8 Mile — The Lengthy Johnson Re-Mix

Call me The Mad Prince. On the bike, I fling myself recklessly down the
road, probing my legs and mind for an extra watt, hoping somewhere in
the depths I’ll find the missing piece. My style has been described as
“riding like a madman” where “each time he lapped me you could feel the
road vibrate”. On the bike, I flog myself mentally and physically. When
my legs threaten to fail or my mind wavers and stopping seems solace, I
think of the self-recrimination and regret I’ll go through for days or
months into the future. In these times, I come to fear my inner self in
a Machiavellian manner. The drive pushes me further, but will I
eventually go too far?

Thoughts such as these pass through my head not only during the dark
hours of a 24-hour ride, but during the all-night coding sessions or the
evenings when my mind refuses to cease ticking. I describe myself as
restless. Perhaps that’s it. Yet, ‘enough’ is a word I rarely utter. So
it seems I still search for something. However, I am fortunate to have a
life filled with beautiful people, places, and experiences, so as my
wandering continues, the journey will not be barren.

Enough of such thoughts though. You saw the title, knew I was racing,
and were looking forward to another excessively long post filled with
anecdotes from 24 more hours on the bike…

For two weeks, the first thoughts in my head were “I feel like crap. My
legs are dead. I think I might be getting sick. I want to sleep all
day.” While my pace on my final few rides was about what I would expect,
the overall state of lethargy permeating every part of my life left me
understandably nervous about how my body would fare during a 24-hour

Like the week leading up to the N24HC, I was frantically working,
sifting through two years of work to find why my code wouldn’t work on a
seemingly identical robot in Massachusetts. As each day wore on, no
progress was made toward a slightly more pressing deadline of September
17th. Aside from a brief respite involving a brownie sundae and Bill
Cosby standup comedy, I was completely frazzled. Finally, Friday
afternoon, we discovered our two robots aren’t *exactly* the same, and
the fact we used 0x03 instead of 0x10 in one byte of a message caused
our problem. Unfortunately, changing that byte to 0x10 didn’t work.
Thus, we still have unhappy customers in Massachusetts.

You might surmise from the above that my confidence going into this race
was low. I had even skipped my last long training ride because other
events had crushed me even further. On the drive out, time became
viscous, an engulfing presence that refused secession into the road
zone, where miles melt away. However, a phone call from Dad as I neared
my hotel and some encouragement from Maria — “Use the time on your bike
to clear your head and zone out into wonderful thoughts” — had me
feeling better.

At the hotel, I checked in, unloaded my car, and started my final
preparations. I filled 18 sandwich bags with two scoops of Perpetuem and
four scoops of Endurolytes, while watching Scrubs in the background. If
someone had walked in, the sight of plastic bags full of white powder
would instantly have led to some serious questioning, as I had all the
appearance, aside from tattoos, piercings, and scurrilous looks, of a
white bread suburban coke pusher. Preparations complete, I set four
alarms and went to bed around 11:00pm

I slept delicately, afraid to slip too deep into sleep, as my disregard
for alarms has reached dramatic levels of late. At 4:15am, a single beep
popped my eyes open. Apparently, Will was up early — really damn early
— to log some miles before opening his shop. I had intended to sleep
another 45 minutes, so back into bed I went, though how much I slept is

Alarm number one was enough to get me moving and soon The Doors were
chanting “Break on through to the other side”, an apt metaphor for the
race to come, though “I Got You Babe” would have been even more fitting.
As I turned off the radio, “Hotel California” popped on, a song
describing the roads on which I was soon to be trapped.

I crossed Old Man River, the big, fat Mississippi, lolling its way to
the Gulf back into Illinois, jumped off I-80 on Exit 1 and drove north
to Riverside Middle School in Port Byron, Illinois, basecamp for the
race. I popped into the HQ trailer, picked up my packet, said hello to
Dave, Lori, and Joe, the race organizers, and went back to start final

As with all my races this year, I blared The Mars Volta’s
“Noctourniquet” on the stereo as I arranged my food neatly in the back
seat, spare clothes stacked based on warmth and likelihood of use on the
front seat, and my water jug outside my car on top of my cooler for easy
reaching. The album may have been written while on a 24-hour ride as the
lyrics describe many of the phases of such a long race:

“I’m alone, I’m alone at night”
“They’ve stolen all my love”
“That’s been my disconnect from you”
“I am a landmine”
“How long must I wait?…”

And then 7am arrived. Go time. I worked my way to the front of the
racers, so my progress would be unimpeded as I launched away from the
pack. The 6, 12, and 24-hour races all started at the same time. For the
24-hour race, no drafting way allowed, so each racer had a ribbon tied
to his helmet to let everyone know. The 12-hour racers made a decision
to try and ride in a pack for the first few laps. However, I destroyed
that plan.

