Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2015 Dirty Kanza 200: Dirty Isn't Just a Clever Name

Collin and Jamie picked me up at 6 am to head towards Emporia, Kansas. I took my usual spot of leisure in the back seat and let the driving be done by someone else. We were heading west to the Dirty Kanza 200. A 200 mile bicycle race on the rugged gravel roads of the Flint Hills that attracts soul seekers from all over the world. The 2015 version featuring riders from 45 states and 5 countries.

As it has during the drive to the last 3 gravel races I have attended this spring, the rain poured for the entire drive. Mother Nature ensuring the maximum amount of water damage is done to the course before I begin. Much to my superstitious friends’ dismay, I have been taunting Mother Nature before every race and she has been delivering. You can blame me if you believe in such nonsense.

This will be our fourth trip to Emporia to punish ourselves on the unforgiving Flint Hills. This would be my first time attempting the race on a single speed. Collin has finished 3 times. Jamie has finished 3 times. I have finished 2. That deficit has sat heavy on me for the last year. It was in last year's attempt, our third where we should have the most experience, that I made the least experienced mistake possible by setting personal records in the 50 and 100 mile distances before exploding and nearly passing out in the middle of nowhere 145 miles into the race.

Dehydrated and near heat stroke I had given up. In the weeks after while wallowing in shame I committed to myself to do better. I make that sound like it was a pivotal moment but I have made such promises to myself after most failures. Sometimes I make the changes needed and other times not so much. Would I make a change that would help me this time? I'd had a year to do so and we would soon be at the starting line to find out if I were any smarter.

We arrived before lunch time on Friday the day before the race and it was already a party on Main Street in downtown Emporia, despite the rain that was still falling. This would be the tenth edition of the race, a "Decade of Dirty." In its first year there were 34 riders. This year's 1,500 rider limit had sold out within 24 hours. 900 riders in the full 200 mile race and 600 people in the 100 mile half pint. It has tripled in size since our first attempts in 2012. Everywhere you looked in town there were cyclists and their families. I heard an elderly woman comment, "so many fit people," which is what I had been thinking as well. You could feel the buzz of excitement and anticipation of the adventure that loomed before all of us. Everyone was worried about the rain and mud. Would anybody be able to finish?

Nobody knew quite what to expect. This year the rain has devastated many midwest races. The last race I had attended had been Trans Iowa where the entire field was stopped short by the mud, not one person made it to the end of the course. I still haven't come to terms with that ending and I wasn't ready to add another unfinished race to my list. It wasn't supposed to rain the day of the race, so we had that going for us, but the reports we were getting from people who had been out on the course was that it would be a muddy slop fest. Judging by the Jeeps we were seeing around town, the predictions for mud were not over exaggerated. I was ready for it.

Photo by Collin Little
Saturday morning the alarm went off at 3:30 am. The race would start at 6:00. I went about my normal daily ritual I had used over the last year of training. I don't like to jump out of bed and do a workout, almost every morning starts the same for me. 30 minutes of wake up and shower, 30 minutes of coffee and internet on the phone, 30 minutes of getting dressed. 90 minutes after opening my eyes I'm ready to get on the bike. We met in the hotel parking lot at 5:00 and for the first time ever we drove to the start instead of riding. I felt dirty about it but was enjoying the last few moments of sitting still as I went over my plan for the day in my head.

Since the main mistake I had made last year was to go out way too hard, of course my plan for this year was to be more conservative. I didn't want to go easy and just eek by, though. I have been using a heart rate monitor this year in an attempt to find that perfect space where exertion and conservation meet. For me it seems to be around 150 bpm. Out of fear from blowing up last year I went a little lower even and chose 140 to 150 as the range I wanted to ride in. I would try and sit at 140 but would allow it to climb to 150 on the hills or hard parts.
Kate - Photo by J. Greg Jordan

I didn't want to line up at the front and get swept away in a pace I couldn't maintain all day so I set myself further back, near the roller derby girl holding a 16 hour sign over her head, a couple hours further back than I have lined up the last couple years. I find SuperKate Geisen, one of my favorite people to see at races. Her blog was one of the first I found when researching DK back in 2012. We could tell there was some sort of announcements going on at the front but we couldn't hear a word of it. When the crowd started to roll we just followed along. We stayed together and chatted for most of the 2 mile neutral roll out until we reached the gravel. Kate bid me farewell and I started my push forward through the crowd.

For the first 10 miles the riding was easy going. The temperature was cool, the wind wasn't a factor, and the gravel, although damp, was rolling pretty fast. Watching the backs of riders in front of me accumulate a strip of muddy tire spray, I cussed myself for leaving my clip on fender at home. For almost an hour we were lulled into thinking this might not be a bad day after all. This happy go lucky period was almost over. We crested a hilltop and rolled down a long hill into a pit of mud that had ground the front of the race to a slow trudge through ankle deep muck.
Photographer unknown
I don't know who took this one but it captures the mud marathon perfectly. Some were on the grass, some were pushing in the road, all were wondering how they were going to get through another 190 miles of this insanity. I tossed the bike on my back and started jogging through the crowd of staggering zombies wherever I could find a gap. The wound of missing the time cut at Trans Iowa still tender, I was not about to be slowed below the cut off here. 

