Make It So, Number One

“You must be Dave, I’m Collin,” I said to the red-kitted racer bearing #307 that flew by me as I exited the service road to the school for the first of 27 times over the next 24 hours.  Who was Dave? David Haase, three-time RAAM first American finisher, someone far more experienced in ultras than myself, and who I was hoping to simply hang on to for the race.

After this brief introduction, he hammered away with me tucked close behind. I looked back on only one more racer had followed me when I jumped to chase down the lead vehicle at the start of the race. The third racer, Ponder Ostman, of the Balltown crash fame, joined us. And that was it. There was no lead pack. Like the other Midwest ultra races this year, the lead group was no more than a handful of riders. The prolonged winter this year, compared to the mild winter last year, has had a notable effect on the size and speed of the races.

Like Balltown and Calvin’s, my legs were really stiff for the first couple hours. Slowly, my right quad warmed up, then my left. My glutes took another half hour to finally ease up. Thus, by the second hour, I was starting to feel okay, but still disturbingly fatigued from an extremely hard 200K at Michigan Mountain Mayhem the weekend before. All too quickly, my mind wandered into survival mode, and I started thinking far too much, which only served to prolong my sense of time on the bike.

For the first 20 miles or so, Dave rode on the front the majority of the time. Whenever I would come around to take a pull, he’d only stay back for a minute or two before coming back to the front. I kept trying to take longer pulls though, as sitting on and not doing any work is not the way I want to ride a race. As it would turn out, worrying that I wasn’t doing enough work wasn’t an issue.

Well before the first checkpoint, thirty miles into the race, no one else could be seen. Maria said they announced that three riders had built a huge lead on the main pack each time we reached one of the checkpoints.  At one point, the lead car dropped back behind us, presumably to discover where the next riders on the road were.

Dave and I eventually fell into a good rhythm of swapping long pulls, and we were flying down the road. Ponder always sat as the third person in the group, just hanging on as best he could. I didn’t think he was sandbagging, so having him racking up extra miles with our help didn’t bother me.

Unlike last year, the temperature steadied out in the mid-70s and didn’t keep climbing into the 90s, so we only stopped briefly at checkpoint three, 92 miles into the race, to top off our bottles. I was self-crewing and riding with a Camelbak plus a four hour bottle of Perpetuem, like usual. I filled up my two scoop bottle, filled another bottle with HEED, which I’m finding I like more and more, and then Dave and I headed out.

Ponder had his wife supporting him on the long loop — I prefer self-supporting with a Camelbak to let my crew go out for a morning run or ride, setup base camp, and get comfortable and relaxed — so he didn’t stop. Dave and I expected to find him just up the road soft-pedaling and waiting. Instead, he had gone hard, and we didn’t catch him for a number of miles. We were a bit annoyed at this energy spurt because if Ponder could be riding hard enough that it took the two of us to catch him, we would have liked him to have been helping out and taking pulls for the first 90 miles.

We drafted behind Ponder for a short bit after catching him, but then he started coasting the downhills, so Dave and I went around him. A few miles later, Ponder dropped off our pace, and just like last year, the lead group was down to two after the long loop. We hit the school at 1:11pm, putting our average speed for the initial 117.6 miles at 22.7mph, a little faster than last year, which was encouraging in my quest for 480 miles.

We finished our first two day loops (23.7 delightful miles along mostly tree- and lake-lined roads) in 65 minutes each with about 90 seconds off the bike between each lap — note: Maria kept fantastic logs of my lap times, so I have a good benchmark for off-the-bike time. Towards the end of the second day loop, I started having some trouble maintaining speed and my heart rate began to start its typical evening decline while the sun was far from the horizon, not a good sign.

While refueling at the school after the second lap, Maria asked a simple question, “Is there anything you need?” To which I responded, “To go slow for awhile, I’m already tired.” Obviously, that’s not too much of an option because it is a race after all, so you don’t get to slow down until you blow up or the other guy starts going slow first. At this point, I slammed a banana into my gullet, grabbed a bottle of HEED, and joined Dave to start lap three.

At the start of the lap, I told Dave I was likely to drop off on this lap because I was starting to hurt pretty bad. As usual though, if you’re hurting, everyone else is too, and Dave said he’d had trouble staying on my wheel a few times on the last lap. I managed to draw a bit of encouragement from that because I had figured my race was over at this point.

