Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Warrenton 600k Ride Report: Riding through the night is hard, Barbie.

There's only one thing that I like, and that is whistling in the dark.
This ultracycling experience started with a decision I wish I hadn't faced.  The DC Randonneurs' only 600k ride of the year started on a Saturday at 4:00 a.m.  I needed to ride it, both to complete my first official Super Randonneur series (completion of official 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevets in a calendar year), and to qualify me for Paris-Brest-Paris in summer 2015 if I choose to do it.  PBP is the grand-daddy of the 1200ks in the world, a 750-mile rolling party of 5,000 cyclists; like the World Cup, it's held only once every four years.  I'm not sure whether I'll do it next summer, but I wanted to have the chance if I so elected.

The problem was, I'd also committed to attending a wedding the same weekend as the 600k.  It started at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, i.e., 31 hours after the start of the 600k.  Considering that the average time to finish a 600k in this region is probably in the range of 35 hours, I really only had one way to make everything happen: treat the 600k like a race, and hammer it out quickly enough to get a quick nap before driving home and getting dressed for the wedding.

The plan was audacious, risky, and probably stupid; it left almost no margin for error or misfortune.  But I didn't want to decline a wedding invitation for a bike ride, and I thought a hard effort would be a helpful dress rehearsal for the National 24-Hour Challenge I'll be racing in June.

The good news is it went reasonably well: I finished in the mid-25-hour range, i.e., at about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday.  But there was a lot of very bad news along the way.  Since I was trying to move as fast as possible, I have few pictures and no video; indeed, my impression of the whole affair is a random set of fever dream-like experiential distillations of a mind long gone delirious.  Therefore, in lieu of the traditional narrative ride report, which I'm sure many others will offer, I'll recount some key impressions that have stuck with me.


After spending so long this spring riding in cold weather, I'd resolved never to be caught out again on the clothing front.  I wanted a vest -- when paired with arm warmers, it's as good as a jacket, but the lack of sleeves extends the usable temperature range by a huge margin -- but a warm one, and one with pockets.  There are very few of those out there, but the Assos iG.falkenZahn is one, and it's arguably my new favorite bit of ultracycling kit:

Like all Assos stuff, it's extremely form-fitting; a Medium is very snug on me, at 6'0" and 165ish pounds.  The inside is fleece-lined for warmth, but the back ventilates extremely well.  When combined with good arm warmers, I found it very comfortable from the mid-40s through the mid-60s, that is, all the way across the very difficult range between winter and summer wardrobes that characterizes brevets on the East Coast.  Best of all, it has three highly functional pockets, plus a smaller zippered pocket, which means there's no longer a need to wrestle clothing out of the way in order to access jersey pockets.  Highly recommended (and cheaper on sale).

The second piece of new gear was a very large seat bag, the Revelate "Pika".

I'd ridden brevets and other ultracycling events with a "trunk bag" before, and until now I'd used the Arkel Tailrider, an extremely popular choice with the randonneuring set.  My quibbles with it are twofold.  First, the mounting hardware only works on traditional round seat posts,  which makes it useless for a tri bike like I was using on Saturday.  Second, and more important, the Tailrider's many laudable attributes come with the significant downside that it alters the bike's handling.  Specifically, when climbing out of the saddle, the weight swinging left to right makes it feel like the bike is about to be flung to the ground by a malevolent deity.  The Arkel is actually better than most in that regard but I found the Pika to be even better despite its far less elegant appearance.  It expands dramatically when needed -- the back flap unrolls until it looks almost indecent:

This Pika is excited for the ride.

My models suggest that dropping your ass would be highly efficient.
Just before my alarm went off, I had a dream in which I was sitting in the office of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.  I don't know why; I'm not an economist, and I've never met him, though I do read his NYT columns regularly.  My trepidation at his inexplicable meeting request dissipated when he revealed that he's actually an avid randonneur who that very afternoon was planning to ride from New Jersey to Vermont.

I have no idea what kind of nerd this makes me, but I will say that I was far happier chatting with Krugman about randonneuring than I was when my alarm went off at 3:00 a.m., only a few hours after I'd crawled into bed.  Reality makes me cranky.


Start: 4:00 a.m.
Finish: 6:30 p.m.
Distance: 245 miles
Time: 14 hours and 30 minutes
Average speed (including all stops): 17 mph

Winning.  My first missed turn occurred 50 yards into the ride.  It was the first turn.  I was winning in the Charlie Sheen sense.

