This is Ultra-Cycling, Midwest-style.
The day dawned, and it was very apparent that we were in for a repeat, weather-wise, of last year – if not worse. The humidity was high, and Ort and I were sweating profusely while we loaded up our cars for the drive to the park for the ride start. This was nuts!
We chose our parking spaces for the day, and began the usual preparations. I didn’t see too many familiar faces this time out, but Sam Baugh was back – with crew – and looking fresh and ready for the day. My day was going pretty well – with a bag full of lessons learned from two years at this event (3/4 of the lessons learned in 2005), I was feeling strangely calm, collected, and ready – not the usual bag of nerves that I’ve been at these rides in the past. Long after the craving for it has passed, I’m still amazed how much of a positive effect the lack of caffeine is having on my mental game. I’m downright RELAXED, as crew and rider alike hustle around and make last minute adjustments. My drinks are ready, my water cooler is full, my supplies are stocked, and the bike is ready to roll. The fifteen minute bell rings.
Don Norville runs a fantastic event – there is nothing quite as well run within 300 miles of KC (that I’m aware of) in the Ultra community – as far as UMCA events are concerned, and that’s to say that I haven’t been up to Iowa yet – but this is a quality event. Solid. No question. Don gets everyone lined up for the start, goes over the rules and details of the course. There are only 16 starters this year, which is unfortunate for an event of this caliber. I REALLY hope it is brought back for 2007, because it’s GREAT. Last year, by comparison, there were over 30 starters – but the 103º temps might have taken their toll on this year’s attendance, as well as the ridiculously high gas prices, which makes it hard for any traveling cyclist.
A quick wrap-up of the rules, and the bell is rung for the start – with a rush of 90º air, we’re off, and out of the parking area in a flash, Sam and I at the front, with a few other advantageous riders. Another miracle lap on tap for 2006, perhaps?
Sure enough, the pack tries to get organized inside the twists and turns of Lake McMurtry Park, but it’s a hard sell. The road is cumbersome and many riders decide not to risk things just yet. Eventually, the big downhill on Airport Road is upon us – and it’s still not repaved from last year. Yikes. Everyone spaces out to find their individual line down the steep, choppy, chuck-hole ridden grade. Thankfully, no pinch flats to start the day for anyone. The first uphill section is coming, and Sam is off like a shot and showing his training. I manage to follow, but he’s putting in quite a ride and reminds me again that this is a guy that is in a class of his own. Always amazing to see, if I try to chase this early, I’ll be spent – just like in 2004. Remember your lessons! I return to my own pace, and still manage to stay up front of the rest of the pack on the 1-mile climb.
The road levels a touch, and other riders begin to reappear over my left shoulder – time to work together, it seems, as the first turn comes and we are on OK-51, westbound. Ah, old familiar roads. As a five-man paceline forms around me, I start to count off the landmarks of the route – the steel mailbox, the bricks, the Blackwell Lake entrance, the shredded tire in the ditch, the bridge, the cemetery, the long hill. All the while, the five-man group is setting a good pace, but thoughts of my own goals start to creep in – it’s a good pace, but its not my 12-hour pace, unfortunately. I swing off the back, and out of rotation. Time to do this ride the way I do it best; solo.
Confused, the pack slows a bit and looks for me – a kind gesture, but I wave them on. It’s a long day, gents; time to settle in. I remember to drink – the new sun is just making it over the trees, and the heat is coming up quickly. The big valley and the turn onto OK-86 is upon me, and I take in the grand view – this is my favorite visual part of the course – very scenic, and a little shot in the arm is the long, straight downhill section right after the turn, a well-deserved rest after the long, slow grades on OK-51. I’m feeling good – the new bike is absolutely fantastic, giving no indication at all that it’s made from aluminum. I’m continuously shocked, and pleased, that it didn’t turn into a “parking lot test ride” phenomenon; and it would prove itself to me all day long as a comfortable, yet wickedly quick and responsive, bicycle. The saddle is in the right place, too, and even though it’s only the first lap, I’m feeling good about the day ahead.
