(The 300K Attempt - An Epic DNF Tale)
It was with the highest confidence and hopes that I started this 300k ride - Warbird was there, the new fuel was on the bike and at the ready, everythin gwas tested and tightened, and the new raingear was at the ready. I had thought of everything and was ready to go. Byron was there, Dan Jordan was there, the field was big again -- a good turnout. The sun wasn't up yet, but the temperature was 55ºF at the ride start. It was gonna be a good day. So I thought.
We departed, and I was with the lead group as we climbed and climbed up the first sections of road on our way to Plattsburg Road. I was hanging with Bryon and Warbird and pretty much everyone, and was actually enjoying some time at the front of the group. I felt good, strong, confident - not concerned in the least about the mileage that lay ahead. I had my fuel issues licked, and was carrying enough for the full day. No reason to worry.
As we proceeded along Plattsburg Road, I felt good - enjoying conversations with several riders here and there and managing to hold up with the pack consistently. On a couple occasions, I manged to even out-climb the 'bird. It was fun! Then 7am came... time to drink my first dose of "Sustained Energy" from E-Caps/Hammer Nutrition. Came highly recommended by Byron himself after I'd told him of my problems on the 200K. Went down smooth, and I had every confidence that it was going to do the trick and that I'd be able to maintain this pace all day long. It was gonna be nice to be with the lead group this time out, instead of alone all day - I'd nearly planned on it. It was not to be.
Almost exactly ten minutes after I'd consumed that first bottle, it was like a light switch. I had a quick burst of energy, and it propelled me up a fairly steep rise, passing Warbird again -- I stayed off the front for a good 3-5 minutes, and then I slowly got caught by the lead group of Byron, Dan and the Warbird again.... and then the slower riders from behind began to catch me. Then others, slower still. Like a light switch, my legs quit working normally. My pace fell off hard, and I found myself looking for easier gears as we turned onto highway "C" northbound. I watched in dismay as the group started getting smaller and smaller in the distance. I even kicked it up a notch a few times, putting the bike in the big gear and pushing to regain ground - only to fall back into the saddle again, inexplicably exhausted. Nothing. Maybe it was my "wall" .. I would catch them eventually.
Nope. Still having confidence in my fuel choice, I continued each hour on the hour to consume one full bottle, even stopping at a gas station along the way to fill up on water to keep the game going - and with each subsequent bottle consumed, the problems increased. I was tired - sleepy - didn't want to be there. My concentration was slipping, I was losing focus. My legs were still turning over and I never cramped once, nor did I feel any tell-tale hole-in-the-stomach bonk feelings; my legs just didn't want to "work" - and I couldn't push. I found myself stopping a LOT. I was at least fully hydrated - I had to pee on the side of the road at least five times on the trip north - which is weird for me at ANY distance. I found myself looking at the odometer, and seeing 34 miles, and getting discouraged. "I have 148 miles to go, and I'm feeling like this already?" The 200k better than this.. what's the deal? I was lethargic, tired, unmotivated on a physical level -- but my mental outlook was starting to change also. For over and hour I'd WANTED to push and catch and work... but the body wasn't cooperating. Forty miles.... what's Wrong with me???
I continued on, struggling, in top gear again - up the hills and coasting down. Couldn't believe it. I made it to the first checkpoint, got my card signed, and refilled everything -- confident that at some point, a magical transformation would occur, and my new fuel would propel me back to contention. I drank a V8 to prevent cramps, another Byron recommendation that was working great -- no cramps the entire day, regardless of anything else. But, that was just it: nothing else was working. I was eventually caught by some riders that were even farther back than me, which was only slightly encouraging -- after all, I'd been caught.
One or two riders stopped along side me for a bit, asked if I was okay -- "you were flying out of the start gate, you gonna make it? You got everything you need? Need any food? Water?" -- I was find on all accounts, and they continued on - leaving me easily as I must have been visually struggling to move forwards.
I left the checkpoint - still mentally charged enough to continue on, instead of cashing it in and going home - and began the long haul northward towards Albany - and the headwind was getting worse. I trudged onwards, wondering when I would start to see the lead group passing me in the opposite direction. They were at least 30 miles up the road at this point. The remaining slower riders that had regrouped at the checkpoint made short work of passing me as we all turned north onto highway "N"... and then it was me, alone again. An hour passed, and I drank another bottle of my cocktail. Ten minutes... pee break... more lethargy. Getting worse. I found myself stopping more now, for no other reason than to rest. But rest from WHAT? I wasn't working that hard, it seemed -- I was operating at a snails pace, so why was I so wiped out?
