Friday, October 23, 2015

Iron Cross 2015

This past Sunday, I headed out to Williamsport for Iron Cross XIII. It was the first time the race would be out there after the twelve previous versions were held in Michaux. I didn't know what to expect from the new course, although I'd been hearing that it was "more cyclocross friendly" than Michaux.

Turns out that is not an entirely accurate description.

When I arrived in Williamsport around 8:00 am, it was cloudy and in the high 30's. That wasn't too bad. I figured it would warm up as the day went on. The Start/Finish was set up right in the center of town on a street that was blocked off for the whole day. Parking was easy - we could just grab a spot in any of the local municipal lots that surrounded the Start/Finish area. I got registered, set up and went for a ride around town to loosen up. That didn't go so well.

A few weeks ago, I crashed on a ride and really banged up my right forearm and one of the fingers on my right hand. At the time, the forearm really hurt and I thought i might have broken it. I didn't think too much about my hand, but since then it's proven to be the more serious injury. Eventually, my forearm just bruised up really bad and now I have a weird bump above my wrist, but otherwise no issues. My one finger, though, has been excruciating. I have no lateral movement in it and I'm absolutely convinced I broke it. On Sunday, when the cold air hit it on the pre-ride, I went through the roof. I had to ride back to my car and sit in it with the heat on for a ten minutes before the pain settled down.

Ready to race!
After a while, I felt better and headed over to the start area to get ready to go. I was a little worried about how my hand would feel once the race got started, especially since I was riding my rigid carbon SS. But I was kind of counting on the temperatures going up and I was still assuming that the "cyclocross friendly" description was accurate. And ultimately, my hand didn't give me any issues during the race itself. (It hurt like hell afterward, but I figure that's going to continue to happen on any ride until I just decide to take time off the bike altogether.) And that's a good thing, because there was plenty of other things to worry about the rest of the day.

The race started promptly at 9 am with a four mile neutral roll-out. The "official" start to the racing was just outside of town and, in typical Kuhn race fashion, involved a large gun blast (this time, it was literally a cannon.)

Once the racing started in earnest, I was immediately put on my heels by the charging cross bike riders in the front group. We were still rolling on pavement and their advantage was huge. I soon found myself in an effective no-man's land just off the back of a large group I would have to do too much work to bridge to. So I settled in and decided to just roll my own pace. That was fine for the most part -- once the first dirt road climb hit, I started to feel pretty good. It was still pretty cold, but the initial push had heated me up enough where, in particular, I was starting to wonder if my knee warmers were too much.

I rode along for a while with another SSer - he was riding a mountain bike with cross tires and I kind of thought he was going to leave me behind at any moment. I had no idea who was in front of me or behind me in my class at that point and I didn't really care. Every inch forward was further into the unknown, so that was enough to deal with without thinking about where I was in the SS line. for most of the first 10 miles, we were going up and that was fine by me, but I noticed something odd: for a "cross-friendly" course, it was awfully rocky, even on the dirt road sections. Everything was loose and required pretty ready attention to pick the right line to stay efficient. I was pretty happy I was on the mountain bike, and even regretting a little bit that I'd left the hard tail at home in favor of the rigid. (Later on, I'd be happy I had the lighter rigid bike, but more on that later.)

On the climb ...
We topped out the first climb and hit the first section of single track - it was definitely rocky and loose (a lot like the much shorter single track sections form the previous year's Michaux course.) I was able to pass a bunch of cross riders there, but once we popped out on the next paved section, we started a pretty nasty steep climb and many of them came back around me. I was feeling pretty good at that point - no issues with my hands, feeling warm enough - but that hill was nasty. And once I crested, my SS buddy took off on the following descent. The whole descent was paved and it was crazy fast - like 45 mph fast for me, and I wasn't even on skinny tires.

After that, we hit a more gradual climbing section and this was when the sun finally came out. That was  the one time all day when I felt really in a groove. I caught the other SSer and dropped him on the subsequent dirt road climb, leaving him behind for good. I still didn't care where I was in the field, which was good because I had no idea either way.

I don't recall a whole lot about the middle section of the race up to the rest stop. I do remember that it started to get colder, and the sun went away for good. And then it started to snow. At that point, I was really glad I'd worn and extra base layer. My extremities were definitely cold, but nothing too bad, and I just stayed on the gas as much as I could to stay warm.

It seemed that most of the race to this point had been either steep uphill climbs on pavement or dirt road, or else tech, loose single or double track with a few very steep descents thrown in here and there. I was convinced at that point that the "cross friendly" description was way off. It was just a lot of work all the time. And I was fine with that. I wasn't hurting too bad. And even though my legs didn't feel 100%, they certainly weren't giving me any problems. I'd done enough Mike Kuhn races to know that "difficult" in just what you're signing up for, so I just kept my head down and kept plugging away.

And that was a good thing, because after the rest stop, we started one of the most soul-suckingly long switchback climbs I think I've ever done. It was rough: it was never too steep to ride, but it was techy and loose (which sucks for a SS) and it was steepest at each turn. In fact, it would kind of level off as you'd approach the next turn and then you'd look to your right and see another rider a hundred feet ahead of you and 50 feet above. By the fourth or fifth switchback, that started to feel demoralizing. But eventually, the climb ended and then we started a long, grassy section of double track with lots of mud holes to ride through or around. This was definitely a spot where I felt a distinct advantage being on the mountain bike. I passed probably a dozen cross bike riders on that section because it was technical enough to force those folks to be really careful. To be honest, it was tough on the mountain bike, but it was about to get a lot tougher.

