Northern Exposure 400K
May 3-4 2014
21 hours and 36 minutes
My first 400k ride was definitely a sobering experience. In fact, I have sworn never to drink again.
And if you believe that, then you’ll also believe that a bunch of disgruntled Australian cricket fans shot JFK. (Oops. Now watch the interwebs go wild with that one).
It was certainly a tough physical test and left me in more pain than either of the two Ironmans I’ve done. There, I could move around happily, albeit slowly, the next day. The day after this ride all I could do was recline helplessly on my chaise while Mary peeled me grapes. Or maybe I was still hallucinating by that point. But while I definitely felt fatigued during that ride it wasn’t physically that bad during the ride itself. Mentally, however, was an entirely different deal. That is, after all, where much of the challenge of these longer rides lies. So learned a lot of valuable mental lessons, and also continued to tweak my equipment, control routines, and the like.
The end result, however, is that I don’t really have a coherent narrative version of this event. Once again I rode with Damon and he managed to keep his mental composure in order to compose a first-rate account of our ride. I on the other hand, am left with scattered impressions only. So here they are, mostly verbal, some pictorial.
They Were right all along
No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. I’d been feeling pretty good after lunch at somewhere around the mile 108 mark, and I’d planned to try and ride the next 80 or so miles to our planned dinner break with only a brief water stop at the next control point (130 or so). Damon also thought that this was a good plan and that we should make good time. But, as not infrequently happens, the ride had other plans. There were hills. There was weather. There was my arse.
So we found ourselves taking a quick break at a Getty Mart in Boiling Springs, PA. I needed Coke and V8. Not together, but in such rapid succession that it probably made no difference.
The clerk behind the counter was jovial and helpful, guiding me to the salted nuts section that I’d already walked past three times without seeing. As I was paying, he took in my salt-encrusted exhaustion and realized he’d seen a similar type of disreputable individual already. “A few of you guys were through here earlier,” he noted. Then added, “You are way behind.” Perhaps a little defensively (maybe a lot defensively, now that I think about it) I said that no, by my reckoning I was somewhere in the middle of the bunch and he would probably see quite a few more riders coming through over the next few hours.
He smiled, and nodded, then said. “Anyway, I think you are all completely insane.”
As a randonneur you get that kind of comment a lot. Typically you smile, and laugh. You take it for what it is, a gesture of admiration. You never, ever, try to pull the “well this is nothing!” kind of routine. But this time I found myself nodding slowly, thinking it through.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, that is definitely true.”
And in that moment I meant it.
Lies, damned lies, and Elevation
There had been a rumor going around that the climbing in this ride was front-loaded. That proved to have the same credibility as the rumor about the Aussies offing JFK (see above). Certainly it looked like that on paper, with a couple of substantial climbs early on as we made our way over Catoctin Mountain and South Mountain and down into Pennsylvania. The total for the ride looked to be about 12,000 feet of climbing and that is what it ended up being for me. But we got to the halfway point of the ride, with the three largest climbs behind us. . .and my altimeter was showing about 6000 feet of climbing. Which raised the disturbing question: where was the rest of it coming from?
There are essentially two ways you can get your climb on during a ride. One is in large and (for me) manageable doses. These are the long climbs which are steep enough to make you work but not steep enough to destroy you. You can settle into a breathing and pedaling rhythm that doesn’t make you sound like an emphysemic and chip away steadily. Then there are are the small and annoying doses of climbing that come at you repeatedly. Individually they don’t seem like much, but they add significant miles to the altitude bank and steadily erode your physical and energy levels. So guess what was waiting for us on the second part of this ride?
If you’ve ridden through Pennsylvania you know there isn’t a single flat spot in the entire state. The normal condition of the roads are that they roll constantly. For us, however, as a special treat, the latter part of the route featured several short, steep, often very steep ascents that stood out on my final elevation map like the sharp sticks in the eye that they in fact were. By the time we had done the last of these, my climbing enthusiasm had evaporated faster than the sweat dripping onto my top tube. After this point, even gentle climbs, such as the ones after dinner, had me cursing up a storm. Below, I’ve included a chart; if you click on it to enlarge you’ll see how it tracks my rapidly deteriorating mental condition throughout the ride.