Lap one is complete – and for the first time at Tinbutt, I unclick and dismount. It’s all part of the plan, and I trot up to the park bench towards my ice chest and cooler set-up. The mental rehearsals and the test runs at convenience stores all spring have paid off, and in less than five minutes I’m back on the bike and rolling out for Lap Two. I pop a couple electrolyte tabs while rolling and settle back into the rhythm – and so far, I haven’t been caught on the road. Excellent!
I carry onward, and thru the park again, enjoying the sweeping corners and short climbs, and trying to avoid the bumps – but unfortunately not everything is in a cyclists control. As I descent Airport Road for the second time, oncoming traffic forces me to take a line that I otherwise wouldn’t have, and BANG! The front wheel dives into a shallow (thankfully) pothole at nearly 40 MPH! A major, jarring bump! I was certain that a pinch flat was the result, but surprisingly there was no wheel or tire damage – but my handlebars were a little lower now! Oops. No sense stopping now and digging thru the saddlebag for the Allen wrenches – that’s what the next stop would be for. Unfortunately that was about 18 miles away still. No bother…it isn’t THAT bad. The heat, on the other hand was getting bad QUICK. Yeesh! Who turned on the furnace!? I continued onto OK-51 again, and quickly ate up some time at a good clip, and began to notice that I was taking on water a little faster this time out. Hmmm. An extra electrolyte tab to compensate.
After OK-86, and the long downhill, I begin the ascent towards the Noble County line, towards Bronco Road – the crux of the course. In contrast to the relative flatness of OK-51, this northern leg of the ride is six miles of fairly continuous hills – the worst of which being about mid-way up the road at Arstingstall’s place. What a grinder!! I would begin, as the day progressed, to explore the upper regions of the drive-train with each subsequent lap up this hill. Standing and straining against the grade, I notice a clicking noise coming from the front end as the wheel comes around. Hmmm…dry skewer, perhaps? I’ll check that, too, at the next stop.
A few miles later, it’s repeat-time. I’m back at the park, my number gets checked off, and I dismount for a refill, and quick mechanical adjustment. The support guy from Sam’s team runs over to make sure I have everything I need – a solid reminder that Ultra is a REAL gentleman’s sport, with everyone helping each other, regardless. I unfortunately manage to slice my thumb open tightening the front skewer, fingers slippery from sweat – but it’s only a minor wound. Turns out the ticking noise was the computer magnet hitting its sensor – so, a quick tweak and the noise is gone. A couple extra minutes off the bike this time, but the handlebars are back where they should be, and tighter, and the noise problems are history. With fresh bottles, it’s time for lap three!
Setting good lap times, and not getting passed by anyone on the road, I felt pretty good for the next two laps, but the heat was coming up even faster now, and the sun angle was dead-overhead. There was no shade to be found – no angled shade from roadside trees anymore, no clouds, barely even the thin shadows from overhead lines seemed to show up in the blazing heat. The temperature had been over 100º for over an hour now, and rising, and the humidity was thick enough to impede breathing. Scary conditions. At the end of lap three, I repeated my routine, and reapplied sunscreen, and noticed a few competitor's cars were missing from the parking area. After lap four, a couple more yet were missing. The day was taking its toll, even faster than it had last year!
I proceeded out for lap number five, and this time with an extra water bottle courtesy Ort – one for the back pocket, full of ice, plus a bandana full of ice around my neck to help keep cool. That’s what it was turning into – it wasn’t that I was drinking so much that I needed that third bottle – my BODY needed it. I was up to four electrolyte tabs per laps now, and I was beginning to feel minor twinges in my legs on the hills near the end of Bronco Road now. DANG – how much of this stuff do I need to be taking out here?!!? Listen to the body, and never question it. I drank like a teenager at a frat party, and sprayed myself with water until I was completely soaked from helmet to socks, and – surprisingly – I felt good, considering the conditions. Still, I promised myself that when I matched last year’s mileage total, I would allow myself a little rest in the shade. The end of Lap Five came, and I dismounted again.
