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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cold day in hell


The inaugural Rocheport Roubaix was billed as a winter cycling adventure on gravel, and winter did not fail to deliver.  Memories of last weekend's glorious warmth weren't enough to stave off the biting chill of a day when the freezing point sounded almost tropical, so for perhaps the first time ever I looked forward to the heat-producing uphills with the kind of  I-don't-care-how-bad-it-is eagerness a heavily pregnant woman reserves for childbirth. The "Hell of the Midwest" was definitely the frozen variety.

The 55-mile race started at 10:30, leaving time for the morning to warm up to a balmy 14 degrees. While I wasn't thrilled about the cold, I was considerably more worried about potentially icy roads.  Having done the 2013 Castlewood 8-Hour with a 10 degree starting temp, I'm pretty confident in my ability to dress for the cold, and it wasn't like we were going to be out there for 8 hours.  As it turned out, I was only partially right on both counts.

Even with the relatively late start time, Bob and I only made it to town about 15 minutes early. Thankfully Luke had picked up our numbers and timing chips, which we collected after hurrying into our riding layers.  Our group of friends made up nearly half of the field: along with the Virtus contingent (Adam, Bob, Luke, Robby, and me), Chuck and our TOG friends Jim and Aaron were there.  Additionally, Lori and Christina were both in for the 30-mile route, and Momentum's Mickey and Shaun had already left on their 70-mile course.

The race director said a few words at the start line, emphasizing that racers should definitely wear glasses due to the cold. I'd left mine back in the truck and opted to just stick it out bare-faced. I also hadn't thought to get a cue sheet or download the course to my Garmin but wasn't too worried because I figured we'd all stick together.  That assumption lasted for maybe the first hill, where most of the pack flew away while I tooled up.  Luckily Chuck was on his mountain bike, and his big knobby tires made it easier for me to be able to stay with him.  I was a little worried about making the first turn without Bob since I didn't think he had a cue sheet either, but the volunteer at the intersection promised to make sure he didn't miss it.

My temperature confidence hadn't really taken the wind chill into account, and while the layers on my body were sufficient I wasn't particularly comfortable.  I was wearing a fleece hat and balaclava that I could pull over my mouth and nose when I needed to, but the headwind whipped against my face and the cold rush of air on downhills was almost blinding. It's too bad no one suggested we should wear glasses...

Temperature aside, road conditions were far better than I'd expected: smooth, hard-packed gravel, little ice, and few cars. Occasional turns out of the headwind or into the shelter of cedars were welcome breaks. The hose of my Camelbak froze almost immediately, but I'd also brought two insulated water bottles. I was slightly more concerned when I realized the bottles were frozen shut but was distracted from my hydration worries by the cool exposed root systems of some trees we passed and by the camera-shy chicken we saw crossing the road.

I'm sure there's a joke in here somewhere...
Unwilling to pander to its paparazzi, the chicken moved on and so did we, shortly arriving at the first warming station.

Untitled The aid stations were well-placed but perhaps not entirely prepared for the depth of the cold. By the time we reached the first one, their water coolers were pretty much frozen, as was the jar of pickles.  The volunteers were very helpful, one hauling a cooler out of the truck where they were trying to thaw it, while the other held my water bottle up to the propane heater while I ate something and tried in vain to open the other bottle.

Eventually we were able to unscrew the lid so I could get a little water out, and then I did my best to melt it further while we watched for Bob.  Because my water bottle cage had broken, I had to carry one bottle in my jersey pocket; that ended up warming the bottle enough that I could drink at will, but only when I was stopped because it was tucked under my jacket and useless Camelbak.

Once we were all back together again, we took off in search of more miles. Bob had a cue sheet after all and told us not to wait on him, but we all stuck together for a while.

The route took us past the Big Oak Tree, the largest bur oak in Missouri.  Over 350 years old, it doesn't seem all that notable when viewed from the nearby Katy Trail but is enormous up close.  Race or not, freezing temperatures or not, that's worth a picture.


