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Monday, October 9, 2017

Spotted Horse 2017

A Sarah Cooper race will make you question every life decision that led you to this place. As a bonus, you'll get hours upon hours in which you can contemplate your hatred for Iowa's sadistic weather (all headwind all the time) and relentless hills. When you're finished with those thoughts, you can meditate at leisure on your poor training -- pro tip: once a week 50-ish mile rides on the Katy Trail aren't sufficient prep -- and still have time left to mentally compose notes to yourself.
Dear future Kate, I know that Spotted Horse registration sounds like a good idea right now, but it IS NOT. You hate Iowa. You hate hills. It's all hills. Do not come back here, no matter how much you like the people.
I did this race last year, I knew how challenging it was, and still I signed up again. I actually registered for the 200-mile course before coming to my senses in the weeks before the race and dropping down to the 150-mile "sprint". Last year's race weather was pretty much ideal, but Mother Nature had other ideas this time around, and while lousy weather is kind of my thing it definitely bumped up the difficulty level.

The lead-up to the race featured rain and then more rain, leading Sarah to cut most of the B (dirt) roads from the course. This was a huge mercy but also a disappointment. Those roads, when rideable (key point here), are a major highlight. Still, their continued inclusion would have rendered the course unfinishable, and I think we all appreciated Sarah giving us a race course that could be completed in the given time.

Mickey, Yvonne, and I rode from St. Louis together and made great time, even managing to go look at a bike after race check-in, before arriving at our wonderful hosts' house in time for dinner. Huge thanks to Saraleigh and Bill for taking such good care of us all weekend! After a delicious dinner and some final bike prep, we headed to bed gloriously early in advance of our 3:15 alarm. And then I laid awake for probably another three hours, managing around 4 hours of sleep. Not ideal.

It had rained all night, and though we got a short reprieve as we prepped our bikes at Wildwood Hills Ranch, drizzle was falling again at start time. None of our carload was overly concerned about the weather; our AR and rainy/muddy race experience has been good prep for suboptimal race conditions.

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Sarah giving out last minute instructions. The weather definitely impacted the field. 81 people originally registered, 59 were expected at check-in, and 48 actually started.
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca

With the temperature already at 65*, I left behind my base layer and knee warmers, starting in my kit and arm warmers and carrying a rain jacket in my back pocket. With extra batteries for my headlamp, Garmin, and bike light, I felt totally prepared until four minutes before start time, when I realized my fender was still in the car. I could have hurried back and maybe missed the start, but I opted to go without.

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Taillights reflecting off the wet pavement as we roll out.
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca
Right at 6:00 Sarah led us on a neutral roll-out to the gravel road where the race officially started, and with that we were off. The early hours of the race were calm and fun. Last year I'd quickly fallen behind almost everyone, but this year I had people around me for a long time. I rode for a little bit with Jacob and got to cheer on the Sonas as they motored by on their tandem, then Yvonne and I rode together until I dropped a bottle and turned back for it.

The first not-actually-a-B-road-even-though-it-looked-like-one had a wide, grassy shoulder that was semi-rideable for me. Katherine and a guy or two passed me here as first tried riding in the mud (dumb, I know better), then sort of struggled after them through the grass. Sarah and Steve met us with smiles at the end of the road. "Sorry about that!" she called, "This isn't even a B road!"

In what seemed like no time I was passing the first convenience store at mile 35. I'd planned to skip it and was proud of myself for following through. The rain continued on and off, accompanied by a stiff headwind, which had apparently gotten hold of the race map in advance and made its plans accordingly. While the route headed south, the wind blew out of the south; as the course shifted towards the west, the wind moved in from the west. At this point, I just felt amused exasperation about this.

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I have no idea where this was, but it was early enough that I hadn't bothered to take off my headlamp yet and still warm enough that I'd shoved down my arm warmers.
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca

We had at least one reroute, but it was well-marked and uneventful for me and so the location didn't really register though I did wonder how it would affect the race mileage. Somewhere around Hopeville I hit another B road, and this time I didn't mess with trying to ride it. For a while I was able to roll my bike in the grass, but eventually I hoisted it onto my back and carried it.

At the end of the road, I was able to hop back onto my bike and ride away while other racers were scraping mud off their bikes. Granted, I think they all passed me eventually, but this brief, shining moment propelled me into CP1 as the second woman, only 8 minutes after Yvonne. It really was a brief, shining moment, as another girl rolled into the CP a minute after me and shortly passed me.

Still, I had 50 miles down and only 100 left. 17 miles to the Afton Casey's. No problem, even if I was entering the third of the race that I remembered as the most terrible from last year. It took me about 2 hours to cover that stretch, fighting both the wind and extreme sleepiness. That was weird; I got lousy sleep on race eve, but I'd banked sleep in the week before and have done lots of longer races on less sleep. I did my best to fix it, eating a caffeinated GU, eating more food, shaking my head, and talking aloud to myself, but my eyes kept closing and I began fantasizing about pulling over, wrapping up in my rain jacket, and napping on the grassy shoulder.

Finally I arrived in Afton. I lost about 12 minutes at the store, making a bathroom stop, refilling my bottles (one with a coffee-hot chocolate mix to warm me up and hopefully wake me up) and water bladder, and buying a couple candy bars to supplement my "nutrition". Some other racers were in the store, and I heard one of them say something about staying there until they dried off. I knew that would be a quick recipe for quitting for me, and I hurried back out to my bike. With the on and off rain, my jersey and arm warmers weren't doing the trick, so I put on my (very un-aerodynamic) rain jacket and set off for my next target: the 13 miles to CP2.

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Photo credit: Greg Grandgeorge
This stretch was mostly north, and the crosswind was much more pleasant than the headwind. I wasn't moving fast at all with the hills, but I was still in decent spirits when Greg passed me as I closed in on CP2. My mood was further enhanced by the wonderful volunteers, who told me I was third woman, offered me cookies, and then asked if I wanted whiskey. Having spent the past hours shivering in spite of my jacket, my answer to both was a delighted yes.

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Purely an anti-hypothermia measure. ;-)
Photo credit: Jill Marks
I only had 20 miles to my next goal, the town of Orient, but CP2 was the last highlight for a long time. This stretch was almost entirely into the wind, which was blowing hard enough that I couldn't even build much speed on the downhills. The soggy roads were soft enough to make pedaling even more work, and to top it off my slop-coated drivetrain was barely functional. I could shift into my big chainring, but shifting back down was unreliable at best. My rear derailleur was only responding about every 6th shift, and then at its leisure. Not to be left out, my legs were staging their own work stoppage.

I walked a lot of hills. I walked a lot of gentle inclines. I'd tell myself, ok, you can do this...just get to the halfway point...and then stop near the bottom of the hill and get off. I'd trudge to the top of the hill, only to be greeted by the blast of wind the hill had blocked, pedal down, and all too soon repeat the process. Only halfway into the race, I was utterly demoralized. What are you doing here? How can you finish another 70 miles if you can't ride up any hills? You're doing worse than last year.

I tried to counter my defeatist thinking with positive thoughts. Aren't you lucky to have a body that can do this? You love to ride your bike and you get to ride your bike all day long. Isn't it beautiful here? It's not an adventure if it's easy!

I have to admit that the whiny thoughts were much louder. I was cold and miserable, I was only halfway there, I was riding terribly, I wanted so badly to call for a ride...but how do you look at Sarah Cooper and say, "It was hard, so I quit."  I thought back to how shitty I felt after DNF-ing Dirty Kanza in my windy year, and I thought about what I'd written afterwards:
Quitting is like eating too much pizza or that extra big bowl of ice cream...it feels so good when you're doing it, but once it's done you're miserable and uncomfortable. I had valid reasons for quitting -- I still don't think I could have made that third checkpoint in time -- but I still wish I'd ridden that third leg.
That memory has pushed me through a lot of shitty miles, and it worked here, too. Besides, all I had to do was get to Orient; then the wind would be at my back as I rode east back towards St. Charles. It would be silly to quit right before it got easy. I celebrated with every turn. Only 18 more miles! Only 15 more miles! Only 10 more miles!

