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Friday, April 17, 2015

2015 Tour of Hermann

Scheduled about 90 days before Dirty Kanza, Tour of Hermann is perfectly timed to be both a hard weekend of training and a good gauge of where your bike fitness is.  Last year I arrived in some of the best shape of life and with solid training behind me; this year I'm carrying 10 extra pounds pounds and a mental bruise or two from my struggles at Death by Gravel.  A good showing in Hermann would be a huge confidence builder moving forward.

Saturday morning my desire to go completely deserted me, and I spent my drive contemplating the decisions in life that have led me to a place where I pay money to ride really hard roads for a hundred miles a day. I was strangely nervous about the weekend, and there was no good reason to be as freaked out as I felt.  I was going to be by myself, but I rode much of last year's race alone too, and while I enjoy talking to the people I meet along the way I'm comfortable on my own. I've ridden most of the course before; if it didn't go well I've never found walking hills to be the end of the world, and if it went really badly, there was SAG support available.

Checked in, number on, and zip ties trimmed by the Momentum teammate I'd just met.
Thankfully the nerves dissipated as soon as I pulled into Hermann City Park, which was packed with cars and familiar faces. I absolutely love the St. Louis area cycling scene, and the vibe at gravel events in particular is so friendly and low-key that you can't help but feel happy. I did as much socializing as preparation, but somehow I managed to be ready in time to get in the pre-race team photo.

Mickey, Shaun, Brian, Jeff, Joe, me
Mickey was planning a solo run (you can take the guy out of triathlon, but you can't take triathlon out of the guy...), Brian was riding with a couple of friends, and Shaun, Jeff, and Joe were planning to stick together for the day.  Being nowhere near as fast as the guys, I intended to ride my own race, making friends along the way as always.

I not only pose for my own pre-race selfies but also those of strangers.
Race director Jeff Yielding said some words and then led us out of town towards the Katy Trail. I chatted briefly with Josh before he cruised ahead to find his crew, and then I spent the next few miles catching up with Tracy, a Springfield-area cyclist who'd been an internet-only friend until we officially met in January.  Once we hit the road and started the first gentle climbs, he moved ahead and I continued at a comfortable pace, talking briefly with Charlie and Stoney as we rode near each other.

Look ma, no camelbak! Since Dirty Kanza will have more closely spaced water stops, I'm experimenting with just using water bottles and jersey pockets instead of the pack. Photo credit: Tracy Wilkins
The first climb is paved and not so terrible, and I'd just crested it and started to fly downhill when I shifted into the big ring and dropped my chain. I fixed that as quickly as possible and then set off, all too quickly coming to the monster gravel hill that I remembered from last year. It looks impossibly big, but since I'd ridden it last year I was committed to staying on my bike this time too.

Obviously not me, but it gives you an idea of the hill.
There's me! Photo credit: Dan Singer

I'd loaded the route onto my Garmin. Though the course was impeccably marked and I would have been fine without GPS it did add some entertainment/irritation, as the "time remaining" screen spent the entire weekend estimating my finish time based on 10 min miles. Even riding uphill I didn't deserve the 5.5 hour predicted time for the first 30 miles.

When I repeat a course, I always find the dichotomy between my memories and the reality interesting. I clearly remembered the hill pictured above but not the far bigger one about 17 miles in...until I got there, when I vividly remembered walking up it.  Not this year, though.  It was slow, but I stayed on the bike the whole time.

There was one big sweet, sweet downhill, followed by a paved climb where some guys who'd leapfrogged me earlier passed me once more, and then another, more gradual downhill that led back to the Katy Trail towards Hermann. I pushed to catch back up with the guys who'd passed me so I could draft along behind them, only to have my plans thwarted when they pulled up as soon as I reached them to regroup with their friends still behind them.

I felt great as I pulled through race HQ to have my first loop recorded and felt really good about my time, which as it turned out was very similar to my 2014 time. This year I had virtually no stopping (just to put my chain back on) and rode all the hills, as compared to 10 minutes stopped  and walking at least one big hill last year.

Loop 1
2014: 2:03:72 moving, 2:13 elapsed, 39.1 max, 13.3 avg.
2015: 2:11:14 moving, 2:12 elapsed, 40.9 max, 13.6 avg.
Elevation profile for loop 1.
Loop 2: 

I spent about 12 minutes total refilling bottles, stocking up on fuel, and stopping by the bathroom on my way back out of the park, not a quick transition but almost twice as fast as last year's 20 minutes. This loop started with a big paved climb I'd been dreading since the previous year. It just went on and on, but eventually I made it to the top and enjoyed some sweet downhill pavement until the course turned back onto gravel.

Unlike the smooth, packed gravel of the previous loop, this one was marked by thick, fresh gravel that required much more work to ride. I was plodding along, feeling maybe a little down on myself because it felt so hard, when I recognized a spot along the road where I'd stopped to take a break and stretch my back and aching hip. I know I was in way better shape last April, so reaching this same turn and feeling, overall, pretty good gave me a shot of confidence.

I definitely reaped the benefit of my increased comfort on downhills on this loop, which made the uphills not quite as terrible. Eventually I had to start walking some hills; that was slightly depressing but only slightly because I usually had a lot more pep once I got back onto the bike. I'd been playing leapfrog all day with a group of guys. They'd pass me on climbs, and then I'd get back ahead when the leaders stopped to regroup. The last I saw of them on the course was at the top of a sketchy gravel hill.

I'd reached that point that Jill Homer (I think) calls the zen of fatigue: you're so tired that you don't really care what happens to you. I let myself speed down the loose gravel, and though Jeff Sona's advice "Your bike wants to stay upright" echoed through my mind reassuringly I didn't even whimper it aloud as I descended.  That, my friends, is progress.

