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Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Five Stages of PMETR

On my drive home from PMETR, it struck me that the cycle I go through every year around this race bears a strong resemblance to the Five Stages of Grief model that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed and then wrote about in her book On Death and Dying, a title which seemed highly applicable during several segments of the race.

1. Denial - In this stage, individuals cling to a false, preferable reality.

Every September I register for the Pere Marquette Endurance Trail Run with the best of intentions and the certainty that this year, finally, I'll give the race the training it deserves. For five of the seven past years I've proceeded to do the opposite, but I registered again this year believing that things would be different.

2. Anger -  When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated.

I spent September and October either racing or recovering. This left little time for actual training. "Why do I always do this to myself? When will I learn?"

3. Bargaining - The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. 

But that was OK, because I had no races in November. If I ran 2-3 times a week, maybe hit the trails a few times, I could probably salvage a respectable performance.

4. Depression - During the fourth stage, the individual despairs...[and] may become mournful and sullen.

By the time race day arrived, I'd run a total of 31.7 miles since the beginning of September, only 10 of those on trails. Pere Marquette was going to be a train wreck.

5. Acceptance - In this last stage, individuals embrace...[the] inevitable future. 

There have been times when this would have stressed me out, but the past few years have shown me that mentally I'm typically better going into Pere Marquette with poor training and low expectations. A primary goal of not dying is a highly achievable benchmark for success.

My only worry on the drive up was whether I'd guessed right on my cold-weather gear. It's been too warm to get much practice in dressing for winter running. The starting temp was forecast to be about 27*, so I wore tights, a thin long-sleeved base layer, a short sleeved tech top, a fleece hat, and thin knit gloves.

To ease congestion on the park trails, the 600ish racers are seeded into waves which leave every 30 seconds. Despite a relatively poor time last year (compared to some of my previous times), I was in wave 17, which was probably too far up. In no hurry to wait in the cold, I took my time getting to the start and missed my wave, jumping into 20 just as they left.

The course begins with a deceivingly level first .3 mile before beginning to climb. My comfortably hard pace lasted as long as the flat ground did, and then I was walking. My friend Robin and her camera provided some incentive to start running again as the trail leveled out.

Photo credit: Robin Misukonis
I had to walk again through a rocky pass and then again as the trail climbed again near the one mile mark, but my excuses ended when the hill did. I ran on flats and downhills, and though my pace on the descents was slowed by the lack of the confidence that develops when you run trails regularly it was still enough to pass a tri club group running together.

I'd heard them for a while as I was closing in, their loud and easy camaraderie reminding me of my Virtus teammates. We played leapfrog for a while, me getting ahead on flats and downhills, only to be passed with authority any time the trail began to climb. The opposite happened with my friend Gary, who for a while I kept catching on uphills after he'd smoked me on the descent. Eventually, though, he pulled ahead and I didn't see him until the finish line.

The first three miles felt like kind of a slog. Struggling on uphills (though Strava tells me I PR'd the first two big hill segments, which is probably more of a comment on my previous races than anything) was unsurprising; of course, flats didn't feel much better and lacked the built-in excuse to walk.

I wasn't unhappy, but I wasn't particularly having fun either. Still, occasional glances at my Garmin showed paces in the 12 min/mile range, which isn't much slower than the speed of my occasional flat, paved neighborhood road runs. Rather than a total trainwreck, my exertion-impaired math skills suggested I had a good chance of a PR, though the likelihood diminished when I remembered that the race wasn't 6 miles but nearly 8.

PMETR elevation
PMETR elevation

Regardless, by the midpoint of the race my countdown had shifted from how much more I had to get through to how much race was left, the mental lightness aided by a largely downhill mile. On the other hand, while my lack of run training hadn't totally ruined my conditioning, it had successfully erased everything I used to know about fueling during a run. My 6 a.m. oatmeal was a distant memory, and I hadn't though to bring a mid-race gel. I'd expected the mile 3 water stop to have candy and was sorely disappointed.

Thankfully there was candy at the mile 5ish water stop, where I stopped long enough to grab an orange slice and 4 mini Reese's to eat as I ran. From there, the course swept downhill to the road crossing and final climb. That last uphill was brutal; even walking was difficult. I glanced nervously at my Garmin, wincing at the pace I saw. I thought I still had a chance to PR, but it wasn't a sure thing.

 A man came up behind me and I kept asking, "Do you want to get past? Are you sure you don't want to pass me?" He didn't take me up on the offer until we hit the top of the climb. There a volunteer assured us that we only had one mile left. I'm not so sure about that, I thought, but I liked the way it sounded.

One little climb stood between me and the downhill run to the finish line. I ran that as best I could -- more of an approximation of a run -- and then sped up as soon as the uphill ended. I saw Cassie and Amie cheering on the side of the trail, and I saw the 1-mile mark we'd passed on the outward leg of the race (I knew that guy was wrong). I passed back the man who'd trailed me up the last hill, only to have to make a quick stop to fix my dangling shoelace.

I knew Robin would be set up to take pictures of racers coming through the rocks. Every year she gets some really cool shots of other people, and every year I tiptoe through like someone's arthritic grandmother. This was no exception.

Looks like I have my race-walking form down!
Photo credit; Robin Misukonis

Once you clear that rockier area, the trail is more runnable, and I tried to push the pace. I caught up with Jody, who's had a similar case of riding-bikes-is-more-fun-than-running. "Seems like we meet up at this spot every year," he commented. I slowed again as I reached the water bars along the last section of downhill. Between rocks, uneven drops, and the cross-ties, it always looks like trouble to me. As soon as I hit the final flat, though, it was on.

A guy in front of me had just picked his way through the mud so as not to get his feet wet .2 miles before the end of the race.

I sprinted with as much sprint as I had left, hearing the finish line cowbells and just trying to hold on until I crossed. I did manage to pass a couple of guys right before the finish. I was pretty sure my PR was 1:35, so I was excited to see my time of 1:32:07, an improbable but unmistakable new PR. I was astonished and thrilled. On a day I'd had no goal except not dying I was going home with a 3 minute PR.

I was slightly deflated when I later looked back at previous results and realized my fastest time was actually 1:30 and this year's time was actually my third best. But only slightly. Misremembered times aside, I'd done far better than I'd have even thought to hope. I thought back over the race, wondering if there were places I'd given away two minutes' worth of time. There were one or two spots I could have started running a hair sooner, but in the end I don't think -- given the fitness I currently have -- I could realistically have cut enough time off of my day to PR.

I think my Fitbit would tend to agree with that assessment.
Of course, stronger than expected performance on minimal training reawakens the eternal question: how well could I do if I actually trained for this race? Maybe next year I'll find out.

And the cycle begins again...

25/36 AG
107/195 women
404/556 overall

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

2016 Castlewood 8-Hour

Note: commentary from Mickey in pink. Brenden and Renee didn't have anything they wanted to add except what a joy I was to race with and what a pain Mickey is. Also, that last part after "add" might not be strictly true. 

