"I'm givin' 'er all she's got, captain! She can't take much more of this!"
This weekend, I raced the third annual Mid-Atlantic 24-Hour TT in Washington, NC. From a purely competitive perspective, it didn't make sense to do so; less than two weeks earlier, I'd ridden for nearly 60 hours over four days in the California Central Coast 1200k Randonnée, and though my recovery was proceeding well enough, it was clear I wasn't in an ideal position to do my best in a 24-hour race. In the few workouts I'd attempted in the last two weeks, I'd been well off my best numbers, and I hadn't felt like I had much to give.
Even so, I decided to toe the line in NC for two reasons. First, I'm in a pretty competitive position in the Ultramarathon Cycling Association's 24-Hour Competition, which is a year-long, world-wide competition to see who can put together the most miles in any three 24-hour races. I'd done pretty well in the two that I'd raced (441 at Sebring despite not riding the last hour because I was tired of shivering through a 38-degree night, and 488 at the National 24-Hour Challenge), but without a third, I couldn't hope to place well when it was all said and done. The Mid-Atlantic 24 was the only remaining race I could reasonably attend. Second, it was an easy 4-hour drive away, and it also was straightforward for my parents to get to from Atlanta, which is an important selling point. And so it was that I decided to do the best I could while playing with less than a full deck (physical or mental).
Unlike Sebring and the N24HC, each of which had three loops (a long daytime loop, several shorter daytime loops, and then a very small overnight loop), Mid-Atlantic had only one 26-mile loop that riders would circle until they saw the sun a second time. It was about as flat as it could be, and while a few miles had rough pavement and there was a bit of a wind, on the whole it was ideal for moving quickly:
One observation about this loop: it starts at the far western point, then proceeds clockwise, heading east before looping back to the southwest. There is only one checkpoint where riders' numbers are recorded, that being at the start/finish line. To my mind, without a second checkpoint on the far eastern side of the loop, there appear to be many opportunities to cut the course for anyone who's so inclined. The comparable races I've seen have had such secondary checkpoints, although I'm sure it greatly increases the staffing challenge for the event; having volunteers sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere through the night is pretty thankless. Maybe that's one reason many 24-hour races have a nighttime loop that's only a few miles long. I suppose this race proceeded on the honor system, which is fair enough, although it seems a surprising arrangement for an official Race Across America qualifier, and it's a little disconcerting to someone who cut his teeth navigating Ironman's landscape of timing mats and course marshals. Even randonneuring events, which are as noncompetitive as they come, take measures to ensure that riders stick to the designated route. I hoped it wouldn't be an issue.
|My unintentionally well-color-coordinated setup for the day.|
As always seems to be the case at non-triathlon events, the starting line was a pretty relaxed place. I suppose there was little to get worked up about at the start of an event that would last for either 12 or 24 hours, depending on one's division.
|Me and Max, my longtime riding compadre.|
|Chatting with Brian Jastrebsky, the eventual winner (far right in green Zoot kit).|
By now I've gotten fairly adept at recognizing fast triathletes when I see them, and one guy I noticed at the starting line, Brian Jastrebsky, fit the description. He said this would be his first ride over 150 miles, but I also learned that he'd recently won a very competitive half-Ironman race over several strong athletes I know. I figured he'd be moving fast for at least the first 150-200 miles; past that, anything was possible. So much of ultracycling is getting the bike comfort, nutrition, and mindset right that it's a hit-or-miss thing on the first go-round even for strong athletes. In an event like this, where many participants are shooting to hit that 400-mile mark for RAAM qualification, I think often riders limit themselves by focusing on that number when in fact they could do more if they aimed higher.
My mental goal was something in the 450-mile range. I considered that number conservative, but given my sub-optimal preparation, I didn't have much confidence that I'd be able to keep a strong pace through the nighttime hours.
The first loop of the course revealed a second sense in which this race operated according to the honor system. The race was strictly "non-drafting," but after the official car led us through the first mile, all bets were off and all wheel-suckers were on. What a nightmare. A group of 50-odd riders formed the Worst Peloton Ever, riding unpredictably and yet in very close proximity. A couple of times I upped my pace to 24 mph or so to try to create some space, but I'd turn around and there'd be 30 guys right there, chatting with one another. It got to the point that, when I'd see guys right behind me, I'd quickly pull off to the side and touch the brakes to force them to confront the wind.