The aliens have landed.  I've often wondered what a peloton of randonneurs at night would look like to a random passerby.  I found out 20 miles in.  I'd missed another turn around mile ten (two points make a trend, you could say), which sent me a couple of miles off course.   A few miles after that, I spied on the dark horizon what looked like an inexplicable traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, a giant glowing red mass drifting silently in the night.  As I approached, the mass differentiated into clusters of individual glowing dots, which only at the last moment revealed spectral riders illuminated by the front lights of the riders behind them.  It was a little spooky.

An inscrutable portent.  I saw three turtles crossing the road today.  Three!  In my previous years of cycling, I've seen a total of zero.  Was it an omen, and, if so, of what?  Hopefully not my progress.

My precioussssss.  I was saved by the kindness of strangers.  At mile 125, Bill Beck, the ride coordinator, who had been taking pictures, was waiting for me with a gift: my control card, which apparently had fallen out of my pocket at the first control.  Another randonneur had found it and given it to Bill, who'd driven up the road to find me.  For those unfamiliar with this sport, one of the clearest rules is that you must get your control card initialed at various points along the way; if you don't, it's as if your ride didn't happen.  I would probably have been forced to drop out after 125 miles if not for sheer good karma and my apparent failure to alienate every other randonneur that day by dressing like I was from the planet TriDork.  In fact, if Bill hadn't been along taking pictures, I would have been forced to ride despondently back to the start -- about 110 miles away.

The light!  It burns!  The day was utterly, completely perfect.  It feels churlish to complain about the sun on a 70-degree day, particularly after the winter we've had, but the truth is that, riding through open plains for hours on end in the middle of the day, I was baked and suffering.  Having ridden 170 miles already that day might have contributed to that sensation.

The new food pyramid.  The second-lowest point of my ride occurred around mile 175, near 2:30 pm -- that is, 10.5 hours into the ride.  I was getting mentally fuzzy and my legs suddenly had nothing in them.   (This is somewhat expected; it's near the end of the 300k mark, and I'd had no real food to eat all day.)  Drifting into Louisa on fumes, I parked myself outside a Shell station and consumed, on the spot, everything in the store that appealed to me.  Disturbingly, that consisted of 2 Little Debbies Fudge Rounds, a large bag of salted mixed nuts, a large pack of Skittles, a 20-ounce bottle of Coke, and a 32-ounce bottle of V8 juice.  For dessert, I had a gel, a mental image of a disapproving Michelle Obama, and acid reflux.

Echoes of the past.   Riding around Culpeper, I realized I'd seen certain places before in rides years ago, back in my early days with Team Z.  I'd encounter random decrepit buildings and would suddenly be certain I'd previously viewed them from another direction.  And then, just as suddenly, my mind would associate with utterly insignificant remarks made by people I haven't seen in years as we were riding by those places.  For example, I saw a country store and immediately recalled that, while standing outside it in 2008, I'd remarked to another rider that there appeared to be something wrong with the valve stem on her wheel.  It's incredible what random things are stored in one's mind.  Ultracycling must have certain elements in common with regression therapy.  Random places imbued with memories.

James Madison did not believe in progress.  Here's my impression of the James Madison Highway, which the route seemed to cross about ten times before I lost track.

Shortly after leaving that traffic-laden artery behind for the final time, I encountered the world's longest train, which was moving at the speed of government.

Randonneuring is slow.  I know this intellectually and experientially, but it always surprises me.  I think it's common for competitive cyclists and triathletes to look at the average speeds for a randonneuring ride -- meeting time cut-offs usually requires averaging around 10 mph -- and imagine that it's easy.  In fact, though, it's incredibly difficult to make good time in these events.  The routes are almost universally challenging, and they are entirely unsupported, which means no getting bottles from volunteers or SAG drivers.  Quite the opposite, they require you to stop periodically at control points whether you need to or not, and the clock keeps running at every stop light and stop sign.  At some point you develop an irresistible craving for actual, hot food.  You're often required to ride at night.  And, finally, due to brevets' length and unsupported nature, you're compelled to laden your bike with pounds of clothes, lights, nutrition, and other supplies.  The result is moving, shall we say, deliberately.