After the long double track section, we popped across a dirt road and started this year's walk-up section. I was able to ride the bottom part for a bit, but then I saw it looming ahead of me and, well, it was quite a shock to the system.

While waiting for the start, I'd been chatting with another rider about the course and he told me that the walk up was relatively late in the course here - around 45 miles in. So the shock of the walk up wasn't because fit was a surprise. It was because it looked, well, really, really long. I couldn't see an end from where I was starting. I could see a few riders way up ahead walking, and they looked tiny in the distance. I started the drudging climb and soon realized it was even worse than I thought. It switched back on itself a few times, so it was even longer than it looked. I was hiking with another rider and at one point he said that he could see a rider re-mounting ahead of us. I thought that was a good sign, but it turned out to be a false ending - right around the bend, that same rider was back off the bike. Ultimately, the walk-up in Williamsport had to be at least 3 times longer than the one in Michaux and even a little steeper, but without the trees to grab on to like there were at Michaux. And the last gut punch of the walk-up was that the very last section was actually a rock scramble where I had to use my hands to help me scale it.

Surviving the walk-up
The reward for the climb? Larry's Tavern! And I was really lucky it was there! I had a PBR and some venison and that made me feel human again after that never-ending zombie walk. One thing I did learn there was that, according to Chainsaw Don and the guys at Larry's Tavern, I was sitting in third for SS. That was a bit of a shock, but at that point I was so gassed from the walk-up that I couldn't even think about it.

After that, I was kind of thinking that the worst was behind me. The dirt road roll-out from Larry's Tavern was steady and pretty smooth, and then there was an insanely fast descent down a paved road. I think I hit just about 50 mph on that descent. It was both fun and scary!

But then, a new factor entered the picture.

After the crazy descent, we took a hard right and began a long slog of a paved climb. At one point not hat climb, my legs finally gave out. I started to feel a cramp settling in to my right quad, so to forestall that I hopped off and walked for a bit. I thought that maybe I should just work out the cramp and then ride again, but I really didn't want to spend any time not moving forward. And besides, it was pretty cold - colder than it was at the start for sure - so I worried that stopping would be bad all around.

As I was walking, I lost my third place spot when a SSer on a cross bike came rolling by. I thought to myself that I'd try to catch him after I recovered a bit, but ultimately, that wasn't going to happen since the course was paved almost the whole rest of the way form there, and there was no way I'd be able to move as fast as him on those roads even if I could catch him on the climb. I remounted after a while and rode the rest of the long climb, and that's when the new factor introduced itself.


It started hailing bb-sized pellets as I was getting close to the top of the climb and soon it was pouring hail. That wouldn't have been too bad, except following the climb was another long twisting paved descent. I headed down that descent at about 40 mph with hail whipping me in my face. Between that and the wet roads, it made for some exciting moments. But I survived to the bottom and from there, it was just a long flat roll back into town. The hail even stopped just as I hit the last stretch into town.

I never got caught by anyone else but I also never caught my SS rabbit ahead of me, so I crossed the line in 4th place. Ultimately, another rider from the open who rode on a SS had his class switched after the race, so in the end I was fifth in 5:15. I was happy to finish in that time, too - I felt really wrecked a few times during the race, so that was a surprise.

All in all, I loved this race. It was hard as hell, but there is some pretty epic riding out in Williamsport. It was one of those races where just finishing feels like a victory. It was cold, snowy, hailing, and had lots of brutally tough sections. I can't wait to do it again next year!

Monday, September 7, 2015

2015 Shenandoah Mountain 100 ...

It wasn't going to be like this.

Less than a week before, I had finished second in the last MASS endurance race of the season at Fair Hill. As with last year, I was using that race as a tune-up for the SM100, but I was really happy with a podium finish for two reasons. First, I took it as a measure of where my fitness was the week before the toughest race of the year. And second, it was my first race in the kit of my new team, Toasted Head Racing. I'd already done a few other races under the THR banner, but this was the first one in the new team kit, so it was pretty cool to represent.

So I came into the week of Shenandoah feeling pretty good about my goals. Ever since I finished last year's race, I had it in my mind that I might be able to finish in 9 hours flat. And so I'd set that as a goal for this year's race. Truth be told, I've done enough long distance races and rides to know that goals are best kept amorphous, so my actual goal was to be "in the neighborhood of nine hours". But I was pretty sure I could achieve that when I considered the numbers: the SM100 is actually about 98 miles, which means an average of 11 mph gets you in under 9 hours. Now, 11 mph is no easy task, but what made me think I might be able to pull it off was the experience I had last year on the infamous "death climb". I averaged well over that until the really steep sections before the aid station, and that's about 15 miles. Between that and the descents, where 20+ can be sustained for miles at a time, I figured that what I really needed to do was just stay strong on the big climbs and I'd be in that neighborhood I was looking for. And as I headed into the week before the race, I felt like I was riding well enough to at least have a shot.

Flash forward to Friday morning. I had packed up the car and was on the road by 9:30 in the morning, but before I even reached the Fort Washington on-ramp to the PA Turnpike, I felt a quick spasm in my left hamstring. I just blew it off at the time, figuring it was just a little tightness in the morning. But it didn't let up - the whole drive down to Harrisonburg, I was feeling that quick spasm that usually precedes a full leg cramp. But it never gave out. I thought it was really odd. It basically just felt like a there was a weak spot in the back of my leg all of the sudden. At the time, I figured it would be fine once I got a chance to loosen it up on a ride.

