I'll try not to make this an epic saga... life has gotten more "interesting" lately, with new (er, additional) responsibilities at work taking the stress level to new heights, and making it harder to imagine sitting in front of a keyboard at home to write anything of length. Somehow, I always end up with at least a page of dribble, so let's just get to the old 'dude-style storytellin'... instead of hammering this out in three hours, it's taken me three days.
Ramp up slowly. I've said it to people. I've read it. I've heard and have seen what happens when you don't. Over-use injuries, knee-popping, ankle-swelling stupidity. Well, some people are lucky, I suppose. The body does remember, assuming all things are equal, and I truly feel like I pulled off a personal miracle. After 2008-2009's R-12 run, and then a 300K in April 2009, and the Leon, IA 400K last May, I'd taken a layoff from distance riding of nearly any kind. Taking into account the barely-handful of times I rode something other than a commute in 2009, I'm kinda surprised I was able to survive this jump back into long-distances. Let's see, realistically I did ride the MS-150 in September... so my original notion that I hadn't ridden any distance since July was a false one. I'd simply forgotten - not sure how - that the MS-Ride this year was not only a good time, but a fairly good showing. Before that, yes - it'd been since July's bike camping trip. So, let's say I had ridden 186 miles over a weekend in September... that's still nearly six months, since the ride was early September, that I'd ridden farther than my commute distance of 24 miles per day, in two 12 mile hunks. Combine that all with borderline burnout, typical February for me, and weekends littered with snow and ice events - the most in a decade, it seems - I hadn't had time to get in any weekend riding farther than 30 miles, either. Add a little winter weight-gain, and I was asking for trouble. Might as well just ride myself back into shape...
Coming along with me were two new randonneurs, and always erring on the side of not publishing names, we'll call them D'mar and L'mar. A married couple, very nice folks - and D'mar I'd met once a long while back at the New Years Day ride at Longview Lake, which was a LONG while back, come to think of it. Three years ago? Yeesh... I need to get out more.
So, once again, I recruit a couple new riders. Longest distance before this one, 104 miles. This would also, I believe, set a new record for both of them for a cold temperature for a ride start. It was cold enough for anyone, trust me ... no records broken, but 20 degrees was probably optimistic, and there was a stiff NW wind - not howling, but not kind. The air was wet, and I was chilled to the core in the first block of riding. Ugh!!! Dressed appropriately, so I thought - always just a wee chilly before riding.. knowing that the effort will warm me up. But, it's dark - 4:00AM start - and humid. I was wishing for another layer. Please, give me something else to remove later... I'll take it. Cold. The only saving grace was the first section gave us a tailwind.
After checking in at 7-Eleven, slugging some hot coffee, and going over brevet card protocols, we were on our way south into the darkness and chilled air. Headlight beams blazing away. Compared to previous weekends, the shoulders of the road didn't seem all that terrible, salt-n-debris-wise, so it was easy going. I was nearly expecting a flat and pothole-fest with the winter onslaught we'd endured, but it wasn't bad. The worst road was actually Antioch, south of 179th street, where construction of some kind has sorta messed up the pavement here. The first test of the day, I managed to climb the hill well enough - but also managed to find all of my gears, and watched as someone clearly much fitter than I danced up the hill and into the darkness - only a taillight remaining. Yikes, I'm outta shape... Part of me wanted to try and chase... which is good for a cyclist, after all ...but I knew I'd pay if I'd tried. Next time, next time... patience...
This is the attendant side-note for 2010: get out, and hit some "racer" rides this spring. Get faster, even if you don't plan to use it.
