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Friday, August 11, 2017

24 HoC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mickey: Yes! Thank you!

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

Masking my nausea with a smile
Loop 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teamwork makes the dream work!
Loop 2: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loop 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes! This is the last hill...

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

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

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

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

Loop 4:

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

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

It was for me. :)

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

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

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

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

That's a wrap!

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Mission (Impossible) 18 hour AR

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leg 2: Paddle ~ CP 9-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leg 3: Trek ~ CP13-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leg 4: Bike, Orienteering, Bike, Special activities 

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

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

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

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

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

How’d that work out for you? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* = not really

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Tour of Hermann grand finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loop 2: 33 miles ~ More of the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loop 2:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit Mike Langille

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

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

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

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


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

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

Loop 5: Motivational math ~52 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"This is no Trailent ride," Brandon replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally a full jar of gravel!

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

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


Back in February I had the chance to talk with Randy Ericksen on his TA1 adventure racing podcast, and the conversation went up yesterday (on my birthday!). We chatted about adventure racing, mountain biking, gravel racing, fear, family, big plans, and the search for balance. Give it a listen if you're interested!

Link to podcast

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Land Run 2017: Unstoppable

You skate across the finish line, dragging your foot to stop like you've had to for the last 40 miles, and roll right into his waiting arms. He beams as if he's been waiting for you, specifically, since you left Stillwater 13 hours ago. For a moment you're the only finisher, the only one who matters, and you begin to forget about the tears and the fear and the way that you swore off Oklahoma and its hateful red mud. You don't even like beer, but you drink from the can he hands you because you're so damn happy to see him and he's so damn happy to see you and oh thank God you don't have to ride your bike any more tonight.

Bobby Wintle is the gravel evangelist of Stillwater, multiplying IPA and jeeps and red mud until there's enough for everyone, and despite Land Run's consistently challenging conditions the faithful descend in greater numbers every March. Catholics have Ash Wednesday, consumers have Black Friday, and the gravel community has Mud Saturday. Virtus and Momentum, we heeded the call, rolling into town just in time for the 6:00 revival -- I mean, race meeting.

After a quick and delicious dinner at McAllister's (thanks to my wonderful teammates for indulging my baked potato craving), it was back to the hotel to prep bikes, gear, and pretty much every piece of winter-related cycling clothing I own. Over the course of the preceding week, the forecast had changed from delightful (70's and sunny) to abysmal (40's and 100% chance of rain), and I was filled with masochistic anticipation, confident that lousy conditions would be a competitive advantage for me. I certainly had the dubious benefit of a winter full of sub-ideal ride weather.

I'd learned a lot on those rides and felt confident in my ability to dress for the expected conditions. The first half of the race was forecast to be chilly and rainy, the temperature dropping into the low 30's that night. With that in mind, I packed a huge bag of cold-weather gear to leave with Lori, who was crewing for us. It didn't take long to get everything ready, and we were all in bed early enough to get nearly 8 hours of sleep.

Rain fell overnight, and we woke to ominously gray skies. After a quick hotel breakfast, we returned to the room to gear up. I started with a long-sleeved wool base layer under my jersey and a light wind jacket on top. I wore my regular Momentum shorts with knee warmers and thin wool socks under my traditional pink argyle. After some indecision, I opted to wear my regular bike shoes and send my boots to the midpoint. A cycling cap, fleece hat, and full-fingered wind gloves completed the ensemble.

My nutritional plan for the day was simple: two 500-calorie bottles of Perpetuem per leg, which should be enough for the four hours I expected each 52-mile segment to take, supplemented by a couple of candy bars for extra calories in case things didn't go as planned. Lori saved my ass before we even got into the car when she grabbed my forgotten bottles from the refrigerator as we were leaving.


We lined up in the middle of the pack, further back than last year with Mickey but further up than makes me comfortable. I'm still not used to riding in a huge group of bikes, so it makes me really nervous. Bobby gave a rousing talk, ending things on a high note:
"Push yourself to the very limit, push yourself past the point that you think is the end, because it's not.
The end has no end. You will only be 40% done when you think you're 100% done.
Dig, run, walk, ride, DO it today. That is hashtag #unlearnpavement."
For the second Saturday in a row, I stood on the start line with zero nerves and quiet confidence. I used to show up at every race wondering what the hell I was doing there, but I felt ready for whatever Land Run had to dish out. A cannon blast ushered us onto the course, and the race was on.

The first miles were smooth and fast. I started more aggressively than usual, hoping to make time while the roads were good. Riding solo, I focused on grabbing the wheels of people ahead of me instead of my normal habit of just pedaling along in my own little world.

So clean, so early
Photo credit: Gravel Guru
Though disappointed by the favorable conditions I enjoyed the smooth sailing and comfortable temperatures. I caught up with some of my Momentum teammates around mile 20; Jeff gave me a dirty look when I celebrated, "What great riding weather!", but I meant it. I hate being hot on the bike. Shortly thereafter, it began to sprinkle and then rain in earnest. Initially I stuck with my light jacket, which was quickly soaked. As the downpour continued, I eventually pulled over to put on my rain jacket. Almost instantly the rain slowed to a drizzle.