The calm before the storm - SM100 Setup
So when I reached Harrisonburg, I waited out a quick rain storm before heading out to the venue for an easy pre-ride. But it didn't help. In fact, as soon as I started up the first incline, my leg felt like it was about to cramp.

After that ride, I called Joanna and told her what was happening and she suggested I pick up a foam roller and try to loosen it up that way. So that's what I did first thing Saturday morning. I rolled it out and it did feel a little better, and so I headed back over to the venue to test it out again. This time, I met up with a few friends from the Cadre crew and rode a little bit of the local single track with them rather than head back out on the course. And I felt really good during that ride. So I figured that the roller had worked its magic and that I was ready to go.

But after I picked up my registration packet later that day, the spasm started again, only now it was more than just one spot - the whole hamstring felt weak. And so I went to bed Saturday not knowing what to expect the next morning.

There is a dichotomy I've always found with big races - there is always a level of stress in the run-up to the race itself, but then the moment the race starts, any and all stress is gone. I almost never sleep well before a big race, even though I know that no amount of worry will change anything about how I ride the next day. And when the gun goes off, it's just a job to do: point A to point B as quickly as possible. I'm not really sure why I don't sleep well considering that, but I don't. And I didn't this year, either. I actually got about 5 hours sleep, which is not bad for me, but considering that I went to bed around 9 to wake up at 4, that still left 2 hours of staring at a ceiling.

But once it was time to get going, I lined up in the second corral and just hoped that my leg would hold out. I was kind of aware that my original goal was going to be tough - even standing on the starting line, my hamstring was already popping on me. And when we finally did get moving, I hit the first incline and, sure enough, the twinge was right back again. I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to just ride until I couldn't ride anymore and figure it out then.

As usual, the early pace through the rolling gravel on Bear Trap Farm Road was pretty crazy - everyone was jockeying for position before we hit the first climb and a bunch of us single speeders were trying to make our way back through the bunch after being dropped on the paved road out of the camp site. Eventually, a small group of us were riding together and got a small gap ahead of a whole bunch of riders behind. We were in a weird "no man's land" between two huge groups on the course and I was surprised to find an easy entry into the first climb. But less than a quarter mile later, we caught the back of a long conga line of riders slowly inching along the single track. A few guys up ahead were getting frustrated at the pace, but I just laughed. You just have to accept that in this race: even if you could get around the slower guy immediately in front of you, you've still got another 150 more riders trying to manage along on very tight, no-margin-for-error single track. I always just assume for kicks that everyone in front of me is faster than I am except for the one guy 150 people ahead and he's ruining it for all of us. It just makes it easier - like we all have that in common.

I did learn one thing on that climb this year, though, that would help me throughout the day. I found that my hamstring was bad, but it felt better if I stayed out of the saddle. So I basically slow pedaled out of the saddle the whole way up the hill and made a deal with myself that if that's what it took to finish the race, that's what I would do all day long. I may not have a shot at finishing in 9 hours, which sucked but even more than that, I really didn't want to DNF.

And so the story of my race became a story of "cramp management." Actually, it wasn't that dramatic. It was more of a very simple and constant binary thought process: do I have to slow down right now or not? Do I need to be out of the saddle right now or not? Is that twinge a cramp coming on  or just another spasm? It was constantly on my mind and colored everything I did the rest of the day. As a case in point, I found myself entering the Hankey Mountain climb with another single speeder and as we hit the first steep section, I had to decide whether or not to try to follow when he took off. I had to let him go without trying to get on his wheel. I don't know if I could have held his wheel either way, but I did know at that moment that it would have cost me too much just 35 miles into the race given how tweaky my legs were.

I'm happy to say that my "strategy" worked out pretty well. Even though I felt all day like my legs could give out, they never actually did. By the time I got over the hike-a-bike climb up to the Lynn Trail before the Wolf's Ridge descent, I realized I'd been overcompensating with my right leg too much and it was starting to spasm a little, too, just 28 miles into the race. But I held back just enough to keep them from popping. A few times on some of the steeper sections of Hankey, the Braley's Pond climb, and the steeper sections of the endless meadows near the top of Shenandoah Mountain, I got off and pushed even where I could keep riding just to keep some reserves in the bank. It definitely cost me time and I lost a bunch more just slow pedaling on many climbs all day. By the start of the death climb, I was so used to making these decisions that I really was going on auto-pilot and did some mental calculations to figure out what I might be able to expect. I quickly realized that with a pace of just over 10 mph 60 miles in, nine hours had slipped away from me unless I could really pick up the pace from there out. And that was a tall order considering. But I started to wonder if I'd even beat the previous year's time. It was definitely a possibility that if I had a bad time of it on the climbs ahead, I'd slip outside a ten hour day.

I have to admit that the death climb hurt more this year than last. I was really suffering on the section where it gets steep after the switchback, and one of the endless meadow climbs I had to pause for a few seconds to stop a cramp from taking over. That was the closest I came all day to really blowing up. But I made it over the mountain without slowing down too much and had possibly my best descent ever on the horrible, scree-field terror drop off the other side. I was flying down the mountain and trying desperately to shut out the voices in my head that were screaming for me to slow down. I am absolutely scared to death of that descent, and yet this year I somehow managed to rail it as best as I ever have. The descent went by in a blip and I wasted almost no time at the last aid station, just swapping a bottle and heading out. Then I hit Hankey Mountain for the second time wondering if I was going to make it or not. I had plenty of time left - I was about 8:50 in at this point - but I knew the climb was going to be a slog and I was really feeling it in both legs right away. And I couldn't quite recall how long the roll in to the camp was once I cleared the top. So I tried to balance the pain in my legs with my hope to salvage something from the day.