Just past here, the race director came by and asked how we were doing.  I told him I was great except for my frozen eyes. Instead of dropping a well-deserved "I told you so" and speeding off, he drove further down the road, stopped and dug out a pair of his wife's sunglasses, and handed them to me as we reached him. That's some impressive customer service, and it was typical of the day; race support vehicles passed us regularly as they roamed the course, and we were thankful for the reassurance their presence gave. It was definitely not a day you'd want to be waiting long for help.

I had to laugh as I put on the borrowed glasses. My typical "bike" sunglasses are more Kim Kardashian than Rebecca Rusch, and these ones looked like they could have come out of my purse. At that point I would have welcomed any eye protection, but I wasn't sad to be wearing something I didn't hate.  We rode what seemed like a lot of pavement to the second aid station, where we talked with the volunteers a bit and met up with Mickey, who'd dropped after 35 miles of frozen water. I had been gazing longingly at the turn-offs for the 30-mile route and was more than a little jealous of his warm trip back to the start, but his leftover salami and cheese roll-ups were a nice consolation prize for continuing to ride.

The middle section of the course featured a few bigger climbs and a screaming descent that, even at my cautious pace, sent a rush of blistering cold across my face that made me newly grateful for the protection of my borrowed sunglasses.

This could have been me...
Whether it was due to my limited fluids or just something I'm going to have to figure out, my leg cramps had started speaking up soon after the second aid station. I'd stopped to take some electrolytes and a couple of ibuprofen, which had helped, and had been trying to spin in an easy gear until the cramps fully disappeared.  It didn't take me long to decide to walk the climb following that downhill. Seeing Bob flying down the hill behind us, we waited next to a barn and pulled out the salami roll-ups, which were a delicious change from the sweet stuff I typically eat on long rides.

Long hill in the background
Our spot barnside spot demonstrated just how big of an effect the wind had.  With the wind blocked, the freezing temperature felt pretty comfortable. We couldn't stay there all day, though, so we finished our snacks and headed off onto the loop at the far end of the course, happy in the knowledge that the wind would be more at our backs on the return trip.

We opted to bypass the third aid station but stopped soon afterwards as I spotted Boathenge along the Katy Trail. I've actually ridden past this twice on previous Katy Trail thru-rides but don't remember seeing it, and Chuck had never seen it; it was fun to for once be the one pointing out something cool to him instead of the other way around.

It would have been a slightly better picture from the Katy Trail side, but this will have to suffice.
Since Chuck had the course loaded onto his Garmin, he didn't have our mileage in front of him, so it fell to me to keep him updated. I'd spent the entire ride staring at the bike computer with a clock-watcher's fervor but limited my spoken updates to "significant milestones":
  • 5 miles: "We're an 11th of the way done!"
  • 5.5 miles: "We're a 10th of the way done!"
  • 20 miles: "We're practically halfway there!"
  • 27.5 miles: "We're officially halfway there!"
  • 34 miles: "In 11 miles, we'll only have 10 miles to go!"
  • 40 miles: "Just 15 miles left, that's like a short Trailnet ride."
  • 50 miles: "Even Jacob can ride 5 miles."
(This might be a good time to mention that Chuck has limited hearing in his left ear, a fact that probably explains his amazing ability to tolerate long rides with me.)

Countdown notwithstanding, the last 25 miles seemed to fly by.  It's clear from looking at the map that the course was basically one big out and back with a lollipop on the end, but the only landmarks I recognized at the time were the Eagle Bluffs conservation area (site of the most disgusting pit toilet I've ever encountered) and the big tree. Everything else looked totally different viewed from the opposite direction, partly because most of what I'd seen on the first half of the race was Chuck's back.

After a strong crosswind at the big tree we had the wind at our backs for the remainder of the ride. There was more fresh gravel than I'd remembered before, making me very thankful for the pavement I'd scorned earlier in the day.  There were also more hills than I'd remembered, but they were mostly fun rollers.

Both of us were glad to ride back into Rocheport and fly down the hill we'd crept up first thing that morning.  My cross tires were considerably faster than Chuck's knobby MTB tires, but I had to ease up when I realized I had no idea where the turn was. I recognized it in time to be able to beat him in the sprint and crossed the line laughing.

