Mountains of Misery, May 30 2010
So, for some comic relief, the team decided to tackle the Mountains of Misery ride at the end of a recovery week. Because nothing says recovery like 103 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing. Unless it is 128 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing. Piece of cake. As long as you’ve made out a living will and notified your likely next of kin.
Actually, this turned out to be a good option for the team as a whole. The long rides on the Sunday were preceded by the Wilderness Ride on the Saturday, a series of shorter routes that allowed people who a) weren’t training for longer events, b) were new to cycling, and/or c) still had their brain stem attached to the rest of their body to tackle a more manageable distance. I did one of the shorter routes (30 miles) on the Saturday to shake out my legs, but mainly to check out the bike, since I’d done the annual replacement of all cables and housings a few days before. The bike was shifting beautifully and humming along with virtually no sound but tires against tarseal; more importantly, nothing obvious fell off, and while I was fairly certain that the same would not be true of myself the next day, I was at least reasonably confident the bike would hold together.
This is acknowledged to be one of the tougher cycling events on the east coast and quite probably in the US (climbs out in the Rockies are longer and higher, but it is the steepness of the climbing in the Blacksburg area that makes it a challenge). This event is, therefore, a pretty good one for endurance athletes in training because you have to be very patient and disciplined. And here’s why:
So, a chance to become more closely acquainted with the mountains around scenic Blacksburg, VA, culminating in a steep 2200 foot climb for the last 3 miles. I was already familiar with the ride having done the 128 mile version last year (which throws in two bonus climbs and some extra mileage after the first steep descent). This year, however, I was concerned about my fitness. Yes, I know I’m training for an Ironman, but by this time last year we had already tackled some 80 and 90 mile rides. We also have a team training camp on the Wisconsin course coming up in two weeks and I didn’t want to completely destroy myself in advance of that. So of the two completely insane options I chose the slightly less insane one.
It is all fun and games until someone throws in a hill climb
Even though the first part of the ride trends uphill it felt gentle. I was fresh, the weather was cool and the scenery was beautiful; there was a lot of morning mist around and the view across the valleys as you rose and fell was inspiring. Plus, there is the fun of being part of a large group of cyclists: watching the teams blast by you, looking at everyone’s jerseys and what they are riding. As always, it was great to see Team Z representing. Most of us seemed to be riding in small bunches; if our bikes didn’t mark us as triathletes our unwillingness to form a pack surely would have! I started out riding with Maggie, Jason, and Lindsay for a while, then moved ahead a bit and caught up with Mike and Alexis.
Funny thing. From last year I remembered all the uphills, but I’d forgotten about the descents and how technical they are. The first one drops pretty steeply into a small town, through a series of switchbacks, a couple of which are really sharp. As I began the descent I flashed back to last year where I had to do it trapped in the middle of a gaggle of riders, none of whom seemed to be able to take and hold a consistent line. This year, fortunately, I was in a smaller group, and riding with a few team mates that I trusted. Which was a good thing. I was re-fitted to my tri bike a couple of weeks ago for a more comfortable position suitable for an Ironman. This put me a lot higher on the bike. That and the fact tri bikes aren’t exactly built to carve turns meant that I couldn’t quite get comfortable and relax into the turns. Still, I made it down without any mishaps. About halfway down the descent was a stark reminder of what a “mishap” might involve. An ambulance and rescue personnel parked at the side of the ride, a bike on its side. . . No one that I spoke to subsequently seemed to know exactly what happened there.
I know that you can waste a lot of time at rest stops on century rides, especially the ones at this event which are without a doubt some of the friendliest, best organized I have ever encountered. There was always plenty of food and drink, and also plenty of ice at later stations, which became a necessity as the temperature climbed into the high 80s and the humidity shot up. So for the first part of the ride I planned to hit only every second one, and this worked well. After my first stop, the number of riders thinned out (partly because the double metric century people had split off by that point), and I found myself riding on my own for much of the next 25 miles, except when I was being passed or, more rarely, passing someone else.
Random Musing 1: Judging by the number of Confederate flags I saw during the ride, there are clearly a lot of people in this part of the country who are a little unclear as to the final outcome of the Civil War, or even that the war is actually over and the South lost. Maybe the North should actually think about putting the matter beyond dispute.
