- Tuesday, April 3, 6:12am (my bed)
I rolled over and looked at the clock. I was still tired. I hadn’t set the alarm triggering the usual 4:30 fire drill to get up, chug some coffee, and get out the door on the way to the gym or out onto the roads for some training. I was still spent. I let myself sleep in until whenever my body and mind decided it was time to get up. This was as late as I could have hoped for, being a “moderate” insomniac. My mind was a little clearer today. Not like yesterday which was literally a total fog. I had gone into work, had done some “things”, but was nearly a zombie. I should have probably taken a vacation day, but I was saving them up for this thing called RAAM in the summer.
Today was better though, I was pulling back out of the severe sleep deprivation I had been through. I moved my legs to get up and the pain was still there. I expected my quads to hurt a little, and they did, especially down at their heads where they attach to the knee and along the IT band. Nothing too unusual given what they had just done. But my knees, they were killing me, especially the right one, right across the top of the patella. I had just about blown them out. I hope they recover without any “intervention”. I expect they will, just gotta be patient and smart with them. It was after all, solely my own fault. I had in fact paid to suffer at this ‘lil race called “Heart of the South 500” (HOTS).
- Saturday, March 24, 8:30am (Peachtree City)
Diesel and I rolled out from my house. We were getting in our last ride together before the race. I was still shaking the new time trial (TT) bike down. I had ridden it for the first time the weekend before with Big Rick at Tour de Pike. It was fast and it was fun, but I struggled a bit when climbing with it. The body position was different enough from my road bike that I was using different muscles than I had before, struggling a little to find this efficient firing pattern to let me power along for hours, especially up the hills which this race was gonna require, roughly 35,000 feet or 7 vertical miles in all. “Yikes!”, I thought. You can’t be the least bit inefficient here and expect to survive.
So I made some adjustments to try to get the fit a little closer to what I had known for years on my road bike, moving the saddle back and up. Yes, I know, either one of those is getting me further from the cranks. I was essentially “doubling down” by doing both, but was seeking to get a little more leverage out of my legs. I thought I’d be safe. Turns out I thought wrong, I guess, given that I now struggle to walk. I also cut down the carbon fiber aerobars. I was kicking the living crap out of them when standing since they extended a little too far back towards me. I took a Dremel to them. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous doing so. It’s not a cheap bike, but it all worked out well.
Anyway, we left to burn through a metric (that’s a 100 kilo or 62 miles) before meeting with our crew, Don and Gary, around lunchtime. We hit the roads, working the “Heaven and Hell” course. That’s my little twist to the church loop, with a run down to Lake Horton and a dig back out via Chappell Road for those in the PTC area that know it. Along the way, we picked up “Arch”. She had double flatted, becoming detached from the group of triathletes she was training, but we got her fixed up and drug her along with us. The bike felt great, I could climb reasonably well, but ultimately I’d need a second bike, something set up specifically for all of the mountains we’d encounter. We finished the ride and went over the last minute details with The Don and Gary before calling it a day, at least for training purposes. I still had a full day of home remodeling to tackle, working on “NaNa Lair” in the basement. My mother had moved in with us last year and I was in the process of turning the basement into her space.
- Sunday, March 25, 5:00am (Peachtree City)
I rolled out, lights ablaze on the roadie. This was my climbing machine for HOTS. The day before, I had swapped the cranks, trading in the “standard” 53/39 for a “compact” 50/34. That refers to the number of teeth in the forward pair of rings on the bike, the lower numbers giving more torque to climb, but lower top end speeds. I’d need the torque for sure, especially as exhaustion set in. HOTS would throw in a brutal assault on Mt Cheaha in Alabama, shortly after the 400 mile mark, and I hoped this would be enough. I considered briefly taking the light touring bike since it had a triple and a 11/34 cassette, but feared that the extra weight of the steel frame would more than offset the benefit of the extra gearing. I’d still need to go fast, this was a race after all. Having gearing that low was just an invitation to creep along, I thought. I could push the compact, even when tired. I did a quick tour of Heaven and Hell to check that I’d gotten everything installed correctly. Nothing fell off, so I guessed that I did. I got back and proceeded to clean this and the TT bike, getting them ready to race. I wouldn’t ride any more this week. I’d let my body recover, letting the muscles wind back up and replenishing my energy stores, ready to unleash both upon the race starting on Friday evening.
- Tuesday, March 27, 5:00pm (downtown Atlanta)
I opened the rear door of the “pimp-mobile”, my ’96 Pontiac Bonneville and threw in the briefcase, letting the door slam behind. It was my beater car, one which had well earned it’s keep with just over 220K on the odometer. I used it as my daily driver into the ATL. We had bought it brand new, shortly after it was used as a show car at the mecca of all things NASCAR, Talladega. I eased into the front seat, simultaneously ripping my badge from my belt and pulling the iPhone from my pocket, in perfect synchronicity. It was a routine I had practiced thousand of times, as I got ready for the battle southward on the connector (ATL-speak for the stretch of I-75 and I-85 which merge together in the heart of the city), and towards the distant bubble of Peachtree City. The last couple of days at work were draining, and the rest of the week would be no better, as I and a team of others worked to negotiate some contentious contracts. My job today wasn’t nearly over though. There was so much prep work to do at home to get ready for HOTS. I rounded the parking deck, making my way down from the 6th level and out towards Spring street and eventually the connector. As I exited, I stopped for traffic. Once rolling again, I attempted to turn the steering wheel to the right to merge into traffic. Nothing… “Sh!+”, I thought. Power steering is gone. Thank goodness it hadn’t happened inside the parking deck. That would have been a nightmare trying to muscle this ~3500 lbs of American steel around the tight corners of the parking deck. “Wonder what’s up with the power steering”, I thought. Then the squealing began. Yep, that mutha is locked up, the belt which drives the pump is now screaming bloody murder as it passes over the sationary pulley attached to the pump. In just a matter of seconds, a sudden pop, and then silence.