It looks weirdly like we're holding hands here, but we just both had our hands on the bike.
Luke got our picture after the finish and found us some hot chili while I got into some warm, dry clothes as quickly as possible. We all had a nice time hanging out at the Rocheport General Store, but everyone else had been waiting around for a while, so it wasn't long before we all headed towards home.

This is one of those races that's slightly more fun in retrospect than at the time. I'm glad I went, but it felt more like finishing a job than adventuring with friends. That may be because it was too cold to do much adventuring, but there's something entertaining about racing in such stupid weather, too.

All in all, it was a very well-run event. All of the race staff/volunteers were friendly and helpful, and there was a ton of support on-course. I found the course marking slightly confusing, but none of my other friends did, so maybe that's just me. The biggest change I'd liked to have seen was at the aid stations; on a day that cold and windy, it would have been nice to have some kind of wind-block and something warm to drink.

What I wore:

Lightweight l/s tech top/base layer
Med. weight l/s tech top
Med. weight l/s jersey
Bike shorts
Polartec tights
Knee-high Smartwool socks
Fasterkatt cycling boots
Smartwool liner gloves
Pearl Izumi lobster gloves
Fleece balaclava
Fleece hat

The only part of me that was pretty uncomfortable was my face.  My feet were numb by the end, but they weren't painfully so and there were no lingering after-effects. The Fasterkatts are more of a transition season boot and the weather was definitely colder than their suggested range, but they were still far better than just a regular bike shoe.  My shirts were very damp when I took them off; I might have been better off trading one layer for a slightly thicker jacket, but I went with what I had and it worked.

Results: I took second in my division, which is only impressive if you don't know that there were only two women who finished and the other one finished nearly 2 hours ahead of me.  I was third last overall (or 16th). DNFs aren't listed, but I imagine there were a few; I know at least one other woman started.  And the place doesn't really matter to me (OK, it does a little) as much as 55 more miles in my Dirty Kanza bank. Hopefully I can channel a little of the Rocheport chill when the Kansas temperatures start to climb. :)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Babler Cold Nose-O

The St. Louis Orienteering Club's Cold Nose-O at Babler State Park was held on the last Sunday in January. This particular meet is a memorable one for me since, several years ago, it was my first solo attempt...one which did not go well at all. Tears were involved.  This year was far better, though it's hard to judge how much better since I stuck with Mickey the whole time.

True to form, I spent the first mile or so getting my disorganized self together while running down the road: restarting the Garmin that wasn't picking up, taking off the fleece that I'd known would be too warm and attempting to stuff it into my small camelbak while running, etc. Thanks to all of this, I hadn't even looked at the map before we hopped off the road and into the woods and was able to give little to no input when we had our typical shaky start.  We'd started ahead of the BOR guys, Amanda, and Dave, and we all ended up finding the first control around the same time.

From that point, however, I felt much more comfortable with the map.  We moved in a loose pack up and over the hill, but I was pretty focused on doing our own thing rather than following anyone else.  I think we took slightly different lines, and when we reached the hill for control 2, we saw Scott already at the top looking for it.  We curved around the back of the hill and spotted the control ahead of us. While we didn't go exactly straight there, we didn't have much wasted movement either. Much better! We punched and moved stealthily away.

2-3: Crossed the reentrant to the road (though looking at this now I wonder if it would have been quicker/easier to go back uphill to the road next to the number 2 on the map), ran the road to a trail intersection, ran the trail (passed by Jeff R. around here), short bushwhack to the road, and the cut in off the road to control 3.

3-4: Dropped down into the low area, followed it until it was time to climb uphill a little and look for the control. I was really happy at this point. It's such a good feeling to know where you are and where you're going...and have it work out! I remember telling Mickey, "I love this sport! This is so much more fun when you aren't lost!" Mickey actually walked right past it, so it was a good thing I was slower. Passed by Sunny, Doug, and Melissa here.

4-5: Downhill to the trail. It's a measure of how single-minded that I can be (and maybe how little I trust mapped trails, which are all too often changed from how they look on the map) that I was looking for the creek and surprised when Mickey spotted a trail which I hadn't even noticed on the map). Ran the trail to the road, then ran the road til it turned north and cut off into the woods and up the reentrant to control 5.

