Friday, February 28, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Bike Sebring 24-Hour Time Trial

"Ours is not to reason why.  Ours is but to chafe and cry."
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson-ish.


I don't get nervous about long bike rides very often.  After my 1200k adventure in Alaska, a couple of 12-hour time trials, and a slew of challenge centuries and double-metrics, I'm pretty confident in my ability to keep the pedals turning.  Usually.  The problem is, as I discussed in a post a couple of weeks ago, my training for this event had been utterly inadequate.  Life circumstances and burnout had conspired to leave me almost completely untrained until mid December -- i.e., the holiday season -- which is about the worst possible time to figure out how to prepare for a bike endurance event in mid February.  Worse, this winter has been unusually cold and icy, which meant that my training for this 24-hour race had been done exclusively indoors on my Computrainer, using ErgVideos.  And since my racing bike is fit so aggressively that I can't see anything while I'm on it, I'd trained on my older, more relaxed bike so that I could relive the oeuvre of Freddie Prinz, Jr. while I sweated buckets

In short: I was racing an event more than three times as long as my longest training ride, in the middle of winter, and I was riding a bike I hadn't mounted in five months.  Why?  Because I live to entertain, and my cycling adventures would offer no joy whatever if misfortune didn't stalk them like a Florida alligator on the make.

MY FLORIDA: LIKE EVERYONE ELSE'S FLORIDA, ONLY WAY CRAPPIER

If there's one thing I've firmly established, it's that I have powers over weather that would qualify me as an anti-hero only Mike Myers could love.  Or, maybe it's most accurate to style me a meteorological apostle, since any race I enter invariably takes on Biblical overtones.  I've lived through the floods of Ironman USA in 2008, the mosquito plague of Ironman Cozumel 2009, the tropical-storm winds at Ironman Wales in 2011, the river of sewage at Ironman Cozumel in 2011, and a violent lightning storm while alone on a remote mountaintop, in the dark, during a 600k ride.  Most recently, in September 2013, I'd been a crash-test dummy in Ironman's first race at Lake Tahoe, where it snowed on our bikes the night before the race, and where the swim took place in 28-degree mountain air.  Enough -- this stuff's supposed to be fun, and this year I resolved to focusing on events where it was possible to enjoy the outdoors.  Like Florida in February.  Right?

As I packed my things on Thursday night, the raceday forecast had a suspiciously pleasant ring to it: 50 degrees at race start, rising to about 70, and then decreasing only to 50 again during the nighttime portion, all with the lightest of breezes.  I nearly left the knee warmers behind, but a sense of paranoia gnawed at me as I left my apartment, so I turned around and stuffed some into my bag, along with a light jacket and full-fingered gloves.

My parental support crew and I reached the race site just after dark on Friday evening, which meant that, after registering, getting dinner, and rebuilding my bike, it was basically time for bed.  I was feeling anything but confident; in fact, I was more nervous than before any bike ride I could remember.

The least sincere smile in the history of photography
Some people wake up race morning raring to go -- it'll be a sunny day of accomplishment, full of cheering fans and the wind in the hair, and all that.  I don't really have hair, but even if I did, that wouldn't be me.  In fact, the 5:00 a.m. wake-up for Sebring found me in a diabolical state -- I was so nervous that I was utterly sick to my stomach.  Forget plans for a big breakfast; I gnawed on a couple of Gu Chomps and tottered about gingerly, wondering why the hell I had signed up for a massive endeavor for which I couldn't train properly.  I was about to attempt to stay on my bike for an entire day, all the while flogging myself to go faster and hoping not to bleed to death via chafing.  I reasoned that, one way or another, it would be memorable, but that was cold comfort on a chilly morning.