Yesterday I was on my time trial bike, wearing an aero helmet, and trying to make good time wherever I could; the result was a 17 mph average for the first 245 miles (400k), which meant I finished in around 14 hours and 30 minutes.  That is quick by randonneuring standards -- previously, my stand-alone 400k times had been in the 18- to 20-hour range -- but compared to race splits, it's very pedestrian.  Somehow, in randonneuring events, nothing moves quickly even when you want it to.

My kingdom for a burrito.  The end of the first loop, at mile 242, brought us back to the host hotel, where most people would sleep for a few hours before heading out at dawn on Sunday morning to tackle the last 135 miles.  I hit it at about 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and had a full night of riding ahead of me.  For this, I'd devised a secret weapon: stashing the world's largest Chipotle burrito in my hotel room's refrigerator.  As I sat there scarfing it down, feeling every inch the exhausted biohazard, I tried to pretend I didn't have ten hours of nighttime riding ahead of me; it felt inconceivable.


Start: 6:45 p.m.
Finish: 5:40 a.m.
Time: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Distance: 135 miles
Average speed: 12.4 mph (ugh)

Some roads are better than others at night.  In my experience, the nighttime portion of brevets can either be meditative and beautiful, or stressful as hell -- and not much in between.  In last year's 600k, I spent the overnight portion barreling along a relatively flat, straight country road with great pavement, bright lines on the side of the road, no traffic, and a sea of stars overhead.  It came as a welcome respite from the searing heat of the summer sun, and I later thought if it as the reward for a hard day's work.

This route was different.  Many of the roads around Frederick were distinctly busy on a Saturday night, even though they seemed rural.  When roads were sufficiently remote to avoid the traffic problem, they were so remote that they were narrow, winding, sketchy affairs through a dense canopy of trees that blocked out the moonlight.  Often there was no center line or line on the right of the road, steep hills and tight corners that made it difficult to see far ahead, and rough, broken pavement that forced constant concentration in order to stay on the road.  It was very slow-going.

One road wasn't there at all.  On Thursday night, heavy rains had swept through the region, and in several places on the ride signs warned of danger from high waters.  In fact, in a couple of places, the road near rivers was covered with dirt, a sure sign of a recent flood.  But that was the extent of it... until mile 285 or so.

Around 10:15 at night, I was winding through an odd series of neighborhoods in downtown Fredericksburg when the cue said to turn left on King Street, which was along the Rappahannock River.  Barring the way, though, was a "Road Closed -- High Water" sign.  I figured maybe it was a holdover from recent days that posed no current issue beyond walking my bike across some wet pavement, but no.  Not at all.  The road ahead simply disappeared underwater.  Doing some research after the ride ended, I realized that King Street is also called River Road, and I found a daytime picture of what I saw in front of me that night:

Do not pass go.
And so it was that I had a true randonneuring experience, sitting on the side of the road at night, pecking away at Google Maps to try to find a way across the river.  Living the dream!

A nighttime wildernesses walk.  At one point, the route took us through a battlefield in Fredericksburg, complete with signs warning that the park was closed from dusk to dawn.   Feeling quite the scofflaw, I moseyed on down the road until it ended.  And I do mean ended -- dead ended into a split-rail fence, beyond which lay a gravel path through the woods.  Checking the cue sheet with a "surely you can't be serious" expression on my face, I found that it was very serious about my continuing onward.  And so it was that I hiked for about 1/3 of a mile through the woods in the middle of the night, with my triathlon bike, wearing a skinsuit and aero helmet and visor.  Apparently this is the life I've carved out for myself.

I think I'm done with solo nighttime adventures.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were many times in the overnight portion of this ride that I would have very seriously considered quitting if I'd had the option.  (I didn't; I had to get home in time for the wedding.  Heck, there was only one way to get home, period, and that was to keep going.)  I realized at about 1:00 a.m. that I was utterly alone, miles from anywhere, on roads with cars likely driven by people heading home from bars, with a single headlight.  I realized that if the headlight failed, or fell off my bike and broke, or if I got side-swiped, it could be an exceedingly long time before any help arrived.  I'd been alone on my bike for more than 20 hours, and I still had 70 miles to go.

