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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Coast to Coast 2018

The distance between 200 and 212 miles can't be quantified by simple mathematics. Subtraction yields an answer of 12, but an adequate understanding of the difference requires more complicated calculations.  You'll need some kind of formula, maybe, where each mile is accompanied by a matching exponent. The first mile (11 ) would just be one mile. Two "bonus" miles (22 ) feel more like four -- anybody can ride four miles --  but by the time you get to mile 88 it might as well be an infinity sign because the race is never going to end.



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On our way!
Eric, Mickey, my son Daniel (our crew), and I headed to Michigan this past Mother's Day weekend for the inaugural Coast to Coast Gravel Grinder, a 212-mile race starting at Lake Huron on Michigan's eastern coast and finishing across the state at Lake Michigan. If successful, it would be Eric's first 200-mile finish, Mickey's second, and my third.

"Oh, are you crewing for the boys?" I was asked when the four of us pulled up in a Jeep loaded with only three bikes. 

"Actually," Mickey responded, "She has the most experience of any of us."

While that's true, my 200(ish) mile race history is a checkered one. I've finished Dirty Kanza twice but have DNFed the distance four times, the last attempt being 2016's Motherlode. Still, in the intervening years I've twice battled through the 150-mile version of Sarah Cooper's Spotted Horse, a race that efficiently fits all of DK's brutality into 50 fewer miles.

The experiences have taught me a lot: fueling and hydration, pacing, and managing efficient stops. I've felt the magnetic pull of the finish line once you reach mile 150. Most importantly, though, I remember how shitty quitting feels the next day and that about 80% of finishing is just not quitting. I needed all those lessons in Michigan, because my race prep was not stellar.

I love spring races because there's a decent chance of cool weather, but spring is a tough time for me to fit in training. Far busier people make it happen; the upshot is that, while I didn't want to skip  Jacob's games to train, I also wasn't willing to get up early enough to do both. When I could ride, I usually chose my new mountain bike instead of gravel. In the end, the bulk of my training miles were on the (flat) Katy Trail or the (flat and mostly paved) MCT trails. I had just one ride over 100 miles, and it too was largely paved.

Like I said, not stellar, but that's ok because, as 200-milers go, Coast to Coast sounded...easy. An estimated 5,000ish feet of climbing is just over half of what the nearby Death By Gravel route dishes out in on 93 miles (have I ridden that route this year? Nope). It's about half of Spotted Horse and Dirty Kanza's climbing (have I ridden those this year? Nope). Even a flat gravel ultra is a challenge, but racing Coast to Coast seemed less daunting than spending the night in our Bates Motel-esque pre-race lodging.

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My finger hovered over that "reserve" button for a long time before I finally accepted that there really were no other close options just a week before the race.
To be fair, the motel was more adequate than my training, and we all survived the stay, rising early Saturday morning to hit the start line in advance of the sunrise start. We geared up and dipped our wheels into Lake Huron, looking forward to the sight of Lake Michigan once we'd crossed the state and arrived at its western coast.

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Gorgeous start to the day as we readied our bikes and I narrowly missed having my foot smashed by the bike rack when Daniel accidentally dropped it.
Leg 1: 56 miles; cutoff time 11:30 a.m.
Gear: long-sleeved wool base layer, bib shorts + team jersey, knee warmers, wool crew socks, light wind jacket, full-finger Handup gloves, fleece hat.

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Getting ready for the start.
The starting temperature was somewhere in the high 30's, just a bit different from the high 80's we'd been suffering at home, with an uncharacteristically eastern wind. At 6:12 a.m. around 300 bikes followed Matt Acker, one of the race directors, on the neutral start. A mile or so later he peeled off, and the fast people shot away. I kept a more modest pace, pushing here and there to catch up with other people so I wasn't just dangling off the back alone. We'd been warned the previous day of big, chunky gravel in the first 25 miles, but it failed to materialize. Michigan "gravel" seems to be about 90% sand, and early on I enjoyed the relatively hard-packed surface if not the rural scenery.

