The long winter and the long time since the last race left me, and surely most of my fellow racers, uncertain at the start of Calvin’s. The familiarity of the race soon returned though, as the hiss of tires being inflated filled the parking lot and coolers began lining the bus circle.
The wind was already strong at the start of the race and promised only to get stronger as the day went on. After catching up with a few friends I hadn’t seen since the year before, I started working my way to the start of the race, pushing through the big blob of riders. I was next to Jay Yost, second place last year, and a good friend. With about five minutes to the start, I realized that I didn’t have my timing chip on my helmet. I rushed back to my car, hoping I hadn’t left it at the hotel, found it, slapped it on my helmet, and made it back to the start before the race got underway, though I did lose my position near the front.
Fires burned through the tobacco fields, in my imagination. The smell was like the hand-rolled cigarettes my uncle used to smoke. I could feel the tar building up on my lungs, coating them, blackening them, leaving them the consistency of putrid yogurt. A bee sting on my inner thigh snapped me from my reverie, but the smell of damp, growing tobacco, something I had never seen before, lingered in the air. With scarcely more than two laps completed, I continued pedaling.
The corn was taller this year, lurking at the edge of the softball fields surrounding the parking lot, where the hissing of bike pumps and the clicking of waddling cyclists announced the imminent start of a bike race. I was one of them, lubing my already dirty chain (I’ll clean it tomorrow), topping off my tire pressure to 120psi (wait, is that a slow leak?), and lugging my cooler full of bottles to the start line (“did hurt yourself carrying that thing?”, thanks Jay).
“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.
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.
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.
I was uncertain. I had done my hardest ever 5-day training block earlier in the week — 440 miles, 37,000ft of climbing — and then taken one day for rest. A day that found me eating ravenously — nothing could fill me up — and napping/lounging after a few morning hikes because I was fried. I had no idea how this “race” — technically it was an organized and supported ride, but it is timed and everyone in the first wave is out to hammer each other, which means race to me– would go. Would I be sufficiently recovered after a lazy day? Or would the mounting fatigue I had felt all week continue and make for a long day in the saddle?
I raced he Balltown Classic back in May 2012. A 200-mile race through the rolling hills of Iowa that had about 10,000ft of elevation gain. Quite a change from the flatness of Michigan, though lots of small hills is not as fun as the BIG mountains.
One. Two. If I had kept counting, I might have hit 150,000 before the
day was through. But who’s counting when you haven’t hit the main road
and almost twenty-four hours lie ahead?
The stream of clicking chains and reflective glasses turned onto the
main road, the first of countless right turns to come. The pace quickly
increased as the strongmen in the race began asserting themselves.
Topping a short rise, I heard my friend behind me say, “Collin, it’s
about to be just you and that recumbent ahead.” I glanced back and, sure
enough, the pack was a couple hundred yards behind. I didn’t give it a
thought and kept going hard, figuring the fast ones would catch up soon.
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…