The Castlewood 8-Hour has been a part of my December schedule for seven years now, and I've never shared the day with the exact same group of teammates. I've volunteered with Patrick and Dave, and I've raced in varying 2- and 4-person team configurations: 2011 as a guest-racer on Orange Lederhosen; 2013 with Jim, Bob, and Adam; 2014 with Luke, Bob, and Robby; 2015 with Mickey; and this year with Brenden, Mickey, and Renee.

It's rare for me to adventure race with anyone who's not a regular teammate or frequent training partner of mine, but Renee and Brenden weren't exactly strangers. Renee and I have spent a lot of time together on bikes, and Brenden and I have at least been near each other a few times in races. If I wasn't going to be completely in my comfort zone I'd at least be within shouting distance.

We all met up at Alpine Shop on Friday night for packet pickup and then headed to a nearby restaurant to eat and plot our maps. The light ended up being too dim to do the plotting, so we all just hung out and talked for a while, leaving Mickey and Renee to deal with the maps and route planning when they got back to his house.

I was staying at Bob's with the rest of Team Virtus, so once they were all in town I headed out to meet them for our traditional race-eve Dewey's pizza. Thwarted by a long wait, instead we grabbed a few pies to go and reconvened at Chez Jenkins, where we got right to work on their maps. Eventually.
Well, some of us did.
Feeling out of the loop on my own maps, I stuck myself right in the middle of theirs and took up my normal job of reading coordinates. Luke and Travis did the plotting while Chuck wrote clues on the supplemental maps and Adam monitored my reading to make sure I wasn't trying to steer them wrong.  Bob and Robby did "essential race prep" in the other room.

We got our packs together over some discussion about the stupidity of my plan to leave the house at 5 a.m. to make sure I was at the bike drop the second it opened at 5:45 (spoiler alert: they were right) and eventually all headed to bed/couch/floor, where I at least tossed and turned and didn't fall asleep til well after midnight. That made the 4:15 wake-up call a joy, but it's always easier to get out of bed on race day.

I met Mickey, Renee, and Brenden at the bike drop, then we left my car in a park and ride lot since parking was limited at race HQ. Starting an adventure race in the fancy surroundings of an urban country club was a weird contrast from our typical middle-of-nowhere pavilions, but it was nice to wait inside on the frosty morning.

Type II Fun, a very apt name for our team
Photo credit: Dan Singer
We had a short pre-race briefing under the start/finish arch at 7:30 and then milled around catching up with friends and taking team pictures until go time.  As 8:00 approached, Mickey nudged us: "Let's move up further towards the front." This is the exact opposite of my natural race tendency, which is to slip to the very back and spend my day making conversation.

Mickey: Moving to the front was actually Brenden's idea.

And we're off!
Photo credit: Dan Singer
Trek 1: 3ish miles, 34ish minutes, CP 1-3

The race started with a 5K mostly uphill road run. My recent running has been so limited as to be almost non-existent, which made running with a pack even more fun than normal. Thankfully Mickey carried most of my mandatory gear in his pack, and with the lighter load I was able to run all but the biggest hill. Road runs are tough because there's no good excuse to stop and walk, at least not on a team that won't accept "because I want to" as a legitimate reason. We collected CP 1 and 2 along the way and then finally hit a lovely, long downhill all the way to the Allenton Access boat ramp, where we collected CP3, made a quick transition, and hopped into the canoes.

Photo credit: Travis Irvin

Paddle 1: 6.4 miles, 1:20, CP4 at take-out

Last year's canoe leg was a huge weak point for us, as neither Mickey nor I are experienced paddlers. This year we split up, with Renee and Brenden steered our respective canoes. This was a definite improvement.

Heading downriver

It was a gray, chilly morning, but with our canoe tracking smoothly through the water I had few worries about a potential December swim and the first half went pretty quickly. Just as I was getting sick of being in the boat, distraction paddled up in the form of our Alpine Shop buddies. We compared this canoe leg with the surprise individual kayaks at the Berryman Adventure, but when I started talking with my hands to demonstrate my lack of prowess there, Brenden directed me right back to the task at hand: "Get your paddle in the water!"

Mickey: With my poor paddling holding Renee back, you could afford to socialize for a bit.

Approaching the takeout.
Photo credit: Dan Singer
We'd both been watching hopefully for the I44 bridge for a while when it finally came into view, heralded by the rumble of 18-wheelers on the interstate. (Mickey: Renee and I spent what seemed like half an hour lamenting just how far away from the takeout you could actually hear the traffic.) We beached our canoes on the gravel bank, pulled it out of the water, punched our passport, and then trekked below the bridge and uphill to the bike drop.

Bike 1: 2 miles, ~30 min, CP 6-8

I had a bad moment at the bike drop when Mickey went to turn on my rear blinky and it wasn't there. I hadn't even looked at it when going over the mandatory gear list because I knew it was on that bike...except that it wasn't, having been switched over to my gravel bike for Spotted Horse. Luckily Brenden had an extra one on his bike. Crisis averted.

We pedaled down the road and into West Tyson County Park, where funnily enough I'd been just a month before for the first time since running there with Chuck five years ago. I've never ridden there, though, mostly because I've heard the Chubb Trail is tough and have avoided it. "Luckily" for me, the race forced my hand.

Brenden heading towards the CP while Renee waits at the trailhead.
Photo credit: Travis Irvin
The first CP was at the entrance to the Flint Quarry trail. Waiting for Brenden to punch our passport I looked at the hill in front of me with some dismay.

Probably wondering just how far I was going to make it before I had to walk.
Photo credit: Travis Irvin
Renee and I heading up.
Photo credit: Travis Irvin
Initially the guys had us go first, but they quickly realized they were better off in the lead. Despite my doubts about the hill I made it almost all the way to the top before getting hung up on a root and having to get off my bike for a minute. The trail got more and more rocky, so rather than hike-a-bike on the trail (which I'm quite sure the guys and Renee could have ridden, and I'd like to go back and try to ride in a non-race situation) we took our show off-road with a hike-a-bike up the steep hillsides. Thankfully the guys were a lot faster and were able to help a lot push/drag/carrying the bikes up to the more rideable trail, some of which was really fun.

Mickey: local knowledge could have saved us some time here. Had I known how rocky this section of trail was, I would have started our bikewhack up the hill sooner. C'est la vie...

In what seemed like no time we were at the bike drop, manned by our friends Andrei and Amanda. Amanda! There we had to turn in our main passport in exchange for a new one: the trek was in the same area as we were biking, so the race directors needed to make sure we were only punching trekking points.

Trek 2: ~3.5 mi, 1:26, CP 9-18

Mickey had been pushing me to do the nav for the foot section, and after seeing we'd be trekking in West Tyson I agreed to do so. I'd had a really clean orienteering meet there in November and felt pretty confident in my ability to find the checkpoints. I was less sure about navigating on the clock; it's still a pretty slow process for me, kind of like little kids sounding out words as they learn to read. The ability is developing, but I'm definitely not map-fluent yet.