If I had to distill the first leg into one feeling, it would be "not impressed". I hadn't driven ten hours to ride past the same stuff I could see at home. If you allowed me one additional feeling, it would be "I'm going to pee my pants if I don't find an inconspicuous spot to use the bathroom!" Between the frequent houses and decided lack of foliage behind which to shelter, it took me almost 40 miles to find a spot where I was comfortable stopping. On the plus side, by that point I had less than 20 miles to the first checkpoint.

Not long after that long-awaited bathroom stop, I started feeling super sleepy. It was ridiculous so early in a race, but I fought the sensation until I was passed by three guys and attached myself to their back wheels. The company chased the sleep monster away, and their presence gave me a shot of motivation that carried me into checkpoint 1 right around 10 a.m., 1.5 hours ahead of the cut-off.

For all my ambivalence about the scenery, that first leg had been a quick, gentle introduction to the race, and I felt great. I called my number to the volunteers and found my son Daniel, who was crewing for Eric, Mickey, and me. The guys had already been through, and he quickly traded my empty Perpetuem bottles for full ones while I grabbed more food out of my CP1 bag and shed my jacket, then rode away within a couple of minutes. I made it maybe .10 mile before realizing I'd failed to refill my frame bag bladder with water. I briefly considered going on, then remembered running out of water in Kansas and turned back.

CP1: in 10:00 a.m., out 10:10 a.m.
Total miles: 56.

Leg 2: 48 miles, 4:24 p.m. cutoff
Gear: long-sleeved wool base layer, bib shorts + team jersey, knee warmers, wool crew socks,  full-finger Handup gloves, fleece hat.

I think the temperature had only made it into the high 50's by the first checkpoint, but it was warm enough to ditch my jacket. I followed a couple of guys out of town and chatted with them until the road took an upward turn and my lack of hill training became evident. It turns out that, while 5,000 (or, as my Garmin later suggested, 6700) feet of climbing isn't all that much over 212 miles, it feels like significantly more when squeezed into the middle 80 miles of a 212 mile race.

The unwelcome hills were accompanied by much improved scenery, though, and our first turn onto forest roads. These had a mixture of big mud holes and wide, loose sandy patches but were overall very rideable, albeit at a very slow pace -- for me. Several other riders cruised by as I crept through the sand, worried about falling or...something. My default seems to be excessive caution rather than a "go for it" spirit, a tendency likely exacerbated by my training avoidance of anything that makes me nervous. Note to next year's Coast to Coast racers: get comfortable with sand, because you're going to experience a wide variety of it.

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The day kept getting warmer, and finally I took advantage of a sand-induced hill walk to take off the hat I'd been regretting for the whole leg. A couple on a tandem pushed their bike by as I got ready to start again, and we commiserated about the hills and deep sand before they took off. Even the packed roads were a challenge, leg vampires that sucked life away with each pedal stroke.

One thing I noticed during the race was how little trash littered the roads, and almost all of the trash I saw was race-related - energy food wrappers and such. That was pretty disappointing. Around mile 95 a car approached me. People often stop to ask about races -- where are you going, where did you start, how long have you been riding -- but this driver wanted to complain about racers throwing trash on the ground and warned me to tell my "buddies" that if the guy up the road saw one more person litter near his property he was going to "knock them off their bike". I apologized, promised to pass on their complaints, and rode off again, telling the volunteers at the next CP.

I still felt good when I hit CP2, excited to have increased my time cushion to almost 2.5 hours but definitely less peppy than the last time I'd seen Daniel. I ate half of a ham sandwich on my way to the bathroom, then looked in dismay at the sign pointing to bathrooms in two directions. I stood there, unable to make a decision, until a woman took pity on my and said, "It's that way."

Back at the Jeep, I swapped out my wool base layer for a thin one, shoveled in a rice cake (thanks, Andrea!), made sure Daniel had switched out my bottles and filled my water, and took off with visions of 16-hour finishes dancing in my head.

Silly girl...

CP2: in 2:00 p.m., out 2:15 p.m.
Total miles: 104.8

Leg 3: 61 miles, 10:30 p.m. cutoff

The first part of this leg is a blur. I was struggling again with sleepiness when the tandem couple from leg 2 rode by with another guy. I sped up enough to catch them and then spent the majority of the leg tagging along with them. If they stopped, I stopped, despite Mickey's voice in the back of my head yelling at me. He'd warned me before the race, "Don't get caught up in sticking with someone else and feeling like you have to wait on them. Ride your own race."