With around 10 miles to Orient I hit the most soul-crushing stretch of the day. Three miles, due west, straight into the wind, which I heard later was 25 mph with gusts up to 35. I watched the tree branches blowing and the weeds bending over and hated Iowa with everything I had. I wanted to stop and take a video to send to my teammates and my friend Brian, who lives in Iowa. Will you look at your fucking state??

I was hanging on by a thread, living for a turn to the north, but when I rolled up to the long-awaited intersection I was greeted by the smiling face of Scott Newbury and a reroute stake leading me straight ahead. I listened in tearful dismay as he told me to ride another 6 miles into the wind. "You don't want to go the other way," the volunteer with him assured me, "It's all hike-a-bike."

I did a little crying as I rode away, and it was terrible, but really no worse than the previous 3 miles and maybe a little better. And then, after taking nearly 3 hours for 20 miles, I was in Orient. I hadn't planned to stop there and didn't really need to from a practical standpoint, but I needed a mental reset. I used the bathroom, filled water, bought something, and rolled out again. Finally! Time for the tailwind!

But first, let me hike a B road. I groaned as I made the turn and saw the muddy mess before me. I tried riding some of it, but between the uneven shoulder, mud under the grass, and nearly crashing a couple times, I resorted to hiking the mile. I celebrated as the guys ahead of me reached the end of the road and got back on their bikes, but when I got there I realized it led to an intersection with another mile-long B road. After one final hike-a-bike, I was greeted by the smiling face of Carolyn, who was taking pictures at the intersection.

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I think I was trying to smile here.
Photo credit: Carolyn Marsh
"Do you know how to break a derailleur?" I called to her.

"You mean, fix one?" she asked, "Is yours broken?"

"No, but I wish it was."

We chatted for a minute, then I rode off, eager to finally reap the benefit of the day's strong winds. I wish those final two B roads had been my last nasty surprise, but Iowa had one more in store for me. The wind, which had been a steady presence all day, disappeared to, as Sarah put it in her post-race note, "single digit disappointment". If I'd realized before Orient that a) I'd have two more miles of B roads and b) there would be no glorious tailwind to carry me to the finish line, I'd probably have quit somewhere after CP2. Ignorance is bliss, and all that.

 My next target was Winterset, 35 miles away. I returned to checking off the miles towards 10. At the next turn I'll only have 8.5 miles left in this 10. Then it'll just be 25 miles to Winterset. Also back were my thoughts of quitting. I couldn't just quit, but what if I crashed? Could I crash myself enough to justify quitting without actually hurting myself? That seemed like a bad plan.

Maybe I could break my bike. What could I break on my bike so I could quit? Something that wouldn't be that expensive to break? That seemed like too much trouble, so I resorted to hoping my bike would break on its own. From the sounds it was making, that was likely to happen anyway, but no. Reliable as ever, this bike that has carried me literally thousands of miles let me down by once again failing to let me down.

Somewhere in my second 10 (less than 25 miles to Winterset!), I was stopped to eat something (and probably walk a hill) when Jeff rolled up. He'd been on his own for a long time and, Garmin dead and lights questionable, was happy to see another person. After riding almost the entire race alone, I was thrilled to have company, and though I'd been doing a lot of hill walking, I rode a lot better with him along and time went by much more quickly. For a long time, we chased Lee's taillight, sometimes nearing but never closing the gap. The last we saw of her was at the final reroute.

Daren called out an explanation, but none of it really registered. Thankfully the turns were marked just as explained on the pre-race email, though they were a little harder to see in the dark. Before long we were rolling into Winterset, where we saw Greg at the Casey's. There I refilled on coffee/hot chocolate and stuffed as much of a bag of Gardetto's snack mix into my mouth as possible, looking up with chipmunk cheeks to see a couple staring at me from their car in what I can only assume was awe and admiration.

We missed a turn after leaving Casey's but quickly corrected. We had some fast paved miles and then were back onto the gravel and some mostly fun rolling hills. There was still some hill walking, but overall the riding was much easier than earlier in the day. And we were almost finished!

I wasn't sure how much the reroutes had changed the race, and I wasn't sure exactly what mileage Winterset was supposed to be, and I wasn't sure exactly where the finish line was (most if not all of those questions could have been answered by my cue sheets or a little better pre-race course study), so as our mileage crept towards 150 I began eagerly watching for the finish line and thinking I recognized a spot from last year. After the third or fourth wrong assumption I quit hoping and started quietly sulking, so it was Jeff who spotted the waiting headlights.

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I was going to say I was more relieved than happy, but I'm not sure my smile agrees with that statement.
We flew down the hill to the smiles and hugs from Sarah, Steve, and Daren at the finish line. I swore all day long that I was never, ever doing this race again, that next year I'd do something easier and more fun, like a self-appendectomy, but of course all that crazy talk is fading. In the end, the difficulty in getting there is what makes the finish so sweet. Besides, I'm hoping next year is dry enough that we get to ride all those dirt roads we couldn't ride this year, and even if it rains again I have an Iowa gravel family reunion I don't want to miss.

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Congratulations to Mickey and Yvonne, 1st place SS (and 2nd overall) and 1st place woman. If I couldn't be great myself, at least I was surrounded by greatness. :) And huge thanks to Sarah and all of her wonderful, amazing volunteers. As I mentioned on facebook, it's the most supportive "unsupported" race you'll ever see. They're a fantastic team, and they put on a great (painful) event.

Friday, August 11, 2017

24 HoC

"You're not going to be drunk when I get back from loop 2 and then refuse to ride loop 3, are you?" Mickey had asked on race eve.

As if! I mean, the race HQ was at a bar and all, and there were going to be tons of awesome people hanging out while I was between loops, but still. I'm a trustworthy teammate. "Of course not," I'd indignantly replied.

As it turned out, after the 60 tough, hilly miles of loop 1, the last thing I wanted to do was get back on the bike in a few hours, sober or not. Why didn't I sign up on a 4-person team? And how did I ever finish Dirty Kanza?

Two years ago I'd registered for my first 24 Hours of Cumming (four 100K loops of gravel in 24 hours or less) as post-DK inspiration to stay on the bike and maintain my endurance past June. Instead I mostly ignored my bike, showed up undertrained and unprepared, and had my ass handed to me, DNF-ing after 97 miles.

This year, without a long gravel race to inspire big miles, I had no illusions about my ability to ride a successful solo 400K, so when Mickey suggested teaming up for the relay I was all for it.  Adding to the fun, Virtus sent two more racers as well, Chuck and Jim riding on 4-person team Whiskey Fixes Everything with Steve and Aaron.

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Friday pre-ride on a glorious day
Mickey and I arrived early enough to enjoy a short shakedown ride before packet pickup. The weather was gorgeous, and our Garmin routes worked perfectly. My weirdly low rear tire, newly tubeless, made me nervous after double flatting the last time I was at this race, but we added some air and it never had an issue the rest of the weekend.

Mickey: That had me *slightly* concerned as well.

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Janie not only spent here weekend at a bike race -- she spent their anniversary weekend at a bike race. Basically, my guy friends have won the wife lottery.
Jim and Janie had arrived at the Cumming Tap -- otherwise known as race HQ -- in our absence, and we spent the next hour or so visiting with them and catching up with some of our Iowa bike friends. After race director Steve raffled off swag from Bike Iowa and Velorosa (where I ended up with my favorite new shirt, even if it's a little small on me), we all headed off to dinner near the Virtus hotel, impressing our waitress with our mad plate-cleaning abilities. Seriously, she remarked on the fact that she'd never had a table eat all of their food before.

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No pictures of the clean plate club, but here's my awesome new shirt.

The rest of the Virtus-Noah-BOR crew showed up just in time to miss that dubious compliment, and after hanging out for a while we all went our separate ways for the night, everybody else to their hotel and Mickey and I to the house of friends of a friend (thanks to Shawn and Jen for their hospitality and to Jacob for the hook-up).

