Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Chance, or, A Very Long Bike Ride Uphill Both Ways

Last week was, as you probably know, was the culmination of a long season of training for me, the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club's Colorado Last Chance 1200K.

At 750 miles within a time limit of 90 hours, 1200K "randonnées" (as distinct from the shorter 200-600K "brevets") are the most challenging of rides in randonneuring, a type of self-supported long distance cycling that originated in France. There are several such events held in the United States each year (this year including the Gold Rush 1200 in California, the Shenandoah 1200, which I hope to ride next year, and Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains 1240), but I chose the Last Chance for two reasons: first, it was local to me, put on by my club and promised to be well populated by riders that I knew, and second, I believed it to be the easiest of the American 1200Ks. I can now say with some confidence that while the first is true, the second is irrelevant -- there is no "easy" randonnée, either mentally or physically. Uphill both ways, indeed.

Day 1: Louisville, CO to Atwood, KS
251 miles
16.4 mph average
17:54 elapsed time

Our day began, as each one would, well before dawn. Thirty-six starters assembled in the surprisingly warm darkness, all anxious, nervous, excited or some combination of the three. Following an introduction from club's founder Charlie Henderson, the flag dropped and the group was off.

Riders assembling at the start before 0300.

Normally, brevets seem to start out at a reasonable pace, the group staying together at least for the first 15-20 minutes. Not so this time, as the front runners, those riders who aspired to very quick times and perhaps qualification for the Race Across America (RAAM), were off like shots down the road. Concerned that I not start out too fast, I settled in with some familiar faces, Nate Dick and Robert Pogorelz, with whom I rode for about 30 miles. We were briefly waylaid at a train crossing that conveniently allowed everyone (and I mean everyone) to avail themselves of the bushes before continuing on. During the next few miles, I enjoyed what would prove to be a prophetic conversation with Robert. A veteran of many long distance races and rides, including the Furnace Creek 508 and ten successive Leadville 100s, Robert and I had discussed the psychology of ultracycling before. We agreed that rides such as the Last Chance require a willingness, even a desire, to see a side of yourself that many would prefer either to avoid or seek out in other, perhaps less abusive ways. On this note, he promised me that on the fourth day, "you will see your soul." Gulp.

The eponymous Last Chance, CO.
Shortly thereafter, we worked our way up to a large group of perhaps 10 riders riding in a pack. I pushed myself to catch and stay with them, figuring that I'd benefit if not from the company, than at least from the protection a group provides. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay with them, but this was the first object lesson in learning something about brevet riding that may be particular to such long, multi-day events: unless you are going for a very quick time and are therefore going to almost entirely forgo food stops and sleep, the need to get off the bike for meals and overnight is a great leveler. Everyone comes together at these points, and unlike on shorter rides, most people are not in and out in a matter of minutes. If you're able to speed yourself up a little at stops, therefore, you can catch on to a group in front of you. Further, there's no point in worrying about your relative position in the pack (if you're inclined to worry about it at all) until the third or fourth day, as there are far too many variables to predict what the quick guy on day 1 will feel like on day 4. Sometimes, it may be better to ride your own pace or work or wait for protection and company, rather than obsess about time.

That said, the rest of my first day underlined the importance of speeding yourself up or slowing yourself down that little bit so that you do get to ride with other people. I took my time at the first control in Byers, wanting to make sure that I was dressed correctly, that I had eaten and my bottles were full and that my bike was still working.                

Breakfast Burritos at the Byers Control
As a result, I left Byers by myself and remained so for roughly the next 85 miles. Riding alone and into the wind, my energy and spirits were mixed. Dark gray clouds massed in the distance, making me wonder if I would have to cope with rain, too. A stop at Cope for a burrito and a Diet Mountain Dew (I know, gross, but somehow it works for me) picked up my energy, but my mood stuck and I inexplicably left ahead of a group that was minutes from departure.

Thankfully, the clouds parted and the group, including Leslie Sutton, Brent and Beth Myers and John Jost, caught me somewhere short of the Kansas line. We rode mostly together under beautiful, wide skies, stopping for photos at the border and to talk with some incredulous ranchers at the fuel co-op in Idalia. I was growing tired, feeling the results of nearly 10 days off my bike, but enjoying the company and the scenery.
Enjoying a respite at the Kansas line.
At our last control of the day in St. Francis, we stopped for a bite and to resupply for the final 42 miles into Atwood. There, we met a man who had recently celebrated his 80th birthday by riding 10,000 miles in the 1000 days leading up to it. He seemed to take great pleasure in our efforts and I know that we took great pleasure in his.

Bird City (all of it) as the sun set behind us.
The sun soon started to drop and we stopped in Bird City to turn on lights and don reflective gear. It felt good to be riding with friends and to be so near the finish for the day. I knew that 25 miles would still take some time -- likely at least an hour and a half -- but with 225 behind us, I felt confident I would see my bed. With these thoughts, we set off into the quickly falling dark.

With Leslie Sutton & John Jost, Bird City.

It was in these last miles, which turned out to be the hardest of the day, that I realized another important rule that would help see me through to the end of the ride: eat until the end. I've worked hard this summer on figuring out nutrition for long rides (which I'll discuss more in a later post), but one weakness clearly remains, which is that as I get tired, I forget to eat and drink.

So as we rolled through these last miles, which seemed to close with an endless eight mile climb (it turns out that it was about 4 miles, with 4 miles of gradual descent into a strong wind), the fatigue and pain of the day caught up to me and real doubts entered my mind for the first time. The back of my left knee had hurt terribly all day, the result of a too tight hamstring. My left ankle and right knee had begun to hurt as I compensated for that tightness. My energy sapped, I began to question not just whether I could finish, but whether I wanted to continue at all.

Even Stella the Stegosaurus felt pretty down.
At long last, we pulled into Atwood and the It'll Do Motel at 8:54 pm MDT, 17h54 after we'd left. Even though this was a personal best for 400K, I was demoralized. After signing in, my first stop was to call Tanya, to let her know I was ok and give her an update for the blog. I tried not to cry. My next stop was pizza and watermelon, which brought home the problem of food. To my surprise, I was really hungry -- somehow, I hadn't felt that way on the road, which underlines the difference between feeling hungry and having low blood sugar. I immediately felt better, took a shower, organized myself for the morning and decided that day two was possible. And then I slept, easily and soundly, for a few hours.

Trying not to drop the camera, east of Bird City, KS.


Anonymous said...

More, more, more shouted the eager readers (or at least this eager reader!). Bailey

Michelle said...

This feels like listening to a radio drama...I can't wait for the next episode! Thanks for taking time to tell us about the ride, Stephen. I'm trying not to put you on a pedestal as I read, but your sterling qualities shine through the telling. Great story!

mike prendergast said...

Excellent, can't wait for more

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