Monday, July 16, 2012

Adversity and Providence: How I Survived the Shenandoah 1200K

One of my big cycling goals for 2012 was to ride the Shenandoah 1200K- 767 miles in the mountains of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina with roughly 60,000 ft of ascent!  In preparation for the ride I went up and rode the ROMA 400K and ROMA 600K brevets.  These rides prepared me very well and gave me a nice preview of the route.  I made one major change before the 1200K, instead of riding my carbon bike like I did on the 400K and 600K I opted for my trusty steel LeMond, partly for comfort but mostly for it's front rack and bags.  The lightweight bike was nice, but it was quite difficult to carry the clothing and supplies that I needed. On June 6th with the bike packed I headed up to Leesburg, VA for a 4am start.

My Brevet Card

Day 1: All according to plan...

It was a bit cool at the start, so I started in arm & knee warmers and vest.  13 riders started, and I stayed with a group of about 10 in the dark for the first 40 miles or so. I was able to shoot one of my "falling back" videos once it got light, but just before the Catoctin Mountain Natl Park I let the rest of the group go up the road and settled into my own rhythm.  100K in I made it to the first control at Gettysburg, the others were still there, but no one was manning the control.  Matt was supposed to be there, but I don't think he expected us to make such good time!  I had been counting on refilling my water bottles here, and I was completely dry.  The others said there was a store down the road, and they took off while I was still busy with a nature break.  One rider, Ed, waited for me and we headed out to look for a store.

The riders at sunrise


Just after we got out of the Gettysburg Battlefield park we spotted a little place called "Our Family Market."  It didn't look open, but  I was thirsty and wanted some solid food so we pulled in anyway in hopes that it was.  This was my first bit of luck- it was open, and it turned out to be a quaint little shop full of homemade baked goodies a small stock of fizzy drinks and water.  I refilled the bottles and had a coke and a blueberry turnover.  Feeling much better we got back on the road.

Soon I let Ed go up the road, since he was climbing faster than I was, and I was back on my own.  After the 2nd big climb of the day and a nice, long descent I once again found the little BBQ joint that had been a lifesaver on this same course on the 400K- Phil & Jerry's Meats & More.  I stopped here for a lunch full of salty stuff, country ham sandwich and chips.  I also grabbed a sample of Karen's Candy Kitchen homemade peanut butter fudge, which later turned out to be much better than any energy gel!

Phil & Jerry's

Peanut Butter Fudge- my new favorite energy gel

I rode solo through the Antietam Battlefield to the 2nd control at about 116 miles, then back into Virginia to the 3rd control at about mile 153.  The weather was gorgeous, with blue skies and big poofy white clouds, and I stopped occasionally to take pictures with my phone.  It probably would've been worth the extra weight to bring a proper point & shoot camera, the scenery in the Shenandoah Valley is absolutely stunning.  As the sun was starting to go down I was being chased around by rain clouds, only once or twice did I get a little spritz of rain though.  I was climbing one of the many hills when I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw a little church in beautiful light with storm clouds in the background.  It was nice enough that I stopped midway up the hill to snap a pic!  Rain clouds chased me all the way through Harrisonburg, VA and I finally arrived at the first sleep stop, 233 miles in at about 1:30am.  Had a quick shower and set up all my gadgets to charge, then went down for an hour and a half nap- exactly what I'd hoped for at the end of the first day.

Representing the NC Randos


Worth stopping halfway up a hill to snap this one.

Still being chased by the rainclouds

Day 2: How I messed up.

At 4:00am I swung a sore leg back over the LeMond and rolled out of the hotel parking lot to start day 2.  It was downright cold, cold enough to see your breath in the oncoming headlights.  Arm & knee warmers, vest and jacket, and I was still shivering.  I wasn't going very fast uphill, but each time I would start to get warm it was just in time to crest a hill and go screaming down the other side, freezing my ass off.  I'd started out with 6 riders behind me, but soon I was caught and passed by one pair.  I stopped at a little store and had some hot coffee and a bacon egg & cheese biscuit, and also bought a pair of brown work gloves to try to keep my hands warm.  Not much further down the road I was passed by the Olsen brothers.  I passed the Olsens again while they were stopped later at a store, but shortly they caught and passed again on the climb up Hanky Mountain Hwy into the George Washington National Forest.