Mickey: Yes! Thank you!

Saturday's 11:00 start time made for a pretty leisurely start to the next day, leaving me plenty of time to wander around and socialize (my favorite part of most any race) before the pre-race meeting. It wasn't until then, 15 minutes before the start, that I finally started getting super nervous. Why? I don't know. It's not like a 60-mile ride is intimidating at this point, and I was studiously not thinking about the second 60-mile ride I'd be doing later in the day.

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Masking my nausea with a smile
Loop 1:

Steve and I staged ourselves way towards the back. The front of the pack shot away while the rest of us started with a less aggressive pace. I quickly found myself in a loose group of three other girls until the first downhill. They took it more slowly than I wanted to; I held back at first, knowing they'd zoom past me once the road turned back uphill, but then decided it was silly to let my lack of confidence steal away some effortless speed.

I pulled ahead briefly, and as expected, all three quickly passed me back.  That was the last I saw of the two Emporia girls, but Megan and I yo-yo'd back and forth. "What's your goal?" she asked me.

I hesitated for a moment. Mickey thought I could ride the loop in 4:30, but after looking back at Emily's training log from last year's race I thought his estimate was wildly optimistic. "Um, under 5 hours," I finally replied. She nodded her head and rode on.

Before long, we were back together again. "Here's what I'm thinking," she told me. "I want to get to 92 in an hour. That'll put us on pace to finish in about 4 hours. Then we can back off a little for that middle section."

We agreed to work together as long as we could. She was stronger on the uphills, I was faster downhill, and we'd come together on the flats. Even when we weren't successful drafting, it was really nice to have the company, and I think I rode faster with her than I would have otherwise.

We did, indeed, make it to 92 (mile 15) in an hour, and if I'd been able to maintain that pace I'd have smashed my goal for the loop. The next 30 miles, though, featured climb after climb, and the gloriously comfortable weather was a double-edged sword. The unseasonably cool temperature kept the ride from feeling like a death march, but I didn't keep up with my drinking as well as I would have in hot weather.

We were still loosely together on the first B road -- I'd had no memory of this at all, assuring Chuck that the first 97 miles was definitely all gravel -- which was fantastic, hard and smooth as pavement. I was definitely starting to drag behind Megan, though, and lost her for good when I stopped to take some electrolytes to hopefully make my legs stop cramping. From there my ride got a little grumpier (another hill? another hill?), though I did at least recognize the second B road.

#24HOC abridged edition. 4 dogs (3 friendly, 1 scary), 4 deer, 2 big birds, 1 tiny snake, 1 bobcat, countless screaming downhills and climbs, 1 minor panic attack when a car passed me and then pulled over on the road and waited for me to go by, lots a rea
The road was in WAY better shape than in this shot from 2015.
I was trying to keep up my pace but hurting especially on the hills. Still, as I crept up, I'd think about how hard I knew Mickey was going to ride to make up for my slow time and ask myself, "Can you pedal any faster?" Usually the answer was yes, even if the difference was small. Despite this, my occasional time checks showed that my hoped-for 4:30 ride time was escaping my grasp.

I pictured Mickey waiting at the starting line and decided to text so he had a more accurate idea of when I'd be back. Voice to text didn't work through the baggie around my phone, so I put it back away rather than losing more time with a stop.  When I dropped my chain on an uphill, though, I figured that was the perfect time to send a quick text. "At mile 55. 4:30"




Now, I hadn't even looked at the time of day because I'd been focused on how close I was to that 4:30 ride time we'd hoped for, so to me that text meant "I'm at mile 55 at 4:30 into the race." I even added the 4:30 in case the time stamp was screwy and they were confused about when I was at mile 55. Then I put my phone away and finished off the final 6 miles of the loop, coming into the start/finish  at 4:58 ride time (or 3:58 p.m.) to see...nobody.

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Loop 1
I looked around in confusion and then headed over to the shelter to see what was up, catching Mickey's eye and making a "what the hell?" gesture before realizing his bike was up on the workstand. Apparently they'd noticed a gash in his rear tire, and interpreting my text to mean I wouldn't be in until 4:30 p.m., decided there was time to fix it.

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Teamwork makes the dream work!
Loop 2: 

We only lost a few (3) minutes on our miscommunication, and once Mickey was off I changed out of my bike clothes and belatedly shut off my Garmin, which informed me that my recovery time for the first loop was 41 hours. Um, yeah...almost 4 hours is basically the same thing.  I didn't feel that bad, but I had zero desire to do any more riding.

I rested up and ate a large amount of food -- Skratch recovery drink, Greek yogurt and a nectarine,  half a bag of honey mustard pretzel pieces, a bun-less burger (because they were currently out of buns), a BBQ pork sandwich (with bun this time), a Diet Coke, and a Moscow mule ("Vodka is made from potatoes, and it has lime juice. It's basically a salad."), then moved my car to a closer spot and got my electronics charged for loop 3.

Mickey sent a text saying he'd be in at 7:45, so I headed down to the start/finish a little early. A woman came up to me as I waited and introduced herself; I said hi as I frantically scanned my memory for her face and name, coming up with nothing. "You're such a badass," she told me.

"I'm really not," I replied, still stinging from my very unimpressive first loop.

She started to argue the point, but I saw Mickey coming and had to leave.

"Congratulations on your race!" she called as I started to ride away.

Ahhhhh. It clicked. Sarah and I are both about the same height, with long dark hair, and were both wearing the same jersey: she because she'd worn it to win Race Across America and me because I'd bought it from her fundraiser. If you ignore the fact that I outweigh her by a lot we look vaguely similar. "I'm not Sarah," I told my new friend as I rode away.

Loop 3:

It was 7:43 when I headed out on my second loop, and I had about an hour left until sunset. I'd plugged my Garmin into an external battery before starting so it would stay backlit in the dark and I wouldn't have to mess with the cord and batter later, but the connection was loose and the Garmin beeped every time my bike bounced on the washboarded gravel. It was driving me crazy, so I pulled the cord free and decided I'd go without the backup as long as possible.

The evening was already cooling off. I had arm warmers and a headlamp in my jersey pocket but had forgotten a buff and was a little worried my ears would get cold as the temperature dropped. For the time being, though, I was perfectly comfortable. A beautiful sunset lit up the sky. What a great night to be on a bike.

My legs didn't seem to remember they'd already ridden 60 miles. You've done this before, I reminded myself. This is like the second leg of Dirty Kanza, or an adventure race bike leg without the pesky paddling or trekking in between. I thought it was possible that my weak second half of loop 1 could be due to an overly aggressive start, so for this leg I decided to ride a more measured effort and see if it made a difference.

Even after it was so dark that I couldn't make out the screen on my Garmin, I held off stopping to plug in the backup. It would still light up in advance of turns, so I wasn't worried about getting lost, but eventually I realized not knowing anything about my route except the road directly in front of me was leading my to ride more slowly. Besides, I was freezing on the downhills.

Around mile 25 I finally stopped to plug in the Garmin (which thankfully didn't do the annoying beeping for the rest of the ride) and put on my arm warmers and headlamp. In retrospect, I should have just started with the light and sleeves rather than give away the time during the race, but oh well.  From that point on the rest of the race was just a series of stepping stones...

5 more miles til you're at 30, then you're halfway there...
Then 10 miles until you're at 40; that's 100 miles for the day, plus you only have 20 left... 
10 more miles until you just have 10 miles left...anyone can ride 10 miles...

In that last 10 miles I saw a guy on the side of the road, the only other person I saw the whole loop besides Shawn, who'd passed me about 20 miles in. I asked if he was ok, but he was just taking a break. A solo racer 170 miles into the race, he deserved a break!

Mile 55! You can text so Mickey knows where you are.

This time, in order to avoid the kind of miscommunication we'd had earlier, I just sent my mileage and put my phone away. As it turned out, Mickey had had his phone off, so the time stamp on the message reflected when he turned the phone on rather than when I sent it, but I was too busy riding to get his question. Back on the part of the route we'd seen on our Friday pre-ride, I gleefully checked off the remaining hard parts.