I rode about 90% of the climb, slow pedaling out of the saddle most of the way, and just at the point where I hd to get off and push, two riders came by me and I saw them take the turn off the gravel road just ahead. That motivated me to hop back on and I tried to use them as rabbits. One thing I definitely forgot was that there are two last nasty short, steep sections after you crest the climb itself. Those both hurt like hell, but I pushed through and as I started the long descent back toward the campground, I caught both of my rabbits and then chased down another I spotted ahead. As we came through the new pumptrack section at the top of the camp, I managed to get by the other rider as he slid a bit into the turn. Then I pushed hard through the field and crossed the line.

My final time was 9:40. That was good for about 12 or 13 minutes better than last year, and considering how lousy my legs were all day, I was happy with that result. There were definitely some frustrating moments out there - I really felt like every climb was a lost cause for me all day long, and even where I did ride, I felt at times like I wanted to pick up the pace but wasn't sure I could without blowing myself up. But there were also some really surprising positives - I descended much better than I ever have before. On almost every single big descent, I caught a rider or group of riders who had crested the climb well ahead of me. That's a new thing for me - I've never been good at descending. And I was even happy with how I managed everything in the end. Of course, I'd have preferred not to need that kind of strategy, but when I consider that my legs never gave out despite feeling cramp before we even started, I'm pretty happy with how I was able to manage the race. Everything from my nutrition to the effort I put out at each point in the race actually worked out all things considered.

Oh, and there was one other thing that happened that was just really odd. Near the bottom of the descent off the death climb, when I was going about 25 mph or so, I got stung by a bee on the back of my leg. I mean, how wild is that? This guy managed to land on my leg and sting me while I was passing by at over 20 mph. That's amazing. I really hope that he didn't die after stinging me, because that's a talented, skilled bee and I think he deserves to live.

So … will I ever get to 9 hours? I don't know. If I can ever put together a day with good climbing legs and I manage to repeat how I descended yesterday, I think it may be possible. If not, I'm at least convinced that I can get pretty close. But all that is in the future. Right now, it's time to rest a bit. I'm going to be off the bike for a bit now to rest my legs and let my left hand heal (I hit it a couple of months ago and I'm pretty sure I've got some broken bones that I've just been ignoring. It's time to let that heal.) I have a few more events this year - Iron Cross in October, and of course, CP in November. But nothing else is set in stone right now and I haven't had a real rest off the bike in a very long time. I may just ride for the fun of it for a while when I get back on the bike next week or the week after. It's been a long season and it'll be nice to just get out without a training goal for a bit before I start thinking about next year.

Thanks for reading and until next time, I'll see you on the trails!

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Philly Area Big F'in Loop ...

Early Morning above Souderton

Out west, there are a bunch of rides throughout different regions called the "Big Friggin' Loop" - there's a BFL Sedona, BFL Santa Fe, BFA Mammoth, etc.  As far as I know, there are none of these in the east. As far as I know.

Last New Year's, a friend of mine set up a ride for a bunch of us at Green Lane. I'd been there once or twice before, but never really had a handle on the accessible trails. But as soon as we did the ride there - about 17 miles or so - I started thinking: Green Lane is at the start of the Perkiomen Trail, which links up to the Schuylkill River Trail in Valley Forge, and the SRT goes right into Philly from there. So I started thinking about a sort of Big F'in Loop for the Philadelphia area. I could link Green Lane to both Belmont and Wissahickon and then head home along the Green Ribbon Trail.

On the farm ...

Back in June, I attempted this ride for the first time. I started by heading up to Green Lane through Hatfield and Souderton and then went through the Perk Trail to SRT into Philly. However, when I did it in June, I had a problem that cut me short - some tire issues. The time it took to get it sorted out limited what I could do at Wissahickon, so I had to head home before completing all of Wiss. Ever since then, I wanted to get another bite at the apple. This weekend, with no races on the schedule and nothing else going on, I had my chance.

Two roads diverged ...

 The plan was to ride out of my place up to Green Lane on the road, then head south along the Perkiomen Trail to Valley Forge and pick up the SRT there and follow it into Manayunk, where I could cut over through East Falls to ride the Belmont Plateau area before coming back and hitting the Spaghetti Bowl side of Wissahickon before hitting the rest of Wissahickon and the Cresheim Trails. Then finally, I'd head back home along the Green Ribbon Trail. In all, it would be about 140 miles or so.

Green Lane Blue Trail, mid-morning

I started around 6 am and everything went fine right up until I climbed over the top of Dietz Mill Road in Telford. I somehow missed a turn and ended up about five miles from the entrance to Green Lane Park before I realized my mistake. That was dumb, but not unrecoverable - I took a short cut and ended up back at the park not too much later than I would have gotten there anyway.

Green Lane is a fun trail with a lot of variety. I started out on the Orange Trail, which is every bit as rocky as anything at French Creek. From there, I hopped on the Blue Trail for the longest section of the ride. It's a lot of ridge line single track with a few drops through creek beds and some pretty steep climbs thrown in. The drops can be treacherous, but it's all rideable if you stay focused. Once I reached the end of the Blue Trail, it dropped me out on the long paved bridge that brought me back toward the Red Trail.

On the Bridge Connector to the Red Trail

The Red Trail is mostly really tight single track that weaves in and out of a pine forest area. That part of the trail, since it's close to the Knight Road parking area, is very popular with the folks riding horses. It also feels like a whole different park than what's over on the Orange and Blue Trails - smooth, winding and very narrow.