I kept an eye on the heart rate monitor and shuffled through the quagmire as quickly as I could. I passed hundreds of people. Strava shows for me the mud marathon began at mile 11.3 and shows no long periods of riding until 13.8. After 41 minutes of trudging through the wasteland I emerged onto slightly more solid gravel with shoes three times as large each weighing over a ton. I cleared all the mud I could from my bike and shoes and jumped back on the bike. I would have to stomp and scrape on my pedals for several minutes before being able to actually clip back in.
Mud Marathon Dream Killer 400
Nearing the end of the mud marathon I was coming up on more and more sad souls with mud ruined drive trains. It was here I saw Stephen Mickey Boianoff kneeling next to his bike with his broken derailleur in his hand. He didn't look like he had given up trying to fix it yet at that moment but I would later see him at checkpoint 2 helping other people and taking awesome pictures of me applying more Chamois Butt'r. He took a selfie at the start that showed a lot of what it's like in the road waiting to go.

Photo by Stephen Mickey Boianoff
I had been able to ride several parts of the mud marathon. I felt sorry for the geared folk who had tried to ride the mud only to be stripped of derailleur far too early in the day. How I have felt their pain. It was the reason I was on a single speed this year. The memory was still fresh of being stopped mid race in TI 2014 short of an epic finish in muddy conditions by the explosion of a mud packed derailleur. I was riding 42x19 and found it to be just about perfect. Slightly spun out on the flats but low enough to handle the steady headwinds and 8,000 feet of climbing that seemed to be in the form of continuous rollers 300 feet high and 3 miles long.

Photo by Jeremy Kershaw
I spent several miles riding near Jeremy Kershaw, another single speeder who muscled his way through the entire course that day. We spent some time together in the mud during Trans Iowa as well. The best thing about riding near Jeremy is that besides being a cool single speed brother, he is also a bad ass photographer so I’m likely to get some great facebook profile pictures when I ride with him. 

I saw Jeremy waiting across one of the bigger river crossings digging his camera out so I paused in a track stand to wait for him to get ready. I’m a camera whore, what can I say? When Jeremy was ready I went for it but only made it half way. He caught this picture after I hopped off that looks like I’m doing some sort of dance with my bike in the water. Thanks for another great picture, Jeremy!
With Thomas at the start

Photo by Thomas Adams
Even single speeds break sometimes
At Land Run a couple months ago I was bumped off the single speed podium by Thomas Adams. Beside our good natured competitive rivalry, through facebook we have also become friends. We had lined up next to each other at the starting line and spent the first part of the race riding together. I had looked forward to racing him again, and more importantly, beating him this time. After the mud marathon he had gotten ahead of me but I was keeping faith in my steady pacing and hoped wisdom would win over youthful exuberance allowing me to pass him by later in the day.

I would soon get my lead back from Thomas, but not in the way I was hoping to get it. I found him some 35 miles into the race standing next to his bike holding a broken chain. I stopped and tried to brain storm a fix for a few minutes with him but it didn't seem repairable. Finding some extra links from another racer out for a derailleur I had just passed was my only idea but then I discovered Thomas was running 1/8 inch on his fixed gear and the likelihood of finding someone else on the course with that size chain was slim. I eventually had to leave him behind and press on. Sorry it ended that way my friend, I have no doubt redemption is in your future.

I had my own two mechanical issues shortly after seeing Thomas. The first was a flat tire. Pinch flat on the rear from trying to descend one of the many rocky downhill sections too quickly. In my experience, flats at Dirty Kanza are caused more often by choosing bad lines through the boulder fields than by the razor sharp arrowheads that everyone worries about. Changing a flat when the tires are covered in gritty and sticky mud is a great experience, I never got all the mud off my hands after this point. The handlebars were covered in mud and my grip would slide around on it all day long. While changing the flat I froze the tip of my dirty wet finger to the CO2 cartridge. Then I scared myself to death by unscrewing it from the inflator when it wasn't quite empty causing a loud "POP" with enough pressure to force my hands apart. Such a smooth operator.

My second mechanical was just a few minutes later when my rear wheel slipped forward in the dropouts and I threw my own chain. It wasn't broken, though, and all I had to do was move the wheel back into place and tighten it down better than I had after fixing the flat. Take your time and do it right the first time. There were so many broken bikes I passed in the first half. Broken derailleurs, broken wheels, flats, and crashes all took too many riders out before they were ready to stop.

Because of the forecast I was expecting to carry my bike a lot during the race so I was traveling very light this year. Running 32 Schwalbe Marathon Supremes at 55 psi on a Kona Paddy Wagon SS road bike. Temperature was perfect, staying in the 60 degree range all day, I didn't need a bunch of clothes, just a vest and sleeves. All I had on the bike was two water bottles, small pump, and a Jandd Mini Mountain Wedge Bag with 2 tubes, 2 CO2, Wrencho, and multitool. The Wedge Bag worked well except for the zippers getting clogged up with mud spray from the rear tire. I had to use my water bottle to rinse it enough to open it for supplies when changing the flat. Should have had my stupid fender.

Around the 50 mile mark I was caught by Dave Mizelle who was also on a single speed. We have been to a couple of the same rides this year and had both honed our mud chops at Land Run and Trans Iowa. He is always a pleasure to ride with and has an intensity that makes you want to ride faster. Trying to stay with him had the heart rate over my desired threshold and I had to ease up and let him go. I caught him somewhere later and was able to finish before him so it turned out to be a wise move to let him continue without me. This is an important lesson I think for Kanza. You must ride the pace you have trained regardless of what those around you are doing. Don't let discouragement from being left behind push you into a range you aren't trained for and you will have a greater chance at reaching your potential.   
Photo stolen from Dave's Facebook

Attempting to adhere strictly to the heart rate numbers was a difficult task at some points in the day. Especially early when I still felt fresh and would have to let people that I wanted to be with ride away from me. This happened a lot when we came out of the mud marathon and people were finally able to ride again. Sprinting by me like I was standing still I had to keep reminding myself of my plan. However frustrating, this left me feeling much more in control, and I never fell into the deep hole of discomfort I have often found here before.

