Thursday, June 30, 2016

Blinded by the Light: N24HC 2016

On Father's Day weekend, my folks and I headed back to Middleville, Michigan for my second crack at the National 24-Hour Challenge (N24HC).  In 2014, I finished 3rd overall with 488 miles, a result I haven't surpassed.  2015 was a bit of a lost year cycling-wise, given my long injury layoff, but heading into this year's N24HC I was in the best shape I'd ever been and ready to do battle.  This wasn't my target race -- that honor was reserved for the Race Across Oregon four weeks later (500 miles, 42k feet of climbing, desert, almost certain doom) -- but it was an opportunity to see how things were shaping up for me.

The trick with this race is that, virtually uniquely among ultracycling events, drafting is legal.  That introduces tactics in a way that long solo time trials usually don't -- on a flat course, the benefit to drafting is huge, which means that, if you don't work with others to share the burden and push the pace, you'll almost certainly lose out to those who find a way to cooperate.  In 2014, I rode the first 12 hours with Scott Luikart and Collin Johnson, and we put together a 268-mile performance in the first 12 hours.  But that year I made a rookie mistake by deciding to ride off the front of the pack from miles 70 to 120, a decision that wound up haunting me as I worked far too hard only to be reeled in by Scott and Collin, who'd worked together to close the gap.

This year I vowed to be smarter by riding with others for as long as humanly possible.  I figured the contenders would come from some combination of Jessop Keene (480 miles in 2015, his rookie year), Chris Hopkinson (ultracycling veteran extraordinaire), David Baxter (tough Texan), Billy Volchko (Ironman racer and winner of the 12-hour Calvin's Challenge the previous month with 250 miles), and probably some hitherto unknown guys who'd make a run at it.  I thought I could mix it up with the guys I knew, at the very least.

There was only one problem: the weather forecast.  It's cheap and a little cliché to blame the weather for anything, but the East Coast's weather this spring has been cold and wet.  I'm not sure I'd done a ride all year where the temperature broke 70 degrees for a significant period.  N24HC was forecasted to push 90 and sunny, which was far from ideal, but everyone would face the same challenge.

The start scene, recumbents at the ready.

A preview here: I'm a moron.  Or, at least, I got deeply and inexplicably confused about certain fundamental logistical issues having to do with course length and aid station placement.  As for course length, the first loop, i.e., the "long loop," was -- I thought -- 124 miles.  I knew there were three aid stations, and I somehow concluded that they were at miles 24, 50-ish, 80-ish, and 124 (back at the start).

This was not even remotely correct, and I paid for it.

In terms of racing, I executed my strategy well -- stay in touch with the front of the peloton for as long as I could while not "pulling" the pack any more than absolutely necessary.  

The ragtag N24HC peloton in the opening miles.
In other words, I stayed in the race and got the benefit of the draft while not doing unnecessary work.  The morning was a clement 65 degrees, so at mile 20 or so, I radio'd the crew that I didn't need a bottle refill at the first aid station at Mile 24, thinking I'd see them again in a little over an hour, at Mile 50-ish.  But I began to get a little confused when Mile 24 passed, then 25, 27... 30, all with no aid station.  We finally reached it at Mile 32, but I somehow adhered to the belief that the next one would come about an hour later.  I declined any additional hydration and rolled on through, feeling good.  

N24HC lead pack.  Photo credit to David Manning.
Soon thereafter, the inevitable breakaway happened, and I found myself with Jessop, Billy, a third rider, and a couple of recumbents leading the way.  It was exactly what I wanted: to push the pace, but with a group instead of solo.  So far, so good.  Wattage was solid, and pace was 23-24 mph average.  Cruising!

By Mile 40, I was out of water and desperately looking for the next aid station at about Mile 50.  I asked Jessop what mile marker it was, and he replied: 79.  