Per his usual method, Dave suddenly said, “Okay. Start riding.” with no
buildup or countdown. I think he enjoys watching everyone be slightly
confused. A big mass of cyclists pedaled their first strokes of
thousands and began to accelerate. I plowed through everyone and quickly
settled into the role of carrot for the 6- and 12-hour peloton. As I
blasted by Jay Yost, a friend from other races, he yelled, “Well that’s
it, looks like you’re winning!” with only 1439 minutes left to ride!

My worries were quickly sundered like a gangrenous appendage because the
legs had serious snap, my sniffles were gone, and no one could catch me.
All through the first 53.4 mile lap, I was checking over my shoulder to
see when the peloton would gobble me up and shoot me out the back like a
shattered breakaway in Le Tour. They never arrived though. A few times,
they came close, perhaps 100 meters, but then I would accelerate a bit
and disappear again. Within the first ten miles, I decided to
unofficially win the 12-hour race as well with a solo breakaway off the
front. Furthermore, I left my mind drift to visions of a fox frantically
fleeing from floppy-skinned bloodhounds followed by mounted English
nobles in stern red attire. Thus, the chase was on.

Nearing the end of the first lap, I’d built up a sizable three minute
lead over the remnants of the 12-hour race. The last time I had seen the
group, they were down to five riders before I caught a tailwind and
blasted away.

Soon, the arrows on the road turned white, orange, and green, which
meant the three loops, 53.4 miles, 20.5 miles, and 8 miles, had
converged and the school was near. After the first of 38 slightly
graveled right turns onto the road by the school, I began mentally
prepping my bottle change.

The turn-off into the school had a slight downhill with a tall lip at
the bottom where the asphalt and concrete converged. Not wanting to hit
this lip, I turned to avoid it on the lef…ASPHALT! I bounced off the
road and turned to watch my bike bounce and my bottles roll. A fresh
sealcoat and a slight drizzle had turned the parking lot into a
frictionless wonderland.

I said some…uhhh…choice(?) words, insulting the road’s mother and
questioning its choice of sexual partners. A number of people hustled
toward me, as I peeled myself off the road, leaving blood and a healthy
dose of pride behind. But, you know, no big deal, I only had about 22
hours left to ride…

My chain had fallen off, but I’ve figured out the awesome, never have to
touch it method of making it happy again, so after ensuring my
collarbone was intact and my bike was ridable, I gingerly rode to my
car. Stepping off my bike, I almost fell on my face. When rubber won’t
grip on a surface, aluminum cleats will slide like a banana peel
slathered in vasoline!

At this point, the leaders in the 12-hour race had caught up and started
the first midloop. I finished switching my bottles, passed through the
checkpoint for the first time, and started my hunt.

You would be astute to surmise that my thoroughbreds were a helluva lot
stronger than theirs because I caught the pack of foxes in less than a
mile. I went full throttle up a little hill, peeked to see where they
were at, and was gone. The only 12-hour riders I would later see were
those I lapped, meaning I was at least 20 miles ahead of them.

The switch to the midloops started the counting game. One. Two. Three.
Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Each lap ticked away another hour.
Each lap fell into routine: headwind, hill, tailwind, downhill,
headwind, out of the saddle, tailwind.

By this time, the rain had begun its coy charade, starting and stopping
with the nimbleness of Stravinsky symphony. For almost 11 hours, the sun
failed to appear, the roads failed to dry, and I succeeded in being wet.
However, rarely did the rain fall hard. Never was the rain anything more
than refreshing. While some complain about riding in the rain, once
you’re wet, you’re wet. Furthermore, the rain kept the temperature right
around 70 degrees, a vast change from the 95+ degrees at N24HC.

I completed my ninth midloop at 6:34pm. I whipped around to finish one
eight mile short loop by 7:00pm. For the first twelve hours, I rode
245.9 miles. Not terrible, but I feel like I should have been able to do
more. Though, a crash and a few inefficient fuel stops didn’t help.

