Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Big Savage" Super 600k ride report

Sometimes I was the balloon on the left, but mostly I was that other one.
2015 has been a heck of a year, in the best and worst of ways.  It started out in spectacular fashion: after a hard winter on the trainer, I cranked out 475 miles at the 24-hour race at Bike Sebring, setting a new age group course record in the process.  Although that total would have won the race in 2012-2014, this year it was good enough only for fourth overall, behind these characters.
Scott Lukart, Marko Balloh, and Anders Tesgaard.  Photo credit to Marko
(Note: as it turns out, this picture is deeply poignant.  Since it was taken in February, disaster has befallen two of the three men in it.  Scott, on the left, lost a battle with depression and is no longer with us.  He was one of the strongest ultracyclists alive.  Anders, on the right, was hit by a car toward the end of Race Across America, and has been in a coma for nearly three months.  Sometimes it is hard to make sense of how cruel life can be.)

Still, I couldn't have been happier with the result day.  I carried that optimism into my second race of the year, the 24-hour Texas Ultra Spirit, which I was leading by 30 minutes or so after 5 hours, only to have a truly catastrophic crash when I hit a wet metal grate bridge at 30 miles per hour around midnight.  I wound up with severe lacerations on my left leg and both arms; worst of all, my left elbow was shattered, and the muscle had to be re-wired to the bone.  After a 4-hour surgery and several days in the hospital, I was released to go home, where a second surgery awaited me.

Cycling is great!  *High five*
And thus ended my racing season, basically, as early as April.  I wouldn't be back on my bike until mid June.

But, just as things looked bleak, they turned dramatically for the better: I got engaged!

Yeah, my mom didn't believe it, either.
Amidst the celebrations, the breakneck-speed planning for an October wedding, and working an extremely demanding job, training just wasn't happening.  I toed the line for a relatively flat 400k brevet in late June, and made it 80 miles before concluding that I didn't have another 170 in me.  Not only was I not up to it physically, but I didn't have the mental drive to keep on pushing.  It wasn't good.

Since then, I've been on Project: Rebuild.  It's been ugly, but it's coming along.  I've dropped 10 pounds or so and been more consistent with the riding, including ticking off a relatively hilly 200k without undue drama.

But all of this left me with a dilemma: I couldn't imagine letting the year go by without doing an epic ride of some sort.  In 2013, it was Alaska's Big Wild Ride 1200k.  Last year, it was the Central California Coast 1200k and Silver State 508.  The crash had derailed my plans for Race Across Oregon in July, and wedding planning had kept me out of racing shape, but surely I could find something that would make for a good story.

To my rescue rode D.C. Randonneur Bill Beck, who earlier in 2015 had created and certified the Big Savage Super Randonnee 604k.  A "Super Randonnee" (or "SR") 600k is a relatively new type of ride that follows most of the rules for brevets -- including controls, and so forth -- but with a couple of additional twists.  First, there is no outside support allowed, including at controls.  (So, no loved ones meeting you with tissues to dry your tears.)  Second, and more important, the amount of climbing involved is disturbing.  Normal 600k rides are anything but flat, but SR-600s are designed to test your will to live, even if they do give you some extra time to ponder your bad decision.  Here is the elevation profile for the Big Savage Super Randonnee:

Warning: Zooming in may cause nausea.
In short, this 375-mile behemoth had 38,600 feet of climbing, or over 100 feet per mile.  To put it in perspective, that's as much climbing per mile as the legendary Savageman triathlon, which is known for having the toughest 56-mile bike course in the country -- it's just that this ride was 7 times as long.  Indeed, the similarity to Savageman is not coincidental: the Big Savage 600k traverses some of the same territory, through the perilously steep hills of western Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.

It somehow worked out that, despite wedding planning and so forth, I had a 3-day weekend free over Labor Day, so I circled it on the calendar and roped in my longtime riding buddy Max, who was preparing to take on the Natchez Trace 440-miler in a month's time.

The Plan, with Obstacles

We determined to set out at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning from Hancock, Maryland.  (It's also possible to ride it the opposite way, starting from Woodstock, Virginia, but for reasons discussed later, I think we made a wise decision.)  We'd ride in a 187-mile counterclockwise arc to Woodstock, Virginia, where we'd get some sleep before reversing our path on Sunday morning.  It looked like a tough route, but we'd both ridden extremely mountainous stuff on plenty of occasions, and there was no pressing timetable here.  My biggest worry was that I hadn't ridden anything longer than 120 miles since early April -- I was going to have to rely on my years of experience with mountainous rides.