Navigation is one of the challenges you face. For the most part it was pretty easy to keep up with the cue sheets. I had been disappointed by the lack of information regarding reroutes at the prerace meeting, but in the end, the few times the course deviated from the original cues, it was easy to follow and there were volunteers at most of the corners that weren't on the cue sheet to point you in the right way. The only confusing part was you had to figure out on your own when you were back on course which I did by watching the names of roads until I found a cue down the list that matched up. When we reached the first checkpoint at 70 miles the course had been shortened by about 3.7 miles which added a nice little math problem to the rest of the day. Quick, what is 107.3 minus 3.7? Now add in some fatigue from 8 hours of riding and enjoy the trip into confusion town.

I shrank the cues down, laminated them for weather,
and had them spiral bound to keep them together.
Nutrition is also a big variable in events like this. In the past I have bought into the plans sold by various companies telling us to buy exact quantities of their often expensive supplies and powders. My more recent research has suggested that we need far less fancy food and more attention to pacing. This year I ate when I thought about it, every hour usually, and drank when I was thirsty. I have been training this way for the last 6 months and have been having more success with my stomach than ever. If you're curious about the research look up "Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports." I kept track of exactly what I consumed during the race.

5 Huma Chia gels - 500 cal.
3 Epic energy bars - 600 cal.
1/3rd of a can of Pringles - 300 cal.
10 Starbursts - 200 cal.
16 oz. of Coke - 210 cal.
32 oz. of Gatorade - 240 cal.
32 oz. of GU Brew - 200 cal.
64 oz. of plain water
3 caffeine pills, and
2 Ibuprofen.

2,250 calories and 144 ounces of fluid spread evenly throughout the day. It worked well for me this time, but I may be doing something totally different come the next race, nutrition seems to be an ever evolving equation for me.

There were lots of crashes on the course but somehow I was able to avoid being involved in any, a rare occurrence for me. I saw a dude just slow to a halt and tip over sideways while riding through a large puddle. I saw Collin with his tools out straightening his handlebars after crashing in front of one the paid tour vehicles that were out on the course. They kind of made me feel like a wild animal in one of those parks you drive through. In my head I heard the tour guide narrating, "If you look to your left now I see we are lucky enough to encounter one of our more unique attractions, the red bearded single speed masochist. I must remind you for your own safety not to attempt to feed or pet any of the animals."

The longest stretch of the race for me was the same section that always hurts the most, miles 110 through 150. Once you get over the hump of 150 the finish line begins to draw you in. The middle section from the century mark to the last aid station, however, is always a long painful affair. Unlike the last few years, I never had to stop and lay down or hide in the shade while I cooled off. I felt a burst of energy as I was able to ride past the stretch of course where I had crumbled and dropped out last year. I'm sure it was partly due to the unseasonably cool temperatures, but I also think it was because of consistent reasonable pacing.
Taking care of essential business at Checkpoint 2. Photo by Stephen Mickey Boianoff
I reached the second checkpoint at 7:28 pm, almost 160 miles into the day. With 40 miles left, and just over an hour until the official sunset of 8:42, it had become obvious I wouldn't be making the finish before dark this year. I found Collin waiting for me at the checkpoint and Dennis Rathke showed up shortly after me. The three of us would end up leaving for the finish together. The hardest part left was the 10 mile ride north directly into the headwind that had been wearing away at us since just before the halfway point. I sat at the front of our group and pulled the entire section northbound. Collin, Dennis, and a new friend we picked up along the way, Carlie Mock, were all happy to let me break the wind for us. It would come at a price, though, and they would have to wait for me to recover once we finally turned out of the wind toward the finish line with only about 25 miles left to go. Without a hill or headwind to slow the geared riders down, it becomes hard to keep the single speed with everyone as I spin out just over 20 mph.

I played leap frog all day with the tandem crew of Mike and Caesie Reynolds. In the morning Mike had said something like, "Didn't I meet you near death on the side of the road in 2012?" That was me! More than once it has been me. Mike and Caesie had been plagued with flat tires all day. They would fly by me and then sure enough I would find them on the side of the road a few miles later fixing another flat. They were a strong team and seemed to be working well together. I passed them with their last flat around mile 170 and they still managed to catch and pass me to finish 2 minutes ahead.

The final bit of racing for single speed placement would be done within the last 2 miles. We had finally finished with the gravel and were riding over the highway back into town. After not being passed by another single speed rider for many miles, I had been checking anyone who went by, a solo single speeder came blowing by our group in a hurry. I told Collin and Dennis we had to catch that dude! We fell into a pace line led by Dennis with me at the very back. We pushed up the hill towards the campus of Emporia State University signaling the end of the suffering being near. 