Seeking to cheer myself up, I checked the weather report one last time to confirm the balmy forecast I'd seen the day before -- the one that had convinced me to make the trip to Florida in February.  Anyone who knows me knows exactly what I found.  The day before the race, the overnight low on Saturday night (the nighttime portion of the race) had been projected to be 52 degrees, which is just about perfect, if a little cool compared to the seasonal average.  By race morning, however, someone had noticed my registration and made adjustments accordingly, because the lows had plummeted to 37 degrees.  15 degrees may not seem like a lot in the abstract, but that particular 15-degree range makes all the difference in the world on a bicycle.  It's the difference between mildly cool and nearly freezing -- not what you want to face after being in the saddle for 18 hours.  The same weather front also had brought with it the promise of feisty winds, which, with my Zipp 808 front wheel, disc rear, deep-tubed frame, and assorted bottles, promised to keep things lively.  With race start temperatures in the mid-40s, I decided to start with my long-sleeved TT jersey, a windbreaker vest, and light wool knee-warmers, with the plan to ditch the vest as the going got gotten.

The start of a very long day.
READY, SET, MECHANICAL FAILURES!

The scene at the starting line was a bit surreal.  Unlike the 12-hour race I'd contested in Saratoga, this one had a real field -- something on the order of 150 riders in all.  But they were divided among four concurrent races: a century, a 12-hour TT, a 24-hour draft-legal TT, and mine, the 24-hour non-drafting Race Across America qualifier.  There also were recumbents, which are notoriously fast on flat ground, and I had no idea who anyone was.  In other words, anyone I saw could be an inexperienced athlete there to enjoy the sunshine for 100 miles, or a veteran of multiple solo Race Across America voyages.  It made tactics challenging: those racing the shorter events were likely to go out far faster than I wanted to, but I couldn't tell who they were.  And, even if I could, someone high-tailing it from the start in the RAAM division could be naively charing to his doom, or could be an outrageously strong athlete who knew exactly what he was doing.   I knew certain RAAM guys had put in 3-4x the training volume for this race that I had; my goal was to make steady progress, and, if possible, to stay in the leadership conversation for a good portion of the day.  With Chris Hopkinson -- a 2-time RAAM finisher, last year's Sebring winner, and the 2013 Ultracycling 24-hour TT world champion -- in the field, I knew I was almost certainly outgunned, but anything can happen over the course of a day this long.

Milling about in anonymous nervousness.
Being photobombed by a team of diabetic athletes.
As I peered about wondering why everyone else seemed so chipper, I ran through a last-minute bike check, and found a problem: my front wheel was rubbing severely on the brake pad.  Normally fixing that is a simple matter of loosening the skewer, repositioning the wheel, and re-tightening the skewer (the integrated brakes on my bike being about as easy to work with as Vladimir Putin).  Unfortunately, my problem was more severe: somehow the flanges on the hub of my wheel had become offset 90 degrees from one another.  I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable about wheels to know how to fix the problem, much less how to do so with 3 minutes remaining before the race.  And, with the asymmetric flanges, it was difficult to mount the wheel securely -- one flange or the other always seemed to force it back out of alignment.  I tightened things down as best I could, and took the bike for a quick spin.  It seemed ok, but it was hard to tell.

And then it was time to take off!  I turned on the beams and sauntered up a bit closer to the front line.  All systems seemed were go, aside from me and perhaps my bike.

One last picture for the side of the milk carton.
A broken social scene.
The party gets started!  I'm on the left, past the guardhouse.  Not winning!
The first ten miles of the day comprised 3 laps around the Sebring International Raceway.  For many of the riders, this was all they'd see of the Raceway -- only the 24-hour riders would get to experience it in "mood lighting mode" during the nighttime portion.  I'd been warned that the opening few laps could be ridiculously fast, but I was still sick to my stomach and didn't know the Raceway nearly as well as the vets, so I took it easy and tried to get the hang of my voice-controlled earpiece, which I'd use to coordinate with my folks throughout the day.

Dawn breaks over the Sebring International Raceway.
Asst. Crew Chief Bill Taaffe waits for me to finish the three morning laps.
To the right, the pits, where crews would be stationed during the overnight portion of the race.
Almost immediately the front peloton dropped me.  I wasn't worried -- it would be a very long day -- but the speed was pretty startling, and it wasn't that I was taking it easy per se.  In fact, it was kind of the opposite: despite the chilly 45-degree morning and the fact that I was wearing only a light vest over my jersey, I was dripping with sweat after the first ten miles.  My visor was fogged over on the inside, and it felt oddly like one of D.C.'s swampy midsummer mornings.  And, despite it all, I was nowhere near the pointy end of the race field.  This didn't bode well.  I shed my vest and took off for the long loop through the orange groves of central Florida.

