Havin’ a Ball(Town)

Waking my legs up for an early morning race is similar to waking my sister up when we were kids — violence and aggression are necessary. In much the same way that I would simply throw her on the floor to wake her up, I have to attack a hill to snap my legs out of their unfortunate slumber. At Balltown, like Calvin’s, my legs felt stiff and petulant for the first hour or two and only a real hard effort snapped them to life.

The 6am start of the race isn’t particularly early, given that it feels like 7am to my Eastern time adjusted body, but I rarely ride in the morning. The advantage of the grad student life is waking up in the morning, working, riding in the afternoons, and working again in the evenings. The 5am rides of more office-bound cyclists are extremely rare. Nonetheless, I don’t pick when the races start and try to adjust my sleep to ensure I’m ready enough to ride.

The field at Balltown this year was small, only 11 double century riders, about half of last year. The long winter seems to have diminished the Midwest ultra scene a bit, but hopefully it will pickup as the weather improves and people are out riding. Amongst the riders were fellow antagonists from Calvin’s, Jay Yost and Martin Gruebele, who both donned their RAAM team jerseys for their upcoming attack on The Beast.

Like Calvin’s, Martin, Jay, and I were in the initial break that stuck for the duration of the race. The three of us surged off the front as soon as we left DeWitt heading north. Within about five miles, the rest of the riders were a hill behind and that was that. Having ridden with Jay and Martin in a number of races now, we work well together, each of us in our aerobars, despite the close drafting proximity.

The wind was again from the south, hurtling us towards Balltown, though not quite as strong as last year. The temperature happily stayed below 90, avoiding the blast furnace conditions we all suffered in 2012.

Balltown feeds my love of climbing as much as any race in the Midwest can — I just rode Michigan Mountain Mayhem and found some good hills up there too! The endless rollers cause my riding to be squirrel-like, darting up one hill and then the next. Pacing myself is a problem. Furthermore, I tend gain a several seconds lead by the top of the longer hills, which leads to a strategic conundrum. Clearly I don’t want to have wasted that energy by slowing down and waiting, but I’m also not trying to attack  — at least this early! I usually dangle off the front for a few minutes, riding steady but not too hard, thus making people work to catch up without draining myself too fast.

The yo-yo pattern continued for the first 90 miles or so. As Balltown nears, the hills briefly flatten out a bit. As we made the right turn after the sign indicating  “Balltown 7”, Jay started to speed up. The road surface was a bit rough, so the 4% hill seemed significantly harder than the grade warranted. By the top, we had a gap of about 100 yards on Martin. We slowed a bit to see if he’d catch back on, but he dangled there until we hit the rest stop at Balltown.

After refilling my Camelbak and taking a quick bio break, I hurried to catch back up to Jay and Martin, who only had to pull bottles from a cooler rather than refill a clunky Camelbak. However, the second half of Balltown gets hot and it gets windy. Though not as hot as last year, 85 degrees and 10-20mph winds in your face quickly parch you. In 2012, everyone but me (and Kurt, who had leapfrog support) had to stop at a service station or borrow someone’s hose in order to refill their bottles between the 50-mile stops. This year, Jay again had to stop and buy more water, while I had 4-liters on me, which was enough to make it to the end both years.

Immediately after leaving Balltown, the course plunges down a steep hill and hits what Dave Parker, the race director, calls the Seven Sisters (or some number of sisters where you don’t want to count them all because they have the crazy eyes or some other feature that is mildly terrifying). In the case of the Seven Sisters of Balltown, you hit a series of hills, each longer and steeper than the last, the reverse of a normal rollercoaster ride. Then you hit the top of the last hill, which is over 10% and you see a couple small rollers ahead on the road. “They’re not out yet!” as Agent Smith said in The Matrix.