Despite our groups combined effort, the single speeder was still pulling away and I lost sight of him as he turned a corner. I told Dennis and Collin to just relax and let him go. His heroic last minute push had earned him a step above me on the finisher's list and fatigue left me content to let him have it. Then we turned the corner and there he was! Dismounted from his bike and fiddling with his chain that he must have dropped at the worst of possible times. Half a mile from the end of our 200 mile excursion I wasn't too proud to pass in his weakened state and reclaim my position in front of him. Bye Bye Sucka! I saw him later at the finish and confessed my excitement when I had benefited from his misfortune.
Rock Star Finish Line - Photo by Eric Benjamin
Through the finish chute I rode together with Collin and Dennis. Carlie had dropped us when 10 miles out I had stopped to take a nature break. We weren't in contention for the podium so why press on in pain. I tried to slap as many high fives with kids hanging over the barriers as I could. In the last 16 hours and 46 minutes we had covered 197.3 miles of challenging sloppy roads. They handed me my finisher's glass and for a brief second I thought about spiking it into the ground right there to end the suspense of when I would break this one. But then I realized it would probably be frowned upon to cover the finish line with broken glass. Surprisingly, I made it all the way home without breaking it.

882 people had started the 200 mile ride and only 427 were able to make it to the finish, just under 50%. I was 162nd overall and 13th out of 50 single speed riders. I feel pretty good about just finishing what is being described as the toughest Dirty Kanza in its 10 year history, and on a single speed to boot.  But a week later the luster of the finish has already started to fade and I find myself wondering if I could have gone harder and finished faster. Maybe I'll go back again next year.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

2015 Land Run 100 - Mud Mask for the Soul

Photo by 241 Photography
Despite favorable weather forecasts for a week before the race, on Friday afternoon mother nature decided Stillwater, Oklahoma needed a serious soaking and turned the rain on for much of the evening. While spring rain may make farmers happy, to a gravel and dirt road race on Oklahoma's red clay, it's a game changer. Roads that were fast and dry less than 24 hours before the start might now be swamps of mud with the consistency of extra thick and chunky peanut butter. This happened in the first version of this race in 2013.  Something like 50% of the field wasn't able to finish because of a rain cloud that caught many riders still 20 miles from the end.

With Collin Little at the meeting. He's not really taller than me 
so I'm not sure how he pulled this off. Photo by 241 Photography
Everyone arrived in Stillwater on Friday night to attend the pre-race check in and meeting/party at District Bicycle's amazing shop. I think initially it was going to be outside but since it was pouring rain we all tried to pack inside. The condition of the course was a huge concern in the crowd. One of the people who spoke at the meeting was the route designer, Jim Bruer. He tried to put minds at ease when he estimated 85% of the ride should be in pretty good shape. I did the math quickly in my head, if 85% of a 100 mile race was good, that meant 15 miles might be in bad shape. That's more than a half marathon! Was anyone ready to carry their bikes over that much mud?

Photo by Collin Little
I was hoping I wouldn't have to carry mine at all.  The reason people pick up their bike and walk is because the mud loves to destroy. Wheels covered in heavy mud grind to a halt. It's particularly hard on rear derailleurs. Mud collects on the chain and derailleur until the pulleys stop turning and then your drive train pretty much explodes. I suffered this exact fate in the middle of the night 268 miles into Trans Iowa last year. Flying down the road thinking the end is in sight and then BOOM your game is over with only 70 miles to go. As I sat in the mud staring at my broken bike and waiting for a ride to pick me up, I decided I would race everything this year on a single speed. One gear to rule them all. No pesky derailleur to fail and dash my dreams. The mud would not shut me down again. So I feel a little guilty when I say I was actually hoping there would be some good muddy patches to test my bike choice out.

One other thing I noticed last year was that larger knobby tires carried far more mud than skinnier slick tires. Against the grain of current recommendations, this year I was running 32 mm Schwalbe Marathon Supremes which actually only measure 30 mm. Skinny slick tires to slice through the muck and no tread to hold extra pounds of mud. I knew I would suffer a lack of traction if it were too muddy, and the control might be twitchy if it's dry and rough, but I'm comfortable with all that. This bike would not break down. Nothing would take me off this course until I was ready.

I rode the mile from the hotel to the start and arrived an hour early. The Aspen Coffee Company had their doors open early serving gourmet coffee. I had a double shot of espresso in a mocha and brought my sugar and caffeine buzz I had started at the hotel to an early frenzy. I realize it's an addiction and I'm totally fine with it because it's awesome. Standing in line to order I met a man with his wife. He shared that today would be his first attempt to ride 100 miles. I had several conversations throughout the morning with people there to try the distance for the first time. I love the energy of someone about to tackle a big new challenge. Trying to be confident but not quite sure what to expect. Nervous excitement and hope. It's a contagious feeling.

This would be my first race on the single speed. I have been riding it for the last 6 months but I haven't actually raced it yet. I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up with my friends at the start if I wanted to have energy for the end so I lined up at the very back of the crowd to try and keep my start relaxed. While 561 had signed up to ride today, 403 had shown up in the morning.  95 people for the 50 mile ride and 308 for the 100 mile ride (106 miles if you care to be precise).  The crowd has more diversity than you might expect. Everyone is there for the same reason, to challenge themselves. The severity of the challenge we had chosen wasn't fully understood by anyone just yet.

He's got a gun! Photo by 241 Photography
Regardless of our readiness for what lay ahead, at 8:00 am the gun was fired and we rolled out of town in a giant pack led to the gravel by the local police. Not long after starting the mood of the group took a quick and distinct swing. By the end of the first hour the group's energy had faded quickly from hope and excitement to frustration and concern for their ability to finish within the time limit. As we left the good roads near town and got further into the country, conditions deteriorated quickly and paces began to drop. My single speed allowed me to ignore worry for my derailleur and I was able to keep rolling when many were stopped.

