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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Coast to Coast 2018

The distance between 200 and 212 miles can't be quantified by simple mathematics. Subtraction yields an answer of 12, but an adequate understanding of the difference requires more complicated calculations.  You'll need some kind of formula, maybe, where each mile is accompanied by a matching exponent. The first mile (11 ) would just be one mile. Two "bonus" miles (22 ) feel more like four -- anybody can ride four miles --  but by the time you get to mile 88 it might as well be an infinity sign because the race is never going to end.



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On our way!
Eric, Mickey, my son Daniel (our crew), and I headed to Michigan this past Mother's Day weekend for the inaugural Coast to Coast Gravel Grinder, a 212-mile race starting at Lake Huron on Michigan's eastern coast and finishing across the state at Lake Michigan. If successful, it would be Eric's first 200-mile finish, Mickey's second, and my third.

"Oh, are you crewing for the boys?" I was asked when the four of us pulled up in a Jeep loaded with only three bikes. 

"Actually," Mickey responded, "She has the most experience of any of us."

While that's true, my 200(ish) mile race history is a checkered one. I've finished Dirty Kanza twice but have DNFed the distance four times, the last attempt being 2016's Motherlode. Still, in the intervening years I've twice battled through the 150-mile version of Sarah Cooper's Spotted Horse, a race that efficiently fits all of DK's brutality into 50 fewer miles.

The experiences have taught me a lot: fueling and hydration, pacing, and managing efficient stops. I've felt the magnetic pull of the finish line once you reach mile 150. Most importantly, though, I remember how shitty quitting feels the next day and that about 80% of finishing is just not quitting. I needed all those lessons in Michigan, because my race prep was not stellar.

I love spring races because there's a decent chance of cool weather, but spring is a tough time for me to fit in training. Far busier people make it happen; the upshot is that, while I didn't want to skip  Jacob's games to train, I also wasn't willing to get up early enough to do both. When I could ride, I usually chose my new mountain bike instead of gravel. In the end, the bulk of my training miles were on the (flat) Katy Trail or the (flat and mostly paved) MCT trails. I had just one ride over 100 miles, and it too was largely paved.

Like I said, not stellar, but that's ok because, as 200-milers go, Coast to Coast sounded...easy. An estimated 5,000ish feet of climbing is just over half of what the nearby Death By Gravel route dishes out in on 93 miles (have I ridden that route this year? Nope). It's about half of Spotted Horse and Dirty Kanza's climbing (have I ridden those this year? Nope). Even a flat gravel ultra is a challenge, but racing Coast to Coast seemed less daunting than spending the night in our Bates Motel-esque pre-race lodging.

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My finger hovered over that "reserve" button for a long time before I finally accepted that there really were no other close options just a week before the race.
To be fair, the motel was more adequate than my training, and we all survived the stay, rising early Saturday morning to hit the start line in advance of the sunrise start. We geared up and dipped our wheels into Lake Huron, looking forward to the sight of Lake Michigan once we'd crossed the state and arrived at its western coast.

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Gorgeous start to the day as we readied our bikes and I narrowly missed having my foot smashed by the bike rack when Daniel accidentally dropped it.
Leg 1: 56 miles; cutoff time 11:30 a.m.
Gear: long-sleeved wool base layer, bib shorts + team jersey, knee warmers, wool crew socks, light wind jacket, full-finger Handup gloves, fleece hat.

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Getting ready for the start.
The starting temperature was somewhere in the high 30's, just a bit different from the high 80's we'd been suffering at home, with an uncharacteristically eastern wind. At 6:12 a.m. around 300 bikes followed Matt Acker, one of the race directors, on the neutral start. A mile or so later he peeled off, and the fast people shot away. I kept a more modest pace, pushing here and there to catch up with other people so I wasn't just dangling off the back alone. We'd been warned the previous day of big, chunky gravel in the first 25 miles, but it failed to materialize. Michigan "gravel" seems to be about 90% sand, and early on I enjoyed the relatively hard-packed surface if not the rural scenery.

If I had to distill the first leg into one feeling, it would be "not impressed". I hadn't driven ten hours to ride past the same stuff I could see at home. If you allowed me one additional feeling, it would be "I'm going to pee my pants if I don't find an inconspicuous spot to use the bathroom!" Between the frequent houses and decided lack of foliage behind which to shelter, it took me almost 40 miles to find a spot where I was comfortable stopping. On the plus side, by that point I had less than 20 miles to the first checkpoint.

Not long after that long-awaited bathroom stop, I started feeling super sleepy. It was ridiculous so early in a race, but I fought the sensation until I was passed by three guys and attached myself to their back wheels. The company chased the sleep monster away, and their presence gave me a shot of motivation that carried me into checkpoint 1 right around 10 a.m., 1.5 hours ahead of the cut-off.

For all my ambivalence about the scenery, that first leg had been a quick, gentle introduction to the race, and I felt great. I called my number to the volunteers and found my son Daniel, who was crewing for Eric, Mickey, and me. The guys had already been through, and he quickly traded my empty Perpetuem bottles for full ones while I grabbed more food out of my CP1 bag and shed my jacket, then rode away within a couple of minutes. I made it maybe .10 mile before realizing I'd failed to refill my frame bag bladder with water. I briefly considered going on, then remembered running out of water in Kansas and turned back.

CP1: in 10:00 a.m., out 10:10 a.m.
Total miles: 56.

Leg 2: 48 miles, 4:24 p.m. cutoff
Gear: long-sleeved wool base layer, bib shorts + team jersey, knee warmers, wool crew socks,  full-finger Handup gloves, fleece hat.

I think the temperature had only made it into the high 50's by the first checkpoint, but it was warm enough to ditch my jacket. I followed a couple of guys out of town and chatted with them until the road took an upward turn and my lack of hill training became evident. It turns out that, while 5,000 (or, as my Garmin later suggested, 6700) feet of climbing isn't all that much over 212 miles, it feels like significantly more when squeezed into the middle 80 miles of a 212 mile race.

The unwelcome hills were accompanied by much improved scenery, though, and our first turn onto forest roads. These had a mixture of big mud holes and wide, loose sandy patches but were overall very rideable, albeit at a very slow pace -- for me. Several other riders cruised by as I crept through the sand, worried about falling or...something. My default seems to be excessive caution rather than a "go for it" spirit, a tendency likely exacerbated by my training avoidance of anything that makes me nervous. Note to next year's Coast to Coast racers: get comfortable with sand, because you're going to experience a wide variety of it.

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The day kept getting warmer, and finally I took advantage of a sand-induced hill walk to take off the hat I'd been regretting for the whole leg. A couple on a tandem pushed their bike by as I got ready to start again, and we commiserated about the hills and deep sand before they took off. Even the packed roads were a challenge, leg vampires that sucked life away with each pedal stroke.

One thing I noticed during the race was how little trash littered the roads, and almost all of the trash I saw was race-related - energy food wrappers and such. That was pretty disappointing. Around mile 95 a car approached me. People often stop to ask about races -- where are you going, where did you start, how long have you been riding -- but this driver wanted to complain about racers throwing trash on the ground and warned me to tell my "buddies" that if the guy up the road saw one more person litter near his property he was going to "knock them off their bike". I apologized, promised to pass on their complaints, and rode off again, telling the volunteers at the next CP.