Yes! This is the last hill...

...OK, I guess THIS is the last hill...

...what?? Another motherf****** hill??

At some point my Garmin beeped the 15-min interval that signaled 5 hours of ride time and I hung my head in a brief moment of mourning my failure to even equal my time on the previous loop. Eventually the hills came to an end and I was bouncing along the familiar washboards leading back to the Cumming Tap. Done! I wished Mickey luck as he rode away and then, very thankfully, climbed off my bike.

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Loop 3
Loop 3 ended up taking me about 5:12 total time and 5:03 moving time. Without the 9 minutes I wasted leisurely putting on my arm warmers and such (9 minutes to put on arm warmers?!?!?!?!?! LOL) (and plug in my garmin, and put on my helmet, and go to the bathroom, and eat something...you must have missed the "and such"), my two loops were only 5 minutes different, and though loop 3 felt dramatically easier it only had about 100 feet less elevation gain than loop 1.

Loop 4:

After changing out of my clothes, the next order of business was food. Jim had left to take Janie back to the hotel, so I called in the hopes of catching him in time to grab some food for me. He told me he was already on his way back, and then mentioned, "But I do have a hot chocolate with coffee in it here in the car."

"You're my favorite person in the world! Well, unless it's not for me, in which case you're just mean."

It was for me. :)

I'd intended to go back to the house to shower but quickly realized that I didn't know the address or even the last name of the people we were staying with, so that plan was tabled. Instead, Jim and I scored the last two pizzas of the night (huge thanks to Bob of the Cumming Tap for fixing them at 1:30 in the morning instead of finally relaxing).

Once Chuck got in from his loop and we cheered Aaron off, I rode with Chuck back to their hotel. We took turns napping while the other showered, getting not nearly enough sleep, and made it back to the finish line in plenty of time for Mickey to roll in about 5 a.m.

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Finished!
It took him over 2 hours less to do the two hardest loops than I needed for my easier ones. Thanks to his strong effort, our combined time was fast enough to come in third of the teams in our division and 8th overall. Granted, we were helped in our divisional standings by the fact that the fourth team didn't finish, but Mickey made our total time far better than an average of my times would have been.

Aaron was still out for Whiskey Fixes Everything, so we went back to the house for Mickey to shower and me to sleep. The 7 a.m. alarm was most unwelcome, but we made it back in time to see Aaron finish.

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That's a wrap!

Other than a little miscommunication, I had a really smooth race: no navigational miscues or mechanicals. I could have done a little better on drinking water during loop 1 and taking electrolytes before starting to cramp, and I should have started loop 3 with my arm warmers and headlamp on rather than wasting time mid-ride, but otherwise the only thing I could have done better was just be faster. Story of my life.

Doing the relay was a lot of fun and such a good reminder than you can do more than you think you can. The last thing I wanted to do was go out for another 60 miles, but I did it. I also was not looking forward to riding another loop. As much as I was looking forward to chasing Jacob, -- who did not get caught -- between the long time awake, the hard previous loop, the lack of rabbits, and the fact that we were getting our tails kicked, I just had nothing to give that last loop. :( 

My experience, helped by the fact that I didn't ride my first loop nearly as hard as Mickey did and am accustomed to getting my tail kicked, was much better. I found loop 3 really enjoyable...much more so than the first loop.  Not quite enough to make me want to race the whole thing next year, but enough that with a week's amnesia I'm no longer completely committed to dropping down to the the Spotted Horse 150 in October.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Mission (Impossible) 18 hour AR

The  Mission 18 Hour  is an adventure race put on by D.IN.O (Do INdiana Offroad), and though I've wanted to do it for a long time, its position between Cedar Cross and Dirty Kanza made it problematic family-wise. They're pretty tolerant, but three out of four weekends out of town is a little much. Being on Mother’s Day makes it difficult, too.  I have to thank my super-supportive (tolerant?) wife for giving me clearance to race! Tolerant? She's a freaking saint. And being the mom in my house means I can sign up for the race with zero guilt. I mean, it's my weekend, right?

Having never done the race, I spent the trip to Indiana scouring Attackpoint and Emily's blog for race reports while Mickey drove.  The racer update had mentioned a Friday night prologue that would be used to seed teams for the next day, and neither of us was sure exactly how that would work. Other than my failure to answer the question, the only other hiccup on our drive was the realization that the race was in the Eastern time zone and we'd be losing an hour.

We still made it to race HQ at Hilltop Christian Camp in time to check-in, grab a bite to eat, and visit with some friends before the pre-race meeting, which was short and informative. Brian gave some notes on the course and intermediate cut-offs, confirmed that we wouldn't get maps until the race start, explained that we'd only get the coordinates and instructions for one leg at a time, and told us that the prologue was a climbing wall. Teams would be timed climbing all three lines on the wall, and those times would determine the order in which we received our maps.

We unloaded our gear and readied the packs before heading to the climbing wall, but the line was still long enough for me to work up a pretty good sense of impending doom. Thankfully Mickey offered to do two of the lines, leaving me the easiest one to muddle through. He zipped right up; I had a little trouble starting but made slow and steady progress to the top. After all my dread about the climbing part, it was being lowered back down that scared me the most. Like most things adventure racing forces me to do, though, once it was over it was kind of fun to have done it.

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With no plotting or route planning to do, it was a pretty stress-free race eve. Mickey was happier about this than I was -- no pre-plotting meant that our later arrival wasn't a disadvantage. I prefer to know what the course looks like ahead of time -- but did enjoy sleeping in until nearly five the next morning.  I absolutely LOVED not having maps (or really any information) beforehand.  Usually, I lay in bed the night before running through the course over & over & over and “wake up” tired.  It was nice to not do that (although I still didn’t really sleep), and I feel like it added to the adventure only getting one segment of the course at a time.

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Finishing up maps
6:23 a.m. 
Just before six we converged on the start. Our prologue had put us about mid-pack in the map line; within a minute or two we were plotting the nine points for leg 1. Route planning was pretty straightforward*, and then it was onto the bikes and uphill (of course) out of the camp.

Leg 1: Bike ~ Trek ~ Bike CP 1-8

Even with the bike tow (best invention ever) that first hill was tough. We turned out of camp and Mickey quickly realized we weren't where he expected to be. The road names on the map (rare in my AR experience) made it pretty easy to figure out our location, and he adjusted on the fly. Even with our unexpected reroute, we passed a few teams on the first short bike.

We dropped our bikes with the volunteers, who told us they'd punch CP1 when we returned from our trek. Mickey offered me the map but I passed, not comfortable doing the nav on the 1:25000 scale. "OK," I told him, "We have to get 2-6 in order.*"

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On our way to CP2
7:27 a.m.
Ugh!  I already have Swamp Ass in this picture.

We went straight to CP2 with no problems and then confidently set off towards CP3, crossing the creek* and heading up the right* spur. Except...

Hmmm...that looks just like the witness tree we passed on the way here.
"We shouldn't be going in this direction."
"We should be on the east side of the creek."

We did a lot of wandering trying to figure out where we'd gone wrong, at one point running into another 2p coed team who was looking for CP2. We'd just come from there, so we were pretty sure they were in the wrong place*, but we didn't have a good enough handle on where we were to know that for sure, and since they were confused as well they were no real help for us.

Finally we decided to try to find our way back to CP2 and reset, running into my friends Jeff and Rusty on the way. They were coming from 3 on their way to 2. Which, if you have to get the points in order, is cheating...and they aren't cheaters. "Um, don't you have to go in order?" we asked, but I was already pulling out the race instructions.

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Shit.
So I'm an idiot, but the good news is that after an hour of frustration and fruitless searching, we knew where we were and were back on track*.  Mickey shot a bearing, and before long we were passing that witness tree again. This time it only took us 10 minutes to catch our mistake.

