Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Can't Take The Heat: 2014 Saratoga 12-Hour TT Race Report

On July 12th, I headed to the idyllic town of Saratoga Springs, NY for my second crack at the "Hudson River 12-Hour," one of the competitions that comprises the Saratoga 12/24 weekend.  For a variety of reasons, I was approaching this race a bit under-baked fitness-wise.  For one thing, between my recovery from the National 24-Hour Challenge a month ago and a 10-day trip to France in the lead-up to the race, I hadn't spent much time on my bike recently.  For another, due to the unseasonably cold spring and the fact that most of my weekday riding is done on a trainer indoors, I hadn't been outside much in the heat and humidity for which the East Coast is legendary.  Finally, because the Saratoga events are not sanctioned by the Ultramarathon Cycling Association, performances this weekend wouldn't count toward any year-long aggregate competitions.  So, basically, my approach was to race unsupported, hopefully put in a solid day, and move on.

Having said that, to be blunt, I expected to win this race.  In 2012, I'd broken the course record only to lose by four miles to Matt Roy, an incredibly accomplished rider with a leapfrogging crew vehicle; Matt wouldn't be back this year.  That year I'd finished two miles ahead of John Nobile, a very strong guy who'd previously won the Tour of the Divide mountain bike race.  John had returned to Saratoga in 2013 to establish a 255-mile course record on the new Saratoga course, and while I thought he'd be tough competition in 2014, at the last minute he'd chosen to enter the 24-hour race, so he literally was not a factor.  Given those developments, I figured that the win would be straightforward; the challenge would be breaking John's course record.  I thought I had a good shot, given that I was stronger than I had been in 2012.

One big unknown was the "new" course (new to me, anyway; it was used in 2013, when I hadn't raced).  The previous course had been a 32-mile loop; the new one was a 40.5-mile "lollipop" design, with aid stations at the beginning and the 19-mile point.  It looked pretty fast, only 25 feet/mile of climbing, but from the map it looked like the course crossed a number of major roads, and I hoped there wouldn't be too much drama with traffic lights.  There's nothing as frustrating as pushing hard on the open roads, only to be forced to stand at a stop light for minutes on end as your average speed erodes before your eyes. 

I'd learned in 2012 that, when self-supporting during a race, it's important to minimize the amount of wasted time spent refilling bottles between loops.  So, I'd pre-filled 20 bike bottles with my various potions -- and one with crushed Fritos, which had been divine in Michigan -- and stuffed them into coolers full of ice.  I figured that I'd go through 2 bottles an hour in the morning and the evening, and maybe 3 per hour during the heat of the afternoon.

Things got started in mellow fashion with the 40-odd riders (spread across all race divisions) enjoying a 1/2-mile parade start through two traffic lights -- a prelude of things to come -- and then we were released onto the course, which was marked with orange arrows on the pavement just before each turn.

I immediately set off at my own pace, which is to say, hard, but not unreasonably so.  I've concluded that it's a fool's errand to try to evenly split anything as long as a 12-hour or 24-hour race; instead, it makes the most sense to give it gas when you're feeling spry, knowing that the black moments will come one way or another, and it's best to be in a good position when they do.  I quickly dropped the field, although I got caught behind another couple of traffic lights and blew past a couple of turns that I noticed too late.  I found the delays annoying, but I figured that, in terms of results, they were largely academic; the question on my mind was whether I could break that 255-mile mark that John Nobile had set last year.  

About ten miles in, after I'd looped around to correct another navigational mishap, I saw a guy on a road bike not far behind me, which was a little surprising.   But, I figured, some people go too hard at the beginning of these races, and he'd soon drop off.  Only he didn't, or at least, not enough -- I pulled away a few hundred yards toward the end of the lollipop, but the tiny gap closed when we hit the series of traffic lights heading back into town.  More ominously, he had a leapfrogging support vehicle sporting a pre-printed yellow "BICYCLE AHEAD" banner on the back of it, something I'd previously seen in exactly one place: RAAM.  I hoped I was wrong about that.

As we were waiting for the lights back into town to let us through, the rider pulled up next to me, and we chatted a bit as we rode side-by-side for a few miles.  His name was Rob Morlock, and as I figured, he'd been around the block a bit, including finishing RAAM solo three times, with a sub-10-hour finish in there back in the 90s.  "Great," I thought.  Twice I race Saratoga, and twice I wind up in a dogfight with an accomplished ultracyclist with a well-drilled support crew.  I'd narrowly lost the last time, and I resolved not to have it happen again.  Unfortunately, that would probably mean pushing harder, and sooner, than I'd planned.  I wanted to break contact to give Rob a chance to back off on his effort, as I figured it would be easier for him to push hard if I were acting as a rabbit.