I look at my watch. I’m now on borrowed time. That belt, the one driving the power steering pump, is the only belt in the engine compartment. It drives everything: the alternator which keeps the battery charged, the air conditioner which keeps me cool, and the water pump which keeps the engine cool. It won’t last too long. It’s only a matter of time before either the battery gets drained from firing the spark plugs, or the engine simply overheats from lack of cooling. I jump onto the connector heading south and hammer down, windows down to keep me cool. I make it all the way to the exit ramp in Palmetto, figuring that I’ll need some sort of miraculous symphony of perfectly timed lights to actually make it to the house. I make a left on Collinsworth and make it about ¼ mile before coming to a standstill in a traffic jamb. That’s unusual on this road. I throw the car in neutral, keeping the engine idling fast as it would no longer hold it’s normal idle due to what I suspect was fuel vapor lock due to the engine running in the red zone. I sit for about 30 seconds before pulling the plug. I pull onto the shoulder and shut her down. I’m done, it’s gonna have to be a tow from here on in. At least I made it this far. I’ve been towed from the heart of Atlanta and it wasn’t cheap. I call into pretty much the only tow service in PTC. They answer and I describe my conundrum. “Well, its gonna be a couple hours before we can get to you. There’s a terrible wreck on Collinsworth and we have all our trucks there”. Well hell, that’s exactly where I am, that’s the source of the unusual traffic jam. I thank her and immediately use the iPhone to find all of the other tow services in the area. I talk to two more dispatchers, same story. “Serenity now!, I thought. Smitten again!
I find the shade of a nearby tree. It’s kinda warm today, pretty much as it’s been all this winter. Might as well settle in, I’m just along for the ride, or maybe walk in this case. Nothing I can really do to make my situation better, so I just caught up on email and all of the planning surrounding this summer’s RAAM race. This day would be shot as far as getting prepped for HOTS. By the time I geo home, settled up with the tow driver (who demanded to be paid only in cash) and then cooked dinner for the fam (Barb was out of town), it was after 9pm. The whole week leading up to HOTS seemed to be like this, lots of crisis not related to the task at hand. I rolled with it and did the best I could to get my mind ready for the onslaught.
- Thursday, March 29, 7:00pm (Peachtree City)
Clothes were flying. It looked like I was a high school girl, fretting about what to wear to the prom or something. I had all the options laid out before me on the bed. Arm warmers, leg warmers, tights, shorts, under layers, jerseys, wind shells, balaclavas. What would I need? This was a 48 hour, nonstop race. It’s hard to predict what mother nature might dole out upon you over two straight days. Would it be wet or dry, hot of cold, windy or calm? You’d have to be prepared to anything. I’d check the forecast of course, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. As you dig deep into exhaustion, your body’s ability to even regulate your own temperature becomes suspect. What was once a comfortable and balmy 70 degrees might feel like a frigid arctic blast in the depth of the night. I selected a balance of everything, bringing spares in case I got wet. I organized them and bagged and labeled them all, in case my crew would need to find them for me. That’s key for this type of event, good organization. During the heat of battle, you’ve got to be able to find things quickly. More importantly maybe, others have to be able to find them for you. So you need to logically lay things out so anyone could readily find the odd thing you’re requesting through the car window as you continue riding down the road. I got most things packed and into storage bins, ready to be squeezed into the minivan that would be our home for the race the next morning.
- Friday, March 30, 12:45pm (Peachtree City)
The Don rolled up the driveway, ready to put his bag into the van and go and get Gary, the other crew member for the race. The van was pretty full. Inside, I had removed one of the passenger seats, replacing it with a bean bag that we’d use as a makeshift bed to try to rest on during the race. The 3rd row seat was folded down into the floor, making room for the dozen gallons of water, maybe 200K calories of food, tools, spares, and each of Diesel’s and my storage bins containing our clothes and own special needs (i.e. meds, personal food, etc.). We also crammed the spare bikes inside. I had a hitch mounted rack carrying each of our primary bikes, mine being the TT which I intended to ride most of the race on. The spare bikes, mine being the climbing machine, had to go inside, along with us and all our crap. I didn’t have a roof rack to put them on, but after this experience, I think I will soon. It was full inside. The van squatted down under the weight of all that crap plus four pretty big dudes, Gary being the wiry exception. I showed The Don all of the vehicle markings, the roof strobes, slow moving vehicle triangle, and the rear window caution signs. These are all required for the race and I wanted to make sure they were all satisfactory so we didn’t have any last minute panic. They were, so we buttoned it all up, climbed in, and began our journey to Birmingham for the race.
- Friday, March 30, 4:30pm (Birmingham)
We arrive at the Marriot on Highway 280 for the teams meeting. I walk up to the registration table, checkbook in hand. We were “day of” registrants. I told Tom, the race director, that we needed to register. He asked “200?”. One of the events of this race weekend was a double century, a 200 miler, which would go off on Saturday morning. “No”, I said, “we’re here for the 500”. “Oh shit!”, it caught Tom off guard. It’s not that you , as a racer, don’t plan and prepare for something like this well in advance. I had, in fact, even been in communication with Tom regarding some of the nuances of the rules and how his race’s coincided with those of RAAM. It’s just that so many things can go wrong that would cause you to abandon the race before it ever started, that I was hesitant to pre-register. Tom scrambled to get all of the material I’d need together, particularly our racer numbers. It all worked out. Tom is very casual and laid back it seems, so it really was no big deal. I think it was just that these two unknowns had shown up to race one of the toughest 500+ milers in the country from out of nowhere.
There were some big names there to race also. Valerio was there, the professional cyclist from Monte Carlo, whom I had raced with at Sebring earlier in the year. Mark Pattinson was also there, the English fellow featured on “Bicycle Dreams”, one of the great movies about RAAM. I continue to be amazed at how he ever completed RAAM, given all the obstacles he faced, particularly after succumbing to Shermer’s neck, an absolutely horrible condition when the neck muscles fail and you loose the ability to hold your own head up. Mark suffered this in the midst of RAAM and really struggled to get across the finish, crafting a series of crude devices to hold his head up for him, at times even holding his own head with one hand while using the other to hold onto the handlebars. Mark didn’t have his characteristic mohawk, but I knew him immediately from his eyes. They were so telling of someone who knew how to suffer greatly. Mark was racing here with a 3 man team, Team Roadworx. We got our race instructions and then we were off for a quick dinner and then to the hotel to try and rest before the midnight start.
- Friday, March 30, 11:00pm (Birmingham)
Well crap, so much for getting any sleep. I had lain there for nearly 3 hours, listening to the iPod, hoping I’d drift off into oblivion, getting some sort of rest. It just didn’t happen. Don caught some zzz’s, I could tell from the logs he was sawing. Not sure if Gary had caught any. I wanted them to be the most rested. They were our crew, I was sorta counting on them to keep me alive. Not just fueled and on course, but literally… alive. They’d be tailing me in the van, maybe as close as 5 or 10 feet while I hurdled down the road. I wanted their reaction times sharp, otherwise, if I went down, I’d get all caught up in the air dam as the van rolled over me. I trusted them, they had both done this before, both here and at RAAM in fact, so this was nothing for them. I wasn’t rested at all, but I’m not sure it would matter at what level of “freshness” you started from in this race. You were virtually guaranteed to be scraping bottom by the end of it all.