Not only that, but I felt like I was struggling to get the ride done.  My odometer was completely inaccurate by then due to various electronic mishaps, and there were long stretches of roads without turns, which meant that I had no idea what my true mileage was.  That was tragic insofar as we were forced to find "information controls," i.e., signs on the side of the road at certain mileage points -- but, on several occasions, I realized that due to my wonky odometer, I was unsure whether I'd missed a particular sign or whether it lay ahead.  On at least one occasion I convinced myself that I must have passed the sign miles before, but due to my slow progress, I didn't think I had time to go back and look for it; I resigned myself to failing to complete the ride's requirements and not getting credit for it.  And then, several miles later, I came upon the information control I thought I'd missed.   It was a bewildering and disheartening process.

I realized at some point that I was no longer having any fun at all, not even in the "embrace the challenge" sense.  I just wanted to be done, to go home, to have a hot shower and solid meal, and to get myself off the road in a safe place.  I felt like I'd be lucky to escape the situation, and I decided at that point that I don't think I'm going to do a ride like this again.  I don't mean that I'll never do a 600k or nighttime ride; many events I'm targeting require riding at night.  But riding alone, at night, in very rural areas, with no support anywhere to be found, seems to me to be an unacceptable risk at this stage in life.  There's no reason to put myself in that situation again.

No soup for you!  There are several types of controls in randonneuring rides.  The most common is a normal control, which is a designated commercial establishment, often a gas station, where you're required to have your control card initialed and time-stamped by an employee.  There's also the aforementioned "information control," which requires you to describe something on the route to prove you traversed it, and the "secret control," which is an unannounced control on the side of the road staffed by a ride official.  Finally, there's the "open control," which requires you to get a receipt from a business somewhere in a designated area; usually they amount to, "get lunch somewhere in this town and prove you did it."

The last two commercial controls on the route were at a 7-11 at mile 284 and an open control in Spotsylvania at mile 317.  (The total ride distance was 376 miles.)  I knew of no businesses between miles 317 and 376, so, at 12:30 a.m., I was exhausted and desperately looking forward to some light and warmth at the last open control at mile 317.  The cue sheet suggested the Fasmart at the Valero station.  Here's what I found when I got there.

Incredulous, I rode up and down the street in Spotsylvania (there's only one) several times, thinking that surely I must be missing the Sheetz, 7-11, or other all-night establishment.  But I wasn't.  Spotsylvania was dead to me, and I to it.  In my despair, I stopped for a minute and doodled a self-portrait.

I also took a few pictures to prove I was there; I wouldn't be able to produce the receipt required from open controls, but I figured that if I were DQ'd on that cruel basis, I'd just write the ride off and drink heavily at the wedding.

It turned out that, as I feared, there wasn't a single open business the rest of the ride.  And so it was that, at the end of an absurdly long day, I didn't refuel or see another human being between miles 284 and 376 -- 92 miles, and about 7 hours.  Yet another "character-building experience," I suppose.  All I wanted was a bag of Fritos, some water, and maybe a cup of coffee; I'm a simple man.  But no, the world denied me even those basic things.

Make it to the church on time! After one of the longest and loneliest nights of my life, I found my way back to the host hotel at around 5:30 a.m. -- 25 hours and 30 minutes after starting the ride the previous morning.  Including bonus miles for navigation issues, I was nearing 390 miles, and it had been a long time since I'd had anything to eat or drink.  Happily, in the last couple of miles, I passed a steady stream of randonneurs who'd slept for several hours at the overnight, and who were then heading out on the final 130-mile stretch I'd just completed.  I even saw Mark about 50 yards from the hotel, and wished him well.  What I didn't say was, "Good luck -- I really hope you don't suffer as much as I just did."  I figured that might not be the most supportive advice to offer at the moment.

My time of 25:42 wound up being pretty quick as an historical matter.  Here's a graph -- albeit a couple of years out of date -- showing the historical distribution of finishing times for DC Randonneurs, as well as for American randonneurs more broadly.  The average is about 36 hours, and the top 25% cutoff is 32 hours or so.

After spending a couple of minutes chatting with the brevet officials in the conference room and enjoying a bowl of chili, I headed upstairs and walked into my shower fully-clothed, where I proceeded to sit under a stream of warm water for about 10 minutes in a cleansing of body and soul.  After a quick hour's nap, I made my way home and enjoyed a gorgeous outdoor wedding in Glen Echo Park, sipping Bellinis and wearing my sunglasses as much as possible so as not to disturb anyone with evidence of what I'd just been through.


