May 3, 2020

A 200km Tale: Flirting with Disaster ... again ... and Lessons for Long-Distance Cycling's New Landscape.

  More than a photo dump from a recent big ride, this post hopefully serves as a personal list of do's and don'ts for any of my future events in this "new world" we live in these days.  Little doubt exists that ... sigh, do I HAVE to type it out? ... COVID-19 has changed everything, quite literally.  I do not think any aspect of our lives have remained unaffected by this pandemic.  Long-distance cycling is no different.  

No matter how many times we have said across myriad long-distance webpages, and randonneuring-speak in general, the descriptive phrase "long-distance self-supported bicycling" has never really resonated until very recently for me.  Granted, resupplying oneself at a c-store in "the old world" was still considered self-support: the phrase originates from the idea that, unlike professional cycling, you cannot have a support car following along or handing things up to you while riding.  You're largely on your own, and in this sense perhaps randonneurs were already good at this sort of behavior.  It simply is and has been "what we do."  

However, the concept of removing the c-stores, usually spaced every 50km at a minimum for most routes, has changed quite a bit of the tone of "self-supported."  Like a long-distance tourist, perhaps akin to those brave souls that pack up for a multi-day epic across Asia, it has become paramount to change how we approach randonneuring.

I do not want to get on record as saying that traditional, pre-COVID-19 randonneuring was "easy," because the distances are still daunting, even with regular control breaks.  By comparison, however, yeah .... I suddenly miss being able to stop at a c-store, with nary a care in the world, pull up some sidewalk with a bunch of fresh water and food.  

Granted, I suppose this new behavior varies depending on regional realities and personal preference.  The c-stores are still there, many still open and serving their local customers - with lots of changes in place, of course.  For me, however, living in a densely-populated (by contrast) area, I still do not feel comfortable intermingling with smaller communities who should not have to worry about who I am, where I came from, what I might be carrying (even though I know that I am, more than likely, not carrying anything), as well as the risks of me entering unfamiliar areas close to highways which may be exposed to travelers from who-knows-where.  

There is little need to belabor everything we already know ... no need for reiteration.  
Maybe 20 years from now, someone reading this might need some context, but the rest of the internet might suffice in filling that need.  We ALL know what's going on today, in the early part of 2020.  

So, how does an aspiring long-distance cyclist cope? 
We add the ability to carry the only things we really need to keep moving: 

Food and water.   

I like local, but when I can't get it my notion of "local" simply expands a little bit.  Long considered the best and strongest bottle cages money can buy, King Cage in Durango, CO, USA is the best way to add more water-carrying capacity.  These "drop cages" slide the standard 63mm mounting points up an inch, which can allow for larger bottles in the frame, or to better fit bottles under an under-top-tube frame bag.  In this case, they help get my bottles in the right place on what I will call a "weird" fork ... with bizarre, non-standard braze-on locations.  At the bottom, I used a longer bolt to go through the cage, a washer, the fender stays, another washer, and into the fork.... which, I know, trust me:  I cringe when I read that last part out loud.  I prefer and strongly recommend ONE fastener for ONE thing for each ONE braze-on... but, like I said, this is a weird fork.  The top mount is held in place using a King Cage bolt-clamp, basically a really good quality hose clamp with a M5 stud tacked to it, all stainless, super-strong.  The included washer and nylon lock-nut cinches everything down nicely.  Repeat on both sides of the fork, and - boom - two extra bottles.

The unique challenges of a weird fork with canti brakes caused a bit of a faf, but once complete I can carry double the water and extend my radius ... and avoid needing to stop anywhere.  I envy those with "real" triple-bolt forks and disc brakes right now, but, this'll do nicely.  After 130 miles on some questionable pavement and rail trail, the cages didn't move a millimeter.

The King Cages are really good, and I had little doubt about their ability - but, a full water bottle mounted in a non-standard location creates extra loads and forces in odd directions:  so, to be on the safe side and help protect the cages and keep the extra water in check, a couple Voile straps around the fork leg and the bottle's neck ensure nothing wobbles about or rockets loose while riding along.  Looking downright Bike-Packer-ish here!  What you don't see are the 2L of water inside the Carradice saddlebag and one more 21 oz. insulated bottle for my center back jersey pocket, two flasks of Hammer Gel and four Honey Stinger waffles.  That last piece, the food, yes.... part of my personal notes, that is not NEARLY enough food  or water for what I was about to undertake.  I figured that out at mile 87, big-time.

Food and water,

... food and water.

  As much as I DID carry, it ultimately ended up not being enough.  Drama suspended, if I had just two more water bottles, one extra liter, the last part of the ride would have gone far better.

Some quick notes (as quick as the 'dude gets to ANY point, ever):

ALWAYS take more than you think you need.  