We all got up. Diesel and I needed to dress out. I stepped outside to check on the temps. The air was thick and warm. It had been raining that evening, in fact it was still drizzling lightly at times. I’d go with shorts and a short sleeve jersey, nothing else. Once I got up to temp, I figured I’d be okay, at least until the following night when the temps started to fall again and exhaustion set in. I stepped into the bathroom, a surgical glove on one hand. I was gonna try something I never had before. Not sure what you’re thinking…, but I was simply gonna apply something called Lantiseptic in place of the usual chamois crème. For the uninitiated, chamois crème is simply a skin lubricant / protectant designed to keep areas subject to friction (i.e. the butt of a cyclist) from breaking down. I rarely use the stuff unless it’s a particularly hot (and thus sweaty) day or the event is really long (i.e. more than 150 or so miles). I had used my usual, Chamois Butt’r, at Sebring but had suffered horribly by the end of it all. Gary turned me onto this stuff, saying that many used it on ultra events. I thought I’d try it out here, but Gary had cautioned me to be careful when applying, since it’s really thick and sticky, hence the glove I now donned. I got all “gooped up”, ready to let the saddle take it’s best shot on me. I smelled like a nursing home though, turns out this is sort of a product used there to help protect bedridden folks’ skin. Not to worry though, I’m sure I’d smell much worse soon. I think Don and Gary will attest to that.
- Friday, March 30, midnight (Birmingham)
We line up at the start, a small tent set up between Cracker Barrel and a bank at the Colonnade on Highway 280 in Birmingham. There are only four teams, we were the only 2 man, the rest being either 3 (due to a late rider exit) or 4 man. The soloists had already taken off at 8:00pm. They get the full 48 hours, whereas we technically only get 44 hours to complete the 517 mile event. Highly appropriate, because we also get to rotate riders into and out of the race, which helps significantly whilst the soloists must gut it out for the full duration themselves. I figured we’d catch some of the solo’s by the end of the ride, since we can ride a little faster on fresher legs.
Since Diesel and I were “day of” registrants, Team “Southern Comfort” would be the last to go. We really didn’t have a good name in mind as we filled out our registration form. We threw a couple ideas around during the drive over until Gary blurted out “Southern Comfort”. I said sure, thinking I’d probably need a shot or three of that when we were done. So we put it on the form. As we were perusing the rule book, waiting for the racers meeting to begin earlier in the day, Gary starts chuckling next to me. I ask him “what the hey?”. He points to a clause in the rulebook which states that that the organizer has the right to reject team names which refer to lewd or inappropriate terms and specifically mentions liquor companies. I chuckle and remind Gary that he’s the one that suggested that very name. We didn’t get busted for it. Technically, it could refer to many things, not just the drink of choice of Kid Rock. The teams left the start in 2 minute intervals at the direction of Tom, an attempt to get some spacing between us since this is RAAM style non-drafting race. Our time came at 6 minutes after midnight. Diesel would lead us out.
- Saturday, March 31, 12:06am (Birmingham)
With a brief countdown from 5, Tom signals the official start of our race. There’s no fanfare, no crowd of cheering bodies, nothing to signify the awesomeness that this race is. It’s simply Diesel clipping in within the headlights of our chase vehicle and in the quietness of the night. We cautioned Diesel to take it easy going out. This is a looong race. There’s no need to chase anyone or anything down, no need to get excited and unnecessarily run the heart rate any higher than the huge rush of adrenaline was already doing at the start. Diesel obliged, settling into a nice rhythm to get us climbing out and away from Birmingham. Diesel rode the treacherous first few roads down near Cahaba Heights. Tom had warned us of them at the riders meeting and again at the start. The pavement was rough, real rough, filled with potholes and wheel-eating cracks. Gary had in fact crashed on these very roads a couple years earlier, while racing as part of a two man recumbent team, when his front wheel collapsed after dropping into one such hole. Diesel and the crew were on the lookout for them. Tom had attempted to identify them with white spray paint, but they were still tough to pick out on the rain soaked road in the middle of the night. Diesel made it safely through his first 1.5 hour pull and then it was my turn.
- Saturday, March 31, 1:40am (N of Talladega)
Even though the race had started nearly two hours earlier, my adrenaline was pumping. It was my first time on the bike now as Diesel came off rotation. I’d have to fight to keep myself under control, to not get in so deep that recovery would be a challenge before getting back on the bike again after a short break. I’d lose that battle to some degree. It’s just so hard to not succumb to the pressure of eating up the asphalt at a good clip. I wasn’t wearing any heart rate monitoring equipment, just working off perceived effort. It would be difficult to monitor at night anyway. Later in the race, on the big climbs, I was running a PowerTap on my climbing bike, a device which lets me monitor the amount of power that I’m producing on the bike. It would let me keep those climbing efforts under control to ensure I wouldn’t blow up. But for now, I was just listening to my body to try and tell how hard to go. I have no idea how fast I was going, but I was sure it was pretty swift. I was riding the TT bike to start and it naturally is a good 1.5 or so mph faster than the road bike, just due to weight and aerodynamics.
I motored along through the night, between the two cones of light projected from the chase vehicle behind. It was fairly uneventful and emotionally void, at least until I reached the dam on Neely Henry Lake, between Ragland and Ohatchee, AL. I mistakenly thought it was the dam across Lake Logan Martin. It looks very, very similar, especially in the blackness of the night. I remembered on that dam, the one on Logan Martin, just two years ago, my first futile attempt at an ultra distance “event”. I had designed my own challenge, a way to push myself beyond what I had been doing. Centuries had become manageable, maybe even comfortable as my cycling maturity came into being. I decided I’d try to ride from my home in Peachtree City, westward, across Georgia and much of Alabama, all the way to Tuscaloosa where my in-laws lived. It was only approximately 240 miles. I tried it solo and unsupported, designing a route which would hopefully provide enough public store-stops that I could make it. Unfortunately the day I had chosen in October of that year was the same one that Mother Nature had chosen to bring in a cold front. I fought a vicious headwind ranging from 10 to 25 mph for nearly the whole day. I had begun at 4am and had made it to the dam by sometime around 3 in the afternoon before being totally cut down by the wind and collapsing there, calling in the air support to rescue me. I’d make another attempt a couple weeks later that year, that time trying a West-to-East journey in hopes of avoiding the Fall wind patterns, maybe even use them to my benefit. I again was met with a miserable fate when I became very sick enroute, ran out of water and collapsed on the side of the highway cutting through Talladega National Forest. I was eventually rescued by the Sherriff’s office when my wife crashed the car she was driving on the way to retrieve the shell of myself that was left roadside. I was now back today, or rather tonight, and granted at a technically different place, but a much different person, a much stronger and wiser racer, hoping to do so much more than that first feeble attempt into the ultra world. I’d cross the exact scene of that crime, but much later, on the way back in from this race, at roughly mile 479, I hoped.