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My pictures suck. It was so much prettier in person.
Just like in the past, though, I made the calculation that I was better off with company. True, we were stopping more than what I probably would have stopped, but that was offset by the fact that a) their presence kept me awake and b) I was moving much faster with them than alone. Well, until I wasn't.

Gradually I began falling further behind. I'd catch up to where they were waiting for me, urge them to go ahead without me, and gratefully accept their refusal to do so. Kristy, Matt, and Rick were unfailingly positive and encouraging, definitely a bright spot in my day.

We rode some beautiful forest roads. Some were fast and flowy, some had punchy climbs and deep sand. Though I'm not a fan of the sand, these roads were exactly what I'd come to Michigan to ride and I loved this section of the race. As we wound our way above the Pine River, two riders began to catch up with us, and I was happy to see my first leg buddies Kevin and Jim. "Only 9 miles to the checkpoint!" one of them celebrated.

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Super pretty spot above the Pine River. The two guys in back were the ones I followed into CP1, and the tandem duo and photographer really saved my leg 3 with their company.
I keep my Garmin set to display only the map, so I was delighted to hear this. I was less thrilled to scroll to the mileage screen, compare it to the cheat sheet taped to my aerobar, and realize we actually had 15 miles to go. The others pulled ahead as we closed in on the checkpoint, and I straggled in some time after them at 8:30. My flagging pace had lost 30 minutes of my cushion, but I was still 2 hours ahead of the cutoff.

I changed clothes in the store bathroom and then had a short talk with some guys who first asked me if the race was all on paved roads and then assured me that the last leg was entirely singletrack. The disconnect between their ignorance of the majority of the race and alleged knowledge of the end didn't hit me at the time; I just felt a renewed urgency to get moving in case this last leg took me even longer than I'd anticipated.

Daniel had everything taken care of by the time I returned to the Jeep, so I climbed back on the bike with all the excitement of a death row inmate on his final walk.

CP3: in 8:30 p.m., out 8:50 p.m.
Total miles: 165.8

Leg 4: 46.5 miles, 3:12 a.m. cutoff

Daniel caught me before I left the parking lot with an update. Mickey had finished around the time I made it to CP3 and had texted some additional information: "the Chaise is at mile 175, the sand ends at mile 185, and the last 7 miles are paved." I lived for these numbers for the rest of the race.

The night cooled off as the sun began to set. I had switched back to my wool base layer, put on my hat and jacket, and changed from bibs to regular bike shorts so that I wouldn't have to take off clothes in the cold any time I stopped to use the bathroom. I immediately regretted the change in shorts and had to stop on the first forest road to take off the jacket, which was way too warm once in the shelter of the trees.

The first ten miles were amazing. I rode between towering trees illuminated by just my light. I felt a moment of pity for all those fast people who'd missed riding through the darkness.  The miles ticked away and I began seeing teaser signs for Salsa's Chase the Chaise promotion. Other than finishing the race, my one goal for the day had been to make it to the chaise. I'd been afraid they would leave once it got dark, but there it was in all its red velvet glory. "You're still here!" I celebrated, almost giddy with delight.

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I had intentions of some cute or fun pose, but I was so thrilled they were still there that I just flopped onto the chaise, leaned back, and smiled my biggest smile.
The next ten miles were not amazing. I loved riding the doubletrack in the dark but hated the sand with a growing passion. It got to the point that I climbed off my bike any time I hit a soft patch, scowling at the ground as I pushed my bike. Though there were no turns to have missed, my Garmin started chiming "off course" on a regular basis. Thankfully the race directors had flagged any tricky intersections, so the warnings only caused stress and not full-blown panic.

I had one terrifying moment as I rode downhill, looking at the map on my Garmin and confused by the next turn, realizing with horror that I was riding into a T intersection only as a truck swerved to miss me. It was only by the grace of God and that driver's quick reflexes that I wasn't hit, and it would have been entirely my fault. I wasn't trying to beat the truck; my fatigue-addled brain just couldn't make sense of the road and map.