When a respected ultra-cyclist and multiple DK finisher (including DKXL) says "take the Camelbak," no matter how much you don't want that stupid thing on your back.... TAKE THE FREAKIN' CAMELBAK.  If you still don't want to, then wait until the next weekend when the other two bottle cages arrive for the rear rack, and then go.

Once said of firewood for a Canadian winter: chop what you think you need, then double it.  You don't want to find out you were wrong in early February.  That mistake could kill you.

There is a saying that you should do things that scare you a little bit.  This is good for you.
BUT, you should absolutely control your own destiny and guarantee yourself some success.  The part that scares you should never, ever be your logistical ability to complete the event. 
Either carry enough stuff, or don't go. 

The positive aspects of carrying a LOT of extra stuff enabled me to pick a route that would likely never fly as a RUSA event.  Almost no way to control it, passing absolutely no services of any kind, and no way to get the traditional brevet card signed.  As a straight out and back, there's no way to shortcut it - but short of a GPS track there is scant little way to prove you actually rode it.  Well, save for the receipts one might get had they been smart enough to stop somewhere to re-supply.

This all makes for good training:  riding a fully-laden bike loaded with 9 bottles of water, that bike normally meant for gravel rides, and one that's a bit heavy and slow on pavement on a good day ... yeah, that's good training.  Adding in 40 miles of rail-trail, well, there's no way around it:  it's slow going, and even if it's fast going it surely takes more energy for the same speed compared to even traditional gravel.  That pea-gravel just sucks the speed out of anyone - I swear regular gravel roads are faster.  Add in a consistent headwind for the first half, and that it was the hottest day of the year so-far in 2020, and that I had not ridden a single 200-km ride in over a year (Feb. 2019), and had only ridden two 100km rides this year, one in March, one in April, both paved ... well, I should have been a little more prepared.  

Food.  I'm not sure why I thought just four Honey Stinger waffles and two flasks of Hammer Gel (one serving per hour for 10 hours) would be enough food.  I had plenty of normal food at home I could have packed... but for some dumb reason, I just didn't.  

The Hammer Gel is always around for my long rides, but just as "top-off" fuel.  It was always used on the assumption that I was stopping at c-stores and buying as much real food as I could stuff down, like Casey's pizza, potato chips, the occasional Snickers or Mounds bars, or fast-food fare ... and for this ride it apparently did not cross my mind that those four Honey Stinger waffles would not nearly fill the gap of c-store food I would normally enjoy every 20-30 miles or so.  A massive, gigantic calorie hole was waiting for me... and in typical fashion, one falls into that hole suddenly and dramatically.

Yeah, do not jump any fences around here.

The Rock Island Spur Trail, which currently runs from Pleasant Hill, MO. out to its intersection with the KATY Trail in Windsor, MO.  The surface is great.... for a rail trail ... and with the headwind and rolling-resistance-sapping surface, well... I'd burn a lot of energy in this middle 40-mile section out to Chilhowee, MO.  In retrospect, I should have pushed an additional 10 miles to Leeton, MO., and hit the Casey's there for a complete refill of water, and the purchase of a lot more food.  Instead, keen on remaining contact-free, I opted to ration my supplies and turn around at Chilhowee for an even 200km day.  Big mistake, considering I'd be forced to abandon my zero-contact plans later anyways, after bonking hard and running out of everything.  As counter-intuitive as it might have seemed at the time, the extra 20 miles out to Leeton and back would have netted a better overall ride later.

...But, it was absolutely worth it.  The rail trail system offers views of the countryside previously reserved only for the railroad employees, and some areas have been untouched since the railroad was cut through.  Really old, original blastings through limestone and ancient trestles, it is a trip one should definitely take.  But, yeah ... there are no services, at all.

Arriving at my new turn-around, and the regrets that would follow.  In my mind, at that time, I was being more sensible by not stopping anywhere.  Considering the time lost later on, and the physical toll, pushing to Leeton should have been the smarter option.  At this point in my ride, however, it felt good to have arrived somewhere, and that I could turn around and enjoy a tailwind.  There is a c-store in Chilhowee, yes.... as a big sign on the trail-side professed, but I was dead set on my zero-contact plan, personal safety, hydration, and caloric deficit be damned.  Instead of being sensible and making a quick stop at a store that likely held very few risks for me, I saw the need to refill as a personal weakness. "Quit being a complainer, and just pedal."  Stupid.

Legacy farmland far from anyone's eyes for decades until the rail-trail conversion was complete.

An old Rock Island / MO-Pac system switch and signaling cabinet at a long-forgotten at-grade crossing, on MO-131.  I remember seeing one of these alongside MO State Route O, on the Mighty Peculiar permanent route, and thinking that "someday" the rail-trail would be there, and I would ride to it a different way.  Mission accomplished.