Um.  What?  40 miles away in temps that were already in the mid-80s?  Crap-f'ing-tastic.  It was my own fault, of course -- there's nothing more basic than knowing where the aid stations are -- but this was not good.

Still, we were making good time, so I decided that my only shot at winning this thing was to hang with the front group, do my share of the work, and tough it out.  The option was to drop off and slow it down, but then I'd be doing 100% of the pulling instead of 33%, and the competition would be working cooperatively, so I reasoned that to drop off was to concede defeat, and I wasn't ready to do that by any stretch.  I've ridden 40 miles without water, I'd just have to do it again.  It wasn't trivial, though -- Jessop might as well have been a locomotive, and Billy had a tendency to crank up hills at 350-400 watts.  

I was still feeling okay when we reached the aid station at Mile 79, grabbed a couple of bottles, and rolled out.  By then it was down to me, Jessop, Billy, and the 'Bents, i.e., the worst rock band name in history.  And, although I was staying in touch through Mile 90 or so, my wattage was dropping and my heart rate was looking more like a threshold test than a 24-hour TT.  I was getting cooked by the sun and competition; in fact, it was so bad that I fell off the back of the pace line and only caught up again when one of the recumbents took pity on me and pulled me back up to them.  Yeesh.

About this time, I made my second boneheaded mistake.  In retrospect, somehow I had the number "24" stuck in my head for this race.  Jack Bauer would be proud, but my results would not.  I think it all came from the fact that the second loop was 24 miles long; unfortunately, I also somehow understood that the first aid station was at Mile 24 (instead of 32), and that the first loop was 124 miles long.  It wasn't -- it was 121.

So, at about Mile 120, I radio'd the crew and told them I'd be by in about 15 minutes and needed all of the cold, wet things in the world.  Just after I hung up, I looked up and saw the aid station less than half a mile away.  And, worse, I saw my crew in the car heading that direction.  I'd beat them there by several minutes.  Aargh!

Again, I had a choice: wait around at the tent for my crew to arrive and make sure I got what I needed, or press on with the lead guys, thereby staying competitive.  I resolved to stick with them, but I wasn't entirely stupid: I filled my bottles quickly from a hose.  No calories, but better than nothing -- at least until I realized that I'd filled my bottles with sun-heated water so hot it burned. Faced with the choice between drinking them and accelerating my overheating versus not drinking them and exacerbating my dehydration, I got them down slowly, but it was disaster.  I managed to stick with Jessop and Colin through the first 24-mile daytime loop, but after that, I finally accepted that I was getting creamed, waived them on, and sought triage.   We'd done 23 mph for 150 miles, but the temps were well into the 90s and I was not remotely ready for it.

The boys, at Mile 150.
As bad as things were going, my crew managed to keep me moving by providing an endless supply of something I'd never even though to ask for: cold Mandarin oranges.  It's unclear whether they have any calories, but they made me happy, which is something.

Going nowhere fast.
Eventually I hauled myself back onto the bike, and for the rest of the afternoon, I trucked along solo on the 24-mile loops, moving steadily but not particularly quickly.  I tried to enjoy them, but the sensation of being slow-roasted stayed with me, and my motivation waned the further I fell behind the leaders.  I was struggling to hold 18 mph, which is a point I usually don't hit until well after midnight.

Suckin' wind.
As darkness approached, I rode a few nighttime loops, but I was shelled.  I'd push as hard as I could for a minute, then look down and see that I was riding at 150 watts, which is what I normally do on a recovery spin.

My parents/crew remained ever-buoyant and encouraging, but I began to think things through and realized I couldn't come up with a good reason to race through the night -- at least not one strong enough to convince myself to suffer that way.  Certain racers have that ability, i.e., "I'm here so I'm racing until I fall apart no matter what," but I was asking my crew to stay up through the night, guaranteeing that I'd be an exhausted mess for days in a week where I was slammed at work, and vastly prolonging the amount of recovery I'd need before I could start riding hard again to prepare for RAO.  All for a result that would probably be 430 miles, give or take (compared to 488 in 2014).  I hung out with my parents for a little while and then cut the cord.