Looking at the picture of the map, my *guess* is that it’s the printing on the map that threw me off.  I use a thumb compass and usually fold my map, so I don’t look at much more than the area between where I am and where I’m trying to get.  Also, I’m used to the text on a map lining up with North.  If you look at the picture, the word “FOREST” is the main printing between CP2 & CP3, and it’s not lined with North.  It’s lined up with West, 90* off what I would expect.  I’m not sure that explains why I kept trying to go South when I wanted to go East, but my head is spinning, so I’m going to quit thinking about it.


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The first trek
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What happens when your bearing is 90* off...twice.
Once we were headed in the correct direction, we were at CP3 quickly, but we'd lost a lot of time. The TA would be closing in two hours, and we weren't quite halfway into the trek. "I think we should think about which point it makes the most sense to drop if it comes to that," I suggested.

Mickey was frustrated with our error and not interested in talking about skipping points. One of my concerns about teaming up was our very different abilities and race philosophies. He's far stronger and faster than I am; he's more competitive, too, and was definitely not ready to concede the possibility that we could clear the course. I like to do the best I can, but I race for the fun of it and if I had a tagline it would probably be "you know we're not going to clear this course".

Anyway, I shut up about skipping points for the moment, and we had a clean approach to CP4. Then we overshot our attack point for CP5, covering the wrong spur twice in our search for the PVC checkpoint marker before following it all the way up to the road. With time getting short, we decided to pass on CP5 in order to collect the harder to miss 6 on the way back to our bikes. We might have had time to get 5 as well, but in the end we made it back to the TA with 15 minutes to spare, and given our shaky start that was no sure thing.

We'd shot ourselves in the foot with easily avoidable mistakes but still had plenty of race left, and a lot can happen in 18 hours. We punched CP1 and got back on the bike for the remainder of leg 1. Mickey did a good job of telling me about upcoming turns and things to watch for. We made good use of tow except on big downhills, where I was too nervous to stay attached. Of course, this then meant I didn't have the assist on subsequent uphills. It's something I need to work on.

We turned from the gravel onto singletrack and followed that through a super muddy section onto smoother trail and to our attack point for CP7, which was plotted off the trail down a spur. We dropped our bikes and started hiking. Though the CP appeared to be plotted on an old trail, we found no such thing, and my decision to take off my trekking pants for the bike leg immediately proved to be a poor one. Thorns shredded my legs as I chased behind Mickey, cursing the race director for his sadistic CP placement.

We got way further down the spur than we should have with no sign of the CP, so we retraced our steps, each taking a side of the spur and looking carefully for our point. Finding nothing (other than more scratches), we returned to the bikes and looked at the map. Was it possible we weren't at the right spot? We rode further up the trail with no luck, so we decided to go all the way back to the road and try again.

Luckily, we reached our initial attack point at the same time another team arrived there. They were very sure of their spot, which made it likely that we'd been in the right place all along, so we decided that 6 pairs of eyes were better than two. Mickey and I started ahead of the other team (me still in shorts because I'm a slow learner) and almost immediately hit a trail we hadn't seen before, following that directly to the CP. Looking at the maps after the race, it was clear that we'd originally walked down the wrong spur, a mistake I should have caught back at the bikes since I'd done the same thing in February at the Meramec O meet.

This is when it finally sunk in that being accurate with your nav is far, far more important than being fast.

The maps had an overlay directing us down the trail and back to the road we'd take to our next TA. So easy...just follow the trail*. We had several spots of confusion when we arrived at unmarked turns. Looking at the map now other trails and turns are evident, but during the race I at least was focused on just the overlay and didn't notice them. We ended up missing a turn and weren't entirely sure where we were when we finally popped out onto the road, but with a little guesswork, a really big hill, and one more missed turn we finally reached the TA.

Leg 2: Paddle ~ CP 9-12

Only 3 or 4 lonely canoes were left in the field, and the 4-person team we'd seen back at CP 7 needed two of them. While I've been in last or near-last place plenty of times, it's still a little demoralizing. The volunteer gave us the coordinates for the paddle leg and told us, "We're all out of PFDs. The race director knows that, so you have permission to do the paddle without them."

You know me; I'm a safety girl. I can swim, but I still wasn't too happy with this news. "So, uh, how deep is this water we're going to be paddling in?" I asked.

"Well," he replied, "If you're worried about it you should probably wait for a PFD."

Not having to wear PFDs was great news.  It made the paddle so much more comfortable.

Instead, we plotted our points, immediately deciding to skip the ones that required a long paddle in the wrong direction. Paddling is not one of our strengths as a team, and with our shaky navigational start we wanted to maximize daylight for our trek from the take-out back to the bike drop. Decisions made and still unhappily (on my part) PFD'less, we said goodbye to the volunteer and dragged our canoe to the creek.

By "we dragged", I mean that Mickey dragged it and I followed with the maps. That was awesome. Less awesome was when we got the canoe into the creek, climbed in, and I tried handing him the maps.  "What are you doing? I can't steer and nav! You're doing the paddle nav."

The good news is that we were much smoother with steering and I almost never thought tipping was imminent, very unlike the much colder paddle in our first AR together. The bad news is that I suck at navigating on flooded creeks. I couldn't paddle and look at the map and compass, and landmarks I was watching for, particularly places where the creek came really close to the road, were obscured by flooding. Well, except for the bridge we didn't realize was THE bridge we were looking for.

I still contend there was something wrong with the canoe that we had at CW8 that year.  I’ve NEVER felt that tippy in a canoe, and I’ve paddled with plenty of people that have no idea what they’re doing in a boat.

The subsequent good news, though, is that we ended up much farther along the paddle than I'd thought we were. And we were very fortunate to hit the spot where the creek split while that four-person team we'd met up with earlier was still there to explain to me where we were. Otherwise we might still be on the creek. We ended up unintentionally missing CP9 as well as CPs 10 and 11 which we'd intended to skip, but in retrospect I think the smart race decision for us was to skip them all.
Also nice? When things accidentally work out for the best!
Once we knew where we were again (thanks, other team!) I did a decent job of keeping track of our progress and navigating to the take-out -- well, other than a suboptimal route up to the boat ramp.

That was laughably bad.  I’m sure everyone on the ramp was asking themselves how we had made it that far. And the answer, on the paddle anyway, was dumb luck.


Leg 3: Trek ~ CP13-17


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CP12 was our paddle take out
The trek led us back to the bike drop over some seriously hilly terrain with very few road/trail options. Back during our first trek I'd offered to do the foot nav for this section, but looking at the tightly packed contour lines overwhelmed me and I gladly handed the maps back to Mickey. CP13 required either a swim or a backtrack from CP14, so we decided to get CP14 and then re-evaluate.

Mickey nailed CP14, which was a great confidence boost after our rough morning. Regardless, we decided that we were better off moving forward towards 15 and 16 rather than backtracking. We ran into a male 2p team on the way to CP15. They were coming from the direction we'd intended after struggling in their search for the checkpoint, but we felt pretty confident in our approach and stuck with the plan. Once again, Mickey led us straight there. Yes!

These two CPs were definitely the highlight of my day! Other than getting to spend the entire day within 100 feet of me, anyway.

The route from CP 15-16 wasn't obvious. A direct bearing would cross a roller coaster route of multiple steep descents and ascents. We ended up opting for my idea, which was to continue down the reentrant from our CP and, once at the bottom, follow the main reentrant to its end, climb out, and hopefully hop onto the trail along the subsequent ridgeline. In retrospect, I think a better plan would have been to climb back up from the CP15 reentrant and follow the ridgeline above it to the trail, but that wasn't the decision we made at the time.

Probably still on the trek up the creekbed
7:30 p.m. 
We started out according to plan, but things went awry when, after a LONG hike up the creekbed, we climbed out at the end*. Rather than emerge onto a southward trail along a ridgeline, we followed a spur way down into a new reentrant. We were both confused and frustrated, and it hadn't escaped me that the sun would be setting before long, so when Mickey suggested taking a safety bearing east and making for the road back to the bike drop I was all for it.

I really felt like if we didn’t get at least most of the way out (or at least to a point where we knew where we were) before the Sun went down, we were in serious risk of having to spend the night in those woods.  That would have definitely been suboptimal.