I wasn't really looking at the time, I usually don't have to worry too much about time limits.  I wasn't pushing myself, and during the cold early morning I wasted loads of time either stopped at stores or crawling slowly uphill because that was when I was warmest.  As the day progressed it warmed up, and eventually it got quite hot.  I still didn't push my pace, but here is where I should have kept my speed up.  I let the time limits creep up on me, and I'd be staying just out ahead of them for the rest of the ride.

I left the George Washington National Forest and rode down through the Goshen Pass along the Maury River.  This had been my favorite section of the 600K, since the temps in the pass are so much cooler than the surrounding area and the 600K weekend was sweltering hot.  I was having a blast descending the pass when a rust colored Toyota pickup truck actually attempted to run me off the road.  No one coming the other direction- just a purely spiteful, malicious act.  I thought about being alone out here in the mountains of Virginia and started to flirt with the thoughts of "it's not worth dying out here at the hands of some stupid yahoo driving a pickup," but I put those thoughts behind me and got back to it.

At the control in Buchanan at mile 332 I learned that the 2 riders behind me had abandoned, making me the Lanterne Rouge.  Still it didn't bother me, I'd been riding well within my limits and I still felt strong, I told myself I could always make up some time on the road and soon the time limits would start to become more generous.  I left Buchanan after much too long a stop and rode down to Roanoke where the route climbs up to get on the Blue Ridge Parkway heading to Floyd, VA.

The first few miles on the BRP were fun, sure it had some climbing but there were also a couple of sweeping, fast descents with beautiful views.  The heat of the day had me dripping sweat at the tops of the climbs, and the high speed descending cooled me back off.  I sorta thought this 16 mile stretch of the parkway was going to be great.  Then the climbing really started.  It is pretty much 12-13 miles of straight climbing.  I kept expecting it to drop for a little descent after each bend, only to be demoralized when I saw the road continuing to ascend.  I was very slow here.  I ran out of water here, and I was carrying 3 bottles!  It was getting dark when I made it to the end of the parkway climb and I put on the lights and reflective gear for the 20ish miles to get to the control at Floyd.  By this point I'd been on the road for over 40 hours with only 1.5 hours of sleep, and it was starting to catch up with me.  It took me until 10:15pm to get to Floyd, where I once again wasted too much time off the bike.  A volunteer told me that it would take about 3 hours to get to the sleep stop in Mount Airy, NC since it was "all downhill..."  That translated to a 15mph average, so I figured on 4 hours instead to account for my slowness.  I stayed too long at the control snacking and putting on all my warm clothes, since the temps had once again plummeted.

Climbing up the BRP toward Floyd, VA

The route to Mount Airy was decidedly not "all downhill."  The cold, the sleep deprivation, and the climbing were all getting to me again.  In this section it was mostly the mental game that got me.  I lost a lot of time.  Finally I crossed over the BRP again for an 8 mile screaming nighttime descent of Willis Gap into Mount Airy.  I arrived at about 4:45 am, but wasted a bunch of time by going to the wrong hotel.  I finally got to the right spot at 5am- roughly 2 hours later than I'd planned.  I was hoping for 3 hours of sleep, but now I was only going to allow myself a single hour.  I had a hard task ahead of me- the climb up Willis Gap made it difficult to determine how long it would take to get back to Floyd.  After food and a shower I got in bed for a short nap.

Day 3: Luck- both kinds!

That was a short nap.  Big job ahead.  I had a couple different jerseys to choose from in my drop bag, and I went with the Societé Adrian Hands jersey for luck.  I rolled out a bit after 7am.  Straight out of the gate there was an 8 mile climb up Willis Gap, and I figured I needed to do it in less than an hour if I wanted to make Floyd by Noon.  I pushed hard, and got to the top of the climb in 45 minutes.  Feeling pretty good about that I flew down the other side at top speed- now I was trying to make up as much time as possible.  I rounded a corner and the road turned to gravel!  I'd forgotten that gravel section from the haze of the previous night's climbing.  It was hard on the brakes for the short time I still had pavement left, then I let go the brakes and hit the gravel at nearly full speed.  I was pretty sure I was gong to crash.  Somehow I didn't, and I tried to scrub more speed by feathering my rear brake.  Braking only seemed to cause a speed wobble, and I quickly laid a knee along the top tube and tried braking some more.  It was still causing the speed wobbles, but now there was a bigger problem- the road made a hard turn to the right.  Now I knew I was going to crash.  I braked harder than anyone should at high speed on a gravel road, and I shimmied and fishtailed around the turn.  I have no idea how I didn't go down, but I made it back onto asphalt unscathed.  I'd just received a huge gift of luck!