After I finished the Red Trail, it was time to head south on the Perkiomen Trail. The Perk Trail is mostly a gravel path that runs from Green Lane down to Valley Forge. I've ridden it a bunch of times before and it's nice because you can really fly on it as long as here isn't too much traffic. Saturday, there was some traffic near Spring Mountain because of a folk music festival, but I was able to get through it pretty easily just the same.

Crossing the Perkiomen Creek at Spring Mountain

After about 20 miles, the Perk Trail meets up with the SRT in Valley Forge and the SRT then runs another 20 miles or so into Philly from there. The SRT was actually the hardest part of the ride for me, not because it was difficult in and of itself. It's very flat, but that was the problem. I was spinning a 34:19 at around 15+ mph on it and found that after a while I had to take a quick break from the saddle every few minutes. It's not a very SS friendly section. I'd have been happier with a bigger gear there, but then I'd have suffered a lot more in Belmont and Wiss later.

SRT near Manayunk

But eventually I spun my way to Manayunk. At this point, I was over 75 miles on the day and decided to make a quick stop to refuel and get some "Vitamin I" since I was feeling a nasty twinge in my right calf from spinning so much. I sat in the shade behind the CVS on Main Street and drank a bunch of water and some orange juice. Then it was time to head over to Belmont for the next part of the ride.

At the Belmont Plateau
I was surprised by how overgrown some sections of Belmont were - I know this is a popular area to ride for a lot of the Philly folks, but the section just where you enter north of the hostel looked like no one had ridden it in quite a while. It did open up once I reached the main area of the park, though - over where it runs along Route 76. That was good because I usually like riding Belmont more in the fall than in the summer. There are just so many logs to hop over than if some of them are obscured from overgrowth, you can have a pretty nasty crash out there. But it was all good Saturday once I got past the hostel. I rode the main area of the park and then crossed the street to ride the trail that circles the Ultimate Frisbee field. Then I headed back toward East Falls through the connector trail. Basically, I did the whole place in the reverse of what I typically had done in the past.

Lunch of champions?
At that point, I needed something in my stomach before I hit Wissahickon. I tend to not eat too much when it's really hot out, and it was up there on Saturday. So at this point I was about 90 miles into the ride and had only eaten a Clif Bar all day. I'd been drinking steadily, but I thought it was a good idea to put something in my stomach. The problem is, I didn't want anything too heavy, but I wanted to at least get some salt into me. I'd been drinking a lot of water, and figured it was time to switch up to Gatorade. So I bought a small bag of chips and a two bottles of Gatorade at the gas station near Falls Bridge. I know it's not "ideal" nutrition, but I figured that what I really needed was just something in my stomach. I wasn't very hungry, and chips go down very easily, so that's what I went with. I just wasn't into the idea of another protein bar at that moment. (To be honest, I would have loved an ice cream sandwich, but I was worried what that would do to my stomach, so I went with the chips instead.)

The Henry Ave Bridge over the Spaghetti Bowl
From there, it was on to the Spaghetti Bowl (the south side of Wissahickon.) I rode it from Ridge Ave to West Rittenhouse Street, although I actually had to drop down through the lower trail near the end since a few downed trees made the upper trail impassable.

From Lincoln Drive, I hit Wissahickon on the Rittenhouse Town side, doing my usual double loop through Blue Bell Park. (There were about six family reunion/picnics going on the park and it was tough to get through all the traffic!)

I was starting to feel the miles a bit at that point, and slid out on the loose gravel climb up to Park Line Road. That's a nasty little climb, but I never lose it on that section, so I knew I was off my game. Worse yet, I wasn't even motivated to remount and start again. I just got off and pushed and thought nothing about it. I decided that I needed to refocus, so I took the treacherous south-side trail along the creek to get to Cresheim. That trail is crazy technical, with about two or three sections where it's almost impossible to stay on the bike. I rode what I could, even when I thought I'd be better off just pushing, and then hopped off only for the big rock crossing near the end. That left me satisfied that I wasn't going to puss out all through Wissahickon and I continued into the Cresheim Trail.

Somewhere along Cresheim, I passed the 100 mile mark for the day. That was cool because one of the goals I set earlier this season was to do at least one 100 mile SS ride every month from April through October. Some of those months were guaranteed by races or rides I was doing -- in April, I had the LBD, in July I had the trip to NY, and in September I'll be going back to the SM100. So I just had to fill in the gaps for the other months. And passing the 100 mile mark on Saturday allowed me to tick off August on the list.

But after Cresheim, I had to refill my bottle, so I climbed over the hill opposite the Inn and dropped down to the snack bar to get some Gatorade. I think I probably spent too much time there between the line and just sitting and drinking my bottle of water because when I got back on the bike, I felt really tight. And with 105 miles down, I think I was starting to run low on the reserves I'd need to loosen up again.

Somewhere in Wiss ...
But I pushed through anyway. I still had about 2/3 of the park to ride and wasn't going to give up on completing all of it. With all the bigger climbs of the park still ahead of me, though, I worked out a route that would allow me a little respite while still hitting everything. I rode from the Inn back to Lincoln to cover that section of the park and then rolled back along Forbidden Drive to re-enter the trail at the same spot near the Inn and head the opposite way toward Bells Mill. I was actually surprised that even though I was still feeling tired, I was able to handle pretty much everything out to Bells Mill without any problems. And then I crossed over to ride the Indian side of the park. I had one dab there - I just couldn't convince my legs to muscle over the 180 degree turn half way up to the Indian statue, so I hopped off and pushed along the loose gravel for a bit to shake myself out. The last short climb is littered with trees and rocks and I've never been able to clean it, so I just rode as far as I could and pushed the last 20 yards or so. But once I was over that, I smiled because I knew all of the hard parts of the day were finally behind me. I dropped down the step section and popped out to Bells Mill Drive and decided that I would ride the rock gardens after all. I bounced through them without an issue and popped out across the street from Chestnut Hill College with only the Green Ribbon Trail sitting between me and completion of the loop.