Stopping at the side of the road atop a small rise - again - the lantern rouge was passed on to me. I was sitting atop a ridge on highway "H", and the final rider in the chain passed me, this one, too, asking if I was alright, if I needed food or anything. I think I responded, but I'm not sure what I'd said. Eventually I continued on. Ended up passing them again at a confusing point in the road, but they quickly caught me up once again. Now, I was the last one on the road.
I trodded my way north for another couple hours, stopping three or more times to pee, and once to fix the Profile Aquarack seatpost waterbottle holder, whose fixing bolt had popped when I botched a remount and caught my shorts on one of the bottle tops -- ping! Loose. Glad I'd brought that small hose clamp -- that was a quick fix, but it was a mental blow. Not only was my body failing, but now little parts on the bike were, too. I didn't want to have to fix anything.
Then, after turning north onto Highway "A" - the final leg to Albany - I was passed (opposing) by the first rider in the lead bunch. Looking strong and pedalling a big gear, he flew south without so much as a wave. No exchanging pleasantries with the losers, he likely thought to himself (in retrospect, he probably didn't see me, but that was my mental state). I trudged on. Ten minutes later, another rider was coming up the road -- it was the Warbird. We stopped, and he crossed over the highway to meet me, and I began to recount the events leading up to that point. I started to question the fuel (finally, after 80 miles of suffering!?) and my ability to continue - but I was so close to the halfway mark - and I vocalized that I would like to try and finish. Warbird offered to drive the route in reverse after finishing -- he felt great, strong, fast -- the fuel, the same I was using, was working great for him - and he was refitted to an older bike, also working great. I was quite the opposite. I agreed to his offer of driving the route backwards, and we separated again. Me north, him south.
Fifteen miles later I was in Albany at the Casey's store control. I made it to the checkpoint with 30 minutes left in the checkpoint window. Wow. Close... My confidence was slightly boosted that despite everything, I was still "in the running" for a finish. I knew that turning south and getting a tailwind, that I could make the checkpoint back in Stewartsville with no problem, but as I filled my water bottle again with Sustained Energy powder, I began to doubt its effectiveness again. I went back inside, bought two bottles of V8, a granola bar, and a bean and cheese microwave burrito. I ate on the curb, rested for fifteen minutes - and, slightly refreshed, I carried onward. I left the checkpoint, headed south - into destiny and fear territory.
Five minutes after leaving, the godsend tailwind shifted wildly - blowing straight out of the east now, violently -- a brutal crosswind. It was no help, but only slightly better than a direct headwind. I carried on, starting the mileage countdown to the next checkpoint. My decision at the Casey's was beginning to show positive signs. The burrito was working, and the V8 was working, too. I was starting to feel better -- and no Sustained Energy had been consumed... interesting. Time to make up some ground! I started pushing bigger and bigger gears, standing up, and climbing better than before. Things were looking up!
Right about that point, the first raindrop hit me squarely on the back of my left hand. Heeeere we go. The rain was in the forecast all day, but the winds had blown most of the instability out of the air -- what was supposed to start happening at about noon was now occurring at 3:45pm. We had been lucky most of the day, but my luck was quickly running out. I should have been much farther south than this.
First it was my rain jacket... rather "windbreaker". This thing was NOT waterproof at all, and barely water "resistant" as advertised. After about a half-hour of continuous, hard rain and road spray, the fabric was fully saturated, and the wet fabric was sticking to my arms, making the wind all the more unbearable. The temperature began to drop rapidly. What was once nearly 60ºF was now approaching 45ºF. I was getting cold. I continued onward, riding it out - not having consumed anything since Albany except the Accellerade powdered sports drink that I'd had in a Camelbak with me all day, for hydration - I was feeling fine, and fresh. The Sustained Energy seems to have been the wrong choice for me, personally, but I wished I'd found out earlier.... or, rather, paid attention earlier. Self inflicted, certainly. I would have been much closer to home instead of way up here by myself in the rain.
About another hour into the rain, my "water proof" shoe covers began to seep through. I felt the first icy veins of water and squish in my socks around my tired toes, and I began to get chilled. The temperature dropped a little more. The rain was relentless. A strange popping sound at each pedal revolution ws giving me fits for about 30 miles, and I found out eventually that it was a little plastic cosmetic "cap" under the saddle nose of my new saddle that was pinching at the fabric of my rain pants with each pedal stroke - thusly ripping a series of small holes in the inner thigh area of them, letting water in. I got a little bit colder. The temperature seemed to drop slightly again, and the clouds thickened more. The wind was howling. This was a full-on storm now. Discouraged, I stopped at a church on the side of the road, and sought shelter behind it - out of the rain and wind. I stood here for about an hour, drying out slowly, and ate my second granola bar from the last checkpoint. I almost had decided that this was where I was going to wait for the Warbird, but the temperature was still dropping and I was not really getting any drier. It was roughly 37ºF now (based on temperature records analyzed the next day based on time), and the rain was coming quicker. Could I call my Dad? Would he come out? Worth a shot... I pulled my phone from my back pocket -- it was dead. I had been out of the PCS service area for so long that the looking-for-service function had sucked my full charge to zero. Who knows HOW long it'd been dead, but it wasn't doing me any good now. It was on me. I decided to leave the church -- the farther south I got, the less time I'd have to wait for my ride, and the warmer I'd stay by moving. I was not making the finish in this condition. I began to shiver, deeply.