I still felt good when I hit CP2, excited to have increased my time cushion to almost 2.5 hours but definitely less peppy than the last time I'd seen Daniel. I ate half of a ham sandwich on my way to the bathroom, then looked in dismay at the sign pointing to bathrooms in two directions. I stood there, unable to make a decision, until a woman took pity on my and said, "It's that way."

Back at the Jeep, I swapped out my wool base layer for a thin one, shoveled in a rice cake (thanks, Andrea!), made sure Daniel had switched out my bottles and filled my water, and took off with visions of 16-hour finishes dancing in my head.

Silly girl...

CP2: in 2:00 p.m., out 2:15 p.m.
Total miles: 104.8

Leg 3: 61 miles, 10:30 p.m. cutoff

The first part of this leg is a blur. I was struggling again with sleepiness when the tandem couple from leg 2 rode by with another guy. I sped up enough to catch them and then spent the majority of the leg tagging along with them. If they stopped, I stopped, despite Mickey's voice in the back of my head yelling at me. He'd warned me before the race, "Don't get caught up in sticking with someone else and feeling like you have to wait on them. Ride your own race."

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My pictures suck. It was so much prettier in person.
Just like in the past, though, I made the calculation that I was better off with company. True, we were stopping more than what I probably would have stopped, but that was offset by the fact that a) their presence kept me awake and b) I was moving much faster with them than alone. Well, until I wasn't.

Gradually I began falling further behind. I'd catch up to where they were waiting for me, urge them to go ahead without me, and gratefully accept their refusal to do so. Kristy, Matt, and Rick were unfailingly positive and encouraging, definitely a bright spot in my day.

We rode some beautiful forest roads. Some were fast and flowy, some had punchy climbs and deep sand. Though I'm not a fan of the sand, these roads were exactly what I'd come to Michigan to ride and I loved this section of the race. As we wound our way above the Pine River, two riders began to catch up with us, and I was happy to see my first leg buddies Kevin and Jim. "Only 9 miles to the checkpoint!" one of them celebrated.

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Super pretty spot above the Pine River. The two guys in back were the ones I followed into CP1, and the tandem duo and photographer really saved my leg 3 with their company.
I keep my Garmin set to display only the map, so I was delighted to hear this. I was less thrilled to scroll to the mileage screen, compare it to the cheat sheet taped to my aerobar, and realize we actually had 15 miles to go. The others pulled ahead as we closed in on the checkpoint, and I straggled in some time after them at 8:30. My flagging pace had lost 30 minutes of my cushion, but I was still 2 hours ahead of the cutoff.

I changed clothes in the store bathroom and then had a short talk with some guys who first asked me if the race was all on paved roads and then assured me that the last leg was entirely singletrack. The disconnect between their ignorance of the majority of the race and alleged knowledge of the end didn't hit me at the time; I just felt a renewed urgency to get moving in case this last leg took me even longer than I'd anticipated.

Daniel had everything taken care of by the time I returned to the Jeep, so I climbed back on the bike with all the excitement of a death row inmate on his final walk.

CP3: in 8:30 p.m., out 8:50 p.m.
Total miles: 165.8

Leg 4: 46.5 miles, 3:12 a.m. cutoff

Daniel caught me before I left the parking lot with an update. Mickey had finished around the time I made it to CP3 and had texted some additional information: "the Chaise is at mile 175, the sand ends at mile 185, and the last 7 miles are paved." I lived for these numbers for the rest of the race.

The night cooled off as the sun began to set. I had switched back to my wool base layer, put on my hat and jacket, and changed from bibs to regular bike shorts so that I wouldn't have to take off clothes in the cold any time I stopped to use the bathroom. I immediately regretted the change in shorts and had to stop on the first forest road to take off the jacket, which was way too warm once in the shelter of the trees.

The first ten miles were amazing. I rode between towering trees illuminated by just my light. I felt a moment of pity for all those fast people who'd missed riding through the darkness.  The miles ticked away and I began seeing teaser signs for Salsa's Chase the Chaise promotion. Other than finishing the race, my one goal for the day had been to make it to the chaise. I'd been afraid they would leave once it got dark, but there it was in all its red velvet glory. "You're still here!" I celebrated, almost giddy with delight.

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I had intentions of some cute or fun pose, but I was so thrilled they were still there that I just flopped onto the chaise, leaned back, and smiled my biggest smile.
The next ten miles were not amazing. I loved riding the doubletrack in the dark but hated the sand with a growing passion. It got to the point that I climbed off my bike any time I hit a soft patch, scowling at the ground as I pushed my bike. Though there were no turns to have missed, my Garmin started chiming "off course" on a regular basis. Thankfully the race directors had flagged any tricky intersections, so the warnings only caused stress and not full-blown panic.

I had one terrifying moment as I rode downhill, looking at the map on my Garmin and confused by the next turn, realizing with horror that I was riding into a T intersection only as a truck swerved to miss me. It was only by the grace of God and that driver's quick reflexes that I wasn't hit, and it would have been entirely my fault. I wasn't trying to beat the truck; my fatigue-addled brain just couldn't make sense of the road and map.

The next twenty miles were awful. Sleepiness hit me like a hammer, and I couldn't keep my eyes open, no matter how many caffeinated gels or chocolate-covered espresso beans I ate. I'd spend a couple miles swerving on the road as my eyelids kept dropping, then give in and pull over to rest my head on my handlebars. I kept thinking if I could just nap for a minute or two maybe I could recharge and finish, but that never worked out. Either I'd doze off and then jerk awake as I lost my balance, or well-intentioned racers would ride by and call out: "You good?" I'd get back on the bike and repeat the process every mile or two, ever so slowly chipping away at the remaining miles.

Rider after rider passed me during this time. It was so frustrating. The end of every long bike race I've done has been excruciating: chafing, neck and back pain, numb hands, empty legs. This time I felt basically fine, just sleepy. So sleepy. Eventually I discovered that slapping myself in the face -- hard -- helped. I wasn't moving fast, but I no longer had to keep stopping.

Two girls on fat bikes passed me, and this time I made an effort to catch up. Company had helped all day long; maybe it could get me through the last miles. I tried and failed to strike up a conversation, so I hung grimly behind them and kept slapping myself periodically to stay awake. When we reached the long-awaited pavement, I stopped briefly to text Daniel and the guys, then chased down the girls again.

Those last miles flew by, and at last I rode into the parking lot at Stearns Park, where the sandy finisher's chute was a fitting, if annoying, end to the race. I cautiously picked my way through the least possible sand, finally crossing the finish line at 1:35 a.m. Despite being done for hours, the guys were all there. It was too dark to see Lake Michigan, and there was no ceremonial dipping of my wheel. I just wanted to load up, get clean, and go to bed. It certainly didn't feel like a triumphant finish, more like I'd been clinging for dear life for 19 hours and could finally let go.

Finish: 1:35 a.m.
Total miles: 212.3
Total time: 19 hours, 26 minutes

Gear: I rode my trusty Airborne Delta CX with Panaracer GravelKing SKs (700x43 on the front and 700x38 on the back). Probably not the ideal setup, but it did the trick.