Comparing maps and deciding on a strategy.
Photo credit: Amanda Lappe
Luckily, the pre-marked trekking map was the exact same map as the one we had for the bike leg, so for each CP I'd show Mickey where it was located on his map and he'd follow along there. It was kind of like navigating with training wheels.

Substitute "navigating with Mickey' for "being a teacher", and you'll get the idea.

Well, sort of. Like I said, I really need time to think things through and get comfortable with the map, and instead I had to make a quick decision about how to attack the points and then go with it. Looking at the map now I can see where I could have been more efficient, but of course the trade-off is being way slower, and I'm not sure the time saved with efficiency would outweigh the time lost with slowness.

Our route went 14-16-17-13-10-11-9-12-15-18
Note: 18 was also the bike drop, where we'd have to return at the end of the trekking leg to continue our ride.

We attacked the CPs in a loose figure 8, starting with 14. I'd planned to go from there to 17 and then 16, but as we hit the trail along the ridgeline between 18 and 16 I realized it would be way easier to hit 16 first. Then I intended to go down the slightly gentler spur and hit the trail to 17, but Mickey assumed I was taking the more direct/steeper route down to the trail and led on. I could have spoken up, but I was too busy frantically looking at the map and trying to decide if my plan was dumb.  In retrospect, I think it would have been much more efficient to (from our starting point at 18) hit 16 first, then 17, 14, and 13. Less hill climbing, less backtracking.

We ran the trails where we could and made decent time, though between the rocky surface and trying to look at the map as I went I was jogging along with the tiniest little cautious baby steps ever.  From 14 we swung back through 18 again, hitting 13 and then returning to the trail until we could cut nearly straight downhill to 10, back up to 11, then down to 9. This is another place where I think we could have improved. To do it over again I'd go over to 11, down to 9, and then run the trail to 10.

The guys were way faster off-trail then I was, as was Renee in her rookie AR outing. Part of that was trying to watch my map as I moved, but part of it is also just being slow off-trail. Something to work on. I was definitely frustrated with myself for being so slow and having a hard time keeping up on the map and feeling like I was making the nav decisions rather than just following where the guys went.

We took the creekbed from 9 over to the park road, then followed the road and then trail, seeing Team Virtus as they were finally hitting CP6 on the bikes after being marooned at the canoe put-in with no paddles. I was happy to see my friends but so bummed for their bad luck.

We definitely weren't only running because we saw the camera.
Photo credit: Travis Irvin

Getting on the trail was actually Mickey's suggestion. I'd planned to just keep following the (dry, despite what Brenden thought) creekbed towards 12, but he noticed that the trail paralleled it for a while. In that respect, we make a good navigational team; I'm probably a little better with the big picture, but he's way better on the details. That definitely shows in our route planning: I tend to lean to routes with the easiest travel where I think I'll be able to keep track of where I am and then muddling through once I get close, while he's much better at choosing his route based on what the best attack point might be.

Once the trail started to split off, we dropped down along the creekbed and followed it until the reentrant split. When Mickey tried to send Brenden up the wrong reentrant I had a good handle on where we are and we made a quick correction.  We bagged 12 and then headed uphill towards our final CP of the trek.

Since i didn't have the actual CPs marked on my map, it was a pretty long distance from the previous CP, and there were no obvious terrain features near CP12, I couldn't remember exactly where it was plotted. Good catch!

My original plan was to climb all the way to the top of the hilltop above CP15, which was a long, uphill slog.  Part way up, legs burning, I started looking at my map and thinking, wait, we're going to have to go down the other side. Why are we doing all this climbing? Why not contour around? The guys, who were already higher, stayed high while Renee and I continued around lower down. Not realizing I hadn't yet crossed the trail coming down from the hilltop, I started looking at the reentrant next to me and thinking it was the right one. Thankfully Mickey was clearer about where we are and corrected us before I led us way down the wrong hill.

Once we had that last CP we climbed back up to the trail and hustled into CP18 for the last time, collecting our other passport and getting our bike gear back on while Andrei jokingly scolded me about my poor choice of footwear. With the trek done and only a short bike leg left, it seemed like the race was practically over.

Bike 2a: 2 mi, ~20 min; CP 19-23

Getting back on the bike felt fantastic after the trek, especially the part where we got to ride downhill on not scary trails, but I'd been worrying since the previous night about the course note of "technical trail ahead, use caution" on this section. We hit CP19 quickly, then hike-a-biked down an old section of trail. There I got hung up having to wait for a big group of racers flying by. Race or not, they could have used some manners, some of them nearly taking out other racers and leaving several pissed-off hikers in their wake.

They were riding like real a-holes, especially considering their position in the race. 

I had to walk my bike downhill around a crash and then past a rocky, technical section I wasn't about to ride, finally catching up with my waiting teammates. It's really frustrating to be the slow one all the time.

Mickey and Brenden
The trail got a bit more rideable, though I still froze up on a few sections I'm sure I could have ridden if I'd taken the right line and walked a couple other sections that I might never ride. That said, I'd really like to go back and ride the trail with no race pressure and the opportunity to re-ride parts.

We're definitely going back to ride Chubb again. You to get some practice on picking smart lines, then trusting your choice. Me to ride it without a mapboard so I can actually see where I'm placing my front wheel.


We dropped back onto the park road and retraced our steps back to the canoe take-out, where we now had to ferry our bikes back across the Meramec in canoes. This normally makes me really nervous, but the short distance and great earlier paddling experience had left me pretty confident it would go well.

Paddle 2: .2 mi, ~6 minutes

And it did. Huge thanks to Will and Perry, who in addition to serving as safety boats during the race also stood in the river giving teams a push-off to make sure they didn't drift downstream towards the bridge. Their help meant our feet didn't even get wet, and that might make Castlewood the first race all year I didn't spend my day in soggy shoes.

I think we're trying to figure out where Renee and Mickey are going to beach their canoe so we don't crash into them. You can see where we started in the background.
Photo credit: Dan Singer.
We beached our canoes at the boat ramp on the other side of the river, unloaded the bikes, and had to lug the canoes uphill to the parking lot. After lugging our kayaks a half mile at the Berryman race, this didn't seem all that bad.

We passed a quick gear check after dropping the boats and then rode off in search of our last few CPs.

Bike 2b: 7.2 mi, 47 min, CP 24-32

This last bike leg was in Route 66 State Park, its flat, lightly wooded surroundings a strong contrast to West Tyson. Mickey's nav was sharp, and Brenden made quick work of getting the passport punched. We only had one slight bobble when we emerged onto a different spot than Mickey expected, but Brenden almost immediately recognized our location on the map.

The trails here were either gravel our grassy doubletrack, so for the first time of the day we were able to get some use of the tow Mickey had on his bike. And I needed it; my legs, which had been so happy to get back on the bike just a few miles before, were starting to cramp.