As the morning progressed, we approached Louisburg, KS. and the BP Gas station. Time to warm up. Frozen bottles were becoming problematic, and while I was doing my best to stay hydrated it was difficult with all of the ice clogging the nozzles, and trying to unscrew the tops with gloved hands was a dangerous prospect. A little hot water from the coffee machine, a little microwave activity, and we were back in business - for a while anyways. This time, I'd leave the spouts open between drinks! This isn't a stop I'd normally take on the way out, but MAN... it was essential to fluid-up, and take a nature break. My breakfast was sticking, so far.. but not eating or drinking enough was not a way to start this ride. Nutrition: this time, I figured I'd return once again to my old friend Sustained Energy for a little while - if not trained, if not conditioned, perhaps getting the correct amount of calories would help? I tend to ignore my own notes sometimes, and float back into old formulas - even after I've written them off. That's chronicled a lot in these pages. Haven't had time to order any Carboplex, or anything else, convinced the c-stores wouldn't do it this time, so I picked up some of the special Hammer sauce. This time, to prevent the old "where do I put all this powder?" problem, I tried #3 on Hammer's recommendation: paste. Mixing scoops of SE with small amounts of water - flavoring with Hammer Gel (chocolate) to taste - until the consistency of pancake batter is reached, and pouring that into Hammer Gel flasks. Tasted good, like Chocolate Hammer gel with "something" in it. Nice. Several hours of fuel stored in a small space; as long as I drink the correct amount of water to process it, I'm good. Frozen bottles, though ... in temperatures cold enough to keep the SE mixture stable for the whole ride, frozen water bottles make it hard to take in enough water to help it work... and it was a growing problem.
After the BP station, and trying to ward off the shivers with a few good hills on Metcalf near 311th Street, the sky started to lighten a bit. I knew there wouldn't be much warmth, but the sun had to help. Finally the headlight beams were offset by the appearance of the road's shoulders, then houses and trees stood out, finally clouds; orange, pink, purple... and then a gloriously huge orange ball of sunshine. Ahhh... I swear, it felt just a twinge warmer, right then. At least, my soul felt it. Along the shoulder of US-69, approaching 359th street, I let out a yelp of happiness... Cycling like this, it's magic. The cold, the frozen bottles - all forgotten in an instant. A huge migration of small birds happened to be passing right over the highway at that moment, from south to north in huge, swirling tubes of flight - each bird seeming to follow its neighbor, and the whole writhing mass tumbling and filling the sky, almost at arm's reach it seemed. Tweeting and diving, occasionally splitting to evade the perceived threat of a passing car on the highway, then joining back together again, all the while moving north and west - tens of thousands of birds, easily. Long distance cycling - I've said before - is mental, and part of the addiction of cycling is "payoff" like this moment ... for every low point I tend to lament about, there is an equal and opposite high. You had to be there, at that moment, to know what I mean - maybe you've been lucky enough to experience it for yourself, but it was surreal and divine - and it seemed like we three riders were the only one's in the world witnessing it. For a brief moment, it was like floating.
I knew this was going to be a rebuilding day, but the feeling of not being able to push when you have a tailwind is a frustrating feeling. I even reached down at one point and released the rear brake caliper's quick-release lever, because I thought the pads were dragging. They weren't.
I was thrilled to see that Jingo Road from 359th to 367th was now paved -- nothing wrong with gravel, mind you and this was one of my favorite sections because of it, but this should invite more riders to try this route -- but I was a little concerned that something might be happening with the old section of Us-69 that'd been sitting dormant since the 60's. Maybe it was just clean-up from the construction, hard to tell - but I kinda hope they keep that old strip of concrete back in the weeds. I like it there.
Jingo road always seems really long, and I was ready for some food at the Casey's in La Cygne... getting the overwhelming feeling that we'd never get there. A couple random dogs, a new water tower? And a really cool view of the orange sun reflecting off the reservoir with the powerplant's twin stacks billowing steam into the cold air - and reminding me of the wind direction.
Finally at the Casey's, potato cheese bites all around. Getting some hot food into my body was such a relief, and the hot coffee was oh-so-nice on the hands. I microwaved my gloves until they were dry and toasty, and the three of us did the usual card-signing routine, bathroom rotation, and rumination of the miles ahead.
"Only 20 miles, right, to the halfway?"