Bikepacker-chic in appearance only ... still a lot to learn, for the rider.  Atop the East Lost Creek trestle, WAY above the trees and creek below.  100+ year old steel and rivets, apparently un-phased by decades of neglect, now proudly supporting traffic once more.

A smiling selfie, only 10 miles or so before the bottom would drop out.  This is my "I'm fine, having a blast" face.  Apparently I'm just a human, and can't really knock off 90 miles on 800 calories ... you'd think the 'Quarantine 15" might have kicked in at some point ... and really, I probably did burn quite a bit of fat, ultimately, but yeesh man EAT something.  It helps.  You're not Rob Kish ... who famously rode something silly like 800 miles on ONLY WATER.  Yeah, NOBODY is that dude, except for THAT dude.

MO State Route P and Funkhouser Road ... forever a personal memorial of how NOT to do a self-supported, supposedly zero-contact 200km ride.  After leaving the Rock Island Spur only 4 miles earlier, with a short rest and some texts home, my mental outlook had been fresh.  I was full of the excitement of a near guarantee of more speed from smooth tarmac, leaving the trail behind and having access to a tailwind.  Leaving the shade of the trail behind, however, and sitting atop fresh blacktop, maybe the sudden spike in heat was a factor as well.  Thankfully, some clouds rolled in to block the sun.

After 40 miles of rail-trail, I was excited to get back on pavement and "fly" home, with better rolling resistance and a persistent E, NE tailwind promised.  Only four miles later, however, the plug was pulled from the drain in dramatic fashion.  My caloric needs had been increasing over the past few hours, and I had not kept pace.  Rationing water all morning, as well, I had fallen into a deep hole.  Climbing a hill, the crest in the photo above, suddenly I felt a dramatic reduction in power.  I could not push any more, I began to feel nauseated, I suddenly began to sweat a LOT more, and felt a little dizzy.  

I was reminded of a MS-150 ride, years ago, where I had something similar happen ... feeling awesome, setting personal bests all the way, and then BANG:  I was in a porta-john, bidding farewell to everything in my gut, shivering from being completely dehydrated, and on the edge of passing out.  Today, it felt like history repeating, and the biggest bonk I've had on a ride in ages.

I stopped and dismounted, and just stared at the ground for a while, concentrating on breathing easily.  I decided, we're not passing out.  We're not going to throw up.  We're going to breathe, we're going to drink the water we have, and slowly eat something, and we're going to stand here and cool down until we feel better, because we are NOT going to the hospital.  No sir.  

It took time ... thirty minutes, who knows.  It would have been time lost to the sidewalk at a c-store in the "not so old" days, so, who knows why I had been so dead-set against not stopping, not resting, not giving in to the essentials.  I replayed images of myself getting refills and real food in Leeton, or even Chilhowee... no sense dwelling, your plans just changed, Jack.  

The closest pass to a town left on my route was Peculiar, MO., and the Casey's there.  Two miles off course, but now essential to me finishing what I'd started.  I knew people would see my GPS track hitting the c-store, and I was ashamed.  I knew that I had failed at my zero-contact plan, and I was upset.  I didn't want to do it.  I even called ahead to make sure it was okay with the store employees, almost hoping they'd tell me "no".  It was open, with all current rules and guidelines being observed.  Finally feeling human again, instead of on the edge of a cliff looking into the abyss -- but now with only enough water to make it to that Casey's, and not all the way home -- I headed out again, thankful.

Sometimes the best-laid plans require modification.  I got over it pretty quickly.
Flexibility is key when the chips are down, I suppose ... there will be critics, but none louder than me.

A reluctant left turn, then a right, and then the Casey's. 
Normally a brevet oasis, and a very welcome sight.  
Today... anxiety.  Dread.  

Three minutes.  A liter of water, a bottle of V8, and a packaged, employee-retrieved slice of cheese pizza.  A carefully distanced transaction.  A quick joke about a line from the movie Aliens, no receipt, and I'm out the door.  Barely touching anything, no-one else inside the store... I'm fine right?  Right?  This would repeat for hours after the visit, every time I had the urge to dab my nose with my glove... still today, as I type, I replay everything.

But, in the moment, REAL food... V8.... and precious water.  
One freakin' liter, man .... if you had just packed two more of those half-liter bottles in the saddle bag.  They probably would have fit fine.  Idiot.  Just a couple of PB&Js.  
So many notes for "next time", and an anxious 5 days to wait and see if I doomed myself and my family because of my stupidity.  

Ultimately, I have to let it go.  But these days, my impact on others is a point of concern, as well as the impact of poor planning.  This is the reason, perhaps, I should not have gone out.  For now, I can statistically hope for the best after visiting a store in a town with very few confirmed cases at all, in a scenario where almost no person-to-person contact took place, and certainly none within the recommended six feet.  