The next twenty miles were awful. Sleepiness hit me like a hammer, and I couldn't keep my eyes open, no matter how many caffeinated gels or chocolate-covered espresso beans I ate. I'd spend a couple miles swerving on the road as my eyelids kept dropping, then give in and pull over to rest my head on my handlebars. I kept thinking if I could just nap for a minute or two maybe I could recharge and finish, but that never worked out. Either I'd doze off and then jerk awake as I lost my balance, or well-intentioned racers would ride by and call out: "You good?" I'd get back on the bike and repeat the process every mile or two, ever so slowly chipping away at the remaining miles.

Rider after rider passed me during this time. It was so frustrating. The end of every long bike race I've done has been excruciating: chafing, neck and back pain, numb hands, empty legs. This time I felt basically fine, just sleepy. So sleepy. Eventually I discovered that slapping myself in the face -- hard -- helped. I wasn't moving fast, but I no longer had to keep stopping.

Two girls on fat bikes passed me, and this time I made an effort to catch up. Company had helped all day long; maybe it could get me through the last miles. I tried and failed to strike up a conversation, so I hung grimly behind them and kept slapping myself periodically to stay awake. When we reached the long-awaited pavement, I stopped briefly to text Daniel and the guys, then chased down the girls again.

Those last miles flew by, and at last I rode into the parking lot at Stearns Park, where the sandy finisher's chute was a fitting, if annoying, end to the race. I cautiously picked my way through the least possible sand, finally crossing the finish line at 1:35 a.m. Despite being done for hours, the guys were all there. It was too dark to see Lake Michigan, and there was no ceremonial dipping of my wheel. I just wanted to load up, get clean, and go to bed. It certainly didn't feel like a triumphant finish, more like I'd been clinging for dear life for 19 hours and could finally let go.

Finish: 1:35 a.m.
Total miles: 212.3
Total time: 19 hours, 26 minutes

Gear: I rode my trusty Airborne Delta CX with Panaracer GravelKing SKs (700x43 on the front and 700x38 on the back). Probably not the ideal setup, but it did the trick.

Nutrition: Each leg: two ~400 calorie bottles of Perpetuem (I prefer Roctane drink mix but put off ordering until it was too late...story of my life), two rice cakes (one before and one in the middle of the leg to give me something to look forward to), and whatever else sounded good from my feed bag. I'd brought a few candy bars, some Glukos chews, and Gu roctane gels. I also took 1-2 Enduralyte capsules per hour. At the checkpoints I usually had something Daniel had grabbed, one time half of a ham sandwich, a couple other times Gardetto's snack mix.

Crew/checkpoints: Between having a first-timer crewing for me and knowing that I get pretty foggy towards the end of a race, it was important for me to be organized ahead of time. I had gallon-sized baggies for each checkpoint filled with everything I needed: drink mix, food, a spare external battery if I needed it later in the race (I didn't), my headlamp in the CP3 baggie (front bike light was mandatory gear, but I like to have plenty of light). Since the weather can be unpredictable, I left an assortment of bad weather gear in the Jeep.

I also wrote out instructions for Daniel, the most important being "Be quick, positive, and matter-of-fact. No matter how bad I look, never acknowledge that quitting is a possibility."

As it turned out, he didn't need that advice because I stayed focused on the finish line the whole time. My pre-race expectations of an easy race and my mid-race assertion that it was easier than Dirty Kanza were dead wrong, though. It was just hard in different ways and totally worth the trip. 

Matt and Mark did a fantastic job on a first-year race that I expect will only grow. Logistics were perfect, pre-race communication was impressive, race swag was great, the concept was super fun, and the course was a great mix of scenery and challenge. But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself next year.
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Race swag -- we also got water bottles and nice t-shirts

1 comment:

  1. I always wonder how people don't get super sleepy during these long endurance events! As if the event isn't challenging enough, you have to make decisions and strategize while tired - that sounds terribly hard. I am sure I'd just get lost.

    ReplyDelete