Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Am I your huckleberry? RAAM 2015

Ever since I qualified for RAAM at Sebring in February, I've been trying to decide whether to take that massive plunge in 2015.  For most of the spring, I thought it was a toss-up; I was taking a wait-and-see approach to my first season of ultracycling, with an eye toward deciding after the year was done.  Then, after my 488-mile performance at the National 24-Hour Challenge, I felt certain that I wanted to give it a go. There were all sorts of reasons why, ranging from the love of a good challenge to support from many friends, some of whom even volunteered for the arduous task of crewing.

As the summer wore into fall, though, I found myself drifting back toward uncertainty as certain realities sank in.  In my ill-fated race in Saratoga, I spoke for a little while with Rob Morlock, a 3-time RAAM finisher with a sub-10-day result to his name.  He volunteered that, toward the end of one of his recent attempts, his saddle sores had gotten so bad that, in places, there was no skin left -- his sit bones were visible through what remained of his flesh.  The more race reports I read, the more I realize that this may be closer to the rule than to the unfortunate exception.  The physical challenge is utterly serious for even the very best athletes.  Marko Baloh, a legend in the sport, lost part of his lung when he got pneumonia.  Christoph Strasser, one of the strongest racers ever, was hospitalized a couple of years ago when he spiked a 105-degree fever in the middle of Kansas.  And, of course, Bob Breedlove was killed in a head-on collision with a car in the middle of the night.  RAAM sounds like it's closer to going off to war than to any event with which I'm familiar.

At the same time, my own race experiences were underlining the gravity of the proposed endeavor.  My lack of heat acclimation in DC's unusually cool summer meant that, at the Mid-Atlantic 24-Hour Challenge in August, I was getting dizzy from dehydration after only 10 hours.  The situation wasn't much better at the Silver State 508, where, despite relatively clement 90-degree temperatures, I found myself throwing up on the side of the road 100 miles in.  The last half of that race was one of the most painful things I've ever endured, from 60-degree temperature swings to an inappropriate bike fit that made every minute agonizing.  Toward the end of that race, I reflected on RAAM -- which is 6 times as long, and which shoots straight across the low desert in the first couple of days before cresting over 10,000' peaks -- and thought, "Not a chance in hell." Of course, the mind rounds off corners, and in retrospect it's easy to remember the accomplishment while the pain seems more like an academic fact than anything real and consequential.

So, here I am, 8 months out from RAAM, facing the big decision: do I take the plunge?  After thinking it over more than I'd like to admit, my answer is: No, at least not next year.  There are many reasons, but here are a few.

(1)  The financial cost.  If you do it on a shoestring budget -- i.e., without an RV, and with neither rider nor crew having much in the way of creature comforts -- the cost would probably come to at least $25,000, and it could well be higher.  Even if I could defray some of that with a full-court fundraising campaign, it still would still be a monumentally expensive undertaking for someone who works for the government.  There are many reasons why RAAM competitors skew older, but I think one of them is that younger people often can't afford it.  I'm not sure I can, and I'm not willing to take on huge amounts of debt for the sake of a single bike race.  There are shorter events that provide rewarding challenges without threatening insolvency.  And, anyway, since when is a 500-mile or 24-hour race considered too short?

(2)  The social cost.  There's no avoiding the fact that, to race 3,000 miles in June, you really ought to be riding something close to 10,000 miles in the 8 months leading up to that point.  We're talking 300 miles a week, and often quite a bit more, week in and week out.  That is serious business for someone with a demanding full-time job, a relationship, and aspirations of reading the occasional book.  The event would consume more than half of my vacation time for the year, and more than all of my budget.  I'm not sure any event is worth living like a hermit for the rest of a year.

(3)  The professional cost.  I'm starting a new job with the United States Attorney's Office next week, and by all accounts it is a more intense place than the one I'm leaving.  I'm excited about the opportunity to be a "real lawyer" with all that that entails, but it will be a pretty steep learning curve, and there will be times when it will displace workouts or races.  Given RAAM's monumental difficulty even for those who are ideally prepared, it seems exceedingly irresponsible to commit to racing it at the same time that I'm trying to get my feet underneath me in a new, demanding position.

