0: The weakest link…
It seems to be never ending, the quest for the perfect race. I’m not sure that it matters just how good or experienced you are (not that I am either), there will always be something that haunts you, something you feel you could have done better. Sometimes that weak link prevents you from simply even finishing.
I’m definitely a more knowledgeable overall cyclist this year. My first words instead of “knowledgeable” were actually “stronger”, but as I sit here in the bed hopefully recovering from the flu or a flu-like bug and proofing this writing, I feel anything but strong. Fitness is after all very fleeting, coming and going with time. After a handful of ultra events over the past two years, culminating in my participation on a team racing RAAM in 2012, I feel that I’ve learned a thing or two about competing in the ultra world. Yet, as much as I’ve learned, I’ve also failed to effectively deal with my some of my own weak links, one in particular which would break me today. It’s something so critical to ultra racing, yet I’ve more or less skated by, often on thin ice, without ever truly nailing this one down.
1: The Mission
I had ridden the 24 Hours of Sebring for the first time last year. My goal then was simply to RAAM qualify, that is to ride 400 miles or more within the allotted 24 hours. I say “simply”, but that’s no small task, under any circumstance.
I had a truly magical day in 2012. The weather was near perfect, and I had a nice, long build during my training until race day. I had logged significant miles to condition myself for the four back-to-back centuries required during the event. During that race, as the miles and hours wore on, and day turned to night and slowly back into day again, I begged for the end to come quickly, to end the suffering of my first true ultra endurance race. Every few laps of the track, I’d ask my sole crew member, Barbara (who also happens to be my wife), where the timing system “officially” thought I was. The bike computer’s mileage can vary quite a bit from the official event timing over the course of such a distance, and thus can’t be trusted. The aero bars on my bike had long since worn through the skin on my forearms and the saddle was now inflicting unknown carnage upon my rear. It was best that I not know at the time what was going on down there. Once I had officially recorded the 400 miles, I would voluntarily stop, ending the day at just over 22 hours and 406 miles, enough to get the job done.
This year was different. I had experienced ”riding” the race. Now I was ready to actually race it, going for the win, possibly going for the track record if conditions were right. It would take a perfect day, and nearly flawless execution of a solid race strategy to get it done. The record was 500 miles on an upright (a conventional bicycle versus a recumbent or other variation). I’d need to log 5 consecutive centuries at a nearly 21 mph average to do so. The 24 hour race time includes any necessary stops so the actual riding average would need to be even higher. That’s a pretty lofty goal, for a pro, and especially for an amateur such as myself. It would take a truly epic effort to do it. I thought I just might be able to muster that up… if all went perfectly that is.
2: The Build
Unconventional. That probably best describes my training coming into the event. You have to have a strong base to survive in ultra events, that is, a well developed cardiovascular system and sufficient neuromuscular conditioning (i.e. legs and lungs which are developed enough to handle hour after hour of effort). You also probably need to be slightly crazy but that’s a novella of its own. To me, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to put in mega-miles. Honestly, I don’t even log much of my training miles. Despite being rather methodical and meticulous in all my pother endeavors, I don’t apply that to my riding for the most part. I attribute it mainly that I simply don’t have time with my career and family commitments., perhaps I should rethink that, perhaps it’s another “weak link” in the chain.
For this race, I used something akin to Chris Carmichael’s “The Time Crunched Cyclist”, but taken to the extreme. Through a series of methodical interval sessions, I’d hammer my cardio system to raise my sustainable threshold heart rate over the 6 to 8 weeks prior to the event. My long rides were few and far between, never going more than 200 or so miles in any weekend. It was risky, I’ll admit, leaving me a bit uncertain as to whether I was truly prepared to tackle what I intended. I introduced a new tool into the weapons cache this year, one which worked within my time-constrained world, one which could be turned on at the flip of a switch, literally. That tool was NMES ,or neuro-muscular electrical stimulation. It’s akin to basically shocking the living hell out of myself with an unassuming little device and electrode pads. You’d never think something powered by a battery could bring you such suffering upon you… well on second thought, a Taser is battery operated. This isn’t that far from being “Tased” I guess. I’d use the buzz box quite methodically, allowing it to strengthen my legs in ways that my mind simply would not allow. It can cause a muscular contraction and associated growth far beyond anything I can muster in the gym. It’s just simply a matter of how much pain and intensity you can take. I never got above 50% of the maximal output of the shocker. I cannot imagine what ferocity must exist up at max. I‘m afraid to try it.