Last Refuel ...
But before I headed up Northwestern Ave to the GRT, I stopped once more at Bruno's Restaurant to get a last bottle fill. I knew that there was no place to stop along the GRT unless I rode off course, and since this had happened to me last time I tried this ride, I didn't want to leave anything to chance. So I popped into Bruno's to get a Gatorade and saw that they had Stewart's orange cream soda as well. Now, I have largely given up soda entirely and only ever have it on long rides at rest stops (because there is nothing as good as a cold coke on a long ride!) But when I was really young, my parents used to stop at a Stewarts drive in near Atlantic Highlands in NJ on the way back from the beach. I always loved their orange cream soda and have probably only had it once or twice in the last 30 years. So between nostalgia and the fact that I was 118 miles into my day, I couldn't resist. I grabbed two of them and a bottle of Gatorade for my bike and then sat outside and drank both of the sodas down in about a minute and a half. I knew I was risking a rebellion from my stomach, but … Stewarts orange soda …

GRT flowers ...
After that I hit the GRT for the 19 mile ride home. I've ridden the trail a bunch of times now, and I know it well enough to push a pace without being surprised by what's around the next corner. Climbing the ladders while holding my bike that far into the day wasn't exactly pleasant, but I had no issues. I cruised along the trail in pretty good time and made it back to Upper Gwynned in about an hour and 15 minutes or so. From there, it was just a final 4 mile ride through Lansdale to my house.

Explaining my catcher's mitt of a left hand to Joanna
(photo credit: Joanna Griffin)

The final total was just over 137 miles in about 12:40 of ride time. I finished the first 100 miles in just under 9 hours, which was definitely a goal I'd had from the start. A few weeks ago, I crashed while riding with Sean K and Slimm and I think I may have broken a few bones in my left hand because ever since then it really hurts when I bump over rocks and roots. When I got home on Saturday, it was so bad that I had to bail on a ride at Middle Run Sunday morning with Dr. Craig and a few other folks. That sucked because one thing I learned a while ago is that, for me, not riding the day after a long effort  isn't a good idea. But it was really painful and swollen on Saturday night, so I figured I'd better give it some rest if I want to survive both Fair Hill and the SM100 in a couple of weeks.

So that's it. I don't know if the term "Big Friggin' Loop" is trademarked by someone out west or whatever, so I'm calling this ride the Philly Area Big F'in Loop, because here in Philly we don't use the term "Friggin" anyway. It's a pretty great ride with a huge variety of trail and gravel roads. I'm sure I'll do it again in the future and if anyone would like to join me for some or all of it, all are welcome! Green Lane in particular is a real find for me - I love the trails out there and knowing that I can access bike paths to connect all the places I've ridden most often is pretty cool. I love doing these big rides and I don't think there is much else I'd rather do with a free weekend. The idea of multi-park rides connected by rail trails or bike paths is really appealing, and it makes the whole thing accessible for someone who may not think they have the mileage in them. You really can rest up on areas like the SRT and be ready for more trail when you get to Philly. And knocking out a whole bunch go miles is definitely an ego boost when you look at the Garmin file later on. So I'd encourage anyone out there who wants to do a long ride but isn't sure if they can to just take the plunge and do it -- if you plan it carefully, there are always bail out areas and refueling places along the way.

So get out there and ride, and I'll see you on the trails!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Vacation '15 ...

Sooooooo … it's been a while. I'd like to say it's for a good reason, but the fact is I just kind of got away from the whole blogging thing for a while. I certainly haven't lacked or material this year. In fact, I've been doing so much that I just didn't really have a lot of time to devote to writing about it. I'd like to change that. The truth is I like doing this blog. I don't care if cycling bloggers are disappearing left and right. I do this because I like the idea of having a record of the rides and events so I can look back on them later when I am too old or too broken to do this stuff.

So without getting too deep into it, here's a quick update of what has gone on this year. I'll do it in pictures to save myself a few thousand words …

This past winter, I hired a good friend of mine, a really talented graphic artist, to help design my very own kit. Then a new friend from Death Row put it all together for me. Turned out pretty great!

In April, I competed in the Leesburg Bakers Dozen for the third time, and managed a second place with 17 laps in just over 13 hours. 
In June, I did my most important race of the season - the Wilmington/Whiteface 100K  Leadville Qualifier, where I took the SS win and won a place in the Leadville 100. I deferred my entry until next season so my wife will be able to join me at the race. This was my only real "goal" for the season, so it felt pretty awesome to take the win.
After the Leadville Qualifier, I did the Rothrock Trail Mix. I don't have any pictures from the race, but it was one of the most - let's call it "educational" - races I've ever done. I had a decent race overall, but there was a really long rock garden section at the end that broke me. I was sitting in fourth overall until that spot and then another rider who I'd passed on the climbs was just way, way, waaaaay better than I was in the rocks. It taught me that even though I ride rocky trails on a semi-regular basis, "rocks" and "central PA rocks" are different things altogether. My final position was 6th, but that's a bit suspect. There was a rider who I passed who never passed me again and yet somehow finished ahead of me. So … whatever …

My next race was the Stewart 45 in July. All in all, I can't complain about how it turned out -- I finished in 9th place out of 22 or so, despite having another rider run into me the day before during my pre-ride that caused a nasty crash that broke both of my brakes off, and ultimately left me with a broken hand. And on the morning of the race, I woke up with a stomach issue that left me pretty dehydrated. I was good on the first lap, but then suffered the rest of the way and faded from 4th down to 9th. It was one of those days when just finishing felt like a moral victory.