- Saturday, March 31, ~5:00am (middle AL)
I was now on my second pull. I was pretty stiff after the first, having admittedly gone out too hot on the first. I tried to rub my legs down, to help flush all the acid, to get them loosened up as I waited my turn, while I watched Diesel chip away at the night. Once on, I spun along at a pretty high cadence at first to get everything back up to temp again, before I could start producing some real power. I’m not sure exactly where we were, but I think it was somewhere near Centre and Leesburg, AL when I first saw it. It was hard to fight the rush of adrenaline, yet again. I’d need to save this stuff, my own little “speed”. I’d need it later, when I was getting delirious, when I needed a kick in the pants to keep going. But I couldn’t fight it, like the bell signaling the final lap of a crit, it evoked a primal response to push hard. This thing which got my blood running hot now, was silent, nothing more than a pair of amber flashing lights far ahead on the horizon. It was the chase vehicle of another team up ahead. We were catching them. Like a wolf hunting down its prey, my instinct was to go in for the kill. I tried to fight it off as best I could. I knew I was turning the screws tight, picking up the pace to make the pass. It took some time, a couple miles in fact to get within striking range. I approached their chase vehicle and shifted gears to stand, sprinting to make the pass. It wasn’t really that “clean”, it was a tough area to pass in. I got around though as they instinctively picked up their own pace to try and fight it. We made a right turn a mile or two further up the road. I looked back over my shoulder to see where they were. Still on our tail. “Dammit!”, I thought, “Is this gonna stick?”. I’d hate to pass to only be passed again later. Not only is that somewhat demoralizing, it’s dangerous to have both riders and support have to make the pass. I hunkered down onto the aerobars. I’d put the nail in this coffin. I unwound the engine, more than I should have, cranking it up until I felt like I was near 90% or so of threshold. I don’t know my pace but I suspect it was around a 25mph or so average in the flats at this point. The lights eventually began to fall away.
This was a 3 or 4 man team though. They had two chase vehicles and were leapfrogging their riders, driving one further up the course to wait for the rider who was in the race to approach, and then to make a transition to the fresh rider. We had only one vehicle, so when we wanted to switch riders at night, we had to stop everything, get a rider and bike out and put the retiring rider and bike in before resuming progress. Daytime was different when we could leave the current rider to ride alone while we moved ahead to also make a more efficient “leapfrog” style transition. Anyway, I could see the team’s leapfrog vehicle up ahead, a rider on the shoulder, prepared to make a transition. As we approached, they had no idea that we were not their teammates but were in fact their competitors. I moved towards the center line and their rider mounted and started spinning up. I hit the gas, pushing near 35 mph or so as we passed them. I’m sure they were thinking “what the hell, how am I supposed to transition with that!”. I chuckled a little at the thought. I wasn’t being mean or anything, I was just trying to get through as quickly as possible, get out of their rotation. We contended with the leapfrogging for quite some time, maybe an hour or hour and a half or so, before we broke free. They were courteous, cheering and waving as we would come by which was nice. This event has no spectators, you have nothing but yourself, your crew, and possibly other racers to help keep you going. This is great training for what RAAM will be like this summer.
- Saturday, March 31, ~7:00am (Just outside of Fort Payne)
I know there is an awesome sight down there, I just can’t quite see it. The canyon is full of morning fog as we roll along Little River Canyon Parkway just outside Fort Payne. Diesel is on point, getting the treat of riding the rim of the canyon. I had the same opportunity a couple weeks prior, during a RAAM training ride here. I watched Diesel churn at the pedals as he contended with the constant rollers and curves, as the road picked its way around the canyon, hoping he was soaking up the awesome experience of riding here. This is absolutely one of the most fun and beautiful sections of roadway I have ever ridden.
Diesel alternated between white knuckle descents and out-of-the-saddle grunts as the route here was much more like a rollercoaster than a road. He periodically would claw at his calves. Uh-oh. This can’t be good. We were around 140 or so miles in and Diesel was fighting some periodic calf cramps. We pulled alongside to ask how he was doing, if he needed to get off the bike. He refused. Inside the van, we debated how best to get him through. I suggested mixing up a strong bottle of EFS to get his electrolytes back up. In just a second, we saw Diesel reaching into his jersey and pop some Endurolytes so we knew he was addressing that. The only other options would be for him to spin it out, dropping gear and using a higher cadence to help flush his legs. This was definitely not something Diesel would naturally want to do. He was a masher, known for riding the entire Six Gap century in the big ring, not one to get his cadence north of say 80 unless there were some sort of raging pitbull barreling down upon him. The van became a sort of emotional barometer, cheering as he would spin (to some degree) the short downhills, but yelling in protest as he would grind painfully slow the uphills. “Dump gear, stay in the saddle, spin!” we would all yell at him. We didn’t actually yell it to him, although I did have a nice bullhorn available. We were just encouraging him from within the van, he never heard us. It was best to just let Diesel do his thing and address his issues in his own way. Diesel is just flat out stubborn, unlikely to modify his behavior until it became his only option. He knows it, I know it, I’ve told him as much. But I’m okay with that. He’s still an awesome cyclist as-is and a great friend. We’d get through this as a team. I’d be there to pull us through during his times of need, and I trusted he’d do the same for me. We’d each test this later in the race.
- Saturday, March 31, ~9:00am (Lookout Mtn ridgeline in Mentone)
It’s my turn to ride a little piece of heaven now. We’ve gone through Fort Payne and are now riding into Mentone, soon to be crossing into Georgia. There was another long section of awesome roadway ahead, the ridgeline of Lookout Mountain, County Road 89. It carves its way through rural neighborhoods as it leads into the heart of Mentone. I asked for my climbing bike, the Trek 2.1. There’d be some moderate climbs to get to the ridgeline and I didn’t want to risk being stuck out on the TT bike. The TT was still tough to climb on for me. I haven’t had enough time to develop the muscles for it and I simply do not have the fit dialed in just yet, I need more time. HOTS, in fact, was only the second time I had even ridden it for any length of time. I climbed onto the 2.1 and it felt natural. I churned at the pedals, motoring my way to the top, almost salivating at the thought of riding the ridge. I yelled over to Gary in the chase car, “Get the video camera, I want you to shoot this.” I requested. I was still attempting to shoot enough video to put together a ride documentary later on. I did this on many of my races. I knew this one was special, so I wanted to capture it. I’d unfortunately later abandon that, opting to focus on survival more so than cinematography. I do and probably always will regret that. I enjoy reliving these awesome adventures later, but this one simply would get too intense to be able to do two jobs at once.