I ventured back onto the bike, which had blown over in the wind, ripping the bar tape on a rock and bending the Aquarack a little more out of place. The hose clamp at least held. At this point, cosmetics weren't even a concern. The only things on my mind were warmth, home, quitter. Over and over. Part of me was convinced that I should finish the ride regardless, to at least get the medal for everything I was going through - and I was frustrated at myself for considering quitting. The other half knew that the clock wasn't going to cooperate forever, and quitting was the safer option - the the temps guaranteed to drop with the setting sun, and nearly 25 miles to the gas station at Stewartsville from the church, I was gonna be screwed if I didn't keep moving. I mounted the bike, trying to shelter my hands from the cold rain by grabbing then ends of my windbreaker's sleeves, and started on my way. I was not going to make it. I went about two miles up the road where I saw a farm house. No one home. Another three miles, another house, no one home. I carried on another ten miles, and ten I felt it, plain as day: thump thump thump.... I looked down, flat tire. I stopped, tossed my spare tube, my fingers blue and stinging, and used my inflater kit to air it up. It sorta worked - kinda squishy, but rideable. Mounted up, and started to pedal... and I got about 200 yards before I was on the rim again. This is stupid. I stopped, and I just knew it was hopeless: but I had a patch kit. My seat bag had been sprayed with rain from the tire for hours now, and everything was soaked - was it even going to stick to the tube in this wet? There was no way, but I began to undo the patch kit and unmount the tire again... no matter. My blue fingers were useless, and I fumbled the open patch kit into a puddle. I just deflated. My shoulders dropped. My jaw hung open. Rain, and silence, was all I could hear... rather, I was almost absorbing it, standing against the wind with my bike upside-down. This was not good. Sure enough, the patches wouldn't stick to each-other, must less a wet tube. Time to walk. I remounted the disabled tire, flipped the bike over, and headed south - Look cleats clomping and slipping against the pavement. Another mile, another farm house... but no one home, again... does anyone actually LIVE out here???
I even figured at this point, rolling on a flat tire would be faster than walking, so a few times I just mounted up and rolled down some hills to make up time, tire and rim be damned. Twelve miles to Stewartsville, and it was going to be dark in the next hour. There were no cars in sight to flag down, no occupied houses among the few I even came upon. I hadn't seen anyone in over two hours. I walked, and walked, and walked until I reached the next major intersection, at Missouri 6, and highways H and J. There I stood. Surely, there would be a county sheriff or someone patrolling a highway like this. I waited, and waited. The sun began to get lower.
The only shelter I could find from the wind was the stop-sign, a 6"x6" wooden post. It was not enough. Thankfully, the rain was letting up a little. I was completely alone. There was no-one out here but me. No one crazy enough. I was hoping the Warbird would make it soon, but I knew he was still on a bike at best - and hours away from me. Could I survive this??? I looked for a ditch to lay down in and get out of the wind - I was already drenched, the wet ground would make no difference. I was sleepy, shivering deeply, almost uncontrollably. Hopefully, someone would see my flashing red taillight if I kept the bike leaning against the stop-sign post, but would Warbird spot it? Would he be searching this far north?
About 15 minutes later, when the shivering was at its worst, and I was starting to think about my family, my wife, my options, a maroon minivan pulled up to the intersection from the north, and I practically leaped in front of it. I must've looked pretty bad, because the passenger window came down slowly. I asked them if they were going to Stewartsville, or if I could use their phone. It was option two, and I dialed 911... I got connected to DeKalb County dispatcher, and the very helpful lady dispatched an EMT to me while I was on the phone. I thanked everyone profusely, and the van - and family inside - left. I don't blame them. Who was this nutjob in spandex standing out in the rain, anyways? I don't know who they were, but they quite possibly saved me. If I was still able to ride, the cold might not have been so bad, but everything I was wearing was soaked - I might as well have been standing in the rain, naked. The wind was still howling. I wasn't going to make it. The sun had finally squeaked out the last of it's light, the temperature dropped to about 35ºF, and it started raining again. I stood there, leaning up against that post for another, eternally long, 20 minutes before the calvary finally showed up, a volunteer EMT from Maysville. I had been in the rain and cold for 4 1/2 hours. It was hypothermia, for sure. My cold chest foretold a low core temperature, my fingers and lips were numb and bluish, my toes hurt, I could not stop shaking, and I was drenched despite my best efforts to keep dry - my barriers to the rain proven useless. The truck had a strong heater. We shared stories, and I warmed up, slowly. I was literally chilled to the bone, cold to the touch, like my pilot light had been blown out.