Riding with Yoda
If Yoda had a talent for putting away vast quantities of food and a tendency to talk to random farm animals along the way. Riding with Damon was again great fun. But it was also educational as well. There are basically two kinds of learners out there. There are people who learn from theory. Then there are people who learn by doing. Then there is me, representing people who can’t count. But also people who learn by doing with a bit of theory mixed in as part of the process. So I’ve spent the last two rides quizzing Damon about various things to do with randonneuring.
Some of the lessons were hard ones. Damon warned me about a psychological slump round the 160-190 mile mark, for example. You are nowhere near done with the ride, and the miles just stretch out ahead of you. In our case the stretch was punctuated by evil spikey hill-type things which made things even worse. And then, to make matters even more even worse, we got hit by a squall coming off one of the climbs. Most riders except for the very fast ones got a piece of this, but how bad a piece depended entirely on where you were on the road. Talking with others after the ride, some only had a few minutes of light showers. We had about half an hour of reasonable rain and then another half hour of off and on drizzle. Furthermore, the storm hit us with a bang. The wind was so strong from the side that even thought I was hurtling down a descent at speed on a bike that weighs as much as a hippo with a deep-fried twinkie addiction, I could feel the bike being blown sideways.
Knowing that there was going to be that low patch didn’t make it any easier, but it did reassure me that it would end. More to the point, the bit that I’d always imagined would be the hardest, turned out to be, well, not easy, but nowhere near as difficult as that middle patch. Because, basically, even though you have 60 miles still to ride you are, relatively, almost home. You start to have the sense that barring a ravaging by wild beasts (see below) you’ll probably get there sooner or later. Just as Damon said.
The Things they Didn’t Carry
I did have one advantage over Damon on this ride. I’m a pack rat. Damon rides light, lighter than pretty much anyone else I’ve seen out on the road. He’s carrying all the basics (lights, food, water, etc.) but not much else. I bought this bike and tricked it out precisely to carry more stuff. I’m still finessing what to take, but generally I carry some spare equipment (cables, batteries, emergency lights, etc.), extra food, etc. Yes, carrying the extra does weigh more. Many is the time I cursed Damon’s retreating back as he on his lightweight bike carrying next to nothing drifted away from me on the climbs. Because those who know both of us know the only reason I wouldn’t normally be climbing at Damon’s pace is a heavier bike (Yeah, right!).
But when we pulled into dinner, we were both wet and cold, Damon much more so than I because the fenders had kept my feet pretty dry from the water that had built up on the roads. I hadn’t anticipated rain. But I had anticipated tired, and sweaty (not so much, actually; the weather forecast never delivered on the fine warm weather we were supposed to have) with my body temperature starting to fall a little. So I’d packed a spare pair of socks (powdered to make getting them on easy), my wool underlay, some anti-bacterial wipes, and some spare chamois creme. All of which got applied during the rest break.
So when we started off from the dinner stop I was in much better shape, especially since it began to rain again. It didn’t take long before Damon, lacking even leg warmers, began to get really cold, and then alarmingly cold. Unfortunately, while I was making steady progress, sufficient to keep me quite warm, it wasn’t fast enough to keep his body temperature up. He announced that he was going to ride hard on toward the end in an attempt to keep his body temp up and I rapidly agreed. To tell the truth I was feeling kind of guilty. We had had a great time riding together, and even though the first part of the ride had been quite sprightly for me, I knew that Damon was slowing down substantially to ride with me. If he hadn’t done so, there’s every chance he would have missed the chilling rain. He would definitely have finished hours before he finally did (and that was over an hour before I finally rolled into the finish).
But it was the first time that my being over-prepared actually was just preparation enough.
going down in a blaze of glory
The upside of most excessively steep climbs is that there is usually a downside. And this ride certainly delivered on that front, providing some rip-roaring descents. On the couple of occasions where I could get the jump on Damon at the top (rare, because I was usually struggling up in the afterburner residue of his wake) the combination of a big heavy guy and a big heavy bike usually helped me stay away as I rocketed through sweeping turns and plunging straights.
But there was the one time when I thought I’d got away only to have Damon tear past me uttering the battle cry familiar to all veteran cyclists.
Aw fuck it, I’ll just have a large
I have always prided myself on being pretty smart about my calorie intake on the bike. It is a legacy of the Ironman training days in part. As such, especially for the first part of the ride, I am taking in nutrition at a steady clip while we are riding, at a rate I know from experience my body can handle. The 300K had taught me, however, that I would need more. But I don’t think I was prepared for just how much more.
