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Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Racing" Cedar Cross

Note: Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by Lori Vohsen.

My idea of racing is typically to show up and complete the race, whether that's riding out the mileage or the clock, rather than competing.  Focusing too much on results takes the fun out of a day where the results aren't so impressive, and to be honest I rarely put in the kind of training that would justify high expectations. Much better to just enjoy the experience.

I mean, sure, sometimes I have glimpses of greatness competence that lead me to wonder, "What could I do if I really tried?" but I'm basically lazy, and it's much easier to ride for fun and take lots of breaks.  Despite this, through a combination of Mickey's goading and Emily's blogging, I managed to get talked into racing Cedar Cross. I mean, how do you argue with logic like this:
 When I'm racing the "bigger" races like NUEs, I like to ride rather conservatively. A strong finish is more important to me than a podium finish, which is WAY more important to me than a DNF...mostly because I've usually invested significant money and travel time into getting to that start line. But for local, less-big events like MFXC and Cedar Cross, all bets are off. I use these events to ride hard, above my perceived all-day threshold, because if I blow up, it's not a big deal. And if I don't blow up, then I know I can go harder at the next big race. It's SO beneficial to my development as an endurance racer to have these low-risk opportunities to push myself.
 Right?  Now, to clarify, my idea of racing wasn't aimed at beating other riders so much as it was a plan to give my own best effort and minimize stops. I had no set plans to ride with anyone. My hope was to latch onto a person or group going the same general pace I was, but I was comfortable with riding the course solo if that's how things played out.
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Rather than get up at 4 am to make the 8 am start in Jefferson City, I stayed the night with some of my Virtus family. The start/finish had been moved to Red Wheel Bike Shop, but Luke and I still went the wrong way and drove across the bridge "for old times' sake".

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About an hour pre-race
The parking lot was already filling up when we arrived, a veritable smorgasbord of hugs to dole out and friends to catch up with, so much that more than once I was asked, "Are you racing today?"

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Neutral rollout
Race start to SAG stop (~49 miles):


With one last-minute run back to the van to grab the tool bag that held my co2 cartridges and my money, I made it to the start line in time to witness the regular Cedar Cross festivities: National Anthem on electric guitar by Andrew Laffoon, my Team Virtus teammate Adam's son; Bob ripping off his shirt, and 100+ bicycles following a flag mounted to the back of Chuck's lead bike as we crossed the Missouri River and then rode down the pedestrian ramp from the bridge (check out the cool video from the ramp that Jeff Chase posted!) and met up with the car that was going to lead us to the gravel and the real start of the race.

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Our guitarist, Andrew, waving the flag out the window.  Quick note: in a 'Merica touch, we were actually supposed to follow Bob's red truck down the road, a plan was stymied by the flagging boxing him into the Red Wheel parking lot.
It was here, during the neutral rollout, that I had my first (and, spoiler alert, only) mechanical of the race when I shifted into my big ring and promptly dropped my chain. Apparently it's possible to shift back down and pedal it back into place, but I'm pretty bike-ignorant and wasn't privy to this wisdom; that meant I had to coast from the middle of the pack over to the side, passing through a sea of bikes on my way. When what seemed like everyone had passed me by, I finally got to the side of the road, replaced my chain, and got moving again.

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Well, crap.
Things improved markedly from this point on, though. The transition onto the gravel and the first small inclines, places where I'd been a little shaky in the past, were no big deal. I caught up with and then briefly passed Luke and Robby, and while Robby quickly re-passed me on the first big climb, the hill itself wasn't terrible.

Photo credit: Jeff Chase
This first segment of the race features two of the three singletrack sections, one that crosses through some fields in the Mark Twain National Forest, passing cows, rolling down what I thought at the time was a seriously bumpy hillside, and finally dumping us onto a rocky downhill through the woods and back out to a gravel road where we split from the Cedar Sapling (shorter course) riders.   The other is more traditional trail (rather than through pasture), and it was thankfully rideable except for a short section through a dry creekbed and, of course, the "Jeff Yielding staircase of pain".


