Sunday, June 5, 2016

Round and Round We Go ...


Where do you begin to tell the story of a race weekend that starts with a cross-country flight on Thursday and ends when your return flight is delayed in Denver and you finally get back home at 4:00 Tuesday morning? Maybe you start with the accidental "good fortune" that got you easy check-in and pre-boarding all weekend. Or start with the reunion between your wife and brother-in-law ten years in the making. Or maybe you start with the disaster that nearly caused your worst case scenario - a "DNS"- Friday afternoon.

But all that seems to be just parts of the whole story and when I think about it all now, a week later, the whole thing does seem kind of epic. So maybe the best place to start would be at the very beginning.

I've had the 24 Hours Round the Clock on my radar for a couple of years now. I like the idea of riding new areas, and racing seems like a great way to justify traveling to far off places just to pedal new terrain. This particular race offered another opportunity on top of that - it gave my wife the chance to see her brother. He lives in Spokane Valley, about a half hour east of the race venue, and she hadn't seen him in ten years. (And I think in hindsight, the moment she saw him was probably my favorite of the entire weekend. She's really close to her family and I know it bugs her that she doesn't get to see them more often.)

My schedule this year made 2016 the best option to get out there and do it, so I put it on the schedule and started planning the trip. There was a while there where we weren't sure if Joanna would ultimately be able to make the trip with me. April was a really tough month for us as within two weeks of one another, we lost our two cats, BK and Kramer. BK went first from multiple myeloma. That was so tough I still can't really process it. "BeeKs", as we called him, was a special little being. His back story is pretty amazing - he chose to come live with us. And he was the most unique animal I've ever encountered - he was a tough customer who still loved to curl up between the two of us every night and purr himself to sleep. I miss him more than I can possibly say.

The BeeKs ...

Then just two weeks later, our old man, Kramer, passed away. He was 20 years old, so that wasn't really unexpected. But he's been a part of my life as long as I've known Joanna, and a part of her life for much longer than that. Neither of us even thought of him as a pet. He was just a part of the family. His last few weeks were tough as he was starting to have trouble breathing. But he was still The Krame, and he'd insist on taking up his spot on my lap every night when I would sit in "our chair" in the living room.

The Krame
We were both pretty devastated by their passing (still are) but even before they passed, Joanna and I weren't sure it would be right to leave them if they were still around. We did ultimately adopt two bonded brothers - Pauly Pawsby and Oscar Featherman - a few weeks after they passed (the house seemed to empty with just the two of us), and then wondered if it would be right to leave them for a weekend so soon after they first came to us. But in the end, we decided that we'd take a chance and finalized arrangements for the trip. These two new guys have really adapted well to their new home and now I can't imagine not having them around. It's cool because they've both established their own personalities that aren't at all like our other two guys. We both missed them all weekend long. It's nuts because before all these guys, I was never a big pet person. Nowadays, I can't wait to get home from work just to see them. Go figure!

Oscar (top) and Pauly enjoy drinking from the faucet, getting into every corner of our house, and checking out the views in the backyard
Before we knew it, we were getting up at 4:00 Thursday morning for an 8 a.m. flight. A few weeks before, Joanna had hurt her knee stepping out of her jeep - the kind of freak accident that often turns out to be a lot more serious than we want to believe. It was giving her all kinds of trouble, and she'd taken to wearing a knee brace at work. But the brace was really uncomfortable, so for the long flight she decided she would wear it on the outside of her pants just to make it easier to remove if it became too annoying. It turns out, that was a bit of luck. When the ticket agent at the Southwest counter saw her brace, he asked if she'd need assistance. She was in pain and knew we had to walk a long way to our gate, so she said, "Sure". And with that, we were allowed to pass quickly through the TSA checkpoint, and board our flight before everyone else. And they put it in the system, so that held for every flight the rest of our trip. As much as it sucks to have an injury, there do appear to be some perks! I joked with Joanna that I'm going to kick her in the knee every time we fly from now on!

So we arrived in Spokane around mid-day Thursday with no issues (my bike made it through the transfer just fine and was coming down the over-size carousel just as we arrived.) We had no trouble finding our hotel and I put my bike together without much difficulty. After that, we called Joanna's brother and he came over to meet us for dinner. The two of them were so happy to see one another. That was a pretty cool night. It was the first chance I had to meet his family and I really like all of them. Just a really great group of people, and we had a pretty awesome dinner at an Italian place down the road from the hotel.