We finally arrived at Stewartsville, and as I'd watched the road pass quickly under the truck as we went south on highway "J", I was realizing that I would have had to walk or ride that whole way - and it seemed unreal, impossible. I knew I made the right choice making that call. I thanked the driver over and over as he unloaded my bike, I shook his hand, and he left. Finally, shelter. I propped the bike up against a short cement wall, with my taillight facing up the road - hopefully for Warbird to see - and went inside to a heated c-store paradise. I even got my card signed, despite the fact that I was already DNF'd for taking the EMT ride - I didn't care. Even if I'd stayed on that bike, I wouldn't have made the control on time. It was officially closing at 21:00 hours, and it was 20:46 when she signed it... After a CAR ride there. HAd I managed to fix the flat, I would have ridden on into the darkness for no reason at all. Too much time had passed. I didn't care. I ate another microwave burrito, two granola bars, some Gatorade, and some hot chocolate - and waited for the Warbird to show up.
And an hour later, he did. I was never so happy to see him in my life. His car's heater was strong, too.. and I sat inside the car while he loaded my bike onto the roof rack, and soon we were headed back to Perkins. Again, the same thoughts crossed my mind, as the lightning flashed and the rain pounded intensely against the windshield: I would've had to ride all that way back, in this darkness, in this rain, on this narrow highway - we both kept mentioning how feeble a bicycle taillight must look at 65 MPH in a downpour like this. I wouldn't have made it, even if everything had gone right. I have no doubt in my mind as I write this - I know the limits of the human body, and this kind of exposure, in drenched clothes with no insulation - it would have spelled doom for me. I was happy to have DNF'd on this day. No question. Even the Warbird, having finished hours earlier, was recounting how miserable it had been in the last hour, riding through driving rain with no leg warmers, no jacket - and at his full steam pace, if it was THAT bad... yikes.
I filled the Warbird's tank with gas when we finally got back to town, and thanked him immensely. Ha has no idea how huge I owe him for that night. A good friend - the best.
After stripping off what I legally could after finally getting into my car with the heat cranked, I began my drive home. You know that throbbing feeling you get in your toes and fingers after you've been out in the cold for a while? I had that feeling in my head, back, everywhere. Scary. I need a few things before this ever happens again: Rain? Gore-Tex, or similar. Fuel -- well, I have a few emails to fire off to help answer that, but I have a feeling that Hammer Gel might be a better choice for me, supplemented with Accellerade in the Camelbak - which worked better than anything else today. I'm removing that Aquarack, because I won't need it to carry extra powder, and it's a piece for breaking so easily. I've removed that plastic cap from the bottom of the ProLink saddle - the rainpants are toast. I'll get a good rain jacket, and call it good.
An hour or so later, I'm sitting in my house, on my couch, recounting the events to the wife. I was home. A hot shower, flannel pajamas, warm socks, a warm bed, and I was out like a light. What a day.
Stats? 140 miles... I dunno... my bike computer died in the rain, too.
Notes from 2009:
Yes indeed, this was my worst day on a bike EVER... still is.
A couple of things, though -- a little prevention goes a long way, and I always feel really dumb when I read this story.
READ THE LABEL. Hammer Nutrition is a good company, with good people, smart people -- and their products are superior to just about anything else available in engineered nutrition. BUT, you HAVE to read the label: On every Sustained Energy tub or packet, you will find a little warning label that reads: Sustained Energy should not be (they might even say "NEVER") combined with any product containing simple or refined sugars.
While I had not technically done this, I was still doing it in my stomach.... for hydration, all day long, I had been sipping Accellerade from a camelbak, which contains Sucrose and Fructose. In short, I'm a stupid person. I learned, though.
I ended up finding the best cycling rain jacket money can buy, figured out precisely the above, and would end up coming back to try the 400K. I would also eventually learn to not use finite inflater cartridges to refill tires, store seatbag items in plastic baggies, and carry more than one tube. In fact, for a long while after this I carried three. I also learned the value of fenders, and carrying a few small items of clothing that can retain body heat without a lot of bulk. Finally, silly as it may sound - after that day I always carry an emergency space blanket. Had no-one shown up, that would have made the difference.
Lessons... hard lessons... but, lessons learned. Since then, because of preparedness and clearer thinking, I haven't had a truly bad day on the bike since.
Well, at least not on a brevet.
Thanks for reading.