Kit ‘n Kish 600k
Now kids, gather round while your jolly Uncle Mark dispenses some sage wisdom about how to lead a virtuous life. . .and how to be a successful randonneur. The key thing you gotta remember is this: stay clear of poop.
- Avoid other people’s poop.
- Don’t poop on other people.
- Don’t poop on yourself.
If you can manage those three things, your odds of finishing a long ride, and the long ride of life, go up dramatically.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Unfortunately, some of my fellow randonneurs made the tragic mistake of saying that they enjoyed reading my last post, recounting the woeful adventure of a sodding–er, that is to say, sodden–400k. Rather than take this as simple politeness, I took it as encouragement. So now they are going to be subjected to another ride report.
But the title of this section is also an entirely apt description of this weekend’s activity. I’d been looking forward to this ride a lot, despite a pre-ride report from fellow randonneurs which, stripped of its eloquent phrasing, amounted to “OMG! This is so fucking hard you probably won’t finish it! Ever!” And that was, well, concerning. Plus the weather forecast was less than ideal. A lot less than ideal. Which would make this yet another in a long list of events this year for which the weather has refused to cooperate (I thought it was just a rando curse type thing but it even rained heavily for the last part of Mountains of Misery the weekend prior to this ride). So maybe it’s just me.
I was concerned, but still looking forward to it. Two years ago I barely finished my first ever 600k within the time limit, and might not have done so without the aid of a couple of veteran randonneurs who shepherded me around on day 2. But I was a noob, didn’t have much of an idea of what I was doing, and the 600k is just something that you have to experience once, I think, before you even have a sense of the scale of the thing and how to ride it well. And by well, I mean with a decent amount of sleep.
Last year I had more of a sense of what I was doing, knew how not to waste vast chunks of time, and finished two hours faster with the added bonus of nearly five hours of sleep. So this year I was not focused on riding faster or anything like that, but continuing to try and ride this very tough distance as intelligently as I possibly could. There was just one tiny problem. The route had a few ups and downs.
The hills are alive. . .with the groans of randos
Well, OK, a lot of ups and downs. Big ups and downs.
If the ride profile looks a lot like a series of sharp sticks ready to poke you in the eye, that is kinda what it felt like to ride. The actual aggregate climbing (around 21,000 feet) is actually about the same as last year’s Shenandoah 600. But most of the climbing there came about as a series of small, rolling climbs. Moreover, the climbing was pretty evenly distributed throughout the route; I remember a lot of climbing early in the morning of day two, for example. This year’s 600, by contrast, has most of its climbing coming in big chunks. It is also massively front-loaded, with the bulk of the climbing coming prior to the overnight rest stop.
On balance I prefer this kind of climbing to the relentless ups and downs we experienced in the 400k. So I was feeling cautiously optimistic about at least being able to survive this one.
The first three climbs were ones I’d ridden before; the second one, over South Mountain, actually gave me a chance to reflect on how far I’ve come as a cyclist, because it is one that I used to find hard. Now, while I wouldn’t say that it was dead easy, it was the least of my worries.
Looking at the profile you can see that this route does however have its compensations. Obviously with big climbs you usually get big descents, and fast descending is one of my strengths. More than that, you can see that there are several sections where the road trends down for miles, and miles, and miles, and when you are a rider who is still carrying around last year’s Thanksgiving and riding a heavy bike to boot, that sort of terrain is money in the bank. I was fortunate to link up with a strong group during the third climb and we rode a pretty sprightly pace into East Waterford, PA. This was a little under halfway for the first day, and I would have been satisfied to have made it in about 9 hours. Instead, we made it in about 7:50. On reflection, I think it was this quick pace that was instrumental in helping me get through the first day relatively successfully.
The art of the sustainable calorie deficit. Or, Nom Nom Nom
[Boring technical bit probably only of interest to other randonneurs. Or maybe not even them].
One thing I’ve noticed that I do a little differently from some randonneurs is that I eat all the time on the bike. Many people I ride with take the occasional bite of food, but most of the eating is done at control points or in the form of longer lunch snack stops. They pretty much eat when they are hungry, and eat a random selection of whatever is available until they don’t feel so hungry. It works for them, it seems. Nevertheless, for me a lot of randonneuring comes down to controlling what you are able to control and making your peace with not being able to control the rest of it. And food falls into the category of something I can control; I ride better when I’m consuming steady, known quantities of food. I’m not just stronger, but I’m mentally sharper, and when you are hurling yourself down some major mountainsides at north of 40mph you want to be making good decisions!