The 90-mile long loop, which proceeds counter-clockwise from the Raceway.
Central Florida is pretty damn flat.  It's not as flat as the Raceway, but flat enough that each minor grade feels like a blessing, in that it gives you a chance to get out of the saddle and change things up a bit.  The upside to such boring topography is that speed comes pretty easily, or usually it does.  For me, it wasn't happening at all.  My tentative race plan was to hold about a 21 mph average for the daytime portion of the race, which usually requires a pretty relaxed 190 watts.  Unfortunately, holding anything close to 20 mph felt like flat-out time trialing, and my power meter confirmed that something was wrong -- I was pushing much harder than I wanted to be, up in the 250-290 watt range, but I wasn't going anywhere.  Cue frustration.

What made things worse is that no one else seemed to be working nearly as hard as I was.  Individual riders would cruise past me on their road bikes as I powered along in the aero bars, but I rationalized that they were probably century racers pushing aggressively.  Then, however, a woman cruised past me; I remarked that she was looking very strong, and asked what race division she was in.  She said she was in mine -- the 24-hour RAAM Qualifier -- and that she'd actually been the only woman to finish solo RAAM in 2013.  (Hello, Cassie Schmacher!)  I thought, well, damn -- clearly she's a ridiculously strong rider, and apparently I'm even less prepared for this race than I suspected.  But then she remarked that she was just keeping a steady pace in the daytime, and planned to pick up the effort once evening fell.

At that point I knew something was wrong.  I had no thought that I was the strongest rider in the field, but if I'm putting out 290 watts and getting dropped by a female riding at a relaxed pace, things just weren't adding up.  And then I remembered: my front wheel problem.  Oh, crap.  I pulled off to the side of the road and, sure enough, I could barely get the wheel to turn with my hand because it was rubbing so much on the brake pad.  I realized that I could recenter the wheel, but that, due to the hub alignment problem, it might not stay that way.  Might as well give it a try.

The good news is that suddenly I felt liberated, like I could finally breathe after having my face covered with a pillow for the first hour of the race.  The bad news is that, in the first hour, I'd been pushing at half-Ironman effort, but I had only an 18-mph average to show for it.  I was already miles behind the leaders, and the effort had made it impossible for me to eat as much as I'd planned.  An hour into a 24-hour race, and I was already in a deep hole.

MAKING IT WORK, OR MAKING  A TWERK?

Most of the second hour proceeded fitfully.  I'd reel in a steady stream of riders for 10 minutes, only to find progressively that I was working too hard for the speed I was holding.  So I'd stop, curse as I futzed around with my wheel, and then start up again.  It was extremely difficult to get into any sort of rhythm, I was getting frustrated, and I wasn't sure what to do about it.  The problem is that, any time I got out of the saddle, the torque would throw my front wheel against the brakes and I'd have to fix it.

Overall, by the time I reached the turnaround at the 50-mile point, I was fully six miles behind the leaders, with an average speed of only 20 mph or so, and I hadn't stopped to refuel at all.  The speed itself wasn't disastrous in the grand scheme of a 24-hour race; the problem was that I'd worked far harder than my speed suggested.  I'd somehow managed to blow myself up while going very slowly.

Just after the turnaround, I met my folks to refuel, and debated swapping my front wheel out.  I'd managed to go a few miles without any problems by clamping the skewer down to a massive degree, and now that my crew was in the vicinity of where I was riding, I decided I could give it a few more miles to see if I'd fixed the problem.  I definitely wanted the 808, rather than the shallower wheel; the only question was whether I could make it work.

Finally, nearly three hours into the race, I was able to set into something of a rhythm, put my head down, and start cranking out the miles.

Something lonely this way comes.
Not really a 24-hour TT bike position.  To me, Florida looks like my front wheel.
One of my big concerns heading into the race was my bike position.  Calling it aggressive might be to understate the matter.  It is comfortable enough as far as it goes, and it's almost certainly more aerodynamic than that of any other upright rider in the race field, but it is not designed for long races.  I'd managed to hold it together over the course of my 12-hour TT in Saratoga, NY in the summer of 2012, but that was during the height of race season, and I was basically a mess by the end of it.

