December 29, 2009

From the Archives: "The 400K - So Close"

As originally written: May 4th, 2002:

Well, the rookie Brevet season closes on this ride -- the 400k attempt! A REALLLY early rising time of 3:30am was probably the deciding factor - I should have gone to sleep a lot sooner than I had the evening before, but that's in the past now. It was a worthy effort, but in the end I came up short - not finishing.

After a brief pep talk from Bob Burns it was time to ride - 5am -- we headed out with a pretty good sized pack, about 14 people - which surprised me. Even a few new faces, but mostly people from previous brevets. We made our way thru the dark streets of Grandview headed for Paola - and I was feeling pretty good. Things were shaping up for a good day and the finish was on my mind. Then came 5th street, and the first sizable hill of the day: I shifted from the big ring to the small ring and my chain derailed off towards the inside of the bike. No biggie, I shift to the big ring to try and reset the chain, but it shifts off the outside that time.. Ugh. Unfortunately, there is (for some reason) no overshift safety stop on my chainrings - like on Shimano stuff - to prevent the chain from getting wedged between the crankarm and the spider, which is exactly what happened. The drivetrain stopped HARD, and I went down halfway up the hill. It was embarrassing and frustrating at the same time. The pack flew past, up the road -- and there I was, alone in an instant, in the dark, trying to get my chain unstuck from the position it was jammed in to. I had to REALLY yank to get it out, and the damage was done: a tear in my new ProLink saddle's leather (adds character, right?) scratches on the frame, and gouges in the soft metal of the crankamr on the drive side. So much for "pristine condition". Plus, after a lot of manipulation to get the chain free, most of the lube that should have stayed on the chain was now on my hands. That was no good - and I didn't have any extra lube with me. No gas station was going to carry the right stuff, either - so today was effectively trash what was left of the chain. Screw it - I was gonna finish.

With little more than five miles into the ride, I was not going to let this setback ruin my day -- however the warm-fuzzy and confident feelings I had only a few minutes earlier were gone, replaced by stress, dirty hands, and a chain that would remind me with every turn that it was in bad shape - probably a bent link or side plate. Click, clunk, clunk, clink, click, pop. Ugh.

Now came the daunting task of catching the pack - not something that was especially wise to undertake on such a lengthy ride - but I did not want to spend the entire day alone like I had on the 300k. I hammer as best I could into the chill of the pre-dawn air, which was thick with moisture and almost foggy. Then came unsurmountable bladder pressure -- I got to State Line and Blue Ridge Blvd, to the Amoco station there, which was not even open yet. I pulled in, went over behind the car wash, and took the longest leak I probably can remember. Two full minutes -- at least I was hydrated.

A few satisfying downhills later, and I transitioned onto familiar ground; Kenneth road over to Mission and south to 199th, then west. The sun began to make its way over the horizon, and birds were in song. I probably would have enjoyed it more had it not been for the earlier events.

Warbird, miles farther west, was already making his way through Spring Hill, KS, having jumped off the front of the group after about only three miles. He was having an excellent day and was enjoying the buttery smooth ride of his Trek 450, recently refitted. Good choice for this longer distance - there is no room for aluminum at these distances.

Finally, after nearly an hour of consistent riding and no setbacks I popped over the top of a hill near Antioch and 199th and caught a view - way up in the distance - the flash of a bright yellow riders jacket, and the flash of a steadily blinking taillight. I had made some ground back, and the target was set.

I ended up catching him before crossing the railroad tracks near 199th and Woodland Rd, however there was a little help from a passing train that had dropped the crossing gates and made the last part of my chase easy. Still, I was no longer last in line, and began to feel a little better about the situation. The train passed, the gates came up, and I was off again. As this point, all trust in my drivetrain was gone. Shifting was terrible, so I stayed in the big ring for the next 200 miles. For me, that is a huge deal - just being able to shift.
At least the rear was working.

