Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Maryland Endurance Challenge 2017: Better than Bridesmaid

He's so... pretty in pink.
Cycling-wise, the past six months have been the best and worst of times.  Since November, I've been training more consistently than ever, using both new equipment (out with the Computrainer, in with the Tacx Neo), and a different training system (TrainerRoad).  I've never worked so hard, and I looked forward to trying to push some personal boundaries at Sebring in February.  Unfortunately, a serious throat infection hospitalized me for several days; instead of doing hot laps on an F1 race track, I was intubated at Johns Hopkins and looking forward to the day when I was allowed to consume ice chips.  I was off of the bike for more than a week, and I felt distinctly weak for far longer than that.  It was disheartening, but at least I lived through it.  And, hey, few better ways to lose those extra pounds than an impromptu ICU vacation.

With no racing on the near-term agenda, I refocused myself on putting together a serious randonneuring season, which featured a sub-20 hour 600k and receipt of the Cyclos Montagnards R60 honor for completing a 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevet in under 60% of the allotted time.  At times it was tough to stay afloat: at one point I'd completed rides of 300k (190 miles) or further on 5 weekends in a 6-week stretch.  It's tough to balance (i) resting for such rides, (ii) recovering from them, and (iii) putting in the hard intervals necessary to get faster at the same time.  I'm not sure I did it perfectly, but I certainly did the best I could.  It said a lot about my mindset that I worried excessive randonneuring would derail my training; I forced myself to remember that I train in order to have adventures, and not for its own sake.

Through hook or crook, I came into the first race of the season stronger and lighter than I've ever been.  But I hadn't done much racing in a long time: my last competitive event was Race Across Oregon in July 2016.  Before that, I'd had a fairly disastrous National 24-Hour Challenge in which I succumbed to heat issues and called it a day before darkness fell.

My first race of 2017, at the inaugural Maryland Endurance Challenge 12-hour event, would pit me against several extremely strong riders.  One of them, Billy Volchko, crushed me in that 2016 National 24-Hour Challenge with a ride of over 500 miles on a miserably hot day; he'd also won a couple of 12-hour races.  Another racer, Ken Ray, was new to the ultra-racing scene but was at the pointy end of training for the TransAmerica Race, a 4300-mile self-supported coast-to-coast event, and he'd been riding 25-30 hours per week since last fall in preparation.  Plus, I've found that usually an unknown-to-me superman shows up unannounced.  It would be no time to have an off day.

The race was run out of the beautiful grounds of Mount St. Mary's University near Thurmont, Maryland -- north of Frederick and almost into Pennsylvania.  That area is a cycling mecca with everything one could want, from flat cruising up to Gettysburg to climbs in the Gambrill Park region that threaten cardiac events.  It even has covered bridges!

Duncan, the race director, had designed the course to display what the region has to offer.  It wasn't hilly per se, but at 40 feet of climbing per mile in the form of constant rolling hills, it posed a monumental challenge -- many ultracycling events are flat drag-races, or at least have a couple of hills that one can conquer before relaxing.  This one, though, would require a little bit of everything and would offer few opportunities to relax.  Moreover, it was a draft-legal race, which introduced a strategic dimension that one doesn't face in the "put your head down and pedal" races like Sebring.  Working cooperatively can help everyone go further, but that won't necessarily help you cross the line first.

The 12-hour race featured two loops.  The first was a 34-mile "long" loop that we'd ride 3 times; it featured a solid half-mile climb, several punchy rollers that exceeded 10% grade, twisting country roads, covered bridges, and the Catoctin Mountains in the background.

The second was a 6.4-mile affair that we'd whip around until either we got dizzy and fell over or 12 hours had passed.  It was slightly less hilly than the long loop but still far from an easy cruise, particularly when you're tired and riding aggressively.

One enjoyable thing about 12-hour races is that they're ridden in daytime -- no overnight freezes, lights to deal with, or attacks of the sleepies.  But offsetting that convenience was a challenge: unlike in many races, I was self-crewing.  I've mostly been fortunate to have friends or family handing me food, bottles, and other sundries; without that help, I'd have to figure out how to keep moving.  My solution was to pre-mix about 20 bike bottles with various concoctions, mostly Infinit, and stack them in a milk crate for easy grabbing.  Beyond that, I had a box of Clif Bars, and the night before I'd gone by Whole Foods and raided their junk food section for croissants, donuts, cookies, and pastries, and I'd also found some Red Bull in case the going got bleak.  Unfortunately, when I got to the race site, I realized I'd forgotten the goody bag, so Infinit, water, and Clif Bars it was.  Oh well; at least I wouldn't have anything interesting to tempt me to stop for a bite.  Coulda used something salty, though.

I met Billy at the start and said hello to his sizable crew, which included his sister, girlfriend, and another guy, each of whom had more energy than I could imagine for early on a Saturday morning.  They promised to ring the cowbell for me and made good on it throughout the day.