(4)  FOMO is B.S.  In the last year, I've stumbled across a new, insidious acronym: FOMO, or "fear of missing out."  It's up there with "YOLO" in terms of things that no one above age 12 should ever write or say, but there is a point to it: People sign up for things that their friends are doing because they think they might otherwise regret not having been there.  There's a significant element of that with RAAM; it's the Kona of ultracycling, and many of my friends and competitors will be there.  But, the thing about fear of missing out is that it's unavoidable.  If you can't do everything in life -- and no one can -- you're always missing out on something, and it's only a question of prioritizing things in the right way.  There's certainly a part of me that will find it hard to sit on the sideline for RAAM, but I'd also find it hard not to do all of the other things in life that RAAM would force aside.  "Fear of missing out" isn't enough: I have to be utterly certain that I want to do RAAM for its own sake, and I'm not there right now.  Sometimes you just have to say no to things.

I've been mulling over this tentative conclusion for the last couple of weeks, and it's only getting stronger.  It's the right call for me, at least right now.  In many ways, I'm like the first-year triathlete who's done reasonably well at a couple of sprint triathlons, and who's thinking of signing up for an Ironman the next year.  I've always told such athletes that there's no rush, and that developing their chops at the shorter distances is an admirable and worthwhile things to do -- it's not "Ironman or irrelevance."  In this instance, I'm taking my own advice, and I'm looking forward to everything that life will have to offer in 2015.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

2014 Silver State 508 Race Report

"So what I'm trying to say: These races damn near kill you."
-Mike "Wild Turkey" Wilson

Last weekend, I headed to Reno, Nevada for the inaugural Silver State 508, hosted by AdventureCorps. AdventureCorps and its leader, Chris Kostman, are institutions in the ultraracing world, putting on such legendary races as the Badwater Ultramarathon and the Furnace Creek 508, both of which took racers through Death Valley.  In short, AdventureCorps specializes in events that are absurdly long, but in which the distance is only part of the challenge.  They do an amazing job and maintain some enjoyable traditions.

One such tradition is that AdventureCorps assigns each racer an animal totem rather than a number, and that unique totem follows the racer throughout their AdventureCorps career.  Well-known returning 508 competitors included the legendary Tweety Bird (Marko Baloh), Crow (Sean Cuddihy), Rock Rabbit (Adam Bickett), Irish Hare (Mick Walsh), Holstein (Dave Haase), Wild Turkey (Mike Wilson), and many others.  Everyone in this race had qualified according to fairly demanding standards, so the level of competition was high.  I'd be racing as Thundercat!

Unfortunately, because the Park Service recently imposed restrictions on athletic competitions in Death Valley, Kostman & Co. were forced to find a new home for the famous 508, which has been run 40 times since 1983.  They selected Reno, Nevada as the new race home, and designed a route that would lead racers east into the high desert along Route 50, which has been called The Loneliest Road in America.

Bring coffee.  And gasoline.
I'd chosen the inaugural Silver State 508 to cap off my first year of competitive ultracycling, and I had hopes of doing well.  In my three 24-hour races this year, I'd averaged 455 miles despite a variety of mechanical problems, so I thought of the 508 as a 24-hour race plus a few hours -- maybe something in the 28-hour range.  I even had a crew; what could be simpler?   

You'd think by now that, when I start saying I know what I'm doing, klaxons would sound and parents would start ushering their children to the tornado cellar.

The Noble Chariot

Unlike many 24-hour events, which tend to take place on relatively compact loops, the 508 required racers to have a support crew of at least two people.  Mine were Max and Sam, two brothers who've been involved in the endurance world for many years.  Max has also been a longtime riding buddy of mine, and is probably the person most responsible for my taking up randonneuring and ultracycling, so in some sense he dug his own grave on this one.  Seriously, though, I felt lucky to have such two capable guys in my corner.
Me, Max, and Sam.
Max and Sam, however, were somewhat less fortunate.  A month earlier, they'd suggested getting a normal-sized car for a support vehicle, so I did: I rented a Chrysler 200 sedan.  It had about 50k miles on it, and it lacked any sort of "features" or "merits."  Still, I thought this would be just fine, but I became pretty embarrassed when I got to the hotel and saw the sweet setups that other riders had.  We're talking full-on vans with large roof racks, sound systems mounted to the hoods to blast music during the night, and cargo bays full of shelving.

Team Gila Chub (Alan Johnson), and their vehicle.
Our lumpy Chrysler 200, in contrast, resembled nothing so much as a Dodge Neon on Prozac.