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Credit for above photos: Brandon Blake
(L) Creekbed, (R) Much steeper than it looks hill

Sandwiched between these was rideable gravel, a few low water crossings that I approached with an abundance of caution after last weekend's swim, and some climbs that weren't nearly as bad as I remembered. I rode some with my Momentum teammate Mary and Alpine Shop's David and bounced back and forth with the Walt's crew, only managing to keep in touch with them because they had a couple stops that I didn't.

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Last year on Rutherford Bridge. This year I was too busy riding my bike to take pictures.
The next landmark was Rutherford Bridge, which is followed by a semi-rideable doubletrack uphill. Robby caught up with me at the bridge, and then Mary, David, and the Walt's crew passed, riding much more of the road than I could.  Back on the gravel, we had some fun rollers, but somewhere after that I started fading and really looking forward to the SAG stop.  Figuring out just how far away it was took some significant mental gymnastics and calculations that were only slightly more accurate than randomly selecting a number, and I spent the last 7 miles or so looking ahead hopefully for the turn to the SAG stop.

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Sanctuary!
My friend Janie was there for the day supporting her husband Jim and had graciously taken me under her wing as well. She, Chuck, and Lori got my bottles refilled for me while I stood by the truck feeling at a loss. I hadn't eaten much, so I didn't need to restock my food. None of the nutrition I'd brought sounded good, and despite (feeling like I was) doing a pretty good job of staying hydrated, I was so thirsty. The one appetizing item was Janie's tub of strawberries, so I ate several of those and, committed to keeping my stops minimal, set off again.

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The smile may be a bit of a facade at this point.

SAG - Callaway Nuclear Power Plant ( ~ mile 50 - ~mile 80):

The final singletrack segment came just after the SAG stop. "It's really rough," Chuck had warned me as I left, but I wasn't fully prepared for the horse-inflicted carnage I was to encounter. The pictures above can only hint at what conditions were like.  Downhills were akin to holding and sitting on a jackhammer, and the flat sections left you struggling to pedal your bike over a million oversized rumble strips -- if rumble strips came in the shape of horse hooves.  I don't know what riding uphill felt like because I didn't bother to try.

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I probably walked the majority of the singletrack; the minimal (for me) increase in speed didn't justify the effort required or beating delivered by riding.  I'd worry that maybe I was just being a wimp, but a much stronger rider than me posted to following recap of the singletrack ordeal on the Cedar Cross facebook page:

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Photo credit: Don Buttram
The one place where my experience differed from Don's (other than his vastly faster pace) was that I saved my wrath for a different target. I encountered a couple of horseback riders on the trail, and they were friendly and courteous enough that I almost felt guilty for the feelings I was having towards the equestrian community. It's hard to imagine how the trails could have been any worse if someone had set out to destroy them.

I truly believe that few if any horse riders set out to ruin trails for everyone, but since their actions don't affect their own use they don't really understand the repercussions of taking a 1,000+ pound animal on muddy trails. Maybe we need to set up some kind of outreach or, failing that, strap them to a rigid bike and sent them down what we rode. They might emerge with a new understanding of our complaints.

Finally the singletrack hell ended. Chris had caught up with me right before the end, so we talked briefly as we emerged onto the gravel, but he was moving a lot more quickly than I was. Rather than being energized by the return to a rideable surface, I was feeling sluggish and defeated. It seems like maybe the course covered some thicker gravel  around this point, too, but I don't remember for sure.

In retrospect, I definitely hadn't had enough to eat by this point: couple bottles of Gatorade/beet juice mix, half a Mounds bar (left over from last weekend), 1.5 packages of chomps, half of a salami roll-up, a maple syrup packet, an Ensure, and a handful of strawberries. Even assuming I've forgotten a few things, that's not nearly enough food for what was now about 5 hours of ride time.

I continued my bike version of trudging along, not unhappy, just not feeling as amazing as I had earlier in the day, until I heard a voice call out behind me, "Teammates coming, Kate!" Having Mary and David back made the miles go by much more quickly, both literally and figuratively, and before I knew it we were pulling into the surprise hot dog stop.