The problem with an aggressive bike fit is twofold.  First, it puts a lot of weight on the arms and shoulders, and that really adds up over time.  Second, my arm pads are so far below my saddle that, if I hold my neck in a natural position, I'm staring almost straight down:

Good head position for reading.  Seeing where I'm going, not so much.
Therefore, in order to see where I'm going -- which is useful now and then -- I'm forced to "sight" like one might do in open-water swimming.

Sneaking a peek.
Craning one's neck upward constantly for 24 hours is not a recipe for happiness.  In contrast, here's the bike position of Chris Hopkinson, last year's Sebring winner, and the winner of the worldwide series of 24-hour races for 2013.

Pilfered from Hoppo's Facebook page.  I'm sure he won't mind the publicity!  :-)
Unless I'm mistaken, Chris has competed in more than 20 separate 24-hour races, and he's a 2-time solo RAAM finisher, so the comparison is a relevant one.  My back is flatter than his, and I'm more aerodynamic without question, but his position is a lot more practical than mine, and he puts out a lot more power than I do.

The good news was that I was finally making decent progress, although I certainly wasn't reeling in the leaders.  Toward the end of the long loop, I cruised through the century mark in 4:48, which was 20 minutes behind Hopkinson -- the leader once again -- but it was far from disastrous, given that I'd lost at least 5 miles due to my brake issues.  My average speed was creeping up to 21 mph or so, which is where I'd hoped it would be by that point.  And I was in relatively good cheer, since I felt like I'd finally wrestled my mechanical demons into submission.

Unfortunately, as I turned back west toward the Raceway, where we would finish the long loop and begin the shorter daytime loops, a weather front rolled through that was pretty brutal.  It was spitting rain for a few minutes, but the bigger problem is that suddenly the winds kicked up to just over 30 mph, and they stayed that way.  I'm not a small rider, but with my disc and deep front wheel, I was being tossed all over the road, and the end of the long loop required plowing straight into that gale for 7 or 8 miles.  It was unbecoming.

Eventually, slightly more than 5 hours into the ride, I reached the Raceway once more.  Only 19 hours to go! (Yeesh.)  At the entrance to the Raceway, the crews, including mine, were set up alongside the road in a sort of block party in celebration of the fact that their life choices hadn't led to their being on their bikes just then.  Tents were blowing over, styrofoam containers were flying across the road, and I was in the middle of it, because of course.

If wind were visible, I wouldn't be.
CIRQUE DU CYCLEIL

My plan had been to eat as much solid food as I could in this event, reasoning that a constant influx of sweet liquids and gels would catch up with me eventually.  Unfortunately, due to my unintentionally hard effort in the first couple of hours, I'd taken in exactly zero "real food" calories in the first five hours.  Instead, the main things keeping me going had been constant bottles of Skratch Labs drink mix and Gu Roctane gels.  My reward for finishing the first century was a bottle of Coke, which I downed immediately over the course of about 100 yards, and a couple of bars that my mom foisted upon me in the hope that I'd find my way back to the nutritional plan we'd discussed.  I was skeptical, but I took them anyway.

The afternoon portion of Bike Sebring comprises an 11-mile loop, beginning and ending at the Raceway, that competitors ride until 6:30 pm (for 12-hour racers), darkness falls (for 24-hour racers), or you fall of your bike and are eaten by an alligator (the category into which I tentatively placed myself).

The 11-mile Sebring short loop.
The counterclockwise loop is great for an event of this nature -- all right-hand turns, no stop lights, and only a couple of stop signs that pose little risk from traffic.  You also revisit the Raceway (and your crew) once every 30-40 minutes, depending on your speed, so refueling is easy and there are frequent doses of motivation.  It's not quite flat.  The first few miles, heading west, are up a false flat and directly into a strong headwind, which can be exhausting and morale-sapping.  The wind takes a break when you turn right to head north, although here, there are a few chippy rolling hills to contend with.  Happily, though, it's one of the very few stretches in the entire 24-hour race when you have an excuse to get out of the saddle and hammer a bit, then rest on the downside.  I appreciated the variety, as well as the gigantic manatee mailbox.  The sharp right turn to head back southeast provides the reward for the previous hard work, as it's slightly downhill with a wind at your back, more or less.

