Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dancing in Coral Shoes: 24 Hours of Sebring, 2016 Edition

Valentine's Day weekend of 2016 marked my third annual trip to Bike Sebring, one of the best attended and most competitive ultracycling races on the calendar.  (My 2014 report can be found here.)

Any 24-hour race is difficult by definition, but this one poses a unique challenge: the peak training months are December and January, which is the holiday season and one where it's tough to put in huge outdoor miles.  Compounding that difficulty has been my tough work schedule this winter, which didn't allow me to ride longer than 6 hours at a time, and the fact that my fitness was in a deep hole at the beginning of November following a long injury layoff, wedding, and honeymoon.  Essentially, I was trying to lose weight, build base miles, and get faster, all at once.  Not an easy task.

And then there's the competition -- at the top end, it's tough.  Sebring is often used as a destination race for those neck-deep in training for RAAM in June.  For a healthy portion of those individuals, RAAM training is literally their full-time job.  It's not that they get paid for it -- quite the opposite, there's no prize money and it's notably expensive -- but they've arranged their affairs in such a way that the main focus of every day is building bike fitness.  For a host of reasons, that's not the world I live in.  A better sense of my schedule that, in the first two weeks of January, my life consisted of 10 depositions, 2 arguments in the D.C. Circuit, trying to keep my new wife from reconsidering that whole "I do" decision, and maybe a little cycling.

So, with a hat tip to Teddy Roosevelt, I did what I could, with what I had, where I was.  I did zero outdoor rides after mid-November, but I hit the Computrainer 5-6 times a week for a variety of endurance rides and interval sessions.  I also did plyometric workouts 3x/week, which I've found to be particularly effective and time-efficient full-body cross-training.

In all, I was basically preparing for a marathon by training to run a fast 10k.  It's better than nothing, but far from ideal.

Despite the training challenges, by the time the race rolled around, I felt pretty optimistic: my power numbers were where I wanted them and I was healthy; I just hoped I could hold it together for the whole 24 hours.  In 2014 I went 441 miles, and I followed it up with 475 miles in 2015.  The course record for my new age group was 483 miles, which I thought was in the realm of the possible.


When it comes to bike setup, I'm an inveterate tinkerer -- each race I do things a little differently in an effort to go a bit faster and stay on the bike longer.  It doesn't always work out, but at least it keeps things interesting.  This year, my approach focused on aerodynamics.  I bought an affordable disc wheel from Flo Cycling, found a behind-the-saddle hydration system that would mount to wide Selle Anatomica rails, and put a between-the-aerobat bottle mount on the front.  The idea was to get the bottles up out of the wind while allowing me to go for at least a couple of hours between refueling stops.  Given that the course was flat, I wasn't concerned about weight.  My final tweak was to tape my Cardo BK-1 (now Terrano X) communication system to my aero helmet -- it's meant to strap to vents, but I didn't have any of those.  Given the moderate predicted temperatures, I wasn't worried about overheating.

As an added "I just gotta be me" touch, I found some dandy coral shoe covers and arm sleeves that would make me visible for my crew.  Yes, they're Rapha.  (Shush.  I sleep just fine at night.)

I am extremely fancy.

The race at Sebring starts with 3 quick laps around the racetrack (a total of 11 miles or so), and then a 90-mile lap through the orange groves of central Florida.  In both 2014 and 2015, I'd been blown out the back of the pack in the first mile.  The trick is that there are several races starting at once, including a draft-legal 100-miler and 12-hour.  The guys at the front of those races ride blisteringly fast in a pace line, and the fastest 24-hour racers go nearly as quickly.  The result was that, in the last couple of years, I was already 30 minutes behind after the first century.   This year, I decided to try to hold the pace a bit better.  Surprisingly, I was able to keep in touch with the lead pack on the track while keeping my wattage in a reasonable range.  Maybe my aerodynamic tweaks helped more than I'd anticipated.

To Frostproof and Beyond!  Well, to Frostproof, anyway.
As we set out into the countryside, things were going well -- alarmingly so.  I was in a small lead non-drafting group consisting of Marko Baloh (Slovenian, course record holder, multiple world record holder, multiple RAAM finisher, training for RAAM 2016, and different species of cyclist), Erik Newsholme (440 miles last year and training for RAAM 2016), and Fabio Silvestri (highly experienced Brazilian rider training for RAAM 2016).  Notice a trend here?  Tough crowd.

Briefly leading the 12-hour train, which we leapfrogged periodically.
The four of us stayed in touching distance through the turnaround at mile 55 (at nearly 24 mph), at which point I started getting a little concerned.   My concern was named Marko -- he was still there.  I'm not insecure about my riding ability, but I am not in his class based on the several times we've competed, and last year he was 15' ahead of me by that point.  My power was reasonable, if maybe 5-10 watts above target, but I was relaxed, eating well, and didn't feel as if I was pushing things.  I'd have preferred if he pulled away, thus restoring the order of the universe and confirming that I wasn't riding stupidly, but one can never tell: maybe he was sick or training through the race.  I decided the mere fact that he was there wasn't reason enough for me to slow down -- that would basically be adopting an inferiority complex as a race strategy -- so I went with it.  Eventually he pulled away a bit and Fabio went with him, although they were in sight for the most part.  Erik took a little additional time refueling at the turnaround, but I suspected he wasn't far behind.

