Sunday, September 7, 2014

Long Time Coming, Pt. 4 ...

The rest of the story:

Part 1: Motivated by Failure

Race day!

The heart attack profile of the SM100

The phone rang for my wake-up call at 4:30, and I hopped out of bed immediately (mostly because I was already awake.) I got ready, ate a quick breakfast (knowing the hotel buffet wouldn't open for a few hours, I had picked up some pop-tarts the day before) and started bringing my stuff out to the car. I headed out the door by 5:15 and was at the venue a half hour later. There were a lot of people stumbling around in the dark (I need to remember to bring a headlamp next time) and it seemed like only a few minutes after I got there, Chris Scott was telling everyone to head to the staging area. I picked up the pace to get moving and managed to spill half of my Osmo pre-hydration mix all over a towel in the back of my car (it still smells like pineapple/lemon back there now.) Oh well. No crying over spilled Osmo - it was time to go.

I lined up in the nine hour corral, not because I was thinking I'd actually finish in nine hours. I just wanted to avoid as much of the bottleneck that was certain to form at the first climb as possible. That was kind of futile, of course, since one thing I was absolutely certain would happen was that on the SS I was about to get dropped on the crazy mad dash in the first mile or so of pavement. But whatever - I still figured being further up at the start had to count for something.

A moment later, it was moot - the roll-out began and we were off. Sure enough, tons of riders came flying by once we'd crossed the metal bridge and were on the long paved straightaway. I was just happy I had managed to avoid getting taken out in the early chaos (a few others weren't so lucky.) I settled in and planned to just ride smart in the first few miles - pass where I could but not get too caught up in burning matches early. It was already in the high seventies when we started and I was figuring that the heat would only get worse throughout the day.

I did spend most of the five mile dirt road section passing riders who'd been able to go by me on the pavement, and when we finally hit the hard left turn into the single track climb, I was able to sneak by two more riders and then just settled in to a long train. It's always tough to sit in like that on a SS - it's actually a lot easier on the legs to go faster on longer climbs. But I just accepted it -- if I started trying to pass people, it would have been a constant stop and go. There were dozens of riders ahead of me in the train and I just had no other option but to sit back and try to take it as easy as possible.

We eventually topped out in the technical single track that led us toward the nicest surprise of the day - a super-flowy descent that seemed to go on forever. In my pre-ride the day before, I had turned left at the top and headed down the old climb, so I had no idea what I was in for on the descent. A few minutes into it, I was almost laughing. I was also surprised to notice that I was feeling really good and as the first hour alarm went off on my Garmin, I noticed that I was just about 11 miles in.

Overall, the SM100 is probably best described as a set of six distinct climbs, interrupted by periods of fire road or pavement. Most of the single track (around half the ride) comes in the climbs and descents. Each climb has a very distinct characteristic. The first climb used to be a loose gravel grind, but now it's a single track ridge climb that gets progressively techier the closer you get to the top. I was very surprised at how good I was feeling at the top, but I knew the next climb (plus four more after that) was looming a few miles away so I knew not to read too much into how I was feeling just 10% into the ride.

I popped out of the single track after the first climb and started down a long gradual fire road descent. I quickly felt totally spun out but just kept my speed going at around 20 mph as much as I could. Eventually, a big train of riders came flying by and one of them, a small girl on a Misfit, yelled "hop on!" I wasn't able to hold their wheel (even though the guy on the back actually tried to sit up and give me a chance to catch on), so I had to let them go. But that set up a theme for the rest of the day - I would eventually spend most of the day going back and forth with Linda Shin from Toronto -- I had to go a little faster on the climbs by virtue of riding the SS, but she was definitely a much better descender than I was and she and many other geared riders would always roll by me in the flats. (I'm not ashamed to admit that I simply followed her wheel on the techiest descent of the day because she was just simply much better at picking lines than I was.)

I continued rolling down the fire road and eventually it kicked up a bit and I started to reel in some of the folks who'd come by me. I hit the base of the second climb, on the Lynn Trail, and decided that since I was still feeling pretty good, I was going to give it a go with riding as much of it as I could this year. That trail quickly becomes extremely steep and I rode maybe the first 20% of the climb before hopping off to save my legs. I trudged for a bit, but did remount a few times and rode some of the flatter sections. But the last few miles of the climb are very steep and I didn't want to blow myself up, since I was still only 20 or so miles into the race. I trudged along with another single speeder who seemed to be pretty miserable. I think he was riding a much bigger gear than I was and kept asking how much longer he'd have to trudge. I tried to cheer him up, but the only thing that really seemed to work was when we turned a corner and saw daylight - the top of the climb! Of course, as with most climbs on the SM100 course, it was a false summit. And some of the steepest short sections of uphill were yet to come, but I didn't mention that since he seemed to be really happy to be able to start riding again. I had to stop before starting the descent to check my rear thru-axle because my rear wheel seemed to be a little shaky. I fixed it and started down the impossibly techy descent.