About halfway through the third lap, the banana hit my system and my legs perked up. Since I knew it was an energy wave, I rode it out, taking a long pull at about 24-26mph along Gun Lake, all the way to the sandy four-way stop. When I got back to the school, I told Maria, “I think I need another one of the radioactive bananas. Whatever was in there, I feel great now!” The loopy thoughts had begun…

Dave stopped for a bio-break on this lap. I really had no need to go so I said I was just going to keep going this time. We’d called three bio-breaks up to this point — in fact I didn’t pee for the duration of my six day loops, a little under 6 hours, despite taking on a bottle and a half an hour. I’m still conflicted about riding away at this point. There aren’t well-accepted standards for when you should and shouldn’t wait for the people you are riding with during the race. We both had admitted to being tired, so perhaps working together would be faster, but I was worried Dave would just drop me during the night, given his much greater experience at ultras. I thought that perhaps his tired state was a bit slower than mine and that I could build up a bit of a lead before I really blew up during the night. I finished the fourth lap about 1.5 miles ahead of him, so given his extra stopping time, perhaps I was 1mph faster.

So there I was again, Ol’ Dunderhead off the front and pushing the wind solo with 15.5 hours left to race, just like last year. However, time spent riding in a pack or even with just one other person always progresses dramatically slower than time spent riding alone. When you’re drafting, your sole focus is on not crashing into the person in front of you and trying to keep a gap from forming. When you’re on the front, you have to pick a clean line and remember to point out the obstacles. The mind needs to be engaged to keep crashes at bay, so you can’t drift away and chase your shadow down the road.

Riding/racing your bike for 24 hours isn’t just about physical endurance though, it’s also, and perhaps even more, about mental endurance. Your mind doesn’t necessarily like the idea of riding in circles for 24 hours — I’m looking forward to finally doing some RQ-style 500-milers next year to see how different they are — so once free of a group and back into my usual mode of plodding along alone, Mr. Brain became balky and obstinate.

First, he said I was far more tired at this point of the day compared to last year, so my goal of 500 miles was never going to happen. Second, he said that I had a RAAM veteran chasing me down, so when I inevitably blew up, that was it for my race. Finally, he prodded me about my heartrate being too low and mocked me for not pushing harder. Sometimes Mr. Brain is a crass bastard like that, but sometimes he’s also right, and thus the morale fight began.

I knew I was going slower at this point than I was last year (actually I have no idea if I was or not). I knew my heartrate was lower than I wanted it to be. I knew my legs had reentered the sore phase after their groggy awakening. I also knew that if I want to finish RAAM in under 10 days, I had better damn well learn to ride when I’m tired and feel like shit and can’t get my heartrate up because those will be the conditions I’ll be riding under from Days 2-10. Finally, I knew I’d spent the last six hours of my last long ride before the race with my heartrate flitting around 110-120bpm and had made it home just fine and even enjoyed myself.

When people say you shouldn’t do really long rides in training, this last point of knowing I can make it is mentally essential for me. I’ll always do at least one 300+ mile ride before my first important event every year. I like having that crutch to lean on, knowing that with my current level of fitness, I can make it to the end.

How did I deal with Mr. Brain this time? I put on my Wall Street suit so I would be properly prepared to do follow my usual tactics: bargaining and lying.

Unlike my normal rides, where, for example, 100-mile ride involves riding 50 miles from home and then working my way back, always in a loop until I get close to home, the 24-hour race means riding the same roads over and over. For example, I rode 22 of the short 7.5 mile laps. There are six right turns on the loop. Mentally, I broke them up as follows: headwind, free, free, free, headwind, free. Free miles are any miles with a strong enough tailwind that you go fast no matter how hard you pedal or miles with a downhill stretch. Thus, in my head, I only had to work for the headwind and the rest of the lap was free. What a deal!

Once the sun goes down, I have no idea how fast I’m going. I don’t use a helmet-mounted light, so I can’t see my computer. I attempt to maintain a steady amount of pain in my legs, so I’m roughly riding with the same effort, if not same speed. Despite knowing I’m slowing down, all the calculations in my head are done assuming three short laps per hour, which is actually faster than I rode any lap except the last one. In this case, I’m actually stretching out the night, as though I were riding close to c and relativistically contracting time. I had drifted time by at least an hour when I learned it was 1:30am.