As the road leveled off on the ridgeline, I pulled ahead, gaining speed until I was holding mid-20s. That’s the sweet spot on this stretch of road, enough momentum to carry you up and over most of the small lumps, but not too fast that you can’t recover on the flats and short downhills. I soaked it up like a sponge, enjoying the wind in my face and the small rays of sun sparkling down upon me through the trees. It was euphoric and I was thankful to be here, to be feeling so good right now. I hoped to soak up all this goodness for the hell that lay ahead. In Mentone, I took a right and headed towards the descent. Don and Gary were right behind in the chase van, calling in to race headquarters for Time Station 2. There were six time stations during the race, specific points when the rider’s crew must call into race headquarters to report the racers time of arrival at those specific points. It not only is to monitor progress of racers and to potentially learn how well one is doing relative to the competition, it’s also a way for HQ to advise of situations such a weather and traffic issues. All was okay.
Don pulled alongside as Gary hung out the window to talk to me. “Lookin’ good… wanna switch?”. Wha?, I thought to myself. Switch? I hadn’t been on here long, maybe 30 minutes or so. I was expecting to go at least an hour and a half, maybe two if I was still hustling. I asked for clarification. “Switch bikes, you want to get on that TT. There’s a big descent coming up. You’ll want it.”, Gary revealed. I nodded yes. If the road was flat, and for sure if it was descending, I’d be much, much faster on the TT. The van pulled ahead and over the horizon. They were gonna get up the road and have the bike waiting for me, ready to hop off this one and immediately onto the next without any down time. I could see them not far ahead, Gary holding the TT by the end of the bar. I braked hard, just above the skid point and stopped right next to the TT. Like running hurdles, I threw my leg off one and onto the other and immediately powered away. I struggled to maintain control. The front wheel was all squirrely beneath me. It felt so foreign. My position on the TT bike is very different than the roadie, much further forward and over the front wheel. Transitioning immediately from one to the other was difficult. I had never done it before and didn’t expect to fight it this much. Within a couple miles things settled down though and I got comfortable, just in time too.
As the road pitched down, the bike took off like a rocket. I stopped pedaling, deciding that it was worthless to put any more energy in at this point, that my weight and gravity would do more than anything I could offer from my legs. 30… 40 mph… and climbing. I hadn’t done any real descending on this bike yet so I was anxious to feel how it handled, especially with so much weight right over the front wheel. It was rock solid. I hunkering down, pulling close into the bars to get as sleek as possible. Things got real fast, real quick. I entered a sweeping right hander. Things were getting too fast, I was drifting out towards the center line. I reached my right hand over to the bullhorn, to get the rear brake within reach to scrub speed if I needed to. Within those few milliseconds, the bike had jumped over 2 or 3 feet and I was getting close to the road reflectors. One hit at these speeds and things could get ugly. I counter-steered and threw my right leg out, leaning the bike down hard to get back on line. I managed to get it back without touching the brakes. I wondered what Don and Gary were thinking. I assumed that I was nuts at this point. I dared not look back to make sure they were tailing me. They periodically had to pull off the road to allow traffic to pass so as not to be guilty of blocking, which is a penalty within the RAAM rules. I used the whole lane at these speeds, drifting in and out as I worked the bike down the hill. It was awesome, I just love going fast. By the time we hit the bottom, I had set a new top speed for this bike, right at 50 mph. That isn’t the fastest I have ever gone which is right around 58 on a hybrid, believe it or not, at Cheaha. I expect that I could easily top that speed with this TT bike on the likes of Cheaha or maybe even up in the Gaps of North Georgia.
Once down the mountain, we’d be heading eastward, over the GA-AL border and into Resaca, where we’d begin another climb of Fort Mountain. Between here and there, Diesel and I would rotate together with roughly hour long pulls, trying to maintain our speeds and keep our bodies fueled. Diesel was calling for mustard, a sign that he was still fighting cramps. I hadn’t bought any. Crap! It was on my packing list. I did have plenty of pickles, but Diesel “don’t do” pickles. Either of these are quick cures for cramping, assuming it’s not due to dehydration or injury. Don and Gary mentioned stopping at the Flying J in Resaca for some lunch for themselves. I asked about us getting some burgers for Diesel and I. I had been fueling off Ensure since midnight and it was time to get some solids in. I also suggested we could load Diesel’s up with mustard there, that’d get him a mustard fix.
- Saturday, March 31, noon (Approaching Fort Mtn)
I would carry us into the Flying J in Resaca. Don estimated it was only 7 or 8 miles ahead. It was a straight shot there, no turns or anything to think about. Gary helped get the TT bike ready as I exited the van, getting prepped to make the transition. We had leapfrogged ahead of Diesel and were waiting for him besides the road. I saw him come into view and mounted the bike, clipping my right leg into the pedal, ready to accelerate onto the road as he passed by. Doug wheeled in and I yelled “looking good” as I passed around behind him. I had a fast and flat section ahead. I intended on really turning it up to keep our average pace high here, knowing that Fort Mountain ahead would knock us back down a bit. The first mile or so is simply getting warmed back up, getting the legs flushed with blood and used to the rhythm of the pedaling. Once into the groove, I was easily holding upper 20s while lying across the bars. The sun was out, slowly roasting my arms and legs, but it felt good. The van passed by me. They had scooped up Diesel and were heading ahead, to the Flying J to get some “real” food. I gave them the thumbs up as they went by. I’d see them in only 20 minutes or so. I had everything I needed and was still very alert, so I was okay to be unsupported right now, or so I thought.
I was flying. The road now was a slight downhill, I tucked in, threw the bike into the 53/12, and hammered away. By now I was well up to temp. I needed a sip, to keep my mouth moist. I reached behind me, to grab a bottle from the hydrotail (a little carrier attached to the back of the seat which holds two bottles behind me, out of the wind, instead of down on the frame where it could add to the wind drag). Nothing… “Dammit!” I said to myself. I had forgotten my bottles again. This was the second or third time I had done so when taking off. Since the bottles were held behind the seat instead of down in the triangle, it was easy to miss the empty holders when doing a quick visual before taking off. Being such creatures of habit, I hadn’t trained myself to notice such a critical shortcoming just yet. The other times I had forgotten them, I simply signaled the chase van to pull alongside me and pass me a bottle or two out the window as I continued on. I was alone now, but it wasn’t too far, I thought.
