"We who are about to die salute you!" -Roman gladiators
This weekend I participated in my first randonneuring event of 2013, a 200k "permanent." The normal rando event is known as a "brevet," and it involves riding a designated route (200k+) within a given amount of time, and getting signatures and time stamps at designated "controls" to prove that you covered the distance. A permanent is much the same, only it's not ridden as an official advertised event; instead, although the route itself is chosen from an officially sanctioned list, the ride is done at a time of one's own choosing, through coordination with the route's owner.
One of the challenges I'm facing this season is that, even more than in the past, I have some pretty substantial ultracycling goals in addition to my triathlon ambitions. The big ultracycling event this year will be the 1200k (750-mile) Big Wild Ride in Alaska in July. To qualify for that "Grand Randonee," I need to complete brevets or permanents of 200k (125 mile), 300k (190 miles), 400k (250 miles), and 600k (375 miles) by the end of June, but it's quite a juggling act. I'm also racing a number of triathlons in the same period, as well as riding Mountains of Misery and the Diabolical Double at the Garrett County Gran Fondo, each of which is 125 miles of sadistic climbing. And it would be good to have a life in there somewhere, too. :-)
Put it all together and the bottom line is I needed to get started, which meant knocking out the 200k this weekend. This route was quite a bit different from the rando rides I've done in the past in that it (1) started and finished only a mile or two from my house, and (2) involved 80 miles of riding along the W&OD bike path. I commute on that path daily and run on it frequently, but Id never actually tried to cover any meaningful distance on it. It turns out that the path goes clear out to Purcellville, VA, which seems like about the end of the earth when one's starting in Arlington. I'd always thought of Reston as "out there," but it's only about 1/3 of the way to the end.
As it turns out, there's a lot to be said for riding on the trail: good pavement, easy navigation, and gentle grades. There's also a good amount not to like: specifically, if you think running around Hains Point is tedious, it doesn't hold a candle to the sensation that you're pedaling forever and just not getting anywhere. It all looks pretty much the same.
That sameness was, to me, a reasonable price to pay for convenience this weekend, because my longest ride to date had been 70 miles, and I had by far my hardest workout day in 9 months the day before the ride. My philosophy was to knock out the distance as painlessly as possible. The weather, unfortunately, was mightily uncooperative: it started in the 30s and didn't get much warmer, and once we started rolling, the skies began burping out a steady diet of rain and drizzle. It's hard enough to cover this distance, but to do so when starting tired, in the cold, without a proper mileage base is just asking to get shattered.
Get shattered I did. The first 40 miles of the route, from Arlington to Purcellville, doesn't involve too much climbing. But from Purcellville, it headed south through Middleburg to a turnaround in Marshall, and that territory is seriously unflat. There's nothing that quite rises to the level of a climb, but as the elevation chart shows, it is steep, chippy rollers pretty much the whole way. It's gorgeous, but nothing comes easy.
I felt okay at the first control in Purcellville, but the proverbial wheels started coming off in dramatic fashion about halfway through the second leg to Marshall, which was about 28 miles. My riding buddy was dropping me consistently on anything with an upward grade. To be sure, I was fatigued, as I'd started the day that way, but it was more than that: I was getting frustrated and ill-tempered (though I kept it to myself), and nothing was working right. I was having zero fun despite the beautiful views, and the rain was getting to me more than it should have. I've been around this block enough times to recognize those symptoms as sure signs of lack of calories; being tired is what it is, but when it's coupled with mood swings and feeling off, it's a sure indication that one needs to pound the calories.
At the halfway control in Marshall, VA, I did what I could to fix the problem, and that amounted to throwing any concept of dietary restrictions out the window: I had a tuna sandwich, large bag of potato chips, 24-ounce Coke, and an "American sized" bag of gummy bears. We took a 20-minute breather or so to watch the rain pelting cars outside, which was restful but not entirely wonderful in that, when you're wet and cold and stop moving, the situation only gets worse. So, we eventually forced ourselves back onto the bikes and reversed trail, back through the hills toward Purcellville.
My calorie infusion seemed to do the trick: I had by far my best segment of the day right after my worst, and I rode strongly back to the W&OD trail head before turning east to return to Arlington. On a ride of this length, it's necessary to set intermediate goals to stay sane, and on this case, we'd pretty much agreed that we'd won the day if we made it back to the trail, since at that point one could turn off the brain and just power back home. The thing is, though, that 40 miles on the trail is not trivial: it amounted to a solid 2.5 more hours of slopping along through the rain after we'd already been on our bikes for 7 hours. To be blunt, it wasn't much fun toward the end: just when you think you're almost there, you see a sign for Sterling. "Sterling? Where the hell is that? Nowhere near Arlington, that's for damn sure." Then Reston, which I'd previously been conditioned to think of as "forever away."
But, ultimately, we made it. And by "it," I mean 135 miles, instead of the 125 that a 200k is supposed to involve. The owner of this permanent thought it would be a shame not to enjoy the scenic roads on the way to Marshall, so he stretched it out. 10 miles in the grand scheme of things doesn't seem like much, but it's a long additional 40 minutes when you really just want a warm shower and all the coffee in the world. We cruised back into Arlington with a ride time of about 9:40, not too bad considering the conditions, time of year, and extra distance. I finally got that shower, but found I was basically too tired to do anything but lie on the couch in a daze for a couple of hours before going to bed at 8:00 and sleeping for 11 hours. Yes, apparently this is my life. :-)
I'm definitely about ready for some spring, and I hope it arrives soon, because the brevets wait for no one. Next up is a 300k out of Harrisonburg, VA on April 13, and then a 400k out of Leesburg on May 4. Hopefully at some point in there my legs will remember what they're supposed to be doing. In the meantime, I took two days completely off of everything except commuting, and I came out the other side feeling almost human. Up and at 'em!