When we stopped for dinner, Damon and I essentially never stopped eating. On the porch of the pizza place was a large tin of salted peanuts, barely touched. We assumed that it had been left there by a previous rider (it is pretty common for brevet riders to leave surplus water and food that they have purchased at the control points outside for following riders to use). Or they could have been poisoned and left there by a malcontent local. Didn’t matter, between us we finished the entire can. We then moved on to a large bag of chips, a basket of deep-fried mozzarella sticks, and a large pizza (of which we at all but one slice).
Now you would think that all that food would have some pretty disturbing consequences once you got on the bike again. But while I felt pleasantly full when we set off, all I can tell you is that within about half an hour I was both hungry and tired once again.
Just for giggles, I wanted to see how many calories I’d expended on this ride. All Garmin devices track this for you. Unfortunately, this feature of all Garmin devices is complete shite. Always has been, and it shows no signs of improving. This may be one contributing factor to why some runners and new triathletes are surprised that they don’t lose more weight when training. Because if you ate to replace the calories that a Garmin device suggested you would probably end up larger than the Federal deficit. If you do a bit of googling, most reliable sports nutrition sources estimate that depending on your weight and speed, on the bike (the most calorie-demanding of the three sports in a triathlon, for example), you will expend between 500 and 800 calories per hour. That is still a lot, but it falls well short of the usual Garmin “You ran 5K and burned 2000 calories” kind of estimation.
Strava, bless its computational heart, ignores this part of Garmin data and applies a more commonsense algorithm that seems to somewhat resemble reality. But I still wanted to double check. So I pulled up the calorie calculator on Bicycling Magazine’s site and entered the relevant data. My weight, average speed, and then the number of hours I’d been cycling (21).
The website returned an error page. “Please include a valid number for time.”
Turns out that Bicycling Magazine doesn’t anticipate that any sane person will bike for more than 12 hours. And they may be right. Because it seems that I expended somewhere between 3 and 4 times the recommended daily calorie intake for a healthy US male.
I’m Losing it, Jerry!
This ride taught me a lot about the effects of mental fatigue; hopefully I’ll have a better idea of what to expect next time. One thing I learned is that it manifests itself in a lot of strange ways. Damon and I arrived at our dinner stop cold, hungry and pretty much as tired as you would expect two people who have biked 190 miles to be. So we both perked up when we saw a handwritten sign on the counter advertising chicken and corn soup. In fact, we did more than perk up. Right at that moment, neither of us could imagine any food finer than a bowl of what would under other circumstances be a completely indifferent batch of chicken and corn soup (this was a pizza place, after all). We’ll take two order of that, please!
The older members of the kitchen staff chose the expendable young kid to send out and tell us that the soup was off the menu.
Now Damon is usually a pretty easy-going guy, but there was an edge of hysteria in his voice: “What do you mean?” For one terrible moment I thought I was going to be witness to a scene out of A Clockwork Orange. But then the better angels of his nature prevailed and he simply asked for a cup of coffee.
They didn’t have coffee.
Now, if Damon had snapped right then and engaged in a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence, who could blame him? As an American, it is your constitutional right to expect that you will be able to get a completely ratshit cup of coffee at every eating establishment boasting at least one table.
But the kids’ gods were smiling on him that day and Damon simply asked for cups of boiling water to keep coming at regular intervals.
But my mental state was none the better, and it was causing me to have problems with. . .
Remedial Life Skills
At this particular pizza place, the doors clearly had it in for me. No, not the band, although they and I have had our disagreements in the past. I seemed to have major problems with every single portal in this joint. Outside doors, interior doors, bathroom doors, you name it. If it opened one way I fruitlessly tried to get it to move in the other. If there was a door handle that only turned one way, I tried the other. If the door required a hefty shove, I gave it an anemic love tap. Not just once for each door. Multiple times. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, that’s the sign of a tired randonneur.
Confusion rains, Reins, Reigns. . .aw screw it, just get back on the Bike
When Damon and I parted company he’d announced his attention to perhaps stop at the Sheetz in Thurmont to grab a cup of coffee and warm up before continuing on. Somewhere in the next couple of hours, while bowling along, I got the idea that he might have meant that he was going to stop there and wait for me to catch up. So I decided to swing by the gas station to see.
I was almost all the way through Thurmont before I remembered that I had been going to stop there and had now blown past the turn. I pulled the bike over to the side of the road. Now Thurmont is hardly a metropolis. And I’ve ridden through there so many times that I know the place pretty well. But for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the gas station. I stood there for perhaps 15 minutes staring at my map, willing the road names to make sense. Finally I opted to text Damon and just let him know I’d carried on. That two sentence text took me another 10 minutes.