Nutrition: Each leg: two ~400 calorie bottles of Perpetuem (I prefer Roctane drink mix but put off ordering until it was too late...story of my life), two rice cakes (one before and one in the middle of the leg to give me something to look forward to), and whatever else sounded good from my feed bag. I'd brought a few candy bars, some Glukos chews, and Gu roctane gels. I also took 1-2 Enduralyte capsules per hour. At the checkpoints I usually had something Daniel had grabbed, one time half of a ham sandwich, a couple other times Gardetto's snack mix.

Crew/checkpoints: Between having a first-timer crewing for me and knowing that I get pretty foggy towards the end of a race, it was important for me to be organized ahead of time. I had gallon-sized baggies for each checkpoint filled with everything I needed: drink mix, food, a spare external battery if I needed it later in the race (I didn't), my headlamp in the CP3 baggie (front bike light was mandatory gear, but I like to have plenty of light). Since the weather can be unpredictable, I left an assortment of bad weather gear in the Jeep.

I also wrote out instructions for Daniel, the most important being "Be quick, positive, and matter-of-fact. No matter how bad I look, never acknowledge that quitting is a possibility."

As it turned out, he didn't need that advice because I stayed focused on the finish line the whole time. My pre-race expectations of an easy race and my mid-race assertion that it was easier than Dirty Kanza were dead wrong, though. It was just hard in different ways and totally worth the trip. 

Matt and Mark did a fantastic job on a first-year race that I expect will only grow. Logistics were perfect, pre-race communication was impressive, race swag was great, the concept was super fun, and the course was a great mix of scenery and challenge. But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself next year.
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Race swag -- we also got water bottles and nice t-shirts

Monday, April 2, 2018

2018 LBL Challenge

Sometimes opposites attract, and sometimes they just race together. While ostensibly I have less in common with the hairy, hilarious guys of Team Virtus, it's Mickey and I who are truly a study in contrasts. He used to win triathlons, and I used to read a lot of books. When he struggles with something, he works at it until he can do it; I, on the other hand, make a mental note of where I'll need to walk again next time. He's strong and fast on foot and bike; I'm...not. He's competitive, while my frequent refrain is "You know we aren't going to clear this course."

I come from an AR background that values fun over fast, and he thinks that fast is fun. That could be a recipe for disaster, because in adventure racing a team is only as speedy as its slowest member. It's vital that all teammates have similar -- or realistic -- expectations, and we did. We've trained together enough that he wasn't going to be blindsided by my pace, and I fully expected to spend most of the race's 18 hours suffering.

Race eve:

The misery could wait until Saturday, though. On race eve, we got to Land Between the Lakes early enough for a shakedown ride on the Canal Loop Trail. Since my full suspension bike hadn't been ridden since my last AR in December, I wanted to make sure everything was working OK and that I remembered how to shift. Though the LBL area had been deluged with rain in the previous weeks (the canoe leg had been cancelled due to high, unsafe lake conditions), the trail was 95% perfect and super fun.

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Perfecting my selfie game. 
The pre-race meeting wasn't until race morning, so instead of poring over maps and plotting routes, we met our BOR friends for dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant. After dinner, we checked into the hotel and readied our gear as much as possible, leaving the rest until we knew the structure of the course. The forecast, which when the 10-day window first opened had been abysmal, looked good for March: highs in the mid-50's dropping into the 30's at night. The race started at 10:30 a.m. and ended at 4:30 a.m. the next day. With daylight savings time still a week away, we'd be spending a large portion of the race in the colder nighttime hours.

Pre-race:

We got to race check-in plenty early Saturday and staged our bikes and the 5 gallon bucket per racer we'd been allowed for additional gear. Since we'd have access to the bucket after the first trekking leg, we kept about 5 hours-worth of food and left the rest in our buckets along with the fleece jackets we anticipated needing as the temperature dropped at nightfall. I also staged a gallon of water and, anticipating a wet course, an extra pair of shoes.

361 does a fantastic job with their pre-race meetings. They're usually funny, and they're always quick and to the point. By 8:30 we had our maps and course instructions and were plotting points on the hood of my car. After initially misplotting the first two, we straightened ourselves out and mapped the rest with no issues. (Mickey: Um...you know...you don't have to include every detail.)

LBL challenge 2018
Photo credit: 361 Adventures
Without a canoeing leg the course was very foot-heavy, beginning with a 10-point trekking leg that would return us to race HQ. From there, teams would ride to four different bike drops, from which we would do additional trekking legs of different lengths. There was no required order for checkpoints or bike drops; the only rule was that you had to leave your bike and trek to the points once you arrived at the drop. There were also no mandatory points once you returned to race HQ from the initial trekking leg; you could be considered an official finisher as long as you got back to the finish line under your own power and before the cut-off.

Our initial plan was to clear the first trek and then go to the northeast bike drop since it had the most CPs (7). We'd then go to the northwest bike drop and tackle that trekking leg (3CP). Since the southwest drop only had 2 CP we considered skipping it if we needed to, and then we'd finish up with as much as we could at the southeast bike drop (4 CP).

We had two main concerns: first, we'd be spending over half of the race in the dark, and Mickey has limited experience with night nav; second, some of the "roads" Chuck and I rode in this area last year were considerably worse than the singletrack, so I was very leery of trusting any kind of pace projection above singletrack speeds for the road routes. We kept our race plan fluid and wrote estimated times back to the finish from each bike drop in case we had to make changes on the fly.

The amount of time between the pre-race meeting and the start felt positively leisurely. We finished all our plotting and planning, organized all of our gear, ate a second (or third) breakfast, and still had time to organize a group photo of all the SLOC members at the race. Every morning should be so relaxing.

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St. Louis Orienteering Club representing!
Trek 1: CP 1-10, any order. 10.6 miles, 2:56


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Cool way to start the day
The first ten CPs could be attained in any order, but they formed a clear loop. We, along with what seemed like most of the pack, opted to attack them in number order. Despite starting with a run, we lost sight of most everyone by the time we'd punched the first CP.  Once we approached the bag we'd trade passport and maps; he'd punch the passport, and I'd catch my breath while picking out route options to the next CP.

This was a nice way for me to stay in touch with the map and feel a little more like part of our navigational process, but it didn't always go smoothly. We navigate differently; what makes sense to me isn't always as clear to him, and I still don't have enough confidence to stick by what I think when a better navigator questions me. This cost us around 6 minutes on the way to CP7, where I'd chosen the route and knew exactly where we were (as confirmed later by our GPS track) but wavered when he thought we were closer. We ended up finding the point but took a much more roundabout way to get there.

Overall, though, our nav for this leg was clean with a only a couple small mistakes that Mickey quickly caught. This was a big improvement over our performance last May at Mission, where we'd let small errors spiral into huge time sucks. We arrived back at the TA in just under three hours, loaded up everything we'd need for the rest of the race, and headed out on our first short bike leg.