I will say this: despite my lack of mileage, I'd rarely felt so strong on a bike.  It was flow state to the horizon.  In 2014 and 2015, I rolled through the century mark in 4 hours and 42 minutes (21.3 mph).  This year, despite feeling like I was trying less hard, I rolled through in what was, for me, a scalding 4:14 (23.6 mph).  Where had an extra 2.3 mph come from?  God knows.

Unfortunately, things got a little more challenging at this point, because my power meter died.  I'd noticed in the days beforehand that it was eating batteries, and I put in a new one the morning before the race, but it crapped out 5 hours in.  (The battery life is rated at 200 hours.)  So, I was faced with riding the final 19 hours on perceived exertion.  I'm not an "addicted to a power meter" guy, but it serves the critical purpose of telling you objectively when you're pushing a little too hard, an important thing to know in a race that lasts all day and all night.  So, I just kinda eyeballed it, trying to push forward deliberately without stopping longer than absolutely necessary.

The 11-mile daytime loops are, historically, my strongest portion of this event.  They reward disciplined riding and provide a little variety: hills to climb, winds to combat, nutrition handoffs to manage, and so forth.

Getting a little loopy.
Nothing about the loops is hard, but they wear on you, and this year the temperatures crept up to nearly 80 degrees -- very pleasant, really, but also warmer than I've ridden in for quite awhile.  For the first time ever at this event, I can say that no one passed me over the course of my 13 loops.  (Indeed, last year, I only managed 12 loops before getting routed onto the track.)  I didn't think I was pushing too hard, but without a power reading, I was only guessing.

Buzzing right along!
By the time I reached the track again at around 5:45 pm, my only conclusion was that I was having the ride of my life.  I was winning the race among humans (second behind Marko), and I was 20 miles ahead of where I'd been at that time in 2015's 475-mile effort.  Here are the splits:

                                               2015           2016  
Long loop (101 miles)       4:46:54       4:17:35
Daytime 1 (11 miles)            32:56          31:27
Daytime 2 (11 miles)            32:05          31:21
Daytime 3 (11 miles)            32:36          31:46
Daytime 4 (11 miles)            32:23          30:52
Daytime 5 (11 miles)            32:25          32:32
Daytime 6 (11 miles)            32:05          32:49
Daytime 7 (11 miles)            32:51          34:08
Daytime 8 (11 miles)            32:19          32:06
Daytime 9 (11 miles)            33:19          31:04
Daytime 10 (11 miles)          33:12          32:07
Daytime 11 (11 miles)          33:48          32:49
Daytime 12 (11 miles)          33:56          33:32
Daytime 13 (11 miles)                             32:55

I don't have power numbers to confirm, but these loops look pretty good to me -- about 75% were faster than they'd been in 2015, but not outrageously so; it's tough to compare loop-for-loop because I stopped to refuel at slightly different points, but the bottom line was, I think I executed about as well as I could have hoped to.  I was going consistently faster than in 2015, but my splits weren't falling apart in any significant way, as they would if I'd overcooked the first century and first few daytime loops.  All I had to do was have an average overnight ride by my historical standards and I'd be in the 500-mile club.

The Sebring raceway is 3.7 miles long, and it's the flattest place it is humanly possible to ride a bicycle.  After the hills on the daytime loop, that flatness seems completely inviting, but it is deceptive.  With such a flat course, there's no time to stop pedaling without paying a penalty, no opportunity to shift your weight, and mentally, it can be profoundly taxing.  It's dark for 13+ hours in Sebring in February (compared with maybe 9 hours in a summer event), and you're going in loops for that entire time with nothing at all to look at.  What's worse, each year I've struggled mightily to stay warm -- there's something about the damp Florida air that soaks into my bones no matter what I wear.  (I'm told the crews feel the same way, which is of minor comfort, although I wish they didn't have to experience it.)

Anyway, I set off like a man on a mission, and for the first several hours -- until 1:00 a.m. or so -- I executed just as I'd hoped to.  My splits held reasonably solid:

Loop   Split    Elapsed time
1         10:09   11:27:05 
2         10:06   11:37:11  
3         10:57   11:48:07  
4         12:58   12:01:05  
5         10:29   12:11:33  
6         10:21   12:21:54                                                     
7         11:03   12:32:57  
8         10:22   12:43:18  
9         11:03   12:54:20  
10       10:15   13:04:35  
11       10:13   13:14:47                                                      
12       10:16   13:25:03  
13       12:59   13:38:01  
14       10:41   13:48:42  
15       14:45   14:03:26  
16       10:15   14:13:40                                                      
17       10:11   14:23:51  
18       10:08   14:33:58  
19       10:08   14:44:05  
20       10:11   14:54:16  
21       10:13   15:04:28                             
22       10:19   15:14:47  
23       10:12   15:24:59  
24       10:30   15:35:28  
25       10:56   15:46:23  
26       16:29   16:02:52                           
27       11:28   16:14:20  
28       11:22   16:25:41  
29       10:54   16:36:35  
30       10:53   16:47:27  
31       11:05   16:58:31                                                   
32       11:07   17:09:37  
33       12:51   17:22:28  
34       11:10   17:33:37  
35       11:03   17:44:39  
36       11:18   17:55:56                             
37       11:55   18:07:50  
38       11:27   18:19:17  
39       11:37   18:30:53  

Sure, by 1:00 a.m. my pace was about 10% slower than it had been at 5:45 p.m., but that's to be expected. The problem was, at that point, things started trending downhill quickly. I was still clinging to second place by my teeth, but Erik was blowing by me ridiculously quickly, and I was struggling to keep pace with folks I'd been passing all day long.  It was highly demoralizing.

My thoughts turned to the cardinal rule of long distance cycling: whatever you think the problem is, the actual problem is probably nutritional -- specifically, not enough calories.  My mother, loyal crew member that she is, heated up some chicken broth with carbohydrate power in it, which had saved me in the past in similar situations, and then she encouraged me to have some hot chocolate too, which I did.  Unfortunately, over the next hour, I wound up on the side of the road twice, horribly sick.  I just wasn't absorbing any of it, and the longer I went without getting calories, the harder it became to push the pedals, which made it increasingly difficult to stay warm.  It's a pernicious cycle that's critical to arrest. 

The bottom line is, I just couldn't get the ship turned around.  From 1:00 onward, my splits fell apart entirely:

Loop   Split    Elapsed time
40       12:12   18:43:05  
41       15:35   18:58:39                                                      
42       12:10   19:10:49   
43       16:54   19:27:43  
44       11:23   19:39:05  
45       12:22   19:51:26  
46       16:46   20:08:12                                                     
47       12:55   20:21:07  
48       15:18   20:36:24  
49       13:55   20:50:18  
50       13:17   21:03:35  
51       13:52   21:17:27                                                
52       13:50   21:31:16 

It's normal to slow down somewhat toward the end of one of these events, but from compared to hours 12-18 (when I was already long into the day), hours 19-21.5 were about 30% slower and heading in the wrong direction.  I tried every trick I knew, including standing in the saddle for extended periods, but I just had nothing left to give.  Couldn't keep food or liquid down, couldn't warm up.  Just ugly.   

Just after 4:00 a.m., while contemplating next steps, I suddenly found myself rolling across the grass. Odd -- that hadn't happened on previous laps.  Turns out I had just failed to notice that the road turned, and off I went, cruising to who-knows-where.  I managed to find the course again, but I realized that things were going from bad to worse.  I stopped and sat down in the crew area for a couple of minutes to try to solve the puzzle, but doing so just made me colder, so I eventually went to sit in my parents' car for a couple of minutes to heat up.  Those minutes stretched on, and I decided I'd had enough for this year.  It was all I could do to get my bike without shivering uncontrollably.

In the end, I went 449 miles, good for third place among men.  (Sarah Cooper, who is rapidly becoming a legend, also beat me soundly, overturning a 30' deficit heading onto the track to finish with a 479-mile course record).  Erik Newsholme went 491, up from 440 last year, and Marko... well, what can you say.  He destroyed everyone last year with 521, and this year he went 533.  Frightening.


I have mixed feelings about this year's performance.  It's difficult not to view it as an opportunity lost -- I've never ridden so well for so long, and it's frustrating not to translate 18 hours of terrific work into 24 hours of final results.  Having said that, as of the beginning of November, I was as out of shape as I've been in a long time; I'd just had an effective 6-month layoff following a terrible bike wreck and recovery, engagement, wedding, and honeymoon.  And, since November, work and other commitments only permitted me a handful of training rides of 5 or 6 hours.  When work hasn't been burying me, my priority has been to spend time with my wife rather than on the bike.  

In light of everything, I think the only reasonable way to view my performance is to be delighted that I put together an exceedingly strong 18-hour race.  Indeed, this year I beat my 2014 ride by 8 miles even though I rode for 1.5 hours less.  The strength will come eventually; it's February and I'm not racing RAAM.  All three riders who beat me will be toe'ing the line in Oceanside in June (Cooper is racing Race Across the West this year, although RAAM seems inevitable for her), so they're just in different places.  The competitor in me finds it a little difficult to accept that my life just doesn't allow me to train the way some of these guys do -- I have to cut corners in ways that sometimes don't work out -- but life is about striking a balance and that's what I'm trying to do.  

Many congratulations to Marko, Erik, and Sarah on huge performances, and also to the D.C. folks who had personal-best days or gave ultracycling a try for the first time.  I hope there's more to come!