One downhill where I did not let it fly, though, was the one where last year a washout sent several people to the emergency room. I cautiously eased my way down, meeting Jonathan and Brandon (in whose selfie above I make a cameo appearance) as they finished fixing a flat at the bottom of the hill. We rode together and talked for a little bit, but they were stronger riders and pulled ahead before long.

Team Red Wheel's Stacy caught me several miles from the end of the loop. "No singlespeed this year, huh?" he asked, remembering my woes with last year's broken shifter. He was much stronger than me on hills and passed me by pretty easily, but my touring tires rolled faster than his mountain bike ones, so I eventually caught up with him again and we talked mutual friends and Cedar Cross until we hit the pavement back to the start/finish.

"How was it?" Jeff Yielding asked as I passed through the timing pavilion.
"You going back out again?"
"...I guess..."

Comparing my 2014 and 2015 times, I was 13 minutes faster this year, though my guess is all of that improvement is due to the fact that I had fully functioning shifters for the entire loop. I had 12 non-moving minutes this year compared to 18 last year. Better, but still a LOT of room for improvement.

Loop 2
2014: 3:13:38 moving, 3:30:56 elapsed, 36.2 max, 10.5 avg -- 6:03
2015: 3:00:07 moving, 3:12:14 elapsed, 38 max, 11 avg -- 5:35 

Loop 2 elevation profile
Loop 3

A multiple-loop race is a diabolical. It's so easy to quit when you get back to the start/finish, and loop 2 must be designed to make people question why they would want to ride any more hills when there's a lovely park...and fun people...and a cooler full of cold drinks right in their car.  While all of these things were tempting, however, their allure didn't outweigh the crap I knew I'd hear from my teammates if I bailed on the third loop for no good reason.

It took me 18 minutes to get back on the bike this time, but I'd promised myself that if I went out on loop 3, I could walk every single hill I wanted to without feeling bad. With that assurance and the knowledge that I only had another 33 miles to go (33 miles, that's just like a medium Trailnet ride), I grudgingly set off again, telling Stacy I'd see him when he passed me on the hills.  My timing was good, getting to see John, Greg, and Chris as they finished their second loops and Peat as he finished his third. Yes, 33 miles ahead of me. There are some seriously impressive people on bikes. I'm just glad to get to know them (and see them at the start line :D).

Loop 3 was a lollipop that started with about 5 miles of pavement, so I immediately subtracted the out and back mileage from my total miles. 10 miles of pavement barely counts, so now I only had 23 miles to ride...I'd just started and was practically halfway there. Fuzzy math is an important part of my mental game.

At the top of the first hill I walked on loop 3 (and not the last)
Stacy did indeed catch me walking up hills partway through, but he took pity on me and stuck with me. I'd been fine riding on my own, but it was SO nice to have good company and it made the time pass much more quickly.  I started taking the uphills personally about halfway through -- Seriously?? Another one?? -- but at the same time was thoroughly enjoying the day. The Hermann area is absolutely beautiful, the weather was glorious, and the downhills were super fun (except one that was really steep with a turn at the bottom...that was still a little scary).

While I'd been ambivalent about riding that third loop, I came into the start/finish feeling much better than after loop 2 and very glad I'd gotten back on the bike.

Loop 3:
2015: 2:52:38 moving, 3:08:10 elapsed, 41.2 max, 11.4 avg.

Loop 3
I got out of my bike clothes as quickly as possible and headed the few blocks to the Tin Mill Brewery to meet the guys, who'd finished way ahead of me and gone to eat. My pizza took forever to cook, but that's OK because I just at their leftovers.

Day 2/Loop 4:

After a hot shower and a good night's sleep and even with a freshly washed kit thanks to my wonderful teammate Jeff, the last thing I wanted to do was get back onto my bike.  Once again, a park full of awesome people lifted my spirits, as did handouts of slightly expired waffles and delicious maple syrup packets, the perfect compromise between a mid-ride pancake breakfast and the convenience of a gel pack. So good! I came home and ordered a box.

I reluctantly put my kit on and rolled my bike to the starting line next to my Team Virtus teammates. Bob, Robby, and Luke had come for day 2, and their company was reason enough to get back on the bike for another 52 miles. It didn't escape me that when I do Tour Divide it'll be 100+ mile days back to back for a few weeks and that maybe I need to toughen up a little, but that's still 6 years away.

The very first small hill out of time reminded me that, while my ass was complaining the most about the previous day's ride, my legs weren't fully on board with this day 2 plan. The 17-mile stretch of Katy Trail that followed, though, was actually surprisingly pleasant, filled with easy spinning and good conversation as Luke, Robby, Bob, and I rode near the Wild Trak crew and then with John and Greg as they rode their way back towards Kansas City.

Robby and I got ahead when Luke and Bob stopped to do a little mid-race mushroom hunting, but I didn't mind waiting to regroup at all.  A paved climb awaited us as soon as we turned off the Katy, and Luke and Robby's stronger climbing put them well ahead of us. We regrouped again at the top of the day's first gravel descent.

We all rolled together for a while, but Luke and Robby were so much faster that eventually we spread out again.  I rode on my own for a while before realizing how dumb it was for Bob and I to both be riding solo when it would be so much more fun to ride together. Best decision of the day.  I had so much fun, hanging out with Bob, and not just because he never fails to tell me how much better I am at descending than when he first rode with me.

It's so important to walk your bike regularly.
This was another seriously beautiful loop, and if I couldn't ride up all the hills, well...Bob was kind enough to walk them with me, spotting deer bones left and right while I was all "Look how green it is here!"