Looking back on it with a couple of days' perspective, I'll say this: the ride was utterly gorgeous and immaculately managed.  The weather was impossible to beat.  But riding solo, and hard, for 25 hours straight was one of the most difficult things I've ever done, particularly mentally.  There were many times in the middle of the night where I would have very gladly stopped had I had any opportunity to do so; I was exhausted, famished, lonely, and felt totally exposed.  At those times, it wasn't remotely fun and I just wanted out.  I think the only sane way to do these rides is to sleep through some of the night and leave at dawn on the second day, or to ride through the night with others who are on a similarly aggressive schedule.  I'm glad I emerged unscathed, but this one's a learning experience for the ages.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"The Tartar Steppe" -- A great read for athletes and beyond

No one will be surprised to learn I read a fair amount about endurance sports.  Sure, there are lots of "Get Psyched Up!" ghost-written biographies out there that amount to, "Me train hard go fast.  You no go fast; that ok."  Some of them are decent, but they do tend to blend together.

The thing is, I'm only modestly interested in hearing tales of glory recounted.  I'm more intrigued by the psychological side, specifically, why endurance athletes are driven to be weirdos.  They do objectively unreasonable things at great expense along every relevant dimension -- physical, financial, and interpersonal. And, when you ask many of them, they'll have a hard time telling you why; they'll often admit that training can dominate their lives and races are often stressful, but somehow putting those two negatives together creates a positive, and an addictive one at that.  Why?

Endurance athletes' biographies are largely unhelpful in answering this question, although it's really the reason that their books exist.  Behind the hand-waving, mostly it seems to boil down to (i) proving something to oneself or others, (ii) the desire to set and meet goals, and (iii) the search for meaning that's so often missing from life in a cubicle.  Fair enough, but it sort of begs the central question: When the point is proved and the goal is met, does that lead to happiness over the long term?  Is the searched-for meaning ever found?  I suspect that, for many people, it might be painful to think honestly about the answers to those questions.

I've struggled a great deal with this stuff, sometimes publicly.  My posts here, here, and here ruminate explicitly about it.

In the past few months, I've been pleased to discover a few books that are helpful in thinking about why endurance athletes do what we do.  The thing is, the most insightful books on endurance sports I've found haven't been about endurance sports at all -- at least not literally.

Here's one of them.

Although it's a bit obscure, several creditable lists identify The Tartar Steppe, written originally in Italian, as one of the best novels of the last century.  The dust jacket accurately describes it as "a meditation on the human thirst for glory."  A young military officer, Giovanni Drago, is posted to a remote fort in mountains that overlook a vast desert.  He intends to leave as soon as possible, but gradually becomes entranced by the romantic notion that an invading army will someday materialize in the mist-shrouded distance to allow him to achieve glory on the battlefield, and his life will then be purposeful.  Drogo dedicates himself and his life to visions of this distant dream, only to find in times of doubt that he no longer has any choice but to continue, as his years in the fort have rendered him lost anywhere else.  When at last the enemies amass at the gate, Drogo is old and infirm, and he is transported from the fort in preparation for the dreamt-of battle.  Having dedicated his life to the pursuit of a vision, he finds that it has materialized too late.

A "meditation" is the right description here: The Tartar Steppe is a novel that compels one to think.  It's an enigma.  For most of it, almost nothing happens, but that "nothing happening" is largely the point.  In literal terms, the book has nothing to whatever to do with running or riding a bicycle, but I think on some level it has everything to do with those things.  How often do we, as endurance athletes, sacrifice aspects of our lives in pursuit of a distant vision of glory?  How often do foresake opportunities to do memorable things, all because we're "training with dedication"?

So once more Drogo is climbing up the valley to the Fort and he has fifteen years fewer to live.  Yet he does not feel that he has changed particularly; time has slipped by so quickly that his heart has not had a chance to grow old.  And although the mysterious tumult of the passing hours grows with each day, Drogo perseveres in his illusion that the really important things of life are still before him.  Giovanni patiently awaits his hour, the hour which has never come; he does not see that the future has grown terribly short, that it is no longer like in the days when time to come could seem an immense period, an inexhaustible fund of riches to be squandered without risk.