After the first short loop, the 12-hour race finished, so the only
riders were those loony loners looking forward to 12 more hours locked
in their minds. I ran across a friend, Dieter, on my second short loop.
Dieter’s great. He is 57 and a former ultrarunner — 100 miles in 16:28
— who switched to cycling when his knees went. His goal is 350 miles in
24 hours someday. He clocked 334 miles this race. Every time I passed
him, he was effusive, and we said hello, offered encouragement, and off
I went to further bury my mind.

Starting my second short lap, my first Hindenberg moment arrived. My
heartrate plummeted. I began yawning. The pace, I couldn’t keep it up.
During N24HC, the exact same thing happened sometime during the night,
and I never recovered. I slogged along the remainder of the race at an
embarrassing speed. Having such a thing occur after only 12 hours was
worrying. I went to my secret weapon, the AccelGel. I watched a buzzed
out of his mind Will crush a course record at a race by 3 minutes high
on two of these babies. I believe the mix is meth and EPO with a dash of
caffeine. Whatever was in there, I received the jolt I needed, and the
race was on once again. Crisis averted.

On the following lap, the sun emerged from the greyscale prison in which
it had been locked all day. Thus, as the longest hours of the race
began, I was able to enjoy my favorite hour of day — sunset — basking
in the sun’s bloody throes.

Then night. My friend with whom I so often dance. The haunting hours of
imagination. I write frequently of night. Most recently, I penned this
description of night, fitting for an all-night ride:

Night is a balm for weary eyes
those black-rimmed purveyors of too many hours
Night is a canvas
where we paint in thought
with phantasms and fear
brushes dripped in irrational dread
Night is a morass
where we drown in alone

The night became simple arithmetic. 25 8-mile laps meant 200 miles
ridden. I clumped the laps into groups of three during which I would
consume two scoops of Perpetuem in one bottle, plus however much water I
felt I needed from the other.

The nature of the wind and elevation change made the first 2.9 miles of
each lap the hardest. After the right turn into the tailwind, I mentally
checked out for the remaining five miles, counting a lap as complete at
this point. Obviously, it took another 12-18 minutes to finish, but at
night, there is no time, no markers, distance becomes a series of
discrete events: slight left into the wind, the one-mile hill — at one
mile in, not one mile long, this is Illinois after all! — the place at
the top of a hill that smelled really good — that smell was probably
pig shit, but hey it was some good shit!

Speed becomes immeasurable in the night. I don’t ride with a headlamp,
so I have no means of knowing my true speed. On every ride, I purposely
hide from absolute measures of distance or time, preferring only to know
my current state, allowing me to melt into incompleteness and detachment
from body and world.

Progress is measured in pain. Do the legs protest how hard I’m pushing?
How much do they protest? I’m going uphill, they should be damn mad
right now. Such is a night where distance is measured in 8-mile chunks,
and speed is measured is units of pain.

In discussing an ultra-ride with a friend who does normal bike races, he
mentioned some 70-mile races he did over the summer and how tired he was
at the end. I only had one comment, “Just because you’re tired doesn’t
mean you stop going.” Such is the nature of fatigue that some of the
fittest cyclists in the world will be reduced to groveling chunks of
sinew by the end of RAAM, where a hairy-legged hipster toting a
messenger bag and jaunty-angled cap will wonder why this guy riding is
going so slow.

“78,” I called. And called. And called. 27 times in the last 12 hours. I
began to ride with my mouth agape because my face could no longer
support my usual determined grimace. Each lap, I blazed through the
parking loop, serious, and avoiding contact. Perhaps I was feared,
though comments on the web have shown respect. I only know how to ride
hard. I *need* to ride hard. Only in utter exhaustion can I find true
peace. The peace that comes from knowing there was nothing more to give.

All night, the nearly full moon flicked in and out of the high cloud
cover. Brief moments of shadow in the featureless plains. And then
light. The gradual realization of imminent end.

I was weak, mentally crushed. I spent the night riding waves of fatigue
and recovery, the glimpses at my computer showing shattered legs
churning slower than I had wished. After lap 26, I had finished my 200
miles for the night. From the way I had been riding, I knew I was in the
lead. Stepping off my bike and calling it a race would have been simple.
I spent the entire 26th lap toying with the idea. Each consideration of
quitting caused a visceral disgust at myself for considering such a
thing. The temporary relief would only be replaced in an hour by
disappointment and regret. “No half-assing!” as Luke and I used to tell
each other. I ran into Dieter toward the end. We chatted briefly. I saw
I had 49 minutes remaining.