Once we had the Route 66 CPs in the bag, we had two more on the streets of Eureka, and then all that separated us from the finish line was the long climb into the Legends. I was very thankful for the tow here -- teamwork makes the dream work! -- as it made the uphill much less painful for me.  Just ahead of us we could see another team, but we weren't all close enough to make an attempt to close the gap. Unfortunately it was another 4-person co-ed team, but we still finished 9th in our division, which is pretty cool. 

It was a different kind of fun than in my usual races, where enjoying time with my friends and other racers is my primary goal, and racing with people so much stronger than me is hard on my ego. I had plenty of moments of frustration at not being better, but there were also accomplishments to celebrate. We worked well together as a team, we (I think) got Renee hooked on adventure racing. We pushed harder than I'm used to, and I didn't die. I helped navigate, and it wasn't a total train wreck. I saw that I'm capable of more than I give myself credit for. It may have been a lot type 2 fun, but that's still a pretty good time!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays. All the family togetherness of Christmas with none of the gift-giving pressure. This year was lighter on the family togetherness, as my two oldest sons are in Oregon and Japan and a niece lives in Alaska, but all of my brothers were home.

With a 5-day weekend I managed to fit in plenty of active time, too. I'm not sure it balanced out the amount of turkey, stuffing, and dessert I ate between our two family gatherings, but it felt good to log some time outside.

Wednesday: Slept blissfully late, made Jacob pancakes, and did some cleaning. I wasted plenty of time, but we managed to get in about 40 minutes at the gym together before I had to take our dog to the vet. Frontline-resistant fleas and arthritis.

Thursday: My tri club has an annual group trail run on Thanksgiving morning. I annually show up too late to actually run with anyone. That's ok, because I've done so little running lately that I doubt I could've kept up.
Started my Thanksgiving Day on the trails. Like a slow ninja, I managed to get in my whole run without seeing most of the tri club group I'd been too late to start with. #trailrunning #optoutside #soloturkeytrot

I spent the first half mile calculating how much further I had to go -- .1 mile: I only have to do that 19 more times... -- before settling into the run and enjoying it. I was painfully slow but really glad I made it out. 3.1 miles, 45 min.

Friday: I'm not a shopper and don't like crowds, so my Black Friday tradition is of the two-wheeled variety. This year Mickey, Chuck, and I hit a few local trails. We started out with more climbing than I'd expected and I spent the majority of the day feeling slow and not very good at mountain biking. My mood picked up after they convinced me to ride over a rock table I've scuttled past since I rode it in February.
CW, Zombie, BV
It's not hard at all; it just looks scary to me. 

CW, Zombie, BV
...and back down...

CW, Zombie, BV
Really cool spot on the trail.
I hadn't been on the first trails we rode in a couple of years, so I was happy to see that, even feeling slow, I was faster than I was in the past. The other two trails showed less improvement since I've been on them more recently. 30.5 miles, 4:05

Saturday: The St. Louis Orienteering Club's annual Turkey-O is another of my favorite holiday traditions. This was the third year it was held in the Mississippi River bluffs above Grafton, IL, so I was familiar with the amount of climbing I'd have to do. I ran the 3-hr course solo while Jeff and Jacob did the 1-hour course with some friends. It certainly wasn't my best navigational outing, but it was a gorgeous day and a lot of fun.  7.6 mi, 2:55.

2016 Turkey-O
High above the river and about to take a terrible route downhill.
Sunday: I slept too late to go running with friends as planned, and as achy as I was when I did get up that's probably a good thing. My legs were sore, as expected, but my upper body was worse. Weird. I did a lot of crawling through thick vegetation, using trees to haul myself up and down steep hillsides, and falling, so apparently all of that contributed.

We cooked breakfast together, then while the guys watched football I walked the dog, aimlessly wandered the house, and thought about what to do. I was feeling kind of down and really just wanted to curl up under a blanket with a book, but rain was in Monday's forecast and Sunday was almost certainly my last chance to get outside. Eventually I talked myself into a mountain bike ride with the promise that I could quit after a half hour.

I really didn't want to run or rode or do much of anything today, but it's supposed to rain tonight and I'm not likely to manage any mtb time after work this week. I made myself go for at least a half hour of no pressure riding. I ended up with an hour of
Half fall brown, half spring green. Still beautiful.

I made no effort to ride hard, just focused on trying to be smooth and braking less. It was a fun, no-pressure ride, and I ended up riding for just over an hour. At one point I came around a curve and was just struck by how magical the trees looked. Our unseasonably warm temps have led to a mixed messages combination of muted colors and bright greens. If it wasn't for the stark wintry sky you'd almost think spring was just around the corner. 7.5 mi, 1:04

Friday, November 11, 2016

Spotted Horse 150

Sarah Cooper first hit my radar when she won Odin's Revenge in 2014, coming in first overall. I've casually followed her career since that point, and she quickly moved into the Ezster Horanyi/Lael Wilcox/Jill Homer pantheon of heroes/role models/girl-I-most-want-to-be-like-when-I grow-up-except-I'm-already-older-than-them-all.

Sarah has a special place in my heart because she achieves all her accomplishments while also being the mother of four; meanwhile, most days I can barely get my hair combed in time to drop off my one remaining kid at home and rush into work 30 seconds before I'm supposed to be there. I finally got to meet her in person at last year's 24 11 Hours of Cumming, where she crushed the women's field and I welcomed an inglorious DNF not quite halfway in.

When one of your heroes organizes a long race on her training ground, you pay attention; as soon as Sarah announced the inaugural Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra I penciled it onto my race schedule. October is a busy month, though. Jeff had already acquiesced to planning our family Halloween party around BT Epic, and a trip to Iowa for Spotted Horse would mean back-to-back weekends away, something I try to avoid.

Sarah's race stayed in pencil until sometime in October, when her race updates started feeding my FOMO. Granted, my gravel bike had seen almost no action since August, and maybe following a tough, 50-mile mountain bike race with an endurance gravel event seven days later was a bad idea, but I think it was Ezster who said something like "recovery is for people who can't think of anything fun to do". Overall my bike fitness was in a good place; I hadn't ridden a full century since August, but Chuck and I had ridden over 90 at the No Sleep race in September. I felt confident I could soldier through 150.

The final selling point for Spotted Horse was EJ, my first riding partner when I began riding bikes for "distance" (which, at that point, consisted mostly of 30ish mile Trailnet rides).  His career has kept him crazy busy while dragging him around the East/Midwest over the past few years, so we haven't adventured together in forever, but he was available that weekend. He wasn't crazy enough to sign up for the 200 because his long ride this year has been about 20 miles, but he was willing to throw in for the 150 and see how things went. That gave me mental permission to also sign up for the short course, and with my husband's OK I registered.