Thundercat's domain.
Which vehicle would you rather crew in?
It was about the least Thundercat thing imaginable; maybe I could see an argument for Dung Beetle. We had no containers (much less shelving), no speakers, and no spare bike.  In fact, the only bike rack we had was a suction-mounted gadget that relied on a judicious dose of hope-and-pray. Best of all, Max and Sam are in the 6'2"-6'4" range, which made it something of a clown car experience. I repeatedly suggested swapping it out for a more inspiring ride, but they'd hear nothing of it.  Oh, well; at least I wouldn't be tempted to spend time lounging in the car instead of of pedaling.  

My Plan, Such As It Was

I did my homework as best I could, constantly monitoring the predicted highs and lows of every town on the route (of which there were about three).  The forecasts spoke with one voice: highs on Sunday and Monday of about 80 degrees, and an overnight low of about 45 degrees.  As deserts go, this was perfect, but I've learned to be skeptical; besides, with a support vehicle, I could bring whatever clothes I might need.  So, I threw in pretty much my entire winter wardrobe, down to lobster gloves, balaclava, and shoe covers.  My goal: no shivering in the night, no matter what.

As for the bike, I concluded there was really no choice to make. I'd take my trusty tri bike, which had seen me through 24-hour races, a 600k (375-mile) brevet ridden straight through in about 25 hours, and more training rides than I could count.  Sure, the fit was a little aggressive, but that's how Mikey likes it, and this was a race, after all.  I'd been ok with the bike position in the past, and I figured this would be no different.  I decided to start with my disc wheel and Zipp 808 front wheel, but I also brought my pair of Zipp 404s as backups, and for a change of gearing should it be needed.

On the nutrition front, I had my usual assortment of Skratch Labs hydration mix and hyper-hydration (sodium bomb), along with water, Coke, and a few massive cans of Red Bull.  I'd supplement these with Gu Roctane gels and energy bars of various sorts.  I also threw in some salted nuts and potato chips.  We planned for Max and Sam to hunt down some real food for me at the turnaround point (mile 255), but otherwise, I tried to keep it simple.
Strasser uses the Cardo system, which is why he's good at bicycling.

With respect to communicating with the crew, I had a new toy: the Cardo BK-1 headset system.  This device has come to dominate the ultraracing scene, and for good reason.  It's intended for two cyclists to be able to communicate with one another over a distance of 1/4 mile or so, but it's equally effective for letting a cyclist talk to his crew.  It's operated by voice or with the push of a button, and when you're not talking to the other headset over the intercom function, it pairs with your phone so that you can take and receive incoming calls, have Siri read text messages, stream music, or whatever you'd like.  It's pretty slick, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, there was the question of strategy.  I'd never raced most of these folks before, but a slew of them were Race Across America finishers with multiple race wins in 500-mile events, and with a gigantic 7-mile climb coming as early as mile 8, I suspected things would heat up pretty quickly.  I wanted no part of an early dogfight -- I was a Thundercat, after all.  I was confident that I could time-trial competitively over a long distance, but I've never been a pure climber, and my time trial bike with extremely deep wheels was a brick.  I resolved to ride with a steady effort, but to let the results take care of themselves.  I guessed that, on my best day, I could be competitive with most of the guys out there, with the possible exception of Marko "Tweety Bird" Baloh.  But, having one's best day is the challenge, and a lot can go wrong in a 500-mile race.  I didn't see any benefit to obsessing about planned wattages or time splits. Past a point, you just have to do what you can do, plans be damned.

Stage 1: Reno to Geiger Grade to Virginia City to Silver Spring (47 miles, 2723' climbing)

At 6:30 a.m. sharp, the solo riders rolled out in a peloton on what would be an exceedingly long day.  And night.  And, for some, another day.  And another night.

The pace vehicle led us on an easy spin through Reno for the first 8 miles, then turned us loose on Geiger Grade, a 7-mile, 2000-foot climb with panoramic views of Reno.  Geiger Grade is basically the Skyline Drive of Reno: it keeps going up, but, at least on the western ascent, there's nothing much to worry about. Tweety Bird and Rock Rabbit immediately charged off the front, while I issued a statement of intention by stopping to take a leak.  The result was that I passed riders steadily all the way up, holding a solid effort but not hammering by any means. The higher we went, the more magnificent the vistas became, with the light of dawn igniting Rose Mountain and the other slopes on the way up to Lake Tahoe.