Toward the beginning of my first short loop, heading west into the strong wind, I was feeling pretty good -- the early drama of the day had faded, there was a seemingly infinite distance to go, and I was resolved not to fight the wind too much.  I was spinning steadily when I saw a flash of yellow to the left, and mentally heard a "Meep meep!" a la The Roadrunner of Disney cartoon fame.  Swiveling my head, I was greeted by this thing, cutting into the wind like it ain't no thing:

He is more aerodynamic than you are.
I'd never seen one of these before.  Technically it falls into the "HPV" category, which is short for "Human-Powered Vehicle."  Note that it's not a bicycle.  Note also that, depending on how frustrated about the wind you're feeling at the moment, it bears a strong resemblance to either (a) a banana, or (b) a part of the male anatomy not normally actively implicated in bike racing.  From what I could tell, the guy may well have had a sofa, espresso machine, heater, and home theatre in there.

Meep-meep!  I want to kill it.
Doing some research afterward, it appears that this thing is actually not a bicycle or trike at all.  It's a Bluevelo Quest Velomobile.


Here's what the ride is like, apparently.


Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not sure how I feel about entering a vehicle featuring "recline adjustment" in a bike race.  Actually, I did know how I felt at the time: like the thing was mocking my pain.  I didn't know whether I wanted to scream at it or buy it.  When you're shivering, your neck and shoulders are aching badly, and you're getting thrown all over the road by wind, these things aren't helpful in lifting spirits.  Sigh. I finished my first short loop in 33 minutes or so, navigating the turnaround before greeting the parents with a look that said it all.

A menagerie of misguided souls.
Me want Coke.
Once more, my mom tried valiantly to get me to eat some solid food, so I took a couple of cookies and a Bonk Breaker, which I eventually managed to choke down against the sentiments of my gag reflex. Happily, after the first couple of short loops, I began to settle in -- my average speed was holding constant at about 21 mph, just where I'd wanted to be despite the early setbacks, and I didn't feel like I was working too hard.  The loops took on a rhythm: steady into the wind, turn right, go faster, stand-hammer stand-hammer, coast a little, sharp right, tailwindgofast!, and back to the Raceway.  My parents worked out a system of calling me every 25 minutes or so after I'd departed, which allowed them to prepare whatever nutrition I needed at the next handoff.  It worked very well -- a new bottle of Skratch virtually every loop, interspersed with Coke, gels, the odd solid nibble, and very concentrated bottles of CarboPro.

 After my second or third loop, I found myself trading off with a solidly-built guy with untamed blonde hair. He was sporting knee-length athletic socks and in general wasn't nearly as color-coordinated as most riders out there, but I sure wasn't putting any time into him.  Quite the contrary, I'd pass him here and there, and sure enough he'd come right back a few miles later.  Eventually I realized that he was basically a perfect pacer -- we were riding almost exactly the same speed each loop, and his style (easy into the wind, out of the saddle over the hills, etc.) perfectly complemented mine.  I spent 40-50 miles or about 20 yards behind him, just turning my brain off and letting him dictate the pace.  Eventually I struck up a conversation with him, remarking casually that he'd clearly done this before, and it turns out that, yes: he (Kurt Searvogel) held the Sebring course record, and had been the top solo American finisher at Race Across America in 2012.  He also was racing in the 12-hour division, and was a full loop (11 miles) ahead of me at the time.  Clearly, this wasn't someone with whom I had any business dueling it out, which was pretty liberating.  It just goes to show about this race, though: many people there were very serious business, even if it's sometimes not obvious who they are at first glance.

Eventually Kurt dropped me, which was just as well, and close on his heels came Chris Hopkinson, last year's winner, who cruised past me with a friendly nod like it was nothing at all.  I felt like I'd found my home, which was something like, "doing just fine, but getting my butt kicked by people who aren't completely bluffing their way through this."  Seemed about right.