Our bearing led us up a crazy steep reentrant. Between sliding down the damp sides and crawling on my hands and feet, all I could do was laugh. We were both concerned about how long it would take us to cover this terrain in the growing darkness (for me, it was bringing back memories of being lost at night with Chuck in the middle of the Chequamegaon National Forest), but at the top we miraculously stumbled onto a trail that was heading in the correct general direction.

Looking at the map, I was pretty sure we'd ended up on the very trail we'd been looking for, but being unsure of exactly where we were I wasn't pushing to look for the CP. I really wanted to get to a known point before nightfall.

The solid red line is from my tracker, which died at the black & white circle. The red dotted line was our planned route. We came out of the reentrant early and then, instead of staying on the ridgetop until hitting the trail, dropped down into the next reentrant. We actually ended up exactly where we wanted to be, but by then weren't sure where we were or where we'd gone wrong and were more focused on getting back to the road before dark.
We followed the trail for so long that the eagerly-awaited road initially seemed more like a mirage than a sure thing. As I gingerly made my way down the steep hillside, Mickey did a quick compass check and pointed us to the right...the exact opposite of what I'd thought we needed to do.

That's a regular AR experience for me, so I shrugged my shoulders and followed along, but we quickly came to the end of the road. My heart sank a little -- wait, I thought we were found! -- as we retraced our steps and continued in the other direction. It turned out we were on an unmapped side road which soon intersected with what we thought was the correct road.

Fast-hiking down the road, we approached a house. "Wouldn't it be great if that was one of those mailboxes with the whole address?" I commented. My wishful thinking was rewarded when the other side of the mailbox confirmed that we were indeed on Blue Creek Road. Dark fell as we trekked back to the TA, and we were a little nervous about how long the trek was taking. Boy, it would be "a shame" if we got back to the TA took late and had to get a ride...I fantasized.

Mickey had a slightly different thought process; as we recognized our turn into the TA he told me, "I thought we were going to have to run to beat the cutoff." Run. Ha. He's a funny guy.

Though we'd been one of the last teams to reach this TA earlier in the day, the field was still littered with bikes on our return. That in itself doesn't mean a lot; we'd skipped several CPs during the paddle/trek, so the teams who hadn't arrived back yet likely had gone after the points we'd missed. However, we got back around 9:30, the TA was set to close at 10, and the race ended at midnight. The other teams were quickly running out of time.

Some people had already made this calculation: as we plotted our points for the last two hours of the race, the 4-person team we'd seen so much of earlier in the race drove up to pick up their bikes, having determined they couldn't make it back in time and called for a ride.

Leg 4: Bike, Orienteering, Bike, Special activities 

There was a lot of race left after the TA for teams who'd moved through the course faster than we had; we were very limited by time. As I read off the coordinates for the next bike leg, Mickey pinpointed them on the map -- almost all in the opposite direction from the finish line -- and we quickly dismissed them.

Only two bike points, CP18 and CP25, were even under consideration, and we knew we wouldn't have time for any of the orienteering CPs. Mickey mapped out our route back to the finish, a miraculously flat ride, and guestimated the distance at around 30K. Given his strength on the bike and our use of the tow, we should make it back in time with no problem.

We looked again at the two bike points. CP18 was slightly out of our way and required riding up and over a godawful hill twice -- out and back. We'd already done this once earlier in the day, and I wasn't enthused about repeating the process. CP25 was considerably farther out of our way and forced us off of the lovely, flat route Mickey had planned for us. Mickey pushed for CP18. "Come on, we know where it is. You know we aren't getting any of those points back at camp."

That was convincing enough for me. The uphill was terrible (in both directions), but once we were finished with that it was smooth sailing. The roads were flat and largely paved, allowing us to keep a steady pace. We made a few quick stops to check the map, intent on avoiding any missed turns this late in the race, and reached camp after one final (and unwelcome) climb.

I use my fitbit as my race watch, and since I have to tap the face to see the display I have a hard time checking it on the bike, particularly when we're towing. As we rode into camp and passed the little lake where two special challenge CPs were obviously taking place, I considered whether we should stop for a quick time check. Noticing a racer swing far out over the water on some bungee-type of freefall apparatus, I thought Hell. No. and kept on pedaling.

How’d that work out for you? 

We flew down one last big downhill and up to the finish line, where the race clock showed 45 minutes left. We'd covered that last bike leg far faster than our conservative estimate. Good for us. And now we're finished. Yea team!

But wait...Mickey is saying things like "We still have 45 minutes left..." and "Let's just check out what they are..." and "Come on, these points could make the difference..." Rather than be dissuaded by my disinterest in riding back up the hill we just descended, he's offering to tow me up, which is all well and good but I still have to pedal my bike.  I'm grumpy for the first time all race, muttering curses at my teammate's back as I struggle uphill.

At the top, I categorically refuse to have anything to do with the swing of death, so we stop at the little beach and ask about the challenge there. It's a riddle about a farmer and a chicken and a fox and a bag of grain. Once you solve it, you have to act it by paddling across the lake. Luckily Jacob loves riddles and I've heard this one a million times, and since these extra CPs are Mickey's idea I nominate him to be the one to do all the work while I first wait and then sit like a princess in the canoe.

We finish that challenge with 25 minutes still on the clock. The other CPs are too far away; the only remaining possibility is the freefall. I'm even less happy about this than the hill, but I get instructions from a volunteer who totally reminds me of my friend Emma and strap myself as tightly as possible into the provided harness. I tell the volunteers I only want to go the absolute minimum height required, which is halfway. It's every bit as terrifying as I'd anticipated and also, once I'm safely back on the ground, kind of fun to have done. Of course Mickey goes as high as possible, and of course the pictures taken in the dark don't turn out at all.

The volunteers working the swing said you had the loudest scream of the night.  That’s my teammate!  Also, that swing was a trip.  Because of the way the lights were angled, it totally looked like you were going to swing back into the poles holding the thing up when you swung back over land.

There's no more time left to go after any more CPs, so we ride back down the hill to the finish line for the last* time and hand in our passport. We did it! Only after we set our bikes to the side do I realize I'd left my pack back up by the lake. No way am I riding up that hill again, so I turn to my long-suffering teammate. "You're going to go get that for me, right?"

I still think you left it on purpose so I’d have to ride up that damned hill again.


When he returns, we make a beeline for the post-race meal and hear how everyone else's race went. By the time Brian announces the awards, around 1 a.m., many bikes are still at the TA we'd left around 10 p.m.  In the end, something like 9 teams are transported from the course. We made our share of mistakes, but we made good decisions where they counted most and ended up being the first place 2-person co-ed team, the only team in our division to finish.

It definitely wasn't a result I anticipated given the problems we had, but it proves all over again that anything can happen in a long race. That was a lesson I re-learned this race -- keep racing until the end. The other big one for me was to pay better attention to details on the map. I tend to have tunnel vision and see where we're supposed to be, but there were all kinds of little trails that I missed because I was focused on the overlay.

I really struggle to pick out the fine details on 1:25000 scale maps.  My main lesson from this race is that clean nav is more important than fast nav.  I have a couple of equipment modifications to do before my next long race, but my body held up pretty well.  Bring on No Sleep 24 Hour!

Big thanks to Brian and the whole D.IN.O crew. They put on a quality event. Maps were good, directions were clear, coordinates were accurate, and boy was the terrain challenging. There were some hills that had me promising never to race in Brown County again, but now that it's over I would totally go back.



Footnotes:

* = not really

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Tour of Hermann grand finale

Photo credit Mike Langille
Photo credit: Mike Langille
Tour of Hermann has been a fixture of my spring gravel training for the past few years. With a hilly course and the possibility of back-to-back hundred mile days for the bargain price of $40, it's hard to beat in terms of challenge or value, and it's perfectly positioned to gauge your fitness in advance of the spring big boys like Dirty Kanza and Motherlode.