Friday morning, we were up early to do some food shopping and then headed over to the venue to set up our pit area. It took me a while to get the tent set up (hadn't done it in a while and forgot that directions are attached to the bag.) But eventually we were all set up and Joanna decided to hang out while I went out for a pre-ride. And that's when our smooth trip took a decidedly rough turn.

I wasn't 100 feet into the first single track section when the entire front end of my drivetrain came off. And I mean "off". I was standing there looking down at my right foot with the drive-side crank and chain ring hanging off the bottom of my shoe. My first thought was "There's no scenario in which this is 'good' ..." My second thought was, "PLEASE let this just be a issue of a loose BB." It wasn't.

When I got back to the pit area, I looked at it and discovered that the self-extracting bolt that connects the drive-side to the spindle had snapped off at the bolt head. I knew right away I was in trouble. That's not exactly a part most shops carry on hand. So I knew I might have some trouble getting it fixed just hours before the race. And that turned out to be the case.

Joanna and I started visiting every bike shop in Spokane, spiraling outward from the area near our hotel without any luck. By 3:00 in the afternoon, we were trying to get our minds around the fact that we'd made the entire trip only to not even get a chance to start. It was tough. As a last ditch effort, we called a shop called This Bike Life all the way on the southern edge of the city, about a half hour away from the hotel. The owner told us to stop on by and he'd see what he could do. He said he was confident he could help us. I didn't share that sentiment at that point, but figured I had nothing else to do. So off we went. And I'm really glad we did, because not only did he track down a fix for us (it wasn't a self-extracting bolt, which means I'll need a crank pull to get it off in the future) but he had it fixed and ready to roll in under 20 minutes. And he told us it was only $5 for the fix. I gave him $10 and said about a hundred "thank you"s. Then I took Joanna back to the hotel and headed back to the venue to finally pre-ride.





I took a few photos along the ride. The course was a lot different than what I expected. When I think of "Pacific Northwest", I picture loamy flow-trails through old growth forest. Well, there was some of that, but much of the course was a lot rockier than I would have thought. In fact, there was one section about a mile long called "Dan and Ed's Excellent Adventure" that was pretty much just one long rock garden. There wasn't a ton of climbing, but what was there came all at once and featured some pretty steep pitches. And the main climb, called "Five Minute Hill" had a lot of very loose sand to navigate, which is kind of the worst case scenario for a singlespeed. The whole thing was a bit of a wake-up call. I finished my pre-ride realizing that the next day was going to be potentially more challenging than I had really ever thought it would be. But I was okay with that. It was a really well planned course and lots of fun to ride. And there was enough variety where I was pretty sure I wouldn't get bored riding it over and over throughout the day. Plus, my bike held together really well which was a huge relief. After some consideration, I decided  not to mess with my bike any more than I absolutely had to, so I left the 34:19 in pace rather than switch to a "spinnier" 34:20.

Friday night, we chilled with Joanna's brother again out at his place and then headed back to the hotel to relax. It had been a pretty stressful day, but at that point it was all systems go and all I had left to do was wait for the start.

Finally ready to roll ... note the color coordination in the number plate and my kit. Total Pro!
Race day finally arrived after a terrible night's sleep. I was a bit concerned that I was about to spend an entire day riding a bike after barely sleeping the night before. But whatever - at that point I was just happy to be there for the start. I went to the pre-race meeting feeling antsy to get moving. It seemed to take forever, but eventually they called everyone up to line up for the Le Mans start. The start would take us up the first steep hill and immediately back down through the woods to the Start/Finish to pick up our bikes.

On the run

Then the countdown started and just like that we were off! I took it super easy on the run - no need to burn a single match there because there would be plenty of time to make up any gaps over the next 24 hours. So I slow jogged up the climb and skipped down, falling well behind many of the riders.

The day was actually pretty perfect for a race - mix of sun and clouds, temps in the low 70's. And since Spokane is a high desert region, there was almost no humidity. So one thing I knew I wouldn't have to worry about all day was overheating. I grabbed my bike and rolled up over the first climb, passing a whole bunch of riders in the first section. I spotted the tell-tale climbing style of another singlespeeder ahead of me. I decided that no matter what, I wasn't going to chase. Getting caught up in actual racing that early would only lead to disaster later on. So I settled into the conga line of riders and fell into a nice steady pace. I was moving faster than I originally thought I would, but I wasn't feeling like I was pushing at all, so I just kept it steady and hung with the group I was in.