Bike 1: (Race HQ to northeast bike drop) 4.8 miles, 25 minutes

I'd been looking forward to using the tow, but it took me a while to get comfortable with it again, especially on any spots that weren't pavement-smooth, and I dropped off a few times when the roads took us downhill and around turns. I'm much happier when I'm in control of my own destiny, but I know it was annoying to Mickey that I kept letting go, especially since most of those downhills led right into a subsequent climb. Since I hold the tow with my hand instead of hanging it around my stem, it's also nearly impossible for me to eat on the bike. Luckily, this wasn't much of an issue with the minimal bike time.

Since all of the bike legs were short, I'd opted to leave my chamois behind. Any qualms I had about this decision were dispelled a few miles into our ride when we rounded a corner and found the 361 team standing at a submerged low-water crossing.  A jeep was halfway through with water up to its doors. Mickey never hesitated; swinging off his bike he shouldered it, said, "You ready, Kate?" and headed across. I looked at the other team, shrugged, and followed dutifully behind.  At its deepest, the water came up to my hips. The dry socks I'd changed into at the TA had lasted me maybe 4 miles.

361 crossed just behind us, and Mickey teased them a little about getting shamed into going through the water. We then promptly missed a turn and rode up a big hill before catching our mistake, coasting back down and riding into the first bike drop shortly after 361. We punched the CP and then transitioned for our next trek. I had just finished putting on my second pair of dry socks when Mickey looked over. "You know we're going to have to cross that creek again on the trek, right?" Sigh. At that point I just accepted that I was going to have wet feet all day.

Trek 2: CP 11-17, any order. 7.4 miles, 2:10


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Trek 2. The orange line is our bike route in (from the right) and then out again (to the left).
(Mickey: Now THAT'S a beautiful plotting job!)

Once again you could get the CPs in any order. I voted for any route that avoided the creek as long as possible. Mickey led us directly to 15 and 17; we then climbed a spur and turned onto the doubletrack there, running into Scott and Kevin going in the opposite direction. More taunting ensured, followed almost immediately by a map check and the realization that we were the ones going the wrong way. I think this may have been the first time I suggested a link between the shit talk and navigational miscues.

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Powerline promised land. They are NEVER this clear!
Back on track, we tagged 14 and then followed a blissfully clear powerline cut (seriously, it was like a golf course or something) most of the way to 13. So far, pretty good, but the flat land after the CP was marshy and thorny. We retreated to the powerline, only to find this later section a veritable wall of thorns. Nope. We skipped the powerline and climbed back up to the road. Scott and Kevin, on the other hand, had a very different experience here.

We soon arrived back at the deep low-water crossing. Since my feet were already wet, I wasn't even sad about stepping in, though it felt even colder this time. The absence of our bikes made it easier to get pictures, and standing there in the middle for a couple minutes did wonders for my sore legs and feet.

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Mickey wondered aloud whether we'd be better off skipping 12, which required a not particularly friendly out and back hike. For once, I was the one advocating to go for it. "We're here, and it's still light out." I really wanted to maximize our daylight time since Mickey doesn't have a ton of night nav experience and my forte is blindly following Chuck (regularly occurring conversation after dark: Chuck: "You see how this spur narrows over there?" Kate: "It's dark out...I can't see anything.")

We started up the wrong reentrant on the way to 12 but quickly corrected. I think around here is where we ran into Scott and Kevin (again! Some teams we barely saw during the day, but we saw Scott/Kevin and 361 repeatedly), who'd done some swimming to escape the thorns and now had zero dry clothes as night fell and temperatures began to drop. Popping back onto the road, we ran into Dave and Amy and said quick hellos before tagging 11 and 16 on the way back to the bikes. Night was rapidly closing in, and we discussed what to do next as we changed into bike shoes.

For some reason, maybe because it had the most available CPs, we discussed going back past the TA to the Southeast bike drop. In retrospect, we had plenty of time to go in the race and it made little strategic sense to go there next, but the main reason I was against that idea was that I didn't want to cross that creek a third time and deal with the dropping temperatures in wet clothes. Instead, we decided to head to the northwest drop, where we could punch the TA and one CP that was right off a road before deciding what to do about the other two CPs there. Mickey quickly highlighted our route on the map, and then we took off.

Bike 2: (NE bike drop to NW bike drop) 6.4 miles, 43 minutes

This leg was mostly gravel but also required riding a piece of the North-South trail, some of which I recognized from last year, that was soft and muddy and not much fun. It still takes me a long time to get comfortable riding singletrack at night, and my nerves in combination with conditions made for slow going; if I wasn't walking because I'd bailed on something easy, I was walking because the trail wasn't rideable. The 1.5 miles of trail took us (me) about 16 minutes. I can only imagine how annoying it was for Mickey because I was really frustrated with myself.

I was so, so happy to turn back onto gravel. Back on the road and concerned about conserving battery life with a long stretch of darkness, I turned my bike light and headlamp to their lowest settings, immediately regretting this when we turned onto a muddy, chunky, rutted downhill that now I could barely see in my low light. If nothing else my glacial pace did allow me to spot the detour route around a gigantic mud puddle on the main road.

Trek 3: CP 18, 19, 20, any order. 2.4 miles, 1:03

The CP flag at the bike drop wasn't readily visible, but 361 found it as we finished up our transition, making it an easy grab for us. Scott and Kevin arrived just as we were starting our trek and asked where the flag was. Mickey refused to help, but as I followed him down the road I looked back at the guys and pointed them in the correct direction behind his back. (You mother&$%@er!!!)

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It was too little, too late in the karma department. We didn't walk far before Mickey suspected we were heading in the wrong direction. At first he thought maybe the road was going to turn the correct way; when it didn't, we stopped and looked at the map again. I had a bad feeling. "Were we supposed to..." [go back up to the main road] is what I was going to continue, but before the words were out of my mouth I thought about how we'd had to go off the road to get to the CP flag and that obviously that was the orange that hooked down to the B2 circle and my idea was stupid.

As it turned out, my idea was exactly right, but since I didn't say it out loud we followed the spur longer until Mickey realized what we'd done wrong. Thoroughly irritated with ourselves, we turned around and retraced our steps, confusing some teams at the bike drop. "Is there a bonus CP down there?" someone asked.

"No, just bonus steps."

That error out of the way, we made quick work of CP18 and briefly discussed going after 19 and 20. Still nervous about our night nav inexperience and realizing that I'd somehow lost the clue sheet (which, thankfully, we found on the ground where I'd left it at the bike drop), we opted to skip them in favor of the more easily approached CPs at the next bike drop, planning to spend any extra time clearing the final bike drop. In retrospect, the were clear attack points for both CPs and we had the time to go after them. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

Bike 3: (NW bike drop to SW bike drop) 6.7 miles, 1:25

We'd intended to take the North South trail between these bike drops, but after the miserable first stretch on the trail I asked about detouring onto the slightly longer gravel route instead. The suggestion was made with some trepidation as a similar decision during last year's LBL put Chuck and I on jeep roads that were considerably more challenging than the trail. I was nervous about repeating that mistake, but after the trail conditions we'd already experienced, we took the chance.