Onward I pressed, keeping my average speed north of 22 mph despite the traffic lights and stop signs, but Rob wasn't going anywhere.  Worse, things were starting to heat up in a very literal sense.  I was dripping sweat all over the place, and it was only 11:00 a.m.  Every few minutes I'd see his support vehicle pass, and his wife would hop out and wait for him with a bottle of cold something-or-other.  I teased her that I was jealous, which wasn't far from the truth.  (Although, in a grand sporting gesture, Rob offered to have her hand me up some water if I needed it.)  This sequence continued every few minutes until the end of the loop, when I had to stop to swap out my bottles then sprint to catch Rob, who'd kept on rolling.

At this point, 80 miles in, I was getting concerned; I was working a lot harder than I'd planned, but my average speed was dropping by the minute and I was beginning to feel distinctly crappy.  Constantly thirsty, sweating buckets -- barf.  Recalling the apocryphal Einstein definition of insanity, I decided to change things up by shadowing Rob around the course for a loop, thinking that maybe he'd find leading as difficult as I had.

Well, he didn't -- dude was strong as an ox.  I hung on desperately through mile 120, at the end of the third loop, at which point Amy had stopped by briefly before getting ready for the wedding she was attending.  I immediately committed the cardinal sin of the hard-man ultracyclist by getting off of the bike completely, and I sat in the shade as I nursed a couple of cold bottles of liquid and downed some Fritos.  She confirmed that the day was indeed brutally warm and muggy, and that it wasn't just me falling apart for no reason.  

Remarkably, I was 6 hours into a 12-hour TT, and already my average speed was considerably slower than it had been for the full 12 hours in 2012.  In fact, it was slower than it had been over 24 hours at the National 24-Hour a month ago.  The course record was a fading dream, as was the overall win; Rob looked like he could do this all day (which, in fact, probably was just his plan).  I mentally flicked the switch from "race" mode to "just go out and keep trucking" mode, and I managed to get myself around the 4th loop, but it wasn't pretty.  John Nobile, who was racing in the 24-hour division, passed me when I dropped my chain on a short climb, and that blow to my dignity took on a physical manifestation when my hands suddenly began cramping whenever I tried to wrap them around my handlebars.  As Sean Connery memorably put it, "our situation has not improved."

By the start of the 5th lap, at mile 162ish, I was riding for pride and not much else.  Well, ok; I was also proceeding under the rationale that, if I wasn't acclimated to the heat heading into the race, at least there was a good way to start fixing that problem.  Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately -- my bike put an end to proceedings shortly thereafter.  I noticed that my rear tire was slowly deflating, but it wasn't completely flat.  To change the tube, I had to deflate it, but I couldn't since: (i) the valve stem was deeply recessed inside my rim, and covered by a valve extension; (ii) I didn't have anything long enough to poke it to let the air out; and (iii) I couldn't unscrew the valve extension, as I couldn't squeeze it without my hands seizing up in cramps.  I finally wrestled the tire off the rim using tire levers in ways God never intended, but when I inflated the new tube, the tire became unseated; it looked like I'd damaged the tire bead.  Game over, dude.

After getting SAG'ed the few miles back to the start, the race director messed around with my tire and declared it wasn't going to hold up.  He offered me a new wheel to keep going, but by then I'd been off the bike for an hour on top of my already dismal performance.  I decided to cut my losses and make an appearance at the local wedding from which I was playing hooky in order to race.  I wished my buddy Max the best -- he'd taken the enviable tac of hosing himself off and lying down before starting his last lap -- and that was that.

In all, I rode 165 miles in 8-something hours, with an average speed around 20 mph.  Pretty dismal compared to what I'd hoped, but it happens.  I'd been going from strength to strength in the ultracycling world this year, so this was a useful learning experience.   Every now and then I apparently need a reminder that I sweat more than anyone else on Earth, and that drinking water needs to be a full-time job in the peak of summer.

Ah well, live and learn!  Congrats to John Nobile on setting a 467-mile course record in the 24-hour race, which is a serious performance on any day, much less one like the one we had, and to Rob Morlock for showing me how it's done while cruising to victory in the 12-hour event.

I'm not sure whether I'll be back to Saratoga.  It has a lot going for it in terms of location and friendly, low-key atmosphere, but I was disappointed in the number of major intersections with heavy car traffic on what's supposed to be a TT course -- something like 8 such intersections per loop.  If I do another of these mid-summer events in a self-supported manner, I need to lower my expectations and prioritize hydration over competing when the two priorities conflict.  That's a tough thing for me, since I tend to motivate myself in these events by pushing aggressively at every opportunity, but it's probably a lesson I need to internalize.

Thanks, as always, to Adirondack Ultracycling and John Ceceri for putting on a welcoming and well-run event.