"To be a real challenge, the outcome had to be uncertain."
I knew this would be a tough one. The National 24-Hour Challenge is a race with pedigree. It's been held in Middleville, Michigan on the same weekend every year since 1983, and in that time, it's attracted a who's who of ultracyclists. Over the years, the race has grown to more than 300 racers, which is enormous for a 24-hour cycling event. By way of comparison, Bike Sebring was less than half the size, and that field was dominated by 12-hour and 6-hour racers. In N24HC, everyone was signed up for the whole caboodle.
In a field that size, it's inevitable that some talented riders toe the line, and this year was no exception. I knew that Collin Johnson, the 2x defending high-mileage rider, would be back again; he'd racked up 470+ miles at least once in this event and had set numerous ultracycling course records over the last few years. I also knew that Scott Luikart would be back; he'd won N24HC in 2011 with 472 miles, and also had won the 24-hour division of the 6-12-24 Hour Time Trial Championships last fall. Even random people I met before the ride seemed inordinately athletic. One guy was unpacking a couple of top-end BMC race bikes in front of my hotel; he said he was a triathlete who didn't expect great things, but his Kona shirt suggested otherwise, and a quick Google search confirmed that he'd ripped off 9:20 Ironman races several times in recent years. That kind of athletic ability and drive didn't suggest he'd go quietly into the night. And who knew who else might show up? It looked to be a rough neighborhood.
Finally, N24HC presented what was, for me, a novel challenge: a draft-legal race. Sure, I'd ridden plenty in pacelines and pelotons over the years, but not once had I done so in a competitive situation. Draft-legal bike races involve a host of tactics that never come into play in a triathlon: when to take it easy, when to make a break, where to position oneself in the group, when to chase breakaways, and so forth. I'd be making all of that up as I went along.
The good news was that, for the first time in years, I was heading into the race feeling like I'd prepared consistently and properly. Since I cranked things up in December after my fall layoff, I'd trained with intensity and dedication: 5-6 days a week of quality bike work, including, most weeks, 4 days of interval work on the trainer. I'd also put in the long rides: after racing 24 Hours of Sebring in February, I'd completed 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevets with the D.C. Randonneurs, the last of which I rode straight through at an aggressive pace. I felt as strong on the bike as I'd ever been, so I arrived at N24HC determined to push myself to see what I could do. I'd been ecstatic with a 441-mile day at Sebring, my first 24-hour TT and a non-drafting event. N24HC was somewhat hillier and warmer, but I hoped that with more miles under my belt I could clear the 450-mile threshold and maybe surprise some of the pre-race favorites, who doubtless would be watching each other more than me. (Which is their loss, really, because I have nice legs.)
Given that the 24-hour racing thing is still very new to me, my only resolve is never to repeat a mistake if I can help it. To that end, after Sebring, I resolved several things.
- Plan to be cold during the night, no matter the forecast; when you're exhausted, your body doesn't act like it should. This time, I brought my Assos thermal vest and arm warmers despite the fact that temps were supposed to remain in the mid-50s.
- Get the saddle right. I love my Cobb saddle for anything up to Ironman distance, but at Sebring, I could barely sit down for the last six hours. Solution: put a Selle Anatomica Titanico X on my tri bike, just like on my randonneuring rig. These saddles are all over the place on the ultracycling circuit, and at this point it's unclear to me why anyone ever rides anything else. They're rapidly taking over my bike stable.
- Don't go so hard that I can't eat real food. It happened at Sebring because I had brake rub issues without realizing it, and my stomach never quite recovered.
- Plan to want a lot of salty food. Arrange to have hot soup for later in the day.
- Embrace the fact that there is no such thing as too much, or too many different kinds, of chamois cream.
Middleville Michigan is a quaint midwestern town in the middle of nowhere, but with a lot of greenery -- just the place to hold an event where cyclists ride all night. My trusty crew and I made our camp at the Holiday Inn Express, where there were exactly two kinds of customers that weekend: (1) ultracyclists, and (2) people who drove these things:
|It's a Franklin! (So I was told)|
|If Tri Team Z had a Franklin, this would be it.|
|See how the rear-view mirrors are mounted?|
|Yep, they're strapped to the spare tires.|
|Never pass up an opportunity to mug for the camera in neon shoes.|
|Then there was this guy, who went with 2 $10k BMC race bikes. He's probably slow.|
|A beautiful evening in Michigan.|
On race morning, as is often the case before big competitions, I was sufficiently nervous that I had trouble eating much. There was a time in my early triathlon days where I'd literally dry heave before every event. Things aren't quite that bad anymore, but the fact is that 24-hour races are flat-out intimidating endeavors. In Sebring, the only one I'd done to date, I wound up shivering all night in the damp 40-degree Florida air, as I was too exhausted to generate any body heat; I desperately hoped not to face another round of that misery. But, even on the best of days, the time and distances involved are too large to wrap my head around. I do my best to think of it as just another long ride, but my subconscious knows otherwise, and it seemed to be spending the morning spinning furiously while I stared into space.