Grinding up Geiger Grade.
After 40 minutes of pistoning legs, we crested the summit and descended to the brief plateau in Virginia City.  By then, I'd caught up to Crow (a 2x 508 winner) and Irish Hare, another veteran of the scene.  Several others, including Tweety Bird, Rock Rabbit, and Holstein, were further up the road.  I followed Crow and Irish Hare as we rolled through the Old West town and around the first couple of turns, until it occurred to me a couple of miles later that we probably shouldn't be seeing riders in the event riding toward us.  We'd somehow managed to get turned around and a couple of miles off course on the very first segment.  In the grand scheme of a 500-mile race, a few miles probably wouldn't decide the outcome, but it definitely changed the dynamic of the first part of the race since we were playing catch-up to those we'd otherwise have been riding near.  We turned left onto Route 50, which we'd get to know intimately over the next 30 hours. 

The rest of the stage unfolded without incident: a screaming-fast 5-mile descent and then a flat cruise with a steady tailwind out of the west.  By the time we reached our crews, who'd had to meet us at the first time station, the morning chill was giving way to a desert glow, and all seemed right with the world.

Stage 2: Silver Spring to Fallon (31 miles, 255' of climbing)

Stage 2 was much like Stage 1, minus the climb: a 30-mile net downhill aided by a spirited tailwind that carried us across massive salt flats and past a "Top Gun" naval base and targeting range, where fighter jets took off with scarcely believable roars.

Thunderkitten in the desert near Fallon.  Photo credit: Chris Kostman.
The stage flew by in the blink of an eye as I powered down the road at 25-30 mph and enjoyed the tailwind.  This was territory that played to my strengths and aggressive bike setup.  Crow and I traded positions with each other and a tandem team, and I focused on eating and hydrating as the temperatures climbed up to 80 degrees, which was supposed to be the daily high.  Toward the end of this stage, I reeled in and eventually passed Red Necked Falcon, whose friendly leapfrogging crew and I would see one another constantly for the next 30 miles or so.

Stage 3: Fallon to Austin (106 miles, 5049' of climbing)

Rumor has it a Chinese curse states: May you live in interesting times.  It's in that sense that I describe Stage 3 as an interesting stage.  The first 20 miles would be a continuation of Stage 2: flat, fast hammering, at an elevation of 4,000 feet.  Then things would head up, up, and up some more, 14 miles to Carrol Summit, at about 7,200 feet.  Then we'd duel across the high desert, flying past scrub brush at 6,000 feet.

It's a long way down Holiday Road.
As is clear from the picture at the left, Nevada isn't known for its shade.  Not only are there no trees to be found, I don't think we spied a cloud all weekend.  The dry air has an extreme desiccating effect, and the high desert altitude makes it that much worse.  I'd been urinating regularly since the start, but I was still paranoid about keeping hydrated, and the crew was gently scolding me whenever I didn't finish a bottle on schedule. That was their job, and I'm glad they were doing it, but I was beginning to feel bloated -- not hungry, not thirsty, and like my system wasn't dealing with things the way it should be.  I pointed out to the crew that I really wasn't thirsty, and their response was, "Good.  Drink another bottle."  I felt like something of a disobedient hospital patient.  My lack of appetite was a more serious concern; that couldn't continue indefinitely. 

The good news was that I was progressively hauling myself back into contention: the crew told me that I was gaining on Holstein (Dave Haase), a fiercely strong RAAM veteran who'd won 500-milers at the Race Across Oregon and Hoodoo 500 in recent months.  I caught him a few miles into the stage, but hung out for 10 miles or so within shouting distance, deciding not to pass if it would mean pushing too hard.  Our crews became friends over that stretch, both applauding each rider as we blew by.

Teams Holstein and Thundercat.
Hoofing it up after Holstein.
Somewhere around Mile 90, I finally passed Holstein as he went to grab a bottle, and I hit the gas for a few miles, trying to open a gap.  At subsequent bottle handoffs, though, my crew told me he was keeping pace 30 seconds back; my effort wasn't accomplishing much.  Still, the two of us were moving fast, and I learned we were only 8 minutes down on Adam "Rock Rabbit" Bickett, one of the pre-race favorites.  Given that I'd gone at least a couple of miles off course awhile back, it seemed that Holstein and I were moving faster than Rock Rabbit, and that we'd catch him if we simply kept up the pace a little while longer. 

Thundercat leading Holstein, briefly.
Dueling in the desert.
Diggin' the chip seal.
Holstein passed me again a few miles later as I began to experience increased stomach disquiet, and as we turned off of Route 50 to begin the 14-mile climb toward Carroll Summit, suddenly my uncomfortable burping graduated to projectile vomit.  I didn't even have time to stop completely before I lost it in violent fashion, startling a tarantula that had been lording over its insidious little domain near the side of the road.  As I leaned over the bars trying to collect myself, Holstein vanished up the road, and Crow also cruised past me, shouting an encouraging word as he gave chase.