I like hills, as you’ve surmised. Last year, after realizing I had a decent gap at the top of the second sister or so, I attacked hard to see what would happen. This year, I knew that was my plan and my point of escape. Unfortunately, Jay flatted as we approached the biggest of the hills, so he had to stop, I said “sorry man” and kept going, deciding it was faster to forge on alone rather than wait seven or eight minutes for fixing the flat, besides I was going to attack on the next hill, so waiting to then execute said attack seems unsportsmanlike. Martin was a little ways behind, having opted to not hammer up the hills to avoid a blowup. I could have plugged my way steadily up the hills; however, I still flung myself at them, falling victim to the temptation of pain and lactic acid.

After finally kissing the sisters goodbye, I turned south into the wind that had been picking up ever so slightly all day. I wasn’t feeling stupendous, but ultraracing isn’t much about feeling great. Rather, it’s about persevering under self-inflicted duress, the level of duress being directly proportional to the audacity of the event — RAAM obviously sits at the pinnacle of audaciousness. Long-winded sentences aside, all that remained was 80 or 90 miles into the wind. Having learned from last year, though, I had aerobars that I could snuggle into for the push back to Balltown.

I think I passed the rest of the field going the other direction into Balltown. The fastest finisher after Jay, Martin, and I came in about two hours later, and he had had his aerobars snap off while he was on them, leaving him two seconds to decide how best to crash. He had a spare bike with his wife, who came to drop it off, he climbed on and rode the remaining 140 miles or so! At the finish, his gaze was far away and the beer was flowing, a testament to the pain the massive amounts of road rash caused him throughout the day.

I focused on riding steady, keeping my gaze forward down the road. I looked back occasionally, but all I saw was empty road. Perhaps that’s the best way to ride, the past quickly forgotten and the future the adventure to seek.

At the 150 mile rest stop, I refilled my bottles, topping off an extra bottle of HEED, which I find refreshing when the temperature begins to climb. The end of the race exactly traces the beginning and takes you through some very scenic areas along a creek lined with trees and an outcropping of rock.

Going through this area, I was feeling the heat, which had climbed into the mid-80s. Seeing the creek right next to me, I spent the entire section debating whether to stop, jump in, then get back on my bike and keep riding. Eventually, I stopped and dumped some water from my Camelbak onto my head. I knew I had more than enough water, so the refreshing feeling of a cold, soaked head and jersey were worth it.

After discovering downtown Lost Nation — it can’t be that lost then, can it? — I turned onto the last long east section. The road stretches about 15 miles and looks identical the entire time, you come up one rise to see another one in front. Road signs tick off every three miles traveled. It’s the loneliest road I know.

Thankfully, halfway along the road, I started chasing a bird. The bird flittered about in front of me, in the darting haphazard way that only a small bird flying into a headwind can achieve. And then it started singing the first four notes to “Can’t Touch This” from M.C. Hammer. Even the rhythm was right. After the bird left, I spent most of the race enamored with this early ’90s rapping avian.

I finally found US-61, which means only one or two more miles before the sign indicating six miles to DeWitt. Making the turn, I suddenly found myself going much faster. I had thought I was riding into a south wind, but the wind was more east south east, which would explain why I was going as slow as I was. Sometimes, not knowing what the hell is going on is the best way.

I made the right turn onto the homestretch and promptly hit both lights red. The seconds ticked by in agonizing fashion, but I’m not going to blatantly run a red light that I know will be changing soon. Fortunately, there was no traffic making the slightly sketchy left turn into the hotel, and I came across the line in 9:55 with an average speed of 20.6mph, solidly breaking the previous record of 20.03mph.

Jay finished 11 minutes behind me and most of that time was attributable to fixing a flat and stopping to buy water. Though we didn’t compare exactly how much off-bike time we each had, as my rest stops take longer thanks to the (much needed) Camelbak. Martin finished about 40 minutes later, effusive as always, in his happy professorial way.

I stuck around the finish area for a few hours, cheering on the finishers and eating and drinking. I won a bounty of $50 placed on the course record as well. The only time I’ve ever had someone hand me money for winning a race, which helped pay for gas going home.

As always, I want to thank Dave, Lori, Joe, and the rest of the UltraMidwest crew and volunteers for putting on the event, even with the low numbers this year. Hopefully, we can get a big crowd next year. Perhaps I’ll succeed for once in recruiting someone to join the zany world of ultracycling.

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