Unfortunately, I encountered a massive setback before our pedals traced a radian.  My job carries with it the periodic risk of having disasters land on my lap, and two of them did in the three days before we were supposed to to ride.  Indeed, Friday afternoon found me in federal court opposing an emergency motion to prevent the transfer of a massive hydroelectric dam to an Indian tribe -- something I'd known nothing about 24 hours beforehand.  In short, I worked 32 hours on Thursday and Friday, and got a combined 7 hours of sleep in the two nights before the ride.  The 2:15 a.m. wakeup on Saturday was unwelcome.  If I'd have been writing on a blank slate, I'd have decided against the ride, but I'd committed to being there and I wasn't inclined to let work wreck my only remaining big ride for the year.  So, I sucked it up and got out there.  Yippee ki yay, m_f_!

My Perspective

This writeup is meant at least in part for future riders considering this challenge.  Such riders understand that, when they read someone's assessment of difficulty, that assessment must be viewed relatively -- that is, "What is the rider's measure of difficulty?"  For them, I'll briefly state that I'm drawn to sadistic bike rides like chain grease to white chinos, and I'm reasonably good at them.  I've ridden the Mountains of Misery 200k (14,500' feet of climbing) on 7 occasions, with a best time of 7:49.  The two "normal" 600k brevets I've ridden have been solo efforts of 27 and 25 hours, respectively, and they've had about 20,000 feet of climbing each.  I averaged 455 miles in the three 24-hour races I contested in 2014.  I've ridden two 1200k with no drama, and competed successfully in the Silver State 508 in 2014.  Most recently, in April 2015, I rode a 24-hour fl├Ęche with 21,000 feet of climbing in 250 miles, and I rode to the start the day before, covering 210 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing.  This isn't to say that I'm the strongest rider out there, but only that, in general, I think of challenge as a positive thing, and I'm not prone to dramatic exaggeration.

Given that perspective, here's the bottom line: this ride crushed me like no athletic endeavor I've undertaken; if you're thinking of doing it, you should ask yourself why and demand a compelling answer.  I desperately looked for any way to abandon it on multiple occasions, and I probably would have if there had been an escape button to press.  Comparisons to other challenging road rides are largely unhelpful.  I'm proud that I finished it, but two days later, I'm still staring into space and coughing fitfully.  I honestly cannot recommend in good conscience that anyone sign up for this madness.  Of course, I fully understand that, for some riders out there, these warnings only make the challenge more attractive.  For them, I offer the following tale of pathos, with bits of advice intermixed.

Leg 1: Hancock, MD, to Grantsville, MD
Distance: 60 miles

We rolled out in balmy darkness and started climbing at about the 100-yard mark.  It had been raining in the early morning, and we quickly ascended into fog, with my head-mounted Exposure Joystick light emitting a cyclops beam into the great beyond.  The pavement was great and the roads utterly deserted -- I don't think a car passed us for the first 30 miles.  The challenge was that, in the fog and darkness, visibility was terrible: the lights just caused a blast of glare in front of us.  Descending was none too stellar, either.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the damp air was that we quickly became soaked to the gills with a combination of sweat and humidity, a pattern that would repeat itself pretty consistently over the next 42 hours.

In terms of terrain, the first the first 60 miles of this ride are deceptively difficult.  None of the grades is shockingly steep, but they Do.  Not.  End.  In fact, the first 60 miles have than 7,000 feet of climbing.  (Extrapolate that out to your typical 200k, and you're heading for 15k feet, which is more than Mountains of Misery.)

I was feeling reasonably all right, but we were making disturbingly slow progress.  After a quick refueling stop in Cumberland, it was up and over Big Savage.  From the north, the climb is less an obstacle, and more a way of life.  At the second control, I realized with some dismay that I was exhausted.  It was Fritos-n-Coke triage time, and we'd only just begun.

Leg 2: Grantsville, MD, to Keyser, WV
Distance: 28 miles

The second leg was one of the more forgiving ones -- riding along the Big Savage ridgeline, descending a bit, summiting again, and then plummeting down through Westernport, MD, and crossing the river in to West Virginia.  Only one thousand-foot climb in this stretch!  Indeed, anyone who's written the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo will recognize almost all of this.  

The tragedy here was a tragedy indeed: after climbing for so long, the descent was harrowing.  In fact, as we approached Westernport, the road changed to something like pea gravel, which is not good when you're descending a 15% grade with sharp turns.  And then we plummeted into Westernport itself, down a road that's almost unspeakably steep.  In the rain, I'm not sure it would be rideable.  By the time we reached the control, my hands were cramping.  