While rain and 10-15 mph winds had been in the forecast, we'd enjoyed a really nice day.  Overcast and slightly cooler than Saturday, the wind had been absent and the weather had been perfect for riding.  We met back up with Luke and Robby on the Katy Trail, where they were midway through an extra 10 miles to round out a metric century for the Cup o' Dirt Challenge.  Distant thunder added a bit of urgency to our pace, but the rain caught up a few miles from Hermann.

Briefly taking shelter in the tunnel and being glad that my status as a girl exempts me from "Caught peeing" photos.
The rain became a downpour as we rode onto Hwy 19 towards Hermann, tiny drops pelting us like needles in a ridiculous headwind that made the lovely flat pavement feel like a long uphill climb. It was the perfect weather to try out the awesome new Showers Pass jacket that was packed away in my car, so instead I pedaled and laughed about how ridiculous the weather was. Riding back into City Park as raindrops stung my face and tents flew across the park will certainly be up there in race memories.

Finishing! Photo credit: Andrea Boianoff
While I had another 15 or so minutes before the cut-off to ride the final 52 miles, I opted to be finished after loop 4.  I actually felt great and confident that I had another 50 miles in my legs, but I had no desire to spend the next 5 hours alone and then ride into an empty park, only to drive myself home.  Even though I was a quitter, I still ended up with a bottle of wine for riding farther than I did last year and finishing in the crazy rain. 

Bob got wine because...well, because he's Bob.
Even riding at a chill pace and making liberal stops, I rode this loop nearly 20 minutes faster than last year. Of course, last year my semi-fixed shifter re-broke halfway through, leaving me riding a virtual singlespeed, so that likely accounts for the majority of the difference. That 43.2 max speed, though, is my new speed PR. 

Loop 4
2014: 4:42:50 moving, 5:40:27 elapsed, 39.6 max, 11.2 avg
2015: 4:24:34 moving, 5:25:25 elapsed, 43.2 max, 11.8 avg. 

Loop 4

The guys and I put on dry clothes (all except Bob, who hadn't brought other clothes) and headed for some delicious Mexican food.  Once we were finished and they were all ready to head home, I drove back to City Park to see the Momentum guys (all of whom rode the full 200 miles. They are SO ready for Dirty Kanza) finish...and then go to dinner with them.

This two teams thing could get hard on my waistline.
So...awesome, fantastic weekend. Tour of Hermann is a great event and a great deal -- $40 for two days of racing/riding on some of the best gravel roads around. And while I didn't ride the full 200 miles, riding 148 miles and feeling confident that I had another 50 in me was vastly more encouraging than struggling through Death by Gravel. I still have plenty of work to do, but I'm feeling pretty good about my chances in Kansas this May.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pedaling for pancakes, biking for BBQ

With memories of last weekend's butt kicking chafing me like a cheap chamois, I had a bike-heavy spring break calendar. Thursday's mountain bike ride with Jacob and Friday's mountain bike ride with Luke and Casey were both scratched due to wet weather, so Saturday's sunny forecast was a big relief.

I met up that morning with Joe and Pete for a 60ish mile gravel ride on the Katy Trail. Though it's lovely, the flat Katy can wear on you: with no hills to get you out of your saddle on the way up or give your legs a break while coasting down, long rides can be more punishing than you'd expect. For these reasons, it's definitely not my first choice for a training route, but Joe's plan for a midpoint pancake stop won me over.

We rolled out right on time (since I don't know most of my new teammates well enough to be late), hoping the 34* temperature was going to rise more quickly than predicted.  I was particularly chilly, having loaned out my tights the previous weekend under the assumption that I probably wasn't going to need them any time soon.  Within a mile or so, pedaling had warmed me enough that I stayed comfortable as long as we were moving.

Pete and Joe rolling down the Katy. It's hard to tell from the picture, but spring is finally starting to make a green dent in the flat browns we've had since winter began.
Taking a quick break at the Weldon Spring trailhead, we were surprised to see Shaun race up, having chased us for the past 14 miles.  The next 16 miles passed fairly quickly with Dirty Kanza talk and general conversation, though I definitely felt draggy towards the end of our outbound leg.  There wasn't much breeze, just enough to make the open trail past Augusta feel like work, and I spent the last few miles looking hopefully ahead for signs of Dutzow.

The Dutzow Deli finally emerged in front of us, and if heavenly light didn't actually spotlight it while angels sang hymns, it was still a most welcome sight. As happy as I was to get off of my bike seat, I only realized how chilled I was once we'd stopped. Service was none too quick, but I was perfectly happy to relax in a comfortable chair, cuddling my mug of hot chocolate for warmth until the food arrived.

Digging in

And it was delicious.  Eventually, with clean plates and no excuses, we headed back out to our bikes and turned back towards St. Charles.  Fueled by pancakes and boosted by a gentle tailwind, our return trip was a bit faster than the outbound leg, and we even got to shed a layer during a brief stop at Augusta. The pace picked up a few miles from our finish line, and we cruised along between 17 and 19 mph. I could manage the pace while on someone's wheel but eventually shook loose after one too many times slowing to negotiate the progressively busier trail.

I had 63 miles on my Garmin when I arrived back into the parking lot, my first unassisted metric century of this year...or, to look at it another way, just about to the first crewed checkpoint of Dirty Kanza...where I'm thinking they could make a killing selling me some pancakes.

Sunday was Easter, where the only real activity I had was running my nephew's C25K workout with him (a story for another post) on a full stomach and playing a few rousing rounds of finger rocket wars, where the takeaway was that you don't want me on your side in a "combat" situation.  I'd been watching the forecast pretty closely, though, because I was really excited about the bike plans I had for Monday.