At two weeks out, I got through most of the final spin sessions I had planned before my body said “enough”, no longer able to achieve the high heart rates, and mentally feeling pretty drained. I instinctively pulled the plug on any subsequent workouts. Pushing any harder would likely lead to illness or injury at this point. I saved my chips for one last good effort on the weekend prior to the race, one to “drain the tank”, that is to deplete my carbohydrate stores so my body would overcompensate in the days following and I’d go into the race fully loaded with glycogen stored in my organs and muscles, ready to fuel the first few hours while I stoked the fires by eating more calories. I took young, masochist-in-training, “Ian” along for a 50 mile gravel grunt to do so. I’d use only water and electrolytes to get through, hoping to partially bonk before the end so that I’d know I truly emptied myself. Ian and I were also shaking down our race setups for Dirty Kanza which occurs in June, a 200 mile gravel race in the flint hills of Kansas. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I never got depleted, no bonk, despite not consuming anything prior to or during the ride. I interpreted that in a positive way since, even after a 3-1/2 hour effort, I was feeling just fine on nothing. The following week was pretty much just rest, letting my muscles recover and refuel. I continued to use the recovery programs of my NMES unit, keeping the muscles fresh and ready to ignite when called upon.
3: D-Day minus 1
I drove down to Sebring from Atlanta on Thursday evening, two days prior to the race. I wanted the drive over with so I could rest the day prior and get my mind ready for the suffering that lied ahead. Last year, I was like a lamb being led to slaughter. There’s a hidden benefit to not knowing what lied ahead. I went in with eyes wide shut, unaware of how bad things could hurt, how deep I’d have to dig. I had been there now. I was enlightened. It was slightly nauseating. I knew the battle that would be fought. Most of it would be internal, inside my own head. Negotiating with myself, rationalizing that it was logical to push forward through the pain and exhaustion, driving to the end where riches, fame and fortune simply don’t exist. It is truly about winning the battle against oneself. After a day of methodically going through my inventory of spare parts, nutrition and supplies (and watching others do the same), and envisioning how I expected my race to unfold, I was at ease, ready to unleash what I hoped I had created inside.
4: Sleepless in Sebring
The night before a big event for me is rarely restful. I’d lie awake thinking about whether I had trained hard enough, what I didn’t pack, what I failed to tell my crew I needed during the race. It was all done correctly, I just couldn’t convince myself it was so. I’d eventually nod off around midnight but I’d be back awake by 3:30am. The race didn’t start until 6:30am. After tossing around for another 30 minutes, I decided to just go ahead and get up and start fueling. I’d get two bagels and a banana down before race time, my standard pre-race ritual. It would be enough calories to recharge my liver from the night’s fasting and fuel the first few hours of the race. I drove the Subi down to the same spot that we used last year to set up base camp until we were shifted onto the track in the evening, right at the transition from the asphalt onto the concrete runway. There we’d have power and I’d be near the turnaround for the short course, able to yell ahead what I’d need and give my crew enough time to prepare it before I’d be back around to get it. We got the canopy tent set up but I wondered how it would fare. Forecasts were for high winds beginning at noon, around 20-25 mph sustained with gusts into the 30s.
I went back to our hotel room to dress out. I spent some time getting Kinesio tape carefully applied to my forearms. I still bear the scars from last year’s beating, but they serve as convenient markers for where to apply this year’s countermeasures. I opted for nothing more than arm warmers in addition to the shorts and short sleeve jersey and a tank base layer. It was a bit cool but I estimated that it would warm quickly. I got down to the start about 15 minutes ahead of time so I could check out my timing chips. We had two this year. One was an ankle strap. The other unfortunately was a chip embedded bike decal. I applied it to the TT bike’s seatpost reluctantly. While I intended to race as much as possible on the TT, I brought my road bike as a backup. I had hoped to switch to it if my back, neck or arms got too tired from the compact TT position. This timing sticker would make that change problematic. I decided I would just gut it out on the TT. I had no idea how literal that statement would become in the hours ahead.