I am smarter for all of this.  If there is a next time, it will be vastly different, if not far shorter.

Perhaps I think too much ... 
After all, in these circumstances the statistics are on my side, but, I still have to consider my impact on others, myself, and ultimately my family.  It is not to be taken lightly, and clearly I do not.  In retrospect, I should have instead taken part in the shorter, more local, virtual Fleche that took place ... but, I knew I wouldn't have been able to get out as early as that ride had begun.  So many what-ifs ... so little time. 

I have to move on, mentally -- and on the ride in that moment.

Reflective vest on, ankle bands on, it was time to at least be clear of any heat-related issues, and enjoy some night riding on limp-mode.  

Even with the rush of calories and the worry of water removed, the bonk had taken its toll.  ANY hill of ANY gradient became a struggle, and my moving pace plummeted.  In some ways, this is the sort of ride I typify:  tenacious, not fast beyond a point, but I will simply limp it home if I have to.  We aren't breaking any records here.  

Considering this had been my first 200km ride in over a year, and with minimal training to ramp me up to this distance again, of course the speed was going to suffer.  This was simply "butt time," getting acclimated again, especially on this bike.  A capable as it is, it is not "fast" by any stretch, certainly not when compared to the bike I'd normally use to do these rides.  Thank goodness for tailwinds, and downhills.  At least I was moving.

I need to do some research on the massive farm which seems to straddle both sides of I-49, marked by signature stone columns across the roadway and various old, abandoned driveway entrances.  A family compound of some kind from a distant past, even having its own water tower, consistent visual evidence of the property repeats for miles and miles along 195th Street around Raymore, MO.

Lights ablaze, miles away from the bonk, at least we're moving again.
Thank goodness for generator lighting ... I had not planned on being out after dark, and once again what I tend to take for granted comes to the rescue.  Like extra food and water, the marginal weight and drag of a generator system is NEVER lamented.

The past is in the past.

(Sidenote:  The Bontrager Flare-R taillight really does burn for 12+ hours; despite what was just mentioned above about generator lighting, the addition of a day-time visible taillight and nighttime strobe helps identify my position and is probably more effective than a reflective vest, where the steady-burn generator taillight provides a consistent position indicator.  Together, this two-light system is just about perfect.)

I don't personally know if a zero-contact 200k is feasible unless I add another two bottle cages to the rear rack, or -- ahem -- actually take the advice and just wear the Camelbak.  In addition, maybe take along some ACTUAL food beyond just a few short-distance cycling nutrition items.  Cold pizza, PB&J ... if I can get more water ON the bike, and out of the saddlebag, then carrying more food will not be a problem.  I have seen others post "fan-blade" rides, like Audax KC has done with events like St. Joe Crank ... where an event like 1,000km is split into stages that all begin and end at a central hotel.  You can carry less, and you are back at one location for resupply at set points.  Using the home as a hub, I can simply head out for a few 30-mile out-n-backs in various directions, and I'm back at the "home control" for refills as needed.  Of course, that makes it hard to head back out ... something I've struggled with at past ultra events... it's almost better if I go WAY out with no choice but to make it back.  We shall see.

Still, all things that I might trial at the 100km distance before heading out to make more mistakes - especially considering that even hotter weather is ahead.  It's barely May, and if I'm having problems with hydration due to restrictive rationing NOW, then I definitely need to add at least two more bottles, if not four.  There is a company called Widefoot in Nebraska, where I have been looking at their triple-mount bottle cage that holds a full Nalgene-style liter of water, and the even bigger Nalgene 48 oz. silo of water.  Fashioning two of those to the rear rack, with cages or simply with Voile straps, held like panniers, would supply more than enough reserve.  Lots to consider.  Though it does add extra weight, over time I will get used to it ... and the extra weight means diddly if I'm bonking and fighting heat exhaustion because I don't feel like I can drink at-will for fear of running out.  It's the same as the generator lights and fenders ... the extra weight of the water is quickly forgotten in times when it is desperately needed.  Just carry enough, and enjoy.

We can still enjoy long-distance riding, yes, and ultimately I did enjoy this ride. 
With time, especially with the confirmation that I dodged a bullet with my c-store visit after a week or so, this will likely go down as one of my most memorable rides.  

If nothing else, it has reinforced self-sufficiency, and on perspective - yes - when things return to normal, the standard brevet format will indeed seem FAR easier by contrast.  It's also really nice to just ride, free-route, and go explore without worrying about c-store locations and control spacing.  Big jaunts into the Flint Hills could happen, long, uninterrupted stretches of remote gravel, tile-hunting without restrictions ... all seem do-able now.