The price I paid for the time up Willis Gap was that my left Achilles was starting to bother me.  Even so, I continued to keep the pace up- though I was being just a bit more cautious on the descents- and I rolled into the control at Floyd right at Noon.  The volunteers were there with lunch and ice cold fizzy drinks, and I drank one while using another to ice my left ankle.  Had a big sandwich and chips.  Ed was also still there resting in the shade, and I once again spent far too long at the control and wasted most of the time I had just gained back.  Eventually we got back on the road, but we were both rolling painfully slowly.

Long stop for lunch in Floyd

Instead of backtracking exactly and enjoying a 12 mile descent on the parkway, the Shenandoah route makes a little detour and gets a little more climbing in.  After the little detour around Roanoke we rejoined the same outbound roads headed back to the control in Buchanan.  My Achilles was really starting to hurt on the climbs, and Ed would pull away on each uphill.  He kept getting ahead and out of sight, then eventually I'd come up over a rise and he'd be waiting.  We continued this cat-and-mouse game all the way to Buchanan.

With my shoe off it was obvious my Achilles was quite inflamed.  It was getting late in the day, and on the way into town I'd stopped at a Family Dollar to try to get some athletic tape but it was closed.  All I could find at the convenience store control was duct tape, so I bought a roll.  I ate at the Burger King in the store and tried to take a nap in one of the booths while Ed went ahead and got back on the road.  After maybe 15 minutes of rest but no real sleep I started trying to figure out how to tape up my ankle with duct tape.  I was having no luck when a young man approached me and asked if I'd like him to show me how to do that.  Turns out he's a rodeo rider and had lots of experience taping up joints.  Once I had a duct tape ankle brace I was able to get back on the road, and it was much better with a bit of support.

Once again I put on the reflective gear and lights and rode on into the night.  Eventually I caught up with Ed again and we rode together, or at least within sight of one another some more.  The sleep deprivation was really starting to drag me down, and once when we both stopped for a minute I put my head down on the bars and nearly fell asleep on the bike.  I didn't realize how much it was bothering Ed as well until he pulled off at a bank and said he needed to rest for a bit.  I made him set his phone alarm before I left, then got back on the road.  A short time later I saw his lights in my mirror and he was catching back up with me.  I saw a coke machine and pulled off for caffeine, but couldn't get it to give me a drink.  Ed pointed out a Post Office right next door, so I went inside the warm lobby and laid down for a road nap while Ed rode on.  I set my phone alarm for 30 minutes, but it seemed like only about 5 minutes before it was ringing.  I got up immediately and got back on the road.  

My warm Post Office road nap spot

Coming out of the heated Post Office into the cold night was a bit of a shock, but I started to push hard to warm and wake myself up.  As I approached a convenience store I spotted Ed pulling out and soon we were back together again.  I couldn't stay with him on the uphills though, and Ed eventually stopped waiting up for me and he was out of sight.  My duct tape ankle brace had stretched out and was no longer giving me any support, and the Achilles was screaming.  I rode on through the night and through the pain, but I was riding even more slowly.

At 6am I stopped at a grocery store in Staunton, VA that had just opened.  In the first aid section I bought ice packs, sports tape, and a bottle of Advil.  I sat on a bench outside the store, iced my ankle, and drank a Frappucino.  I had 16 miles to go till the next sleep stop and 3 hours until it closed.  Plenty of time.  After about 15 minutes of ice treatment I wrapped my ankle and got back on the road.

The duct tape ankle brace finally stretched out and gave up

In the last 5 miles before the control I spotted Ed on the side of the road and pulled over.  He was putting his bike in Matt's van!  His chain had snapped and the mangled links had destroyed his rear derailleur.  His ride was over.  I felt bad for Ed, but I also wanted to get to the hotel and have a nap.  After missing a turn down the road I finally made it to the hotel at Bridgewater.  After a short discussion with Matt I realized that I didn't have any time for a nap if I wanted to finish.  I had plenty of time to make it to the penultimate control at Front Royal before it closed, but if I arrived at closing time I'd never make it to the finish in time.  You see, the Shenandoah 1200K is actually 1,234 Kilometers long.  That's an extra 22 miles, however it still has the same 90 hour time limit as any other 1200K!  I needed to get right back on the road to try to make it to the finish in time.

Day 4: Sleep deprivation.

