some fun in that.  Also, as much as I enjoy riding with friends, there's also something to be said for the meditative, "present" state that comes when you're not making small talk, but instead are letting your mind wander wherever it wants to go.  It's said that people (and dogs) are happiest when they have a job, mission, or purpose, and they dedicate themselves to getting it done.  That's exactly what a long solo ride is: you're here, and you have to get way the hell over there, so, to quote Captain Picard, "make it so."  

LAST MINUTE BIKE TWEAK

I previously described my bike setup for this ride, and I went with it as planned, except for one last-minute substitution: the morning of the ride, I found that my new top tube bag had been delivered, so I swapped in in place of my Revelate Gas Tank.  This EO Gear Top Tube Brevet Bag turned out to be one of the best uses of $30 I've found in the ultracycling world:

Central pocket two side pockets, and pen holder.  One side pocket is sized to hold a control card and comes with a  sturdy plasticized envelope to hold the control card and any necessary receipts (which are required on permanents).  No more misplacing control cards or stuffing them in jersey pockets.
This will definitely be my bag of choice going forward.  It's my bag, baby!  (Sorry.)

WE RIDE AT DAWN!

The noble steed.
I rolled out of bed at 3:00, briefly considered what nightmarish cascade of ill-considered life decisions had led me to that point, downed a big bowl of apple-cinnamon oatmeal with bananas and walnuts, threw my gear in the car, and rolled out to Haymarket, a small town about 40 minutes west of D.C.  After taking 30 minutes or so to get sunscreened, chamois-creamed, GPS-readied, tire-pumped, and signed-in, I was ready to roll out at 5:00 sharp.

For this ride, I'd brought an iPod loaded with two audiobooks.  (Yes, I can hear absolutely fine with these on.  Relax.  You try riding alone for 28 hours without one.)  One was by David Baldacci, and other was written by Tom Clancy and read by Lou Diamond Phillips.  Sometimes audiobooks just choose themselves.  That combination's almost unfair to the other audiobooks out there -- a literary dream team.

The first miles of the ride, heading west from haymarket along Rt. 55, are familiar ones to any cyclists who frequent Northern Virginia haunts.  Rt. 55 is a main-ish road, but the pavement is great and, in the pre-dawn hours on Sunday morning, there's nary a car to be found.  Sunrise was at 6:30, so the first hour or so gave me a good idea of what the following night would entail, i.e., peaceful cruising and keeping a lookout for woodland faunae foraging for their breakfasts.  (Note: all videos can be viewed in 720p HD.)


Dawn can be a beautiful time to ride, and this one was in certain senses, but it was anything but crisp: the overnight low was in the mid-70s, and the air was thick and heavy from the get-go.  The rolling meadowland of The Plains was fogged in and hazy.  As of 8:00 or so, I still had my lights on flash mode simply to help cars pick me out.


Riding in very muggy conditions is tricky: due to the breeze inherent to cycling, it doesn't feel overly warm, but you can lose quite a bit of fluid without knowing it.  My dehydration misadventure at Diabolical Double had made me particularly attuned to this, so I made sure to continue taking pulls off of bottles full of Skratch Labs hydration mix, which I find has enough sodium to continue to simulate thirst.  Some endurance sports scholars, including Joe Friel and Tim Noakes, have advised drinking only to satisfy thirst and no more, but I've found that my thirst mechanism often lags behind, and I couldn't let that happen on a ride of this difficulty.

I got an unscheduled break when, 20 miles into the ride, I encountered my first of three train delays.


At about Mile 25, I was moseying along a wall of vegetation on my right and noticed a black patch in a gap about 30 yards in front of me.  I slowed down rapidly and came to a stop 20' or so from a very large, somewhat confused-looking black bear, which had been shuffling in the bushes, perhaps trying to befriend someone's lost cat.  It saw me, I saw it, and we came to an understanding: Man in Spandex is not to be trifled with.  It turned tail and went gallumping off into the woods, looking like an exceedingly portly black St. Bernard.  I kissed my biceps ostentatiously, downed a testosterone flavored gel, and continued on my way.