I've never finished the whole thing, so with no long race on my schedule until October's Spotted Horse, a full ToH became my spring gravel goal. I've ridden 200 miles in a day twice and many gravel centuries but never two 100 miles days in a row. That, combined with the proximity and low cost, made it fit perfectly into my plans for this year. As an ironic bonus, since Jacob was sick I didn't even have to miss his last soccer game.

Despite being off with my sick kid on Friday, I did all my packing late and yawned my way to Hermann on race day. The forecast, which had been ominous all week, miraculously cleared Saturday morning. Other than a soggy drive and a few sprinkles while prepping at the park, the day was dry. Though undeterred by the rainy forecast I'd felt more than a twinge of "this again?" weather weariness and was happy to leave my mental toughness untested in that regard.

Photo credit Mike Langille
Pre-race socializing while I put off trading my warm clothes for riding gear.
Photo credit: Mike Langille
I knew sticking out all five loops would be challenge enough and was quietly worried that my commitment to finish the whole thing was lacking. While it's a goal that has eluded me, it definitely doesn't pull with the same force as the majors. Knowing the multiple opportunities to stop at my car and call it a day would grow more tempting with each mile, I hoped I'd be able to challenge the same dogged determination that saw me through Land Run.

Mickey had offered to ride with me, likely assuming that I'd be less likely to quit if I had company. I had mild reservations -- not sure that my intention of riding a conservative, sustainable pace would survive his speedy influence -- but we've trained together for long enough that we have pretty good communication (that is, I'm pretty good at ignoring him when necessary).

Loop 1: 29 miles ~ "Are these legs even on?"


Photo credit Mike Langille
Just after the turn onto the Katy Trail
Photo credit: Mike Langille
The forecast's toll on participant numbers was clear as a considerably smaller than usual group crossed the Missouri River bridge towards the Katy Trail. The first flat miles provide a deceptive prelude to the hilly pain to come; this changes as soon as the course turns off the Katy and starts to climb. Still, loop 1 offers the least miles and climbing of the weekend.

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The easy loop
One would think that these facts in combination with my fresh legs would make for a good start to the race; instead I started flagging as soon as we left the lovely flats behind and never really got my legs under me. I felt like I was working way harder than I should be for the output I was getting. Even five miles in I was worried that I wouldn't be able to make it up the first big hill. In the end I rode everything, but it was ugly. Sweating in my waterproof jacket, I cooked on uphills, froze on descents, and alternated between frustration at my unexpected struggle and acceptance that I was just going to have to get through the day.

Strava shows that the sluggishness wasn't just in my head. Even with the possibility that I forgot to stop the Garmin until I was back at my car, my elapsed time was 10 minutes slower than my previous slowest time on the loop despite working harder than last year.

Loop 1:
2014: 2:03 moving, 2:13 elapsed
2015: 2:11 moving; 2:12 elapsed
2016: 2:08 moving, 2:09 elapsed; ahr 108, max 167
2017: 2:23 moving, 2:26 elapsed; ahr 134, max 165

Loop 2: 33 miles ~ More of the same

I'd loaded up with enough water and nutrition to ride the first two loops without stopping, but I stopped at the car to switch my waterproof jacket for a lighter windbreaker and remove the knee warmers I hoped were causing the weird numbness I'd felt in my left foot for most of loop 1. Not quite ready to accept the shift in the forecast, I tucked my jacket into a jersey pocket and rolled out just ahead of Mickey and Eric, who'd made a wrong turn on course and tacked on a few bonus miles.

In previous years this has always seemed like the worst loop of day 1, but this year it was absent much of the loose gravel that makes it more challenging. On this day it seemed lovely and scenic and...still really hard.

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Photo credit: Mickey, who had lots of time to compose shots while waiting for me.
More terrible slogging, more dead legs, more impossibly slow riding. The guys' company was both a nice distraction and a reminder of just how bad my pace was, and I spent the entire day fighting not to apologize over and over again for it. I told them once that they could go ahead and ride at their own pace, I'd be fine. Of course they refused.

The only other woman riding three loops Saturday passed me at some point on this loop, and I couldn't muster any concern about it. Just keep moving forward.  My foot was no longer numb, but my left hip was bothering me in the same way it used to on long rides. Overall I felt lousy, and the longer I rode the more I started to think I had whatever it was that had kept Jacob home from school. After I mentioned this to the guys, Mickey asked if I wanted to stop after leg 2.

I wanted so much to stop, but then I'd have no chance of riding all five loops. I decided to get through loop 3, then if I woke up actually sick the next day I could just go home. The worst would be to quit and then wake up feeling fine.

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So much fun.
As bad as I felt, I rode more of this loop than in previous years, only walking a tiny portion of a hill instead the big chunks I walked in the past. One of these climbs definitely had a photographer assist. I had some choice words when I saw him stop at the top of a hill and get out, but he'd gotten a really unflattering picture of me walking last year and I was determined to avoid that this time around.

Photo credit Mike Langille
Me looking straight down so the hatred in my eyes didn't set the man on fire. ;-)
Thankfully the last few miles of the loop are paved and primarily downhill, so we made relatively quick word of the trip back to City Park. I didn't let myself entertain thoughts of quitting, just swung by my car to switch out bottles and leave my jackets before heading back out to purgatory the race course.

Loop 2:

2014: 3:14 moving, 3:31 elapsed
2015: 3:00 moving, 3:12 elapsed
2016: 3:02 moving, 3:05 elapsed; ahr 108, max hr 161
2017: 3:11 moving, 3:14 elapsed; ahr 90, max hr 159


Loop 3: What we have here is a failure of motivation ~33 miles

The first five miles of loop 3 are paved, which makes the uphill trend much more bearable. I told the guys how the first time I rode it I'd made a deal with myself that I could walk any hill I wanted. Mickey was not in favor of this plan. "I'll make a deal with you like I do with my son," he offered, "I'll give you $1 for every hill you ride, and you give me $5 for every hill you walk."

"How about I walk whatever the hell I want to," I countered, "And you can go..." I trailed off, but he got the idea.

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The first year I rode this leg I thought it was easier than loop 2; last year I was surprised by how much harder it was than I'd expected. This year, even in survival mode, I spent the first half of the loop thinking, "Oh, this isn't so bad," followed by a second 15 miles of hills that were like one punch in the face after another. There was also more loose, thick gravel than I remember in previous years. On the other hand, the day had turned out to be absolutely lovely, and when I wasn't wishing for death I was appreciating the blue skies, sunshine, and comfortable temperature.

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That smile was just for the camera.
I limped through the loop much like the previous two, though I did considerably more hill walking. Getting off the bike was a nice break for my sore hip and my achy back, but most of the hills hurt almost as much to walk as to ride. Mickey, who often would ride ahead and wait, kept telling me the other woman was just a few minutes ahead of me. "Come on, we can catch her."

I steadfastly refused to be motivated. "I don't care. This is Tour of Hermann...all you have to do is finish. I'm doing everything I can just to move forward."

Like loop 2, this also ended with a good stretch of pavement, albeit with more hills, and finally we rolled back into town. In its last year, the race was operating with a shoestring staff and had a distinctly DIY vibe. The race director had already left by the time we got back to the park, but the "crushed it" stickers for our number plates were still there. We affixed ours, changed into clean clothes, and went in search of Mexican food.

Loop 3:
2014: Didn't ride loop 3
2015: 2:52 moving, 3:08 elapsed
2016: 2:50 moving, 3:10 elapsed; ahr 97, max hr 150
2017: 3:12 moving, 3:18 elapsed; ahr 90, max hr 158

After dinner, I set up my tent near Jim and Chuck, who'd both bikepacked to the race and ridden part of it before their planned ride home on Sunday. We hung out for a while and then I headed to bed, lulled to sleep by self-doubt. If you're struggling at Tour of Hermann, how are you going to ride Tour Divide?

My sleeping bag was cozy until the sun touched my tent, and then it was like being in a furnace. I quickly packed up, enjoying the luxury of being able to throw everything into my car, moved the car back to a spot near the start/finish pavilion -- though not nearly as close as on the previous day when the bad forecast kept so many away -- and then met the guys at Hardees.