49 minutes. 17 miles. Normally, 17 miles in 49 minutes just happens, is
a given, out here in the lands of no climbs. 20mph after riding for 23
hours was different. Inside my kill switch flipped. I turned maniacal. I
began to crush myself. My heartrate surged for the first time in 10
hours. The miles began to drown in sweat. Damp became drenched. Into the
headwind, I was flying at 23mph. With the tailwind, I was over 32mph.

9 miles down. 26 minutes to finish the last lap. I could have eased up.
Instead, I pressed harder, meting penance for leaving enough energy to
even have a final kick. I flew past Jay as though he was a statue. Up
one-mile hill a final time. My heartrate jumped above 160bpm for the
first time in 11 hours. With the tailwind, the distance disappeared. I
arrived with almost five minutes to spare. My last lap took 21:40. The
timekeeper was incredulous at my final two laps, wondering how I managed
to go under 23 minutes. I wasn’t aware myself.

My final mileage was 460.4. 20 miles off the course record. My final
surge was encouraging. I’m getting stronger, but there’s a huge gap
still to bridge.

I smelled horrid. At some point during the night, likely while trying to
figure out why the hell the Three-Fifths Compromise made sense, I was
leaning into my car to get another bag of cocai…errr…Perpetuem and
wondered what had died. I realized my nose was next to my armpit.
Perhaps self-crewing was for the best during this race.

The temperate conditions meant I avoided a sequel to “Collin’s Johnson
and the Sodium of Doom”. Furthermore, a magical new chamois cream that
entered my life shortly after N24HC made my 24 hours in soggy bibs far
less disastrous than they should have been. I only had one point of
discomfort, and it healed after a couple days. The scars from N24HC

In typical UltraMidwest style, awards were casual and nonchalant. The
small crowd of racers — 27 by the end — gathered in the school
cafeteria. We went through the various age groups. I ended up winning by
24 miles over the next racer. I also received my Heartland Triple Crown
trophy for racking up 1175 miles across three races. I believe I was
ahead by at least 100 miles over the next competitor.

Leaving the race, the only part of the weekend that scared me began:
getting home. I had 385 miles to travel. I’d slept a total of 5.5 hours
in two days. I had breakfast with two friends I’ve made from racing over
the summer — an omelette, hash browns, two pancakes, and a cinnamon
roll. I called Dad when I merged onto the freeway. I made it to Exit 45
when exhaustion hit. I slept in my car for an hour before the sun
overheated me and I had to keep moving.

Another hour and a half down the road, I was hungry again and needed gas
anyway. As I was filling up, Subway or Dunkin Donuts seemed my next stop
until I spied Rubys Burrito Diner. Score! I had chips and salsa and
pickled peppers with rice and beans, a giant burrito with a chile
relleno inside, and a comically large horchata — think Big Gulp. If you
are traveling through Minooka, Illinois, stop here. Fantastic food.

I was back on the freeway, though I didn’t make it far before needing
another nap. I only managed to sleep 20 minutes because the sun beating
down woke me up. Unhappily, I continued on while calling an endless list
of people to keep myself going.

Finally, I made it home with only 90 minutes of sleep or so. I ate three
almond butter, red onion marmalade, and tofu sandwiches. I kept thinking
I would still be functional. My apartment was hot, so I wanted to take a
shower before going to sleep. Then I woke up five hours later, face
planted in front of a fan and not remembering how I had arrived. I
rotated 90 degrees and was out again for seven more hours.

What’s next? I told myself after this race, if I won, that I would try
to make it out to the 24-Hour World Championships in Coachella Valley,
CA, November 2-3. I am seeing if I can train enough for the race and can
afford to fly out. The best 24-hour racer in the world, Marco Baloh,
will be there, and I want to see how much further I need to progress.

After that, I begin the 9 month journey to the BC Explorer race. 1700
miles. 100,000 feet of climbing. 136 hours. Next year will be hard. I’m
giddy with anticipation.

Peace and pedals,

P.S. Don’t actually call me The Mad Prince. That’s rather pretentious,
don’t you think? However, I liked referring to myself as that to keep
moving during the night.

P.P.S. This email was originally going to be titled, “Illannoyed by
Isaac”, but then Tropical –topical?– Remnant Isaac failed to appear.
Foiled by good weather!

1 Comment

Filed under Race Reports

One response to “8 Mile — The Lengthy Johnson Re-Mix

  1. Daniel

    How about I just call you and we can speak (also in prose and poetry if you like) about what’s going in with Dr. Johnson?

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