5: The Start
The start can be either a period of gradual warmup, or a teeth gnashing assault upon the body. It’s this time during which you come up to operating temperature. For a criterium style race (usually 30 minutes to an hour), the rider typically lines up at the start in a red-hot condition, having ideally spent some time pre-riding the course and perhaps working on the trainer. For an ultra race, I’ve never seen riders do anything more to expend energy than to simply line up. The calories and energy are simply too valuable. You’ll warm up as part of the race. It is a long day after all. If someone gets a jump on the start, you literally have all day to hunt them down. Both last year and this year, we’d shoot out of the starting gates and a pretty fast pace. Fast as in, mid 20s type of average. On a cold body, that’s a pretty hot and painful clip. One would think that for such a long event, this would be ill-advised. I chose to hang onto the lead group, not to hold back, hoping for a catch later in the day. The weather forecast also dictated that you wanted to get in a huge chunk of miles before the winds kicked up and cut into the pace. I lined up on the front, poised to stay there.
The start was rather exciting to say the least, and probably very disappointing for an unfortunate few. During the final 5 second countdown, a rider inexplicably drug a recumbent across the front of the starting line and as the announcer yelled “Go”, dropped it right in front of several riders, facing cross-ways so as to obstruct the widest area possible. With a chorus of “What the ***” and “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” being sung behind me, I was fortunate enough to be to the right of the roadblock and unaffected. I’m not sure what new words were learned by any children amongst the crowd of onlookers, but they’ll likely get them sent to detention if ever repeated at school. I sprinted to stay up near the front. It was still rather dark and so I had chosen to start out with lights to hopefully see all of the cracks and holes in the concrete of the old airstrip that makes up portions of Sebring’s racetrack. I have had my share of being thrown from the bike due to cracked pavement, last kissing concrete during RAAM 2012 when a deep crevice in Missouri ripped the tires from my bikes rims. I knew to avoid the cracks running along the direction of travel, as they sometimes are the perfect width to grab the tires. Unfortunately, about 200 or so yards from the start, another recumbent rider was not so lucky. As we spun up into the 20s (mph that is), the recumbent appeared to be kicked from underneath him (or her), throwing him down onto his side just to the left of me. I darted right as I checked my mirror, hoping I wasn’t pulling into another rider in my blind spot. Luckily all was clear. We now spun onto the raceway, after surviving the gauntlet of landmines along the way. I later learned that there was yet another wreck which took down “Tarzan”, a RAAM veteran and formidable ultra racer. This was his second wreck in as many days, introducing new wound on top of still fresh wound he received while testing a new recumbent bike. That had to absolutely hurt, but Tarzan grabbed a backup bike and continued on to complete at least a century. He had intended to race the 12 hour, but I think his day was pretty much done at this point. I know mine would have been too.
Out on the track, I kept the pace car in sight, never letting it get more than 100 yards or so out. There were a handful of riders between me and the pace car, but I couldn’t join in the front paceline since I was racing the RAAM qualifier which doesn’t allow any drafting. I wanted to keep them relatively near. I’d use them to help pace that first century, making sure I wasn’t holding back too much. The pace felt really hot. The heads of my quads burned a little as we rocketed around the track, but my breathing was well in check. After a lap or so, I glanced down at my Garmin, only to realize that I had forgotten to start it. I reached down and tapped the start button to begin recording data. I glanced at my backup computer, a cheapo, but highly reliable Cateye. Five miles had already clicked by. I then noticed my heart rate wasn’t being picked up. I had grabbed a different heart rate strap to put on this morning and the computer wasn’t registering it. There were many more buttons I’d need to push to get it synched up. The pace was to hard right now so I decided I’d get to it later, once things had settled down and I had long stretches of mind numbing nothingness. It’d be 3 hours later until I’d get to it.