Ever since having to bail early at the MLK ride because of thawing trail conditions, I'd wanted to get back down to Berryman to ride the whole loop again.  Jacob was back at school, so I took advantage of my last day of break to plan a return trip.  My wonderful oldest son (adult children rock) came over to stay with Jacob until he could be dropped off at school so I could head out bright and early to meet Dave and carpool to Berryman.

We met up with Luke and Amanda, who had also managed to be free that day, and set off down the trail in disorientingly nice weather. The vast majority of my Berryman rides have been MLK weekend, typically featuring snow and ice.  The trail was in awesome shape, and if I didn't feel great on the initial uphills, at least I could spin my inner dialogue from I'm in such bad shape! to This is great training!

Amanda was feeling the after effects of a long dirt bike race on Saturday yet continued to get stronger the longer we rode.
Dave, sporting his new BOR jersey, and Luke
My mental warmup took as long as the physical one, but eventually I started to feel better on uphills and really enjoy the downhills.  I still bail on things that I know I could ride if I just went for it, but at least I fell a couple times riding things instead of while trying to stop and walk them, which is often the way my falls happen.

Slow speed topple on a rooty uphill switchback. It's not a good ride unless someone's bleeding, right?
We enjoyed a chill pace and liberal stops.

Mandatory break at the artesian well.
The forecast had called for a chance of storms in the afternoon, but though we had several periods of heavy clouds and the kind of breeze that just seems like it's ushering in a deluge the weather stayed fantastic. It's hard to imagine a nicer day to ride unless it featured an absence of horse droppings and horsed-up sections of trail. 
The kind of day I'd been longingly picturing while suffering through Death by Gravel
The hills definitely hurt, but the downhills were worth all of the climbing.  We took another longer break after the awesome descent to Brazil Creek, and thought I dreaded up uphill riding to come most of it wasn't that awful and was thankfully broken up with some fun descents.  By the last few miles (or what I hoped were the last few miles due to a 2-mile gap between my Garmin and Luke's), I did start to dread downhills because I knew we'd just have to climb back up.


I consoled myself with thoughts like, if we only have 6 miles left, and 1/3 is uphill, 1/3 is downhill, and 1/3 is flat (clearly from the elevation profile "flat" was a happy delusion), then we're practically finished with the climbing.  That may have been slightly more comforting to everyone else than my repeated assertions that "I'm sure that was the last uphill...OK, I'm sure THAT one was!" I was pretty sure I was wrong, but it still made me happy to pretend that the climbing was over.

My last several miles were fueled by the knowledge that we'd be hitting up Missouri Hick for some delicous BBQ, and once we finished and changed we made a beeline for Steelville and lunch. Amanda lived in the opposite direction, but Dave, Luke, and I thoroughly enjoyed our meals.

The exact same meal I'd eaten just over a week ago after Death by Gravel.
Two great weekend rides and two awesome meals. I'm not a fan of using food as a reward in my classroom, but it's pretty effective for me!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reality Check

Route 66 Bicycles' Dan Fuhrmann has put on some pretty cool rides lately: a Black Friday ride I had to skip, January's Joe Dirt ride, and yesterday's Death by Gravel. This latest event, a 92-mile odyssey through the gravel roads of the Mark Twain National Forest near Steelville, MO, was rich in scenery and elevation change and tough enough that midway through, given the choice between "Give me gravel or give me death," I'd have had to think hard about my answer.  Though I struggled early and often, my Momentum Racing teammates didn't give me the option of dying (or quitting); instead waiting for me at turns and hilltops, being positive and encouraging, and sometimes quite literally pulling me along.

With a long ride this year of 55 miles, I knew I was unprepared for the leg shredding DbG promised, but my Dirty Kanza training has been anemic at best and has to ramp up if I want any hope of finishing again this year. Even if it would be a tough day in the saddle, at least we'd be able to enjoy a beautiful spring day on our bikes, right?

Ummm...maybe. The forecast definitely had the potential to be nice or sub-awesome.
It was hard to drag myself out of bed at 4:15 a.m. in order to be in MO'Fallon by 6:15 to meet up with our carpool group, but once I got into the car I was excited to once again be up at a ridiculously early time to go ride bikes. Momentum had a 6-person crew going -- Jeff, Joe, Melanie, Mickey, Shaun, and me -- so we spread out in two cars for the trip to Steelville, arriving in plenty of time to get ready, say hi's (always my main priority, but I was particularly happy to run into Ron and Shawn, who are fairly local and my main hope if I found myself in need of a car ride back), and still roll out with the main group.  The forecast (cool and breezy in the morning, high in the high 50's, chance of rain) made dress a little tricky, and our choices ranged from full coverage to shorts and a light jacket.

The wind hit us as we rode out of the parking lot, and while it was considerable its influence was muted by the terrain; the bigger impact was of the elevation. It was clear from the first hill that I was the weakest climber of our group, and while that's not rare in my world my ego did suffer a little extra sting because for once I wasn't the only girl in the pack.  I'd say the majority of female cyclists in the St. Louis area are faster than me, but since I don't typically ride with them I don't suffer from the direct comparison. At DbG, on the other hand, I had a back-row seat to see Melanie crush hills I struggled up (and, later, walked) and finish, unassisted, a ride I needed significant help on, all while being cheerful and pleasant and fun to be around.