He wears his sunglasses at night.  This is not my "motivated" expression.
In all, I rode for about 16 hours and finished with 310 miles.  Not a calamity, but far from what I was looking for.  I woke up the next day hoping I wouldn't learn that everyone else had also cratered and that I'd actually remained in contention, but I needn't have worried: Jessop Keene won with a course-record 516 miles, and Billy Volchko racked up 509 miles in his first 24-hour race.  Utterly phenomenal.

I suppose I'm disappointed in my performance, but as good as I felt my fitness was, the one element I didn't have was heat training under my belt.  With a 92-degree, sunny day, that's a problem, and combined with my repeated mistakes about distances, I didn't put myself in a position to contend.  Given it all, I think calling it a day at midnight was the right call -- there's no training benefit to riding  for another 8 hours at that point, only added exhaustion.  I'm back on the trail to RAO; this was just another payment on what I hope will be a great race in Oregon next month.  

Monday, June 6, 2016

Solo Super-6: Lynn Kristianson Memorial (Skyline) SR600k

Skyline Drive's legendary -- a national park often rated as one of the top 10 cycling routes in the United States -- and for those of us in the D.C. area, pilgrimages are frequent.  It traces the ridgeline from Front Royal south to its terminus into the Blue Ridge Parkway 105 miles later.  To the west lies the Shenandoah Valley, with its alpaca farms, meandering rivers, and verdant country lanes all juxtaposed against the sawtooth ridges of West Virginia.

The Virginia piedmont, with its rolling hills, unfolds to the east.

And so it goes, vista titration for over 100 miles of road with nary a flat foot to be found -- cruising on perfect pavement where cars are few and face a 35-mph speed limit.  A paradise for climbers!  And then it turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is more of the same.

Skyline Drive elevation profile.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I set out to tackle Gary Dean's Super Randonneur 600k, i.e., the Lynn Kristianson Memorial SR600k, featuring those roads.  A SR600k is, as it suggests, 600 kilometers long (375 miles), and it follows most of the usual rules of a brevet; the main difference is that, as a "permanent," riders arrange to ride it at a time of their choosing, rather than at the time the club puts it on the calendar.  But there are 600k permanents that aren't SR600s; to be an SR600k, it must have more than 10,000 meters of climbing over the course of the route -- that's almost 33,000 feet.  Another way of thinking about it is that it's a 10k road race straight up into the sky.  Another is that it must have at least 4,000 feet more climbing than the peak of Mt. Everest is above sea level.  Put simply, they are designed to be challenging, but they reward effort double-fold with scenery and adventure.

I'd ridden one SR600k before -- last September's Big Savage SR600k -- and it was pretty much the hardest thing I'd ever done in the endurance world.  Part of my misery was doubtless that I was unprepared for it in every way, having gotten virtually no sleep in the previous days due to work obligations and not having done a ride over 200k since my bad wreck four months beforehand.   I wasn't making that mistake this time: I'd been putting in the miles constantly for six months, and I'd been climbing like a maniac in preparation.  On the other hand, due to an unfortunate injury to my would-have-been riding companion, I'd be riding this one solo.  Sad panda.

Taking a look at the map, the ride starts in the NE corner at Front Royal, cruises south the length of Skyline and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it continues south to Buena Vista.  It then descends west into Buena Vista, loops back to the east, and then climbs back up to the ridgeline all the way back north to Rapine, where you descend to the west once again for the overnight stop.  One challenge with this arrangement is that the overnight stop comes at mile 227, well past the halfway point, and almost inevitably well after dark.  It makes for an exceedingly long and hilly first day, but at least the route is easy to follow!