I kept my teeth clinched for the first couple laps, absorbing the burning in my legs, trying to determine if I should keep up with the lead group. I saw Hoppo in the lead bunch, and Zamboni. Hoppo, or Chris Hopkinson, had flown in from England literally hours before. He was racing the RAAM qualifier, just for training. He is qualified for life by virtue of having raced solo RAAM. He was the first Brit to complete RAAM and was featured in “Bicycle Dreams”. If you’ve ever seen it, you’d never forget him. Not necessarily for his red dyed Mohawk (which he was sporting today also), but for the gut-wrenching suffering he went through. He was an unfortunate victim of Shermer’s neck, a virtual total failure of control of one’s neck muscles which causes your head to dangle limp from atop your torso. Riders must figure out how to deal with this if afflicted but usually recover after a couple days of bedrest. Hoppo fought his way to finish, using a variety of uncomfortable looking braces, pillows, etc., whatever he could find to try and hold his head up, at times even using his own hand. Someone who could finish a race as tough as RAAM, despite those terrible circumstances ,I knew would be a formidable competitor here today. As we exited the track after the third and final lap, heading out onto the Florida roads to complete the first century, Hoppo pulled off to the side. He needed to shed a wind jacket he had started with, it was getting too warm. This was my opportunity to put some distance between he and I, so I pushed on harder, determined to stay up front and get as big a gap as I could to hold him off, hopefully for the full 24 hours. As we pulled onto Airport Road, Zamboni sat up. He was coming off the lead group. As I went by, I asked if he was okay. He nodded and set about setting his own pace. It would be dangerous to assume that he had cracked. Zamboni and I played cat-and-mouse last year here until in the latter part of the race, he seemed to accelerate. He was doing rolling handoffs and looking very strong, eventually beating everyone to take the win. He is the reigning UMCA World Champion after all, not somebody to ever let your guard down with. More determined now to get a strong lead, I stayed up front with the lead pack.
6: Headin’ out on the Highway
It takes a bit of time to settle into a true endurance pace, one that you can hammer through, virtually indefinitely, with proper food and hydration of course. The older I get, the longer this process seems to take for me. Right now it typically takes a few hours and maybe 50 or so miles, which means I wouldn’t really get dialed in until the turnaround in Frostproof on the long course. Until that point, I feel like I’m fighting with myself a bit. The effort seems harder, I have to consciously think to control my heart rate, I have to force myself to breathe deeply. I try to carry an occasional conversation with another racer who is riding the RAAM qualifier on a recumbent. We both consciously manage the draft zones, being careful to ensure we leave sufficient space from any other riders so as to keep the race clean. Talking helps to ease the discomfort. Plus, I figure I’d better socialize while I can. At the turn, I’m gonna get dropped by the recumbents. They can go the full hundred without stopping, able to carry more water and fuel onboard than I. We wish each other a good race and bid farewell a little before the turnaround. I’ll never see him again this day, but I suspect I may next year, possibly in this very same spot.
As we approach the turnaround, I spot Don parked in a grassy lot on the right, about ¼ mile before the official turn. Don had come down to help crew with Barbara, my wife. Don actually crewed Sebring for me last year, but via text and phone. He wasn’t able to attend then, but came down this year since he had other business in the area. Don crewed for Diesel and I at Heart of the South, and was crew chief on our RAAM team. We had predetermined that he’d meet me up here, away from the checkpoint. That way, I could spot him on the way in, and then manage hopefully a relatively fast stop to exchange bottles and cram in some calories on the way out, remote from the bustle of activity at the turn. Don had been leapfrogging me most of the morning, checking on me as I made my way northward, and shooting some video. I was trying to shoot this race, just as I had last year’s, but needed help getting video that I couldn’t capture myself from the bike. Don had obliged. If I got enough footage, and the race wasn’t a total catastrophe, then perhaps I could cobble together a post-race movie. I enjoy shooting from the bike, reliving past events, and honestly it helps take my mind off the riding at times. As I approached the turn, I reached back into my jersey pocket to pull out the Ziploc which contained my phone and my poker chip. Sebring gives each rider a poker chip with the rider’s race number on it. A racer drops this in a bucket at the turnaround as a means of proving that you rode the full one hundred mile course. The timing mat will record a rider’s return to the track and thus the first hundred mile split. I fumbled around with the baggie and poker chip. Unfortunately, the TT position makes it difficult to sit up and manipulate stuff with your hands. You pretty much have to be down in the aero position to do so. There were too many riders close in, and the road was not particularly smooth, so I decided to just wait until the turn. I had briefly debated just taping the chip it to my bars, so I could rip it free and throw it in the bucket. I probably spent 15 seconds fooling around with it. I’ll probably just tape it next year. I make a quit stop with Don on the way back and grab new bottles, eat most of a Zone bar and drink some Gatorade. I also need to “offload” some fluids as quickly as I can, but being all bound tightly in spandex and with shaky hands (TMI, I know), it’s no the “splash n dash” I had hoped for. Then I’m off.