While I'd fallen behind the group early on, I wasn't alone. This little sweetie followed along for about two miles, only dropping me after beating me to the top of yet another hill and perhaps going off in search of better competition.
The guys were waiting at the top of the first set of hills, a pattern which would repeat itself over the day, and at that point I was able to keep up just fine as long as the road was flat or downhill. Clearly I need to look for a route more tailored to my strengths, so if you know of an Escher-esque gravel race, let me know.

I'd like to go downhill both ways, please.

Shaun, Mel, and Joe in front; me, Mickey, and Chris in back. Jeff taking the picture.

While my riding was sub-par, the scenery was anything but, and I rode along happily savoring the beautiful surroundings and comfortable weather.

Like riding through a painting...
I enjoyed the hills slightly less...

Recovering after a climb

There were quite a few low-water crossings, but the water was low enough to prevent any drama.

I think this was the most water we rode through.
Death by Gravel wasn't a race or paid event, just a free hey-let's-all-get-together-and-ride-this-awesome-route, so there weren't any official aid stations. Instead, the course ran past a couple of options for refueling.  The first was a gas station at about mile 38.

Jeff, Melanie, Joe, Shaun, me, Mickey
The plan had been for us all to stick together for the whole ride, but I wasn't positive it would play out that way. Good intentions don't always work out in the face of wildly differing paces, so I'd made sure to actually be prepared and load the course onto my Garmin.  In the end, this was totally unnecessary, because the guys and Melanie repeatedly stopped to regroup.  It's a good thing, too, because it took me until that gas station stop to figure out how to get the screen that would show me directions. We all had varied Garmin issues, so Mickey's homemade cue sheets were invaluable. (Mine were especially helpful in my back pocket, where they stayed all day.)

I might be getting a little predictable...
The gas station was right on Hwy 8, which led right back to Steelville, and I jokingly/not jokingly wondered aloud about riding back on the highway.  "You aren't taking 8 back," Mickey scoffed, and that was that. I wanted to ride the whole thing anyway, but with as much as I was struggling in the first half I took Mickey up on his tow offer and rode much of the remaining 50 miles with his help.

Teamwork makes the dream work
If you've read my mentions of towing before, you can see it in action above. There's a length of stretchy surgical tubing fed through the red pipe attached to his bike. The looped end of it is attached to my bike. It's pretty easy to grab hold of and very easy to get out of, so I'm not stuck being helplessly dragged behind in places where I'm uncomfortable (like down big hills).

This was most humbling, to be sure. Towing is a great strategy in adventure races, when teams have to stick together and share their strengths. It was moderately humiliating to need that much help on a training ride, but the fact is that the tow was the difference between me riding the whole thing and me curled up on the side of the road crying by mile 45.  92 tough miles with help still puts me ahead of half of that and then quitting.

I've been lucky for all of my cycling/racing "career" to have friends and teammates who are encouraging and helpful as I've learned and progressed, and this ride really showed me that Momentum is a continuation of that good luck. Both the towing and the regrouping meant a lot to me, and no one made me feel any less because of either thing.  Our group kept what could have been a pretty rotten day for me really fun.

We only had one minor navigational misstep all day long, missing a turn and going up an unnecessary hill. All of our Garmins insisted we were off course (which they're also likely to do when you're on course), so we rode back down and found our actual turn, which had initially looked like the driveway to a church.  Somehow riding up the wrong hill is far less demoralizing than riding downhill in the wrong direction; in our case, all we had to do was turn around and let gravity do the rest.

The second half of the route featured about 5 miles of climbing and suddenly more company.  We'd ridden with Chris most of the day, which was fun. I've been at quite a few of the same events as him, but I don't know that we'd ever talked before. Getting to talk Dirty Kanza was a nice diversion for a while.  We'd also traded places with Lo and Alice just before and after the convenience store.  In this hilly section we ran into two more groups as they dealt with tire issues.

The Alpine Shop crew of Emily, David, Carrie, and Jeff were helping out Anne (I think it was her bike) with a flat. Tara and Jamie were there riding with Anne, and Erl, who I hadn't realized was in town, came over too. Mid-ride mini-reunions are fun!  Thanks to some continuing tire issues, we bounced back and forth with this group a few times.

Mega-regroup! L-R: Joe, Shaun, Jeff, me, Mel, Tara, Jamie, Anne, Adam (?), Chris, Emily, and somebody in yellow
All the climbing was followed by some glorious descending to our next aid station, this one located at the Bass River Resort campground store.  Bass was the start/finish for "Gemini"'s first AR, so in addition to being located on a fairly flat road and featuring new food and a place to sit down for a while, it holds some pretty good memories for me.  Also, after Bass we only had 29 miles to go. 29 miles, that's like a Trailnet medium route. Anybody can ride 29 miles.

I drank a can of coke, ate a container of Pringles, and talked until my teammates ushered me out.  "Let's go...the sooner we get on our bikes, the less we get rained on!" The glorious sun that had been shining on our arrival had been replaced by ominous clouds, most likely attracted by the sunscreen Joe bought at Bass.

The Alpine Shop crew, probably sick of flats and tire boots, had decided to ride the highway back from Bass.  I was tempted. I could ride back with those friends. My teammates would be back much more quickly if they weren't waiting on me...really, I'd be doing them a favor. Mickey was thumbs down on that plan, mentioning something about me not having a ride back to St. Louis if I rode the highway back.

Yes, he was (probably) bluffing, and yes, I probably could have gotten a ride from someone else if he was serious, but I also know that he wants what's best for me. Kind of like a father figure, except that if he ever tried that "this hurts me more than it hurts you" line I'd know he was lying. I'm pretty sure he enjoys seeing me suffer.