Downhill on Webster, through familiar old Spring Hill, and onward to Old KC Road for a shot south. I was feeling much better at this point, getting past my mental woes from earlier and concentrating on the next task at hand, getting to the first checkpoint in a reasonable time and possibly catching the next rider up the road. Both would happen for me, despite getting a little lost on the way. New construction of a bridge over the railroad tracks and creek south of Hillsdale continues, so a detour is needed. We head east on 255th St., and get up onto US-169 highway --- yikes --- 169 highway takes us about three miles to K-68, then we're supposed to return west to turn left onto Hedge Lane, which is difficult to see when you're actually on the road itself, as opposed to looking at a map - but there's a new roundabout here, and I end up heading south on Old KC Road. Kinda confusing, the roundabout, and I continue south on Old Kc Road, ending up on the wrong side of Paola. I found Baptiste Road, however, retraced my steps east, and find the control with some bonus miles. Checked in at the control, and asked the counter-person when the first person (likely Warbird) had come through - only 30 minutes beforehand. I was not really losing that much ground, but I was not catching him, either. I refilled my Camelbak, had a V8, and it was time to go again. Butler, MO., was next, about 60 miles away.

The ride to Butler was pretty good - managed to catch two more people before hitting the checkpoint in Paola, and would swap positions with them a few times throughout the day. Their checkpoint routine was much faster than mine, and they were quickly gone again - but I ended up catching them on the road later on. About that time, on the road to Butler, shortcomings in the map and cue sheet would become apparent. I ended up on dirt, and lost - turned around, and finally found the correct version of Hedge Road after the construction south of town. Good road, but hard to stay on. Near Paola, it gets divided up, requiring jogs east, then west, then back again to stay on it. Once I had it figured out, I was in good shape - but I made some notes for later, as the route is an out and back. I was in good shape now, enjoying the morning, and feeling good and fresh thanks to my Sustained Energy and Hammer Gel mix -- finally figured it all out, nutrition-wise, and my system was performing well with the new formula.

Then, about 11 miles later, just before K-152 came up, I re-caught the two riders (a husband and wife tandem team, but on separate bikes for this ride) and passed them with hellos and such, enjoyed a huge downhill run across what I will call a valley -- K-152 is a cool highway; downhill into the valley (floodplain?) and then 12 miles of uninterrupted and flat pavement, and another huge hill climbs out of it on the other side. Very cool, very scenic: from either end, west or east, you can see all of it from the top of either hill.

About halfway through this valley is the little town of La Cygne, KS., and a Casey's general store! Time to cut this leg in half -- I stopped for a refill and a V8. Two riders passed me again. Oh well. I continued onward after this brief stop, up the hill that brings riders out of the valley, downhill, under US-69 highway, and then along the south edge of La Cygne Lake, and the big KCPL generating station there.

I was half tempted to follow the lake road around to those old railroad tracks that enter the plant, and have a picture taken -- but there was no-one there to take the picture... oh well. Maybe next year. Soon, I was back in Missouri, on highway "J" -- then a few more turns onto a nice flat road that leads to Butler, MO., and another checkpoint. And there is ALWAYS a line at this gas station. Ugh. I was on my way again, but not nearly as fast getting out of that checkpoint as I would have liked. Eventually, I was out of the control, and on the leg to Appleton City, MO., the halfway point. The sun was way up, the breeze was refreshing instead of hindering, and I was feeling good. The new saddle position was perfect, the chain seemed to be making less noise now, and there was lots of scenery. I was actually having a lot of fun. About 7 miles outside of Appleton City, I saw what I was waiting to see -- the good part of the out and back course if seeing who is ahead and by how much. The first of these riders was now coming up the road in the opposite direction, and it was Warbird! He was flying up the road, and we both stopped for a quick chat. We were both having pretty good days, mine considering, and we took a few minutes to exchange stories. His day was epic, he was way off the front, feeling awesome, the SE (Sustained Energy) was working perfectly, and there was a slight tailwind to enjoy for the return trip: something for me to look forward to, for sure. I recounted my chain woes, having to wait for a train, and various other moments of the morning.