7: Coming Back In
After my turn, I kept watch for Hoppo and Zamboni. I never saw Hoppo but know he was in there somewhere, likely not far behind me. Perhaps he went by while I was focused on watering the lawn or something. I did see Zamboni and knew I had a couple miles on him at this point. I passed Diesel too. It’s tough to make riders out until the last minute. Given each of us is going nearly 25 mph, the closing speed in 50 mph, not a lot of time to figure out who is who. I yelled out to him but it was all such a blur, I’m not sure if he even heard me. I knew I’d lose the lead recumbents at the turn since they didn’t need to refuel. They were now nowhere in sight. I did have a pair of riders on the horizon I could hunt down at least. It took me maybe 5 or 10 minutes, but I finally caught them. I was afraid I may have gone a bit fast doing so, so I sat back roughly 30 yards and paced off them. After another 5 or 10 minutes, I concluded they were going too slow, so I motored on around. I caught another pair maybe another 15 minutes later. I didn’t let up this time and just flew on by. I had now settled into my endurance pace and was generally feeling good so wasn’t afraid to start pushing it a bit. Those four were the only riders I saw going my way on the whole return trip, which took about 2 hours. I did occasionally pass riders heading to the turnaround. I’d give them a courtesy thumbs up or wave as we sped past each other. No need to not be cordial, even if on a mission.
I spent a lot (really, probably most) of the time while riding through the monotony listening, not to music, but to myself, trying to determine how I really felt, and what might be hurting. Something was hurting unfortunately. I was my blasted knee, yet again, up under the right knee cap. I had injured this same knee last year, during the Heart of the South 500 in Birmingham, AL, on this same TT bike. I ignored the injury for awhile back then, hoping to self-heal, but eventually succumbed to the ortho doc for some cortisone and PT. None of it ultimately helped. I got through RAAM and then immediately pursued getting it scoped. I knew something was wrong inside and the surgery confirmed that I had ripped the cartilage from the backside of my kneecap. The surgeon shaved it down and gave me his calling card. I was already a repeat customer of his and joked that I’d be back next year. Haha… not funny. I was now contemplating in this very moment that I may very well be on my way. My knee had a familiar sharp pain. I shifted as much of the work over to my left leg as possible, without sacrificing speed of course (don’t be silly). It still ached. I eased off on the top of my pedal stroke. “Why had I not bit the bullet and gotten the Q-Rings?”, I thought to myself. They’re ovalized chainrings which theoretically help ease pressure on the knees at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke where the most eccentric load is placed on them. The geometry of the TT bike only exacerbates the problem. I promised myself that I would immediately get them when I got back home. Albeit a little pricey, if they save me the months of time getting fixed and recovering (not to mention the permanent damage I was likely doing), it would all be worth it.
As I entered “no man’s land”, formally called Arbuckle Creek Road, I recalled the feeling of being totally alone out here last year. I had no one in sight and constantly questioned whether I was still on course or not. It’s a desolate stretch of roadway, totally exposed, no trees for cover. This year, knowing the course, I was more at ease. Don caught up to me here in his truck and tailed me for awhile, since no traffic was around. I felt good and locked into a 26 or 27 mph pace for quite some time. As Don came by, I told him to call ahead to Barbara and have some ibuprofen waiting for me once I returned to the track. I’d need to get that in and hopefully get my knee settled down a bit.
The winds were building now, but were somewhat at my back. As I made the turn Westward onto Highway 98, the wind hit me in the face. It’d be a grind from here back into Sebring raceway. I was so glad I was near the front of the group coming in. It would only get worse for the riders behind as the wind’s intensity built through the day. I crossed the timing mat in 4:24. This was a bit better than last year’s 4:35, especially given the bit of winds we had to fight. I was on pace for a nice race today and still felt pretty good.