We ride.
 Incidentally, I look way happier than I felt about riding another 29 miles in the rain.
Team Noah's Adam also opted to take the long way home, and as we all rode away from Bass he commented, "I'm feeling pretty positive about the weather staying dry." The rain started maybe 5 minutes later but never progressed beyond a light sprinkle. Definitely a best-case scenario if we had to have rain, but the possibility of more rain lent an urgency to our pace and we cruised down the roads. Except, of course, when we were (and here I really mean I was) crawling up the hills, which I increasingly saw as personal affronts.

This rock bluff lined the road for a while.
We rode through some absolutely beautiful areas. The Ozark Trail passes not too far from Bass, so the scenery made me happy just knowing the trail was near and hungry for singletrack.

Heading back and thinking about dinner.
The rolling nature of the last 30 miles made staying on the tow challenging at times. Without some tension, the loop slips off my bike, so on flatter or slightly downhill stretches it requires a bit of a balancing act to stay in the right spot. I lost it more than once, but over the course of the day I did get slightly more comfortable being on tow downhill, and it helped me a little bit on my hill attacks because I had a close up view of what Mickey was doing (obviously it offered me a lot of physical assistance, but it was also like a mini hill clinic).

The last miles ticked away, punctuated by the roughest sections of road I remember from the entire day. The gravel was well-packed, but the underlying rock patches made for a bumpy ride; I'd been pleasantly surprised to how not terrible my lower region was feeling despite nearly doubling my previous long ride for the year, but this last third had me out of the saddle as much as possible.

I'm pretty sure we were the last ones back into the parking lot, after 9 hours total time and (for me, less for the guys) 7.5 hours moving time. 92 miles and somewhere between 7-9,000 feet of climbing, depending on whose Garmin you believe; mine said 7,303.  Death by gravel, indeed: fantastic route, great weather, and stern reality check as to where my bike fitness is right now.  It was a frustrating, demoralizing, difficult, and yet very fun day, and once my chafing heals, I'd love to go re-ride the route.  And I'd really love to manage it under my own power.

Things that went well: hydration, no mechanicals, and increasing confidence on downhills.
Things that went not so well: eating, and...you know, that whole "insufficient training" thing
Things to consider: I'd have been fine without the camelbak; on rides where there are enough stops built in, I think it may be time to lose the security blanket.

Big thanks to Route 66 Bicycles for putting this sufferfest together, to Jeff and Mickey for all of the pictures, and to my teammates for being awesome.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Baptism By Mud

Patrick's first adventure race was the 36-hour Berryman Adventure Race...on a team made of completely of AR newbies.  My brother Jim and I also began with Berryman, and though it was only the 12 hour version, the race director commented, "Why you'd want to start with a race called 'a real ass-kicker', I don't know." Berryman was, indeed, a bit of baptism by fire.  I really tried to do better by my sister-in-law.

When Kristy told me she wanted to do an adventure race this year, we'd chosen BonkHard Racing's Smithville Challenge, a late-spring 8-hour on a course rated at the easy end of their difficulty scale. It sounded like a gentle introduction to this sport I love, and the date lessened the chances that any potential nav errors would result in hypothermia and gave us time to train together before the race.

BonkHard's surprise absence from the AR calendar this year left us scrambling for a replacement, and the Physically Strong Adventure Race seemed to fit our purposes: only 8 hours, light required gear list, not too far of a drive, and no schedule conflicts.  The benefits outweighed the limited window for training and March's notoriously unreliable weather, and the addition of Patrick and Chuck greatly decreased our chances of getting lost forever in the wilds of Mendon, IL. 

Race check-in was Friday night at Saukenauk Scout Reservation, the Boy Scout camp hosting the race as a fundraiser.  Free lodging was available in cabins on-site; we'd jumped at the accommodations but been less than thrilled when pre-race communication indicated that scout regulations required men and women to be housed separately.  Chuck arrived first and texted us to say that the cabins were "like 3 miles apart", which I wrongly assumed was an exaggeration.  While this wasn't a huge problem for our team since we'd brought two vehicles, that's typically not the case and could have been a headache.

We took our coordinates and 1:15,000 USGS map into nearby Quincy to get dinner and do our plotting and route planning.  I lived there for a few years during college; apparently it's changed in the subsequent 20 years because I didn't recognize anything.  Patrick got a lot of mileage out of my past residency; one of the recurring themes of the race was his insistence that I'd grown up in Quincy.  

He was the instigator of another such theme as well. Somehow on the drive to dinner the topic of "The Diarrhea Song" came up. 

Apparently he and one of his daughters have some bizarre fondness for the song (one not shared by his long-suffering wife, Beth). "It has a lot more verses than you realize," he told us. "I bet tomorrow we'll come up with all kinds of adventure race-related ones."

After eating some sub-standard Mexican food and mapping our race, we left our bikes at the bike drop and went to our separate cabins. For the boys, this entailed walking about 50 feet. Kristy and I had a three-mile drive but were much closer to the start line the next day.  After a long night of not much sleep, we met back up around 5:30 a.m. for a light breakfast and pre-race meeting before the 6:30 start.

Pre-race team picture...and yes, Kristy really is almost that short.
The race directors took us down to the fire ring for some last-minute instructions and information about the "scout challenges". These included fire building, tomahawk throw, slingshot, and archery; to get credit for the checkpoint teams had to complete the challenge. A bonus was awarded if only one team member was needed to complete the task.  With that, they asked, "Any questions?" and hearing none, told us, "Ok, go!"

Trek 1: We started on foot with a run to the bike drop, and while Chuck had originally planned to run up the road he made a game-day decision to cut through the woods when almost everyone else did.  We initially started down the wrong road before correcting our course and crossing the swinging bridge over the camp lake. This was very much not my favorite part of the race.