"yep..." I said between bites.
"Is it hilly?"
"a little, yeah..." I was trying hard not to under- or over-sell the middle section of this route, because it's all relative to your experiences. Truthfully, I was also trying hard not to remind myself how hilly it really was in areas. Gorgeous, totally worth the trip - but, yes, hilly in places.
Prepare for sad rant on the state of highway funding and engineering in the early 21st century -- After crossing over the horribly boring and clearly budget-driven new concrete deck bridge on K-152 which takes us over the Marias des La Cygne river....
...seriously, even if its only cosmetic, I think it would have been neat for the designers to have used the old upper truss section of the original bridge as ornamentation along the sides of the new bridge. Just repaint it, and bolt it to the concrete. That bridge made La Cygne unique, and it's just gone now. ...okay, that's all I'll say...
... we turned south once again onto Linn Co 1095 highway for the middle 40 miles of the ride. Pleasanton was in our sights at last, and the sun coming up had actually made it possible to unzip things a little, and consider removing the wind-proof headband. Still, even with the sun getting higher in the sky, that cold northwest wind was still there - essentially it was turning into a day where not a single core layer would be shed, just minor zipper adjustments here and there.
First indication of my outta-shapeness came with the first good hill. I won't call it a cramp, not a full-on lock-up, but more of a tightness, a fatigue, and pre-cramp. Both legs. This is about the time where I'd begin to find my new baseline for the season. Don't get me wrong -- with March 27th a month away as I rode, and the way the winter has been, I knew what I was riding for today: a finish. The hydration problems of the morning were finally thawed out, but it was a game of catch-up. It's frustrating, knowing that hydration drives just about everything in cycling (for me), and not being able to follow you own rules. With that first hill still hot in my legs, I drank more water and popped an electrolyte tab or two.
The conversation was good, dogs few and far between, as was traffic. Not a bad morning at all, but I can't wait until a couple more weeks when hopefully some green will appear, maybe some color in the trees and in the fields. With the moisture we've had here, it should be an explosion of spring... today, the stark browns and bare trees looked a little depressing against the bright blue sky - in-which there wasn't a cloud to be seen. If nothing else, I could finally see my shadow on a bike ride! It'd been too long.
Arriving at Pleasanton, and feeling good about making the halfway mark, I was beginning to feel the effects of not eating very much - not even my SE paste. I don't know if I'm out of practice, or what - but I just didn't eat very much. D'Mar was kind enough to offer up some Fig Netwons, but I foolishly bagged them for later. I bought some Gardetto's snack mix, and ended up bagging most of that, also. The nutrition I really should have been eating for the return to La Cygne would spend most of the next section hanging out in my back pockets. The new rando folks were drinking and eating, had a few complaints here and there - but really were doing quite well! I'm not sure if I really had any preconceptions about how long we'd be riding together at the start - D'Mar was clearly in better shape, more trained - and despite L'Mar's talks about not liking hills she was going better than I was in places. Now, however, the return trip was in our faces -- and the headwind.
Hydration was catching up as nature breaks were coming more frequently - but the food deficit was going to start becoming more real. There is a new gas pipeline head along this middle section of route now - which is interesting - but outside the fenceline is a porta-john! Sweet! So, I answer the call... something usually impossible on this very exposed road. Nary a tree to stand behind. Back on the bike quickly, I proceeded to try and catch back up to my companions - but it would take miles and miles to do it. After turning a corner, the first big hill was already looming - and the hills are worse on the return trip here. I could see the bright orange vests (good job on visibility, guys!) of my fellow riders, but couldn't seem to reel them in. I slogged along into the headwind, which - I'm sorry, the forecasters were wrong on this one again - was stronger than the advertised 8 MPH. I've ridden this route into a 20-25 MPH headwind, and it was not that bad today - but trying to set fatigue aside, this was no 8-MPH wind. No way. I looked down at my bike computer, and then learned not to bother.