Apparently my gut had been right: I'd been pouring bottles down my throat, but they hadn't been going anywhere.  I wasn't sure what the problem had been -- had I been going too hard?  Or just drinking too much?  Either way, at least I had an opportunity for a fresh start.  Too bad that fresh start consisted of the 14-mile climb up to Carroll Summit, at 7200 feet.  I took a quick break in the car to get some fluids and electrolytes while Max and Sam checked over the bike.  They noticed that my disc cover wasn't playing well with my rear derailleur, so I threw my spare wheel on the back and up the climb I went.

This picture wasn't taken from a helicopter.
The climb was incredibly long, but nothing much to worry about grade-wise.  The challenges were temperatures creeping into the upper 80s, combined with altitude.  I kept a steady rhythm and settled in.  Below is some video footage of the climb; you can hear Max chatting with me over the Cardo connection.  (I don't think I've ever seen video of myself climbing before, and it feels a little strange.  It's obvious how much weight this bike position puts on my hands.)

The descent down the east side of the east side was just fabulous, with sustained speeds around 50 mph and views for 10 miles down the road ahead.  We quickly landed in the high desert, with nothing but scrub brush for dozens of miles around.  It felt like the desert outside of Reno, but there was a key difference: this flat expanse was at about 6,000 feet, i.e., higher than Denver.  The project was to relax in the heat and click off the miles, because things wouldn't stay flat for long.

Stage 4: Austin to turnaround at Eureka (70 miles, 2800' of climbing)

Stage 4 would bring us to the turn-around, but it was a 70-mile slog that began with two sharp climbs, the first about 3 miles at 7-8% grade, and the second about 1.5 miles long.

Climbing out of Austin, toward nowhere.
Scrub brush central, dude.
The climbing wasn't anything I couldn't handle, but the first Austin climb crested over 7,400 feet, and my mood began to degrade.  The front four guys (Tweety Bird, Crow, Rock Rabbit, Holstein) were out of sight, and I didn't sense that there was anyone close on my heels; I was just alone -- very alone -- in a massive desert, with temperatures approaching 90 degrees.  I was tired of climbing and tired of riding on flat ground.  Heck, I was just tired, and my shoulders and hands were beginning to ache.  Disturbingly, I had well over 300 miles to ride.

A mental game?  You bet -- you basically have to be mental to play it.

Into the great wide-open.
A car!  That made one, give or take.
The last 50 miles to Eureka was a struggle to keep the pedals turning.  I was tired of sugary drinks, tired of bars, and desperately wanted the mental reprieve that would arrive with the turn-around -- from that point, each pedal stroke would bring me closer to home.  Best of all, my crew had agreed to scamper ahead of me to Eureka to try to hunt down some real food, and such small carrots can be hugely alluring when you seemingly have little else to look forward to.  

Not too bad -- not too bad at all.  But not too good, either.
As the sun began to set, the landscape glowed and a rainbow ring appeared above the distant hills.  It was truly something to behold.

I hit Eureka, a quiet town consisting of a gas station and nothing much else, at 8:19 p.m., 13 hours and 49 minutes into the race.  At the time, the leaderboard looked like this:

(1)  Tweety Bird (Baloh): 6:36 p.m.
(2)  Crow: 7:34 p.m.
(3)  Holstein:7:50 p.m.
(4)  Rock Rabbit: 7:51 p.m.
(5)  Thundercat: 8:19 p.m.

It certainly wasn't the split that I'd been looking for, but between my getting a little lost and playing Pukey the Clown, it wasn't calamitous.

I wanted -- needed -- to get off the bike for a couple of minutes and consume some real food, and the crew had me covered.  They presented me with microwaved bacon-chicken-cheese biscuits from the gas station.  They were among the most disgusting things I'd ever eaten, but by that point, even disgusting was better than more bars and gels.

I spent a little longer in the team car than I strictly needed to, but my motivation was flagging as the temperature dropped and night fell.  It seemed to me at the moment that I kind of was where I'd be; I didn't see myself catching the guys ahead, but neither did I see myself losing too much ground to anyone behind me.  It just seemed like I had 255 more miles of sitting on my bike.  Eventually I convinced myself to get back out there.