Riding at Night is Different
Well, obviously. But what I mean is that it is different than I thought it would be. For most of the evening hours I was completely by myself. And it was (with two notable exceptions) surprisingly peaceful. The rain disappeared, the clouds moved away and revealed an orange crescent moon that inexorably marched toward the horizon moving, seemingly, much faster than I was. Thanks to my wardrobe change I was toasty for all but the last hour or so. Riding along deserted country roads at night redefines the notion of quiet, but also noise. The regular day-time aural clutter dissipates, your sense of hearing seems to expand, and you are suddenly aware of the swish of your tires, the random creaks and groans of your machine (or the ones you are making yourself), insects buzzing past, the sound of frogs, strange and disturbing rustling at the edges of your vision.
It was a different kind of strange biking through the almost deserted streets of Frederick at 1 in the morning. Seeing anyone else at all made me nervous.
What you can’t See Can hurt you
From dinner until the end of the ride I only remember seeing two other riders, a couple of guys who overtook me while we were still many miles outside Thurmont. I tried to hang with them but they were going much quicker and while I was moving steadily I didn’t have much energy. But they did provide me with a couple of moments of drama.
I’ve been very pleased with my lighting rig; the function where the light spreads or narrows depending on your speed has been particularly useful. But even spread out, it is sometimes difficult to see around sharp corners or notice side roads. The two guys ahead of me almost blew past one where the sign was set way back from the road; at night that looks just like a black hole. Fortunately our lights picked out the side road’s center stripe, and we aimed for that.
Mistake, at least on my part. Suddenly I found myself doing a bit of a Lance Armstrong through the grassy verge next to the turn. It was rough and slippery but it was only after that I began thinking what could have happened if that had been a ditch. First thing I did upon getting home was to begin searching for a new helmet light.
Out on the road, however, my brief companions rode off into the distance, with one of them happily reciting a scene from Life of Brian.
“OK, Sanitation, I’ll give you that one. But apart from the sanitation, what have the Romans ever done for us, eh?”
Furry. Enraged. Aggressive. Running.
Let me tell you, as a cyclist you don’t know fear until you’ve been chased by a dog. At night.
Sometimes a Cup is Just a Cup
When I competed in my first Ironman, in Wisconsin, back in 2010 I of course made sure to hit the Expo. Back then it didn’t seem likely that I would ever do another one (and even completing the first one was far from a done deal in my mind). This was also before IM (TM) started authorizing gear that is exactly the same for every IM (TM) event with only the place name changing. Back in the day, they made distinctive gear for each race. Wisconsin had a pretty well-established brand built around its nickname, IM Moo. So the expo clearly saw people like me coming, and lay in wait, with a plethora of the usual IM (TM) tchotchkes, plus a lot of cow-hide-patterned bike gear.
Even so, I was relatively restrained. I bought cow-hide-patterned arm warmers (which they sold out of pre-race, and quickly became the item of envy among those arriving late to the expo party) and a patterned jersey. And that was quite enough. There was a lot of other bike gear. But let me tell you, when you are dealing with a cow-hide pattern, a little goes a long way. I’ve occasionally worn both items together. But usually one or the other. Because once you’ve seen a man wearing a cow jersey, cow arm warmers, cow shorts, cow socks, and matching hair scrunchie, well, you don’t recover from that in a hurry.
I also bought a coffee mug. No cow pattern on this one. Just the name of the event. And it is a massive coffee mug (I find most coffee mugs in the US much too small; I crave the bowls o’ coffee so common back in NZ). So that is a plus. However I don’t use it all the time. In fact, I use it relatively rarely. I use it when I’m having one of those days. Or when I anticipate having one of those days. Or when one of those days has already stretched into one of those weeks. It reminds me that I once did something pretty extraordinary, something that not a lot of other people do and, more importantly, that I at one point in my life (i.e. most of it) would have given myself no chance of ever doing.
Monday morning, after Mary had left for work, I found myself stretched out on the window seat in our sun room, having walked there with great difficulty. I’d been gazing at the leafy green of the coral bark maple just outside the window, one of the few things in our garden that the winter didn’t kill or maim. Suddenly, I realized I was holding the Ironman mug. I’d obviously grabbed it with no thought at all.
It had become simply another coffee mug.