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Terry, a hell of a guy.
The master of ceremonies at this roadside oasis was none other than the father of Nick Smith, owner of Red Wheel Bikes. A few years ago, during the first Cedar Cross, Terry noticed that bikes kept passing his year. Correctly surmising that a race was going on, he quickly threw out a cooler with some drinks, which had to be a lifesaver on what was a very hot day. Almost every year since, he's been out there supporting not just his son's shop, but any racer who comes by. I'm not a big hot dog person, but the one I ate while stopped there totally hit the spot and carried me through to the gas station at Hams Prairie, where I met up again with Janie.

Once again I was pretty blank on what I needed. I wandered into the gas station to see what sounded good and immediately spotted the ice cream cooler. One Snickers ice cream bar later, I was standing as far inside the refrigerator holding the gatorade, letting the cool air wash over me for a while.  I refilled my water bottles in the store, paid, and went back out to the truck to get updates on everyone else while I devoured my Snickers and drank half a coke.

This stop was considerably less efficient than my first one (my fault...Janie was ready with anything I wanted, I just didn't know what that was), but around 3:15 I headed out for the last stretch of hills before the 30 miles of flat roads at the end of the race.  This solo stretch passed by pretty quickly, and before I knew it I was at the bottom of what I remembered as the terrible hill before the reactor. Like all the other hills of the day, it wasn't nearly as bad as my memory had suggested. Hard, yes, but I never felt like I was going to die or even throw up.

This section of the race was miles 50ish to 80 or so.
The heat (Garmin tells me the average temperature was 82.5, though it also says the max temp was 107, so I think we can agree to take that with a grain of salt) was definitely taking its toll on me, and I wasn't the only one. On the road leading to the reactor, I came across Batman and Robin sitting on the ground in a shady spot. "Do you need anything?" I asked.

"Only a new Batman."

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The dynamic duo, during happier times
Unable to fill that role, I wished them well and continued on my way, reminding a couple (here all the way from Oklahoma) in front of me that race rules require a picture at the nuclear plant and trading photographer duties with them.
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If you look closely, you can see the salt stains beneath the lettering on my jersey.
The abyss (miles ~85 to 116):

With the reactor behind us, it was all over but the crying (very nearly the literal truth). After one last very fun downhill, the course turns onto the Katy Trail and remains pancake flat until it climbs back up to and over the Missouri River bridge. After 85 miles of hilly, this sounds to the uninitiated like a piece of cake.

It's not.  Even the Katy Trail section, which I remember from last year as being a fast, fun ride (helped along by the Virtus-TOG paceline...drafting and awesome company do wonders for my attitude), was a slog, albeit a much-needed shade-y one.  The Oklahoma couple soon passed me, and then Jeff and Carrie cruised by. I made a halfhearted attempt to grab onto their wheel before drifting off the back and returning to my previous pace.

At about 95 miles into the race, the course turns off of the Katy and onto the gravel roads of the river bottoms. The gravel was thicker, and  nearly every turn seemed to direct me into the headwind blowing from the south. For the first time of the day I felt the lack of company; if there was any place in the race where I could have used the distraction of conversation and the respite of someone to trade drafts with, this was it.

Usually when I reach this mental point in a long bike race I start walking hills. The walk breaks are something to look forward to, and the inevitable downhill gives me the chance to have fun, chew up a little distance more quickly, and forget for a moment how much I currently hate my bike.  The unremitting flats offered no such respite; there was no point in walking a flat road, and the combination of gravel and headwind made coasting counterproductive.

I saw one of the Red Wheel guys stopped for a break at exactly mile 100 and had a brief flare of hope that I'd have company for the last 16 miles. I stopped for a moment to talk, but he didn't seem in any hurry to start moving again, so I rode on with just my angry thoughts for company.

Why would Bob route the race through here? Why ride back and forth on these gravel roads when we could just take the Katy back? He just wants us to suffer. Why are these roads so curvy? Why does every turn steer me into the wind? I thought this section was shorter.

Bob wasn't the only target, though. This was Mickey's fault. If it wasn't for all his stupid pushing to race this, I'd be riding along with my friends. I wouldn't be suffering this stupid, flat, windy last 16 miles alone.  I should call him. I should tell him he needs to get back on his bike and get back out here and ride in with me.