We took some team photos for prosperity and/or for Missing Persons posters that may be need later in the day.
|The team: Bill, Our Lady of Suffering, Amy, and Joyce.|
|Barry Benson in hi-viz jersey.|
|Dad and Amy, feeling less nervous than I did.|
|I actually don't mind when people label me. Note the rider trying not to laugh.|
|Freds looking nonchalant.|
|"Hey, I can see my knee socks in your visor!"|
|"When I say 'go,' head that way until tomorrow morning."|
From reading race reports from years past, I knew the front pack would set off quickly, but that there would likely be a break before long in which the eventual winners would ride off the front. My strategy was just to stay in touch with those guys; in Sebring, due to mechanical issues, I'd lost 5 miles in the first hour and had never seen the front of the race again.
The first loop was a 124-miler (200k) through rural Michigan. It could fairly be described as lightly rolling hills; nothing too much to worry about climbing-wise, but enough change of pace that it didn't turn into a grind. Crews could meet their riders at the three designated checkpoints along the way, where our bibs also would be punched to mark our progress.
The opening miles, through the town of Middletown, were a lovely, crisp spin in a peloton of 30-40 riders. I hung out near the front taking pulls when it was my turn, and otherwise just tried to relax. I found to my pleasant surprise that my longtime riding buddy Max had latched onto the front group; he'd had knee surgery this spring and wasn't expecting great things on the day, but I was happy to see that he was pushing the pedals from the get-go.
Through the first 20 miles, things went smoothly, if quickly; we were averaging more than 22 mph, which can be a little bit hairy in a large group of riders who don't know the course. That challenge suddenly became apparent when I was sitting second wheel as we bombed down a country road. Suddenly, the lead rider shouted "right turn!" and dove into it; apparently he'd seen the yellow arrows on the ground very late. I thought for a split second about trying to decelerate in time to make the turn, but I realized that I'd very likely cause a massive pile-up by doing so. With a groan I rolled past the turn as every rider behind me had time to make it, and turned around to climb back up the hill to get back on course. By the time I got going the right way again, the peloton was a good 100 yards in the distance and moving fast, which forced me to take off after them at full speed in order to avoid getting left behind. I caught back up after a mile or two, having worked quite a bit harder than I wanted to, but as I made my way back up toward the front, one guy thanked me for not prompting carbon carnage by trying to make the turn. I'm a regular humanitarian, I am.
|The peloton rolling into the first aid station.|
This wasn't how I'd imagined things going. In prior years, the front few riders had broken away early, but this year, there was a huge pack just sticking around. In some ways it was helpful, because the large group made it easier to make good time. In other ways, though, it was annoying as hell. I'd estimate that, of the 40-odd riders in the group, only five had any interest in pulling. I'd take a turn at the front for a mile or so, flick the next rider through, and he and several behind him would immediately pull off and drift to the back as well. To their credit, Collin and Scott, the two pre-race favorites, were among those willing to put in some work. But it was increasingly galling that self-evidently strong riders would glom onto our wheels without making any effort to do their part. Eventually I got sick of sacrificing myself without reciprocation, so I planted myself toward the back of the pack and drifted along in the slipstream, trying to figure out how to make something happen in the race.
|Checkpoint 2: Preparing for takeoff.|
|All systems go.|
In some ways, I think this move defined my race. I reasoned that one of my only advantages over Scott and Collin was that neither of them knew anything about me, and neither of them likely thought I'd be around very long. Based on that anonymity, I hoped that they'd continue to roll along with the peloton, and that maybe they wouldn't notice anyone had broken away until I'd built up a lead of several miles. I figured that, if I could build up enough of a lead, it might wind up sticking; I was confident in my ability to ride solo at a good pace all day and night, and these ultra races are largely mental. I wanted to give Scott and Collin every opportunity to write the day off, or to start mentally racing for second place.