7-Eleven breakfast for the win!
I chose to begin my ride at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, a stupidly early time, but my thinking was that, with an aggressive pace, I had a decent chance to finish the first day's ride by 9:00 p.m. or so, which would keep nighttime riding to a minimum.  Sure, I'd be climbing in the dark for the first hour, but that's pretty much just a gentle climb up to the ridgeline, so it's as easy before dawn as it would be any other time.  I had the road completely to myself for the first few hours, and I was treated to dawn breaking to the east in all its glory.  As interested as I was in making good times, I had to stop for some photos.

Red sky at night, randonneur's delight; Red sky at morning, Rando take warning.

Things went without a hitch for the first several hours.  In fact, despite my relatively heavy load, I set some Strava personal records in the early part of the southbound leg.

Peaceful as you like.
Proof of passage: I had to take photos of my bike at certain locations.
In fact, the first adversity of any sort I encountered was that I arrived at the Big Meadow Wayside about 15 minutes before it opened, so I made friends with a guy and his 10-year-old son, the latter of whom would entertain us by noting that a bicycle is like a robot that doesn't need electricity, and then laughing hysterically.  I conceded the point.

Big Meadow Wayside.  On the other side of this building, there's a meadow whose size I can't remember. 

After that, it was back on the road south toward vistas anew.

And some of these, too.

Taken over my shoulder as I rolled past.
You could spot the bears in advance because there would be a traffic jam of cars stopped all over the road as people raptly watched the poor critters lumbering around, eating grass and looking nonplussed.

It was in this area that I made my first mistake.  I hit the control at Loft Mountain Wayside, at mile 79.5, at about 9:45 a.m.   I put a couple of candy bars in my pocket, filled my three bottles, and rolled out without issue, thinking that my next refueling stop was at Humpback Rocks at Mile 111 (just over 30 miles away).  When I got to Humpback Rocks a couple of hours later, ready to restock, I found that they had literally nothing except water -- not even the sort of snack food one comes to expect.

I was out of everything, and looking at the cue sheet, the next stop was in Buena Vista at Mile 156 -- 45 miles away.  On Skyline, that could easily be a three-hour stretch.  I got some water and rolled out, hoping for the best.  It would wind up being about 77 miles between refueling stops.  Note to future riders: don't count on Humpback Rocks for much of anything.  For the next few hours, I'd be riding on pan y agua, sin pan.

Heaven looks like this.
Just as I stocked up on water, mother nature decided to encourage me by contributing to the effort.  A tendril of Tropical Storm Bonnie had reached out to touch someone, and I felt... touched.  A rain somewhere between steady and soaking settled in for the afternoon.  It wasn't terribly cold in the grand scheme, probably in the high 60s, but I had a couple of things going against me.  First, I was wearing a wool jersey and wool undershirt, which, while warm enough in general, quickly came to weigh about as much as my bike.  Second, although it wasn't too cold, Skyline is the sort of place where descents take 15 minutes, and when you're soaked to the gills, that's plenty of time to get the chills.  Finally, I was teetering precariously on the edge of Bonkville due to my not having had calories for three hours. I finally wafted into Buena Vista, shivering and as indignant as a cat in a washing machine, and parked myself at the Burger King, where I ordered two meals and a large coffee.

A couple of thoughts on this.  First, when you're soaked and shivering, sometimes it's worth it to spend some time hanging out under the hot-air hand dryers in the men's room; a warm, dry cap can be particularly welcome.  Second, not all fellow patrons will look favorably on this behavior.  Third, Burger King now has something called "chicken fries," which are chicken strips in the size and shape of French fries.  They are truly terrible.  Also, they are amazing, and I can't recommend them highly enough.  If, as I did, you pair them with two order of normal fries and a fried chicken breast sandwich, it's actually possible to form a protective layer of fat and cholesterol that will insulate you for miles.  For dessert, I highly recommend a king-sized roll of Sweet Tarts.