Mickey and I headed to Iowa Friday morning, arriving at Kyle's Bikes just as check-in opened, then meeting up with EJ after he finished work. The rest of the evening was spent prepping bikes and giving EJ a crash course on endurance race nutrition. The race structure made my nutritional plan pretty simple. I would use six 500-calorie bottles of Perpetuem (I had two bottles and carried baggies of Perpetuem for refills) and bring along some GUs and a couple candy bars to supplement, buying anything that caught my eye at the C-stores. I also had a 100 oz water bladder in a frame bag, keeping the weight off my back.

Unlike races like Motherlode or Dirty Kanza, Spotted Horse was unsupported. Instead of crew meeting us at specified points with food, water, or necessary gear, we were routed past several convenience stores (at mile 38, 69, 100, and 138, I think) where we could refill water and purchase whatever we needed. Anything we couldn't buy at a Casey's had to be carried with us. This made things weirdly easy. No bags to organize, no instructions for crew, just you and the C-store shelves.

We arrived at the race HQ in St. Charles, IA, around an hour before start time, leaving us plenty of time for last-minute prep and multiple bathroom breaks. The morning was cool, but the forecast called for a rise into the mid 70's before dropping again. With relatively mild temps and no rain expected, I limited my extra gear to a buff and arm warmers, opting to start chilly rather than carry extra clothing most of the day.

Not being a regular to the Iowa gravel scene, I saw few familiar faces.  Having parked between Steve Fuller and the Stillers, I had the chance to drool over Steve's new(ish) Cutthroat before rolling over to the start line. There, I said hi to Jacob and then ended up next to my St. Louis area friends (and all-around awesome people), Carrie and Jeff Sona. We had a minute or two for hellos before Sarah gave out last-minute thanks and instructions before leading us to the end of the neutral roll-out.

Getting ready to start.
Photo credit: Daren Munroe

Knowing E.J. was completely untrained for the race, I was totally out of race mode and looking forward to good company and Iowa scenery. There wasn't much sightseeing to be done over the first hour or so since we couldn't see much beyond the reach of our lights, and we had one early wrong turn when I had trouble seeing my Garmin screen in the early morning darkness.

After an early climb the the next 5 miles or so leveled out, and we had a great time pedaling along and talking. Not long after a big descent, though, E.J.'s rear shifter basically fell off. What's better than entering your first gravel race completely untrained? Not being able to change gears probably ranks up there. Luckily, he was able to take the screw from his front shifter, which was unlikely to see much action for the day (mine certainly didn't), and we were back on the road in just over 10 minutes.

Back on the road and heading up. Over dinner, EJ's wife had made a comment about Iowa being flat. We'd already ridden proof to the contrary when we were faced with a virtual gravel wall. "Yeah, Iowa's flat," he grumbled.

7:13 a.m.

Having a lot of room for improvement on hills, I was pretty excited to make it to the top without having to walk, and the view up there was awfully nice. My headlamp was giving me a headache, so sunrise was a welcome sight.

7:18 a.m.

The wall was followed by a screaming downhill. One of Sarah's pre-race emails had mentioned the forecast and then advised racers to "expect lows 5-10 degrees lower than predicted". Diving into the mist-covered low-lying areas, her meaning became clear. Brrrr.

7:21 a.m.
"Luckily" we had a few miles of climbing to warm up before the course leveled off again.

8 a.m.
I finally took off my headlamp when I stopped for this picture, putting it into EJ's pack since I didn't have one and didn't want to get it all sweaty in my jersey pocket. This would prove to be a minor mistake, but I wouldn't realize that for a while.

About 4 hours in we stopped at the mile 38 Casey's to rest and resupply. While I wouldn't have stopped on my own, it was a nice break. I supplemented my on-bike nutrition with a piece of pizza, a second breakfast to complement the cinnamon roll I'd picked up at a different Casey's early that morning: options are pretty limited at 4 a.m. EJ was clearly a little tired but doing awesome considering he'd already doubled his long ride for the year. After a 20-minute break we hopped back onto the bikes and pointed ourselves towards CP1.

Iowa gravel, at least the roads I've ridden in the two Iowa races I've done, is a lot different from Missouri gravel. The roads were well-packed and smooth, absent potholes and with very little washboarding.  Spotted Horse also featured miles of dirt roads, also called "B roads" or "minimum maintenance roads". At one point I also spotted a sign for a C road, which stoked my curiosity but not enough to actually diverge from the race to explore (also it may have been marked private, but I don't remember that for sure and anyway, I was "racing").

The combination of B roads and a rainy weather forecast gave Sarah some grief in the lead-up to the race. As events like Trans Iowa 2015, Dirty Kanza 2015, and Land Run pretty much any year have shown, mud plays havoc on bikes and bike races. I was less worried. For one, I wasn't race directing, but also, I may be a mediocre cyclist, but I'm a pretty darn good competitive bike carrier. Muddy roads would suck, but they'd also be an advantage for me.

Half facetious and half true.

I was both relieved (because, let's face it, 150 miles was going to take me long enough without slogging my not-featherweight bike through mud) and slightly disappointed that the weather forecast moderated itself. The dirt roads ended up being in fantastic shape, well-packed and relatively smooth. They were a nice change of pace and a real highlight of the race.

Photo credit Eric Roccasecca
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca

This dirt road picture was taken slightly after the above one. 
EJ was wearing down a little, but one of his superpowers is stubbornness and the ability to, despite lack of training, accomplish much more than you might expect. I didn't really think he'd ride the whole race, but I wouldn't have been shocked if he had.  The next stretch of the course was pretty moderate but had a couple bigger climbs, and at the top of one of these he told me, "I know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but I'm not doing this whole thing."

There wasn't really anything I didn't want to hear. Riding together was fun, but I've spent plenty of solo miles and was confident in my ability to navigate by Garmin and/or cue sheet. Either way I was good, and riding alone I'd be slightly faster. We hit  CP1 (mile 52) at 11:35, as it turns out a full hour after the last racers to arrive there. "What do you want to do?" I asked.

"I'm done," he told me. One of the volunteers offered to run him back to the start after she was finished manning the CP, so I waved goodbye and took off. I made it less than a quarter mile before remembering that my headlamp was still in his pack. For a moment I considered turning around but decided my bike light would have to do.

I can see for miles and miles...🎶 #hillsfordays #havemercy #girlsgonegravel #spottedhorsegravelultra #bikeiowa
11:50 a.m.

Some people might consider the midwest flyover country, but the course was really scenic. Iowa likes its straight lines: many roads stretched ahead as far as the eye could see, a sadistic preview of the hills to come. Occasionally the course would approach a dread-worthy climb and then, before getting there, turn; this led to my discovery of what I was to name Cooper's First Law of Race Directing: If you're turning away from a climb, it's only so that you can ride the bigger one around the corner.