I will forever be indebted to my triathlon training for a solid understanding of the relationship between exercise and nutrition. Nutrition for a long triathlon event like an Ironman is often referred to as the “fourth discipline” and when I was training for those kinds of events I learned that at the intensity you are riding my body couldn’t take in much more than about 330 calories an hour. With randonneuring you are usually riding at a lower intensity, so I’ve worked hard over the last couple of years to gradually push that out to about 400 calories an hour. Typically, for the entirety of a 200 or 300, and for the bulk of a 400 or 600, I’m using a custom-blend sports drink (Infinit) with very little taste and lots of sodium for about 280 calories an hour. The rest I’m making up with solid food to help keep my digestion ticking over. On one of my early rides Damon put me on to Pro-Bars, which have a tiny form factor, but pack almost 400 calories into each bar; I take a quarter of one of those ever hour, alternating flavors (heartily recommend the Chocolate Coconut and the Koka Moka) and supplementing them with Dr. Wills Bars when my palette gets a little jaded.
So what’s the practical benefit of all this? If I can stay on top of this early in the ride, I don’t typically feel hungry, and I have pretty good energy. But it also means that I don’t have to waste time grazing at many of the early control points. So at East Waterford, while other people stopped to order sandwiches, I filled up with drinks and a quick salty snack, and pushed on.
There’s a limit to all of this, of course. The inherent problem with endurance events is that you can’t really replace the calories that you are expending, which for a cyclist of my build, speed, and bike weight, is going to be somewhere in the 600-800 calories per hour range (yeah, those of you with Garmins showing that you burn 1200 calories an hour. . .um, no. Garmin’s engineers seem to have consulted the “I ride so I can eat a whole pizza every day” fairy to come up with their numbers). That’s why I referred to the art of the “sustainable calorie deficit.” The tank will drain eventually; it is all about trying to make it drain as slowly as possible.
Hell on Wheels
As I set off from East Waterford a gentle rain began to fall. Which quickly–quel surprise–became a less than gentle rain, just in time for the big climb of the day up Blacklog road. This was brutal, a 1000 foot slog with much of it around 10%, about a mile of it around 13%; I had to take a couple of pauses to get my breath back, but when the road tipped up to nearly 17% right at the top, I dismounted and walked. The immediate descent on the other side was steep, twisting, and done in the rain, so no kind of reward for the considerable effort expended.
However, the road then turned into one of those long, downward trending sections (counting the climb this may in fact have been the longest stretch on a single road in any brevet that I’ve ridden so far) through a valley patched with occasional forest. It was glorious, or at least it would have been if the rain hadn’t started up again. And then it really began to rain in a way I haven’t experienced since New Zealand’s West Coast. Huge drops coming down so thickly that it was like riding through a wool blanket. Most of my clothing was already soaked, but now I actually felt my shoes filling up and water pouring in miniature cascades through my helmet vents. It was the kind of heavy rain you usually only get with a passing thunder shower but I can only assume that we were triding along the same track as the storm because it kept up for an hour.
After taking a few extra minutes at the next town control in order to re-group I set off to tackle the last two big climbs of the day.
The first nasty discovery was the fact that there were three big climbs remaining. One thing I learned from this ride was that I was, overall, a little lax in my ride prep. For my last 600, inspired by the heavily marked up cue sheets of our local Patron Saint of Randonneuring (i.e our club RBA) Nick Bull I had marked on my own sheet where all the major climbs started and ended; psychologically I found it had really helped me. This year, although I thought I was preparing well, I think I actually got just a little cocky based on last year. And if you get cocky on a long brevet the odds are better than even that at some point the ride will show up to collect. I sighted the toll collector somewhere on the second to last climb, a long grind with several very steep pitches. By the time we got to the final big climb, a relatively gentle 6% effort over three miles, the kind of thing I would usually spin up quite easily, I had nothing left. I made the acquaintance of granny early and held her close.
After yet another steep, twisty, technical descent we hit one of the nicer parts of the ride, a road that rose and fell gently (thank Christ!) as it ran along the base of the range that we had just climbed over. Both sides of the road featured large, well-maintained Amish farms. All day we’d been riding through a portion of central Pennsylvania with a strong Amish presence. I’d ridden along the edges of Amish and Mennoninte areas before, but today it wasn’t just the case of seeing an occasional carriage on the road. What we encountered instead was a real sense of living, thriving communities. Many carriages and wagons out on the roads or parked in front of houses; entire families traveling along farm lanes in the back of wagons, or selling food or handcrafts from their front yard, signs for carriage repair, men taking a break from working on farm machinery to give us a red-faced wave. Now, late in the day, the farms were striking because they were so clearly multi-generational. In most cases it was easy to discern the original, weathered farm house, which had then spawned nearby son and daughter houses, creating sprawling complexes on either sides of the road. At one point a very small girl, glad in blue gingham, appeared suddenly from a lane, riding a pony bareback. She solemnly waited until I passed and then in my mirror I watched I watched her trot across the road, legs bouncing.