I hammering hard, thinking that even though I was without water, I wouldn’t get too far into dehydration before I’d be at the Flying J. I looked at my watch, only 10 more minutes or so to go, not a problem. As I slipped down the road, things started to look familiar. We had been here a couple weeks back, on a RAAM training ride with Team Shepherd. I recalled this section, and how Mason, one of my teammates, had fought a nasty headwind here, while going in the opposite direction. I also remembered that we had made a turn onto this road, when coming from the Fling J. There’s a turn up here somewhere, it indeed wasn’t a straight shot. Not a big deal, I luckily sort of knew the road. I also realized however that I was further out than we had originally thought. I figured Don and Gary would go get the food and then probably backtrack for me, it was gonna take me longer to get there than we had originally planned.
The 20 minutes I originally thought turned into 45 or so. I was parched, my mouth now being nothing more than just a dry airway. Bugs would fly in every now and then. I struggled to spit them out, just couldn’t make the spit. It’s amazing how quickly it can happen, how crucial it is to keep the flow of liquids going. I was still riding strong, but wouldn’t be able to hold this pace too much longer. I had made my turn and knew Resaca was up ahead somewhere. I tried to keep my mouth closed now, trying to stem the loss of fluids in my breath. I stared at the fog line, the thin white line marking the edge of the roadway. Watching it weave around under my wheel as I pedaled, periodically checking up to see if I could pick out the van on the horizon heading towards me. I was just about to pull up, to drop the pace so I wouldn’t get so deep in that it would make me fall apart later in the race, when I spotted the gray box that was the van, on the horizon, heading towards me.
As we met head on, Don gave me the thumbs up. I assume he was worried that I’d miss the turn. Luckily I hadn’t. I gave him the “drinking sign”, the thumb in the mouth, tipping my hand up like I wanted a beer. A beer would be awesome right now of course, but I just needed anything liquid. They turned around and pulled alongside, Gary hanging out the window. “Need a drink partner?” he jokingly asked. “Hell yea, I’m dying” I smiled back. I got a bottle. I’d nurse it for the next couple miles. I passed the Flying J and we eventually made the transition. I hopped in the van and downed a quart of Gatorade before tearing into the hamburger they had bought me. I’d need to catch back up on the fluids quickly to stem them damage. Diesel got his mustard-burger too. We’d both need to be well fueled and hydrated… Fort Mountain lay ahead.
- Saturday, March 31, ~4:30pm (Heading towards Cedartown)
Fort Mountain came and went, Diesel and I taking turns bringing the mountain down. It’s not a terrible climb, even with well over 200 miles in our legs combined at the time. Nothing terribly steep, just a long grind. We made it down into Ellijay and then faced another series of climbs to get back up to Resaca and pass by the Flying J yet again. This part of the route was a “lollipop”, going out, making a loop, and then coming back in on the same road. From here, we’d head down to Cedartown before heading back into Alabama and traveling to Piedmont. I was on point as we headed back to Resaca, crossing over a reservoir adjacent to Carters Lake. The drivers until this point had generally been courteous. We had to do our part of course, especially the chase vehicle, to allow traffic to clear and not cause congestion. For some reason though, drivers became impatient all of a sudden.
Don had warned us to expect the worst as we went through Cedartown, that the drivers there generally didn’t give a crap about cyclists. I guess I was gonna get an appetizer of sorts, right now. Every once in a while we’d get a honk as a car passed. It was honestly hard to tell whether it was a friendly “hey” or a four-letter explicative that was intended. I gave it no attention either way. It’s generally just best not to acknowledge anyone unless you know for sure that it’s a friendly gesture. The cyclist always loses in this game of cat and mouse. I was here to race, so I kept my focus where it should be. That is until the dually which was passing me let his mirror come within maybe 2 feet of my shoulder. I instinctively jumped onto the white line as the air came rushing by. What’s worse though is that he was pulling a horse trailer behind. I leaned away from the trailer, knowing that once it passed, the wake behind would try to suck me in. I fought it… hard. Kept my hands firmly on the aerobars despite the overwhelming urge to let him know that he was #1 in my book. I had visions of a flying kick to the chin, burying the steel cleat on the bottom on my shoe deep into the cleft of that jackass’ chin. I let it slip, it wasn’t worth even getting my heart rate up over. It’s so hard to control at times. It is literally life and death for me, just a minor inconvenience for them. It’s unfortunately the reality of cycling, just gotta turn the other cheek. Then it happens yet again, another big truck, this time with a boat in tow. “What the hell!”. I’d like to look back now, to see if Don and Gary can stay in close, but I don’t dare risk looking over my shoulder and drifting into traffic. I try to stay loose, to not tense up. Doing so wastes a lot of energy. I just focus on getting through here as quickly as possible, wanting to make it out of here alive and still on two feet. I would, of course… survive.
In the afternoon, we picked up a slight breeze. Thankfully it was nothing more than just a breeze, but it was a reminder that weather could play into our race. Don monitored the situation. There was a strong thunderstorm headed our way in the next few hours, we could see the skies darkening ahead. I had just come off a pull. I asked Don and Gary if they minded if I left the side van door open while we tailed Diesel. I wanted to lay there, let the wind blow over me while I tried to nap. I was hurting. We had just over 300 miles in at a 19 mph avg. That’s a lot considering the climbing we had done. But we were about to enter the furnace, a trial by fire, on the approach to Cheaha. I needed to rest, to get powered back up. I lay there on the floor, propped against the bean bag chair we used to try and get comfy. I was wedged between the third seat and a bike, watching the road go by out the door. Then I see it come by. A big juicy drop. Then another. Pretty soon it picks up to the point I had to shut the door. It would eventually bloom into a pretty heavy shower. The sun was still shining, but it was full-on raining now. Diesel powered through. No need for a rain jacket at this point, he was soaked. Don, Gary and I debated whether I should try to lay out dry clothes for Diesel, for when he came off rotation. We decided it’d just be easier to let him select what to get. I’d take a longer pull this next round so he could catch a break and get dried off. The rain ended about 30 minutes later when we drove through the mini-squall line.