Warbird went back across the road to take a quick nature break, and FINALLY after talking for about five minutes the following tandem was becoming visible on the horizon, working its way back west - fast. He'd been WAY off the front, for sure! The tandem flew past with a wave, and Warbird was hungry again - we departed ways, and I stopped for a few moments to watch him and the tandem become dots on the tops of hills behind me. I had to get the halfway checkpoint, already! About ten minutes later, Byron and a recumbent rider working together passed headed the other direction, waves exchanged. Warbird had put a ton of distance on the rest of the group, and had probably caught the tandem by then. Had I not had chain issues, I might have been somewhere in that mix, but that would have to wait for a day where all my stuff was together.

Got to Appleton City, checked in, and then while drinking a V8 and refilling my SE, etc., a older local on a Nishiki city-bike, complete with huge wire basket on the back, stopped by the Casey's store. We chatted idly about bikes, riding, commuting, etc., for about 30 minutes. I guess I was in no hurry, really. I was doing well, averaging about 15.5mph for the day so far, and was literally halfway there. -- 127 miles in the bank at that point. Still, I had to keep moving - I cut the chat short, and I was off again -- still feeling fresh, and heading back to Butler again. The tailwind was a nice change, and so was the elimination of my "virtual headwind" that had likely been created back when I fell in Grandview: the rear brake had been knocked off-center, and one of the pads had been dragging on the rear rim. Not enough to make noise, but I half-wondered why some of my descents were not quite as fast as normal. Yikes. I re-dialed them before departing, and all was good for a flying 200K return to home. The only real problem was the looming scepter of darkness that was only a few hours away.

I rode on, feeling great, however to my dismay I did not pass (opposing) anyone else coming up the road on the way back -- was I last again? What happened to the two or three riders I knew that were behind me? Apparently, there was some straying from the route here and there, unintentionally - directions or cue sheet mishaps - but it was making me second guess myself, and my progress thusfar. I didn't see nearly the amount of people I should have seen on the return route, nor at the checks - strange. Fourteen people at the ride start, and I had only counted three behind me, and four in front of me. Uh oh.

I still enjoyed the scenery, and after a while - and after many self-rechecks of the route - I was back in Butler, MO. waiting in line at the gas station behind some womna with a problem with her receipt or something. Again, WAY too much time wasted at an entirely too busy checkpoint. Finally I was out, card signed. As I stepped out of the store, there was Warbird's Dad - hey, cool! I shed a layer (which I'd regret later) and took a brief rest, enjoying the "assistance at controls only" portion of the RUSA rules. We chatted for a little bit, and then I was on the way again - refreshed mentally. The SE was still working well, but fatigue was on the horizon, and the extremely early hour of rising was slowly catching up as well.

I rode on, and sprouted wings for the flight westward - I flew down highway "J", and crossed into Kansas (finally!) - the final stretch of the ride was all in front of me now, burned on my brain. I hammered it across the levee at La Cygne Lake, and before I knew it I was back at the Casey's in La Cygne - another V8 stop, water; and realizing that this was probably "it" before nightfall. Taillight on, reflective vest on, time to go. I worked my way along the remainder of K-152 toward Hedge Lane for the journey north; tailwind, yes; headlight, check; sunset on my left, check. It was getting dark fast out here. Very different than commuting home under streetlights, riding after dark in the country was another ballgame entirely. At this point, I would find out later, the Warbird - after getting lost - was only six miles ahead of me, on the same piece of road that I was on at sundown! I wouldn't know it at the time, but I hammered as best I could under the load of the big chainring and nearly 200 miles in the hopper already.

Darkness fell like a wool blanket, and the stars came out to play. The rural sky was breathtaking, but the lack of sun and clouds was making for a quick temperature drop... and I had given my jacket to Warbird's dad. Mistake #1. After a full day in the sun, it was getting downright cold out here. Combine cold air, 14 hours on the bike, a 3-AM wakeup call, and the darkness - and you get one sleepy cyclist. It was starting to catch up, fast. I made it through the zig-zags of Hedge Lane, 343rd, Block Road, 313th, and Hedge Lane again, and back to Baptiste in Paola for the control: the last control of the ride before the finish. I was CLOSE... 42 miles from my car, and a legitimate finish in my first 400km brevet.