If I'd had little voodoo dolls and the bike handling skills to use them while riding, both guys would have felt a thousand tiny stab wounds. Possessing neither the dolls nor the requisite skills, I kept riding and counting down miles and wondering why the hell is it getting so dark when I've gone so much faster this year?? This question, at least, was answered when I realized I was still wearing sunglasses.

Eventually I reached Jefferson City and guessed my way back around to the pedestrian ramp (the Garmin route included a road that was now closed and couldn't be used), picking back up the Oklahoma couple, who'd been unable to find road signs to match the cue sheet's directions, on my way. We retraced our tracks from the morning and finally, finally crossed the finish line.

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Finished!
Final results aren't out yet, so I'm not entirely sure how I placed. I was a lot closer to some strong riders than ever before, and I cut a lot of time off my previous years. For all the smile on my face in that finish line picture, though, I wasn't all that pumped at the end of the race.  The whole experience was colored by that last couple of hours, and they"d been hard. On the other hand, it was great to have a faster time than before, pretty cool to get to watch people come in after me, and really nice to hear people tell me I'd done well. I guess in the end it's a mixed bag.

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Our Momentum group post-race
 My time of 10 hours and 23 minutes was almost 1.5 hours shorter than last year's time, which is awesome, but only about 10 minutes faster than last year's moving time, which is disappointing.  There are a couple of factors that play into that: the race this year was about 3 miles longer, and that last section of singletrack was infinitely worse. So I guess the biggest lesson for me is the benefits of time management and limiting stops. I have several friends who finished after me but with shorter moving time, whether that's because of mechanicals, regrouping, or longer breaks.

A secondary lesson is that I'm stronger and faster than I give myself credit for, but that I definitely need to work on fueling during those harder efforts. I never bonked, but more food may have prevented a few of the slumps I experienced, so I need to plan better for both on-the-bike nutrition and what I'm going to eat at those crewed checkpoints (thinking ahead here to Dirty Kanza).

The final takeaway is that my mental game still needs work. I missed some opportunities (riding with Chris, sticking with Mary and David longer, holding on to Jeff and Carrie's wheel) because I was ok with giving in rather than fighting a little harder. One faster race notwithstanding, I have a long way to go before my mentality is more compete than complete.

8 comments:

  1. Oh wow. I can't even imagine riding that far. You are a star. Congrats!

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  2. Good for you to push yourself out of your comfort zone! Good practice mentally and physically.
    I love the impromptu hot dog stand. How many times does a food you don't normally eat taste delicious when you are starving?

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  3. Great improvement - now you just need a trick to get past those inevitable lows. :)

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  4. You totally CRUSHED it! Taking 1.5 hours off last year's time with all the unrideable singletrack and extra distance (pretty sure it was closer to 4 extra miles) is ridiculous.

    One of my favorite sayings is along the lines of - 'endurance races are really just eating competitions with some biking thrown in' :)

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  5. I cannot believe where you race and, above all, the kind of races. Only .... Batman and Robin can do it! You are not a star but a SUPERSTAR!

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  6. Well done! Improvement is still improvement. I'm not sure I would make it through a ride that long. I think food would have definitely helped you. I've realized during my longer training and racing sessions that I can avoid that dark mental place by keeping up in my calories.

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  7. Do you keep track of your moving time yourself? Or it's probably on the bike computer? I say I love bike trails - and I do - but must admit all the flat they tend to be gets tedious. Overall I prefer rolling hills because then you get the down along with the up.
    You are amazing. I have barely made 100 twice and I can't imagine going beyond it. You do so many things on your bike that are so tough and admirable.

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  8. "My time of 10 hours and 23 minutes was almost 1.5 hours shorter than last year's time, which is awesome, but only about 10 minutes faster than last year's moving time, which is disappointing."

    I'm not sure the latter should be disappointing at all. This is the third report I've read of this race, and all of them panned those equestrian trails hard. You didn't mention how they were last year, but one of the other reports said they were a major difference.

    The really significant takeaway should be that you stopped a whole lot less this year. That's actually way more important because your effort is so much more consistent when you don't stop or stop very little. In the immortal words of the Lonesome Luddite, the key is to Just Keep Moving (without hurrying into Unacceptable Consequences.) Festina Lente all the way.

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