Happily, however, I was feeling better, and the sun was finally beginning to do its part to dry us out.

Leg 3: Keyser, WV, to Mooresville, WV
Distance: 41 miles

It doesn't look like much, does it?  In fact, it looked downright great after one leg of endless climbing and another of "hide the children" descending.  Finally, a chance to make some progress over some light rollers.

Well, yes and no.  The challenge was that, with our 5:00 start, we began this third leg at about 1:00 p.m. on a sunny summer afternoon, as the heat climbed toward 90 degrees.  There's only one climb, but the rollers were vicious, and my two bottles were not nearly enough.  As it turns out, there's a water spigot available at a church halfway through this leg, but because Max and I were using GPS guidance, we failed to note it the first time through.  In my opinion, this spigot is utterly mandatory.  Skip it at your peril.  

In all honesty, this stretch was not much fun: it was long, hot, exposed, and fairly uninteresting.  It was largely a process of sweating out every molecule of liquid in my body.  By the time we reached the Patterson Creek climb toward the end, I was utterly toast -- disoriented, cramping everywhere, and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into.  That climb, for the record, punches up near 20% grade in sections, and there is no shade to be found.  For the first time in many years, I dismounted my bike halfway up a climb, bent over the bars, and waited for the world to stop spinning.  

Max waited an unduly long time at the top of the climb, and then we made our way down to Fox Pizza in Mooresville, West Virginia.  By the time we got there, my feet, calves, quads, hip flexors, and hands were cramping so badly I could barely hobble off my bike and crash in a booth.  Red Wizard needed food, badly.
If this is heaven, we're in trouble.
Now, let's be clear: Fox Pizza is terrible.  And, on top of its being terrible, I could barely eat because my system was shutting down.  So, we agreed to stay there until things got better -- that took an hour.  In that time, I drank fully a gallon of cold liquids and ate what I could.  I couldn't remember the last time I'd been cracked so badly, but there we were, at mile 129, with 62 miles left to go.  And we'd just finished the easy stretch.

Leg 4: Mooresville, WV, to Lost River, WV
Distance: 28 miles

The 28-mile segment to Lost River was a one-trick pony.  That trick was a 2,000-foot climb up South Branch Mountain, which I'd never heard of.  Bill Beck, the organizer, had rated it the toughest climb on the route, but I was feeling better, and I'd climbed some tough stuff in my day.  It was only one climb, so HTFU, right?

As it turned out... no.  Not even a little bit.  This climb utterly crushed me.  Neither one of us made it up without stopping, but for me, that wasn't the half of it.  I wound up walking my bike almost a mile up this thing, something I hadn't done in the history of my cycling career.  (So much for the squeaky clean new bike shoes.) Not that walking it up was straightforward, frankly.  I still had to stop periodically to double myself over against the railing while the world came back into focus.

Here's the bottom line: If you don't have a triple or the gearing equivalent, this climb will almost certainly break you.  It is easily as difficult as the final climb at Mountains of Misery, and your legs will be more tired when you get there.  If you're riding this route the other way, such that you hit this on Day 2, may God have mercy on your soul.

I've rarely been in as despondent a frame of mind as I was on South Branch Mountain -- cracked, cramping, exhausted, dehydrated, with 60 miles to ride before sleep, and then facing the prospect of doing it all again the next day.  If I'd had a "pick me up" button, I'd have pressed it, no question.  In fact, I told Max I had no idea how I could possibly ride the next day -- I'd already had one very bad outcome on a ride this year, and I couldn't face another.

We did finally make it to the top.  I don't want to talk about it.  This climb shouldn't exist, least of all on this ride.  The descent was ok, to the extent I could ride straight, which was to no extent.  I hit a few potholes. Yay.

If there was any silver lining, it was that, at mile 155, we reached the control at the Lost River Grill.  The place is a shelter from the cruel world outside, with comfortable booths, a terrific menu, a refrigerator case of pie slices, and endless coffee.  We stopped for dinner, and stayed there resolutely for a good long while.  Afterward, we'd head out in the dark for the final 33 miles to the overnight control in Woodstock -- a stretch that, naturally, contained two more climbs.

Leg 5: Lost River, WV, to Woodstock, VA
Distance: 32 miles

I feared the worst, but thankfully, the worst was behind us.  The two climbs, through Mill Gap and Wolf Gap,  were nothing compared to what had come before, and the 15-mile cruise between them was about as beautiful a nighttime ride as I'd ever seen: silky tarmac, stars in the sky, and no traffic to be found.  I figured I could just about get myself to Woodstock.  The descent down Wolf's Gap wasn't straightforward at night, but my Exposure Strada headlight did the trick, and Woodstock arrived after a celebratory spin along roads that almost could be termed humane.