Hay is for horses!  I must be near Middleburg.
Even before the first control points, this ride presented some unusual challenges.  On both the "out" and "back" legs -- i.e., at about Miles 30 and 340 (gah!) -- the route traverses the Shenandoah river via the Morgan's Ford low-water bridge.  I'd ridden this about a month earlier in my 400k brevet, and it's one of the cooler features of any ride.  The bridge is a completely exposed slab only a couple of feet above the river, which makes it very picturesque to ride across.  

Unfortunately, its concrete is badly broken up, and per its name, it can be rather touch-and-go when the heavy rains come.  Given the multiple summer storms and flash floods around D.C. in the days before the ride, I was far from certain that it would be open.  Putting aside the gates that close when the river is too high, traversing it when underwater is not an option.  

Morgan's Ford  in good times
Morgan's Ford in bad times
As it turns out, the river was roiling in an angry manner, but it hadn't risen sufficiently to make passage a problem. Unfortunately, it was so densely fogged that I had to pick my way across it, and getting pictures or video would have been fruitless.  This didn't completely settle the issue, of course, because heavy rains were predicted later in the day, which meant it could be closed when I encountered it the next morning on my return trip.

The first and second control points came at Miles 45 and 53, respectively -- unusually close together, but I suppose necessary to ensure that riders follow the correct route.  In the grand scheme of a ride this long, 50 miles is a warmup, but it's easy to get lost in the miles and forget that 3 hours of riding in muggy conditions can definitely set you back if you're not diligent about nutrition.  I made sure to slow down and enjoy the morning hours by stopping for pictures whenever the urge struck.

Shenandoah foothills by morning light  
By 9:00 or so -- about the time I'd normally be getting out of bed, if I had any sense -- I'd already ridden a metric century, circling west around Front Royal before turning south through the valley to parallel I-81.  This 50-mile leg, between miles 60 and 110, was gorgeous, with fields framed by mountains in the background.  The fog burned off, and I found myself merrily cruising through rural Americana on a sleepy weekend, with dogs lounging around, lawn art twirling in the breeze, and with my legs having woken up and accepted their fate.

At this point in the ride, I can honestly say that there was nowhere I'd rather have been: I felt fresh, happy, and like I was well on the way to a memorable adventure.  There's a true joy that comes from being in just the right gear, cruising effortlessly down the road as the tires whir hypnotically and the miles melt away.


Life seemed particularly auspicious when some woodland creatures came bounding across the road, just in front of me (view in pop-out HD):


And cyclists weren't the only exotic vehicles on the road.


Of course, this is endurance cycling, and things can fall apart faster than you can say "bonk."  Although this leg contained no particular climb or hill I could point to as being inordinately difficult, there was about 80 feet per mile of climbing for 50 miles or so, which put it in the category of very rolling hills.  There wasn't a flat patch of ground to be found, and to make matters worse, this stretch of the ride was utterly exposed to the sun.  By that time, the day had turned bright and sunny and the fog had burned off, and by 11:00 the temperature was approaching 90 degrees. What's worse, the air was positively soupy -- I felt like I was pedaling on a pool deck, or maybe in Cozumel.  

  

By 1:00, when I reached the next control at Mile 110, I was not a happy camper.  The balls of my feet felt like they were on fire -- hot foot is something I suffer from fairly chronically due to my unfathomably high arches -- and I was dripping sweat.  In almost every instance, if I'd covered 110 hilly miles on a hot day, it would be time for watermelon and a nap.  In this case, however, having ridden for 8 hours, I wasn't even 1/3 of the way to the end.  Candidly, things felt bleak, but a large coke, some salted peanuts, and I was on my way again.  I sent out a Tweet whining about my self-imposed situation, and climbed back on the bike to head further into the pain cave.

By this point, I had truly arrived in rural America.


You may notice that it suddenly got much less sunny than in the videos above.  That's due to what weather forecasters euphemistically call "scattered showers," but are in fact better labeled "ninja storms."  For the next 20 minutes or so, I was soaked to the gills, but to be frank, it felt absolutely wonderful.  I could almost feel the sludge of sweat, salt, and sunscreen being washed off, and the rain felt crisp and refreshing -- far superior to the blazing sun I'd dealt with for the previous five hours.  It was just what the doctor ordered, and by Mile 150, the sun was shining again, I'd caught my second wind, and I was blasting through the countryside as good as new.