I was practically sitting on my rear tire on a few of the rockiest sections of the descent but eventually made it to some smoother single track and then the fun began. I was flying along and swooping around bermed switchbacks and having a great time. I saw a few riders on the side of the trail but no one needed any help so I kept rolling. Eventually, the descent popped out into a less steep singletrack straightaway. This should have been the easiest part of the ride, but while rolling along at about 25 mph, I managed to hit something and t-boned my handlebars. I was thrown over the bars and landed on my head and shoulder. I got up slowly and checked that everything was still working. My handlebars were bent from when my knee hit them, and I had a new dent in my helmet form where I hit the ground, but other than that and some cuts and scrapes, I felt fine. I had to adjust my bars, but luckily I had a 5mm wrench in my pack and was able to get them realigned pretty quickly. While I was on the side of the trail, dozens of riders came by and all of them asked if I was okay, so that was very cool. I got going a little gingerly to recover from the shock but for the most part I was good. The only thing that hurt was my knee because all the skin was scraped off, but it would later turn out that was just adrenaline -- the next day I would notice that I had banged up my shoulder pretty bad, I had a big knock on my forehead, and bruises all over my legs and arms. But at the moment, I didn't notice a thing, so I saddled up and headed out.

Next up was Hankey Mountain, one of the longer climbs of the day and a constant slog. As I was riding up the hill I was catching a lot of the folks who had passed me after my crash, and they nearly all asked how I was doing. That's a very cool thing I've always noticed about mountain bikers in general -- more often than not, we tend to look out for one another and I really appreciated the concern. I was good to go though and thanked each of them for asking. And the truth was, the first ride up Hankey Mountain was a turning point for me. Up to that point, I was convinced that everything would eventually blow up for me as it always had before. But despite having bounced off the ground at a pretty high speed just a few miles before, I felt really good going up that hill and started to think that just maybe this day would be different. I summited the climb feeling strong and even managed to stay upright (with one near miss) on the early, ultra-techy part of the descent. Once I got through that, I just hopped on the back of a train of riders and we flew down the back side of the mountain (I think it's called Dowell's Draft) on some of my favorite single track anywhere. I popped out at the aid station and checked my time - I was running right around 10 mph including my crash time and was feeling pretty confident that I was going to beat my early prediction of 12 hours. I still figured that I was going to have a rough time going up the "death climb" but I figured I'd done enough in the first 45 miles to give myself at least a small cushion.

I swapped my bottles at the aid station and headed out along the highway toward Braley's Pond. I rode for a while with another single speeder (I think his name was Josh) and I was telling him how much I wasn't looking forward to this part of the course. The road section was something I'd particularly been dreading before the race -- it's a long slightly uphill slog on an active highway and I imagined it would be a nightmare on a singlespeed. He agreed but only because he'd been running a pretty big gear and was a bit wiped at that point. But for me, it turned out that wasn't the case. I kept a pretty good average speed along the road and before I knew it, I was riding through the rocky creek bed into climb number four.  And then I rode much more of the climb than I had in the previous two times I'd done the race. That climb probably has a higher percentage of singletrack than any other on the race, most of it very tight ridge line trail where you don't want to risk slipping off to your right. I walked the techies parts just to be safe and was surprised at how quickly I reached the top. I was also really psyched because the Braley's Pond descent is about as much fun as you can have on a bicycle -- super fast with flowy berms around every turn and sections where you are just flying between trees on a very well-kept trail. No matter what happened in any previous time I've ridden here, I always came out of the woods at the bottom of Braley's with a big smile on my face and this year was no different.

My one bit of strategy for the day had been to leave my only drop bag at Aid Station 4 just before the death climb began after Braley's. I rolled up and the volunteers already had my bag out for me. I grabbed my extra bottle and reshuffled my pockets to balance everything out. Once I was all set to go (and had slammed a few cups of coke), it was time to the tackle the death climb!