Miles and miles of B roads at #spottedhorsegravelultra. We lucked out with the dirt roads in amazing shape. #girlsgonegravel #bikeiowa #gorlswhoridebikes

More B roads were to follow, and while they were still smooth and lovely they (and the course in general) were taking on a more pointy character than earlier roads. The more challenging conditions, loss of my suffering companion, and increased effort put a bit of a damper on my photo safari. I pulled into the Afton Casey's (mile 69) at 1:16, still feeling pretty good.

Leg 1. EJ dropped off at that low point after mile 50.
I refilled my water bottles and bladder, then loaded the second half of the race while I drank half of a gatorade. 10 minutes after arrival I was back on my way and looking forward to CP2. For whatever reason, I'd had in my head that CP2 was only about 8 miles from Afton. Luckily Mickey had made me a little mini cue-sheet with mileage to each C-store and CP on the course, and his cue sheet assured me it was actually 12 miles. I know it's only a 4-mile distance, but four miles of looking for a CP and wondering if you already somehow passed it would seem like forever.

The CP (mile 82) was at the end of a fairly flat section of road, and reaching it was a mental boost. So was Stretch's "Kate!". He'd volunteered to pick up any out-of-towners who had to drop, and I was the last of his people to come through the point. In fact, reaching it at 2:34, I was the last of all the racers there.

Having official confirmation of my last place status was, perhaps counterintuitively, not disheartening at all. I had minimal competitive spirit, having mentally assigned the race to pleasure cruise, but I really hate being passed. Knowing there was no one behind me meant there was no pressure from that direction. I could just ride my bike; anyone I picked off was gravy.

2:35 p.m.
Leaving CP2. The checkpoints were literally just crossroads with a vehicle.
Photo credit: Connie Mann
Incidentally, CP2 was also the spot where you had to make a final decision about which course you were going to ride. I had zero desire to switch gears and go for 200 miles and was so thankful that EJ's participation had convinced me to register for the 150. Next stop: the town of Orient in 20 miles.

The next couple of hours were tough. Looking at the elevation profile, the hills don't look horrible, but they just kept coming, one 100-foot climb after another. I'd ridden bigger hills earlier in the day and tried to channel those legs: You don't have to ride it hard, just soft-pedal up like you did this morning, but my afternoon legs weren't having any of it. Hills were walked.

#Iowa likes its straight lines. Dirt roads and rolling hills stretch on forever. At least, it certainly felt that way at times. #spottedhorsegravelultra #girlsgonegravel #longwayhome
You could see for miles on the dirt roads, too.
Around 4:20, probably on the dirt road above, my Garmin started flashing "low battery" and I stopped to plug it into the portable charger I'd brought. Mickey had told me I should just leave it plugged in the whole time, but I'd thought that was silly and did it my way. Thanks to my stubbornness, I got to spend about 6 minutes moving things around on my handlebars when I realized I couldn't plug in my Garmin were it was situated. Awesomeness.

While I was in the middle of moving my Garmin, Tina and Joe Stiller and another rider passed me, the first bikes I'd seen since leaving EJ 5 hours earlier. They sped off after making sure I was ok, and I followed soon after. Before leaving, though, I had to get a panorama of my stopping point: a 4-way dirt road intersection. First of those I've ever seen. (If you click on the picture it'll take you to a panorama).

 The dirt road ended at another intersection, and I stared at my Garmin in confusion as I rode up. The race route was a purple line traced on the roads we had to ride, and all I saw was a "+" in purple.  All the roads were purple. Huh? Luckily, a volunteer directed me to ride to the left towards the town of Orient. "The middle 50 miles is the worst, right?" I asked him as I passed.

"I don't know about that," he replied. "I've only ridden it in a car and it all looked pretty f*cking hard."

In retrospect, it's obvious that the roads were all purple because I had to ride on them all, and I had cue sheets (which I hadn't looked at since our wrong turn early in the day) to answer my question. In a "this is your brain on drugs 100 miles of Iowa gravel" state of mind, though, I didn't even manage to figure out the question. I didn't get beyond Huh???? to even ask myself Now, which way should I go? Thankfully, Scott pointed me in the right direction and around 5:00 I rolled into Orient.

The Stillers were still there along with several other racers in various states of relaxation. This was the most bikes I'd seen since the end of the neutral roll-out. One of the other 150-mile women was there, having decided to drop. I think she said Spotted Horse was her longest ride yet. She definitely picked a doozy; she earned that century!

I refilled a water bottle in the bathroom and bought a soda, small can of Pringles, and a Snickers ice cream bar. Nothing really looked all that good, but I wanted to sit down and eat something. It felt like I was there forever, but my Garmin data shows I was there for around 15 minutes. Before leaving I texted Mickey to let him know where I was (knowing he'd be finished soon if not already) and EJ to tell him "Good call on when you dropped. The next 50 has been SO HARD."

I followed the Stillers out of Orient, and we immediately realized that the wind, which had been blowing out of the South and West all day, had shifted to the North and we now had a headwind. At times I was able to tuck in behind them, but mostly I just really enjoyed getting to talk to them about past and upcoming races and about bikepacking.

They were on the 200-mile course and had about 40 more miles than I did at that point. If I worked hard and they backed off I could keep up on flats, but they flew down hills where I spun my legs to no avail, and despite what Joe said about them not being great on hills I couldn't keep up for long and dropped off. Their company had taken me about 8 miles from Orient; I had less than 30 to go to Winterset, the final opportunity to stop before the finish.

Thirty miles...that's like a medium Trailnet route...from hell. My normal positive self-talk tricks were subverted by tired-of-riding-this-damn-bike negativity. This is the least enjoyable "pleasure cruise" ever. Typically I like to just leave the route up and ride in blissful, no clue where I am zen, happily surprised when I reach the next point of interest. As I tired, though, zen failed me and I resorted to rationing peeks at the total mileage. Every 30 minutes (sometimes every 15 minutes...I suck at rationing) I could look and see how many miles were left.

Goodbye, sun. Nightfall gave me my first opportunity to try out the lights I bought way back in May. Good thing they worked well! #spottedhorsegravelultra #sunset #whatcouldpossiblygowrong #nofilter
6:43 p.m.
One of the really cool things about long races is seeing sunrise and sunset from the saddle. Also cool? Maybe managing to finish before sunset. But whatever.
The mileage checks gave me something to look forward to, but the math was ugly. 26 miles to go; that's only 2 hours at 13 mph. OK, that wasn't so bad, but following it up with things like 20 miles to go...that's only 2 hours at 10 mph was less happy, and there were times when I looked at the mileage in dismay, praying I'd remembered it wrong from the last time. That's all I've done in the last 15/30 minutes? This will never end. 

The 36 miles between Orient and Winterset were the longest. miles. ever. From Winterset to the finish, though, was only about 14 miles. Eventually measuring my mileage to the end became less depressing than the distance to Wintereset. 14 miles to the C-store, that means I've only got 28 miles left. That's less than a medium Trailnet route.

The Winterset Casey's was a block off-course; I saw it down the street and hesitated. I didn't really need anything. Maybe I should just finish off the last 14 miles. And then, unable to resist the lure of the bright lights and the coffee I'd been promising myself since the sun went down and the evening got chilly, I turned.