Taking a picture while attempting not to pee my pants in fear and while accusing all of my teammates of intentionally making the bridge bounce...I can multitask with the best of  'em!

Once we were safely across the bridge of terror, we had a short run/walk along some seriously muddy camp roads to the bike drop where (hallelujah!) there were other bikes there besides ours.  We added a little air to Kristy's low front tire and headed off on the first bike leg.

Bike 1: There were two basic route options: flatter (but potentially mushy) gravel or hilly but partly paved. We opted for paved after the soul-sucking ride Chuck and I had last weekend on soggy gravel. When you're riding on some gravel and your bowels start to unravel...

Kristy still smiling after the hilly section
Chuck led us to our first checkpoint, where he added some air to my very low rear tire while I punched our passport, and as we were about to leave Kristy noticed her front tire was flat.

Once that was handled, we headed off for CP2, watching the lead teams coming back towards us.  There had been a typo in the coordinates, causing everyone to plot the CP a kilometer closer than it was, but the combination of the error being on the bike leg (way faster to cover that distance on a bike on the road than on foot in the woods) and the clue being "bridge" (relatively obvious if you're at a bridge or not) kept that from being disastrous.

Snack break at CP2
I tried to be conscious of time and remind people about eating and drinking regularly. In my first few adventure races, Luke was always having to check if I was on top of nutrition and hydration, both of which make a huge difference over a long race.  I may have come off slightly like a mother hen.

CP2 was basically an out-and-back, so we retraced our bike tracks, seeing the strong bike team of "Orienteering to the Bar" as well as our friends Dave and Jules as we headed back to the turn out to CP3.  We rode a couple big hills up to a beautiful cabin in the woods and our first bonus event, the tomahawk throw.

Patrick throwing while Chuck observes.
Teams had to stick three tomahawks in the target in order to get credit for this CP. Patrick ("Hawk")  made short work of the first two; the third one took a little longer, but he got us our bonus point by sticking them all on his own.  We then hiked some seriously muddy trail to get CP4, alongside a creek, and then headed back to our bikes for the ride back to camp.

We easily found our way back to camp, but navigating the camp roads was a bit more problematic. Pedaling presented some challenges...


...and we compounded the difficulty by missing a turn and riding down a surprisingly fun trail that, unfortunately, was in the wrong direction.  Rather than retrace our steps, we opted to go off-trail, giving Kristy her first taste of bikewhacking (actually, I think it was my most extensive bikewhack as well). Dragging bikes through thorn-heavy woods, lifting them over downed trees and across small creeks, and pushing them uphill is even less fun than it sounds. Thankfully, Chuck's nav was back on track and eventually we arrived at the next bike drop/CP5, getting there just ahead of Orienteering to the Bar, having lost our lead with the mistake more adventurous route.

In order to get credit for CP5, someone on the team had to build a fire using natural materials and get it to burn through a string stretched above the fire pit. OTTB build their fire on top of a metal piece and completed the challenge before we did. Chuck ("Sparky") soon had our fire going, too, and we were out of the TA shortly after them.

Building the fire while we spectate
Trek 2: Neither Kristy nor Patrick have spent a ton of time on the bike lately, so I think they were both pretty happy to be on foot again.  I'm not sure how long that lasted, because we started our trek with a kilometer or more of bushwhacking through the thorniest terrain this side of Thunder Rolls.


Seems like we had to cross over creeks a few times, and we initially tried to keep our feet dry.

I inched across like I was swaying on a tightrope above the Grand Canyon, while Kristy confidently crossed like she was walking down the street, earning the nickname "Squirrel".
Eventually we gave up on dry feet, making creek crossings much faster.  We initially came out one hill too early, so we hiked a short way along the (blessedly thorn-free) road to the site of CP6, the slingshot event.  I opted to do this, not because I have any particular skill with a slingshot (much the contrary, in fact) but because we guessed the climbing tower might be a one-person challenge and thought Squirrel, our smallest and lightest teammate, might be the fastest on that (and also because I'm afraid of heights and always happy to avoid high things).

Orienteering to the Bar was already at the slingshot and finished hitting their five cans with a slingshot before I ever hit one.  Actually, every team finished this checkpoint before I ever hit a can, because after a looooooong time of me missing every shot, we gave in and Patrick and Chuck put me out of my misery by finishing the challenge. Kate ("doesn't get a cool scout race nickname"): slingshot failure.  

We took a fairly direct route from CP6 to CP7, which left us climbing up and down a lot of steep reentrants...and by "climbing down" I mostly mean sliding...occasionally on purpose.

The combination of steep sides and muddy ground made finding your footing lots of fun.
Is that Lewis? Or Clark?
On the ground right before the reentrant holding CP7, Chuck found a big section of honeycomb.

The original honey stinger.
CP7 was tucked down in a tree clogged reentrant. After I scrambled down for that, we hiked a blessedly smooth ridge, through a field where we caught sight of a 2-person male team that had been ahead of us all day, and back to the road.  We slowly gained on them as we walked down the road to the next field, our attack point for CP8. We trudged through corn stubble and entered the woods right behind them. They headed to the left, and we headed more to the right, where we spotted the flag.


Between the steep slopes and the soft, muddy ground, crossing the reentrants was tricky at times.
Our route between CPs 8 and 9 was a long stretch of field, this one full of tall grass.  Wading through all of this was reminiscent of the Thunder Rolls coasteering legs, though slightly drier than walking through a river. When you're trudging through a field and your sphincter starts to yield...

