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.

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