This part of the adventure was quite a bit of fun -- the roads were smooth, and though there were some chippy climbs, they often led to gentle, wide-open descents that I could bomb down with big grin on my face.


As often as not, I'd round corners to find myself with panoramic views of farmland with the road snaking its way into the distance.  At this point in the ride, I felt indestructible and couldn't remember why I'd been apprehensive in the least.  It's this sort of riding that people who stick to the trails will never get to experience, and it's part of what makes cycling such an endorphin rush at times.


Through this stage, I had but one goal: to make it to the turnaround point at Mile 189, in Clifton Forge, where I'd scoped out a pizza place.  If I could make it there, I reasoned, I could make it back in the cooler nighttime hours.  Surviving the afternoon heat was the key.  

It turns out, though, that I shouldn't have been so eager to make it to dinner: Miles 140-189 offered by far the most beautiful and enjoyable part of the ride, as they meandered gently through the George Washington National Forest.  The pavement was immaculate and the dense forest offered respite from the sun at just the time I otherwise would have been most vulnerable to cracking a second time.  The first half of the journey through the park was largely uphill, which at times was highly discouraging; there's nothing like a false flat for 10 miles to make you question whether you'll ever get where you're going.  But, at least on this course, what goes up must come down, and there were miles on end of bombing through the woods, here and there emerging onto panoramas that made me fall in love with cycling all over again every few miles.


There were yet more bucolic hayscapes.



And even road signs offering warm welcomes to visitors from DC.


At long last, around 6:00 pm -- 189 miles and 13 hours after the journey began -- I rolled into the small town of Clifton Forge, VA, the southernmost tip of the route.  The halfway point on a ride like this offers an odd mixture of elation and bafflement.  The elation is obvious: you get to eat real food, storing up calories for the ultracycling equivalent of winter, i.e., riding through the night where the only calories on offer are at 7-Elevens.  (Or is that 7s-Eleven?)  The bafflement is once you realize that, as tired as you are and as grateful for dinner as you may be, you're only halfway there, and the return trip is every bit as hilly, and will require riding through the night.  Indeed, I'd ridden a solo 300k in this territory in March and had been utterly whipped by the end.  It was hard to imagine that I had a slightly hillier version of that route still to go after already having come so far.  Ultracycling is, as they say, substantially a mental challenge, and this was the part of the day when that really became true.

Because I'm just a little bit anal, I'd scoped out Clifton Forge online in the days before the ride to ensure that there would be a pizza place where I could park myself and ingest about 2 million calories of cheese and 10 grams of sodium.  There was indeed, just half a mile off the route, past the control point.  Unfortunately, what hadn't been obvious from my research was that the half-mile in question was straight up at about a 12% grade, which was enough to feel like some cosmic deity was kicking me in the nuts.  What also hadn't been obvious was that the restaurant was profoundly out of business.  


There must be a psychological condition characterized by one's entire sanity being held together by the prospect of crappy Italian food in the middle of nowhere, and I was team captain of the crazies.  Utterly depressed at the thought that my dinner had suddenly transmogrified into yet another Clif Bar purchased at an Exxon station, I mushed another half mile, where lo, I reached the promised land, which came in the (rather surprising) form of The Most Redneck Pizza Hut Ever.  I didn't care a whit.  In fact, since I was basically the only customer, I rolled my bike inside, took off my shoes, and for the next 45 minutes proceeded to render half the restaurant in violation of every health code on the books.  I even took a bath in the restroom using baby wipes I'd brought along for the purpose.  I then ordered a large pizza with chicken, mushrooms, and green peppers, and proceeded to eat the entire damn thing, taking care first to empty most of a salt shaker on top of it.  Much like a dog gnawing on a bone, all the happiness in the world was on the table in front of me, and I devoured that happiness and thereby claimed its powers as my own.  Go ahead and judge.  

THE LONG ROAD HOME

In all, dinner and the Clifton Forge control/resupply point took an hour, which brought me to about 7:00 pm.  I was making good time: in the D.C. Rand 600k brevet that had been run in similar territory a month earlier, the finishing times had ranged from about 32-37 hours.  I was at the 14-hour mark halfway through, which put me on the golden side of my goal of finishing in the 28-30 hour range.  But the big variable lay ahead: my first all-night ride.  