As we rolled toward the overnight control, I tried to figure out how I was going to find a ride back to the start.  Saturday's 190 miles -- with 19,000 feet of climbing -- had been by far the hardest 300k I'd ever ridden.  I'd somehow managed it on patently inadequate training and vanishingly little sleep, but I saw very little chance of riding it the other way the next morning.  More to the point, I truly, deeply didn't want to.  Max convinced me to get some sleep and make the call the next morning, which I agreed to do.  I was in a dark place in every respect.

We reached Woodstock around 11:00 p.m., 18 hours after we'd rolled out.  Ridiculous.  I might not be a competent ultracyclist, but I was going to stay at a Holiday Inn Express that night.

Leg 6: Woodstock, VA, to Lost River, WV
Distance: 32 miles

After a decadent (by randonneur standards) 6+ hours of sleep and a raid on the continental breakfast, we rolled out.  I was feeling stronger after a solid sleep, and Max had none of my self-pity, so I figured I owed it to him to give it a go.  We were rewarded with what has to be one of the most perfect early morning rides I've ever experienced: crisp air, sunlight speckling the road through the canopy of trees, and a fresh layer of asphalt that made it almost like... floating.  It was exactly like that for these folks.

It was that kinda morning.
There are few prettier roads in the Mid Atlantic, and it almost made it seem like we'd made a wise decision in how to spend our weekend.

Leg 7: Lost River, WV, to Mooresville, WV
Distance: 28 miles

Back to Lost River Grill for second breakfast: dessert!  Max went for some apple pie, while I attacked a slice of red velvet cake.  My goal for the day was no more dehydration and no more bonking, and this was the first salvo in the glycogen war.

More like it.
The curse of this route was its out-and-back shape: if you have to climb 2,000 feet over a ridgeline on Day 1, you can be pretty sure what you're in for on Day 2.  And so it was that we had our second encounter with South Branch Mountain.  Fortune, though, was smiling on us: South Branch is quite asymmetric, and the approach from the southeast, while long, posed no undue hardship.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the descent: the grade that broke me, complete with switchbacks and gravel washed across the road, was the sort of thing you just hope to get down in one piece.  Max seemed undaunted, but descending at speed isn't my strength, and my memories of April's wreck were only too fresh.  I was glad to make it down intact, but the journey made me feel a little better about what had happened to me the day before.  I'd had no chance whatever, a dead cyclist walking.  Well played, South Branch Mountain.  You need a more memorable name.

Leg 8: Mooresville, WV, to Keyser, WV
Distance: 41 miles

We couldn't bear the thought of pizza for brunch, so we skipped Mooresville's Fox Pizza the second time through and instead set up shop at Food Giant.  We'd have given our kingdoms for a deli, but Food Giant isn't particularly good on the whole "food" front, so we made do as best we could with another round of potato chips.  Mooresville is a bit tragic.  I did force myself to drink a couple of bottles of water more than I wanted to, in light of the upcoming reverse pass down the desolate 40-mile stretch to Keyser.

Given our dismay at the grade up Patterson Creek the first time through and our failure to recollect any steep descent on the other side, we hoped it would be a replay of South Branch Mountain: a kinder, gentler Day 2.  In fact, though, Patterson Creek was every bit as steep from the south, and I drained one of my two bottles in the first 10 miles -- not auspicious.  Fortunately, we found the spigot at the church the second time through, which was a blessing (so to speak).

Meanwhile, the stretch to Keyser proved to be just as soul-sucking the second time through; if anything, this time it was hotter, with temps cresting over 90 degrees.  For an allegedly uneventful stretch, it is pretty damn nasty, and it's made worse by the fact that, in the steep downhills, the roads are rutted and pitted in such a way that you hope your wheels and fillings come through it.  Good riddance.

Happily, just when we'd had more than enough, we reached Keyser, home of the wonderful Stray Cat cafe -- a perfect place for a long lunch.

Leg 9: Keyser, WV, to Grantsville, MD
Distance: 28 miles

88 miles and 2 legs to go.  I knew 88 miles.  I understood 88 miles.  Hell, I'd ridden 88 miles before, and I figured I could do it again.  After all, next was just the climb up Big Savage Mountain -- nothing intimidating about that name.