The early part of the death climb is actually barely a climb at all. The whole thing is over 20 miles long, but the first ten or so miles are pretty gradual. It was on the death climb when I started to wonder if I might make it in less than 11 hours after all. I was feeling very good on the early part of the climb, averaging well over 10 mph. More importantly, I was able to keep it up without feeling like I was pushing too hard. That was key because I knew that once we hit the switchback, it would get pretty nasty and I'd have to slow down. Sure enough, I rolled into the steep part of the climb and immediately felt like I was hitting a wall. I felt pretty good and was able to keep pedaling but it was definitely a slog and my speed dropped down to less than half of what I'd been doing earlier. It always seems that Rest Stop 5 is just out of reach on this section of the climb. You keep expecting it to be around the next corner and those last two miles to reach it seem endless. But eventually I rolled into the rest stop and checked my time -- I was still right around 10 mph and thought maybe I should rush through and get out ASAP. But there was coke and pizza and apples, so that wasn't happening. I was feeling pretty good, but knew that a coke at 76 miles would be like a little slice of heaven so I enjoyed a cup (or three) and ate a slice of pizza. Then I grabbed an apple and told the young girl at the table my quick story of how an apple saved my life a few years ago here. She looked at me like I was nuts, and so I just said thanks and took off.

I knew from experience the one fact that most racers there overlook -- the worst part of the death climb comes after the rest stop. People who haven't done it before often think that once they reach the rest stop the climb is over, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that the rest stop only marks the beginning of the "endless meadows". The meadows themselves are the brief respite from the uphill. If you look at the profile above, the last kicker on the huge climb is where they are. You basically ride through a meadow and then hit a nasty uphill section and then you repeat that about half a dozen times or so. It gets to the point where just seeing another meadow makes you cringe. But just about when I was starting to feel like I was going to explode, I crested the top of the mountain and was staring down a cray steep, crazy techy descent.

That descent was and probably always will be the hardest part of my day at the SM100. It's incredibly loose and you can't really stop your speed form building no matter what you do because it feels at times like you're riding off a cliff. I was sitting all the way back and felt my hands cramping as I gripped the brakes to control my ride. I kept expecting to smell burning metal as my rotors caught fire or something. This was the point where Linda rolled up behind me and I happily gave her the line. She handled the tech like a pro a I just sat in and let her pick the lines. Eventually, the drop smoothed out and I was able to shake out my aching arms. I was aching in my upper arms at that point, but we kept up our pace in the very flowing bottom of the descent.

At the last rest stop, I didn't need to swap a bottle but I did grab some french fries. At that point, there was about 12 miles to go and I was starting to do the math in my head -- I was still really close to a ten hour pace, but I knew that the last climb, a second time up Hankey Mountain, lay ahead. I started wondering what was going to happen.

And then on that last climb of the course, I had the same conversation with about four other riders. Everyone I passed wanted to know how much climbing was left. Everyone, it seemed, just wanted to be done going up and I was no different.

One thing seems worth noting here: the second time up Hankey is nowhere near the longest climb of the day, nor is it even hit the steepest section of Hankey Mountain. But after 90 or so miles and roughly 12,000 feet of climbing, it's a total punch in the dick and probably the darkest time of the day for almost every rider out there. You get a pretty good feeling when you finally finish the death climb, but to look up at another long dirt road slog is tough that late in the race. But this time, I was able to keep my mind from going too dark and I just kept telling myself that it would be over soon. My legs felt fine, oddly enough. I was never worried about them, even though I did purposely get off and push once or twice just to be sure I didn't stretch myself too thin. Eventually I reached the top (I think I was pretty accurate telling people it was about three miles, by the way!) and then you go over a little hump and start the (mostly) downhill ride to the finish.

I was now really wondering what my final time would be. I was pretty close to 10 hours and about 95 miles in, and figured it was all going to come down to how accurate my mileage was reading at the time. To give it my best shot, I really just let loose on the final descent. I was ripping through the creek beds and rolling trail as fast as I could and throwing all kinds of caution to the wind just to keep the impossible hope of a sub-10 hour day alive.

And then it happened -- I came around a final bend and saw the first camp site above the finishing field. I looked at my time and realized that not only was I going to finish this thing in under 10 hours, but I was going to do it with more than five minutes to spare! I went nuts. I hit the field through the camping area yelling and launched myself off the roller, even catching a little air.  I ultimately crossed the line in 9:52 and change, and probably scared Chris Scott by how amped I was. (Why would someone so far out of the top ten -- I finished 18th -- be so excited?) But this was a really long time coming -- I had cut about an hour and a half off my previous best time and did it on the singlespeed, which was way beyond anything I thought I could do. I was so excited that when I hit the gong, I knocked it over. A total spaz, sure, but seeing that single digit hour finish really felt good.