First, though, I had to tackle the only major climb on the route, a 5-mile, 1800' beast that would take me past the Mile 200 point.  I knew that, in the grand scheme, it was a net downhill from the summit, and given that it was a climb up through the National Forest, I looked forward to a Skyline-esque, cruising descent for miles on the other side.  

It was not to be.  Not even a little bit.  No good, very bad.

All told, I'd been relatively lucky on the weather front -- the region had been stuck in a system of periodic, violent storms, but apart from my afternoon dousing, which had felt pretty good, I'd managed to avoid the worst of it.  My bill came due halfway up the densely forested climb, when it suddenly turned extremely dark, and the flashing and booming started.  There was really no choice for me to make except to keep moving forward: I figured I'd get a little wet, but that would be fine, and in any case I was climbing, so who really cares about rain.  

What then proceeded to happen shows that there is rain, and then there is rain.  By the time I reached the summit, it was as if, instead of cycling up a mountain in the GW National Forest, I'd inadvertently climbed Mt. Olympus and pissed off Thor.


By the time I reached the summit and started the descent, I realized that the situation was rapidly devolving from memorable to "I hope I live to remember anything after this."  The rain was full-on flash flood strength, with rivers washing down the road and my brakes not even stopping me a little bit.  Massive rooster tails were being flung off my front wheel in front of my headlight, which made them burn blindingly before they flew backwards into my eyes.  Here's a very brief look at what I was dealing with.


Although the temperatures were still around 70, I was soaked to the bone, and I was starting to shake with cold as I tried to descend and keep the bike on the road.  (For those who were at IMUSA in 2008, imagine the huge descent, at dusk, in much, much harder rain.)  I finally wrestled the bike to a stop and frantically dug through my trunk bag to get the rain jacket and cap I'd brought out of (what I thought then was) an excess of caution, and they proved to be completely, utterly invaluable -- I'm not sure how I would have gotten off the mountain without them.  As it was, I was descending at about 10 mph for a solid 20+ minutes, just trying to get down to safety.   Even putting aside my grief at doing all the work to climb the mountain but not being able to make up time down the other side, it was terrifying and exhausting.  I'm just glad that the descent was relatively gradual, and that I'd been sufficiently paranoid to pack a jacket on a hot day in July.  The cap was equally important, as it finally allowed me to keep the rain out of my eyes enough to pick my way down the hill.

(Note: some people have expressed the opinion that they'd get bored on a bike ride this long.  Periods like this show why I don't think this is a major worry -- I could have done with a little boredom just then.)

I finally did make it down the mountain, and barreled along to mile 215, where the cue sheet said there was a country store.  I hadn't planned to stop -- it wasn't a control point -- but the next control wasn't until mile 250, which was further than I was comfortable going without refueling, and I wanted to get a drink and de-stress for a minute.  I passed the store at 8:59 pm before turning around 50 feet later and circling back to it.  How do I know that I passed it at 8:59?  Because, in the time it took me to turn around, the "open" sign in the window had turned off, as the cashier pointed out indignantly when I approached the door, mouthing "Nine o-clock!"  Good grief.  So, on I went, into the darkness with only about 12 hours of riding to go!  Only 12 hours.  12 hours. 12.  Hours.  Ugh.

The nighttime portion of the ride was, for me, the huge unknown.  Having experienced it, though, I can say in retrospect that it's actually best considered the reward following a hard day's work.  It was utterly delightful: smooth pavement, long stretches following the same road for 10-15 miles at a time, wide shoulders, and very few cars.  Most important, the temperatures dipped down to about 70, which made it absolutely perfect for cranking out the miles.


I think there's a single question that determines whether rural nighttime rides are the best or the most grueling of a ride: whether your lighting system is adequate.  This may seem obvious, but I think my definition of "adequate" is quite a bit more demanding than most people's.  As I explained in my bike setup post, I was running an Exposure Strada and Joystick simultaneously, with enough battery backup power to keep each going far beyond what I'd need.  On the setting I'd selected, the Strada was putting out 400 watts in front of me -- I could crank it up to a car-like 800 lumens with the flick of a switch -- and the helmet-mounted Joystick was at about 200 watts, but in a very directed beam that followed my head.  With these two lights, I could ride absolutely full-speed with complete confidence.  I don't believe in playing the "how little illumination can I get away with?" game.  Even if you manage to get away with skimping on lumens and thereby carrying a smaller battery or cheaper light -- and one might not get away with it -- the experience is much more stressful and taxing, and you have to go more slowly in order to ensure that you don't "outrun" the illumination.