Babler 2015
Taking a very rare picture of me ahead of Mickey. 
5-6: Climbed uphill to the road, ran the road to a picnic area, cut downhill to the control. After 5 consecutive successful attacks, we (or at least I) were full of confidence...which is usually where things start to go downhill for me.

 6-7: We hiked uphill to the road from 6, and then headed back into the woods to bushwhack to the trail.  So if you look at the above picture, which shows our approximate route, you'll notice that we took the worst possible route to the trail (climbing uphill through the woods and then down a fairly steep slope to the trail, when we could have just run up the road to the tunnel indicated by that lower red dot (where, incidentally, we saw one of the controls for one of the other courses).

Babler 2015
Bonus control!
From that point, we moved off of the nice, paved trail to the horsed-up, muddy equestrian trail. Skiing downhill through ankle-deep mud was kind of hilarious -- and guilt-free, because it was a horse trail!  We found yet another bonus control at a stone structure at a trail junction at the bottom of the hill...

Babler 2015
No idea what this is.
...and while we could have just taken a short bushwhack across to the next section of trail, instead we went back out to the equestrian trail because in the time we'd taken to stop and get pictures I'd totally lost track of where we were on the map and was just following the trail.  Luckily Mickey has a longer attention span and got us to control 7.

7-8: We saw Dave B. heading down towards 7 as we were coming out, a clear reminder that clean navigation beats slightly faster moving on less efficient routes.  We initially missed the trail where it crossed the road, and then I brought us off the trail way too early, leading to some searching before we found the control.

8-9: All I remember about this point is that the trail and terrain were really not matching what I expected from looking at the map. Not sure if that's because there had been some kind of trail reroute or if I was just way off.  Either way, finding 9 took some additional wandering, and Dave got there ahead of us. Booo. (I mean, great job, Dave).

9-10 (yellow): Confidence shaken, I was all about Mickey doing all of the remaining nav. We passed Dave briefly by running, but then he passed us by cutting off the road sooner with a better route.

10-11 (orange): Ran the trail back out to the road, where thankfully my partner knew which way to go because I totally thought we needed to go in the opposite direction.  We re-passed Dave by running, then went directly to the flag. One more to go!

11-12 (blue): We set a brisk pace away from 11 so we could keep our "lead" (actually, we were still behind Dave since he'd started after we did). We were almost to the top of the hill when the other Dave popped out onto the road holding my passport. Doh! Mickey sent me on ahead and ran back for my passport. We went behind the buildings, while I think Dave went in front of them, so we all got there around the same time. Luckily, I'm still a slightly better runner, so we made it back to the finish ahead of him (and yet still 3 minutes behind him.  Next time...)

Overall it was a good day but my part of the navigation left quite a bit to be desired. But any day spent playing in the woods and followed up with margaritas and Mexican food is a pretty good day.

Babler 2015
Add caption

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Massas Creek (reprise)

Ever since Chuck and I first rode Massas Creek road I've been talking it up, and this Saturday I finally got to show it off to someone else. Bob and I headed west to Jonesburg to check out a loop he'd put together including Massas Creek and the Daniel Boone Conservation Area.

Massas creek
Saying hi to our Virtus teammates who skipped our ride but were suffering in their own way.
The temperature was a cozy 31*, slightly less warm than I'd hoped, but the combination of exertion and lack of wind made for comfortable riding conditions.  Hilarity ensured early on as Bob asked me, "Did you download the course to your Garmin?"

"No, did you?"

"Umm, nope. Let me see if I can pull it up on my phone..."

We definitely need a grown-up with us to take care of the details.

Bob was able to pull the route up on his phone, and once we were geared up we started the ride by immediately missing a turn and riding some extra distance. Or by "Intentionally Tacking on Extra Distance Because We Take Our Training Seriously".  Either thing is possible.

Massas Creek gravel

Eventually we righted ourselves and doubled back to find our road, and the pavement quickly gave way to fresh, loose gravel and several (thankfully friendly) dogs.  After a bit the gravel smoothed out and we encountered this cool bridge.

