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.