Actually, I'd ridden the Big Savage climb probably 10 times before.  It's the first climb of the Savageman Triathlon, although it's a beast, it's never proved an undue obstacle.  I tentatively assigned it to the "will be tough, but no problem at the end of the day" bucket of "things to do before I can be done with this g-d d-mn ride."

I put it in that bucket because, as amply demonstrated on this blog, I'm a moron who never learns.  In retrospect, the climb up Big Savage was always the first one in every ride; before it had come a 10-mile descent, so I'd arrived ready to attack.  This time we hit it at... mile 294.  After 30,000 feet of climbing.  And I may as well have been asked to climb up the side of the nearest 150-story building.  Never has the name for a climb been so apt.

Looking at the elevation profile of this stage in retrospect, I understood why it seemed as though, around every corner, another shockingly inhumane grade awaited: in the 28-mile stage, about 25 miles of it is climbing.  We somehow made it through, but we were in distinctly poor cheer by the time we slumped into the Pilot control point with 60 miles to go.  Darkness was descending, and it seemed we were getting weaker with every passing mile.  Not good.  We resolved to make sure we were thoroughly fueled before rolling out -- we could do 60 miles come hell or high water, but we preferred neither.  One thought rattled around in my despondent mind: last time I'd been sitting at that control, at mile 60, I'd been exhausted due to the 60 miles before.  And, at that point, I'd only been 60 miles in.  What would those 60 miles do to us this time?

Leg 10: Grantsville, MD, to Hancock, MD
Distance: 60 miles

Big Savage rescued us.  After grinding along the ridge for a few miles, we got to experience the singular joy of a 10-mile descent when you're on your last legs.  Best of all, the descent was down a wide road with a great shoulder, and apart from the brief stretch through Frostburg, traffic was a non-issue.  Spectacular!

But it was not to last.  The stretch from Cumberland to Hancock is a stage in Race Across America, and it's the stage with the most climbing per mile of any stage in the country.   The elevation profile tells the story: it's a series of 1,000-foot-high saw teeth that lasts pretty much until the moment the ride ends.  It got to the point that I lost track of whether the climbing was done; each time, the answer turned out to be, "Well, yeah, except for this 3-mile climb."  I had all the joy of a cat in the rain, and when I rolled into the final control some 43 hours and 20 minutes after I'd left, I felt little joy or pride -- it was more the sensation that comes when someone stops hitting you with a hammer you asked him to wield.

Final thoughts

To restate what I noted at the beginning, I was not in shape for this ride.  I probably had no business doing it.  And, to make it worse, I was coming off nights of 3 and 3.5 hours of sleep, which is about the worst thing I could have done heading into this thing.  None of that was my fault, but it was my choice to do the ride anyway, because it was the one chance I had to do something epic this year.  In light of all that, it's unsurprising that this thing wrecked me.

But that's not all that's going on here.  I've talked to some people after the ride about how to express my thoughts about it.  They're complex.  On the one hand, Bill's done an impeccable job putting together a ride unlike anything else I've ever attempted.  By and large, it's a pretty one.  The roads have virtually no traffic, and the nighttime riding was some of the best I've ever had.  He set out to make a beast of a challenge, and he succeeded in every respect.

Having said that, in all candor, I think the Big Savage SR-600 is beyond the pale of reasonable challenges.  It is simply too difficult.  Having been through it, I can't think of a reason anyone should want to endure such a thing.  After every challenge ride I've done -- and I've done many -- the experience has faded into a fond glow, but that's not happening here.  Instead, I've spent the last several days coughing fitfully and feeling like I just want to sleep forever.  I guess on some level I'm proud I finished it, but I'm equally glad that I no longer have to keep riding up, up, and up, all in the desire to get home.

So, I guess I'd say this.  If you're thinking about doing this ride, ask yourself why, and make sure you have a compelling reason.  "It'll be a fun challenge" is not a good enough reason, because this ride is not "fun."  There will be many times that you're wondering what the hell you've done.  I think the only reason to do this ride is if, on some level, you won't be able to live with yourself if you don't give it a go.  If that's the case, then have at it, and godspeed.  I would say that unless you can cruise through a typical 600k in close to 30 hours, you may have trouble with the 50-hour cutoff.  (This one took me about 16 hours longer than my slowest previous 600k.)  

This is the hardest endurance event I've ever done -- forget Ironmans, marathons, 1200k, 24-hour races, Silver State 508, and the rest of it.  None of them matches this thing.  Having been through it, I feel like I've escaped its clutches more than triumphed over it.  There are no victors here, but for one: congratulations, Bill -- I've always taken pride in organizing the hardest damn rides I could find, but you win.