LBL challenge 2018

Mickey tossed me the map so I could mark our route while he took care of some issues. Thankfully the roads were much better than I'd feared, because while the route was straightforward on paper it was less so in practice. We played a few rounds of "is this the right turn," and one total detour ("You're not the first team to hit this dead end," remarked the man parked where the road met the lake), and then had one final stretch where I trailed miserably behind Mickey, convinced that we were going the wrong way until our lights hit the reflectors of bikes already at the drop.

Mickey: What? No faith? LOL
Happy to have been wrong!

Trek 4: CP 21 - 22, any order. 1 mi, 48 minutes

We initially started off in the wrong direction, missing the road we needed because the other team at the bike drop was sitting across it, but Mickey almost immediately caught the mistake and we nailed these points. We took the spur to 21, and then instead of going back out to the road (purple line) which I'd have done, he led us straight to 22. We then took the road back to our bikes, quickly plotted our route to the next bike drop while eating, and then headed out.

Bike 4: (SW bike drop to SE bike drop) 5.4 miles, 51 minutes

We made use of the tow and had an uneventful ride, right up until we blew past the turn to the bike drop as another team trekked up out of it. This one was on me, because as we rode by I noticed the white poles marking the pipeline, but I was the one holding the clue sheet and didn't remember for a couple minutes that the clue for the bike drop was pipeline/trail. We should have written the clues on the map as well, I should get in the habit of looking ahead at the clue for our next point, and I should come up with a better clue sheet carrying method besides stuffing it in a baggie and then into my shirt. Anyway, that little oversight cost us 8 minutes.

Trek 5: CP 23, 24, 25, 27 (26 was already punched for all teams), any order. 5.9 miles, 2:52

We took the road to CP24, where we came upon a hilariously big CP flag (I'd left my camera on the bike, but BOR got a picture of it). From there, we retraced our steps back up the road, taking the long way to 23. We'd considered taking the low route along the creek to get there but thought the attack point might be hard to pick out in the dark.

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We initially overshot CP23, ending up one hillside west of where we wanted to be but crossed paths again with 361, who told us we were headed in the right direction. We had a smooth path back up the spur from CP23, back on to the road, and downhill through thorns to 25, which Mickey nailed.

The route between 25 and 27 featured me trailing as far behind Mickey as legal as I fought through thorns and brush. We reached 27 at the same time as 361, who opted to take the pipeline back to the bike drop. In what was arguably our worst decision of the race, we followed the spur back up to the road. The insanely thorny spur. I'm not sure whether I lost more hair or blood to the thorns, but it was awful. I was literally the closest to losing it I've been in a race, including the time I was stung all over by tracker jackers at Thunder Rolls. 361 rode past us after we finally got onto the road.

Looking at the map now, we could have followed the purple line road, which goes directly to the bike drop. We need to work on picking up on those details, especially late in the race when you tend to get tunnel vision. (Mickey: If there's any positive to our route choice, we did an excellent job hitting that spur, even while having to fight through the thorns.) Yes, and we didn't bleed out in the process. Two positives!

Bike 5: (SE bike drop to finish) 7.7 miles, 51 minutes

We met back up with Scott and Kevin at the bike drop. We knew they'd gotten one more CP than us, so unless they got really lost on the way back and came in after the cutoff they were going to beat us. Knowing how strong they are on the bike, I kept waiting for them to fly past us after we left. The trip back to the finish line was all good roads, a combination of gravel and pavement where we could maximize our use of the tow, and they never did catch us.

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We ended up finishing in 16:30, and I think even as we raced we could used that extra hour and a half to clear the course. (Total bummer. That was probably the best chance we'll ever have to clear a full-sized course. I think your previous experience with crappy roads in this area and the caution they caused screwed us.) That said, this is the closest I've come to clearing an 18 or 24 hour course. We made some mistakes, and we'd certainly have had more time if I'd been faster, but overall we did a really good job of managing our race. We made good decision, had smart strategy, and caught our errors much faster than at Mission.

Was it fun? Mostly type 2 fun. Even with a good teammate (which I had), it's hard to be the by far weaker person on a team. I spent a lot of the race frustrated that I couldn't keep up, but I always knew that he'd ease up if I asked and chose not to. While I couldn't go faster, I didn't have to slow down...I just wanted to. Most of the fun here came in pushing myself and being proud of the race we raced and of our results.

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Photo credit: BOR
This was taken during the first trek and the separation was largely because I'd been shedding a layer as I walked, but it's not an inaccurate picture of what the race was like. At one point later in the race, Mickey asked, "Are you going to walk behind me all day?" as if it was intentional. In a mark of my self control (and inability to catch up, and lack of a knife), I didn't stab him in response. 
Lessons? Mickey should stop talking shit to other people because he makes mistakes when he's distracted. (Meh.) Yes, that's his favorite part of most races, but I have to miss out on 18 hours of cheerful chatting because I don't have enough breath to talk.  We all make sacrifices. My main takeaway is to trust myself. Both times I doubted myself on nav I was right and would have saved us some time if I'd had more confidence. And in a similar vein, just maybe I shouldn't be so quick to assume I won't clear a course.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Shawnee bikepack day 1

There is cursing, and than an admission. "I don't have my tent."

We've just driven an hour to drop his Jeep in Elizabethtown and then an hour back to Ferne Clyffe to start our bikepacking trip, and Chuck's tent isn't in my car. I really don't want to drive another two hours to retrieve it, and I really don't want to share mine. Though I know it's not, I hopefully suggest, "Maybe it's in the trunk."  There's no tent, but we find a tarp, and I have extra tent stakes. Chuck has rope. The forecast is clear. Problem solved, for tonight anyway.

That hurdle cleared, I lift my pack. It's ridiculously heavy. Surely there's something I can leave behind. I dig through it and then once more. All I can let go of is a water bottle and a stick of deodorant. Chuck offers to carry some things for me now that he's one tent lighter, but I turn him down, telling him I need to live with the weight of my decisions. It sounds almost profound, but I mean it in the most literal sense possible. Part of this experience is learning what's actually worth carrying and what I can do without.

I think it was in Jill Homer's blog, where she's written extensively about her outdoor adventures, that I read "you pack your fears". Judging from my load, I'm afraid of being hungry, being thirsty, and having wet feet. I carry too much food, too much water, too many pairs of socks. For water purification, I have a Steri-Pen and iodine tablets, just in case. This, as it turns out, is a good thing, but still...My bike weighs 29 pounds. My gear, including the pack I'm wearing, is 30.2.

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Chuck and our loaded bikes ready for adventure!
We finally start, and my legs aren't concerned about any of this. We start to climb out of Ferne Clyffe and I downshift. After a year on a singlespeed this feels like magic, like cheating. I've been saving for years for my Tour Divide bike, but since the ti Fargo I'd finally decided on is unavailable until at least the next model year, I'm making do with what I have. This weekend, I have no complaints. My Trek Xcaliber handles great fully loaded. It's a little bit of a drag on pavement, where Chuck's Cutthroat cruises along, but I feel totally confident on the trails, and with 60 pounds of bike + gear I build up effortless speed on downhills.

