Silence often hides in tailwinds, providing a respite from WHOOSH of air streaming past your ears. This past Saturday at Calvin’s Challenge, the road provided no reprieve from the aural assault of a strong wind. Even when ticking happily along at 30+mph with the tailwind, some flapping, spinning, whistling, or otherwise flailing feature of world inevitably found a way to remind me of the physical assault I’d face the next time I turned left. And so it was for the full 12 hours of the race. Murmurs during the post-race gorging placed the winds somewhere between 16 and 20mph with gusts up to 30mph; they certainly felt it.
The air was brisk when I stepped out of my car at 6:30am in the parking lot at Shawnee High School, homebase for the race. As is typical, I had forgotten to bring anything with sleeves or legs, so I pulled on knee and arm warmers to keep the shivers mildly at bay. All that remained for my pre-race prep was filling bottles with water, tossing them in my cooler, and hauling them to the pull-through loop in front of the school that served as every racer’s refueling station.
After last year’s dehydration exploits that left me struggling to hold the wheel of a paceline of grandmothers — I’m serious — I decided to up my concentration of Perpetuem a bit to two scoops a bottle (mistake alert!), instead of a scoop and a half, and I always carried a spare bottle with just water. For the race, I had ten fuel bottles and six water bottles, with the expectation that I’d sneak in a bottle or two of Heed later in the day.
In addition to sharing a room with Dieter Dauberman, I ran into a number of friends from last year. Dave Meredith was doing the six hour race after being off the bike for three months with shoulder surgery. Thankfully I was wearing my Transition Rack kit, rather than my Michigan, so he wasn’t forced to sabotage my bike. Jay Yost and Martin Gruebele were out from Illinois further refining their conditioning for their attack on two-man RAAM in June. They are using an interesting strategy of riding in 12-hour shifts to better prepare them for future attempts at solo RAAM. Furthermore, from last year’s racing, I knew they’d be at the front of the race right from the start, so I was sure to have good company.
Race time. I made sure to work my way to the front of the line because I didn’t want to do my usual start of having to ride extra hard to work my way to the front. I knew I was going to be there, so saving the effort seemed a good plan. I guess that’s experience.
An ambiguous start signal caused everyone to shamble away from the school, a slithering mass of greasy chains and slick rubber tires. And then I went to the front and started pedaling hard in an attempt to draw out some breakaway companions willing to hammer away in the wind.
As soon as I started pushing, my legs felt stiff and protested grumpily. I looked back and no one had followed. Kent Polk, the winner at Sebring 24-hour in February, was ahead of me on his recumbent. After a few miles, I looked back and had friends. Aside from Kent, our group was five people, myself, Jay, Martin, Nick (a wiry 20-year old), and someone whose name I didn’t catch that I called McDonald’s in my head, given the golden arches on his jersey.
We fell into a nice rhythm, forming an echelon across the road to combat the headwinds we faced on the way out to Solon, the halfway checkpoint of the 50-mile loop. However, I don’t ride in groups often, so I wasn’t feeling a huge benefit from the drafting. I’m always hesitant to sprawl across the whole road and often ended up in a spot where I was working just as hard as if I were at the front of the pack. I’m not sure how much anyone was hiding from that wind, though.
Around mile 28 of the first 50-mile lap, I discovered a new sound to add to my list of horrific sounds. We came fast around a corner, only to be met by an indecisive, and therefore very mortal, squirrel. Somehow, the group didn’t end up in a heap as frantic maneuvers were made to avoid squirrelicide. Nick ran over its tail though. Apparently, a 23mm piece of rolling rubber is akin to a butcher knife, and the squirrel lost a 2″ chunk of tail. The screech of pain it emitted was audible over the roaring wind, the squeaking brakes, and my labored breath. I’d rather not hear such a sound again. Horrid.
We finished the first lap averaging 23.5mph. About 3/4 through the second lap, McDonald’s dropped off the pace on a slight uphill section in the wind when I was pushing hard. Martin faded toward the end of the third lap, and we lost Nick about five miles into the fourth lap.