And that brings me to last week, my vacation week, and a bike packing trip I'd been planning for the last six months or so. About a year ago, a buddy of mine and I decided we wanted to ride part of the Erie Canal Trail in NY. At the beginning of this year, I decided I was actually going to ride all of it. But the logistics turned out to be a much greater obstacle than I anticipated.

My plan was to ride from my home to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and catch an Amtrak train to NYC and then another to Albany to ride west to Rochester, where I'd meet my buddy for the last leg of the ride. But it turns out that Amtrak requires you to box your bike for all trains in the east. That left me with a different plan: I would drive to Rochester, ride east to Albany and then turn around and ride back to Rochester in time to meet up for the last section. That meant riding the entire length of the Canal Trail twice.

Ultimately, it wasn't to be. There were two things that made it unfeasible and I ultimately turned around to make it back to Rochester before I was able to get all the way to Albany. The first thing was the trail itself - every time I reached a city, it more or less disappeared and I had to navigate my way through city streets to re-connect to eh other side, This happened in Syracuse, Rome and Utica. Syracuse was especially nasty - there was one road that was incorrectly marked on my guide map, and I spent at least 25 minutes searching for the right route.

The second thing that made it tougher than expected was the heat. Or I should say, more specifically, the sun. It was brutal. The heat was really high and the dew point even higher, but the real killer was the sun itself. It felt like there was nothing filtering it all week. Three days into the ride, I was already trying to ride only int he morning hours to avoid heat stroke.

For the week, I ultimately did just under 500 miles and covered the distance form just west of Schenectady all the way to Niagara Falls. It was a nice trip, but I definitely could have preferred to do it later in the year. A few photos …

At the start in Rochester ...

One of many boats along the canal

Trail Bridge ...

Some off-trail scenery ...

A typical trail section ...

Crossing one of the rivers ...

A rare section of single track ...

Early morning on the trail ...

One of the many road sections ...

The Falls ...

The Falls at night ...

The best Pumking I ever had … they rolled the glass in cinnamon!
The riding itself wasn't super hard, but with the heat and the navigation made it a tough week. Still, I had fun out there. Figuring out how to manage all my gear and all that was a real learning experience, and riding long distances day after day was pretty cool. By the third day, it felt pretty natural. I'd like to do more rides like that, but perhaps more of a mountainbike feel than this ride - there was just too much road on this one. Maybe next year I'll try to do one of those hut-to-hut rides or something. 

So that's a rough update of the year so far. I glossed over a lot, but I think I hit the highlights. I'm going to try to stay more up to date from here out. I've got the Fair Hill 50 and Shenandoah coming up and I'm trying to figure out whether I'l be able to swing some other events this fall. 

Until then, see you on the trails!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wicked Fun ...

The crazy mass start at 6 Hrs of CP
photo credit: Jennifer Carlson
I rolled over and looked at the clock on the microwave. It was about 5:30. I had planned to get up at 6:00. I'd actually been awake on and off all night, which was odd. I'd done the Something Wicked Six Hours of Cathedral Pines three times before, and I never really have much trouble sleeping the night before races that I know well. But there I was, up and ready to go more than three hours ahead of the start. My hotel was only a few miles from the start, so I took my time getting ready.

If I had to guess why I didn't sleep that well, I'd probably say it was because things had actually gone way too smoothly this time around. That may sound strange, but every other year I've done this race, I've had some kind of drama in the run-up to it. In 2010, I came down with a pretty nasty head cold a day before but decided to race through it anyway. I was jacked up on sinus meds and feeling pretty loopy by the end of the day, but I still had so much fun on the course that I knew I'd found a race I'd return to every year I could. Then, right before the 2011 edition, my fork ceased up and I needed to have it rebuilt, which meant I would be without it for the race. As a stop gap, I picked up a rigid carbon fork and had it installed one day before I left for the race, meaning my first ride on the fork was in the race. It worked out okay in the end, but I was worried that the roots would hammer me (because there are a lot of roots at CP.) In 2013, I took Friday off to drive out to the venue early for a pre-ride and while I was out on the course, my seat post snapped in half and I spent the next few hours first tracking down a seat post that would fit my frame, and then trying to extract the broken piece inside the seat tube that refused to budge. (That worked out, too, thanks to some creative use of a slide hammer by the folks at Rocky Point Cycle.) So this year, when the only thing I had to deal with was a cracked water bottle cage, I had a pretty easy run-up. In fact, I was done with my pre-ride and checked in to my hotel by 4:00 Friday. So maybe I was so restless because I hadn't had any problems to deal with!

I hung around the hotel for about an hour waiting for the breakfast buffet to open. After a quick waffle & egg meal, I loaded up the car and headed to the park. One of the great things about this race is the fact that everyone pits from their car. The course circles a wide open field and we all park on the perimeter. So once you pull up to your spot, you just pop the trunk and set yourself up right behind your car. Having done races where the pit areas were miles from the parking, I can say this is an awesome feature. After six hours of racing, who wants to drag a cooler and possibly more back to a car (especially in the cold)? As I pulled up to my spot, I saw the man himself, Shoogs.