Just before mile 50 I encountered another crash, which was not unexpected since the ambulance had passed me earlier going hell for leather. There was a very tight turn at the bottom of a short, steep drop, and someone had obviously not made it. I came to find out that one of our own riders went down there a short while after I passed through. Thankfully he was uninjured after a spectacular attempt to jump a ditch resulted in an endo into a resident’s front yard.
One thing I did remember from last year was just how beautiful this ride is. So I was determined that I would take try to take it all in and not just blast through it with my head down. The second part of the ride in particular, although it featured a couple of sharp rollers, was mostly through narrow, shaded roads, overlooking a valley with a high ridge beyond it. By this time, however, the sun was out in force, and any time I left the shade I could feel it beating on me.
I caught up to Julie and Alexis just before the Maggie Valley rest stop; Jennifer was already there and we were joined a short time later by Jason. As last year, the salted baked potatoes were wonderful; there were also three little girls draped in beads who were doing the most awesome impression of a hillside full of Tour de France fans, and a woman giving out free neck massages.
Then it was on to the first big climb of the day. The fact that most of the rest stops were spaced about 13 miles apart but there was one only 3 miles further up the road provided some indication of what was in store. The first part of the climb which was exposed to the sun was grim; reaching the forest provided some relief but this was where the road kicked up and in no time at all I was crawling along at 4 miles an hour. I was drenched, and sweat was dripping steadily onto my cue sheet, cyclometer, running all down the bike. However, I was proud of myself. Last year, I walked most of this climb. This year, I rode it all the way up. I was smarter about the turns (staying out of the valley formed at the edge with every switchback) and passed a lot of people walking (which put to rest my nagging worry that it might be faster for me actually to walk the damn thing).
Once at the top I drank all the Heed in sight. When I wasn’t stuffing my face with bananas and anything salty. Once the others had arrived, Jennifer got us all together for a group picture. After the Kodak moment, Jennifer looked at us all and said “Seriously, you guys should think about taking a shower once in a while.” We all laughed, with that “She’s obviously talking about someone other than me” kind of laugh. But then when we got back on our bikes and started down the other side of the mountain I was suddenly aware of this terrible smell. I thought we’d passed something dead for weeks by the side of the road. Then I realized the smell was following me. Then I realized the smell was me. I suddenly felt very sorry for anyone following me down the mountain.
Are we dead yet? Are we dead yet?
After a short, twisty descent, we hit the main road that we’d biked up what seemed like hours ago that morning. Which was probably because it was hours ago. However now, instead of going gently uphill we were bound steadily downward. The bike seemed to jump forward, and within seconds I was up to 40 miles per hour and spinning comfortably. There were a few spits of rain over the next few miles but nothing to disturb the enjoyment of a high speed downhill run.
Random Musing No. 2: I thought us Team Z folks would be the only ones rocking Tri bikes but I saw a surprising number out on the route. I’d talked with a couple of people the previous day who were both training for Ironman Louisville so maybe there were quite a few more. Tri bikes have the reputation of not being able to climb as well as “real” bikes but maybe that’s just more of that conventional wisdom that inhabits the cycling world. It doesn’t matter what bike you have if you don’t have a strong engine. Still, it has always had me wondering. I moved straight to a Tri bike so I’ve never actually owned a modern road bike (although I’ve test-ridden a few). I wonder what it would be like?
One more rest stop and then a nasty surprise. For the most part the double metric course includes the bulk of the century course. However, there was a little lollipop that took us into an isolated valley and that was exclusive to the century route. At first, everything seemed fine. . .nice shady roads, a chuckling stream nearby, all opening into a beautiful valley that felt both enclosed and spacious. Then suddenly we were going 6 mph. Then we were going 5 mph. The false flat gave way to a brief descent then hit us with a terraced climb with some short but steep sections. At one point, when Julie, Jason, Jennifer and I were grinding up one of these climbs (Alexis was proving himself a rockstar climber and had left us behind by this point) Jason called back, “So, Mark, you did this ride last year. And you are doing it again?”
Point taken. I had no response at the time. Partly because I didn’t have any breath to spare. But it would also have taken too long to explain. I completed the 128 miles last year and it took everything I had mentally and physically. I went to a whole different level where my body stopped massively hurting and simply became a numb presence supported above the road on a pile of aluminum and rubber. The ride, however, left me with strangely mixed emotions, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I’d proven that I was physically capable of more than I had thought. At the same time, I felt completely shattered psychologically. I felt proud and successful but also in a way that I can’t fully describe, defeated. So one major goal this year was simply to finish the ride in a better frame of mind. To prove to myself that I was mentally strong enough. That I was strong enough for an Ironman.