I grabbed my pint glass and briefly debated whether I should grab a beer right away or go try to get a signal on my phone to tell Joanna. I opted for the phone and spent five minutes walking around until I had enough signal to send a text. I told her my finish time and promised her I'd call when I got back to the hotel. Then I got cleaned up and headed for the kegs. After a beer or two, I tracked down my friend Jesse Kelly who was catching a ride with me back to Philly. He's a super strong rider and had just straight up murdered the course in just over 8 hours for 13th place in the open class -- after riding his bike from Philly to Harrisonburg!!! I think that's one of the most impressive things I've heard in a long time. I told him he should seriously consider doing the Tour Divide some day. After working out the details for the next morning, it was time to head back to the hotel to call home and then get some dinner.

And so that was it. Kind of four years in the making, and I don't mean that in a dramatic way. I realize that my time wasn't anything special in the overall placings, but this was definitely killed a few demons given how tough a time I had at this race in the past. Shenandoah had been a mystery I couldn't crack, and this year I managed to work it out in a way that I think I can build on from here if I choose to. So what's next? Well, long term I'm not sure. I have a few ideas working for next year, but nothing concrete yet. And I have three or four more races this year, including (of course) The Six Hours of Cathedral Pines in November (one of my favorite races all year.) I'd love to go back to Shenandoah with a bigger goal -- is it possible to shoot for nine hours next year? I don't know, but one thing is for sure: I'm going to try to maintain and build on the condition I built this year. Usually, I don't worry too much about weight and fitness in the winter. But I think I've reached an age now where I really can't ignore it at any time of year. Given how much I actually enjoyed the effort this year, I'm going to see how long I can keep it going. I took it easy this week since I was on vacation, but when I go back to work tomorrow, it'll be back to spinach and turkey once again! I certainly don't want to get caught up in racing everything in sight, but I would definitely like to feel like I have the fitness to show up any time I do feel like throwing a number on the front of my bike.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the trail!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Long Time Coming, Pt. 3 ...

Part 1
Part 2

As of a week before the race, I was working almost every waking hour and up in the air about what would happen with my broken Niner frame. Joanna had run my frame over to Scott at Evolution Pro Bike on Saturday while I was racing the Misfit down at Fair Hill.

Scott took the bike and promised to check with Niner to see what my options were. On Monday afternoon, I got a call at work with some great news: Niner was warrantying the frame and sending a new one overnight on Tuesday and Scott said he could build it up in time for the race! The shop is closed on Wednesdays, so it actually arrived Thursday afternoon and Scott said it would be ready on Friday. That worked for me because I wouldn't have been able to pick it up on Thursday as it was since I was in the office until almost 8:00 that night.

I had planned to head down to Virginia early on Friday so I could pre-ride different sections of the course Friday and Saturday, but with the bike not being ready to go until Friday afternoon, I adjusted my plan and did one final local ride on the Misfit at Wissahickon Friday morning. Ultimately, I left PA around 3:00 Friday afternoon, getting to Harrisonburg around 7:30 or so. (Incidentally, I took the easy way out and actually drove down.)

Saturday morning, I wasted some time doing busy work - went to a supermarket for some water and food, ate a big breakfast at the hotel, and just hung out in my room for a bit. I did that on purpose so that I wouldn't have to waste time going back and forth to the venue more than once. My (new) plan was to get there in the early afternoon for a pre-ride and then hang out at the venue until it was time to pick up my registration packet. At that point, I probably should have just planned to make a new plan instead because that was out the window after less than half an hour into the pre-ride.

The first climb on the SM100

I started the climb feeling pretty good, but  a little hot. It was oppressively hot and humid in Virginia on Saturday - probably around 90 degrees and a beating sun with humidity hovering as close as possible to rain without the sky actually opening up. I was soaking wet less than five minutes into the ride and felt terrible by the time I hit the new (to me) single track section of the first climb. And on top of that, my bike was making more noise than an orchestra and I quickly realized that my saddle was about an inch too low. It was a miserable pre-ride and I got back to the car and knew that I had to head back to Harrisonburg right away to get to the bike shop before it closed to get a new chain (the one I had was SS-specific and was grinding on the narrow-wide chain ring) and adjust the saddle height and a few other things. And to add one final insult, I also had to stop somewhere along the way and get some new walking-around shoes because, as I was riding, the glue on the bottom of my sneakers melted in the heat and the soles separated from the uppers. (Seriously, that was a thing I dealt with on Saturday.)

So I spent the rest of the afternoon racing around between Harrisonburg, my hotel and then back to Stokesville to pick up my registration packet. (I did find a very nice cheap pair of Converse All-Stars, though, so that was nice.) And for one final "screw you", I managed to forget my front wheel in the parking lot of the hotel when I was heading back to Stokesville, so I had to race back to the hotel after I realized my mistake to pick it up. (Despite my stupidity in forgetting it, I did have the wherewithal to call that hotel and ask them to go grab it the moment I realized it wasn't in the car, which they did.) Not a great way to finish out the day before a race. Exhausted from a very bizarre day, I decided to just pick up the packet and then head right back to the hotel and try to get some rest rather than stay in Stokesville for the pre-race dinner.