We hit Five Minute Climb about 4 miles into the 15 mile lap, and I made a conscious effort to find an easy line and not put out too much effort. I was passing a whole bunch of riders by virtue of being on the singlespeed, but I didn't feel too stretched out at all. Just before the top, another singlespeeder came around me and I thought he looked like he was putting out a lot of effort so early. So I just let him go.  He started to really gap me in the following section, and I had to fight off the urge to chase. The first guy had long since disappeared, and I was kind of hoping this guy would do the same. Out of sight out of mind. I knew I had a pretty solid plan and I was feeling pretty good, so I didn't want anything to get in the way of sticking to the plan.

My pit was along the straightaway heading into the Start/Finish and as I rolled up to my pit area, Joanna was waiting for me with a bottle and some food. She told me that I was currently in third - about a minute behind second and a few minutes behind first. She said that the guy in first looked really strong. That made sense. I didn't know at the beginning if there were more ahead of us or if we had been the first three. But I did know that the guy up front had looked really strong as long as I had him in sight. At any rate, I told Joanna that I couldn't worry about that this early and said I'd just keep to my plan and keep moving. Then I headed back out for another lap.

At this point, I need to say something about Joanna. This is the second time she's worked as my support at one of these (the first time being way back in 2009) and I have to say that I am amazed at just how damn good she is at it. She downplays it whenever I mention it, but the fact is it's really hard to do that job at one of these things. And she's never had anyone to tell her what to do. The best I could do to prepare her was give her pretty generic advice - always have a bottle and some food ready each lap. But it's actually much more than that. She stayed on top of where I was, knew the gaps, mixed up the food so that I had the right nutrition at the right time, and was always several laps ahead on my bottles so that if I had to get it myself if she had to step away for a while, I'd have an easy time grabbing what I needed. She also kept the feed zone organized and cleaned up all the stuff I'd just toss aside as I came through. She did a masterful job this time just like she and our friend John did last time. She's really well organized all the time, so that certainly helps, but I was just so impressed by how smoothly she kept me moving all day. Without her there, my day would have been a lot tougher. I insisted before the start that she not plan to spend the night - it gets cold for those of us riding so I can't imagine it's anything but awful for our support. By virtue of our having traveled so far, we were operating a pretty scaled-down pit area (just a tent and a chair for Joanna along with bins for food.) We had no fire pit, not heaters, and nothing to make it comfortable enough to spend the night. So I knew she'd be heading back to the hotel after dark, but she still left me with a dozen bottles and organized food packs to get me through the night. All I had to do was stop, grab and go. As a result, my pit times over night were no longer than during the day. Everything was done for me. I couldn't be luckier with my support team!

Over the course of the day, the laps start to blend together. I kept my pace nice and steady, and by dusk, I was feeling really good - a lot better than when I started, which is pretty typical for me. I ride a lot of big mile rides, so I've noticed now that I take a while to get into a real groove. My first four or five laps were all around 12/5 mph, which is really fast. I was kind of worried that I might be burning matches I'd need later, but in all honesty, I never felt too taxed. The course was fast for sure, but after a while I started making conscious efforts not to push on the few tougher climbs. One of those climbs is called "Devil's Up" and its a short, steep pop over some fairly big rocks. I decided after a few laps to ride up to the first rock hop and then walk over the last bit. This didn't significantly slow me down, but it gave my legs a brief respite that over time I came to appreciate.

One thing that didn't change at all was that I was still sitting well behind the leader, and Joanna was telling me every lap that he was looking really strong. It turned out that I was right about the other guy who'd been ahead of me - he apparently cooked himself early and stopped after only a few laps. I don't know if he had other issues with his bike or something, but I wasn't surprised to hear he was out either way. He just seemed to be pushing a three hour pace out there and that's just not sustainable for a full day of riding. So as Joanna got ready to leave, I knew I was in second place and about 10 minutes back on first. That's not a ton of time, but I saw that gap growing and I kind of thought that if he could keep up his current pace, I really had no chance of catching him. And according to Joanna, he was looking really strong every lap so I had no reason to believe he couldn't keep it up.