I took a few minutes to shower, re-wrap my ankle, and change into a fresh kit before heading out for the last 130 mile run to the finish.  I also dumped anything I felt I wouldn't need into my drop bag so I wouldn't have to carry it up the hills.  I left Bridgewater at about 9:30am and headed to Harrisonburg, then north through Broadway.  During this stretch I was nearly falling asleep on my bike.  The day started getting hot and the sleep deprivation was getting to me so bad I can barely remember anything.  At one point I did stop in the shade of a tree and put my head down on my handlebars, not sure if I drifted off or not, but I woke with a start when I started to fall over.  Back on the bike it was more climbing and descending, just like I'd been doing for the past few days.  At the top of one little climb there was a convenience store, and I pulled in for a caffeinated fizzy drink but it was closed.  I got lucky once again on this ride, because they had a working drink machine outside.  I downed one Coke and bought another to stuff into my jersey pocket.  I told myself I'd get it as a reward for climbing the next big one- Edinburg Gap.  I took a minute to check in on Facebook on the iPhone and read some comments from friends giving me support and advice.  Jerry said caffeine and ibuprofen would get me through, so I took some more Advil.  I was encouraged by all the comments from my friends, but a comment from one of Geof's friends gave me a start- he said something about us being at 80 hours but the comment had been posted an hour earlier.  I did some quick math and thought for a minute that I didn't have enough time left if I kept going at my current pace.  My Achilles tendon pain combined with the sleep deprivation and the general fatigue from riding almost 700 miles had me going fairly slowly.  I resolved to pick up the pace and try to make some time.

I pushed hard up Edinburg Gap and then bombed the descent and tried to hammer all the way to the control at Front Royal.  A time check showed that my math had probably been a bit wrong, but I'd made some good time and it seemed like a good idea to keep it up.  I made it a quick stop, got the card signed, bought a few Red Bulls to stash in the front bag, and took some more ibuprofen.  Then I got back on the road and tried to make some time.

"Thousand yard stare" at the penultimate control

Sleep deprivation combined with massive amounts of caffeine does strange things to your mind.  I was sure I recognized these roads from the run in to Leesburg on the 400K.  I missed a turn but realized that I was off course because I thought I'd done the same thing on that ride a month earlier.  I turned around and backtracked to get back on course, 15 or 20 minutes wasted but it could've been worse if I hadn't recognized my mistake.  Next I found myself on John Marshall Highway, and again I thought I recognized this stretch.  It was one of the only flattish sections I'd seen since the ride started, and I pushed the pace some more.  I felt like I recognized every turn as I rode through Rectortown and up Atoka Rd.  I chugged the Red Bulls and downed energy gels to keep me going and kept doing the math in my head to figure when I'd make it to the finish.

Looking back at this section and comparing it to the 400K I now realize that I'd never ridden these roads before.  The 400K took a different route into Leesburg, and on that occasion I was getting into Leesburg in the dark.  I don't have any explanation for how I knew my way or why I felt such a strong sense of deja vu, but it kept me going all the way into Leesburg.  The closer I got to the end the more I realized that I was actually going to make it.  I had about an hour to spare, which meant that I had a good buffer in case of mechanicals or wrong turns.  That gave me even more of a boost than the Red Bulls had, and I flew into town.

I rolled up to the hotel at the finish and was greeted in the lobby by cheers from my fellow Randonneurs.  "You're early!" they told me- they were expecting me to be much closer to the time limit based on how I looked to Matt at the start of the day.  I handed my card to Matt at 88:55 according to my Garmin, but my official time on the card is 88:51.  Everyone started asking me what I wanted to eat and drink, but I couldn't think very well.  I remember telling one of the Olsen brothers that I'd eat anything, just surprise me!  We sat in the lobby and I ate a big plate of food, drank a couple of sodas and a V-8, and even had a piece of Matt's birthday cake.  Then I went upstairs to have a shower and finally get some sleep.


 I knew it was going to be a hard ride, and the Shenandoah 1200K certainly didn't disappoint.  As Matt told me out on the road, "there's not a lot of room for error on this ride."  I think I'll ride it again next year, and this time I'll pay more attention to building up a time cushion early.  The scenery through the Shenandoah Valley was simply stunning.  The drivers with whom we shared the roads left a lot to be desired, and the extreme temperature changes made the ride even tougher, but "Randonesia" has set in now and I'm about ready to give this ride another try!

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written chrono/fun/suffer post, Smiley.

    Nicely mixed together, moments of joy, moments of pain. Story kept moving and kept my interest. Of course, it could be that knowing you slightly may have also helped to keep my interest.

    Hoping to see you on the road ... sometime ... somewhere.