Little did I know that Warbird had been long lost - and at one point we were as close together as a single mile. I had been assuming that he was WAY up the road, as far as I knew he was finished and enjoying a hot shower at home. Instead, he's taken a right instead of a left, and was headed east again on 311th, away from Paola. We were a MILE apart, as I reached the same intersection and turned left. It never crossed my mind to wait a while at Paola, rest, maybe catch a nap - had I just waited a while at Paola, I would have - confusing as it would have been - seen him come in behind me. We could have ridden the last 42 miles together, and both our problems would have been solved. Instead, knowing he was ahead of me and still in chase-mode, I checked in fast, grabbed some supplies, and made my way back out onto the road. Despite the sleepiness and the cold creeping in, the next six miles would be epic.

I made the correct turn back up Hedge Lane, northbound, and realized enroute that Hedge Lane was the SAME road that I used to drive to for trainspotting so many years back - weird! I was here again, via 210 miles on a bicycle! Two totally different people, but the same person, pass in the night, years apart - at 287th and Hedge Lane. The distance between me and that old version of myself was far greater than the double century I'd ridden today. As I rode, a few times too often I found the thoughts of that past combining with sleepiness, causing me to drift across the road... not a good sign... STAY AWAKE!

I continued to K-68, and turned nervously and reluctantly back toward the Old KC Road detour onto US-169 highway. Riding a bicycle on US-169 is a dangerous prospect during the DAY, but here I was; tired, fatigued, riding on fumes, and rolling onto one of the most dangerous highways in Kansas, at night. In a construction zone. And it had JUST started to sprinkle rain. I'm, honestly, lucky to be typing this ride account. Thank goodness for TONS of reflective tape and a really bright taillight. I made it the three miles to 255th street and got off the highway onto safer pavement -- man, I wish they'd finish that Old KC Road bridge already. I think I had indentations in the bar-tape after that three miles. Surprisingly, I only got honked at once. I don't know if anyone else even saw me.

About 25 yards on the other side of the overpass after getting off on 255th street, my phone rang. I figured it was Warbird, calling to announce his successful finish, and to motivate me to do the same. It would have been a welcome call, especially after the horrific three miles that had just passed. Something to re-occupy my mind, instead of staring off into my headlight beam and being hypnotized into a slumber. Instead, Warbird was calling to announce his DNF -- he told the tales of getting lost, running out of SE, and bonking HARD. After 14 hours in the saddle, there is no energy in your system anymore - the only thing fueling you is what's in your stomach. If that runs out, you bonk FAST. He had ended up laying down in the middle of the road and sleeping after climbing three monster hills east of Paola, and then realizing he was totally in the wrong place. He was picked up, and driven in to Paola.

It's hard to explain what went through my mind at that point. I was within 30 miles of finishing. I was at 255th and Old KC Road, and the return route was very familiar to me. Hearing the new's of the WArbirds misfortune, however, somehow deflated me. If *HE* couldn't finish, what was *I* doing out here? I was cold, getting the chills from a cold night air blowing past my sunburned arms, legs and face, there was a slight dampness from a quick burst of light rain, I was beginning to fall asleep in the saddle, and I was beginning to enter uncharted territory, nutritionally: the SE had been working strong all day, but it seemed like I couldn't drink enough of it now. I just stopped, and asked Warbird to come get me.

I ended up sitting on the pavement and sleeping, at a Texaco at 255th and Old KC Road, for about an hour until he'd arrived. I then found myself stepping into his car for the 2nd time in as many weeks. I had achieved the last control... only one to go, the finish, and it didn't close until 8:00AM the next day! I could have stopped, slept, and just started again in a few hours with plenty of time to get to Grandview.... but none of those ideas popped into my head until the next day. I simply wasn't prepared for it, wasn't invested in it, and at that point I was simply "done". 218.15 miles, and no medal to show for it. It's hard to explain, or justify.

