TAT CN Header

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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled
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.

Untitled
"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.

Untitled
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

TA1

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