For a long while, things went great; I was flying down rolling country roads speckled with sunshine streaming through the canopy of leaves, unencumbered by wheel-suckers, and feeding off the endorphin rush of putting power to the pedals and feeling like I had bottomless strength. I stole glimpses behind me on occasion, but by all appearances, I'd snuck away. Best of all, the pace car was saving me the trouble of navigating through the unfamiliar terrain, and the driver was motivating me with thumbs-ups every now and then. My average speed had crept up from 22.8 at the start of my breakaway to over 23 mph.
I tore into checkpoint 3 at mile 96 with no one in sight behind me, got my number punched, and looked around for my crew. Hmm -- not good. They were always right at the front waiting for me, but not this time. I really needed new bottles, but things were what they were, so I began to accelerate back out onto the main road. Just as I did, I glimpsed them in an adjoining parking lot carrying the cooler toward the checkpoint; apparently I'd beaten them there! I was flattered, but also slightly panicked that I'd be chased down, so I quickly grabbed some supplies, and when my mom asked (incredulously) if I was in the lead, I merely pointed toward the checkpoint entrance, where a stream of riders was then barreling in. (Oy vey.) But I wasn't going to make it easy for them. I ripped back out onto the course and set sail for the end of the first loop.
Century split: 4 hours and 20 minutes (23 mph) (PR).
Ironman split: 4 hours and 51 minutes (23.1 mph) (PR)
The final 28 miles were a blur of effort and emotional swings. Sometimes it would look like I'd gotten away from the chasers; other times, on long straightaways, I could swear I saw a speck in the distance that could only mean bad news. I looked for motivation wherever I could, and found it in the idea that I was having to fight off a chase group could work together to run me down. Indignation is a powerful thing.
|First one back! Feelin' both punchy and punched, in more ways than one.|
200k (125-mile) split: 5 hours and 25 minutes (23 mph) (PR)
This wasn't good. I'd worked tremendously hard over the last 50 miles of solo riding, and all I'd really managed to achieve was parity with the pre-race favorites, who'd been matching my pace but doing so by trading off pulls. So much for my clever move.
|Has anyone seen my matches?|
Loop 2 ("There's so much we can do!")
The second loop was a 24-miler that we'd ride until 8:00 pm, halfway through the race. In my head I'd imagined that, with three of us working together and well out of sight of the rest of the field, things would be a little calmer. I was both right and wrong. I was right in the sense that the three of us worked very well together, taking honest 2-mile pulls, no one shirking his duties, and we made very good progress. I was wrong in the sense that, holy crap, Scott and Collin ride like locomotives. On certain hills it was everything I could do not to get blown off the back of the train. We stormed through the first loop of rolling hills just under 23 mph.
|Game face on! Behind me, Collin Johnson.|
|Amy, probably telling me to get my shit together.|
200 mile split: 8 hours and 48 minutes (22.7 mph) (PR)
400k (250-mile) split: 11 hours (22.7 mph) (PR)
|Altogether more reasonable than how we were spending the day.|
|Finishing the daytime loops with Collin (L), Scott (far R), and a mystery man.|
|Dad and Amy preparing my nighttime spread.|
|Amy, ready to go with my nighttime gear. Perfect! What a crew.|
And so, with a distinct feeling that nothing good would come of this, I decided to roll the bike around the 7.3-mile short loops a couple of times to see whether I could salvage anything out of this pacing debacle. The last thing I wanted to do was be on my bike shivering at 16 mph all night, which is what had happened at Sebring.
Loop 3 ("It's just you and me!")
One challenge that I recognized from Sebring is that, when you see your crew every 7 miles, it's very easy to stop and chat with friendly faces often, and that's deadly to a fast pace. The beginning of each loop is a small battle of will with one's self to roll out into the night once again, away from the friendly embrace of loved ones and hot soup. But, as much as seeing my crew frequently represented a challenge, in a greater sense it was the main thing that kept me going. When you're on your bike for an unreasonably long time, the only way to stay sane is to find things to look forward to in the near term, be it a swooping section of road, a downhill where you can relax, or an amusing mailbox shaped like a manatee. For me, the biggest of these things is that I looked forward to seeing Amy and my parents; each completed lap met with their cheers and constituted a small victory.