I also feel strongly that a good helmet light is an important complement to a strong front light.  That's not only so that you can flash cars, look around curves, and that sort of thing, but also because it makes it mentally easier to get through the night.  In the daytime, you can distract yourself by looking at vistas, houses, trees, people, or what-have-you.  Not so at night, particularly when all you have is a headlight pointed straight ahead.  You come to feel like you're in a tunnel.  With a helmet-mounted light, however, you can look around at the nighttime world: the critters with glowing eyes, and everything else.  I froze numerous cats in their spots, each time declaring loudly that they'd been owned.  You can, that is, enjoy the slightly surreal nighttime world in a way that's not possible with a headlight alone.  

Home sweet home, but not for me.
Compared to the daytime slog through the heat, the nighttime cruising flew by, aided on its way by Lou Diamond Phillips whispering sweet neocon nothings in my ear.  At Mile 262, I hit the overnight control at the Village Inn in Harrisonburg, VA.  This is the control point where most riders on a 600k choose to bed down for a few hours of rest before rolling out again the next morning.  I anticipated being sorely tempted to stop, but happily, I was absolutely wired and eager to keep moving.   (I suppose this is what 20 hours of drinking Coke and Mountain Dew, and eating energy bars and gels, will do to you.)  The innkeeper was not entirely sure what to make of me, and expressed a little hesitation about initialing some random card thrust upon him in the middle of the night by a spandex-clad cyclist who smelled of a thousand tragedies, but I prevailed in the end, perhaps when he realized that the alternative might entail my coming inside.

Maybe the most interesting riding was rolling through towns in the true dead of night, around 3:00-4:00 am. On a Saturday night, I could conceive of their being at least a little activity, if only drunks barreling around trying to make it home.  On a Sunday night/Monday morning, though, things are just empty in a way that's deeply tranquil or unnerving, depending on how much Steven King one's read lately.


The only nighttime hiccup -- which, admittedly, was a little stressful -- resulted from a combination of mother nature's wrath and my own incompetence.  I was as alone as alone can be on this ride, but I figured that, at the very least, I should make it possible for people to find me should I disappear.  For that, I used my Garmin 810's "LiveTrack" feature.

LiveTrack feature used in a previous ride.
LiveTrack connects the Garmin to a cellphone via Bluetooth, and enables you to send a web link to certain people via email, or to the entire world via Facebook or Twitter.  Anyone who clicks on the link will get an up-to-the-minute idea of where you are.  If something happens, they'll know where to look.  I considered it to be of some peace of mind.

The problem is that the Bluetooth connection between Garmin and cellphone cuts each device's battery life substantially.  It's partially for this reason that I'd brought a massive USB backup battery that I used to recharge them as I was rolling along.  The trouble is that, with about 100 miles to go, I realized that I couldn't find the mini USB cable that interfaced with my Garmin.  I had the micro USB for my cell, and the cables for my lights, but not the one for the Garmin, which I'd last seen... in the middle of the thunderstorm.  It seems that, when I was fumbling around in the rain for my jacket and putting batteries in safe locations, I'd accidentally dropped that small cable, which meant I couldn't recharge my Garmin.  

This had two implications.  First, I had to turn off LiveTrack, which was moderately stressful in of itself.  Second, my Garmin -- which was handling my routing home -- was going to go dead with a good three hours to go.  I had a cue sheet, but that had substantially dissolved in the deluges, as I hadn't realized that my cue sheet holder was far from watertight.

So, I was faced with somewhat of a dilemma about how I'd get home, with neither electronic nor paper routing.  It just wouldn't be a randonneuring ride without some sort of calamity to deal with.  I figured that, if worst came to worst, I'd plot the route back home using Google Maps on my cellphone.  Hurray for over-the-top electronic redundancy!

As it turns out, though, things worked out.  By turning of Bluetooth and any trace of backlighting, my noble Garmin 810 lasted through mile 342(!) of 376; by that time, dawn was breaking, and I'd managed to dry out the tattered cue sheet enough to pick my way back home.  