That night, before I went to sleep, I called Joanna and told her that, based on the way I felt during the pre-ride, I was expecting another 12 hour day so I probably wouldn't be calling her until well after 6:00 the next night. And then I went to bed terribly disappointed. I had said all year that I wasn't going to let myself get caught up in any level of expectation for this race because if I had learned one thing in the two previous attempts, it was that a lot of things can go wrong in the span of 100 miles. But I have to admit that it was a pretty bitter pill to swallow knowing that despite all the training and effort, that 12 hour estimate was probably pretty accurate. Still, I went to sleep that night repeating the phrase, "you did all you could to get ready" over and over.

Tomorrow, the race itself (and, mercifully, the end of this loooooooong story …)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Long Time Coming, Pt. 2 ...

Back in the beginning of May, my younger brother had his bachelor party in Chicago. It was a really fun, long, booze-filled weekend. And because of that, hen I flew home on Sunday it was the perfect time to begin my "official" training for the year. My plan was pretty simple - the only thing I could imagine that might make all those hills even a little bit easier was to carry less up them. And that meant losing weight - as much as I could without going too far that I had no energy. And that last part meant I wanted to do it quickly, so I had plenty of time to adapt on the bike. So on May 4th, I started eating clean and increased my mileage.

The "eating clean" part wasn't super extreme, but it was an adjustment. Basically, I started being very regular about what and when I ate - a bowl of granola in the morning, raw spinach with some deli smoked turkey and a small yogurt for lunch, and then some chicken or turkey breast with some beans or rice for dinner. And absolutely no snacks between meals. I drank only water and one glass of chocolate milk per day and gave up alcohol entirely for the first month. To keep it sustainable, I had one cheat meal per week (usually, Joanna and I would hit Chipotle for dinner on Friday) and if I was burned out on the same dinner night after night, I substituted a small panini and some sushi from Wegman's. In all, I was probably eating about 1300 calories per day. That was a pretty big reduction in calories, but it was actually surprisingly easy to do. To be fair, the first week was very easy because I was still recovering from my weekend in Chicago, and maybe after that I had adapted enough to be in a zone or something. Whatever the reason, I really never felt like I was all that hungry, which was kind of surprising considering that I was also increasing my miles on the bike significantly at the same time.

The first week and a half, I saw very little weight loss. When I started, I weighed 174, and I was only five pounds lighter after the first two weeks. But I knew that could be deceiving and that the key was to stay the course. By the end of May, I had started to gain some momentum and I was at about 160. And a week later, I was at 155. At that point, I "relaxed" my efforts in the sense that I allowed myself an occasional beer and ate "normally" for special occasions (like my brother's wedding in the middle of July), but other than that, I stayed with my plan. By the end of June, I was maintaining my weight between 150 and 154.

At the same time, I had not only increased my mileage but I was pushing my effort more.

My singular focus for the year remained the SM100, but I started to see general improvement in performance in just about every other event I lined up for as well. In May, I took the win the 4 hour endurance class for the inaugural Woodstock Wrecker in Patapsco Valley Park outside of Baltimore. Then I had a pretty good ride at the Stoopid 50. (I went off course by four miles, but still finished in under 6 hours and felt good on a  tough course all day.) Then in July, I won the SS division of the Stewart Super Six Pack, and followed that up with a win in the SS division of the half-marathon at Rattling Creek.

Despite the successes, it wasn't all smooth. The diet never caused me problems, but over the course of the summer, I definitely hit a few pitfalls. In fact, I got injured the first ride I did when I got home from Chicago in early May when I end over the bars and landed chest-firt on a thin tree stump. That was a tough hit and it took me a few weeks to really feel better. But by far the most disruptive thing I dealt with all summer was work.

In June, I got involved in a project that had a lot of very tight deadlines and required huge amounts of data. Over the course of the summer, and especially as I got closer to the end of August, I was working a lot of very long hours, including one particularly nasty 48 hours straight the two days before the Rattling Creek Marathon (which was why I ultimately decided to do the half-marathon instead of the full 50 miler.) I had been on a pretty nice schedule of riding every day, and the long hours at work threatened to derail it all. I decided that I wasn't going to let that happen no matter what, but I have to admit that it got pretty tough a few times. I was lucky that I could sneak in a few rides before work - other than that, I probably would have fallen off my plan. Ordinarily, I'm pretty lucky as work-life balance goes. But I was on an understandably short timeline with what I was working on, and that meant I had to fit a lot of work into a few weeks. It was just unfortunate that it happened to fall at the same time as the run-up to Shenandoah. The last day I was at work before leaving for Virginia, I worked 13 hours.