More pain, more pre-cramping, and nausea? Yikes... either I was face-to-face with my old nemesis (the 80-mile wall) or I was just in horrible shape.. maybe both. This section was a struggle. On the 2nd hill, I just KNEW that I was done for. I remember writing this a long time back, I think it was the March ride - R-12 vol.1, no.2, where I felt like I just wanted to stop, get off, and walk this monster hill. I almost did this time. I even looked up and watched as D'Mar (a tad closer this time but still at least 1/4 mile ahead) was actually zig-zagging up the climb once or twice, to get the RPMs up. With traffic not on my side upon reaching the same space, I couldn't copy that move -- and the direct mash up the grade was hurting me. Knees, fine. Lungs, fine... but my legs felt dead, and my gut hollow. I could feel every pound of winter mass. I managed to make it up, without dismounting. Things crossed my mind, like making a phone call at La Cygne.
After the climbs subsided, I felt like things would improve. I mentally checked the middle section off the radar, and focused on La Cygne. Pizza, fries, whatever junk I could get my hands on. I wasn't going to be picky. However, as soon as I turned right, and headed back east on K-152, it hit me like a lightswitch had been flicked: bonk. The hole in my gut got bigger and I felt dizzy, really tired, and leaden - all at once. While not completely debilitating, it wasn't going to get better. Even my upper body faltered, like I was tired of holding myself upright. I watched as my companions advanced up the road, and - even with a slight tailwind - watched my speed drop like a rock. I maintained balance, kept from getting wobbly, and just focused on continuing to pedal lightly. If I stopped spinning, I'd lock up for sure. Two miles to Casey's, I can almost smell it... just pedal. All the while, stupidly, the nausea of the previous dozen miles became clearly a sign that - while I didn't WANT to - I should have eaten something. My back pockets were full, but my tank was empty. I squirted some SE paste into my mouth... but couldn't seem to swallow it. Ugh.... dude, what are you *doing* out here? Thoughts of that phone call crept into my head again.
Randonneurs tend not to quit... we tend to wait. Wait fifteen minutes. Everything in long-distance riding lasts fifteen minutes. Get to Casey's, eat something, relax, don't think... don't call anyone... don't make any decisions. Not yet.
Finally: cheese pizza, potato bites, chocolate milk, a 5-Hour Energy shot, and some Fig Newtons. Remembering stories of people blowing food all over the inside window of c-stores and onto gas-station sidewalks, I was carefully chewing and drinking water while I ate... and instead of nausea I felt that welcome surge of life come back into my legs, arms, neck, and mind. Like waking from a dream-state almost, not really clear on how much time has elapsed, I double checked my brevet card to make sure it'd been signed already - it had. Wow, man... nice goin'. I now think I have another "worst case" baseline for how long I can ride without eating much of anything. Not something to repeat.
At about 1:00pm, back eastbound on K-152, the damage was done. I was alive, awake, and fueled - but the thrashing my legs had been given over the first 85 miles of this ride wasn't going to right itself from the saddle. No making up time, no miracles, no showing off. Just make it home. All-in-all, the day had been pretty productive: we may have gone out too hard, but it hadn't seemed like it. Instead of trimming the minutes to each control like I'd done in 2008 on a couple occasions, we were sitting comfortably with over an hour to spare at any given time, often more than that. The new riders, despite their original nervousness, were proving to "have the stuff" - no real complaints, no doubts... if it took every last minute, they were going to finish. It was hard all around -- but the headwind and the trials of the morning were taking their toll. The long march back from La Cygne was on.