The night before we left I stayed up til 2 a.m. making a river to river route on the Gaia gps app, and we pull it out almost immediately when we make a turn too early. This trip will be one long game of "is it a driveway or a road", and we've guessed wrong this round. We have so many maps. Annotated forest service maps downloaded from a River to River hiking blog (one of the main resources I used in planning this), equestrian maps I bought from the Forest Service office in Vienna, a Shawnee region State of Illinois cycling map, and a forest road map. We end up using everything except the forest road map. We spend plenty of time staring at maps and still make wrong turns. It's all part of the adventure.

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Blaze at the first intersection. The dot of the i points the direction of the turn.
Leaving Ferne Clyffe, the trail is the road. We make quick work of the first miles, agreeing that it's much better on bike than on foot.  Information about cycling the River to River trail seems best described as "it's complicated". It's not expressly forbidden anywhere I've seen, and we've ridden parts of it in races permitted through the Forest Service. I specifically asked at the ranger station and wasn't told no (or yes, for that matter). Just because it's legal, of course, doesn't mean it's a good idea, but sometimes bad ideas make for good adventures and Chuck was the perfect partner for such an undertaking. We've raced together enough that I knew the weekend could be a trainwreck and he wouldn't be rattled. Plus, someone had to read all those maps.

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Better than what I expected given the amount of rain the area has had. There was actually a river flood warning until Saturday morning.
Not quite 6 miles in, our route turns from road to "road" and then to trail. Riding our bikes through this pine forest is magical, and we're both delighted we hadn't let the initially sketchy weather forecast scare us away.

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Apparently all these trees were knocked down in a powerful "inland hurricane" several years ago. From the looks of things, they haven't been cleared that long. Good timing on our part!

We follow the trail down from the pine forest over the Dutchman Lake dam, and then along a mix of trail and road to an intersection with the Tunnel Hill bike trail. I want to ride through the eponymous tunnel, so we detour north, taking advantage of the smooth trail to eat sandwiches while we ride.

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Trestle just south of the R2R intersection
Tunnel Hill is a lot like the Katy Trail with different scenery and higher bridges. Though I'd been looking forward to the easy surface, my mountain bike is much less fun on the flat bike trail than the River to River. The miles go by quickly, but the time passes slowly. The tunnel is worth it, though.

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The tunnel is longer than it appears here, enough that you can get a little disoriented and it would be easy to run into the side if you lose focus.

Both the trail and bike maps show the trail intersecting with Gilead Church Rd, which we could then take to reconnect with our River to River route. Simple, just take the trail to the intersection, then turn right, but we never find our turn. After staring at maps and Gaia, we eventually realize that the "intersection" is actually where the road crosses over the tunnel. We pull onto the narrow county highway and cringe our way to the top of the hill. I think about how I promised Jeff we'd be sticking to safe, quiet roads and hope no one hits me and makes me a liar.

Snik...snik...snik...The velcro on my seat tub bag scrapes the inside of my knee with each pedal stroke. I try folding it over on itself, but that doesn't help. I think about asking Chuck if he has any duct tape, but instead I keep riding. Snik...snik...snik... By the time we stop for the night my knee is raw.

Gilead Church Rd. is a downhill delight, and all too soon we reach the turn to get back to River to River. We'd initially routed ourselves away from this stretch of creek-bottom singletrack, but that route is marked on a different map and our forest service map beckons us forward: "nice bluffs here".  How does one skip nice bluffs? One doesn't; this is an adventure, after all. We plunge down the gravel road, Chuck's American flag fluttering in the wind, and turn onto rutted up mud.

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The trail follows a creek bed. There are cool rocks. The bluffs are, at best, nice -- definitely not spectacular. Definitely not worth the 2.5 hours it takes us to push our bikes through horsed up mud and over trees and rocks. We rarely ride more than 50 feet at a time. Bikepacking here, I tell Chuck, is like mule-packing, but you have to push and pull and carry the mule as well. I wonder if I'll be able to lift my arms tomorrow. It's pretty but I don't take any pictures. I need both hands to wrangle my bike.

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We finally escape the creek bottom and manage to ride a little more. I take a picture of my bike with flowers. It looks and feels like spring. For a few minutes this no longer feels like a bad idea, and then the trail drops back down a rocky, muddy slope that's only partly rideable. We finally pop back out onto the road. I'm so over the trail, and that's ok because now we're going to revisit Trigg Tower, which we last saw sometime around midnight in last June's No Sleep 24 hour.

We ride gravel to highway 147, enjoying its nice, wide shoulder before turning onto Trigg Tower Rd. We begin to climb and I notice the huge hills looming to our right. "It would break my heart to look up there and see the tower," I tell Chuck, who tries to tell me exactly which one we're headed to. I refuse to listen, leaving him to bear the weight of that knowledge. I'll carry my own gear; he can keep the bad news.

Two huge dogs spot us and begin to chase. We speed up and they fade back, or so we think. A little further ahead the slope gets steeper and we have company again. One is a Great Dane whose head reaches our grips. Chuck suggests that they tow us, but the dogs prefer to watch us work. If they wanted to eat us, all that would be left is a pile of bones. They walk beside us as we struggle up the climb.
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Trigg Tower
People are already on the tower when we arrive. They show no interest in leaving, and I don't mind because I've just realized that to see the daylight view from the top I'll have to climb it again. The two guys finally come down, but a family has just pulled up and goes up next. The sun hasn't set yet, but the afternoon has already cooled off a lot. I add a jacket and cover my ears. As the family climbs back down the stairs, the daughter asks incredulously, "How are you wearing shorts??" I tell her it was a lot nicer when we started riding, but the truer truth is that I'm too lazy to pull out my leg warmers.

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Our bikes look very small from the tower.

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Me and my new BFF.
The dogs follow us to the top of the tower, which does nothing to soothe my nerves. We take some pictures and then I white-knuckle back down, dogs swirling around my ankles. We look at the maps again. It's nearing dark and time to find somewhere to sleep.

Chuck picks out a forest road off of Highway 147. The highway is signed as a bike route and has a nice shoulder. The few cars are unfailingly polite, giving us wide berth as they pass. The paved miles pass quickly, and we reach our turn. This is more of a road than some of the others, but there are some sketchy places. Chuck glances down at his chain and rolls off the road into a big rut. "What the hell are you doing in that ditch?" I laugh, echoing his taunt years ago when I did something similar.

We pass up a potential campsite to find the creek and treat water. My Steri-Pen's batteries had enough juice to light up when it turned it on back at home but are not, it turns out, full enough to actually purify the water. I'm glad I brought the iodine. Chuck's filter works perfectly and quickly. I think I may be making a new purchase. We push back up the hill to the spot Chuck has picked out, build a small fire, set up our tents (well, my tent and his tarp).

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My JetBoil lights using the igniter, so I don't have to use the lighter that scares me. I make a cup of hot chocolate even before I make dinner, and it's perfect. I cook my heaviest meal (literally the heaviest, a premade rice dish that weighs twice what my Mountain House meals do) and eat both servings as well as some bacon jerky. We sit around the fire and drink some whiskey and I'm in bed before 10 for some well-earned sleep. It's been a darn near perfect day.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

2018 Rocheport Roubaix

Long, long ago (like 2009), when I realized that it was possible to ride a bike more than 20 miles at a time, I did a lot of organized road rides, the kinds with marked routes and SAG and regular food stops. My main riding partners were my brother Jim and his friend Scott, but on occasion neither of them was available and I'd have to decide between staying home and going alone. Maybe for some people that would be an easy decision, but I'm a lot shyer than most people assume, and going by myself was really intimidating.