And this is where the leading metaphor for this report came from. Because when you ride through Amish country you are, unavoidably, riding roads that are strewn with poop. And horse poop becomes even more fun when it is wet and slimy and smeared in giant puddles across the road. So I guess you could add a fourth rule to my top 3: if you have to ride through poop, make sure you have fenders (and that kinda works on a metaphorical level as well).
The Remains of the Day
I reached Milroy, where I’d planned to make a stop for more substantial food, about 7:30, a time I was happy with. I dropped into a Dairy Queen where I was greeted by one of the surliest teenage servers I’ve ever encountered. But to be fair, based on what I saw of Milroy if I was trapped there I’d be pissed as well. After an enormous burger and fries and a large chilli dog, it was back on the road (as usual, all that food simply vanished into the internal furnace) for the final 25 miles.
Which turned into the longest 25 miles of my life. On the profile, the route had seemed basically flat except for one sharpish climb. But “basically flat” on very tired legs is a very different thing. This route in fact rolled constantly, nothing spectacular, but every slight rise was sucking away my will to live. What I’d originally hoped would be a couple more hours began to stretch, and stretch. Finally, I rolled into the overnight control about 11pm.
I checked in with Kelly and Josie who were running the overnight control out of a hotel room stuffed with food and drink, including home-made chilli and rice, a bowl of which promptly disappeared without noticeable effect into the human furnace. The temptation with the overnight is to feel, in the profound sense of relief at having got there, that you’ve made it, that you can kick back a little. But just as with all other aspects of randonneuring, keeping focused is important. You are still on the clock. You are always on the clock. I needed to relube the bike and adjust the brake pads (it felt as if I’d burned half of them away in some of the technical descents of the day). I desperately needed a shower because I smelled like a teenager’s hockey gear at the end of a season. And I needed more food. Nothing heavy, since you are going straight to sleep, so I’d brought some substantial soup and crackers with me. Finally, a little after midnight, I fell over with the vague hope there would be a bed under me.
The fog isn’t just in your mind
After a really draining day of exercise I sometimes find it hard to get to sleep. No such problem here, and although I can’t say I slept soundly it nevertheless came as an unwelcome surprise to be jolted awake at about 4:45. I’d packed up pretty much everything the night before, so there was nothing to do but check out and grab an unurprisingly really terrible cup of hotel coffee before heading out. Some people had left earlier but for me more sleep was definitely a priority, and I thought I’d left myself a comfortable cushion to get the ride done. I was wrong about that.
As I was leaving I was joined by George, a veteran randonneur who was operating on about 1.5 hours sleep and clearly showing the effects of that. He was saddled with a navigation device that seemed to be malfunctioning a little and I corrected us on three turns before we’d even left town. But conditions weren’t helping. It was pretty warm but it was. . .what else. . .raining, so the comfort of slipping into dry cycling kit was to be short-lived. The sky was just beginning to lighten but with all the cloud cover it was difficult to tell.
One of the hidden difficulty elements in this ride is that the distances were a little different than the other 600s I’d done. There, we’d ridden more or less a full 400 on the first day, which left. . .anyone?. . .200 to finish up with. But the first day was only 228 rather than 250 miles, which meant that the second day was actually quite a bit longer than 200k, although I can’t have been the only one who had it stuck in their head that we had “only another 200k to go.” The ride also had one last massive dose of suffering in store for us, a huge climb over Tuscarora mountain which came after a mere ten miles of warming up your legs, which for me was about twenty miles too soon. As we approached the mountain the top was wreathed in cloud which would have been beautiful if it wasn’t abundantly clear we would soon be up among it.
I say “soon” but take that only in a relative sense. If you look at the profile above, Tuscarora is that massive spike sitting all on its own in the second half of the course. It is a long, grinding series of steep switchbacks. Not steep enough to be impossible. No, these were just short of really steep, so that your brain kept thinking “I can do this! I should be able to do this! I used to be able to do this!” I tried to be a little smart about this, so even though I could have ground my way up, I stopped occasionally, just to give my legs a rest. We were, after all, less than 15 miles into what would be more than a 140 mile day. As we neared the top, the cloud appeared in a few wispy tendrils, and then shut down so abruptly that I wasn’t even aware it had become cloudy until I almost rear-ended Dave Judkins who had stopped by the side of the road. I fought on for a bit more, then decided to walk the last part, however long that might be. But the top proved to be just around the corner, its presence heralded by a howling cold wind driving spatters of rain into my face. Then it was off on another twisting, hairpin-laden wet, and for the first part, cloudy descent. Never have I been happier to have disc brakes than on this ride. I was also really glad I had made the decision to start later; part of my thinking had been that I would be able to do this descent in daylight, and while the cloud made it more like twilight, it was still a step above total darkness.