I took to the roads as evening fell, the skies darkening as the sun withdrew. Storms were still brewing in the area. We’d get periodic distant flashes as lightning tore form the sky. I hoped and prayed that we wouldn’t have to contend with the weather again. Luckily those prayers were answered. I also hoped that we’d be so lucky as to not have to contend with too many “free range” dogs. No dice here. ‘Bama is just too rural. I can’t necessarily blame the owners in such a country area for not confining their pets. It’s just a known risk of doing this. After some RAAM training and coaching from Don and Gary, I knew just how to use the chase car during these contests of man vs wild. If I spotted a willing participant, I’d point to them, signaling the driver behind that a sprint may be likely to ensue. If they saw it before I, they’d let off a warning honk and I knew to scan for the contestant. Once we engaged in battle, I’d usually take off, drifting to the opposite side of the road. The chase car could then pull alongside to block. I’m a pet owner, including multiple dogs, and I shudder at the thought, but in the worst case, I count on that car to take out my hunter if need be. This deep in the game, when I don’t have the fight I might have on a normal training day, things could go bad real quickly if that dog caught me. Luckily it never came to that.
We had maybe 15 or 20 contests throughout our race, winning each handily thank goodness. Night was by far the worst though. In Don and Gary’s experience, and even my own, dog’s generally don’t chase at night. Maybe it’s their fear of the unknown that keeps them from pursuing normally. These ‘Bama dogs though, they’re a different breed. I could be to blame possibly for their attentiveness this night. I was wearing a wind jacket as the temperature fell and my exhausted body struggles to regulate, trying to keep warm. The jacket would put off a high pitched flapping sounds as the air rushed over my head and down my back, giving a warning to the beasts that something was approaching. You’d hear them howl out as we approached. Unable to see the competitor’s ability or location, Diesel and I had to be extra-alert. We wouldn’t have long to react if need be.
- Saturday, March 31, ~10:30pm (Approaching Cheaha)
We successfully navigated the minefield of dogs and began the approach to Cheaha, coming from Piedmont in the North. Before getting to the series of climbs that make Cheaha though, we’d need to navigate Highway 55 and it’s relentless climbs, one oft referred to as little-Brasstown. Brasstown Bald is the highest point in Georgia. It’s a notorious climb. The Tour de Georgia ended one of its stages there, back when it was running. Having to contend with something even remotely close to that now that we were around 400 miles into this race would be absolutely brutal. Diesel would be in rotation at this point. I prayed for him.
I had been in the van maybe 10 minutes or so. I’d drunk an Ensure and eaten a Snickers and drank a coke. It was now time to start pouring on the caffeine and a mix of sugars. I needed them to flood my system for the next couple hours so I could help get us up and over this last big push and over into Talladega for the final grind back into Birmingham and the finish. I sat back onto the bean bag, exhausted. I dozed off, not because I wanted to, just because my mind was tired, I hadn’t slept since Thursday evening. It seemed like seconds. Gary was bumping my knee with his elbow. He was driving right now to give Don a break. Don was trying to rest also, over in the passenger seat. “Get up, you gotta get on the bike. Doug’s down”. Wha?? I was in a fog. I looked at my watch. I had snoozed off for maybe 5 minutes. I sat up to look over the dash and out the windshield. Doug was there, in the headlight, straddling his bike. His head was down on his handlebars. He was defeated. I grabbed my helmet gloves and cap. Luckily, I was too tired to take anything else off before lying down so I was fully dressed otherwise. Don had gotten out and run around to get the 2.1, my climbing bike, off the carrier. I got my stuff on and walked to the back of the van. Gary was helping Doug hobble back there. Doug was disgusted with himself, saying he was a failure. In unison, we all reassured him that was not the case. This was a really hard, hard ride. That’s why we were a team, to help each other should one need it. Doug needed me right now. Little Brasstown was laying waste to him. I’d step in and finish it off. Little did I know at the time, I’d need Diesel in just the same way later on.
The pitch was extremely steep where Doug had been beaten down. I walked the bike into the headlights, setting it up across the road. I’d need a couple feet to gain some speed and get a foot clipped in before turning up into the hill. The grade was in the mid to upper teens at this point, extremely steep. I took a few deep breaths, knowing this was gonna be a push to get to the top. I kicked a foot into the clip, now one with the bike. I slammed the other onto the pedals and turned skyward. “Sheeeat!”, I uttered to myself. I’m not in, I can’t get my other foot in. I push and pull with the other leg, trying to jamb my left foot into the pedal every couple revolutions. I never get it in, I just spin as hard as I can to get up the last couple hundred yards and to the summit before finally getting fully clipped in. “Whew! Made it.” I thought. This was only the beginning though. Highway 55 has a couple of nasty climbs on it. It’s sort of the prelude to mayhem to be unleashed upon us at Cheaha.
I was very tired, not having slept since Thursday evening. We were now approaching Sunday morning, a span of nearly 48 hours. My eyes were weary, even blurry. I was having double vision at distance. This wasn’t that unusual. One of my eyes has worse vision than the other so when they get tired, they just can’t focus together and this is the result. They began playing tricks on me though, which was disturbing. On one of the longer climbs, a car passed. I watched it’s red tail lights as it pulled away into the distance, further up the hill. I anticipated seeing it disappear as it approached what I thought was the summit ahead. Then I noticed, another pair of taillights, much further ahead, and much higher up. Oh crap! This long climb just got really, really long. I was watching a second car, on a subsequent distant climb, even higher than the first. I sat back in the saddle. I’d need to preserve my strength. This was gonna be a long one. I chipped away at it. I looked just ahead of the front wheel. Watching the bugs dance in my headlight. Feeling the rhythm of my heart and my feet as they went round and round. It’s often best to just focus on the here and now when you’ve got a long, tough obstacle ahead. You don’t want to think about how little progress you are making for fear that it’ll just destroy your confidence and your will to continue. I was pretty beaten down, I didn’t want to allow myself to get to that place. I glanced up periodically, wondering why those distant taillights were still there, but just assumed it was a long climb and I was going so slow. It was time to stand for a bit. On the really long ones, TA had taught me to get in a rhythm of counting pedal strokes, alternating between sitting and standing. It was a trick to take your mind off the pain, but it also helped to shift the work around the different muscles. As I stood, I looked further ahead so as not to fall. I focused on those taillights. I was gaining on them. It was confusing. I finally made it close to them. They were now clearly illuminated in the headlights of the chase van. “Well sumbitch!” I thought. These taillights, which I’d been chasing now for maybe 10 minutes or so, simply turned out to be red reflectors on someone’s mailbox. The climb was indeed done. If that was the only trick my eyes and mind would play on me, I’d be happy. I did occasionally think I saw movement in the shadows, just off the edge of the road. Perhaps it was an illusion, perhaps it was real. There’s an awful lot of critters out at night. I tried to stay as alert as possible so as to be able to react. I was definitely growing weary though.