It may seem counter-intuitive to pretend you have longer to ride than you actually do. A common RAAM strategy is to break it into a race to each time station. Obviously, any cyclist can ride 60 miles, so you can get on your bike and ride to the next time station. Do this 54 times and you’re done — if only it were anywhere near that simple or easy! However, the night will drag on, so descending into this loopy relative time has two effects. First, you think you’re riding faster than you are, which is encouraging. Second, when the sun comes up at 6am and you think it’s only 4am, you get a huge boost because mentally you’re steeled for another four hours, when you’re down to two.

Happily, okay very grumpily, churning away in the night in my warped sense of time, it started raining. I find the summer rain refreshing, so I took my glasses off and kept pedaling. Around this time, I passed Keith Wolcott, who I had raced with at both 24-hour races last year. We did the usual chatting about how the race was going, how far, etc. and he said, “I’m having the ride of my life. I’m on pace to go over 450 miles!” I encouraged him to keep hammering, said I was feeling so-so, and then pedaled away on the uphill, headwind section.

Lightning flickered on the horizon. The flashes stayed north and west and with a southwest wind, I assumed they’d stay away. Last year, lightning perched just out of reach all night. Reaching the checkpoint, they said heavier rain was on the way. I thought that maybe the next lap I would grab some arm warmers. Almost everyone was in rain gear at this time, but my furnace burns ridiculously hot, so I was enjoying the temperature.

A lap or two later, the rain started coming down harder. I still wasn’t hearing thunder accompanying the lightning, so I prepared to chug through the deluge all night. Once you’re soaked, you can’t get any wetter, so I don’t see the big deal about rain riding. I had chain lube handy to deal with the inevitable grinding chain. As I turned onto the service road leading to the checkpoint, lightning hit close, as all I detected was a flash-BOOM between my eyes and ears, I hadn’t even made it to ‘one Miss’ much less ‘one Mississippi’.

I had two thoughts. First, I immediately thought back to what Keith said and then this scene from Caddyshack  jumped into my head:  Second, I hoped they suspended the race because otherwise I, and everyone else, would probably be dumb enough to just keep riding — this thought was later confirmed.

Right as I hit the checkpoint, I saw the official cars heading out as the sideways rain pelted the checkpoint volunteers. The little canopy was no match for the rain and everyone was soaked. They punched my race card (I didn’t remember 100% they did this, which is important later), and I saw Maria, along with her mom and brother who had showed up around sunset, all ready to take shelter in the school. It was 1:43am when I first walked into the school.

Not knowing how long the break was going to be, I decided immediately that this was going to be RAAM practice, where I get off my bike for a couple hours, and then have to get back on and keep riding. I set about finding food, which ended up just being a hot dog, a couple rolls, some potato chips, a Clifbar, and some beef jerky (okay maybe that’s not “just”). I pondered sleep but knew I was probably too wound up. However, many racers did manage to fall asleep and the hallway in the school looked like an overflow ward from an outbreak of influenza. People were sprawled in odd positions, mouths agape, and snoring. I kept laughing every time I walked by, and I kept explaining this reasoning to everyone I talked to. I don’t think anyone else found it nearly as entertaining.

The race started up again at 4:25am. I had no idea how my body would react because I had no precedent for riding 17 hours, getting off my bike for almost three hours, and then getting back on and riding. What I found was that the fatigue hadn’t dissipated much, corroborated by my lap times being about the same as before stopping, but the stiffness and pain in my legs was gone, so the act of riding wasn’t as mentally taxing.

Quite a few racers rode again after the break and I variously jumped into groups, was dropped by groups, or dropped groups. I never consistently rode with anyone at any point after leaving Dave at 3:30pm.

After the storm ended, the wind transformed into a particularly pernicious gale, blowing at flag-rending speed directly out of the west. The previously perfect northwest wind turned into an evil east wind. The laps turned into: headwind, headwind, headwind, free, headwind, headwind. Oh well, at least we all have to deal with it, and since it was a cross-wind much of the time, you’d be damned if drafting did much good.