Thus sated to the point of waddling, I rolled out for the final 50 miles or so.  I was moving along well, and it seemed I'd have a long overnight rest to enjoy if I could make it there.  The miles immediately after Buena Vista are some of the more forgiving on the route; they aren't flat, but they're largely meandering through side roads in the valley.  Eventually, though, it was time to head back up to the ridgeline for the journey north to Raphine.

"Here come the hills, a-gain..."
Jammin' over the James (River).
The penultimate control for the day came at the James River Wayside.  They had a water fountain, so I wandered over to fill up a bottle and wound up doing a Wile-E-Coyote-like flailing, dancing, and ultimately-flipping-a**-over-teakettle comedy routine on wet flagstones right next to the water fountain.  It's moments like these that earn me so many groupies.  They also explain why, occasionally, riding solo ain't so bad: fewer cameras around.

The climb back up to the ridgeline was an 1800-foot grind, although it was tranquil enough.  I was chasing daylight but on pace to get to Raphine by 8:30 pm.

Sadly, it was not to be.  As soon as I regained altitude, the rain started dumping again, and it felt like, no matter how far I went, I was seeing no sign of the turnoff for Raphine.  Eventually I figured out why: in the rain and descending darkness, I'd gone miles past it, and of course, those miles were straight uphill.  Wet and irritated, I turned around and headed back, but by then, it was dark and the tropical storm was in full effect.  Worse, to get from the ridgeline down to Raphine, I had to descend the notorious Vesuvius climb (named for the tiny town at its base).  It's several miles long, with grades that regularly exceed 15%, and on a potholed country road under dense tree cover.  It's also exceedingly technical, with switchbacks and terrible sight lines.   With pitch darkness and wet roads that seemed to suck up the lights from my headlight and helmet, it was one of the more terrifying times I've had on a bike, picking my way down the mountain at about 5 mph, dodging potholes full of water and trying to figure out where the edge of the road became a precipitous drop into the woods. Yuck.

In all, the detour and conditions cost me nearly an hour; I reached Raphine at about 9:30 p.m. and had a Wendy's banquet before mucking my way down the road to the hotel.  There, after a decadently long shower, I spent about an hour desperately trying to figure out how to get my clothes dry.  I laid some of them out over the A/C vent; other items, like my shorts, were hung in the direct blast of the hair dryer.  If you've never smelled "cooked day-old chamois," I assure you that you're better off for the ignorance.  Eventually I decided that the remaining items were just going to have to air dry; I hung them and hoped for the best, noting with some dismay that my theoretically waterproof shell was doing its best sponge impression.

With a 4:00 a.m. wakeup, I'd gotten 4+ hours of sleep, which ain't half bad in this sort of endeavor.  My clothes were no longer dripping, and the storm had passed overnight.  Frankly, I'd have been comfortable starting earlier, but given the sketchy weather and the fact that the first control (the market at Wintergreen Resort) didn't open until 7:30, I figured there wasn't much point in rolling out before 5:00.  So I had a leisurely breakfast at Dunkin Donuts, filled the bottles and pockets, and headed back toward Vesuvius -- the hard way this time.

Vesuvius -- not ideal first thing in the morning when you've ridden 230 hilly miles the day before.  But there it was, 3 miles, 1500 feet of elevation gain, and an average grade of 9% (and upward of 15% in places).  I'd climbed it twice before, and each time it just seemed to keep going, and to keep getting steeper, at every turn.  This time, I managed to get up it at a steady rate despite being weighed down by 3 full water bottles and all other manner of cargo.  No speed records for sure, but that's ok.

Having regained the ridgeline, there was a straightforward 15-mile stretch to the north before the biggest challenge of the day: the route dropped down the ridgeline to the east, where it found the base of the Wintergreen Resort, and duly told us that the next control was at the top.  Sweet!  I knew Wintergreen, and it's just a beast.