8: Short Course
I pulled in front of our base camp canopy, quickly to exchanging bottles and trying to cram in some calories before heading out onto the short course, an 11.5 mile circuit, again on open public roads. I declined another bottle of the soy / almond mix now and chose to go with a bottle of Gatorade and one of water. I took a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich along to munch on. The sandwich (really the PB & Nutella mix) sounded like a good idea as I packed for the race. Nutella is awesome, in a recreational setting at least. It was now rather warm, and I was rather nauseated. I unfortunately get rather “pukey” under high effort. I’m not really sure why, but it challenges my ability to take in solids. I took a bite or two of the sandwich. It smelled like puke as it got closer to my face. I forced it down, but it was anything but satisfying. I’d mix some water with it to make a sandwich paste, hoping to choke it down a little more quickly. Yes, it’s nasty, not only to read, but to actually eat. I kept it in despite a couple of close calls to return it to daylight.
Upon coming in from my first lap of the short course, I saw Zamboni heading out on his first after completing the one hundred course. I knew I had roughly 11 miles on him at this point. That was not totally comforting though. I recalled how strong he looked in the wee hours of the following morning and knew I needed to keep the pressure on if I wanted to have any chance of holding him off later. Hoppo was not to be seen. He was either behind Zamboni or was already on the short course, somewhere between us, and likely hunting me down now.
My intent to make two laps of the short course between each pit stop, collecting roughly 23 miles in each segment. Last year I stopped after every lap to get food. It no doubt cost me valuable time, which I hoped to preserve this year. After the first two lap segment, I encountered some familiar “trouble”. I started cramping. Unfortunately not muscle cramps, which I can work out or through, but deep and strong stomach cramps. My body was revolting against something I ate or drank. It had happened last year too. Barbara was my sole support then, but she was texting Don who was back home, unable to attend due to illness. Don advised, via text, that I needed to drop my pace and cut my calories to give my stomach a chance to catch back up. I had likely taken in too many calories while going too hard. Under high effort, blood is diverted from digestion and to supplying oxygen to the muscles. It can cause some serious trouble, cramps, or possibly multiple (sometimes urgent) “potty breaks”. My tummy simply hurt, bad cramps. I dialed it back a bit, in case I was simply going too hard. The pain didn’t let up unfortunately. The next two lap segment was more of the same, cramping pain. Barb offered me more soy drink during the pit, but it was unappealing. I took a Zone bar, ate a pickle, and munched on some assorted crap that I don’t even recall now. Anything but the soy milk. I went back out again, hoping the pain would eventually subside.
The wind was really picking up now in the early afternoon. The short course begins by heading south from the track and within a mile or so turns west onto Highway 98, directly into the wind. I had begun dreading that turn. I hunkered down onto the bars, trying to make a 220 or so pound buffalo as small as possible. It’s not easy. My shoulders ache as I pull them in tight, my neck now getting tired of pulling my heavy head upwards. This discomfort is essential though to keeping the pace high. I know I’m being hunted by the best. I’d need to be fast and powerful to keep that lead. I saw him coming in the mirror mounted to my glasses. His aero helmet and body size (similar to my own) gave him away. That and the fact he was gaining on me. It could only be one person I thought… Hoppo.
Hoppo caught up to me on my 5th lap of the short course, at roughly 150 or so miles and just under 7.5 hours into the race. We chatted for a couple of seconds as he made the pass. We chatted online prior to the race and a bit during the first laps on the track. I wished him the best as he came by. There’s simply no need in fighting a pass in the ultra world, unless you’re in a finish line sprint of course (which is pretty rare when the distances get so long). You either have it or you don’t on any particular day. This is a patience game, one requiring a calculated and continuously recalculated plan, it will happen in due time if it’s meant to be. Hoppo was big and strong, and able to power through the wind. I knew he would be formidable at a minimum, if not dominating. I kept close by after the pass, watching him to see how he fared. I figured he’d make a statement with the pass, not just to simply take the lead, but to psychologically tell the overtaken rider (me in this case) that it was futile to try and follow. That’s what I’d do in his position for sure. Hoppo alternated sitting and standing as he motored by. I wondered how hard he was working to make that statement, but not too long. My damned stomach was still hurting. I let the pass happen, he was the stronger athlete this day… and likely any day. Hoppo headed off towards the horizon. I wondered if I’d catch him again later in the eve and we could dance yet again.