Of course, that would all depend on the minor detail that I would actually have to finish the ride first.
You had to be there. On second thought. . .
I pulled away from the others a little on the final climb and caught up with a guy who was wearing a retro wool jersey. With temperatures in the high 80s (and, due to the humidity, a real-feel in the 90s). Obviously the ride wasn’t hard enough for some people. Maybe I should have worn my hair shirt and Bengay laced jockstrap just to fit in.
The climb did eventually come to an end with a spectacular view across the valley, but I was more focused on the signs warning us of the steep grade ahead. The descent was kind of nervy: very fast and treacherous because a) the pavement looked as if a giant had taken a sledgehammer to it, and b) I had a real Nervous Nellie in front of me that I couldn’t get around. You don’t want to be second guessing yourself on a descent like that so I was on my brakes the whole time just trying to stay far enough back from her that I would have a chance to avoid her if (or, as seemed likely, when) she went down.
But we all made it safely to the bottom, rested, then biked some more.
It was by that point becoming apparent that the entire course had been designed by someone with a split personality, one half of which was deeply Puritan. Any pleasure that you might derive from life is a sign of the iniquitous wiles of Satan and must be paid for with immediate pain and suffering. Case in point, after some more–surprise, surprise–climbing we came to this gorgeous stretch which I remembered from last year. It was largely shaded, a river nearby, a road that swayed gently back and forth. . .and a gentle downhill grade that meant that only occasional pedaling was required for several miles. Apart from the beauty around me, it was one of those moments where you could just be one with bike and road, steering only by shifting your weight, just flowing with it. Then you turned a corner, crossed some railroad tracks–carefully, memories of Mary always in my head–and WHAM! It was time to scourge yourself with the Word of the Lord in the form of a steep two mile grade that reduced me to a puddle of sweat before I had gone 200 metres.
The worst thing is that I knew that none of this was as bad as what was to come. My biking companions also knew this, they had looked at the profile, so they knew what it looked like. But from last year, I knew what it felt like.
We hit the second to last rest stop at mile 95. We were all tired. And it was getting hard to concentrate on even little things like changing gears. It seemed to require a huge mental effort to clip in and out of your pedals. More HEED, consumed the last of my endurolytes and whatever else that was salty that I could find, doused myself in cold water. We were just starting to think about riding on when Damon, Andy and a couple of other people doing the double metric rode up. They looked like we felt.
Damon eased himself off his bike and said, “What do you do when you are really, really tired?”
Without thinking–yes, that happens a lot–I said, “You don’t whine about it like a girly-man.” The rest stop erupted in laughter and I was congratulating myself on rendering–perhaps for the first time ever–Damon speechless. But after a pause he said. “OK, but I’m going to need some realistic options.”
We left Damon and crew to re-stock, confident they would soon be passing us again, and embarked on the final push.
What goes up, must come down. Or not.
The final climb sneaks up on you, mainly because it is visually deceptive. It doesn’t look like you are climbing that steeply, but you gradually drop down through your gears and before you know it you are going 5 mph. . .and then you look up and see that the road is now tilting upwards in an alarming fashion. Jason by this point was making the most amazing variety of grunts, groans, and noises that I can’t even pretend to describe. Julie was unfailingly good humored. Jennifer was grim, just getting it done.
I pulled ahead of the others, trying to keep a steady tempo without going into the red zone. I could remember where the next rest stop was (how bad is this climb? There is a rest stop only 1.5 miles from the end) and I was determined to reach it. But I couldn’t. I reached a wide spot in the road, saw the road curve to the left and steepen yet again, and even though I knew we couldn’t be more than 500 metres from the stop, I pulled over, and slumped over my handlebars, gasping and sweating a river. Other riders were pulling over at this point, many were already walking. I had thought that Jason, Jennifer and Julie were right behind me, but when I finally mustered the strength to turn my head, I saw them a little further back. . .all with their bike shoes slung over their bikes, hiking in their socks. Except for Jennifer, who had taken Damon’s pre-race advice and stowed a pair of flip-flops in her bike jersey. I briefly considered mugging her for them.