Unlike last year, where the line between walking and carrying your bike was pretty obvious -- and, just in case you weren't paying attention, littered with racers who'd pushed that line and were now walking slack-chained bikes towards a SAG pickup -- it was a little more hazy this year. The day's rain initially left the roads a rideable mud soup that mostly rolled right off the bikes. Just a bit further, however, conditions forced some walking.

Photo credit: 241 Photography

I don't know how much hike-a-bike we did in the first half. It seemed pretty minimal, and I was glad. Between the additional mud accumulated on my bike and my frame bag, I struggled a bit to get comfortable carrying the bike. It felt really heavy, and while the frame bag made a nice cushion for my back, it also limited my hand positions. Still, everyone was in a similar situation, and knowing that hike-a-bike is my strength I made the best of it and plowed ahead, chatting with other racers as we walked.

Before long I was back on the bike and cruising along sloppy roads towards Buckhorn Cattle Company, which had been my biggest let-down of the pre-race meeting. When Bobby announced, "Thanks to Buckhorn Cattle Company, at mile 46 we'll...," my mind had immediately jumped to an aid station with hot, delicious, hamburgers. Then he continued, "...turn onto their land."
This crushing disappointment aside, the cattle company road was wide, dry gravel and easy going. When I spotted an aid station off to the side I skipped it without even needing to ask myself "what would Mickey do?" A little later came a cool off-road section that was super fun until it wasn't.

Photo credit: 241 Photography

My rear brake hadn't been particularly confidence-inspiring all day and now the front one was barely slowing me down. I've come a long way from the girl who was afraid to top 20 mph on a downhill, but I'm still a big, big fan of my brakes and being unable to stop was scary. I turned onto a rocky downhill with a sharp left turn at the bottom and couldn't slow down. Not confident in my ability to negotiate the turn at speed, I rolled off to the side of the road dragging my foot, finally coming to a stop flat on my back.

I wasn't hurt, but the fall shook my confidence. Afraid to build up more speed than my brakes could handle, I soft-pedaled the rest of the way to Guthrie, finding Lori, Janie, and Travis at the timing mat. I hit the midpoint in about 4:25, a little more than 30 minutes faster than last year but after much less hike-a-bike.

Halfway done or all done?
I described my brake woes and got into dry clothes. I changed into thicker wool socks and my Fasterkatts, having opted to wear my more comfortable bike shoes for the anticipated first leg hike-a-bike. I kept my wool base layer but put on a dry team jersey and a fleece jacket, topping it all with my rain jacket. I also switched to a buff over my ears, a thicker fleece hat, and traded my wind gloves for lobster gloves. I was set for the dropping temperatures.

Meanwhile, Lori took my bike to the Mulready's tent where a bike mechanic was supporting their riders. Even though they didn't know me, they rinsed off my bike and threw it up in the stand. The back brakes were toast, but he adjusted the front ones. When I tried it out, though, I couldn't even stop on the sidewalk. There was no way they'd help me out on the course.

I had another 52 miles to ride and no brakes. I felt good, I was riding well, but my race was done. I mean...right?...you can't ride 52 miles without brakes.

But I really, really didn't want to quit, and it wasn't like my bike was unrideable. Doing the opposite math that I normally do on a long ride when I'm getting tired, I did some rough estimating: it's probably a third flat, a third uphill, and a third downhill. I can just walk all the downhills. I didn't carry that math further to the fact that a third of 52 is still 17ish miles of walking my bike or the fact that in the second half of the race I was likely to be walking some uphills as well. I almost cried when Emma prompted, "You're going back out, right?" but her question sealed the deal.

I put new bottles of Perpetuem onto the bike, filled another bottle with the remainder of the heavenly hot chocolate/coffee mixture Lori had brought me, and walked apprehensively down the hill leading back to the course. There I passed Josh Schrock, manning SAG for the Dirty Dog Race Pack crew, and told him about my brake problem. He immediately offered to look at my bike, and while he too was unable to do anything about the rear one, he got the front brake working again. I pedaled cautiously away, rejoicing in my renewed stopping power but afraid to completely trust it.

The second half of the course was much emptier than the first as attrition had taken a steep toll on race numbers, but I still got a chance to ride with Kevin and Randy for a little while. They were planning on sticking together to the end, but I figured I wouldn't be able to keep up. About 12 miles into leg 2, my front brake gave it up, and I immediately lost touch with the guys when I was afraid to ride down the next hill.

While I was disappointed to lose my company, it was easier mentally than trying to keep up while constantly terrified of not being able to stop when necessary. The next miles were a haze of fear as I nervously approached every rise, peering over it to see if I was comfortable riding what came next. If the downhill looked rideable and led into a long flat or uphill, I usually rode it, but if it led into any kind of turn or extended downhill with limited sight lines, I walked.

"Why are you walking?" passing racers would ask.

"I don't have any brakes," I'd explain.