Chris "Hoppo" Hopkinson, beating me like a drum and having fun doing it.
One would think it's easy to keep track of what 11-mile loop you're on; after all, you have nothing else to think about.  But after awhile, I really couldn't -- was it loop 5, or loop 7?  No idea.  My mental capacity wasn't able to cope with much more than singing along to "Footloose" and vintage Queensryche.  Eventually my goals in life coalesced into a single objective: stay on my the infernal short loop (headwind-turn-hills-turn-tailwind-phone crew-refuel-repeat) until 5:30 pm, give or take, when at least something new would happen, i.e., we'd be routed onto the Raceway, where we'd have another 13 hours to ride.  Good grief.  After what turned out to be 11 short loops (121 miles), I was gratefully routed over a steep bridge, through the pit area, and onto the Sebring International Raceway, where -- for reasons I'd once thought I understood -- I was supposed to stay on my bike until breakfast time the next morning.

"DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY!" -VAN HALEN
The 3.75-mile Sebring International Raceway, with its 17 turns.
The unique aspect of Bike Sebring is, of course, the Raceway.  Most of the time it's dominated by F1 cars blowing around it at 200 mph, but once a year they let the true crazies play on it overnight.  It is the flattest thing one will ever ride on.  The pavement is very good, apart from about a 1/2 mile stretch around pit row and the first turn thereafter, where the Raceway's origins as an airport are evident as the concrete slabs have significant joints between them, and are broken up in many places. I sauntered onto the track and found my parents, who, with the other crews, had been relocated from the Raceway entrance onto pit row, where they'd spend the night under the lights watching their friends and loved ones steadily decompose on their bikes.  I swapped out my mirrored visor for a clear one, fired up my light, and turned a few steady loops at a relaxed pace, just trying to get a feel for the lines through the corners.

Sunset at Sebring.
Party on pit row!
I was extremely tired, but after 12 hours, I was halfway there, and against all odds (undertraining, spotty nutrition, mechanical issues, wind, etc.), I was almost exactly where I wanted to be -- about 245 miles in.  RAAM qualification would require "only" 155 additional miles in 12 hours on flat ground, which seemed pretty straightforward compared to what had come before. In many ways, Sebring is the ideal place to ride the overnight portion of a 24-hour race.  It's closed to car traffic, the pavement is generally good, it's short enough that you see your crew a few times each hour, and, should anything go wrong, you're not far away.  But it's not all puppies and rainbows.  As great as it is to pass your crew every 12 minutes or so, it means that you're regularly afforded an inviting opportunity to stop, check in, have some food, take a nap, talk with a human, or do any of the things that well-adjusted people do on a regular basis.  Having that opportunity constantly present is like a slight but significant tax on one's motivation, but giving into it is toxic to results: to stop is to go infinitely slowly. "Stay on your bike at all costs" is the mantra.

One thing I didn't expect is that the track is pretty much shrouded in darkness.  The race website said that the course would be illuminated, and I'd seen a lot of pictures of the lights on pit row, which seemed plenty bright.  What's more, the race only "suggested" -- i.e., it did not require -- bike lights.  I erred on the side of caution by bringing my extremely powerful Exposure Strada headlight, and I'm utterly glad I did, because it turns out that most of the course is completely dark.  Before darkness fell completely, race volunteers circled the track in a car, and every 100 yards or so they'd drop a red bike light in the middle of the course.  That was it.  Those were certainly more helpful than nothing, but the overall effect was to make Sebring look like the airport it used to be.  Note to anyone attempting this race: bring a damn good, randonneuring-quality headlight.

A couple of weeks before Bike Sebring, I'd read a very helpful guide that should be considered required reading for anyone new to this event.  It observed that riders will commonly go 20% slower during the overnight portion than during the day.  This struck me as something of an exaggeration -- at night the winds are lighter, you're circling a perfectly flat track, and the end is in sight, metaphorically speaking.