And there was one other issue that arose that same week. A week ago, I made the decision to race the Fair Hill Endurance race in Maryland and when I went to clean my bike up the night before, I discovered a crack in the non-driveside chain stay.

Not exactly what you want to see the week before your biggest event of the year ...
Now, I knew right away that I could always race the Misfit, but I hadn't done so in over a year. I took it to Fair Hill, which now became a lot more important because now it was a shakeout ride for a bike I hadn't used in a race in a long while. Meanwhile, Joanna took the Niner frame over to Scott at Evolution to see what my options were. I didn't have much hope, but I figured it was worth a try. The ride at Fair HIll went pretty well on the Misfit, so I wasn't devastated by the loss of the Niner, but at the same time, after spending the whole season on the Niner, it wasn't exactly ideal to lose it so close to SM100.

And so a week before the race I'd focused on all year, I was spending all my time at work and was now without the bike I planned to ride. Not the best way to close out a training block …

To be continued.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Long Time Coming, Pt. 1 ...

So … The Shenandoah Mountain 100 … I'm not really sure what I should say here - where I should start, or which story to tell. I suppose I could just say "let's go back to the beginning". It would seem to be a fairly obvious place to start any story about a race, right? But that presents another problem … truth be told, I'm not really sure I know where that is. The SM100 turned 16 this past weekend. But I've only done it three of those 16 (including this year) and I first lined up for it in 2010. That in itself could provide a beginning, except I actually first conceived of the idea to do it a while before that, and explaining that could go down a rabbit hole on its own. I could also start with the 2011 version, my second attempt and quite possibly the single most disappointing and painful day I've ever spent on a bike. That would kind of set the groundwork for why I hadn't done it since then and, more importantly, why I needed to go back this year.

But I guess in the end, it doesn't really matter how and where it begins. What matters is how it ends, and on Sunday afternoon, that end was -

Well, now I'm getting ahead of myself. There is a story here and that story doesn't start with the result ...

As I said, I've done the SM100 twice before. Both times were on gears and neither time worked out the way I would have hoped. In 2010, I finished in about 11 hours and 20 minutes. I had planned on a 10 hour day, and I think that in hindsight I was just unprepared for what I was getting into. I remember the exact moment I realized that, too -- I was about halfway up the death climb and was fighting off cramps in my arms and legs and it dawned on me that I still had more than 30 miles to go. I didn't yet know that the toughest climbing was still ahead of me, but I was already giving put the ghost of a 10 hour finish. In the end, I wasn't too disappointed with that finish because I think I knew that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I did resolve to go back the next year, though, armed with a greater understanding of the course and its demands and fix all the things I'd done wrong in 2010.

As 2011 rolled around, I had pretty much made the transition to riding mostly single speed, but I made the decision to ride the SM100 on gears again. In fact, unlike in 2010, I decided to race my hard tail 26er (in '10, I'd ridden my full suspension Fuel 26er.) That was my first big mistake. Since I'd been riding mostly 29er at that point, making the transition back to a hard tail 26er on a course with techy descents like the one off Wolf's Ridge wasn't the smartest thing I could have done.

But far worse than that was the fact that I chose to even line up in the first place considering what had happened about a week before the race. I was out riding in the Wiss after a run of pretty severe thunderstorms. Now anyone who rides Wiss with any regularity knows what that means: downed trees everywhere you look. The ground in Philly's signature trail system is pretty robust to rain in the summer -- all that Wissahickon schist just kind of sucks in water and leaves the trails rideable - in fact, sometimes even better than when it's been dry for a long period -- less than a few hours after the latest rain. That's entirely true except for when it isn't. And it isn't when we get a whole lot of rain all at once. The ground and trees will soak everything up, but if too much water comes at once, it gets overloaded and that softens the ground around a bunch of trees that aren't really dug in too deep to begin with. And so many of them fall down. And in 2011, a huge tree fell right across a major section of the trail, making it necessary to scramble over it (you couldn't get around it.) The problem was that the tree had become a home for quite a bit of poison ivy, some of which found it's way into a cut I had on my upper arm. Poison ivy in a cut = cellulitis, and so a week before the race I was walking around with a profoundly itchy fluid-filled grandma-arm. And so I was halfway into an antibiotic cycle on race day, which is never a good thing. I don't respond well to antibiotics anyway (my stomach is as weak as a nerd baby to begin with, so adding chemicals that are designed to kill anything that lives inside me only makes it worse.) And then there was the real problem: one of the worst thing you can do while taking an antibiotic is spend a lot of time in the sun, like, say, when you are riding a bicycle up a completely exposed 20 mile fire road climb. I never felt good all day in '11, but I actually reached a point where I was scared for my well-being a few miles before Aid Station 5. I was red as a lobster, completely overheated, and my throat felt like it was closing up. I crawled into the aid station at about 3 mph, sat myself down on a cooler and refused to move. I stayed there for about an hour and they finally told me I had to either leave or I'd miss the cutoff. I opted to head out because -- I don't know -- bicycle race?