9: Downward spiral
I came back onto the track, marking another lap. Barb and Don were ready for a quick “hit and run”, prepared to swap bottles and put food into my hand, sending me off for more punishment on the course. I had another plan. I exited the cramped cockpit of the so-called “Bullet Train” and promptly laid on the ground. I called Barbara over to push on my stomach. It was hurting really bad now. I didn’t know what was going on but wanted to try to massage it, whatever “it” was, away. That didn’t feel good… at all. I had hoped moving around would maybe get things “moving”. It didn’t. I simply was cramping, no associated side-effects, no relief. I went back out for more, hoping this would eventually go away. I’d continue to pass riders, now chasing Hoppo… or perhaps now trying to keep from getting lapped by him on the short course. I didn’t ask for time gaps to other riders, it didn’t matter, I was just fighting for survival now, fighting to get through this knotted stomach.
For me, there seems to come a point in an ultra race at which the GI system becomes much more “accommodating”. I wouldn’t suggest, nor would I try, that you can literally eat anything, but for me it appears that my body is starving so badly, that’s it’s willing to let me eat things like cheeseburgers and other “normal” foods. I did just that, both here at Sebring last year and on Heart of the South. The trick is getting to that point. Last year I started really chowing down at around 8 or so in the evening, after about 14 hours of effort. I was hoping I could push on to that point today, that maybe getting there would make the cramping go away.
The wind was relentless. It’d buffet me on Hwy 98, heading westward, and along County Road 17, forcing me to stay alert as gusts pushed my front wheel around, causing me to jump 3 or 4 feet in either direction. I was running tri-spokes, carbon wheels with three airfoil shaped spokes designed to cut through the wind, but highly susceptible to the cross-winds I was now facing. I debated whether to switch to a more traditional spoked wheel but rationalized that the fight was worth it, that’d I’d be faster overall, even if I was expending my mental energy to keep the bike upright and out of traffic. The wind was our ally as we returned towards the track on Airport Road, but this short but fast section with the tailwind was not just compensation for what seemed like the eternity we endured to get to it.
The afternoon drug on. I was holding a nice, steady pace, now firmly in second place for the RAAM qualifiers. My crew had packed up, making the pilgrimage onto the track to set up in the pits for the remainder of the race. I faced a dilemma. I was hurting bad, and it just wasn’t improving. After roughly 5 hours of abdominal anguish, I was tired of the pain. The weather wasn’t helping much either. The winds were continuing to hold steady, if not building, and the temperature was definitely dropping, projected to go into the upper 30s during the night. I was already wearing a windbreaker in order to hold in the heat. I had devised a sequential order in which I would dress up as the night wore on, trying to delay each additional layer of clothing until the last minute possible in order to make the coldness tolerable. In my experience, as the body breaks down and grows weary, even what would normally be a comfortable feeling temperature, would now feel frigid. I think one just loses the ability to regulate your body’s perceived comfort, instead shifting the body’s energy to keeping the pedals moving… and perhaps simply sustaining life. I thought about the long night I faced ahead. It was gonna be absolutely miserable. It didn’t take long, but I rationalized that my efforts were futile. I’d call it. At best, I might have a couple more hours of fight left. I was a bit frustrated. My legs and cardiovascular system were in good shape. I thought I was a contender, but knew I was now seriously struggling to maintain my nutrition, not having taken in sufficient calories for the past few hours due to the cramping. I thought about my crew, Barbara and Don. No need to put them through the exercise of setting up camp, only have to break it all down in jut a few hours when I either bonked or simply couldn’t go further.