Still, I'd spent a lot of time during my first marriage unhappily sitting home because no one would go with me, and one of the most valuable lessons I left with was to take responsibility for my own happiness. This time around, if it was a choice between missing out and social discomfort, I usually went,  and I never regretted the decision.

I'm pretty spoiled as far as riding partners now, but I was reminded of this Saturday afternoon when my Sunday plans imploded. I try to save at least one weekend day for family, so I'd skipped riding with Mickey that morning in favor of mountain biking in the nicer weather predicted for Sunday. Now I had no Sunday plan or riding partner, so I pulled up my big girl pants and made a new plan.

I opted to drive 2.5 hours to the Rocheport Roubaix, a 67-mile gravel/pavement hybrid race. While I wasn't stoked about going alone I knew I'd get a challenging ride and a good objective look at my bike fitness compared to my three other trips to this race. The fact that the race also offers SAG support didn't hurt, either.

I had enough time to get myself ready without too much wandering around like a lost lamb. I saw lots of familiar faces, and I got to meet Carrie in person, say some quick hellos, and catch up a little with Joe and Jenny before the National Anthem and the start. The temperature was in the mid-thirties but with it predicted to rise into the 50's I'd opted to start in knee warmers and a jersey over my base layer. I had a just-in-case jacket tucked in my back pocket, but I prefer to be a little chilly over hot. My rule of thumb is that if I'm comfortable before I start riding I'm probably overdressed, and I was definitely not comfortable.

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Rolling out from the start, blissfully ignorant of the slight mechanical issue I was about to discover.
The race begins in downtown Rocheport with about a quarter mile of flat pavement before you hit the first hill. Apparently some people have this little voice that reminds them of things they need to take care of; if that's the case, mine woke up right around the time I downshifted on the climb. Uhhhh, my bad...remember how the bike wouldn't shift into the smaller chainring last weekend? We maybe should have done something about that, huh? This was a slightly bigger issue on the hilly Rocheport course than the flat Katy trail ride of the previous weekend.

I saw my Team Noah teammates Adam and Chuck (not to be confused with my Team Virtus teammates Adam and Chuck) as they -- and basically the entire race -- passed me as I crept up the hill.  Other than the social time it was a pretty demoralizing beginning.

The first turn onto the gravel revealed roads that were rather more wet than advertised, making me more cautious on the downhill, but I soon calmed down and rode normally. Before long I began picking off people here and there, drafting behind others when possible, but usually that didn't last long before I was passing them and back on my own.

My nutrition was thrown together as hastily as my race, so I had one bottle of weak Perpetuem (not out of date but definitely not fresh) and one mixed with a baggie of Roctane I'd found left over from another event. I had a bladder full of water in my frame bag and an assortment of candy and chews to supplement the drinks. The Perpetuem, which I usually like, tasted kind of gross and upset my stomach, so whether or not the it was actually to blame I only drank about half of the bottle before switching to the Roctane.

The day was sunny and cool with a steady 8-10 mph SSW wind. I recognized a lot of spots from previous races, and as the route began to parallel the Katy Trail I realized I was about to turn onto the flat, open section around the big tree, which is always better with company. I chased down two guys who were ahead of me in the distance, thinking "Close the gap"... just like on Zwift and then laughing at myself, and stuck like glue to their back wheels through the crosswind and into a brief tailwind.

We closed in on two other riders, who turned out to be Josh and Carrie, as we left the open area and began climbing a slight incline. My new buddies started talking about the Epic with Josh. At first, determined to take advantage of drafting, I stayed behind them, but I got impatient and struck out on my own again.

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Flat roads along the river on that final outbound loop.
It was kind of fun to head out on the final outbound loop of the course for the first time (after always doing the 50-mile race in the past) but less fun to encounter the gigantic hill along the way. I'd passed a couple with a girl who looked like she could be around my age when they'd stopped to eat, and I kept expecting her to pass me back as I walked uphill. I didn't feel too bad about it, though, because almost everyone around me was walking it as well.

My sole navigational bobble was at the end of the loop. I confidently passed the aid station at the intersection leading back towards the finish line and then got nervous. Was I right to turn there? Not sure, I stopped and pulled out my cue sheet, ascertaining that I was, indeed, in the right place just as the couple passed me back. Damn.

I didn't lose too much ground to them and caught up again as we all turned onto the downhill leading to the timed KOM climb. "I'll probably be walking it," she told me. Having walked a chunk of it last year -- with all of my gears at my disposal -- I fully expected to be doing the same this time as well, but instead I made it, barely outpacing another girl who was pushing her bike ahead of me.

The return trip should have been fun -- ticking off landmarks, counting down miles -- but my legs started cramping badly with around 20 miles to go; I hadn't brought my usual ibuprofen and electrolyte baggie, so my only recourse was to keep drinking and keep my gearing low and spin. The couple I'd been leapfrogging caught me again as we hit Mt. Celestial Road. She mentioned coveting my fender, while I silently envied her company.

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OK, this is basically the same picture as the one above, but I'm smiling, plus you can see from my spotted shirt and glasses that a front fender might have been nice, too.
Making the turn back towards the McBaine flats and the big tree, I clung to her wheel as she drafted behind her husband. My cramping legs were killing me, but I refused to get dropped in the open flats. We added Ron in that section, and he and I rode on when the couple stopped just past the aid station to eat something. "She'd be 30 minutes ahead of me if they'd start eating on the bike," I told him.

Ron's company helped the miles pass more quickly, and I cruised up one hill only to recognize, at the top, that it was the former KOM segment. That seemed way easier than I remembered. Not easier were all the rollers in the last 10 miles. No matter how many times I do this race I always forget that part. Thankfully most of the downhills gave a good enough lead-in that the subsequent climbs were manageable, but I did miss one downshift and end up walking the top of one hill.

The hills exacerbated my cramps, and Ron pulled ahead as I pedaled miserably behind him, reminding myself you'll feel fine once you get to the end, you've only got a few more miles. My self-encouragement eventually failed, and I stopped in a flat section hoping to find a packet of Motrin tucked into my frame bag. Thankfully I did, and while the medicine wouldn't kick in until after the race, I still felt renewed and ready to tackle the last miles. My late-race meltdown is obvious in my strava results, though, where the last 7 miles are completely lacking in PRs.

If the final paved miles are a gift, the last couple small uphills before that long-awaited downhill finish are the overly-taped wrapping paper, but eventually I was cruising back down into Rocheport, catching Ron along the way: "Come on, the torture is almost over!" Rounding the last corner and rolling to a stop was sweet relief, and my buddy Craig's finish-line commentary made me feel like a star even if the first woman had finished something like 40 minutes before me.

I was 6th woman overall (out of 12) and first in my age group. Of course, I was also the only one in my age group, so I'll just assume that everyone my age would have been slower if they'd showed up. It's hard to treasure a medal you "win" by default, but I didn't turn it down, either.