Coming into the checkpoint at 6am, I had something dig into my tire, which caused a flat. I was able to sketchily ride it in to where I could use my floor pump to fix it, but I almost rolled the tire twice before getting there.

I had the flat fixed in under five minutes and headed out, hoping to complete a few more laps before calling it a day. I managed three  laps by 7:26am. Yes, I was going really slow, and yes, I left my loopy shifted time because partial laps don’t count, so I needed to time things more accurately. I knew I only could ride one more lap, so I decided to make it my fastest lap of the day. I ramped up the pressure on the pedals and the pain in my legs as much as I could and fired off. I congratulated everyone that was out on the road as I went by, encouraging them that this was the last lap and they were almost done. I think I passed almost the entire field.

I hit the checkpoint at 7:46, meaning I rode the last lap at at least 22.5mph, despite the wind. In spite of the long day, where I didn’t feel that great at any point in time, I was thrilled to pull that one lap out of my legs and it made the day worth it. Next year, I want to ride like that for the last two hours.

A big group had assembled by this point. The volunteers called out, “Number One!” (which I got to wear for winning last year) for the last time of the day. Throughout the day and night, various other racers would yell, “Go Number One!” and the volunteers would say, “Here’s Number One again!” So, I took to calling myself Riker, after the first mate in Star Trek: The Next Generation. On long rides, I like to make up names for myself for the internal dialogue that goes through my mind incessantly. On an earlier long ride this year, I became the “Cloudbreaker” because the threatening clouds never managed to hit me with even a drop of rain.

At this point, I had no idea how far I had ridden. For the day section of the race, I did 259.8 miles in 12:02, which is a new record speed for me, just barely edging out my 12-hour ride at Calvin’s Challenge, but I didn’t know how many night loops I rode. I asked Jacob, Maria’s brother, who had taken over the time log and he said, “432.3” Great! I thought, seeing that I might have been on-pace for 480 miles if the rain hadn’t happened.

I waited in line to hand in my race card to get my official total. When I gave it to them, they counted everything up and said, “424.8 miles”. Hmm…that wasn’t expected. I went back and asked Maria to get her time log. I looked at it twice, and counted 432.3 miles each time. I went and found Pete Steve, the race director, he looked at my log, and also counted 432.3 miles, so we changed  the number. I just assumed I didn’t get punched on the lap where the lightning delay started.

At the awards ceremony, there’s a raffle for prizes. This year, Jef Mallett, a well-known webcomic artist did the artwork for the t-shirt, so one of the prizes was a large print of this picture. I turned to Maria and said, “Well that’s cool,” at which point they drew my number! Not too bad.

I knew I was at the head of the race because Dave had never passed me. In fact, he disappeared at some point. I kept waiting for him to overtake me all night, but it never happened. Close to sunset, I noticed that his cooler and supplies were gone, but I assumed he’d just moved them. During the lightning break, though, I saw that he never posted miles for the day section of the race. After the race, a number of people came and asked what happened. Like I explained above (about a million words ago), I left Dave around 3:30pm after our third day loop, saw him briefly at the end of his fourth day loop, and then never saw him again. He must’ve called it a day and just headed home. I still don’t know why.

Anyhow, the men’s 55-59 category was a tie between Keith Walcott and Dave Stebbins, another vet of the race that has put up some big numbers, they both did 401 miles to tie for second overall. Pascale Lercangee won the women’s division with 339 miles, just one lap more than second place.

Despite not feeling great all day, having a difficult time mentally, and dealing with a three-hour delay, I managed to defend my overall High Mileage Male title. Had the race not been suspended, I would probably have ended up right around the same mileage as last year. I’m a little disappointed by that, but I learned my lesson to not do a ridiculously hard 200km race the weekend before. I’ll stick with an easy century ride instead.

As always, I want to thank Pete and Kathy Steve, along with all the race volunteers for an excellently run race. The delay due to lightning was handled superbly and kept us all from inevitably riding through the storm. The people  of Middleville was out all day cheering us, lining the road at the start, and then grilling along the roadside until almost midnight. Thanks to them for putting up with a swarm of crazy cyclists.

Having learned some more lessons about how to get my legs in the right place to race, I’ll be back next year with more miles and more experience. Mission 500 miles has already begun!

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