I walked up to the bench, refilled my bottles and pulled a snack out of my ice chest, and munched on it while I reclined on the bench with my legs on top of the ice chest. With ice on my forehead and a cool drink in my hand, I almost fell asleep – but I kept my focus on the task at hand. Strangely, no-one was coming up the road quite yet from a completed lap. Was I the only one out here anymore? Almost as I finished that thought, the support team shouted “rider up!” and volunteers scrambled to check off his rider number, and then he rolled over to his support crew for a re-supply. A couple minutes later, Ort was pulling up, too – finally we’d get to talk a bit. I rose up, and prepared to ready myself for lap six, and Ort did the same. Time flew – I was off the bike for a little longer than I’d wanted, but I was having fun and was well rested and recharged for the heat again. It was at least 97º in the shade, but the rest felt GREAT.
Ort held back a little longer, and I headed out for my sixth lap of the day. Time was getting short – which never ceases to amaze me about these rides. The official start was at 7:00am, and I always feel like I blink and it’s suddenly 10:30 or something. Crazy. Now it was approaching the hottest part of the day, and I felt like I had just gotten started! Time was wasting! Still feeling fairly good, I was not going to play my odds with fatigue in the heat, so I tendered my pace for the conditions and decided that it was time to ride more sensibly – which was good, because I was starting to feel the effects of being near-cramp for most of the day.
Despite my efforts to push enough water – but not TOO much – and keep the electrolytes in check, “feeling good” was a relative term. My fuel of choice for these events is Sustained Energy, and it contains a good dose of protein – excellent for keeping the endurance rider properly fueled to prevent muscle cannibalization on really long rides. Unfortunately, with temperatures this high, the water in my system was being diverted to my muscles, not staying in my stomach for digestion – so “feeling good” was in concert with mild abdominal cramping for most of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th laps. Finally after lap five and a good rest, I was able to get enough water in to restart things, and I was feeling ready to make up some distance by lap six – but the clock had other plans, and there is no stopping the clock. I did, however, stop the SE and was now running the ride on nothing but HEED, Hammer Gel and water. If my body needed protein, well, it was gonna have to get it the hard way. My stomach was not having any more SE today.
Mentally, I was on top of the game. Even the handlebar issue, the clicking computer sensor, and a couple of thrown chain incidents from irresponsible shifting practices couldn’t dent my psyche – I was really enjoying this for some reason!
Lap six was physically brutal. The searing heat was at its fiery peak, the pavement was squashy, and tires squished and threatened to simply melt if one stopped riding. The southeast winds helped push me along OK-51, but made the furnace-like conditions even worse. There were pockets of hotter air that I seemed to pass in and out of, and the passing traffic on the highway seemed to invite even more dust and hot air to the party. Even my dark sunglasses seemed to feel weak against the tortuous glare of the bright sky and mirror-black pavement stretching out ahead of me.
It was hard, but strangely I was reveling in it for some reason. The desire to overcome what I had wrought the previous year, and the feeling of preparedness, was overcoming my doubts and helping me keep the pedals turning. Time was ticking by, but so were the miles, and before I knew it I was at the corner of OK-51 and OK-86 again, and there was the water stop the ride organizers had set out for us. At this point, I don’t know if I could qualify my needs as “emergency”, but grabbing a cold bottle of water and simply draining it over my back felt fantastic, and it was worth the extra minutes of stopping. With that little respite, the lap was over in no-time, and after the carnival of hills on Bronco Road I was whipping back into the park for another lap completed. Even getting passed wouldn’t erase the smile of another lap from my face – the solid, impressive soldier of Sam Baugh was hammering home another overall win, and managed to sweep me up on OK-86, just before the turn onto Bronco – impressive! …And something to work towards…
The body was growing weary now, and the heat was really taking it’s toll. I took advantage of a cold mister/shower that the volunteers had set up, and let the cold water fall over my head and body – it brought chills, and felt fantastic! Having a strange refreshing and awakening effect, too, I was happy to have to re-apply sunscreen before my last lap of the day – it was worth getting it all washed off like that.