Will we be faster next year?  Will we go farther?  The year after that?  Then what?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Frederick 400k Ride Report: Lesson Learned

Beautiful scenery.  Off-screen to the left, something wicked this way coming.
Bad Idea Bicycling

I'm discovering that, for me, there's a diabolical sort of momentum to any particular endurance sport, and it goes something like this:

Anxiety --> Familiarity --> Laziness --> Spankage

It's certainly been true of Ironman racing.  For my first couple of races, back in 2006-2007, the sheer intimidation factor of the distance ensured that I completed virtually every workout, and I obsessed over the details.  Then, as years passed, the distance itself stopped being daunting; it was about getting the best time I could, but I ceased to sweat the small stuff.  I reasoned that missing workouts here and there wouldn't matter much if there were something more interesting on offer, and I found that I was no longer planning meticulously for the events' logistics.  I'd show up to races without goggles, and often I'd find mechanical problems with my bike moments before the races started.  I'd ride 1200ks only weeks before an Ironman, which is pretty much the worst possible time.  Many winters I'd take half a year off of swimming, knowing that I could get back to "good enough" swim shape with only a couple of months of hard work.  In other words, I was half-assing triathlon, and my results eventually reflected that reality.

Saturday's 400k (250-mile) brevet has me thinking that I need to start paying more attention on the ultracycling front, because I'm starting to take for granted that I can just roll through these things as long as I eat and drink enough.  In reality, it takes a little more than that.

For the first few years of my ultracycling career, I'd roll down the road prepared for anything short of Biblical plagues.  I'd carry 5 pounds of bars and gels despite having refueling stops available every hour or two, load myself down with doubly-redundant backup batteries for my lights, and carry a trunk bag stuffed with enough spare clothes to weather an unexpected ice age.  Invariably I'd use almost none of it, which meant I'd spend 20 hours or so waddling down the road like a constipated bison while my riding companions zipped along without a care in the world.  It was irksome.

This year I've taken a more minimalist approach, basically setting out for brevets like I'd do for a local shop ride, with the exception of putting a little bit more nutrition in my jersey pockets.  In the 200k brevet about a month back, the weather promised to be disastrous, so I put on my rain gear at the start and kept it on all day -- no problem there.  Similarly, on the 300k in mid April that I'd ridden with Mark (link to Mark's excellent ride report), the weather was forecasted to be spectacular, and so it proved; the temperatures were supposed to be in the 40s at the start, so I put on a light vest and armwarmers, reasoning that I'd just be a little chilly until sunrise.  And, indeed, things went off without a hitch, and I felt sorry for the guys with overstuffed sacks affixed to their bikes while I played in the sunshine.

400ks, though, are tricky beasts.  This was to be my third, and the first two involved considerable drama.  First, in 2012, a buddy and I tacked a 400k brevet in the Fingerlakes region of NY.  Unfortunately, the first six hours of it were spent wading through an extremely cold, soaking rain, meaning that we spent a considerable amount of time huddled in gas stations, trying desperately to drink enough coffee to keep ourselves from shivering.  Needless to say, that's not really ideal for a 20-hour day.  Then, in 2013, we tackled a 400k closer to home, only to find that when dusk fell on us with 35 miles remaining, almost all of our lights had inexplicably died, as had our routing computers, which meant we spent a solid three hours picking our way uselessly along pitch-black country roads, all while getting profoundly lost.

400ks are challenging, I think, for two main reasons (apart from the 250-mile distance, which is considerable).  First, they take place in springtime, which is to say that you really don't have a clue what the weather will be from one moment to the next.  Second, unless you're scorchingly fast, they involve two significant chunks of nighttime riding: one from 4:00 a.m. until sunrise, and the other from about 9:00 p.m. through whatever time you're done (the average being about 1:00 a.m.).  In other words, there's a lot of time and opportunity for things to go wrong.

My mistake on this occasion was using the promising weather forecast to pack lightly -- just a windbreaker vest and light arm warmers.  I figured the first couple of hours would be chilly, but after that it would be smooth (and light) sailing.


My goal for this ride was only to finish it; I figured I'd ride with Mark, who was attempting his first 400k brevet, enjoy the scenery, and get to know some fellow riders.  I've recently been on a kick of not finishing each ride exhausted from racing up every incline, and I was optimistic enough to think I might finish this ride without getting too beaten up.

Because I slept in my own bed the night before (rather than driving an hour to the ride start and staying in a hotel), my alarm went off at 1:45 a.m., which is pretty perverse.  Driving out of my parking garage at 2:00, I noted that pretty much everyone else in Logan Circle was awake; it's just that they hadn't gone to bed yet.  On the upside, waking up that early is basically the equivalent of just taking a nap -- it's too early for your body to get indignant, because it doesn't understand that that's all the sleep it's going to get.