Massas Creek gravel
My bike has been sitting for two weeks, so it was really happy to be outside again.
When Chuck and I did this ride in 2013, we'd noticed a fancy driveway with some cool gatehouse looking thing in progress. Here's that spot. The gatehouse or whatever it is is finished, and behind it you can see an archway that looks like something that belongs at a castle. There were even gargoyles at the top.

Massas Creek gravel
Pretty fancy driveway!
At this point we turned off Massas Creek Rd and pedaled up Haney Farm Rd, which I think was the steepest climb of the day. After a short snack/catch your breath stop, we turned onto Hwy Y for a short stretch of pavement before turning onto Tower Rd. towards the Daniel Boone Conservation Area.

Massas Creek gravel
Made it!
 We checked out a couple of the service roads and trails and found what was left of a deer skeleton off trail.

Massas Creek gravel
Ribs, anyone?
Someday I'm going to go back there and do some exploring off trail and see what there is to see, but Saturday wasn't that day since we both had things to do and people waiting at home.

Massas Creek gravel
Nice view after leaving the conservation area.
The road out of the conservation area took us down a steep hill. As Chuck had noted last time I was there, "It looks like we're dropping off the edge of the world." Bob sailed downhill, while I took a more cautious approach.  About halfway down I finally released my death grip on the brakes and still hit 28 mph before the road flattened out.

A little connecting piece of the Katy Trail was probably my least favorite part of the ride. Thanks to the recent damp conditions, the trails was soft and our pedaling felt sluggish. I was very happy to see the bridge over Massas/Massie Creek.

Massas Creek gravel
On Bob's side of the bridge the sign read "Massas Creek". I guess if there's a question about what the creek is actually named that's one way to make everybody happy!
Chuck and I had ridden through a lot of water on our trip down this road, something less fun on a cold day in January than during April shorts weather.  Thankfully the road sported several low water crossings that may have replaced some of the gravel creek beds we'd had to ride through.  Admiring the creek at one such crossing, we had a lady in a truck stop next to us.

Massas Creek gravel
Checking water depth
After the very unfriendly locals at the Joe Dirt ride, I was a little nervous to have someone stopping by us, but she just wanted to tell us about the deer she's been watching in her yard. And actually, while we didn't see many cars on our ride, everyone was say was friendly.

Massas Creek gravel
Riding through the valley
The road wound through a valley, and then closer to some limestone bluffs.  We were both thrilled to have such a nice day to be outside and such an awesome route.

Massas creek

Eventually we came to a few actual creek crossings. The one I'd been a little worried about had been where Chuck and I had to carry our bikes through knee-deep water. That promised to be a chilly walk this time around, but luckily the water was WAY down in that part and we were able to ride through. The last creek crossing didn't go quite a smoothly.

Massas Creek gravel
Which side to take...
Bob unsurprisingly made it across without incident, but I didn't make it far before having to put a foot down.  My cycling boots are plenty waterproof when dealing with spray from riding through water, but not so much when submerged. Some water leaked in through the zipper, but at least I stayed drier than I would have in my regular bike shoes and the boots still prevented wind from chilling my wet feet.  I had known wet feet were a distinct possibility, so I'd worn wool socks and we'd flipped the route so that the majority of creek crossings were towards the end. Just a few miles were left until dry socks...no problem.

Massas Creek gravel
Some of the rock walls along the way showed the frosty temps
The route was supposed to be 26 miles, but I'd forgotten to take into account our little detour at the beginning. It's funny how you can basically ride any distance, but one you near the mileage you were expecting your body is done.  That's how I was at mile 26, but a couple of ibuprofen for my crampy legs and a handful of fruit snacks turned things around and the last two miles, gradual climb and all, were no problem.

Massas Creek gravel
Route and elevation profile. 

We had an awesome ride, and hopefully we'll manage to drag the rest of the crew out there to check it out.  I still have ambitions of linking Massas Creek Rd. and Lost Creek Rd. for an epic creek ride, but in all honesty that's probably only going to happen if somebody else plans it. And, you know, brings along the directions too.