One one level I'm pretty stoked that I was able to ride almost everything in my big ring, but since that's technically a self-inflicted mechanical I think it needs to go on the "things to work on" side. Also there would be avoiding leg cramps and building some mental toughness. Stopping for medicine with less than 10 miles to go? Lame. Wallowing in misery instead of pushing through and getting finished sooner? Needs improvement.
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Overall I was happy with the race. I stayed focused and didn't make any silly stops (well, other than medicine with something like 5 miles to go). I rode alone but made use of drafting when it was available. Best of all, other than there at the end of the race when my legs were exploding, my day was filled with best times on segments. It was an encouraging report on how my bike fitness compares to previous years, and as such definitely worth the drive.

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Team Noah Foundation representing
 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Too dumb to stay home

“This is stupid,” I thought as I squinted through the curtains of snow replacing those my windshield wipers had just chased away. Driving in the snow is one of a long list of things that scare me, and in deference to that I’d packed my plastic baggie wallet with not only cash, my license, and a credit card, but also my medical insurance and road assist cards. If my slow departure hadn’t doomed me to being late, my overly cautious driving surely would. 

I’d woken up on time and stared for a while at the falling snow before texting Mickey to bail on our planned ride, one which wouldn’t thrill me under good circumstances and was a definite no in this weather. “How about the Katy?” he countered. “How soon can you be there?”

In truth, the roads were fine and the temperature, hovering around 32 degrees, was nowhere near the coldest I’ve raced and trained in this year, but somehow that never matters when it’s time to get out of bed. I’d dithered around trying to decide which layers would be best for a long flat ride instead of the protected trails I’d anticipated. Only after leaving the house for the third time did I realize I should have brought a rain jacket, but I wasn’t going back in again. 

A few miles down the interstate a grudging appreciation for the morning beauty kicked in. I’m a sucker for snow-covered trees, and they lined the first part of my drive. Pulling into the parking lot an hour later I had to smile at the cluster of cars. We were idiots, but we weren’t the only ones. 

I pulled on my riding gear — shirt and wind jacket over my base layer, boots, buff, and gloves — and stuffed extra layers in my pack in case I’d guessed wrong. Waving to the mountain bikers just returning to the lot, I headed down the Hamburg trail to meet Mickey, who’d started ahead of me with plans to double back. I hoped his head start had given him enough bonus miles that he’d hit his intended 50 without me having to ride extra. 

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Snow still falling
I wouldn’t have driven an hour to ride alone, but I liked starting that way, easing into the cold with a few photo stops. Warm weather earlier in the week meant there was no ice under the fluffy snow, so I'd left my fears with my car and moseyed happily down the trail, waiting for the cold to numb my face enough that the pelting snow flakes would stop stinging. By the time I met up with Mickey near the Hamburg/Katy junction, I was comfortable and happy to be out on my bike.

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The swervy tracks aren't mine, but they could be.
We spent a few miles talking about our upcoming adventure race before I began to drop back from our decidedly non-aggressive pace. I'd been excited about the ride; coming off an accidental rest week my legs should have had plenty of zip. Instead, they felt lousy, bad in a different way than normal. 

Sometimes you just need to resign yourself to being uncomfortable and settle in until suddenly you realize you feel fine again. My method of this is generally to pedal at whatever sad pace I want until the better feeling kicks in. I'm not one to push and suffer when I'm already feeling bleak. Is that a good attitude to take competitively? Probably not. Will it change? Also, probably not.

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Wishing I'd brought a cycling cap to shield my face since the sunglasses just got covered in droplets.

"So are you just going to ride behind me all day?"

Probably.

I ticked off the landmarks and mileage on the way to the restaurant. Defiance, 7 miles. Augusta, 13 miles. The stretch of Katy after Augusta is not my favorite, even covered with a light snow blanket, and a paved option was tempting. "If it wasn't so gray out and I had a taillight and wasn't wearing black, I'd vote to ride the road here."

Near Dutzow, Mickey mentioned, "I'd like to get to 30 miles before we stop."

I looked at him suspiciously. "What's your mileage now?" 

It only cost me another four miles, so I didn't put up much resistance. We made the first bike tracks after Dutzow, and we had a scenic bridge as our turnaround spot.

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We left our helmets and wet jackets on the restaurant's porch, and I immediately replaced my damp top layers with the extra shirt I'd packed along. In the process, I dragged the sleeve of the shirt I'd just removed through the toilet. The water was clean, but still...ew. Guess I'm not wearing that back.

The only available tables were between the front and back doors, so every time someone came in a cold breeze hit me. I sat shivering until I realized I'd also brought a fleece jacket. Overpacking, like membership, has its privileges. 

The trail was no less soft on our return trip, but initially I was too distracted by how cold I was to obsess over anything else. Soon, however, I'd warmed enough to regret the (blessedly dry) fleece jacket I'd replaced my damp shirts with.  What pairs best with overheating? In this case, renewed struggle on the soft surface. This makes you stronger, I told myself, it’s good for you to have to work hard. Beneath that positive thought, though, was familiar self-doubt: I thought I was in better shape. 

Trailing far enough behind Mickey to avoid his gravel spray, I gasped out, “Road!” as we approached the Augusta Bottoms intersection. He pulled aside to mess with his taillight. Knowing he’d easily catch up, I kept riding. After 30 miles struggling to hit 14 mph, I sped along the pavement at a near-effortless 17. Relief swept over me;  wasn’t slow— the surface was. That’s right, Katy Trail...it’s not me, it’s you. 

The pavement helped the first third of the ride pass quickly, and when we pulled back onto the trail I was at peace with the sloggy pace. This time it was me stopping at the Augusta trailhead, giving Mickey the time to develop more ways to torture me. "Ok...Klondike Park, Matson hill, or the Lost Valley gravel: you have to pick one."

"None!" I scoffed, but he's pretty good at, if not convincing me, suggesting things I know I should do and then waiting for me to take the bait. I did some quick calculations in my head: Klondike would require a slog through soft gravel at the bottom, Lost Valley would require two wet gravel climbs, Matson was a long gravel climb -- that I'd almost certainly walk -- and then lovely pavement. "Fine...Matson."

Mickey peeled off to ride through Klondike as well, and my easy pace left plenty of time to enjoy the view and appreciate just how beautiful this part of the Katy is, sandwiched between towering bluffs and the river. My pace also left him plenty of time to catch me before Matson despite his extra miles, probably in part because he didn't fully trust me to take the detour.

I walked part of the hill, getting off the bike even before I absolutely had to. I can't remember if I've ever made it all the way to the top without walking. I should make that a goal for this year, should stop avoiding things that are hard, should stop hiding from my trainer and binge-watching old episodes of Modern Family...

We rode a few more bonus miles and then splashed our way through the lower part of Hamburg.  The subsequent climb was nothing after Matson Hill. We rolled back into the parking lot with bikes camouflaged in layers of gravel spray and a little over 50 miles for me. All in all, it was a pretty good day, especially considering I almost stayed in bed.

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I just got these things cleaned from last year's Land Run! Also, my feet got soaked.
What got me going? It used to be the joy of going out in what many people would consider stupid weather. Today my main motivation was commitment and resignation. I'm not sure if that means I'm growing up or just getting old. Regardless, I'm glad I went.