[BEGIN LECTURE] Hey guys, here's a tip: people notice things. If you're drafting in a non-drafting event, it's not a "hey, do what you want" kind of thing. It's against the rules of the race every bit as much as cutting the course is, and it's disrespectful to the other riders. If you think the people who are riding their own races don't notice and remember, you're entirely wrong. You may be a very strong rider, and you may even win at the end of the day, but to me, you'll never be worthy of respect until you cut out the bullshit. It's tough to claim you're not drafting when the guy 6" in front of you drifts left and right across the lane and you follow him every step of the way. I'm embarrassed on your behalf. [END LECTURE]
Sorry to be bitchy. :-)
In any case, the first loop proceeded in peloton format at about 22 mph, and I made a quick bottle change and shot out onto loop 2, pressing the pace in an effort to find some breathing room. For the next hundred miles it was pretty much me, a couple of guys on recumbents who were riding the 12-hour race, and a guy on a road bike without aerobars who seemed to be going all-out at every pedal stroke. I was feeling okay, and averaged close to 23 mph for the first 125 miles. I finished the first century in 4:24, my "Ironman" 112-mile split was 4:56, and my 125-mile split was about 5:30. It was exactly the pace I'd been on at N24HC in Michigan, and it wasn't too stressful, although my lower back was rebelling in a way it hasn't for a long time. I knew it wasn't a good sign that I was thinking about ibuprofen so early in the event.
|Looking about as happy as I felt.|
And then things rapidly got worse. My power had been holding steady at about 220w, but suddenly I could barely get it above 200w, and I found myself flailing. I couldn't figure out what the problem was; it was warm but not searing, and I'd been downing two bottles of hydration every hour, which seemed like plenty. Maybe the humidity was a part of it. Eventually I realized that, although my aggressive pace in the first 125 miles might have been manageable if I were in peak form, I'd probably overcooked myself given my fatigue heading into the event. Minute by minute, my average speed was drifting lower, and I was struggling to make progress. This is not the sensation you want when you have 18 hours to go in a ride. I reasoned that bad stretches are inevitable in races like this, but it's rare that I encounter one so early and emphatically. The roadie and recumbents faded from view, and as they did, I turned my cycling computer to a simple "time and distance" readout; any speed and power numbers from that point forward were bound to be depressing.
The next several hours were about trying to salvage the race. At one point, uncharacteristically, I found myself standing in ice water with a cold compress on my head as I tried to get my body temperature down. This wasn't at all the day I'd hoped to have, but my mind went back a couple of years ago to a time I attempted a straightforward 200k brevet two weeks after competing in Ironman Wales. I'd felt just fine for the first 50 miles or so, and then it was suddenly game over. The remaining 75 miles were some of the most arduous and painful of my life. It seems to be the case that, with lingering fatigue, you can feel superficially strong for some period, but eventually the bottom just falls out, and it can happen quite suddenly. I was right there again. I was only able to convince myself to keep going on the theory that the day had turned from race into mental training exercise. There might not be an opportunity to win anything, but there was still a chance to fight through a tough situation in a way that I might be able to call upon down the road.
Mechanical Numero Uno
Eventually, after 9 hours or so, after eating and drinking everything I could and riding gingerly, I started feeling a little bit better, but for some reason I wasn't able to go any faster. I began to hear the telltale pulsing squeak of a brake hitting the rim, and cursed to myself that somehow my ongoing campaign against brake-rub had hit another setback. Getting off my bike at the far side of the loop to inspect my rear wheel, though, I noticed two odd things. First, my wheel wasn't just off-center, such that it was rubbing only one brake pad. Instead, it was, at various points, hitting both pads -- the wheel was warped. Second, from inside my wheel cover came a metallic rattling whenever the wheel rotated. Broken spoke inside my wheel cover. Crap. I'd never broken a spoke before, believe it or not, and I couldn't figure out how it had happened on this ride. Maybe on one of the railroad track crossings?
I didn't have a spoke wrench on me, and even if I did, the spoke was inside the screwed-on wheel cover. On most bikes I could simply have loosened the rear brakes to give the wheel more clearance, but my bike has integrated rear brakes that are adjustable only by a guy named "You And What Army." I knew I had a spare rear wheel in my car -- thank goodness for my having taken that precaution -- but my car was 13 miles away and I was on a bike that was rattling, wobbling, and topping out at 10 mph. I struggled with it for a couple of miles, trying to pretend I was just going with the flow, before I decided I'd had enough. I pulled out my multi-tool and entirely removed the rear brake pads and holders, which I stuffed in my jersey pocket. Rear brakes? Who needs 'em. I reasoned that it wasn't as if it were raining, which was true enough for 15 minutes or so. And then it was!
My backup rear wheel got things going in the right direction once again, although it was hardly ideal; it had a climbing cassette instead of a flat-land cassette, meaning that the gear spacing was uncomfortably wide and I often couldn't find the one I wanted. I hadn't brought the tool to change it.
The good news was that, as the halfway point approached, my legs had finally come around and I was passing people constantly. The bad news was that I'd covered only 240 miles (compared to, for example, 268 at N24HC). Given the almost unavoidable drop-off in speed for the overnight portion, I reasoned I'd be lucky to hit 450-460 total miles, and the race leaders were beyond distant horizons. I figured all I could do was soldier on and hope that the guys up front encounter night terrors.
Fortunately, the nighttime portion turned out to be my personal happy place. I felt markedly stronger in the early evening hours than I had at any point until then, and I was flying around the course, reeling riders in like rabbits. Unlike most 24-hour races, this one permitted crews to follow their riders, and I therefore invited my parents to follow me for a couple of nighttime loops, keeping me in their headlights. I reasoned that it might stave off sleepiness for me, and it would probably make them feel better as well, given the recent incident in which a cyclist was killed by a truck during a ride I was on.