The day was conducive to riding -- overcast and mid-60s -- but it wasn't without its challenge in the form of a flag-snapping wind out of the north.  A group of about 50 riders lined up a little before 8:00 a.m., and a rifleman sent us on our way with a single shot, doubtless to the neighbors' delight.

Billy, me, and Georgi Stoychev of D.C. Randonneurs fame, heading out.

Almost immediately, Ken (of "training for TransAmerica" fame) pulled away from the peloton and began to ride into the distance.  A few of us looked at each other with expressions that said, "Nope, not gonna be that easy" and closed the gap, thus creating a paceline of 5-6 riders that stayed together through the opening miles.  Things fractured when we summited the 1/2 mile hill at over 400 watts; by then, it was down to me, Billy, and Ken, the x-factor.

The three of us traded pulls through the 20-mile point, after which I turned around and noted a distinct lack of Ken.  Victim of a cougar attack?  Who could say?  At least it simplified the logistics: Billy and I agreed to trade pulls every 2 miles in order to keep things fair, and we made very quick time almost to the end of the first loop.

Unfortunately, our reward for being at the head of the pack was that we were first to miss a turn that was marked inconspicuously, if at all.  We didn't realize our mistake until we'd gone 3 miles past it.  Groaning, turning around, and pulling out our cell phones with Google Maps, we found our way back to the turn and corrected our error.  Along the way we passed a passel of other riders who'd made the same mistake, including Ken.  Oh, well -- it was frustrating because we were making hellaciously good time, but we're responsible for knowing the course at the end of the day, and at least most people seemed to have suffered a similar fate.  On subsequent loops, the turn was marked sufficiently obviously that the space shuttle could have navigated by it, so the organizers were on the ball.

The second long loop flew by without incident, and by the end, we were still averaging well over 23 mph -- enough for a 270-mile day if we kept it up.  Still, I confessed to Billy that I wasn't sure I could keep pushing 265 watts for 12 hours, and he admitted that we were pushing hard.  In my mind, I reasoned that if he was strong enough to keep doing that all day, I'd have to face reality at some point and do my own thing.

The third loop was a fairly painful ordeal.  The rolling hills seemed to be steeper than before, and although I felt solid, I was putting out more effort than I ever had before for that long, and it was of a spikey nature that's largely foreign to time trialists.  With TTs, the name of the game is to hold the highest steady output you can.  With a draft-legal race in rolling hills, though, this one felt more like a road race -- constant surges up hills, relaxing down the backsides, pushing hard when in front, and relaxing a little when drafting.  My wattage was all over the place, but on average it was pretty darn aggressive.

Finishing up Loop 2.
We came through the century mark in 4:19.  I've gone a couple of minutes faster over a century before, but nowhere near it on a course this hilly and windy.  Toward the end of the third long loop, I noted gratefully that Billy had stopped riding quite so hard when taking his pulls at the front, which allowed me to regroup a little bit and contemplate the short loops ahead.

At the 110-mile mark, I quickly swapped my water bottles for the first time.  Not sure how I pulled off that stunt; I guess on a cool day, it's possible.

Off we go to figure out what the short loops have in store.
The first short loop veritably flew by -- there's nothing quite like having something shorter and a little less hilly to attack.  We kept with the 2-mile-plan, but I was feeling stronger by the mile.  After we completed our first short loop, the course grew more crowded as the remaining 12-hour riders began to circle along with the 6- and 3-hour groups.  On the second short loop, Billy and I joined forces with 4-5 other solid riders, which made time and miles pass quickly: instead of pulling half of the time (with a 2-person paceline), we could do relatively little work and still make pretty good time.  I pondered this fact as we finished the second loop and started the third, at which time we were joined temporarily by Henrik Olsen, an accomplished local randonneur and ultracycling racer who'd come out to join the festivities for a little while.

The dilemma was one endlessly familiar to road racers but a bit novel to me, coming from a non-drafting triathlon background.  We'd ridden hard for 5 hours, leaving 7 hours to go.  We were part of a solid paceline making good time, and it would have been straightforward to be satisfied with that and to let the day unfold.  The problem was that Billy and I were the two strongest riders in the group, which means we weren't working very hard.  And, at the end of the day, only one of us could win, which meant that I'd have to try to break away at some point.  Finally, I got the sense that I was feeling a little better than he was at that point.  The time could be right to make a move, but if I was wrong, I'd expend a ton of energy doing something stupid.

Note: I'd done exactly that stupid thing on my first trip to the National 24-Hour Challenge, where I solo'd off the front as hard as I could from miles 75-125, only to find that I'd been ridden down by a group of strong riders, each of whom hadn't had to do nearly as much work as I had.  It was a fiasco.

Still, fortune favors the bold.  I figured that if I had a strength after my long season of hard randonneuring rides, it was in riding long distances solo; I was less confident about my ability to sit in a pack and then sprint toward the end.  So I decided to gamble a little.  When my turn came at the front of the paceline, I accelerated gradually and then went extremely hard up a medium-length hill and down the other side.  When I turned around, only one rider was left -- Ken, who'd stuck on my wheel but was a lap behind.  The others were some distance back.