Photo Credit: Rene Guerrero
I always feel good riding at night. I think part of it is that I ride a lot with lights during the year, either in the winter for post-work rides or in the spring and summer with dawn patrol rides. Whatever the reason, once the sun goes down, I don't necessarily get faster, but I can hold my normal pace without too much trouble. I think this gives me some advantage, since a lot of folks don't ride as much at night and perhaps have to adapt to the lower visibility. I don't know for sure, but I definitely feel good riding at night. And Saturday night was no exception. I didn't know where I was anymore without Joanna's updates, but I didn't really care. I hit the midway point at midnight and kind of laughed at the thought that I'd been riding for so long and was just halfway.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was how early the sun rises in Spokane. I really didn't need my lights anymore by 4:30. I guess it's because they exist on the eastern edge of the western time zone, but it was odd to be riding without lights before 5 am. By that time, I'd been riding all night with no idea where I was. I knew I hadn't passed any other SSers on course, and I knew none had passed me, but a lot of times in races like these, you won't even realize when you lap someone because it happens in the pits. Someone gets tired and stops for a while and you'll never see them, especially if they're sleeping int heir tent. The one thing I knew was that I had no intention of stopping for any longer than I had to. I'd already made one stop to change when the temps had started dropping into the 40's over night, and I made one slightly long stop to change my light batteries over night, but other than that I'd kept myself moving the whole time.

As I was finishing my 15th lap, Joanna was back and she had news. The really strong guy who'd been ahead of me had apparently blown up sometime during the night and stopped. He was pitted near us and she saw him try to go back out a while later only to turn back around and go back to his pit complaining of leg pain. By the time I saw Joanna, he was already a couple laps down and had pretty much taken himself out of the running, and right then I was in first place. But then she told me something else - there was another rider who was chasing me now, and he appeared to be getting a lot stronger as the morning wore on. That wasn't good, because after a long day of feeling really good, it was all finally catching up to me. For my part, I was definitely slowing down.

All along, my expectation was that I'd shoot for 16 laps. It was pretty apparent at that point - some time after 9 am - that I'd have no problem meeting that goal. I told Joanna that I really didn't want to do any more, and she told me that it was looking like there was no way I'd get away with anything less than 17 if I wanted to win this thing. That was kind of depressing. I told her okay, but there was no way I'd do any more after that - even if it meant losing. I was just toast and I couldn't face the possibility of doing more laps. So I head out on my 16th lap with my mind made up that I'd do 17 and no more.

I finished my 16th lap around 10:05 or so and Joanna told me that the kid behind me was still right there. I had about 30 minutes on him, but by her estimation, that meant that he'd finish his 17th before 24 hours was up and if that happened, he'd get 18 and if I stopped I'd be in second even if I finished 17 before him. I told her I was exhausted and didn't care. And then I headed out for my 17th lap.

Number 17 was by far my slowest lap of the day. Part of that was intentional. I was really hoping that I'd time myself out and make it back with barely any time left. It didn't occur to me that my doing that would mean nothing to the guy chasing behind me, but I was really hitting a wall and suddenly wanted nothing more than to stop. I'd left my Garmin back at the pit after 16 because it was losing power, so I had no idea of the time. I asked one of the folks at the last check point what time it was and was actually disappointed to find that I would definitely finish this lap with over a half hour left. So at that point, I made one final decision - perhaps the best one I'd made all day.

As I said above, Joanna did an incredible job supporting me all day. And perhaps the toughest part of that job was the last few hours, when she have to find a way to keep me motivated and not let me do something stupid that I'd regret later on. When you're that tired, all you want to do is stop. And she seemed to recognize that, but she walked a really fine line to keep me from listening to that negative voice in the back of my head. The decision I made as I was climbing the last rocky section on lap 17 just before the straightaway to my pit area was that I would just listen to whatever she told me to do. My reasoning was that I was tired enough where I couldn't trust my own judgment at this point, so I'd just let her take over. I was secretly hoping she'd tell me I cold stop, but as I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of her ahead of me, I could see she was holding what looks like a water bottle and some food. And I started to laugh and said "fuuuuuuuuuuck" out loud. I knew what that meant.

I rolled up to her and she just handed me a cold Pepsi and said, "Listen to me. He's going to get back in time. I don't want you to regret this, so if there is anything left, you need to go do this." I just smiled and nodded and told her, "I got it." She swapped my bottle and off I went. I didn't give myself any time to question it. I just pedaled a way and waved back as I went. It was 11:30. And it was going to be 18 laps.