Mechanical Dos: Revenge of Mechanical
About 11:00 pm, 15 hours into the ride, I was buzzing right along, but I suddenly began to feel inexplicably unstable when going around curves; the bike was just handling strangely. I stopped to feel my front wheel, thinking that maybe it had partially deflated and was therefore gripping the road in odd ways, but it seemed fine. Maybe I was just getting loopy? Strange. I started back down the road, but when steering with one hand while getting a drink, I nearly fell right over. The bike was jumpy and twitchy. What the hell?
I stopped to inspect things more closely, and rotated the handlebars from side to side. When I did, this is what I encountered (video taken post-race):
As far as I could tell, the bearings in my headset had suddenly been replaced with gravel. There was a stiff crunching sound as I turned the bars from side to side, but even worse was the fact that the steering was "sticky." Specifically, when the bars got anywhere near straight, they would suddenly snap in into the straight-forward position, and it would take a lot of force to turn them again. When they did finally turn, they did so suddenly and violently, like breaking free a stuck pedal -- they would pop sideways, causing the bike to swerve sharply. It was extremely disconcerting, especially considering the fact that I was missing a rear brake. For the final 8 hours of the race, it was a constant war to keep my bike from throwing me to the ground. Each meaningful turn or curve required coming to an almost complete stop and then wrestling the bars to get pointed in the new direction.
Somehow, despite it all, I was still moving fast when I wasn't trying to stop, turn, or get my bike working properly. I averaged 20 mph or so for several hours straight overnight, flying past other riders merrily, and I realized that, despite all of the problems I'd encountered throughout the day, a final number in the 450's might be possible. That would constitute a major victory considering how the day had gone, and with an hour to go, I was hammering as hard as I could. I had 436 miles, and I wanted 456. It was the final push! The dawn was breaking, I had a third or fourth life, and I was ready to smoke the final lap.
Mechanical Tres: Competence Lacking
And then my front tire punctured. (Of course.) Dejectedly, I pulled off to the side of the road, where, illuminated by headlights, I went to change the tube. My tri bike has massive lawyer's lips on the dropouts that require greatly loosening the skewer in order to get the front wheel off. My exhaustion and exasperation with constant mechanicals left me with little patience for my wheel's refusal to release from the bike, and somehow I must have loosened the skewer nut a little too much. Not thinking clearly, I laid the wheel down and pulled out my flat kit, but when I picked the wheel up again, the skewer fell out. The cam end landed in plain view, but the nut -- which was black, naturally -- dropped somewhere into the dense knee-high weeds where I'd laid the wheel. Utterly ridiculous. I decided to go ahead and replace the tube before looking for the skewer nut, but again my fatigue must have gotten the better of me, because despite my working the tire back on by hand, the tube exploded when I inflated it. Destroyed spare tube. No nut to attach the wheel to the bike. Outstanding.
And so it was that, against my every intention, I abandoned the ride with fully an hour to go, leaving me with a total mileage of 436.
Considering it all
I'm not thrilled with a final result of 436, but examining my data file afterward, one number told the story:
21 hours and 22 minutes -- that's how long I'd been moving out of the 24 hours in the race. I'm usually very good about staying on my bike in these events. At N24HC, for example, I'd been rolling for well over 23 hours. I'd lost the final hour of this race, and I'm quite confident that my brake rub/broken spoke/brake removal/tire change/wrong cassette fiasco, combined with my inability to control my bike, had cost me a lot of time as well.
Had I been able to ride for as long as I normally would have, i.e., 23+ hours, the additional 1.5 hours at 20 mph would have yielded me another 30 miles or so, which would have put me in the mid 460s. It's not an exact science -- after all, maybe the mechanicals gave my legs a small break -- but a 460+ number would have been an outstanding day given my lack of rest heading into the race. In light of that, I have to be content with what I was able to do, especially given the depths of trouble I was in during the afternoon hours.
The eventual winner was Brian Jastrebsky, a 29-year-old triathlete from Virginia Beach, with 471 miles. Considering that his previous longest ride had been 150 miles, that's an astounding performance, and I look forward to seeing more of him around the circuit in the years to come. His strong day confirms my belief that many Ironman athletes could do well at ultracycling if they gave it a try. Mentally, there's a lot of similarity between the events -- you just have to keep moving -- and the bike training isn't actually a world different. Having said that, I've raced against a couple of 9:20-ish Ironman guys in these events, and they didn't do anywhere near as well as Brian did. Hats off to him.
The second-place rider, Ray Brown, finished just behind Brian, with 468 miles. Again, a great day. I'll see Ray again at Silver State 508 in October, where he'll comprise part of a pretty stacked field. Hopefully I'll be able to put in a better showing.
My plan for the immediate future is to get some rest to let my body absorb the 80-odd hours of saddle time I've accumulated in the last half-month, and then to focus on consistency and intensity for a few weeks heading into Silver State. Once I'm there, the plan will be "ride myself into a puddle and see where I wind up."