I ultimately crawled to the finish in over 13 hours. It was the worst I've ever felt on a bike and immediately afterward, I made the decision that I would not be returning again for a while. In fact, I didn't even want to ride my bike again for a few weeks after that. It just left such bad taste in my mouth. But I think I also knew that there was no way I was going to be able to walk away from it completely with that being my last performance.

So fast forward a couple of years. I've spent the last three years pretty much exclusively riding the SS and I've never really been able to put the sting of 2011 too far from my mind. I knew that I had to go back and at least try to fix it, and I also knew that if I did, it would have to be on the SS. And so back in April of this year, I already knew that I was going back to Stokesville and I started thinking about how I might guarantee that I avoided the kind of problems I'd had in previous attempts.

And that seems like a good place to pick up next time … to be continued!!!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Just the weekend I needed ...

The Half Marathon SS Podium at Rattling Creek

For most of the summer, I've had a singular focus of trying to get myself to the point where I think I can survive the SM100 on the SS. To that end, I've dropped my weight, I've been riding just about every day, and I've tried to schedule weekend  rides and races that require long, hard efforts. For the most part, I've been pretty lucky with the schedule. I've been able to keep a pretty reasonable work-life balance for months.

But all of that came to a crashing halt this past week.

About mid-week, I discovered an issue with a project I had been working on for weeks. Basically, I was forced to re-create something that had taken me about three weeks to put together, only instead of having three weeks to do it this time, I had to have it ready for a meeting first thing Monday morning. That meant that I spent pretty much every hour for the last half of the week re-generating a very, very large dataset that I then had to analyze to answer a few key business questions. And when I say "every hour", that's pretty much literal. I didn't sleep at all on Thursday, worked from home on Friday to have complete concentration away form my office, and didn't even have a file ready to work with until late Friday night. Then I had to do my analysis.

It was a really frustrating few days, mostly because I had scheduled my last big test of fitness prior to the SM100 for this weekend - The Rattlng Creek 50 in Weiser State Forest outside of Lykens. I was feeling pretty depressed (and to be honest, physically ill) by the end of Friday. I was really in no condition to race the next day. I was bleary-eyed and at the point where I was so tired I actually couldn't sleep. I made the call on Friday night that if I wasn't feeling it by the time I had to leave, I was just going to bail. Except I really didn't want to do that. Originally, I had signed up to do SSUSA this weekend way back in January. I had to bail on that when I realized that just to get there, I was looking at a $2K round trip and I'd still have to drive six hours. So when I bailed, I decided to sign up for the RC 50 as a consolation (and, admittedly, a better prep race for Shenandoah.) I just really hated the idea of bailing on two races the same weekend.

So Saturday morning, I decided to head out and do it anyway, but with one adjustment: I would do the half-marathon 30 mile race instead of the 50 miler. For the first time in about four months, I had spent two days completely off the bike. And I had been awake for that whole time! So I figured it was at least reasonable to go for the shorter distance. And besides, the interesting thing about the 30 miler is that you do all the same climbs that the 50 miler does -- you just don't repeat one of them.

I got to the start area about an hour before the race and adjusted my registration. I also realized just how tired I was at that point when I couldn't remember what month it was. But I was locked and loaded, and after chatting with a few friends in the parking lot, I suited up and got ready to go.

There's a mass start for all racers, regardless of the race they're doing. Right off the start, we headed up the steepest climb of the day. It was a grassy jeep road climb that went right up the highest ridge in that whole region of Weiser Forest. The climb itself ends on a fire road that leads to this awesome hang-glider launch with a thousand mile view.  But before we got to that, we actually took a detour through the most technical rocky single track trail in the entire park. That was where I had my first screw up of the day. I got too close to the rider right in front of me, and when he dabbed over a rock pile, I stopped short, lost my front wheel and went over the bars. It banged up my knee, but I was more or less okay. The bad part was that I lost about a dozen spots before I could re-enter the train of riders. I hopped back on and rode the rest of the rock garden cleanly (if a little extra cautiously!)