When they reached me, we all moved our bikes into the shade and slumped onto the ground. I was not feeling well at all. Dizzy. Nauseous. A SAG vehicle pulled up and gave us some extra water. Damon and crew pulled up and instead of powering on as I’d expected them to do, they took a break also. That made me feel a little more manly. Briefly.
The four of us agreed that from this point on, we were walking. We knew that rest stop was close, but we couldn’t will ourselves to get back on the bike. So we hiked it. The people at the rest stop were great. I don’t know how bad we looked, let alone smelled, but they generously offered to hold bikes for us, to get us anything that we wanted. My main concern was to get my core temperature down, so I packed my jersey with ice, front and back. More liquid, more salt. We started walking.
At which point–and I’m still not even sure why–I said to the others, “You know, I’m going to give this one more go. I probably won’t make it much beyond that corner up ahead.” And I got back on the bike to lots of encouragement from the others. Sure enough, as I neared the corner, I felt like crap. Or rather, since I already felt like crap, like crap that had been baking for three days on a desert road. But as my brain was starting to tell me “Get off. Get off now.” I heard “Team Z.” It was difficult to actually process stuff by that point, so I assumed it was some random spectator who had already seen a few of us go by. I made it round the corner and there was Ed, Dennis, Joe, beers and cameras in hand, butts comfortably parked in chairs, cheering me on. It was the best of times and the worst of times. It was great to see them, a huge lift to my spirits. On the other hand, there was no way I could get off my bike in front of them. I pressed on, just trying to keep the pedals going round. Ed was yelling out “You got this! The worst part is over!” I couldn’t form words, but my brain was thinking, “Ed, I love you to death, but you are so full of shit!” The next bit was worse. Worse than anything.
Instead of walking, however, I cycled for several hundred metres and then stopped to let my HR go down. I was trying not to look at my cyclometer. Normally it shows hundredths of a mile, but once your mileage gets into triple digits you lose that. So as far as my cyclometer was concerned, I was making no progress. I would be stuck on 101.2 for ever it seemed. I walked one really steep turn, briefly, but then at the next turn I caught sight of people wearing Team Z green. Crap. Pride dictated that I had to get back on the bike. I crawled past them, trying to manage a smile but succeeding only in frightening several small children in the vicinity. My legs were ready to fall off. I didn’t realize it was possible to pedal this slowly and still stay upright. Time to get off again. . .except that there are more Team Z people! Gods! Why do you torment me thus!
And then, incredibly, I could see the finish cones at the end of a long straight, uphill section. I gritted me teeth, and stared at the road two feet in front of my wheel. It was all a blur at that point, but I remember a woman standing at the beginning of the coned lane with a sign that said “Slow.” Less a directive, more of a commentary, I guess. There were people from Team Z cheering. I saw Misha who suddenly turned into one of those Tour de France nutcases you see running alongside the cyclists on the climb. But it got me over the finish line. And then someone was taking my bike from me, walking me over to get the finisher’s shirt, pointing out where the food and drink was. I looked up and recognized Mike. Wait. Hadn’t he done this ride? Why in hell was he looking so perky and rested? Just how long had he been up here?
I was staggery, exhausted, didn’t feel like eating anything at all. . .but then I caught sight of a packet of Cheetohs. Ah. . .mana from Heaven.
Random Musing No. 3: One of the greatest pleasures of a long bike ride is going commando afterwards. After a day in the saddle I don’t want anything cupping my nuts. Well, almost nothing.
Total time: 9:41:56. Actual time in the saddle was a hair under 8 hours. I owe a huge debt of thanks to the people I rode with for most of the day: Jason, Jennifer, and Julie. They were great companions, and even though we groused and complained we were never not going to get it done. And thanks also to the Zers who put in a long afternoon cheering for everyone, especially Misha, Cathy, Debbie, and Bibiana. Hearing your voices at the end meant more than you know.
In the wake of the ride I have been, not unsurprisingly, massively tired and a little drained. Sleeping well, feeling pretty good, but without much at all when I get back on the bike. Still, mission accomplished. I don’t feel wiped and mentally I’m in a pretty good place. I’m already thinking about what I would do differently next year.
OK, maybe that’s not everyone’s definition of being in a good place!