I crossed the mat one last time to its familiar beeping as it recorded my time. I headed to where our tent had once been and wheeled to a stop. I debated for a couple seconds whether I was really done or not. I had invested a lot of time, energy and money to come race here. Ultimately I knew, this was simply not my day. I sealed my fate and called it then and there. I dug my phone out of my jersey pocket and dialed Barbara. After a couple rings, she picked up. She was now within the infield of the track and I presumed unpacking the car, getting ready to make a base camp in the pit area. I told her to stop, that I was done. She asked if I was sure, uncertain whether this was a “motivation issue” or not. Being a crew member takes on both a responsibility to not only go through the mechanics of preparing equipment and fueling the rider, but also monitoring their emotional state, ready to provide a “kick in the ass” if needed. I assured her that this was a rational, thought out decision and wasn’t simply because I was tired. She handed the phone over to Don. I understood what was happening. This was the second, impartial confirmation, that I was indeed making the call. Don said he’d be over in a minute, driving back to me. He wanted to physically see where I was, to make sure I wasn’t making a premature decision. I assured him I was done. It was a tough decision, especially when you’re in the money… to call a race. I officially ended my day at roughly 11 hours and 218 miles.
10: Lights out
We packed it up and left the track, letting Doug’s father and son know that I was done. Doug was now riding on the track, continuing on in traditional “Diesel” fashion. I wanted to get cleaned up and try to get something to eat. I was now starving after struggling with nutrition since roughly noon. We went back to the hotel and quickly went out to the city of Sebring for dinner. Unfortunately my stomach still hurt badly. I ate most of an appetizer but lost my appetite it by time the main course came. I had the waitress box it up, hoping I’d be able to eat later on in the evening. It would be 2 days before my tummy stopped hurting, never any “GI distress” or other issues, just pain and cramping. I’m not sure what went wrong, whether I was possibly allergic to soy or what. I had used this mixture in training up to 150 miles without any issues, but ultimately it’s very hard to simulate an endurance race pace and intensity in training. At some point you just test it on course. From the few other ultra-racers I’ve talked to about it, soy appears to be the consensus culprit.
I came back out to the track around 5 am on Sunday morning to check on Diesel. The already small field had been decimated during the night, likely succumbing to the wind and cold. There were just handful of riders now left. I saw Hoppo go by, still looking quite strong. I don’t believe there was any way I would have caught him, even without the GI issues. He’s training for solo RAAM this year and given that show, he’s likely to do very well. Diesel’s dad and son were trackside, both huddled up, trying to keep warm. Folks were making miniature tee-pees, using blankets wrapped around themselves and a small heater, to make conditions tolerable. Diesel was still cranking out the miles. I felt happy for him to be able to tough it out. He came by and pulled into the pits and dismounted. I asked “What are you doing?” He said “I won’t be able to get another lap in before the time cutoff, so I’m done”. “Oh no you’re not, you’ve still got another hour to go. Now get back out there and keep riding”, I responded. Diesel had mistakenly taken my appearance that the race was done. It’s not a hard mistake to make when your mind and body are so tired, especially given the conditions everyone had to ride through. Diesel ended the day 2nd age group and 8th overall for RAAM racers. My hat’s off to him for completing a truly brutal race.
11: Forging a stronger chain
So my weakest link is obviously, and painfully, revealed… nutrition. It’s so fundamental to everything, performing well, being healthy, just living. It’s not like this is a new revelation to me. I’ve honestly been struggling to find a rock solid fueling strategy for ultra events since I’ve been riding. I think they’re perhaps one of the toughest to really figure out. It’s of course difficult to test out new strategies and fuel sources since the races are so long. Things can also change, both over time and even during the course of the race that cause things what once worked, to now fail. The challenge perhaps also lies in the fact that there really is no one-size-fits-all approach, each individual is different. I’m unfortunate to have a pretty sensitive GI system during racing. Don’t of course associate that with my “everyday palate”. I can eat virtually anything… and often do so (that needs to change too I guess if I ever expect to get down to fighting weight). For whatever reason, I become particularly nauseated during racing and so try to rely on liquid nutrition until I hit the equivalent of my “eating second wind” when I can start bringing in solids and a hamburger or three. I’ll eventually get it figured out once and for all, and will weld this broken link back up stronger than ever before. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by very knowledgeable athletes and friends. I’ll even employ the nutritional coaching of someone whom I believe really understands the challenges that these events pose.
Disappointed, disappointing… yes. The end of the world… heck no. I hope to limit my “DNF” curriculum as much as possible of course, but honestly, if you don’t fail every now and then, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. Even tough my race didn’t go as planned, it was still a great experience nonetheless. I had an opportunity to lead a significant portion of the race, to ride amongst some of the world’s best, and walked away intact and unbroken, to come back and fight again another day.