"Neither do I," they'd call as they sped away. Jim, Renee, and Jim Phillips all passed me walking, and I pushed aside my frustration with my situation and my stupid fear and stayed focused on the finish line. Josh had warned me of some hike-a-bike around mile 75, so we'd all be in the same situation at that point.

Somewhere past the 70-mile mark I hit a section of unrideable mud. I definitely pushed my luck riding this year, but with my inability to ride downhill I tried to maximize my time on the bike. This was fine until I was sagging under the weight of my mud-laden bike. Jim Phillips was mired in this section, too, standing by his bike. He'd run the 50K run the day before and been riding singlespeed after breaking his rear derailleur during the first half. He looked exhausted. "You don't want to quit," I told him.

"No, I don't," he sighed, and started walking. Trying to distract him from how lousy he felt, I started chatting about mutual friends and his new fork and what kind of tweets thin-skinned Mother Nature would put out in response to his taunting. We separated when the course got more rideable, then met back up during the next hike-a-bike, then separated again when he stopped to scrape mud from his bike.

There was a surprise aid station near the 80-mile mark. I didn't really need anything but a break from pushing my bike, so I grabbed a pickle and a sprite and commiserated with Jim Smith and Renee, who'd beaten me there. He looked shelled from lugging his fat bike through the hike a bike, and they said something about another 13 miles on this road before a turn. "It can't all be this bad," I told them. "There's probably pavement in another mile or two. Let's go."

Renee and I started off, but Jim was on the fence. "Don't you quit," I urged, but when we left I expected we'd soon see his bike ride by on one of the SAG jeeps rolling in and out of the aid station like it was a MASH unit. One arrived just as we were leaving. "OK," I heard a volunteer ask the waiting racers, "Who's the coldest?"

I alternated between carrying my bike and rolling it along the grassy edge of the road when possible. John came riding past with Jim in his wake, having convinced him to keep going, and after a quick hug from my buddy (also without brakes but far braver than I was) they all rode away.

Even at my slow pace I was never alone, accompanied by passing racers and a steady stream of jeeps. This must be what it feels like to see the cavalry come in, I mused. Each driver would slow and give me a thumbs up, providing a steady combination of reassurance (someone will be here to help me if I need it) and temptation (the Jeep is right there, wave it down and this could all be over right now).

The last 24 miles dragged on as dusk fell. Once I needed my light the lack of long-range vision on downhills multiplied my fear. I'd watch the taillights of riders ahead of me to gauge how long and straight the hills were and whether the road turned back up. My heels developed blisters from so much walking in boots, and I began to take a few more chances, praying desperately as I flew downhill, "Please let there be an uphill, please let there be an uphill..."

If you ask me what's the worst that can happen, I'm already picturing it in my head, so every blind downhill was accompanied by visions of crashes and head injuries and broken bones. The most frustrating thing was that I wouldn't have thought twice about riding any of these hills -- likely without touching my brakes -- had I known I could stop if necessary. Absent that ability, I was cloaked in fear, and towards the end of the long day a random nice comment was enough to leave me crying for the next 20 minutes. "I will never, ever come back to Oklahoma. Ever."

I rationed peeks at the Garmin. I only looked at mileage, knowing the time and pace data would be depressing; even so, the math was almost heartbreaking. 24 miles left; if I'm going 10 mph that's just over 2 hours...am I even going 10 mph? At 7 mph that's just over 3 hours...how fast do I walk my bike? At 6 mph that's...oh, no, no more math!

I inched closer to the finish line, meeting another Kate from the St. Louis area with 3 kids along the way, and her company was a bright spot in that last slog. Thankfully the course flattened out enough that I was comfortable riding more, and suddenly I was back on pavement heading into Stillwater. Instead of racing through those last easy miles I was stuck soft-pedaling, afraid my inability to stop would dump me into a busy intersection at the wrong time; no way was I was riding all those miles only to be hit by a car right before the finish line.

Stoic as ever at the finish line. ;-)
Photo credit; Emma Gossett
I made a couple of wrong turns in the last few blocks, but after 13 hours on the course a line of Land Run luminaries led me home. I rolled into that legendary Bobby Wintle hug, and while he might be the high priest of gravel it was me who was suddenly ready to grant absolution. Mother Nature and her cold rain, Oklahoma and its sticky red clay, my useless brakes, Bobby and his brutal course, all forgiven in the finish line jubilation.

According to the Land Run website, 850 people started and 165 finished.  It was probably my toughest day ever on the bike, but I successfully managed the things I could control and dealt with the things I couldn't. I wish I could have handled my no-brake situation with more grace and courage, but that regret isn't enough to taint how proud I am of this hard won finish. I feel like I've been through the fire and come out stronger. Huge thanks to my wonderful friends for crewing for me and waiting for me, and of course thanks to Bobby, Crystal, and all of their volunteers. They put on a first class event, and already my "never again" has shifted towards "next year".

Want more?

Jim's report
Robby's report
Neil Chanter's Roadie's perspective 
The Gravel Cyclist report