Well, I'm here to say, the guide is absolutely spot-on.  Until 11:00 pm or so, things went very well.  I was whipping around the track contentedly, coordinating with my crew to grab a new bottle every 30 minutes or so.  In fact, I even got a couple of calls from my gf, who was in Chicago for the weekend.  Those opportunities to have a conversation were invaluable, but even so, the witching hour brought the pain with it.  My neck was killing me, my shoulders were aching, my knees throbbed with every turn of the pedals, and the less said about my chamois, the better.  I'd ridden about 350 miles, and I was not having fun anymore.  RAAM qualification was 50 miles away -- about 13 more times around the track -- but at that moment, I honestly didn't care too much.  I was done, and I thought of all of the excuses I'd have for stopping.  It's at moments like that that the crew becomes absolutely indispensable.  It's their job to remind you that your job is to stay on the bike and that you entered the race for a reason.  If I'd have been racing this event unsupported, there's every likelihood I'd have stopped right then and ridden the half mile back to the warm shower in my hotel room.

The overnight scene on pit row, the only illuminated portion of the Raceway.
Thankfully, my parents insisted I keep going, which I managed to do, but in the early hours of Sunday morning it was distinctly scrappy business.  I was only able to be in the aero bars about half the time, and I was out of the saddle far more than I'd have liked, just doing everything I could to keep going.

In a race this long, on a track this short, you get to know every inch of the pavement.  There was a very gentle breeze out of the west, maybe only 5 mph or so, but it was noticeable -- our speed would be 1-2 mph faster on certain parts of the course, and correspondingly slower on others.

Also, the temperatures were dropping quickly, down to about 40 degrees, and I was succumbing to it very quickly.  I'd lost the ability to ride hard enough to keep myself warm, and my wardrobe was patently inadequate.  Eventually I prevailed upon my parents to retrieve everything that might be helpful from my hotel room, and I put it all on -- jersey, vest, fleece pullover, windbreaker jacket, and long-fingered gloves.  In fact, I was so cold that they retrieved a towel from the hotel bathroom that they stuffed around my neck as a sort of redneck balaclava.  It worked, barely, but every time I stopped, it was harder to get moving again.  And, as the night passed, my average speed was steadily creeping downward.

One decision my crew made pretty much saved my race.  About 1:00 a.m., my mom told me that the concession stand had chicken noodle soup.  ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY.  I had them fill a bike bottle with warm soup and noodles, and they handed it to me without a lid.  For half a lap, I was gratefully slurping salty goodness.  It wasn't perfect, because eventually I was left with a huge clump of noodles and chicken in the bottom of the bottle, but I didn't care a whit -- I just tilted the bottle up and choked it down, regardless of the splattering all over my face.  It was the happiest I've ever been to have a chunk of chicken up my nose.  I also stopped briefly for a hamburger, which was divine.

Lesson: next time I do an event like this, I have to plan for what will actually be appealing 12 or 18 hours into a ride.  As it turns out, the answer to that is salty solid food, not bars or anything "performance" oriented.  In fact, a plate of stir-fried rice may be the perfect thing.

At about 3:30 a.m., 21 hours into the ride, my odometer ticked over to the magic 400 miles -- I'd qualified for solo RAAM at the first time of asking.  What an utter relief, and what a sense of accomplishment.

RETURNING HOME WITH A BROKEN RECORD?

Anything from here out was gravy, but there was one particularly attractive gravy boat floating in the distance: the age group course record, which was 449 miles.  49 miles in 3 hours seemed to be feasible, just a 16 mph average or so.  The catharsis of qualifying for RAAM gave me a temporary boost, and for awhile, it seemed like the record was mine for the taking.

Unfortunately, it just didn't seem like I had it in me.  The wheels were coming off rapidly -- I was standing fully half the time, my hands were going numb, my entire body ached, my bike shorts felt like sandpaper, and I was just demolished.  I flogged myself as best I could, but as 5:30 a.m. drew near, I was forced to admit that I just couldn't make it.  My odometer said 431 miles, which meant I was 18 miles short of the record.  It seemed impossible that I could hold 18 mph for an hour just then, but what's worse is that Sebring doesn't give credit for partial laps, meaning I'd have to ride 18 miles plus 3.75 miles in order to break the record.  That was simply impossible.