Once we reached the launch site, we were able to cruise a little faster and I started to pass a few folks. I was surprised that I was feeling pretty good. It seemed that as long as I didn't think about being tired, I was okay. I did make that mistake once, and suddenly felt like I just wanted to crawl off the side of the trail and take a nap. But once I put it out of my mind, I actually started having fun. About six miles into the race, I caught up to my friend Charlie, who was also riding the 30 miler. I'd ridden with Charlie a few times at Wissahickon, and I knew he was very strong. I kind of figured that he would ride away whenever he decided it was time to go, but I was happy just to have someone to ride with a for a bit. Unfortunately, he had some issues with his EBB during the race and was dropping his chain a lot, which meant he got stuck having to start and stop a bunch of times. In fact, a few of my friends had mechanical issues that screwed them up throughout the day. I even had a weird mechanical issue myself -- the cleat on my right shoe kept loosening up. I had to adjust it every five miles or so. Every now and then, I guess mechanical issues just rule the day for everyone!

I started to feel really good after the first aid station, though. I love riding the Rattling Creek Trail -- it's one of my favorite sections of any park anywhere -- and I just let it rip through that part of the park. I knocked out the middle ten miles of the course in what felt like no time and then I was back on the long club that would bring me back to the aid station. It was a slog, but I rode most of it pretty clean. I passed through the aid station (and had to fix my cleat again!) and then headed back toward the trail we'd started out on for the last 8 miles. I was still feeling okay, and for the first time started to wonder if I might actually pull this off. I was assuming that I had to be near the front of my field, and just wanted a smooth finish to the day.

And then the only real issue of the day hit for me. At around the 25 mile mark was the split for the 30 vs. 50 mile courses. But it was really confusing. First, the 30 mile course had arrows pointing in both directions! I looked at it and said "What the fuck??" to no one in particular. And then at the actual split, the 50 mile signs said "50 Lap 1" and an arrow pointing left and a "50 Lap 2" and an arrow pointing right. I figured that this meant that if you were starting lap 2, you'd turn right. But it actually meant if you were finishing lap 2, you'd go right. So I guessed that the 30 miler must go left toward the finish. I was wrong. And so I led an open rider right down the descent that would have put us back on the 50 mile course. We went about a mile off course before we self-corrected. I was pissed. And not even at the signage (which I do think would have worked better with a dedicated volunteer there to direct traffic) -- what really pissed me off was that I had to re-climb the hill I'd just descended. And I was certain that if I had any chance of winning, it was now out the window. So I head back and cruised back through the techy singletrack before starting the insanely fast descent to the finish line. I crossed the line at 3 hours and 13 minutes, counting all cleat adjustments and the foray off-course. I was happy. I actually felt pretty good and I was able to complete a tough ride on a day when I started out exhausted.

I asked the timer how many other SSers had finished and he told me I was the first. I couldn't believe it. I had actually still managed to get the win even with that wrong turn! I was happy about that, and I was even happier to be done! In the end, I shared the podium with two really cool guys -- Charlie managed to overcome his mechanicals and finished second and the legend of SSCXWC in Philly from 2013, Dave Pryor, not only fin shied third himself, but also handled MC duties for the whole race. That's pretty awesome.

Even with the issue with the course signage, I have to give it to Mike Kuhn for another awesome race. Even if I have a terrible day personally at one of his races, they're always fun and challenging. I've done a bunch of his races over the years and I'd recommend every one of them to any of my friends who ride. He's just really good at the whole race promotion game. Some day, I'd love to take a shot at his greatest masterpiece, the Transylvania Epic. It'd destroy me, I'm sure, but his races are fun enough where I'd happily be destroyed for the chance to experience it!

So after the race, I had a great dinner date with Joanna and we just chilled at the house last night. Then this morning, I met up with the one and only Slimm and a few friends from the MTBNJ crew for a tour of Wissahickon. I always love riding with those guys -- just a nice bunch who love to ride bikes in the woods.

A great crew to ride with!
We knocked out the whole loop for more than 20 miles. And once again, I got to spend the afternoon with Joanna (we may have stopped into the Round Guys Brewery for a beverage or two to go with our pretzel dogs.)

So after a horrible week that left me physically and mentally wrecked, I had a pretty great weekend. I have to head back to the grind tomorrow, but I actually feel like I'm ready for it. And considering the week I had, that's pretty amazing. So here's a great big thanks to all the folks who made it possible -- Mike and the crew for giving us such great bike race, the MTBNJ boys for letting me join their ride train this morning, and (most of all) Joanna for keeping me sane enough to get throughpssibly the worst 72 hours I've ever had at work!