Exiting the turn-around onto short loops.  Photo credit to Andrea Matney.
As I exited the turnaround, I saw Billy and the remainder of the peloton coming into it, which meant my lead was 20 seconds or so.  To me, that was confirmation: I had an opportunity, but to seize it, I had to bury myself to build on the lead -- I wanted to be far out of sight.  So I resolved to ride the next two short loops all-out to build whatever cushion I could.

I don't think I've ever ridden so hard for a 45-minute period.  I cut back on greeting people I passed because I was gasping for air a lot of the time, and each time we turned north into the gale, I tucked down into my aerobars and tried my best to hang onto my gear, even if it meant my wattage going through the roof.

Cruising in to finish a loop.  Photo credit to Andrea Matney.

The strategy appeared to work: by the end of my surge, I saw no sign of the chasers.  The problem was, it was a loop, so I couldn't tell whether my lead was shrinking or growing, and I had... 6.5 hours left to ride.  Good grief.  Lots can go wrong in that time period, especially when self-crewing.  I had to stay on top of my speed and nutrition and just keep focused on moving forward quickly and efficiently.

Ultimately, it was one of those days when everything came together -- I never did see Billy again, and Strava suggests that we spent the last half of the race orbiting opposite sides of the loop from one another.  Every now and then I asked his crew how he was doing, and they assured me that he was rolling along well and a few minutes back.  I'd have loved to know more about what "a few minutes" meant, but I didn't press my luck.  ;-)

My splits for the remainder of the ride were:

300k (188 miles): 8h 26m
200 miles: 9 hours
400k (249 miles): 11h 22m

At the 173-mile point, some 7.5 hours into the ride, I stopped to swap out my bottles and realized that it was only the second time I'd done so, meaning I'd ridden that entire distance on 6 bottles.  Again, having a cool day really helped matters.

Eventually, after having ridden a little over 10 hours, I began to feel the finish line: at a rate of 19 minutes per loop, I'd only have to ride 5 more -- I could understand that, and made each one its own interval.  4, 3, 2... finally, with one more loop to go and no sign of Billy at the turnaround, I knew I only had to keep the bike upright to finally win a race after five years of coming close.  No problem!  Done and done.  I even slowed down a bit to say hello to some chickens.

One thing that looped races have to decide is how to handle the "remainder" portion of a loop at the end.  Specifically, if you finish a loop and don't have time to ride another complete one before the race ends, are riders to stop, or should they keep going to get credit for part of the last loop?  Most races are in the former camp, but this one was in the latter, and I hit the tape with 12 minutes to go -- more than enough time to get in a few more miles.  So I removed my visor and enjoyed a victory lap as the sun descended behind the mountains, reflecting that I felt oddly great.  I'd never gone through a weak spell.  Maybe my simplistic diet and lack of a crew had been enabling in some weird sense, allowing me to get lost in my head and just get things done.

Winner winner, Dorito dinner!
Cyclists in medal are wearier than they appear.
Looking back over my race, it's obviously the strongest ride I've ever had.

I've ridden further in 12 hours, but only on the flat drag-race course in Sebring -- nothing like the hills and wind of Maryland.  In fact, my wattage profile looks more like a road race than a time trial: I spent more than an hour in Zone 5 and higher, which is something I'd have thought impossible for me.

I was on the bike and moving for 11:57:38 out of 12:00, which is about the best one can hope for in a self-crewed event, and certainly much better than I've done in the past.

From the preliminary results, it looks like I finished about 9 minutes in front, which isn't much after 12 hours of riding.  Almost all of it came during the "surge" of a few short loops mid-race.  Here are the first several loops (3 long loops, the first one with extra miles, and the first short loop).  It was neck-and-neck.

My surge came at the end of the 3rd short loop (Lap 6), and carried through the next few laps.  In retrospect, it looks like I banked about 8 minutes there, a gap that didn't grow much at all in the remaining 5+ hours in Laps 11-23.  My gamble paid off this time.

At the end of the day, the race was a terrific way to put a capstone on a satisfying spring of riding.  I'm not sure what event is next for me -- it's looking unlikely that I'll be able to make the National 24-Hour Challenge this year, a particularly sad fact considering that this might be its last iteration after a 35-year run.  For now, though, I need to let my mental and physical batteries recharge a bit; I've been pushing hard for many months straight.  Maybe it's time to relax for a couple of weeks and watch the TransAmerica and RAAM competitors gear up to go.  

As for the Maryland Endurance Challenge, I can't recommend it enough.  It's pretty in a way that few UMCA looped courses are, and it provides a challenging course far different from the flats that one normally encounters.  For that reason, it's not a "personal record" kind of event, but I think it's a true test of everything you can do.  It was run splendidly, especially for a first-year event, complete with electronic timing and modern touches like Strava segments.  And, arguably best of all, it's run for charity, supporting homeless youth in Frederick, MD.  I'll be back next year!