Stage 5: Eureka to Austin (70 miles, 2753' of climbing)

Because the 508 was an out-and-back course, Stage 5 was the mirror image of Stage 4.  The first 50 miles or so was a haul across the relatively flat high desert, but this time at night -- and into a headwind, which we'd face for the entire return trip.  On the return trip, our support crews switched from leapfrogging to direct-follow, so at any given time, they were about 20 yards behind me, and bottle changes became a matter of their handing me things out the window when I needed them.

Crew cam!
The out-and-back course also meant that we passed a steady stream of cyclists on their treks toward Eureka, and each time, I mentally doubled my distance from Eureka to tell how far ahead of the rider I was.  Amazingly, I passed a couple of riders fully 50 miles from Eureka, which meant I had a lead of a century; I didn't see any way that those guys would finish under the time limit.

As I made my way back west across the desert, plowing into the wind, I grew increasingly uncomfortable.  My skinsuit was interacting with my saddle in an unhelpful way, leading to nasty  saddle sores.  It hurt to stand up, and then it hurt to sit down.  It hurt to lean into the aerobars, and it hurt to sit up.  In short, changing my position in any way at all was extremely painful.  The only way to avoid the pain was to stay in a single position -- in the aerobars, for example.  But that was becoming impossible.  I'd raced on this bike for a couple of 24-hour races, and each time it was tolerable.  For some reason, though, this was much worse; it felt like most of my body weight was being pitched forward onto my hands and shoulders.  Maybe the extended technical descents had taken their toll.  Whatever the case, my morale was plummeting with the temperatures.  I was making terrible time, but there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it; I had no "push" in me.  

In my experience, the early hours of the morning are when things turn from challenging to awful.  You've been riding for 20 hours, you're exhausted, and it's the coldest part of the day, arriving when the body is too beaten up to warm itself.  The overnight lows had been projected to be around 45 degrees, which was chilly but not terrible.  Sadly, the projections were wrong.  I put on every scrap of clothing I had, including balaclava, lobster gloves, vest, jacket, arm warmers, knee warmers, and boot covers, but none of it mattered -- I just couldn't raise my core temperature enough to move down the road.  I was shivering uncontrollably, and deeply miserable.  Max even gave me a down jacket to wear outside of my other layers.  It was thoroughly miserable, and the two sharp climbs at the end took everything I had.  Rolling into the time station at Austin at about 1:30 a.m., I knew I was in for a tough night.

Stage 6: Austin to Fallon (112 miles, 2730' of climbing)

Stage 6 was a 112-mile monster, and it came at the worst possible time -- the dead of night.  Starting at about 2:00 a.m., the temperatures plummeted into the high 20s, and I hit the wall in a serious way.  Around 3:00 a.m., some 370 miles into the day, I lobbied the crew to let me get in the car to warm up and close my eyes for 15 minutes, but they pushed back -- they wanted me to keep going.  I tried, truly I did, but it was one of the worst periods I've ever suffered through on a bicycle.  The fatigue was one thing -- I'd dealt with it before.  But the saddle sores, debilitating pain in my hands and shoulders, and sub-freezing temperatures just brought it to an entirely new level.  I'd have given anything for a bike that didn't throw me so far forward, but the only thing I could do was sit up and put my hands on the forearm cups, which is about as aerodynamic as a beach cruiser.  I didn't care.

Finally, at 4:00 a.m., I overrode my crew and declared that I was taking a nap for 15 minutes -- I had to do something, and it was all I could think of.  I climbed into the front seat, cranked up the heat to max, and tried to pretend I was anywhere else.

The face of fun.  I never planned to be dressed this way.
While I was stopped, a steady stream of riders passed me.  I looked at some of them and felt sure that I should be far ahead of them, but I wasn't, and that was that.  I couldn't move.  I desperately needed coffee, chicken soup, or some other hot liquid, but there was none to be found, and we were in a stretch of about 180 miles without services.  Woe is Thundercat.

The nap and warmth perked me up a little bit, and I reasoned that I had about two hours until dawn; past that, the sun would bring me back to life, and I'd be able to keep going again.

The photographs don't remotely convey the misery.
At the coldest part of the day -- around 5:30 a.m. -- I faced the monumental challenge of descending the technical, twisty road from Carrol Summit.  My crew tried to help me out by descending slightly offset to my left, to avoid throwing my shadow on the road ahead.  I pulled it off, but I'll be blunt: without cannibalizing my crew's clothes, I don't know how I'd have made it down.  It was hugely difficult to keep my arms from shaking.

