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!


  1. Really enjoyed your observations and frank analysis of your ride. I agree w/ you about the diabolical momentum of the 400K. I went through so much anxiety in the first half, sheesh! ALSO, I was thinking similarly to you regarding the unpredictable nature of spring days, especially on days as long as 400Ks. I finally figured out to throw in a rain jacket no matter the weather forecast. I actually have a pic or two of you on the bike: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gersema/13947072620/ and https://www.flickr.com/photos/gersema/13947048119/in/photostream/. See you in a couple of weeks...

    1. Thanks for the shots! It was good seeing you out there. One of these days, a 400k will be straightforward, but Saturday was not that day.