The last 30 miles of the ride, from Mile 350 on, were simultaneously beautiful and completely dreadful.  My randonneuring compadre Max and I often have remarked that, no matter how long you're riding, it seems like the last 10% of the ride is excruciatingly difficult.  In my 300k, miles 170-190 were death on wheels.  In the 600k, those miles flew by without a second thought, but the bill came due at mile 350.  Dawn was breaking and the world was beautiful once more.  I'd made it through the night, and ridden for more than 24 hours.  It was Monday morning, and around me the early birds were leaving for work.  Their weeks were just beginning, but the end of my journey was in sight.  

Well, almost in sight.  It's a trick of the mind when 30 miles -- 2 hours, at my pace -- seems like nothing.  It's not nothing; indeed, it's far from it, and it can seem close to forever when your digestive system is upside down and you're tired beyond belief.  My feet were on fire, and every rolling hill constituted a deeply personal insult.  In the end, though, I cruised back across the low water bridge and along Rt. 55, with the miles to Haymarket counting down: 8... 5... 3... 

And then I was at the massive intersection, looking at Sheetz across the street, at 8:39 a.m. -- 27 hours and 39 minutes after I'd taken off the morning before.  I'd made it.

EPILOGUE

I'll remember this ride forever.  I'm not sure I'd say it was fun, exactly, but then again, I can't remember the last time I was in a race or ultradistance ride when I was filled with glee the whole time.  Like much of life, endurance events often are meaningful and enjoyable only in retrospect.  "Fun" in the conventional sense doesn't quite translate.

I've often thought that a primary purpose of long rides, and a primary purpose of life in general, is to do memorable things, and this was one of the most incredible journeys I've ever had.  In the grand scheme, the result doesn't matter; it wasn't a race, and I was the only one riding.  But in this year's D.C. Rand 600k brevet, on a comparable route, the finishers' times ranged from about 32 hours to 37 hours, with 40 hours being the official cutoff.  Not having any idea what to expect, I'd set a flexible but ambitious goal for myself of going under 30 hours.  27:39 is a dream time, especially considering the motivational issues inherent in a solo effort, the gruesome heat in the afternoon, and The Nothing that struck when I was on the mountain. 

The result is also particularly validating because, in the last month, things have been pretty awful for me athletically.  Since my seemingly minor fall at Columbia Tri six weeks before this ride, I hadn't been able to run more than a couple of miles at a time or swim at all, and my cycling had been limited to a couple of long rides, the last of which -- the Diabolical Double the weekend before -- had gone spectacularly badly.  I've often felt listless, and like my fitness was bleeding out with every passing day.  Hopefully this is the sign of a corner turned.

This result also confirmed to me that, to the extent I have any talent for riding a bike, it's probably best expressed in very long efforts, where I seem to have good success in holding things together until the finish line.  I surprised myself with a 256-mile effort in a 12-hour time trial last summer, and this ride suggests an answer to my uncertainty as to whether I'm capable of riding through the night without sleep.

In response to some flattering questions I've gotten lately, I'm not planning to take on RAAM.  I don't think I'll ever go for that.  I'd like to think I could finish it within the time limit if I set out to make that the overriding goal of my life in the next few years, but I don't want to strike that (lack of) balance.  And, to be honest about it, the guy who won it this year rode the same pace I did on this ride, but did it for 8 days straight.  That is simply freakish and alien levels of talent (or something), and I'm not, and will never be, in the same galaxy.

But it's not RAAM or bust.  I'd like to qualify for RAAM next year, which is in itself an honorable feat.  I plan to compete in a few 12- and 24-hour time trials to see what damage I can do if I put my mind to those events.  They're a new sort of challenge.

In the immediate term, though, this ride checked the final box to qualify me for the Big Wild Ride 1200k in Alaska in 3 weeks' time.  That ride is double the distance of this one, albeit in flatter terrain, and it promises to be utterly gorgeous, including riding through the not-quite-night that prevails in Alaska in the summertime.  I look forward to seeing the snowcapped peaks on Denali by bicycle, and to experiencing the beauty of that amazing state for the first time in the most memorable way I know how.  Here's to it!