Things went gently downhill (in a good way!) for the next few miles, through beautiful farmland cast into sharp relief by the early morning sun. Just before the first control I encountered fellow-rider Chris, riding in the opposite direction away from the control. I double-checked my cue sheet, but he pulled in beside me. He had started a couple of hours before me, like George was operating on next to no sleep, and had been paying the price, having been wandering essentially lost for a couple of hours, through a series of “bonus mile” detours which had, unfortunately, included a crapload of bonus climbing as well. As we rolled into the control at Newport he admitted that he was really dragging. Now I’ve ridden with Chris before, and he is an amazingly strong, experienced rider. But he looked all in. He was however doing the right thing, grabbing a lot of food, taking a little extra time. Despite not having breakfast I’d been eating consistently so I pressed on.
My lack of prep came back to bite me again. I’d been convinced there were only three more sharp climbs (and this route does have a bit of a sting in the tail; you can see from the profile a series of short spikes after the massive Tuscarora climb. None of these is epic, but they are all quite steep, and I knew from having ridden this portion on previous brevets that they can hurt you. And things can hurt you even more when you don’t know they are coming because you haven’t counted the number of remaining climbs correctly). The second to last of these climbs is in fact one of my favorites, one that I remembered from previous rides. You come down off the Pine Hill climb and almost immediately you going up again, it feels like you are climbing relatively gradually. But then if you look back just before the road vanishes into the treeline there is a gorgeous valley spread out at your feet. It is one of those great climbs where you aren’t actually that high but you feel as if you can see forever.
Then I entered the trees and–I hope you are braced for the shock–it began to rain again. And by the time I popped out the other side it was raining really hard leaving me to navigate a traffic roundabout and a steep downhill in driving rain with a lot of traffic at my back. Not surprisingly, I missed the next turn even though we were warned that it was easy to miss, and had to ratchet my way back up the very steep hill. I pulled into Middlesex, a small. . .something (town? retail center? fast food museum?) and stopped at a gas station for one of those terrible croissandwich things chokka with several kinds of unidentifiable meat products, which was the best thing ever. I then made my way through Middlesex as quickly as possible because it was pretty scary. A giant highway, lots of trucks, and the vehicles that weren’t trucks seemed to be exclusively boy racers. Based on the number of adolescent males who seemed to want to drop the clutch and peel of the line with a scream of tires and a roar from their non-functioning muffler, I can only conclude that much of the male population of the area is cursed with having a very small penis.
I rolled into East Berlin a little ahead of where I’d wanted to be, but not by much. I had planned to stop for a lot of food, but I made it as quick as I could since I was well aware that even though it felt like you are almost home, and the rest is basically downhill and all the lies that randonneurs tell themselves, the last 60 miles, which I’ve done on numerous rides, can really drag at you. And I was, I had to admit, pretty tired.
Happiness is a sun-warmed wall
Sure enough, as I set off it was apparent that the wind had picked up. The route switches back and forth a lot so I just tried to grit my teeth when it was in my face, and make the most of it when it wasn’t. Occasionally the clouds parted, and the sun raised the temperature of an already warm day into the uncomfortable territory. But at least we hadn’t had the. . .oh God. Thunderstorms had been forecast for the afternoon and I had just begun to think that we might have avoided the threat when I looked up and saw the sky gradually darkening. Then becoming really dark. Now, an experienced randonneur can maintain a state of delusion for a good long time. You have to be kinda delusional to undertake this kind of thing in the first place. So I convinced myself that the worst of it was to the North of us, that I was going to be able to skirt the edge of it. Then the first rain drops began to fall. This wasn’t so bad, and see, there was clear sky just over there. It began to rain steadily. Well, you would expect this kind of thing on the edge of a storm.
Then the world disappeared.