The end of the descent corresponded with daybreak, at long last.  We turned left onto Route 50 once more, and I progressively shed layers as temperatures raced back up.  The challenge quickly evolved from avoiding hypothermia to coping with the infinitely long slog directly into the western headwind, over roads that felt like tar on gravel.  By now my hands and shoulders felt like they'd been fed through meat grinders, but the only thing to do was to keep pedaling, somehow.  

Toward the end of this stage, the crew -- who'd returned to leap-frogging, per race rules -- charged ahead to Fallon, the only real commercial center on the course, to get me some d*mn breakfast.  They came through in grand fashion: when I hit Time Station 7 (Mile 438) at 9:30 a.m., I found a platter of scrambled eggs, hash browns, pancakes, and coffee.  Out-freaking-standing.  Max did his best to motivate me by pointing out that a couple of riders who'd passed me in the night, including Sarah "Spotted Horse" Cooper and Mike "Wild Turkey" Wilson, were less than 10 minutes ahead.  Normally, this would have been highly motivating, but I still felt dead to the world.  I didn't want to see any more desert,  grind over more chip seal, plow into any more headwind, or face any more cold or heat.  I was just done, and although I was polite and thankful to my crew, inwardly I was checked out and just trying to make it to the finish line intact.  I had a decadent meal before reluctantly getting back on the bike, thinking that I had about 70 miles to ride, and that the mission was to avoid disaster in that stretch.

Stage 7: Fallon to Silver Spring (25 miles, 500' of climbing)

I WANT IT TO STOP.  JUST MAKE IT STOP.  This stage brought -- wait for it -- desert, chip seal, false flats, and headwind.  At bottle handoffs, I made it known that I was basically done with this event.  I could barely sit down, nor could I stand in the pedals.  Every molecule in my body was radiating pain, and the notion of entering Race Across America seemed like an extremely sick joke.

I remembered that, on several occasions, I'd explained to incredulous friends about these events: "The thing about cycling is, past a point, you can just keep pedaling and eventually you'll get to the end."  I wanted to find that version of me and beat him with a floor pump.

Desert!  Flat.  Windy.  Roads that feel like cheese graters.
Desert!  Fla... oh, screw it.  I'm so over this.
It turns out that, when you've ridden 450 miles since getting a decent break and have endured more than 60-degree temperature swings, exactly nothing is funny.

Toward the end of this stage, I passed a relay rider who'd passed me the stage before, and we chatted a bit.  It turns out his team had gone 17 miles off course.  Holy crap.  I learned later that my crew had missed the same turn, but sheer indignation was keeping me on course at that point.

I hit the penultimate time station (Mile 464) at 11:30 a.m., more than an hour after I'd planned to be done with this event.  Needless to say, I wasn't anywhere close to done: I had 47 miles to ride, and those miles included by far the toughest climb of the ride, the eastern face of Geiger Grade. 

Final Stage: Silver Springs to Virginia City (47 miles, 2844' of climbing)

Max and Sam told me that, as had been true at the previous time station, Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey were a mere 10 minutes ahead of me, and implored me to chase the top 5.  Top 5?  I felt like I was about 50th, but I suppose it's hard to keep track.  The crew said I was looking better -- although, to be fair, it was their job to say that -- and expressed optimism that I could catch Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey on the climb.  "Fine," I thought.  I'd give it a go and see what happened.  I figured it owed it to the crew to at least make a race out of it to the extent I could.

I pushed hard into the headwind until the base of the climb at mile 20, and Max and Sam met me at the bottom with a bottle of cold water to dump over my head.  That was just perfect -- the temperatures were back up to 90 degrees already -- although, in the desert air, I was dry about 10 seconds later.  They said that the climb was 6 miles at an average grade of 6 percent, which seemed just about possible.

But there's a thing about averages: they lie.  There's a world of difference between a steady 6% grade, and one that starts at 2-3% for the first few miles, and then winds up with a 6% average.  This climb was in the latter category, and boy would it hurt.

I stayed seated in the first few miles, and quickly reeled in Spotted Horse, who was on her way to a massive overall victory in the women's race.  After a quick hello, I spun ahead in search of Wild Turkey.  Max said that he was 3 minutes ahead, which seemed an eternity, but I came upon him surprisingly quickly, and when I passed, I hammered it as hard as I could for the next mile to see if I could get the lead to stick.  It did!  Who knew; I felt almost human.