2.3 miles at 9% average -- like a continuation of Vesuvius.  Thing is, the full Wintergreen climb starts in the valley and climbs fully a mile past the market, where we'd stop -- it's 7 miles of unadulterated beastliness.  Our portion was just a sample, though it wasn't exactly straightforward.  I managed to set a personal-record time up it despite being far from fresh -- woot!

It turned out that I'd gone a little faster than I predicted; the market wasn't open until 7:30, and I wasn't in the mood to wait around for 20 minutes, so I took off and trusted that I could get by in the cool morning temperatures.  

But first, one more challenge: from the base of the Wintergreen resort back up to the ridgeline is a mile, and it is absurdly steep.

A solid mile at 12-15% grade.  Yeesh.  Got it done; didn't fall over.  Minimum requirements met.

Having reached the ridgeline once more, I headed north: 125 miles to victory!  And a beautiful morning it was.

At times, I was far above the low-lying clouds filling the valleys, and it looked like distant hilltops were ships flowing on a sea of mist.

The remainder of the day was, dare I say it, gorgeous and straightforward.  I mean, look at this road:

It doesn't get better.  Somehow, despite the objective difficulty of the ride, I felt stronger as the day progressed and home got closer.  I even blew away a couple of my all-time personal best times on climbs toward the northern part of Skyline.  For example:

A 3-minute personal-best time on a 3-mile climb, and it came past mile 350 of a 2-day ride with 35,000 feet of climbing.  Crazy!  But fun.

The literal beauty of Skyline Drive has been well-covered, but there's also a figurative beauty in that the route is like a giant savings account.  When you start in Front Royal and head south, the first thing  you do is climb straight up, and you keep climbing, up to a total of about 3,500 feet.  When you're heading home, your effort is returned: most of the last 20 miles, and all of the last 5 miles, is a screaming descent.  It was the perfect epilogue to the adventure.
35 hours and 33 minutes later.
Man, what a ride.  The only downside came about 2 hours from the end, when I started getting a twinge in my right Achilles tendon.  I thought I had just tweaked it somehow, but it kept getting worse, and I could barely push the pedal on the half-mile ride from the 7-Eleven back to my car.  I was limping for days afterward, but I think I have it under control.   It's a weird injury for a cyclist (more common for a runner), but I think it was just overuse given that I'd climbed more than 60k feet in the previous 14 days, much of it up grades of 15% or steeper.  I'd tentatively planned to ride a tough 600k brevet with the D.C. Randonneurs the following weekend, but that just wasn't in the cards if there was any chance of making the injury worse or getting stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Final thoughts?  This ride was tough physically but pretty easy mentally.  With the exception of Vesuvius and Wintergreen, the climbs weren't too hard, even though there were many of them and they did stretch on for miles at a time.  The pavement is great, which makes a huge difference, and the descents are largely joyful, relaxing affairs.  The scenery is hard to beat, even if it does risk repetitiveness at times.  And there's something to be said for having a cue sheet that amounts to "go straight for 150 miles."  The interior of Alaska was the last time I've seen anything comparable.

In terms of comparisons between this SR600k and the Big Savage, I think the latter is clearly harder.  My GPS put that one at 37k feet of climbing to this one's 35k feet.  RideWithGPS puts them both at 37k feet.  But whatever the case, I think the main difference is that, no matter how tired you get, you can pretty much just crank up a 5-6% grade, which is mostly what this route demands.  Once things get up above 10% -- which Big Savage does all day long -- it becomes considerably tougher.  The descents on Big Savage are also more demanding -- more technical and rutted.  My only hesitation in this comparison is that my fitness for this ride was vastly better, and the temperatures were more moderate.  Those things matter tremendously.  Even so, on the whole, I'd award this ride the "King of the Vistas" prize, and Big Savage the "King of the Mountains."

Next up for me is the National 24-Hour Challenge in Michigan on June 18, and then the 520-mile Race Across Oregon on July 16.