In no sense I am exaggerating. One moment it was raining hard, and then things got Old Testament. You read about rain coming sideways, but even when I’ve thought I’ve seen that, the rain has still been falling at an angle. Not this time. This stuff was 100% horizontal, whipped into a solid whiteness that obscured everything beyond the very edges of the road. One of the major drawbacks of this route back down to Frederick is that there is very little meaningful cover. There were a few tall trees (always a good idea in a storm) but not even a solid stand of brush to hide behind. The wind grew even stronger, and the water was stinging me where it was hitting me even through two layers of clothing. On the bare skin it felt as if I was being flayed alive. It was apparent that the Almighty was convinced I had been a very naughty boy lately and Satan had been unleashed to spank me soundly on the botty. Then the bike began jumping bodily across the road. And let me tell you, when you are riding a bike that weighs as much as a small child and it is moving sideways, it is time to find shelter (well, that much might have been obvious before this, but as I say, the power of delusion).
The only thing that offered itself was a nearby community hall. Great, i thought, I can shelter on the far side. Which would have been a solid plan if the hall hadn’t installed a barbed wire topped chain link fence blocking access to the rear. The place did have a kind of covered entryway. . .which the storm was blowing directly into. However, I found that the wind was coming at just enough of an angle that if a pressed myself into one corner, with the bike braced across me, it was avoiding the fire hose that was directed on all other areas of the porch. So I stood there, like a misbehaving student sent to a time out in the corner of the room, and watched the storm. Which is to say that I watched a solid wall of white be very white. But the front of the building had, prior to the storm, obviously received a lot of sun, and the bricks at my back were deliciously warm; it was almost like receiving a massage. It was then that I noticed how clean I was. The early morning start had meant that I’d been riding when the multifarious insect life of Pennsylvania was at its most active, and before many hours I was coated with a sticky mass of dead bugs, sunscreen and sweat. The several bouts of rain had failed to remove it. I’d tried to remove the worst of it at East Berlin and only made it worse. But my skin had been sandblasted clean by the storm. I looked as if I had just slipped on my cycling gear in the morning.
Gradually the storm eased, and the rain became merely drenching. I waited for it to abate a little further and the pressed on. A little way up the road I spotted Roger and Jerry hauling their bikes out of something that they claimed was a baseball dugout, but which Roger acknowledged seemed to have been built by someone whose specialty was chicken coops. Rickety ones at that. But we were all still in once piece, and we rode on, swapping war stories, exchanging any news we had concerning our fellow riders, and before I knew it we had reached the outskirts of Thurmont. We stopped for some sustenance (in my case 220 calories of delicious artificially flavored butterfat in the form of an ice cream sandwich) and then were in the home stretch, the last 17 miles back to Frederick. These were far from easy. My legs were toast, and even with a regular intake of salt sticks over the last two days I could feel one quad beginning to seize, and I no longer trusted myself to stand out of the saddle.
But the three of us remained in a good humor, and with great relief rode in with just under an hour to spare before the cut-off: 39 hours and change.
And George, with whom I started the day, rode in with mere minutes to spare. I can’t say how much admiration I have for the determination and discipline on his part. After yesterday, I could not have made it on that little sleep.
So, not so cocky now, are we!
This ride had it all. Climbing and descending in just about any combination of grade and type that you could imagine. It rained. It was windy. It was hot. It got Biblical. There was terrifying traffic courtesy of men with diminished genitalia. Spectacular, and I mean really spectacular, mountain scenery. Stretches of calm shaded lanes of unsurpassed tranquility. There was a bike crash (nothing major, just lost it sideways while braking at an intersection and fell).
And the ride claimed a heavy toll, with a higher DNF rate than any brevet I have done so far: only eleven out of the 21 riders who attempted it finished within the cut-off. One suffered equipment failure. One had an accident that damaged the bike too badly to ride (i.e. the seat went missing). Some abandoned at the overnight. Several of people made a lot of wrong turns and succumbed to the heat. So I am very proud to have finished, but also humbled.
I did some things well (the eating and sleeping bits!). And that was crucial, because the thing about steep climbing is that it doesn’t just exhaust you physically, but mentally. So I was glad that I was at least a little more mentally rested for the second day. But I made mistakes. I certainly didn’t prepare as well as I could in terms of parsing the route, or even in packing for the overnight. I didn’t bring any of the cyclists friend, Bag Balm, and that was definitely an oversight. Because when you ride all day (well, most of two days, actually) in soaked clothing you get some chafing issues. In places where you don’t usually get chafing. And that made for a pretty painful second day at times (in no other ride have I ever had to stop and re-apply chamois cream a couple of times during the day). There were a couple more tools I should have packed to take care of a few adjustment issues on the bike.
But the difficulty of the ride itself seemed a fitting match for what has been (for me at least) the toughest season since I started randonneuring four years ago.