The last third of this ride has to be checked off in sections. K-152. Jingo. The Highway. Metcalf, south of Louisburg. Metcalf, north of Louisburg. 199th. Antioch. 179th. Each section was a mental check-off, and some were faster than others. Some where embarrassingly slow. But, I was re-learning: feeling the effects of the lunch I ate at La Cygne, I re-wired the connection that food + water = feel good = push. Somewhere along the way I've definitely made the transition from a racer-wannabe mindset to a randonneur mentality: Real food, instead of engineered food. While Carboplex is perfect, adding zero taste and zero texture to the water it is mixed with, I just can't drive myself to mindlessly consume things like SE anymore. It worked for a while today, but I grew very tired of it too early in the ride. Now, I was working out of the feed bag that I'd stocked in Pleasanton - something I should have been eating from before things got so bad. Leftover potato bites, fig newtons, snack mix -- all of it went in while I rode, and I think that made the difference after Louisburg. I bought more fig newtons there at the BP station and made a habit of taking one in every few miles for the rest of the ride. The tank empties faster as you ride longer, and I wasn't going to let myself slip again. Electrolyte tabs, and water. In, in, in. Another nature break. Hydrated, nice. Keep pedaling.
The doubt was leaving. I felt like a finish was within reach. The clock wasn't where I'd have preferred it, but I was still in the time windows - so I focused on that positive. Even the "practiced" rando-riders forget little things from time to time, and I chalk this ride up to just that. I knew what I needed to do early on, but frozen bottles made things tough - which built a deficit that I could have been smarter about overcoming. Without having ridden too far for six months, things were turning out okay. How I would feel the next day, that remained to be seen. It wasn't going to be pretty!
After another nature break at 199th and Metcalf, D'Mar and L'Mar caught up and we proceeded to roll along together again, which was nice. I don't know where I found the push to open up a gap between us, but apparently the return to correct fueling helped. The only final shortcoming, right at the Shell station at 199th and US-69, my right hamstring locked up hard. REALLY hard... I coasted down the grade, thankful it was there for me at that moment, and tried to massage it out. More water, more electrolytes to the rescue... I was burning through fuel much faster now, and my legs were clearly finished for the day. More food, in. Nine miles left.
A long downhill on Antioch, and the two mile climb up 179th street to finish off the day... with the sun getting lower in the western sky. Wow... LONG day... indeed. A final card signing, all of us finishing together give or take, and a quick ride back to the house to get a hot shower. A LONG hot shower.
Couple of things for next time: simple, cheap things: While I'd love a proper handlebar bag, my bike really isn't made for one - so I think I'll opt from something I've used in the past, something that L'Mar had on her ride: a triathlete's stem-bag. Small, but very accessible: if the food is in front of me, I'll probably be more likely to eat it. That ought to leave one off my back pockets open for another trick that ended up being a bit of a "duh": if the bottles are freezing, put one in your back pocket! A difficult as it sounds to put a cold bottle against your back when it's freezing outside, I think the alternatives must be weighed. Ride harder to stave off the chill, and have liquid water to drink. Thankfully, a few more weeks and we won't have to worry about that anymore.
BIG congrats to D'Mar and L'Mar, husband and wife team that came out with me for their first EVER trip well beyond the century marker! It was a big undertaking for a February in Kansas, and personally I don't know if I would have preferred to try my hand at long-distance in the less-than-ideal conditions we'd started into. They are strong riders, both, and I hope they'll be back. It was a pleasure... After reviewing this write-up it seems weird saying that.. because it wasn't always a pleasant ride, but it wasn't because of the company.
I'd eluded to it before -- long-distance cycling has really high "highs", but also has really low "lows". Sharing the experience with someone else is always rewarding because of the memories it inspires and the stories it creates. I think cyclists in general have a special bond... but long-distance cyclists? It's a gateway to lifelong friendships, for sure. You can't go out and suffer like that with another human being and not connect on some level. Enough with the mush, but I love this sport.
For me, for now... rest, recover. The hamstring issue, 48-hours later, has righted itself and I don't feel anything lingering aside from a LOT of fatigue. A short to-the-bus-stop commute this morning, and I can feel it for sure... I can barely push my easy-single-speed up any hills. Hydrate and ride carefully, and I should be more than ready for what's next.
Thanks for reading... stay tuned for another one in March!