At this point, it was just Jay and I trudging along into the wind as we pushed toward Solon. Earlier on the second lap, Jay had left the school without his waterbottles, only noticing about five miles down the road. Fortunately, he had pockets full of food, and I had my spare bottle with just water, so I passed it off to him, and then we took a quick stop at the halfway point to refill and carry on. Crisis averted. We’re all out there to have fun and ride fast, so there’s no need to not help out if you can.
About five miles out from Solon on our fourth lap, I looked back and Jay was gone. He’d mentioned earlier in the lap that if I pulled ahead to just leave him. I put my head down and kept pedaling into the wind, stopping at the checkpoint for a much needed bottle of Heed.
I now found myself in a usual situation, riding alone, with about four hours remaining. I do all my riding alone anyway, so the threat of four hours with only myself for company wasn’t unusual. Given that I find riding in a pack stressful, just having to watch out for myself was a nice change. The group riding in the crosswinds had been tricky and stressful, and I had almost nicked wheels a number of times when I or someone else was blown off-line.
I pulled into the school at the end of four laps after 9:15 or so, making for a quick double century. I swapped out my bottles and started –thankfully– on the short, 7-mile loops. With the 7-mile loops, I only had to face the wind in two mile chunks, rather than a 25-mile slog into the gales. I had been counting down to this moment because I was thirsty and looking forward to the faster and easier short loops.
My plan was to complete at least eight 7-mile loops to give me 258 miles for the day. The first few laps went by extremely fast and my average speed actually went up after the first hour. Unfortunately, my decision to increase the concentration of Perpetuem started to go awry. My stomach was roiling a little after 10-hours in, despite even leaving some half-finished bottles. I started drinking Heed to try and get something in my stomach, knowing that a leg detonation was looming if I couldn’t get things in order.
Somewhere in this time, I came across Nick and Kent again. Nick had blown up hard and spent about an hour churning along around 10mph. I rode with them for the remainder of that lap. Kent jumped on my wheel at this point and stayed there for a couple laps. I knew I was a lap ahead, so I was happy to help tick up his mileage count as well.
On my seventh lap, I started to fade. My heart rate dropped about 20bpm, and I felt like I was crawling along. Pulling into the staging area, I saw that I had a bit over 20 minutes to finish my eighth lap to meet my goal. I quickly tossed a couple handfuls of grapes in my mouth and crawled away.
I was going slow. Very slow. This lap was the first time I’d been passed all day, and I wasn’t able to put forth much effort even holding on to their wheels. I was depleted.
By this point, there are volunteers — massive thanks to all of them, races don’t happen without them! — at each mile mark along the short loop. They started calling out the time remaining as I rode by. The Mile Six person said there were four minutes remaining, giving me one minute to ride that last mile. The wind had shifted a bit though, so this last mile was straight into the wind.
I let out a primal growl (thankfully no one was around to hear it) and surged hard. I went quickly by the group that had dropped me, churning at 23+mph. My whole body started screaming, but I needed this last mile. I rolled through the finish line at 11:59:04. Success! Digging through the bad spots and getting to the other side is essential for all my future goals in ultracycling.
Soon after, Jay rolled through. I hadn’t seen him since I dropped him on the fourth long lap, so I knew he was less than seven miles behind. It turns out he was only about three miles back at the end, so he recovered well from his rough spot and rode really strong to the end.
After eating and cheering for everyone getting medals, I hobbled into my car for the drive home, arriving around 1:30am. As usual, I couldn’t sleep properly because I was too hot and uncomfortable. Sunday and Monday, I was mostly useless, sleeping half the day on Monday, despite attempts at getting work done and being functional.
The next race of the year is the Balltown Classic out in Iowa. It is the hilliest race in the Midwest, with 10,000ft of rolling hills, which suits me well. Hopefully, Jay, Martin, and I can put forth a big effort and break the long-standing record of 20.03mph average speed. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the UltraMidwest crew.
Finally, a big thanks to Larry Graham and the rest of the Calvin’s Challenge race directors and volunteers. The event was fantastic. The new additions of a fresh-cooked food truck meal post-race, along with a timing system that let you cruise right through without needing to slow much were great. The corners and the more egregious of the potholes were all well-marked, making for a smooth journey.