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Breakfast of champions...where's everybody else?
Carbed up with my favorite hot chocolate/coffee mix and some delicious B&G, I hugged my teammates goodbye and rode back to the park to change and line up. Even at 8 a.m. it was clear that we were in for a beautiful day; the rain jacket could stay in the car.

Loop 4: Teamwork makes the dream work! ~52 miles

Momentum had a pretty good crowd on day two, so I said my hellos, passed out a few more hugs, and got myself to the start in plenty of time. The Sunday crowd stayed neutral until the turn onto the main road, at which point they shot off. I resisted the urge to follow suit...and by that I mean my legs were tired. By the time I reached the Missouri River bridge I was firmly in last place.

Except, of course, I wasn't. Relatively few of the people ahead of me had been there the previous day, and even fewer had ridden all three loops.

Photo credit Mike Langille
Pro tip: when you're the only one around you don't have to share the shot with anyone else.
Photo credit: Mike Langille
Loop 4 starts off with nearly 20 miles on the Katy Trail, which conveniently is one of the only places I can successfully draft behind Mickey. He waited for me on the trail, and I fell in behind him. Slowly we crept up on the lone other three-lap woman from the previous day.

Photo credit Mike Langille


Photo credit Mike Langille
This picture makes me laugh . Shades of the picture from Pere Marquette that caught my face as the guy in front of me wiped out, here I'm wincing as a truck flies through an intersection right in front of Mickey.
Photo credit: Mike Langille
Before long we were closing on a longer train of riders. Left to my own devices I'd probably have dangled along on my own, and even if I'd caught up with the pack I'd have just tucked in behind them. Instead, I clung to Mickey's wheel and we passed them by, and we opened up a big gap.

By the time we turned off the Katy at Portland, my back and left hip were bothering me and my foot was experiencing the same weird numbness as before. I actually looked forward to hills I'd have to walk as an opportunity to ease the discomfort from being on my bike, but overall I felt worlds better that at any point from the previous day.

Photo credit Mike Langille
Laughing because the photographer had just watched up blow by a turn. Incidentally, that bulge by the words on my outer thigh right by the words is swelling from a mountain biking fall that Monday.
Photo credit: Mike Langille

I've ridden this loop every year I've done ToH, so it was a ride down memory lane as I crossed familiar spots. Of course, that familiarity didn't prevent my typical race amnesia where I've blocked out large portions of the course. Ok, we get to the top of this hill and then we're basically back on the Katy, for example, was not accurate. After "the top of this hill" was another hill. And then another. And then another. Some hill walking ensued.

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And then, thankfully, we were back on the Katy and cruising back to Hermann or, as I framed it, "CP3 at Dirty Kanza". Both years I finished DK, reaching the 150 mile mark of a 200-mile race felt like you had so much momentum behind you that you couldn't possibly quit. While I classified each Saturday loop as its own short ride (It's only 33 miles. Anyone can ride 33 miles.), I looked at Sunday as the second half of a 200-mile race.

2014: 4:43 moving, 5:41 elapsed
2015: 4:25 moving, 5:25 elapsed
2016: 4:08 moving, 4:51 elasped; ahr 111, max hr 171
2017: 4:21 moving, 4:32 elapsed; ahr 109, max hr 154

Loop 5: Motivational math ~52 miles

I stopped by the car long enough to lose my base layer, switch bottles, and guesstimate how much water I needed to bring without carrying an extra ounce, then after a quick bathroom stop and hug from a Momentum teammate who was done for the day we set off again. The other five-loop woman had come into the park slightly after us, and Mickey suggested, "I think you need to try to keep her behind you."

Once again I steadfastly refused to be motivated. "I'm doing all I can. If she passes me, she passes me."

Most of loop 5 was uncharted territory for me, but it shared its first (mostly paved, largely uphill) 7 miles with Saturday's loop 3 and returned to town (mostly paved, largely downhill) on the same stretch. So, basically, I only have to ride 44 miles before pretty much coasting back to town. Some Springfield friends had ridden the loop for the past two years and described it to me. "It's the prettiest loop of the whole race. It's got some hills, but it also meanders through a valley."

Meanders. That sounds pretty flat. And I like to meander.

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Not. flat.
Brandon, who'd finished loop 4 ahead of us but rolled out slightly behind, caught up within the first several miles and, having spent a lot of the race solo, decided company > speed. I always enjoy having someone new to talk to, so that helped pass the time and miles, but I was also keeping a close eye on the mileage and giving updates. "Hey guys, we're a fourth of the way to halfway finished!"

Photo credit Mike Langille
Grim determination
I was trying hard to appreciate this "prettiest stretch of the race", the gorgeous weather, the fact that I had friends who were nice enough to hang with me, and the ability to go out and participate in events like this, but my attitude was much more like, "Where does the fucking meandering come in??"

17 miles in, Mickey announced, "35 miles to go! You know what that means?" I looked at him blankly. "It's like a medium Trailnet ride!" he continued, citing one of my favorite comparisons.

"This is no Trailent ride," Brandon replied.

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Photo credit: Mickey
I alternated between trailing sadly behind and feeling pretty good. During one of those former times, I caught up with the guys where they'd stopped at a corner to wait. Mickey got ready to start pedaling as I approached. "Don't you dare start riding again before I get a break," I called. Perhaps remembering a similar incident where he finally got to see me cry for the first time, he waited.

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"Hey...G for Geisen! You should take my picture here!" The sad thing is that I really thought I was smiling.
Trying to distract myself from the growing discomfort, I came up with an alphabet game where we had to list names of mutual friends. Each of us had to come up with a name for each letter. Despite having spent several miles rehearsing names before getting close enough to suggest the game, by letter O, I'd already been handed a decisive defeat. I was still uncomfortable and now also annoyed with myself for losing.  A better distraction was deciding on where to eat post-race.

I was basically living for mile 44, where Mickey had told me we should rejoin the part of the loop (lollipop in this case) we'd already ridden and start going back downhill. It was a terrible betrayal when this point didn't arrive until mile 45 and then (thanks a lot, race amnesia) we found there was still one more gravel hill to climb. And by climb, I mean walk. As Brandon said, "I was promised no more hills. I'm not riding any more hills."

Our group been leapfrogging and riding with another man out on the course for most of the second half, but by the time we'd reached the stick of the lollipop he'd disappeared. "I guess they're done waiting on us," Brandon said.

"No, Mickey will be there," I told him, and indeed, he was waiting at the turn back onto the highway. Five more miles to go. He was doing something on his phone, so we rolled past him, knowing he'd catch up. Brandon and I worked in a nice little group, and before long we could see the other guy ahead of us. We didn't say much about it, but we had a new goal of passing him before the finish line.

Brandon pulled for a while, then I took my turn. Mickey took a surprisingly long time to catch us, and when he caught up he asked, "Trying to hold me off?"

"No," I replied, "We're trying to catch that guy."

He immediately jumped on the front and pushed the pace. "Wait!" I called, "I can't draft you if I can't catch you!"

Brandon got back in front of me and brought us back up, and with less than a mile to the finish we caught and passed our rabbit, rolling into the park again triumphantly. It was a very quiet finish line, with only Joe and Eric still there waiting. They'd both finished way before we did, so it meant a lot to me that they stuck around. The race director had left bottles of wine, t-shirts, and the traditional jars of gravel for everyone who'd left on loop 5, so I happily collected mine and dug that final "crushed it" sticker out of the trash for my number plate.

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Finally a full jar of gravel!

2014: Didn't ride loop 5 - broken shifter
2015: Made the cutoff but decided 52 miles was plenty for the day.
2016: Missed the cutoff to ride loop 5.
2017: 4:57 moving, 5:12 elapsed; ahr 116, max hr 146

Thanks to Jeff Yielding and his volunteers for putting on a quality event and kicking my butt for the last 4 years. Thanks to Eric and Joe for waiting around to see our finish. And major thanks to Mickey for sticking with me for all 5 loops and helping make it possible for me to finally reach my goal.