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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.

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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.

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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."
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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.

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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.

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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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

February recap

Books read: 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe  - A childhood favorite of mine, this is the first time I've read it to one of my first grade classes. While it hasn't been quite as fun an experience to read it to them as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, Swiss Family Robinson, or The Indian in the Cupboard, I've been amazed by the great predictions and connections they've made.

No books for myself. Sad, sad, but mostly a function of really full weekends and evenings.

New recipes: 

Ummmm...I kind of defaulted to my old reliables this month instead of meal prep. I think we were busy every single weekend, and if I was home on a Sunday evening it was mostly enough to throw my dirty clothes in the wash and go to bed.

Goals: This year I set several training goals for myself: 5000 miles (or 500 hours, since mountain biking for me yields way fewer miles for the time) on the bike, 500 miles on foot (running/walking/hiking/etc.), 52 hours of yoga, and 30 hours of strength training. Thank goodness for youtube; I can never manage to commit to a class, but I can usually fit in a 10+ minute yoga video.

Feb. foot miles 49.2
Feb. strength training 2:48
Feb. yoga 2:02
Feb. bike miles 263
Feb. volleyball hours: 7:30

Races/events:

  • 2/19/17 Meramec O meet (SLOC orienteering meet). Cleared the course, felt pretty darn good, and other than a 20ish minute mistake had a clean run.

General fun:
  • 2/4 Monster Jam - a first for me and a fun night with Jeff and Jacob

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Female driver. :)
  • 2/5 A fast (for me) pre-Super Bowl loop of the Berryman trail, getting me home just in time to make it to the party before kick-off and fall asleep before the half-time show.
Berryman
Gorgeous day. SO much fun.
  • 2/11 A sluggish (even for me) 84 miles of gravel. Not a good day, but it made me feel slightly better to not be going into Land Run on a long ride of 50 miles.
  • 2/12 Family hike at Marquette Park. Largely unwilling 13 year old made this super fun.
  • 2/18 Family/friend hike in Ste. Genevieve, MO. We'd switched plans to avoid hiking the Shawnee in the rain, only to get rained on in Missouri. 
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Why our hikes are long on time but short on miles. I'm not complaining; I'm happy just to be outside.
  • 2/19 Post-orienteering mountain bike ride at Forest City. Great trails, but with my confidence at an all-time low after smashing my hand into a tree, I spent most of the ride in the cycling equivalent of the fetal position.
Forest City
Ample opportunities for me to take pictures of my bike not being ridden.
  • 2/20 Much more fun MTB ride at Indian Camp Creek Park. :)
  • 2/25 Much better 75 mile gravel ride, despite the seasonable (much colder than we've gotten used to this "winter") weather and wind.
Hawk point
20 mph wind out of WNW. That first 40 miles was rough.
  • 2/26 Short family hike

What's up for March:  The LBL Challenge 24 hour in Kentucky on March 4, Land Run 100 mile gravel race on March 11, and tentatively the Beaumont O-meet on March 18. With Land Run out of the way, I'm hoping to get in way more mountain biking, but Tour of Hermann (another gravel race) looms in April, so it won't be all play.