When it was only an inch or two deep I didn't have any trouble besides some fish tailing and extra effort, but occasionally I would sink too deep and it would become too difficult to push through it. I would throw the bike up on my back and carry it until the road went downhill or firmed up a little and  then jump back on. Often I was only moving slightly faster than the walkers but I was passing tons of people.

Photo by 241 Photography
I had to ask many to move aside as they were walking on the same firm parts I was wanting to ride. I was trying to be courteous when I would say coming through but the effort level was sky high and I was gasping for air so I probably sounded like an asshole barking orders. Sorry to anyone if I came off poorly. One of the best interactions was with the women's overall winner, Desiree White. After I rode by her she yelled, "I didn't know you were on a single speed or I would have bowed!"

Fairly early I came upon Kuat teammate, John Bradley. Derailleur gone and chain hanging slack. He shook his head and told me he was out. I dream about beating John in races. Though not the most heroic way to finish ahead of him, I'll take it. He told me later he had seen the grin I was trying to suppress. A couple hundred more stranded people later I came upon Jamie and again felt a strange mix of guilt and excitement for getting ahead of him in this way. I didn't know Jamie was out of the race at that point and thought he might just be stuck in another unrideable section. Turns out he was done, but imagining him about to catch me provided serious motivation for the rest of the day. Shortly after I passed Jamie I saw last year's overall winner, Bob Cummings, on the side of the road looking at his bike. I didn't know quite where I was in the field yet but I definitely wasn't at the back anymore.

My nose was dripping all day and it was infuriating. I hated wiping it because I was covered up to my elbows in red mud and I knew I was smearing it all over my face. At some point I stopped caring and just went ahead made war paint stripes on my cheeks.  It seemed appropriate as we were all at war with this course. I almost lost my second wedding ring in a race. I lost my first one at the Dirty Kanza a couple years ago. This time I actually saw it slide off my finger and land in the mud at my feet. I snatched it up and put it in my bag for safe keeping.

Riding by everyone who had broken down was an odd feeling. Normally if I saw one person on the side of the road looking distraught I would ask if they needed anything. A short, "You good?" is usually enough. There was no way to do that in this situation. For over 5 miles there were people lining the sides of the road. It would have taken all day to have even short conversations with each of them. Some had their bikes apart and were examining links of chain trying desperately to get it back into working order. Others were just staring up and down the road looking lost, probably wondering what to do next. I trusted the Jeep club would be hard at work and hopefully all those people had arranged bailout plans.

Photo by Bobby Wintle
A little bit more slipping and sliding brought me to the dismount zone. There was a bridge out and you had to hike down the embankment and across the riverbed. They had built a wooden staircase climbing out of the riverbed just for the race and this is where I saw Bobby Wintle on the course. I would later learn from a podcast that at this very moment he was really questioning if he had done the right thing by allowing the race to go on. I was too lost in my own competitive zone to notice anything out of the ordinary about his encouragement and exciting energy. I remember him pulling out his phone to take a picture of me and then sending me up the stairs with a smile and cheers. I tried to ride the road out but the combination of it being uphill on soft mud covered with leaves made it impossible and I slogged most of it on foot.

At the end of the road it was finally getting rideable again, for me at least. At the next intersection they had an oasis set up with a food truck and a coffee truck.  There were lots of people there clapping and offering help but I didn't want to slow down. I wanted something to eat badly but I knew it would be a time suck. I also knew that if the roads got even a little better all those fast people I had just blown by would be taking their leads back. It felt so good to be riding again and finally picking up some speed. The roads were still squishy and ready to stop you if you got off the main tire strips but there was a glimmer of hope for the day returning. Even though I had jumped so far ahead and was now rolling, it had taken a lot of time and energy. If my pace didn't get much faster than it was I was in danger of missing the cut off at the midway point.

The muddy miles. Heart rate is through the roof
From the GPS I can tell the walking for me started at 10.6 miles. Over the next 10 miles, I got off the bike to walk a total of 3.5 miles on greasy slippery mud. I have heard some people say they had to walk as many as 7 miles. I don't know how much the bike weighed with all that mud on it but the effort of carrying it and trying to move quickly over the terrain with shoes covered in heavy mud had
Photo by Kim Morris
my heart rate pegged near my redline. A week after the race my shoulder still had a sore spot on it. On a positive note, I feel super proficient at carrying the bike now. My average speed for the first 25 miles was 8.6 mph.

Fortunately the ground was getting better with every mile covered. There was one re-routed section where the cues said to cross a highway but there was a volunteer waiting. He told us to head up the paved highway until we saw the next volunteer. This was miles 44 through 46 and they were seriously tough to cover on a single speed.  Slightly uphill with a headwind the whole way. I laid down on the aerobars and worked. Finally there was a water tower with the name of the midway town on it. Perry. I thought we would be pulling in to the checkpoint anytime and started to get my hopes up, but then I came upon the next volunteer who sent me in the opposite direction of town on another dirt road. He said we could follow the cues from there. They had cut 2 miles off the course, I'm guessing to save us from another muddy stretch.

The cue sheets were dead on and easy to follow all day. It wasn't really necessary, though, as every single corner was marked. Since leading several off the course here last year I have tried to be more diligent with my tracking and checked every corner with the cue sheet.