In the first several of overnight loops, from 8:00 until sundown around 9:30, I was content merely to make steady progress around the course, and to try to rejuvenate myself with the savory delights my crew handed me.
|Some people bring knives to a gunfight. I bring Pringles.|
|The Michigan sun sets on N24HC. But the fun starts after dark!|
|Red sky at night, a cyclist's delight.|
|The Boombottle. Badabing, baby!|
So, I went with a non-headphone music solution -- the Boombottle -- which I pre-cleared with the race organizers. It's pretty cool, a bluetooth speaker that fits into a bottle cage. Its volume isn't massive, and it can be hard to hear when you're riding fast if it's not near your head, but putting it in my "between the aerobars" cage was perfect. It more than exceeded its 10 hours of predicted battery life. I'd just hit the pause button whenever I was riding near anyone for more than a moment. Otherwise, I got some whoops from people I passed at 3:00 a.m. while channeling Bon Jovi. And hey, if nothing else, it let people know I was coming.
Amazingly, only an hour or two after I'd been at my lowest point and considering whether to continue the race, I found myself at my highest point, feeling great and just flying down the road as I sang along to whatever embarrassing thing was coming out of my speaker at the moment. I held 21-22 mph for a couple of hours straight, which was incredible given the state I'd been in not long before, and I felt invincible. Of course, I knew that that high, too, would pass. That's the thing about ultracycling: no matter how good or bad you feel, that'll change. You just have to ride things out, as impossible as that task may seem in the moment.
600k (375-mile) split: 17 hours and 50 minutes (21 mph) (PR)
I'm happy to report that I rode strongly throughout the night. I didn't see much of Collin or Scott, but I played a solid 10-hour game of "catch the rabbit" with the headlights in the distance ahead, often overtaking them with surprising speed. Even at 2:00-3:00 a.m., the traditional witching hour when any trace of fun drains from the event, I felt capable of pushing hard; there was no "Sebring drift" going on here, and my morale was good. I guess my inevitable black period had occurred earlier in the evening.
From 3:00 a.m. until dawn around 6:00, the number of riders on the road diminished substantially, but when the morning rays broke in the east, suddenly the crowds came back out to play. It was a glorious morning, and the last two hours felt positively easy. Making it through the night was the mental challenge; after that, it was just a matter of finishing it out.
|The glorious morning hours.|
|Finish line in sight!|
|It's all done, but for the sleeping.|
|Amy, sensibly hesitant to touch me. She learns quickly.|
I finished at 7:50 a.m., 23 hours and 50 minutes after I'd started, with a total distance of 488 miles (20.5 mph average). My goal had been 450 miles; what a day! The tally was good for 1st place in the age group by 60 miles or so, and 3rd overall. Collin broke the old course record with 503 miles, and Scott smashed it with 511. (Good grief.)
I took a quick rinse the public showers, then headed to the awards ceremony, which turned out to be an endurance test in of itself. The announcers were in great cheer, and they'd put together a very nice raffle. The trouble was that the raffle took fully 30 minutes to complete, and the riders had long lost any ability to stay conscious. I felt especially sorry for my crew, as they'd been up all night on my behalf and I'm sure were simply hoping to get to bed as soon as they could.
|Can you identify the riders in this picture?|
|Clearly the best part of the race.|
|Gold medal, M35-39.|
|Left: Scott Luikart, the new course record holder.|
|Me with Collin, with whom I'd ridden much of the day.|
And, frankly, it didn't hurt me all that badly. I rode 268 miles in the first 12 hours and 220 miles in the second 12 hours. That's a big dropoff in pace, but I don't think there's any such thing as even-splitting or negative-splitting a 24-hour race. Taking a global view, that's still a 350k in 12 hours, which is very solid.
From this point, I think my main goal has to be to continue to work on my wattage. My endurance is okay, and I'm figuring out the nutritional and mental aspects of the race, but the fact is that the people I'm competing with are often more powerful than I am. I'm usually more aerodynamic than they are, which is how I'm able to compete, but I think I'm still leaving a lot of time on the table. It's only in the last few months that I've really started to focus exclusively on my power output, and I'm making steady progress. There's a lot more to do, but life wouldn't be any fun if there weren't.
Next up: a return to the Saratoga 12/24 in July, which I last raced in 2012. I'll most likely be taking on the 12-hour event there, although it's possible I'll jump into the 24 at the last minute. Who knows? Maybe I can even win one of these things...