Kristy's one worry about the race was coming across a snake, and as we crossed here I wondered if this was where she'd see one.
I don't remember CP9, but somewhere in one of the woods sections Patrick had found an antler, which he carried with him as we hiked out to the road. We joked about him using it as a grappling hook on some of the steeper sections and pondered his chances of goring himself "if" he fell.

I'd like to attribute this picture to my quick-draw camera skills, but in reality he just waited for me to take it.
 Just before reaching the road, there was yet another reentrant/small creek to cross.  I slid down on my butt and then crawled up the other side. Patrick and Kristy crossed with more panache.  Patrick looked over the distance, tossed his pack across, and jumped.

I need a faster camera.
 Then Kristy came up to do the same thing. Torn between my typical M.O. of encouraging daring behavior in anyone except myself and remembering my brother's warning to keep his wife safe, I settled for a lukewarm middle ground: "You can totally do it!...you know...if you think it's a good idea..."

When you're jumping over a creek and your pants begin to leak...

She totally could do it and was promptly upgraded to "Flying Squirrel"
We stopped for a quick snack break and then walked the road towards the driveway that was our attack point for CP10.  Hearing voices to our right, we looked over and saw Orienteering to the Bar again.  They're much stronger on the bike than we are, but they're relatively new to AR and not very experienced with navigation, which was our strength, so it was demoralizing to keep being caught by them on a trekking leg.

Our teams met up at the end of the driveway, which led right between a house and a barn.  Uncomfortable with strolling past someone's house, we all walked further in search of an attack point that didn't lead us through their yard.  OTTB are all familiar faces from the St. Louis bike scene, but I'd never really talked to any of them, and it was particularly nice to exchange Dirty Kanza stories with Tara.

We punched CP10 ahead of them, and then it was time to head back to the camp for the last stretch of the race.  Trying to move forward rather than double back, we ended up at a deep reentrant with steep sides. It looked nearly impassable, so when Chuck asked if we wanted to try to battle through the thick brush along the side or cross the reentrant, I told him something like, "I don't want to go across that." He promptly climbed down into the reentrant.

Knowing exactly what had happened, all I could do was laugh and follow him.  Chuck's hearing isn't good, particularly in his left ear, and he'd misheard my answer. Crossing that reentrant was no joke, especially near the top of the other side, which formed almost a cornice of dirt. I'm not sure how Chuck got up on his own, because I couldn't have made it without him helping me.  We all got across, though, and it was certainly an adventurous route choice.

Checkpoint 11 was the archery challenge, where Chuck quickly scored the 10 points we needed to get our punch and bonus and move on.


From CP11 we had to go to the canoe put-in and then pick up our bikes after completing the canoe CPs, but we had to pass CP12, the climbing wall, on our way.  Having assumed that, like the other challenges, only one team member was going to have to climb the wall, I was dismayed to see both Scott and Neil on top of the structure.

BOR's Scott and Neil getting ready to rappel down.
 We had a fairly short paddle on the camp's pretty little lake, passing under the bridge of death on our way to CPA (at one end of the boomerang-shaped lake) and again as we headed to CPB (on the other end) seeing OTTB close behind us both times we turned.  When you're paddling on a lake and your intestines start to quake...



 Having completed the paddling leg, we had to cross the bridge again, making the unpleasant discovery that accidentally all walking in step really got it moving.  As Patrick mentioned later, it had a real Tacoma Narrows vibe to it.

As we walked the muddy trail back to the bike TA, I was looking at my watch and doing some math. We had four remaining bike checkpoints: 12 (the climbing wall), 13, 14, and 15. Since all four of us had to climb the tower and the rappel down, we guessed at least a half hour for CP12. Judging from the sloppy conditions of the camp's dirt roads and the short stretch of trail we'd hiked to get to our bikes, there's no way we would have enough time to get all of the remaining checkpoints and still make the cutoff.

Bike 2: With CP13 being pretty far in the opposite direction of the final two, we opted to skip both 12 and 13.  We got to ride our bikes a little bit before reaching a muddy hill and pushing again.  Kristy, who'd spent the whole race in good spirits but increasing amounts of grim determination over the last hour or so, asked me, "HOW do you guys do this for 24 hours?" I told her it was basically what we'd been doing all day, just keep moving forward until you're done.

When we reached CP14 in no time, my heart sank a little. If this one was that easy, we really should have gone after 13 as well. I thought it was likely that OTTB would be able to leverage their stronger biking to collect the bike points before the cutoff.  Getting to 15 took considerably longer, though, and necessitated a lot of bike pushing through mud, and in the end it was clear that the decision we'd made was their right one for our team.We had time to get back to the finish line, but not enough to have gotten either of the other CPs, so if the other teams beat us, it was because they'd raced better and not because we'd chosen poorly.

Heading towards the finish, the bridge in the background.
We got to take one final trip over the swinging bridge, this time pushing our bikes with us. This was a special kind of fun for me, as I alternated between catching my handlebar in the fencing along the side of the bridge and banging my pedal into my leg, but I was tired enough that the fear factor was pretty minimal. There was one more hill to push our bikes up and then just a short ride back to the finish line and the happy news that we came in second in our division and qualified for USARA Nationals.

Post race, we still like each other.
I had a blast and would race with this group any time. It was every bit as fun of a day as I'd imagined it could be.  Kristy in her first race and Patrick out of AR retirement were awesome in what was definitely the toughest 8 hour race (with a 10-hour cutoff) I've ever done.  The weather was pretty much perfect for a race, but the warmer temperatures made for challenging travel through difficult terrain.Far from being a gentle introduction into the fun of adventure racing, it was more of a baptism by mud.