Turnout for this ride was pretty amazing -- 45 riders, give or take.  Just a few years back, there would have been less than half that number.  The number of crazies is growing!

The first couple of hours, riding through downtown Frederick and the countryside in pre-dawn hours, was as surreal as always in these events.  There's nothing quite like a 40-person peloton, each bike with blasting headlights and glowing red taillights, and each rider festooned with reflective clothing, to make passersby believe in aliens.

Mark on the left in downtown Frederick.  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
After a couple of hours of rolling along to the sounds of morning birds, whirring tires, and clicking shifters, dawn broke and we made our way over a couple of long, grinding climbs out of Thurmont and into southern Pennsylvania.  The roads were spectacular, often lined with trees bedecked in their vernal finery.

Photo credit to Bill Beck.
My progress through this portion was constantly interrupted by my need to find a private tree seemingly every 10 minutes.  I didn't get it; I'd had all of one espresso to drink that morning, but I seemed to be a miracle of modern science.

As we made our way further into Pennsylvania, the forested climbs gave way to never-ending, rolling fields of the sort of electric green that one associates with the British Isles, not the mid-Atlantic.

Fields of glowing green.  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
We made terrific time through this section, and who wouldn't -- lightly rolling hills through beautiful countryside, with descents that snaked off into the distance in a way that invites one to pin the ears back and let it fly.

It's impossible to go slowly here.  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
The happy warriors!  Photo credit to Mary Gersemalina.
The scenery was post-card perfect.

This is why we ride bicycles!  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
Cruising merrily.  Photo credit to Mary Gersemalina.
Mark and I reached the first commercial control a little before noon, having been on the road for about 8 hours, and having covered a leisurely 110 miles.  Somehow, in the course of those 8 hours and 110 miles, I'd consumed only two bottles of water, which seems absurd, but every step of the way I'd felt extremely hydrated, so far be it from me to understand the mysteries of the world.  All I knew was, I was damn hungry.  So pizza it was, and pizza I did.

Pizza #1 of the day.  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
After a leisurely lunch, it was back on the roads, where we headed east through central PA, basking in the early afternoon sun as we followed rivers to lands unknown.

Trout fishing anyone?  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
During this stretch, from miles 110 through 130 or so, I found myself wondering why so often, as cyclists, we feel a need to hammer through a ride as fast as we can, with each turn of the pedals being a war of all against all.  I'm as guilty of it as anyone -- my Big Wild Ride solo effort is evidence of that -- but lately I've taken real pleasure in just enjoying the journey, knowing that I could go faster, but instead choosing to strike up conversations with cows.  And Mark.  But the cows laughed harder at my jokes.

Mark and I rolled through the 200k point (halfway) in 9 hours and 30 minutes, which was a pretty solid time for a ride with front-loaded climbing.  In fact, I think it was close to Mark's fastest time for 200k, which was pretty audacious for the first half of a 400k.  That pace seemed no problem to sustain at the time, but the third 100k -- from miles 124 through 190 -- came with no planned breaks, and that part of the ride is always a slog.   You've been riding for 12 hours after getting very little sleep, it's the hottest part of the day, and the end is nowhere in sight.  Psychologically, I think it's definitely the hardest.  Mark seemed a little less chipper than he had been earlier in the day, so I did my best to pull when I could and otherwise didn't badger him too much.  The objective was simple: to get to dinner, which was at the 190-mile point.

Well, we almost made it.  The weather had never been convincing, with the morning chill giving way to real warmth only for an hour or two around noon.  The afternoon had been overcast and blustery, and as we approached the dinner stop, our luck ran out.  Suddenly we were fighting to keep our bikes on the road as we were battered by driving gusts from the west, and what little sun there had been gave way to this:

Ah, yes -- that's the sky I associate with my long rides.  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
And soon thereafter, we were being soaked to the gills.  I'd put my vest back on, but when you're drenched and rolling down the road without putting out real power, it gets pretty miserable.

We finally arrived at dinner -- another pizza place -- and sought refuge from the cruel world.  Depressingly, they ran out of the corn soup just as we arrived; I was close to tears.  So, Mark and I took solace in a meal that can only be described as a Fat Fest: salted peanuts, potato chips, fried mozzarella sticks, and a large pizza.  Disgusting, but so tasty.  Mark had remarked a couple of times that he didn't understand how, in a previous long ride I'd done, I'd single-handedly eaten a large pizza.  But I think he finally got it.  I'm not sure if that's comforting or troubling.