But, I do have a huge amount of personal satisfaction knowing that I achieved a personal distance record that day, and it will take a long time to better it. In fact, I won't even attempt it again until next year, at the earliest. I will be back, however, and I will finish each brevet - regardless of the conditions - because now I know what my limits are, and what to expect from myself. PLUS, I can enjoy a better time on the bike thanks to a recent purchase: a 1982 Trek 720 frame made of Reynolds 5-3-1 steel -- a true classic, and built for these kinds of rides. The Schwinn is history, and vintage steel will be my choice for distance riding, as it should be. Looking forward to that build-up already!

Now that I've broken 1,000 miles for the year, and it's not even summer yet, I'm happy with the season's events so far. I may not have finished officially, but I have learned volumes about gear, technique, fuel, and myself. This has been an awesome year so far.

Notes from 2009:

This is the first time I really stared the exhaustion and sleep-deprivation monsters in the face, and yet it would be a hard lesson to master - costing me my age group at a 24-hour race before it really sunk in that it was something to train for, like anything else in long-distance cycling. While I might have finished this ride had I been a little better prepared, it's hard to tell if I was ready to take those next steps that night. Being alone on a long ride can play on the mind even if you are WELL rested, so it's hard to explain.

One recurring theme in these first three brevet accounts is a discredit to RUSA and randonneuring in general: my constant references to "where I am on the road", "who is behind me", "who I passed", etc., is not really what randonneuring is all about, and I would come to appreciate that much more in coming years. At the time, I had been well steeped in competitive riding and amateur racing with Warbird and other club riders around the region. It was all too easy to take this "me vs. you" mentality to the brevet scene. Randonnuering is not a series of racing events, and while sometimes it's fun to "pit yourself" against other riders, its not something spoken aloud or bragged about. You ride against yourself, first and foremost - never against your fellow rider. Speedplay and friendly competition does happen, and it's fun and healthy -- but I've been the beneficiary of someone giving up their fast time on XX distance, because they passed me, saw I was in difficulty, and sacrificed to give me a draft. I am forever grateful for that, and have tried on many occasions to pay that forward. Sure, I'm always out to ride my fastest time, or achieve a personal goal -- but sometimes I've flushed that all just to have someone to chat with for a few dozen miles. Nothing wrong with that!

I am forever grateful to Warbird's father, Don, W0DEW, for coming along on these first few brevets. It was nice to see a friendly face at each control that first year, and I have some excellent photographs to cherish for years to come, including the one that graces the header of this webpage. He also passed on some common-sense tips that I still refer back to while on these long rides. My favorite, silly as it sounds, came on this very 400k ride, at the Butler control on the return leg: He took a long look at me after I emerged from the gas station after getting my card signed, and suggested that I "go back inside, go into the restroom, and wash your face." Initially confused, I did just as he suggested. Miles of crusted salt and sweat was removed from around my eyes, facial hair, and brow, and instantly my whole outlook changed. I felt fresh, renewed - like the entire journey to that point had been rinsed clean. I left that control feeling like I had started a brand new ride, and it was just that simple. I've taken an extra few minutes to wash my face at least once on every brevet I've ridden since then, and it's always his voice that reminds me.

A few weeks later, Warbird and I headed west to take part in Ride the Rockies, and it was a self-defining ride for me. After completing that ride without having to SAG, even on the hardest of days, I ended a journey that started in early April 2002, a journey that taught me more about myself than I think I've learned in any other time in my life. Three months, and probably 1,500 miles of self-discovery. I came back to randonneuring in 2003, and successfully completed all three brevets (200,300 and 400km), and went on to compete in my first 24-hour race that August. I'm still learning about myself today, and I think that's what I like most about rando-riding: you never really know what's next, no matter how many times you've ridden xxx kilometers. It's always a new adventure, and it pays you back.

Thanks for reading --

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