After the the checkpoint it was a different race completely. While there was an occasional patch of mud to negotiate, the roads were pretty much dry. I had 50 miles left and only a few people in front of me, though, I didn't know exactly how many. There were very few tire tracks on the ground. The challenge of the second half was going to be the wind and hills. Heat was gradually picking up and I started to get pretty hot.

Photo by Kim Morris
One of the more exciting times of the day for me came when I noticed a white helmet on the horizon behind me. All day I had just known Jamie would come from nowhere and blow by me at the end. He wears a white helmet. I was around 80 miles in and starting to count down the miles.

The white helmet was moving closer each time I checked back. Eventually the rider was right on my heels but it wasn't Jamie. It was Thomas Adams on his brakeless fixed gear bike. We made eye contact and smiled at each other as he pulled aside me and then he put his head down and soldiered on. I kept trying to match his pace but it was too difficult to maintain and slowly I lost sight of him. My pride was stung to be passed by another single speed competitor this late in the game, but it was awesome at the same time to see another person rocking a bike that most would never consider for a course like this.

Photo by 241 Photography
A few more hot, dry, and hilly miles brought us to the edge of town and almost the finish. Frequent head checks to look for Jamie behind me I just kept laying down all the power I could manage. Before I knew it I was turning onto the final stretch and saw the finish line ahead. As he always is, Bobby was waiting at the line to congratulate everyone and to give one of his signature hugs.

Bobby told me I was the 4th single speed. Thomas had bumped me off the podium and snatched my trophy! I finished 16th overall in 8 hours and 43 minutes. The finish is the real trophy here, though. This was definitely one of the toughest courses I have faced. To Jim Bruer's credit, his estimation of the mud on the course had been pretty close. 85% of the course was good enough roads and rideable, but that other 15% took a huge toll on the participants. Of the 308 riders who showed up for the 100 mile version only 107 made it into Bobby's arms at the finish. Only 26 of the 50 mile riders made it. A 33% finishing rate. My kind of race!

I have heard a few whine about holding a ride in such conditions. I suspect those people like everything in life to come the easy way. I've always preferred the harder path. To me this ride is what gravel racing is all about. The desire to face and overcome the unknown challenge ahead is what keeps me focused and wakes me up to train in the months before the event. The experience is more memorable and the opportunity for personal transformation is much greater when the conditions are most severe. In my opinion, the 2015 Land Run was perfect.

Human Bobble Head

Saturday, February 21, 2015

2014 - 24 Hours of Cumming 6 Months Late

I don't remember which friend on facebook it was that first shared the link.  One of the ways people find these underground tests of desire is when they are shared on facebook. Often clicked or forgotten by the cleverness of the name and attached picture.  24 Hours of Cumming was the name of the race I had stumbled on. The slogan read,"This could get messy!"  I chuckled like Beavis and opened the page.

It was a 400K (248 mile) bike race on the gravel roads of south central Iowa.  You would have 24 hours to cover the distance which had nearly 17,000 feet of climbing, There were four 62 mile loops beginning and ending in Cumming, Iowa, at the Cumming Tap.

Jamie and the bikes
The defeat from my first trip to the gravel of Iowa in April at Trans Iowa still fresh on my mind, I decided almost immediately that I would toe the line. For much of the summer I was planning on riding the race alone, but as the day grew closer, after listening to me talk about it on training rides every weekend, Jamie decided that he wanted in on a full day of Cumming too. We have ridden more miles together this year than ever so I was glad to hear the traveling party would continue a little longer.

As the race grew closer I played my normal game of sending Jamie long range weather forecasts which were changing from day to day, as they always do. Some times there were thunderstorms and others it was sunny skies with light winds. The weather is the wild card at events like these. A bright sunny day on fast dry gravel is an entirely different world than a storming cold day in the mud. Both are real possibilities in Iowa at most times of year. In the end it didn't really matter, we would show up and ride regardless of what the weather was doing. After rains had soaked the course for the entire week leading up to the race, the day before the forecast had settled into mild weather with a small chance of rain.  

It rained for most of the 6 hour drive to Iowa.  We arrived in Cumming the night before. Population 373. There were hotels less than 10 miles from the start but I have been craving some tent time and wanted to camp, not to mention camping was free. The town of Cumming had graciously opened up the city park on the lawn of City Hall for camping.  How often do you get to camp in the front yard of the City Hall of Cumming?

Camping out at City Hall.  That trailer in the background is City Hall.

That's not my tent in the picture above but I thought it captured the essence of the experience better. It was the only other tent there, for a total of 4. Sara and me in one, Jamie had one, and Jake was spending his first night alone in his new tent someplace other than our backyard.  Granting steps towards the independence of your children is both satisfying and terrifying at the same time.

After setting up camp we walked the quarter mile down to the Cumming Tap. From the google map street view research I had done before the race, I had this preconceived notion of a hole in the wall locals only bar with a couple regulars sitting on their regular stools. Totally wrong.

It was a hole in the wall in an old brick building, but it was full of life. There was a party bus with Christmas lights in the windows parked outside and the action could be heard before we reached the building. Inside the place was packed with young people. We learned they bring groups from Des Moines on party buses to drink and hangout at the Cumming Tap. Our whole weekend was to be centered around the bar as it sits next to the start/finish line and check-in point between each loop.

We weaved our way through the party inside the bar. We worked our way to the back door where earlier in the day we had noticed outside tables. On the back patio we found the race director, Steve Canon.  We spent over an hour talking about running and riding. He shared his vision for the growth of this race and I liked the ideas he had. We didn't want to stay up too late the night before a race, though, so we hiked back to the tents early.