Three racers left the parking lot as I rode in, one of them a woman. I didn't know if she was in the 150 or 200 and didn't really care. I stopped my bike, gratefully climbed off, and stepped into the warmth of the building with my phone and money. I had three messages from an unfamiliar number, so I checked voice mail. It was Stretch: "Kate! I heard you were dropping. Call me!"

I called him back to tell him I wasn't dropping, just slow. I bought my coffee and ate peanut butter filled pretzels while checking facebook. Eventually the woman at the counter noticed that I'd left my bike light on, which I decided was probably a good cue to take my leave. Again, the stop felt like forever, but Garmin tells me it was only 13 minutes. Granted, it was 13 unnecessary minutes, but it made a nice morale boost. I dumped my remaining coffee into my water bottle and then took off again. 14 miles to go.

Apparently Winterset is home to some of the famous "Bridges of Madison County", and apparently the course passes directly by three of them. You couldn't prove it by me, though, because rural Iowa is mighty dark once the sun goes down.

Mile 12 was CP2, Orient was mile 32, and Winterset was mile 69. For whatever reason, the elevation scale on this profile is twice that of the one above (100 foot intervals vs 50 foot intervals)
After a general downward trend over the previous 22 miles and a 3-mile almost level lull, the course delivers a few last throat punches in the form of three huge hills. At least, they felt huge. They certainly took a long time to walk up.

Meanwhile, my bike light started to blink low battery, which would have been far less worrisome if I hadn't left my headlamp in EJ's pack. I turned it to its dim setting, which eliminated the battery issue and most of my downhill courage. While the roads had been lovely and smooth, I really didn't want to find the one bad spot by outriding my light in the wrong place.

The last hill seemed to go on forever. Finally back on my bike, I'd barely pedaled before the road appeared to rise again. Oh, please don't make me ride up another hill, I whispered in dismay. At the crest of the hill, a truck waited. I think she called out to ask my number and then cheered me on. There was one last downhill to lights and cheering and cowbells, and finally I was finished.

The first thing I said at the #spottedhorsegravelultra finish line was "That was SO hard!" Probably the toughest 150 miles I've ever ridden. Great course and a race director who was there to see all of her finishers. #girlsgonegravel #finishline #girlswho
On the left: stopping and saying, "That was SO hard!!" The other two pictures are with Sarah, who between her speedy first finishers and the rest of the field had a long time to wait out on the road.
There were only three women in the 150-mile field. One had dropped at Orient. The other had finished 16 minutes before I did.

16 minutes. Do you know how many 16 minutes-es I gave away over the course of the day? Gah. I know Katherine could say the same thing, though. Like every race, I feel more competitive about it once it's over, but I'm at peace with how it went. My priority was riding with EJ, and my second goal was to finish. Anything else was just gravy.

Sarah and her crew did a great job putting Spotted Horse together. It was a great race on a scenic and challenging course. Congratulations to everyone who took it on. Those hills...they just never stop. My 152 miles took me 16:38; in contrast, the first time I finished Dirty Kanza, I rode 204 in 19 hours. The second time, after carrying my bike through 3+ miles of peanut butter mud, took 20 hours. Spotted Horse was really hard, so much so that afterwards I said I'd need some race amnesia before signing up for it again.

So now I'm just waiting for the 2017 date to write on my calendar.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

B(e)T(ter) Epic

I'm a slow learner.

More accurately, I guess, you could say that I'm slow to apply what I've learned and, thus, am repeatedly retaught important lessons by cruel experience. That's why, despite having a pretty good working knowledge of the birds and the bees, it took two unplanned pregnancies before I finally accepted that being consistent with birth control was imperative. That's why, despite knowing how important it is to keep fueling and hydrating on the bike, at least annually I have a soul-crushingly bad race due to not fueling and hydrating properly. And that, in turn, is why BT Epic has haunted me since last October.

The nutritional/physical/emotional debacle of last year's race has been on my mind at nearly every OT-area mountain bike ride I've done since. Anyone who's shared those miles with me could probably tell you how much of it was fun (10 miles), how much was awful (40 miles), how many times I cried (three), or relate my sense of betrayal that the last section of singletrack didn't lead straight down to the finish. "Let it go," they'd say. "It was just a bad day."

"I know, but..."


I stewed for a year, rode significantly more miles in 2016, and avoided going into the race with a recent injury/high levels of antibiotics in my system. I spent a lot of time on the Ozark Trail this summer. I was really excited about BT Epic until the drive down, when race nerves kicked in full force.

Last-minute terror aside, staying at Bass and hanging out around a campfire the night before was far nicer than the early-morning drive we made last year. Camping with friends is the best way to start a race weekend, even if the temperature did drop into the low 30's and make me reluctant to climb out of my sleeping bag the next morning.

BTE 2016
Race morning
Chuck, Steve, and I started almost as far back as possible, shivering in the morning chill, chatting with friends, and not really listening to the last-minute race director talk.  I was so distracted that the starting gun scared me. "Oh, I guess it's time to start pedaling..."

Leg 1: Bass to Brazil Creek ~10 miles 1:22

The first big climb up the gravel sucked, leading to the un-mantra that always echoes through my mind at times like those: I ride my bike way too much to feel this out of shape. Once the hill leveled out I settled in to enjoy the nice, safe gravel. Apprehensive as always about singletrack, I was grateful to have a few miles of low-stress warm-up.

I chased Chuck onto the Ozark Trail, remembering how fun this section had been last year but feeling weirdly tentative considering how non-tricky it is.  He was quicker to pass other people than I was, and we got separated a few miles in. I leapfrogged for a while with Sally before catching her just before the descent into Brazil Creek.  As long as we were on relatively flat ground or climbing I could keep up, but we were about to hit a long downhill and I'm hesitant to pass anyone under those circumstances. Turns out I was right to hold back. She almost immediately disappeared from my view and ended up putting a minute on me on the descent.

2015 vs 2016: I was disappointed to be about 12 minutes slower hitting the first aid station this year, but I'd kept eating and drinking, which made a big difference in the rest of my day.

Leg 2: Brazil Creek to Berryman Campground ~10 miles 1:38

I didn't need anything at the aid station, so I rolled on through, crossing highway W and beginning the climb where everything had begun to unravel last year. This was a totally different experience. I felt great and posted my fastest time on that segment. What a huge confidence boost! I rode and chatted for a while with Al until I lost him, and then I was basically on my own for the rest of that leg.

There have been several reroutes build on this section of the Berryman trail, and they make the ride so much more flowy and fun. The newest reroute, finished just the previous week, was a little less so. I'd anticipated a smooth ride after all the leaders packed down the fresh trail; I hadn't factored in the 2" of rain the area had received days before. The new trail ranged from unpleasantly soft to practically unridable. I ended up hiking my bike up the last hill here rather than blow out my legs digging ruts into the dough-like surface.