Taking a broader view, I realized that nothing I could do in the last hour would achieve anything.  I was 15 miles behind Hopkinson, who was in first place, and I was a good 30 miles ahead of the rider in second place.  I'd met my goal for the day despite difficult conditions and a dose of bad luck, and I felt like I was simply falling apart on the bike.  I couldn't keep from shivering, and my knees were screaming that I was doing more damage to them by the moment.  To top it all off, I had an important job interview less than two days later.  I decided to be rational for once in my life, and I called it a day at 431 miles, with an hour to go.

WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA?


After heading back to my hotel for an exceedingly long shower (note: dried blood stains inside bike shorts portend an uncomfortable cleansing experience), I finally managed get warm enough to head back out for the awards ceremony.  I turned in my chip and wandered over to see the results, where I found a surprise: the official tally had me at 441 miles, not 431.  I have no idea what led to the discrepancy, but the fact is, I'd stopped with an hour left and the record a mere 8 miles away.  I'd needed only to ride 3 more loops to own it, and no matter how awful I'd felt, I'd been capable of handling that task.  But I didn't know -- I'd acted on the best information available to me -- and that was that.  Lesson learned: a 24 hour race should be ridden for 24 hours.  Next time, Gadget.

How far is 441 miles?  It's the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston:

D.C. to Boston = 438 miles.
And it's about 60 miles more than the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles:

San Francisco to Los Angeles = 381 miles.
Viewed from any reasonable perspective, my day was a huge success.  I took 2nd overall and 1st in the age group with a distance that would have won the race the prior year.  Chris Hopkinson beat me handily to win, chalking up 468 miles, but then again, he was the world champ at 24-hour racing last year.  Had I not lost 5-6 miles to mechanical trouble in the first hour, and had I forced myself to gimp 12 miles in the last hour of the race, the margin might have been only 10-12 miles.  I couldn't have won -- he was by far the stronger athlete on the day -- but it was a much closer race than I'd have thought, and it suggests that I have more to give at this distance with proper preparation.

Do well at pie-eating contest, win more pie.
CLOSING THOUGHTS

Sebring is a terrific and unique event.  It's run seamlessly, and the opportunity to race on an internationally famous Raceway is hard to pass up.  I definitely plan to return -- maybe to make Hopkinson work a little harder for it next time!

24-hour races are interesting beasts.  The psychological demands are notably different, and greater, than races of a set distance, because no matter how quickly or slowly you go, the finish line comes to you.  In the back of your head, you're always aware that there's no such thing as a "Did Not Finish" result -- everyone who starts automatically finishes 24 hours later.  For that reason, unlike in a race of a set distance, an hour off of your bike brings you just as much closer to the finish line as does an hour of flat-out hammering.  When the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, the urge to slow down or stop becomes a siren song that is monumentally difficult to resist.  In some ways it's more humane to race a set distance, because there you know that it's a "pay me now or pay me later" situation, so you might as well keep going.  It's much more difficult knowing that, whenever you like, you can stop, have dinner, shower, rest, and return to your bike to find the finish line closer than when you'd stopped.  It is a mental war.

It's also the case that, in a 24-hour race, a rider is utterly dependent on his crew.  I got myself through a self-supported 12-hour race, which was suboptimal from a competitive standpoint but feasible on other levels.  Not so in a 24-hour race.  My experience here convinced me that I'll never enter such an event without a crew.  I cannot imagine how I'd have survived the night without my crew hunting down spare clothes, discovering a well of chicken soup that I didn't know existed, handing me cups of hot coffee, and urging me to keep going when I wanted nothing more than to stop.  My parents kicked unbelievable amounts of ass.  I might have been the only one competing in the race, but in fact, this was a team event from beginning to end. I don't think it's possible to do it any other way.  For anyone considering crewing for this sort of event, know that you're a huge part of the rider's success.

I definitely plan to race more of these events in the future.  My next planned 24-hour race is the National 24-hour Championships in Michigan in mid-June.  I may pick up a 12-hour event before or afterward.  The California Central Coast 1200k looms in August, and who knows what may happen after that?

As for my RAAM qualification, for now, I'm simply delighted to receive it.  I've written a little more about my thoughts entering that event here.