We had set up on the edge of the city park which was right next to the Great Western Rail Trail that led to Des Moines just a few miles away. The trail had steady traffic on it even into the late night hours. The people passing by could be heard inside the tent and provided entertainment well into the next day. While we couldn't actually see who they were through our nylon walls, the characters that went by ranged from a man singing along passionately to an Elton John song playing loudly from speakers on his bike, to a group of teenagers discussing sexual positions in an embarrassingly uneducated manner.  I wondered how Jake was feeling about the experience in his tent a few feet away.

Last minute tweaks
The race wasn't supposed to start until 11:00 am which was a different feeling from the normal dawn or earlier starts of other long rides. Knowing this would be the last rest I would get for a long time, I tried to sleep in as long as possible, but I never can sleep late, so once the sun was up I was wide awake. Unzipping the tent revealed bright blue skies, zero wind, and low cool temperatures. Pretty much perfect. Jamie was out of his tent not much longer and we spent the morning drinking coffee and speculating about how the next 24 hours would go. Much of how we thought it would go was wrong.

After lounging around for a couple hours we went back down to the Cumming Tap for some breakfast and the pre-race meeting.  There had only been a few riders there the night before but this morning it was full of people ready for an adventure. After a short meeting we were turned loose to wait an hour and a half for the start. We went back to the campsite to prepare the bikes and ourselves. The time passed quickly and it was soon time to roll down to the start and begin a long day in the saddle.

With this being the inaugural year, it was a small and relaxed environment at the start.  Except for me and Jamie being from Missouri, and one other guy from Minnesota, everyone else there was from Iowa. We found a patch of grass to sit on and waited for a five minute call to get up and take our place on the very edge of the group. My pride from a complete blow up at Dirty Kanza still tender, the strategy was not to be in a hurry. We had a long way to go and a long time to to get there. I wanted to warm up and ease into it. Finishing, preferably in a sexy manner, was the only goal.

After nervously waiting all morning to get the show on the road, 11:00 am finally came around and it was time to begin.  The group rolled out at a fairly reasonable pace.  I should have savored the moment a little longer than I did because it was one of the last that I would feel so happy and relaxed.

The dry gravel was in great shape.  The two races I have done in Iowa so far have had some of the best gravel conditions around.  Sure, they have the occasional freshly cared for sections, but most of it was well worn and rode more like asphalt than off road, even after all the rain. That was until we hit the first B road.  The mud so thick and sticky that wheels were fully coated and stopped within a couple rotations.  After the mud at Trans Iowa ending my dreams I was quick to get off my bike and start hiking.  I would walk to the finish if necessary.

We watched a guy attempting to ride the ditch in the grass on the side of the road which worked for a little bit until he broke a spoke.  Jamie and I slogged through the length of it on foot, keeping as close to the edge as we could, not wanting to take any such risks less than halfway through the first loop. After the race we would notice we had both picked up a nasty poison ivy like rash on our legs.  Thin stripes of water filled blisters that stayed on our legs for a couple weeks.  It was only on our right side that we had rubbed along the vegetation on the side of the road.

While walking the B road, I started wondering if slicks were the tires to ride in these races.  Granted it may have been because she only weighed about 100 pounds, but we watched a woman slowly ride by everyone on what looked like slick road bike tires.  Not a bit of mud was clinging to them.  She gingerly rode past and out of sight as we all stood mouths gaping.  Her luck on the course would run out hours later in the middle of the night.  She came upon a gang of raccoon crossing a road and they bike jacked her, or something like that.  I was pretty groggy when I heard the story the next morning so I'm not sure if she hit one or crashed trying to avoid them but I do know she found herself in the hospital.  An unfortunate early end to a race.

Luckily, there were only two roads that had to be walked and they were both in the first loop of the race.  Four different 62 mile loops.  In my head going into the race I pictured a clover leaf but it was nothing like that.  There was overlapping and using the same roads several times.  It played havoc with my head as I constantly had the feeling I had been places before. Was it the previous loop or was I lost?  I trusted the cue sheets and they kept us on track all day.  Each loop came back around to the Cumming Tap so that we could meet with our crews and replenish supplies.

The first loop flew by.  The second loop was where I felt the screws begin to tighten.  Despite feeling good at the beginning of the day, my old nemesis, nauseousness, decided to rear his ugly head less than 100 miles into the ride.  I'm not sure why.  I was eating and drinking early and often and wasn't expecting it at all.  I want to blame the big breakfast I had before the ride.  We normally start so early I don't even think about eating.  We had the entire morning to sit around and they were serving biscuits and gravy.  Was I supposed to just walk by and not have any?  Whatever the cause, after 80 miles or so, I felt like I was going to lose it for pretty much the rest of the race.
Sunset Show on the Bike
Nighttime seemed to come quickly.  For most of the ride it was just Jamie and me.  We would occasionally pass or be passed but we never found ourselves in a group.  The second of three super moons happening this summer was on the night of the race. It was a brilliant sight. Unfortunately, half way through the night, clouds started moving in and obscuring the view. I feared rain at one point but don't remember anything but fog ever falling from the sky. The air was thick with moisture, though, and water was collecting on the surface of everything. Every time we descended into a valley I was freezing, and then when we would climb our way out to the next hill top I would overheat and feel hot.  I would guess the temperature was in the 50's but in the middle of the night and exhausted it felt more like the 30's to me.