Hi-larious.  It's fully 90 degrees out.
Steeper than it looks.
Keeping the ice water flowing.
Unfortunately, the final grades of this climb were ludicrous -- a series of 20% stair steps for which I had to get out of the saddle, tack back and forth, and fight for every inch.  I certainly hadn't expected this.  Max and Sam, trying to motivate me, kept telling me that the top was at the next cross street; they were wrong every time, and indeed, each block became steeper than the last.  Finally, I pulled over and walked the last couple of blocks, concluding that I had a far greater chance of breaking myself than actually climbing it on the bike.

I felt distinctly un-thunderous by that point.
At long last, I attained the summit, which meant it was a downhill shot to the finish.  The thing was, I'm a tentative descender, and I imagine that Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey were right on my heels, so I pushed myself as hard as I could and flew through Reno toward the finish, looking over my shoulder in concern at every stop light.  No sign.  Just a handful of miles left.

After 32 hours and 15 minutes, I arrived at the finish line in 6th place, 20' out of 5th (Rednecked Falcon) and about 15' up on Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey, who finished together.  

Salt stains?  What salt stains?
Finisher's shot with Chris Kostman.

Wild Turkey put it exactly right: These races damn near kill you.  I've done a lot of silly stuff on a bike, but nothing even came close to the challenges this race posed.  My theory that it would be "like a 24-hour race, plus a bit" was nowhere close to correct.  My finishing time of 32 hours and change was fully four hours off of my conservative guess, and usually I'm pretty accurate on that front.  I have no mechanical failures to blame; there are only failures of fitness and execution.

Actually, on the fitness front, I'm not second-guessing too much.  I trained as appropriately as I could (without access to 90-degree or 28-degree weather, deserts, or 14-mile mountain climbs), and my numbers were solid before I found myself in pukeville.  

The bottom line is, this was my first 500-mile crewed event, and it was a much bigger learning experience than I thought it would be.  Here are some of the most important lessons I've taken away.
  1. My bike and position were a huge mistake.  I was one of only a few riders who limited himself to a single bike, and I was definitely the only person with just a tri bike with a ridiculously aggressive fit.  I've gotten away with it in some 24-hour races, but I realized that those are flat events, and they're usually on smooth pavement.  It doesn't work at all with 14-mile climbs and descents on chip-seal.  Five days later, my rotator cuffs are still killing me.  I'm planning to sell a couple of bikes and replace them with an endurance-oriented road bike.  It turns out that, the longer the event, the more important comfort is.  You can have the most aerodynamic bike fit in the world, but if you can't stay in the aerobars, it's just a heavy waste of time.
  2. Plan to take a nap.  I've concluded that I'm someone who needs a 10- or 15-minute nap in the middle of the night.  When I get one, I give up a small handful of miles, but I invariably ride faster afterward, and in terms of sheer enjoyment of the event, I think it's worth it. 
  3. Carry thermoses of coffee, hot chocolate, or chicken broth.  When you're in very cold temperatures 20+ hours into an event, it almost doesn't matter how much clothing you have.  You're not generating any heat to trap.  In rural areas, you can't count on services being there, so in the future, I'll carry 40-60 ounces of hot liquids in high-quality thermoses.  I think doing that in this race would have saved me an hour or two, and quite a bit of misery.
  4. Bring a change of clothes.  When things get cold and awful, sometimes changing into something dry can be invaluable.
As I've alluded to, I'm not overjoyed with my finishing time.  In the grand scheme, for a first outing at this sort of event, it's just fine; one of the strongest riders fell victim to the cold temperatures overnight and dropped out, and I finished ahead of several veterans.  So, it's not that I did badly.  My frustration is that I don't think I put together the best race I could have, given my fitness level.  It was my choice to bring a bike that had no business being on this course, and it was up to me to over-plan for the cold weather -- which wound up being nearly 20 degrees lower than predicted (at least in the mountains).  I'll probably return to events like this down the road, and when I do, I'll take these lessons to heart.  

In the meantime, despite my self-imposed misfortunes, I'm proud of fighting through the agony.  This was a course that was much harder than it looked on paper, both physically and mentally.  You learn a lot about yourself out there.  It's about the closest we can come to going off to battle without going off to battle.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Max and Sam for being an absolutely stellar crew -- I owe them everything in this event.  Their suggestions were good ones, they planned ahead for what I'd need before I knew I'd need it, and they motivated me in appropriate ways without joining in my disappointment at how things were going compared to expectations.  I hope I can return the favor for them down the road.

Thundercat out!