Oddly enough, my 18th lap went by in a blip. In fact, it was my fifth fastest lap of the entire race at about an 11.8 mph average. Having that Pepsi helped (I've said before that an ice cold soda is a real treat during a long race.) But I think the bigger thing was that I was motivated by fear. I knew my 17th lap had been really slow, so I was thinking now that my chaser wasn't that far behind me. So every time I heard anything behind me, I pushed a little more thinking he was running me down. I was smart on the big climb, but rode more of it than I had in several hours. And then every time the course flattened out, I pinned it. I even managed to pass a few geared riders. All of the solos had been given a small yellow tab to hang off the back of our seat that said we were solo, and at one point as I passed a geared guy out on the course during one of my fear-induced tempo sections, the guy just said, "how the hell are you still riding like that?" I just laughed and replied, "Fear, dude." Then I took off.

I enjoyed the last few sections of the course and thanked as many of the folks at the checkpoints as I could - they had really been so awesome all day in cheering and keeping us all motivated. A I hit the last climb before the long screaming dirt road descent, I looked back and saw nothing behind me and for the first time allowed myself a moment to recognize that I was really going to win this thing. I hit the straightaway to the finish line and pinned it as hard as I could. Just before the dismount area, I gave a little punch in the air and smiled when I saw Joanna. I hopped off, tapped the lap counter with my transponder and handed it in to the timing judge. Then I ran around the tent opening and saw Joanna walking toward me with a big smile on her face. We'd done it.

Afterward, I found out that the guy in second had finished his 17th lap 20 or so minutes behind me and once he found out I'd gone out again, he decided just to wait and finish with 17. So he never went back out. That was a good decision because even if I was running slow, 20 minutes in one lap would be a tough gap to overcome.

I got changed - Joanna had already packed everything up (like I said, awesome support!) and we packed up the car before heading back to the Start/Finish area for some food and the awards ceremony.

Singlespeed podium - I'm alone because 2nd and 3rd were smart enough to get some sleep instead!

And then I found out something really cool. As it turns out, I had not only won the SS class, but my 18 laps were good enough for the overall solo title, which came with a nice cash payout! Actually, I didn't quite know what was going on when they started to announce the overall. I didn't hear them say what they were announcing, but I heard them say that the 2nd place SSer was in 3rd. I turned to Joanna and said, "That's not right - he was 2nd." But then they announced 2nd pace, and it was the 40-49 geared winner. And then I looked at Joanna and she was smiling. She figured it out before I did that this meant I was the overall winner. And sure enough, the announcer then said, "And the top solo finisher overall, first time we've had this from a single speeder ..." And my eyes popped as I realized what that meant. I was really shocked. I was the only one to do 18 laps (270 miles), it turns out. And that gave me the win. Pretty cool! We stuck around for the SS podium and then had to split.

I had to get back to the hotel to break down my bike and pack everything up before dinner since we had to clear out by 10:30 in the morning for a 1:00 flight. That was overkill in the end because of our pre-boarding status, but it was good to get it all out of the way quickly. We met up with Joanna's brother and his kids for dinner one more time before we left and then they stopped by the hotel in the morning to see us off. Even with the success of the race, I still think spending time with them was my favorite part of the weekend. Joanna was just so happy to see them and they're really cool people and funny as hell. I could hang with them any time.

Our flight was delayed in Denver for bad weather back east, but to be honest I was fine with that. After such a full weekend, I didn't mind the downtime of just reading in the airport while we waited for our flight.

All in all, it was a pretty awesome weekend. I was really nervous about how it would all play out beforehand, but I couldn't be happier with how it went down in the end. The logistics of getting a bike and race gear so far from home is a nightmare, so I'm not sure I'll be doing more 24 hour races like this that I can't drive to, but I'm so happy we actually made this trip happen. The 24 Hour Round the Clock is just an awesome event and it's really hard not to have a good time there, whether you're doing it solo or on a team. I don't know if I'll ever get to have another adventure quite like this one, so I'm happy to have the memory (and be able to share it with Joanna!)

Until next time, see you on the trails!

5 comments:

  1. Awesome job! And awesome write up.

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  2. Nice race report and great strategy. I was the 2nd place SSer and just couldn't close the gap with my ambitions 32/19 gearing and long pit times to diagnose a mechanical issue so I bailed on lap 18 to drink beer with my pit crew. Good race!

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  3. Hey! I was hoping to meet you after the race. My wife kept telling me how strong you looked on every lap Sunday morning. I was starting to wonder if you were even human - lol. Great job and sorry for your mechanicals!

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  4. Ha! A few hours into the race my wife said "That guy is a machine" so I knew it was going to be a tough race. Anyway, if you ever make it to the Pacific NW again with a bike feel free to contact me (Strava?). It's always good to ride with another SSer. Good luck with the rest of your racing season.

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