I did not take this picture, I just found it online.  It is however exactly the way I remember the moon looking that night before it fully disappeared behind the clouds.  
We trudged on through the night.  There was a road out at one point.  It might have been easier to see in the day but this late in the game it was pitch black.  We stumbled our way past a road closure sign and with bikes on our shoulders, up and over a huge pile of dirt eventually emerging on the other side of the closure several hundred feet later and back onto good gravel.  We were surprised to hear voices from the dark on the side of the road asking us where we were headed.  It was a man and woman standing at the end of their driveway.  We told them about the race and they told us we had just missed the rescue of a truck that had tried to drive over the big dirt berm we had just climbed over. Jamie did all the talking and I took a nap on my handlebars thankful to be stopped.

In the middle of the night some thoughts seem so clear.  For some reason, at 3 am, I was fascinated by this sign and had to take a picture.  I have no idea why.
You could also compete in the race as a relay team.  Each person riding a single 62 mile loop.  We were passed by a large group of people that turned out to be relay riders.  While we were 170 miles into our race they were only about 40 miles in and they were fresh and chipper.  A woman passed near me and I noticed she was in shorts and short sleeves.  I had a jacket on and leg warmers and was shivering, looking pretty shabby I'm sure.

The third loop was definitely the hardest for me.  It seemed to go on forever and I think it had the biggest hills of the whole day. When we finally got back to the Cumming Tap I collapsed on the grass while Sara and Jake worked on resupplying the bike and trying to bring me things to eat.  I'm not sure how long we were stopped but it was too long.  I was stiff and cold and didn't really want to go back out again.  Even more, however, I didn't want to write another blog about overcoming failure and so I forced myself to head back out on the course.

Maintaining his enthusiasm every time I saw him, race director Steve cheered for us as we rolled past the start finish line for one final lap.  He shouted, "Don't go too fast and miss the sunrise!" The sun would be up shortly and there was no possible way we were riding fast enough to miss it.  Half a mile later Jamie was hit with a dire abdominal situation and said we had to stop for a minute. I saved his socks and gave him a few sheets of toilet paper I had in my bag for just such an emergency as he bolted into the woods on the edge of the road. I was happy to have another minute to rest my head on my bars while I waited. It seemed like it only took about a minute to complete the transaction and he was ready to go before my nap was over.

I'm a little fuzzy on the details this late into the night but I think it was near the beginning of this loop that we noticed a headlight behind us and gaining. Within a few miles the rider had reached us. It was Michael Drake. 190 miles into his first gravel race and still looking strong. He latched on and stayed with us for the rest of the night. This seems to be a standard thing in overnight racing. In the daytime you can enjoy being all alone, but once night time comes it can be dark and lonely. Small groups form and work together to make it through the hardest times of the race. We were happy to have the company.

I like to leave a little bit of myself
on every course
I was a little surprised he would want to stay with us, though, as it was just after we linked up that I had my standard mid-race crash.  Jamie and I were riding side by side as we approached an intersection where we would be making a left hand turn.  Jamie entered the turn first and I fell in behind him about two feet off his back wheel.  As we came out of the turn we hit a patch of loose gravel and Jamie's back wheel slid out and put him on the ground on his side.  I saw it happening and tried to turn harder to miss him but ended up going down as well and sliding my front wheel into his back.  We both lay there for a minute staring up at the stars with the bikes still tangled between our legs. Slowly we unwound ourselves and stood up.  His hand was hurting and my knee was a little tender but I thought we had made it through pretty well.  After the race we would see some black and blue marks along with some spilled blood but none of it was a show stopper.  Eventually we remounted and continued down the road.  We still had 50 miles to cover.

When the first signs of morning began to light the sky I knew we were going to finish it.  We still had a stretch of road to cover but as long as we kept moving we were going to make it.  My stomach even started to feel better.  I had not eaten or drank anything for a really long time.  I would try to sip water occasionally but I seemed to feel best when I didn't.  Deep breathing and focusing on the cue sheet numbers was what I kept my mind on.  While they didn't pass quickly, the miles left to go dwindled slowly and we eventually reached the final turn and headed toward the finish line.  Our dramatic sprint to the finish was interrupted when we had to stop and wait for a car to pass before we could cross the finish line.  The three of us were the last people on the course.  We had finished in 22 hours and 4 minutes.  Only 20 people took on the full 248 miles.  10 of us finished it.  A completion that my summer desperately needed to return my confidence in my ability to persevere.

They had been waiting for us to finish to have the awards ceremony.  The first place finishers awards went to Steve Fuller and Sarah Cooper, both well known gravel crushers.  Steve was warming up before the race began and crashed. Something about a pedal shearing off and then hitting the gravel hard enough to rip a huge hole in his shorts. Fortunately he had another uniform and bike with him. He donned his new equipment and then blew everyone away with a 16 and a half hour finish.  

The finish line was what this race was all about for me. While I can ramble on about the character building of failure, completion of a goal every once in a while is also pretty good for the soul.  Even though we weren't the first to finish, Jamie and I were recognized as the fastest beards. As we were about to get in the car to head home a woman grabbed Jamie and me and drug us back into the bar to have her picture taken with the Fastest Beards.  Turns out Fastest Beards may perhaps be even more illustrious and rewarding than first place.  

Not a clover leaf at all


There were all sort of bikes there. 
Laminating the Cue Sheets