MK caught me shortly after the new trail and we yo-yo'd back and forth. I'd open a gap on the climbs and then lose ground with my cautious descending and inability to ride switchbacks. One problem with being semi-familiar with the course is a heightened awareness of my trouble spots, so I was all ready to pull up short when I came to a rooty turn that is probably so easy to ride but looks scary. MK may have been slightly less ready for me to stop and ended up toppling over and slightly downhill. I'm not sure it was my fault, but it sure felt like that. Rather than cause her any further problems, I waited for her to go ahead before starting up again.

In no time we were rolling into Berryman Campground, where Lori was waiting. I'd felt like I was moving really slowly, so I was surprised to hear that Chuck was only 10 minutes ahead of me. I switched out bottles of Perpetuem, grabbed a bag of food, remembered I needed my camelbak filled, and then rolled out of the campground without the food I'd meant to take.  I actually remembered it before I hit the trail, but some quick calculations convinced me that I had enough calories left that I didn't need to turn around.

2015 vs 2016: I hit the second CP 9 minutes faster this year (measuring time from the start of the race), which is already an improvement, but that 9 minute improvement doesn't tell the whole story. In 2015 this second leg took me 2 hours; this year it was only 1:38 for a slightly longer trail with a little hike a bike (due to the new reroute). 

Leg 3: Berryman Campground to Bass ~20 miles 3:09

I caught up with a guy shortly after leaving the campground and he pulled over to the side to let me pass. "I'm pretty slow downhill," I warned him, to which he responded, "I'm pretty slow all-around."  That kind of thing always makes me laugh from someone who's ahead of me, and I was convinced that he'd pass me back any minute. As it turned out, I was wrong.

This side of the Berryman loop has two things I've never been able to ride -- a sharp switchback and a rocky step -- but once I was past those I relaxed and just rode. I felt super slow on the uphills but less fearful on the descents. I was sporting a big bruise on my right hip from washing out on some loose rock the previous week on this section, so I watched like a hawk for that trouble spot but never noticed it or had any problems, and before I knew it I was turning back onto the Ozark Trail and heading towards the gravel.  Last year I'd greeted the dirt fire road climb to the road with despair and walking; this time I rode all of it except for one quick stop for some electrolytes.

OT/Bass/Berryman 2016
Riding the forest road up towards the gravel the previous Sunday

Craig passed me when I stopped at the water jugs to check if I needed to top off my camelbak. "Do I get a little happy face on my number for each time I pass you?" he joked. A far better technical rider, he'd ended up behind me after stopping for a mechanical. Once I hit the gravel, though, I felt amazing. speeding along and passing several people before turning back onto the Ozark Trail.

This section of the race includes the infamous "Three Sisters", but even before hitting the first of these climbs always I seem to forget how to ride my bike. Naturally that's where Craig passed me again. In a weird-for-me twist, though, I was riding more of the uphills than many of the people around me, leading to some Twilight Zone alternate dimension where guys were telling me, "Go ahead, you'll beat me up this hill." Granted, they always caught me on the downhill, but it was still pretty cool.

OT/Bass/Berryman 2016
Taken the previous Sunday atop the final sister before Bass.

Almost 40 miles in, I was tired but didn't feel awful, and riding along the top of the third sister I savored the gorgeous weather and the fall scenery. Missouri may lack the drama of Colorado, but it has no shortage of beauty. I caught up with a girl from Texas on the way back down to Bass, passed her on the field, and sped along the road to where Lori and Mickey (who had finished long before) were waiting at the turn for the last short loop.

"Chuck's just 5 minutes ahead of you!" they told me. I still had a partial bottle of Perpetuem and had them fill my empty with water so I could leave behind my Camelbak; then I hurried off to see if I could finally catch my friend.

2015 vs. 2016: I got to this point in the race an hour faster this year than last. In 2015 the Berryman Campground to Bass leg took me 4:01; this year it was 3:09. I felt a million times better, too. 

Leg 4: OT loop west of Bass ~8 miles 1:06

Last year I'd believed that this leg was a ride up Butts Rd (a big, paved climb), along a gravel road, and down a short stretch of Ozark Trail to the finish line. I was incredibly betrayed by the realization that the "short stretch down" was only the last mile and that Butts Road, which I'd had to walk a huge piece of, was hardly the end of my climbing. I didn't take my disillusionment with good grace, and it's embarrassing now to think back to what a trainwreck I was.

This is not all downhill.
This year I knew what to expect, both from my 2015 BT Epic experience and a two rides on this section in the past few months. I made it up the initial climb with no walking and flew down the gravel, passing a guy who was pulled over on the side of the road fighting cramps.

He passed me back as I walked my bike down the rocky drops just past the overlook and I think Craig closed in on me again here, but I pulled ahead on the next uphill. When I started to get sick of all the climbing, I thought back to the summer day we rode this piece of OT as an out-and-back: This felt way more uphill on the way out, I reminded myself, You're going in the down direction. You're practically finished.

Craig caught me once again as I got ready to push my bike up a rock ledge. "After all of this, you know we have to ride across the finish line together!" he told me.

We reached the gravel road where a volunteer directed us across to -- finally -- the last downhill before the finish line. I waved Craig in front of me, knowing that following me there would be no fun for someone who takes hills as fast as he does. I did my best to stay close and managed to hang in there for a little while before getting nervous on a curve and braking. Almost immediately he disappeared from sight, but as I emerged from the trail there he was, waiting for me before the finish line, which we crossed together moments later.

2015 vs. 2016: This leg took me 1:28 last year, and I cried at least once. This year it took 1:06, no tears.

I finished in 7:15, cutting about an hour and a half off of last year's time. I couldn't turn off my finish line smile and had so many friends there to share it with. It took me forever to get showered and changed because I kept running into more people to celebrate with. This year's race had been such a good experience, such a redemption..so different from last year.

It had been such a good day. No crashes, no mechanicals, no nutritional failures. I remembered to eat, I didn't spend 40 miles crying and feeling awful. I rode mostly solo but never felt alone, talking to people throughout the day. I never felt awesome, but I never felt really bad, either; it was a good, consistent effort.

That's not to say there wasn't room for improvement. I had about 19 minutes of non-moving time, which isn't that bad over seven hours; I was efficient at the two stops with crew, thanks to Lori's help. I made one unnecessary stop at the mile 31ish water stop that cost me a couple extra minutes when a friendly ambulance guy kept talking to me, and any other time lost was quick stops along the trail, which I kept to a minimum.

I think the biggest need for improvement, though, is in my technical riding. I almost always lose ground on hills, but lack of confidence on rocks, roots, and switchbacks really costs me. Each segment of the race was punctuated by things I "know" I can't ride, and it's not just the time lost in walking something vs. riding it but also in the loss of momentum.  So my goal for the next year is to improve on that. And have a finish time that starts with a 6.

As do-overs go, though, 2016 was a pretty good one.