Bottles filled, and another extended rest; I was a clock-watcher now. I knew how long my laps were taking, and I knew how long I had to finish the day – and unlike last year, I was gonna finish this ride in the saddle and not on the sidelines. Quarter-to-six was the cutoff – if I didn’t roll by then, I wouldn’t get credit for the last lap. Even Sam was taking a break – the day was brutal, even for the strongest riders. In fact, it was a severe blow to morale that several other strong riders had already succumbed to the heat, including RAAM-qualified riders - but instead of self-doubt and fear taking over my mind, I felt a sense of pride now – instead of “why am I still here?”, I was reminding myself that I was still ready to RIDE. I even got Ort charged-up for another run at it, and soon, we mounted up together for Lap Seven.
Staying together for a long ways, Ort and I tackled the last lap one section at a time – we navigated the park, Airport Road, and the long Redland’s Road climbs to OK-51. We set up our pace on OK-51, and managed to stay within sight of each other – it was becoming a very individual ride now. The heat was not waning, and there were still no shadows to be found. If anything, the wind had picked up. We kept thinking about turning around – and it was becoming a death-march. You know things are bad when the ride organizer starts driving the course and checking on each rider individually, asking for a solid thumbs up. If you don’t look right, he pulls over – and you stop. We prayed that he didn’t drive this last lap… we both would have been in the van.
Drinking, pedaling, and popping electrolyte tabs – of which I was nearly OUT of – we soldiered on. Ort began to practice his trademark “I’m done with this ride” maneuver, which basically is the opposite of anything I’ve seen anyone else ever do. He goes faster, to get it over with faster. At this point, I can’t even respond, so I don’t try…until I decide to try the same notion, and see if I can finish strong. I bridge – but barely, and OK-86 is suddenly upon me and the much needed water stop again. I stop, Ort continues down the big, long downhill into the valley below. Solo again – but refreshed… I douse myself with water, take a few extra swigs and I’m off down the hill. There is no catching Ort, however – the legs are getting heavy, and the sun simply will not let up – but I smile, and start to sing. I can’t remember the song, but I am belting it. I don’t know if it’s delirium setting in, or joy that THIS is the last lap. The clock is ticking by, and there will not be time for another one. This is it. I have all the time I need to finish, and the hills have yet to come.
One by one, I check them off. Soon, Arstingstall’s mailbox is behind me for another year, and a weary smile spreads across my face. Three hills to go… or is it four? I don’t care… each pedal stroke brings me closer to the park, and the finish. I crest the last hill, and pedal into the park, around a few corners, and up the last cruel hill from the boat dock to the line… DONE.
To applause from standers-by and volunteers alike, I get my number checked off for the last time this year, and I dismount with a wave and an exhausted shrug.
I hobble over to my rest area to get more water, and then I stand for at least 15 minutes under the misters again; the best invention EVER. This day is in the books, and I can stand tall now – compared to last year, even though I fell two laps short of my personal goal of 198 miles, I regard this ride as a huge personal success. Adversity, physically and mechanically, were handled with ease this time, instead of anxiety – and I not only remembered to drink enough, but I kept cramps at bay. Even though they were just under the surface all day long, they never halted a pedal stroke. I had taken six electrolyte tabs per lap by the end of the day, but so had Sam, the overall winner – so I think I was on the right track. The bag of lessons is finally empty – I had learned from them all, and I had a gold medal for my age group to point to as well. An EXCELLENT, but horribly brutal, day was finally over.
And, yes – I can’t wait for next year.