The pizza place didn't have coffee, so I asked the waiter to keep bringing me large cups of hot water, all in an effort to keep my soggy self from shivering through dinner.

As the miles increase, so do the pizza sizes.  Photo credit to Bill Beck.
Sitting in the pizza place and contemplating the rest of the ride, I recognized that I was in a uniquely moronic position.  Pretty much everyone else who came in the door was sporting full-length jackets and tights, and many of them had rainproof caps.  I had nothing but my rapier wit, which turns out to be less useful than one would expect.  Perhaps sensing and enjoying my discomfort, Mark headed out to his bike, then to the restroom, and emerged remarking that it was really a good thing he'd thought to bring a dry pair of socks.  Dem's fightin' words.

Setting out from dinner at mile 190, we had 60 go.  It really says something about the size of an undertaking when 60 miles can be considered tying up loose ends, but that's what I hoped it would be.  Unfortunately, there was a big problem: it was still raining, I was soaked, it was getting colder, and I couldn't think of how on earth I was going to ride another 5 hours without falling off my bike with hypothermia -- at nighttime, nonetheless.  Plowing through the dark, we'd cross fields where suddenly the temperature would plummet ten degrees, and then jump up again only after making life thoroughly unpleasant.

I realized that I couldn't keep riding at Mark's pace, as much as I wanted to; he was better prepared for the conditions, whereas my only play was to work hard enough to generate body heat.  Doing so, of course, would mean pulling away, which I didn't want to do.  It's safer to ride together at night, and that had been the plan all day.  So, I struck upon the approach of letting Mark ride ahead for a few minutes while I stopped on the side of the road.  Then, I'd sprint as hard as I could to catch him, which would get me warm enough that I could ride with him for a few minutes before doing it again.  

That "randonneuring as intervals" approach worked for 10 miles or so, but it was a losing battle.  Eventually, it got too cool to just stop by the side of the road, so I found myself doing sets of pushups and burpees before taking off after Mark again.  

Eventually around mile 210, I realized that, at the pace we were going, it might well take us 3 hours to ride the final 40 miles, and I had no idea how I'd make it that long.  I just needed to get myself to the finish as fast as I could.  So, I apologized to Mark profusely, and he graciously agreed that it made sense for me to ride on ahead.

With that dispensation, I set out like a man on a mission: hammer to the finish.  And so it was that I ripped off a 40-mile solo time trial starting a little after 10:30 at night.  As it turned out, it was uncomfortable weather for riding, but it was perfect for racing, and I was happy to find that I felt as powerful at mile 220 as I did at mile 20.  Every now and then I'd encounter another randonneur who'd set off from dinner ahead of us, and I'd blow by with an apologetic explanation that I was just trying to salvage my situation.

Happily, I navigated successfully and found myself rolling through the broken social scene of downtown Frederick after midnight on a Saturday night.  I clocked into the finish at about 12:30 a.m., 20 hours and 30 minutes after we'd started, and 23 hours after I'd woken up.  I chatted for a few minutes with the other riders hanging out at the finish, then shot a text to Mark explaining that I had to hit the road in order to get home before I passed out.  He wound up finishing about an hour later, having fought through a very challenging first 400k, and having set a 60-mile personal distance record for a single ride. 

Final thoughts

400ks... bloody hell.  I've done three, and each one has reared its head in ugly fashion.  This one posed the question: "You're exhausted, shivering, have no more clothing, have been riding for more than 18 hours, and have 40 miles to go.  Discuss."  In that sense, it was a "brick in the wall" ride, so to speak -- the kind of experience you can draw from in future challenging situations.  And, in a real way, I think it was a useful kick in the ass, one that will ensure that, in future rides, I always carry some contingency clothing, regardless what the weather forecast says.  I even ordered a new, warmer vest with pockets, all because of this experience.

I'll get a chance to test the new gear in two weeks, when I'll take on a 600k (375 miles).  That ride will be a real trick, as I'll be attending a wedding only 31 hours after it starts -- the time limit for finishing the ride is 40 hours.  Basically, I'll be forced to treat it like a 375-mile unsupported race, which promises to be eventful.  But hey, that's how amusing stories happen!