The Cowbell King - Randy "Shoogs" Larrison
photo credit: Gary Hoehne
We discussed how deep the SS field was this year. I'd noticed that when I'd checked the lineup a few days before -- I knew a lot of the names on the list and there were some really strong riders coming out. I wasn't too concerned about that, though, because in all honesty, my only plan for the day was to get 8 laps again (and maybe do it a bit faster than in 2013.) I could have cared less if I came in DFL if I could still pull that off.

It was really cold at the start -- somewhere in the 20's -- but it was supposed to reach the low 40's during the day, so I had some concern about how to dress. I was shivering out of control, though, so layering up won out. Even then, though, I was shivering uncontrollably as I waited for the start.

The start … the start at CP is kind of nuts. It's a mass start with all classes going off at once, and it stages in the lower parking area of the park. Only the "staging" is basically one massive single line across the width of the lot, and on the sound of the gun it's a mad dash for all racers to reach the much narrower road first. Why? Because shortly after we reach the single track about a mile up the road, the first climb causes a miserable bottleneck -- unless you happen to be up near the front. And so that's where everyone wants to be. And it can get pretty hairy -- wheels rub, brakes squeak, angry racers shout, and occasionally someone can go down. I've made it a point of putting out as much effort as necessary to stay out of the fray and get up near the front ever since the first year I did the race, and this year was no different. What was different is that it seemed like a whole lot more of the field had the same idea this year and I had to stay on full gas all the way to the single track just to avoid getting spit out the back.

There was a very brief bottleneck as we turned into the trail but once we got through that, I found myself on a fast moving train of riders. We rolled along for a while, picking off a few quick-starters here and there, and eventually I found myself on the back of a short group of three behind Chris Brawley from NJ and, just in front of me, SS pro Matt Ferrari. I know how strong both of these guys are, so I figured sitting on with them was a good place to be. We rode along for maybe five miles this way and then I dropped my chain for the first of many times over the course of the day. I'm still not sure what loosened it up, but I wasn't about to stop to find out. And even though it took only a few seconds to fix it that first time, I was passed by about 20 riders. But all in all, though, if I have to have a mechanical, I'll take dropping a chain over most others any day because on a SS, it's almost always a very quick fix. Ultimately, I would drop it about 8 times during the course of the day, but in total that may have cost me only a minute or two tops.

Pushing out of the woods
photo credit: Chris Daily
One other thing about the crazy start at CP is that the confusion of everyone running all together makes it more or less impossible to know where you are in your class. And since I was only focusing on chasing 8 laps, I wasn't focused on finding out. I just wanted to stay as fast as possible without blowing myself up. But around my fourth lap, I started to realize that I was on a pretty good pace to hit my goal as long as nothing too major happened and as I came through the Start/Finish area, Scott Rath from the Cadre Crew told me I was in the lead with about a two minute gap  to second place. At first, I was sure that was a mistake. I'd already had to stop 5 or 6 times for my chain, and I was sure I remembered seeing at least one other SSer passing me very early on and I certainly hadn't caught anyone. But I figured it couldn't hurt to stay on my effort either way. And besides, at that point every time I was coming through the Start/Finish, Jody or Jeff form Cadre were yelling at me to go faster on the PA, and it's hard to deny that kind of motivation.

Speaking of motivation, one of my favorite parts of this year's edition of CP was that every time I'd pass through Shoogs' Cowbell Heckle Pit, I'd hear him yell my name and call me a "crusher of souls". Whether or not you agree with the idea that crushing souls is a good thing to do (I happen to be fine with it!) having that yelled at you while you're struggling to go as fast as you can is an undeniable boost! I highly recommend experiencing that at least once in your racing career!

I finished up my 7th lap in about 5:50 or so, ensuring I'd hit my first goal for the day. I was on pace to beat my time from the last year, too, so that pretty much ensured that I'd hit my second goal as well (again, barring disaster.) I still had only seen a few other SSers all day, and those were guys I'd lapped, so I started to wonder if what I'd been told earlier was actually the case. Either way, I wasn't about to leave whatever position I was in to chance. I worked with one of the LWC guys, Don Breon, for the last lap and that kept me moving. I crossed the line in about 6:38, about 4 minutes faster than last year. And they confirmed that I had, in fact, won the SS class! That was really cool. The guy who they'd been warning me about all day came in a few minutes later. I'm glad I never knew for sure because I wouldn't have wanted any reason to do anything differently. I had ridden solid all day, had a lot of fun doing it, got to see a bunch of friends from all over, and ended up with the win. And I also came away with an awesome chain-ring and cog set from Endless Bikes (in orange, no less!) as a special SS prize! That's how you do a race day!

On the SS Podium with Brian Berry (right) and Watts Dixon (left)
And with that, my season is done. It was a long year, and I'm really happy with how it played out. But it's time to take a little time off before next year's training begins in earnest. I really couldn't have asked for a better way to end the year, too!

Huge thanks to Randy, Jeff, Jody, Scott from Cadre and everyone else involved with putting on this race. It's become one of my perennial favorites and I mark it down as a "definite" every year when planning the events I'll attend. It's so well run, and so much fun -- perfect for first time endurance racers and those of us who've been doing them for years. It's definitely one not to miss, and a great way to close out a long season! Whether you want to push yourself for the full six hours, race with teammates, or even just ride a few laps and then hang out for the fun (and post-race chili!), do yourself a favor and don't miss out on this race next year. Hope to see you out there!