- Sunday, April 1, ~1:00am (Cheaha)
I don’t remember the exact time. Cheaha is kind of a blur. I do clearly remember beginning the climbing. We turned left on Highway 9 to head towards Highway 281. The spigot of pain was cracked open, and the suffering began to trickle down upon us. I settled into the small ring of the compact that I had installed on the 2.1. I’d be riding this until the end, now unable to stomach the thought of getting back on the TT. My knees were trashed. I had pulled so hard on the TT to keep our pace high, and the body position was so different than the road bike, that I had triggered a nasty case of patellar tendinitis (I think). My knees, particularly the right one, were now aching really badly. I’d try to treat them as nice as possible, spinning instead of standing to salvage whatever was left of them. This climb was just the beginning. I spun up to the left hander to enter Highway 281, AKA the Skyway Mountainway which leads up and over Cheaha. It’s more oft called the Cheaha Roubaix due to the extremely rough chip seal surface of the road. In last year’s Cheaha Challenge century, the road vibrations literally shook the bike computer off of my fork. Then, I’d stand on the pedals, just to give my butt and back a break from the incessant beating.
Out on the Roubaix, the climbing continued. As I made it to the top of one of the sections, the van pulled alongside to tell me to find a place to pull over, we’d make a rider transition. I requested a potty break. Diesel couldn’t go forward without the van directly behind at night. It’s a regulation of the race, designed primarily for rider safety. I’d need a little more than a splash and dash this time. The Ensure, which I’d been taking in for the past 24 hours, was now wreaking a little havoc on my system. Such an inopportune time for this to happen, especially since our race was put on hold for me to address these “issues”. I grabbed a roll of TP (I’d brought a 4 pack in my infinite wisdom, knowing this was a likely possibility) and darted out into the weeds, just far enough to be cloaked in the darkness of the night. I’d lose such modestly over the next few hours, instead requested a brief “look away” as I took care of bizness on the shoulder, risking that the headlights of an approaching car would bring the full moon a rising right there for all to see. I made the pit stop in under a minute and off we went again.
Diesel pulled for a while. He was slowing. We had been pestering him about taking in enough calories, but possibly to no avail. We let him go for about 30 minutes and then made another transition. I wasn’t sure if he was just down on calories, or if the beating he had taken a little earlier on Hwy 55 was taking its toll. I directed him towards a Snicker bar in my food box as we transitioned. Whenever I get in deep, a Snickers (or PayDay as the mood hits) will sometimes help bring me back around. Diesel agreed and entered the van as I mounted the bike. I’d take on the next two nasty leg choppers, along with an array of shorter grinds. One of these next nasty ones is where there is always a photographer perched to capture the agony in rider’s faces as they compete in the Cheaha Challenge. It honestly wasn’t as bad as I feared tonight, other than the knees. I think it’s simply because I was too tired to notice. I kept my pace in check.
Somewhere in here, we passed Valerio. I had raced against him at Sebring. He’s a pro racer from Monte Carlo and brings an energetic, young crew with him. I could see their white Suburban up ahead from an earlier climb, but wouldn’t catch up to them until quite some time later. As I approached, I rode close to the center line, to see if they would allow the pass. I think they knew that we were a team and weren’t in direct competition because they moved partly onto the shoulder as I got close. As I pulled alongside, their driver started yelling and beating the side of the door, cheering me along. It was a nice gesture and felt good to be cheered for in the deep of the night in such a remote place. I wasn’t sure whose crew they were, so as I pulled aside the driver, I shouted out, “Who’s your rider?”. “Valerio” he shouted back. I gave them the thumbs up and pulled ahead, alongside Valerio. “Hey, Valerio. How are you doing?” I tried to talk slow and calmly, controlling my air, as we were both climbing right now. “I’m tired, really f’ing tired!” he blurted back. I told him he was looking good, that it was glad to be alongside him again.. I wished him well in this race and looked forward to seeing him in San Diego, at RAAM. Then I pulled ahead and off into the distance. We were riding at very different paces at this point. Racing as a two man allowed us to be much stronger than a rider doing it solo. We could fuel and rest and hit the road in at least a semi-recovered state each time we did a rotation. The soloist must keep pace, energy, food, liquids and sleep in a delicate balance in order to survive.
I rode partway up the final climb on Cheaha and we made a transition. Diesel would finish the climb and then take the downhill until we pulled off the backside and onto a narrow, hazardous road into Talladega. Since I had been on this during a prior RAAM training session, we figured it would be best for me to take that section of roadway. We warned Diesel to be careful on the descent and to watch for the turnoff. If he blew it, we’d be hundreds of yards down the road before he’d be able to haul the bike back down from speed. Diesel successfully made the turn and we quickly transitioned again. I had a blast on this next section. I had chugged a Coke just prior to getting back on and so I was pumped with the caffeine and sugar. I hit it hard. I have no idea what the speed was, but I hammered away until near ‘Dega.
- Sunday, April 1, ~3:00am (‘Dega)
Diesel took the reins as we neared Talladega. We needed to stop for gas, we wouldn’t make it all the way back to Birmingham with what was left in the tank, of the van at least. We hoped we’d have enough in our own tanks. There should be a gas station or 2 on the route, so we didn’t worry. Diesel was riding comfortably along, when all of a sudden, he turns back and yells “Train!”. He starts to stand up to sprint. Gary leans out the window, yelling ahead to Diesel that we have a turn ahead and not to try and outrun the train. We barely make the turn. Diesel then settles back in. While the road he was headed on would have gotten us over the tracks, it was not the race route. As we neared the tracks across the road we were now on, the train pulled across. No big deal, it’d be by in no time. Then it stops. Well crap. It’s early morning. Odds are the train is adding or dropping cars. This could take awhile. Gary phones into race HQ and informs them of the situation. They reroute us further east to go around the blockade. We get around and then navigate back to where we should have been. It cost us something like 15 minutes or so, Gary kept the timer. If we were in contention for something, or really worried about the time, we could have petitioned for a time adjustment to reduce our race time by this amount. It didn’t really matter to us, we were just here for fun (if you call it that).
Once on the other side, the route went right by a gas station. It was closed. Uh-oh we thought, we may now be on the hunt for gas in the middle of the race. By chance, we pulled up to the pump to see if it still would accept credit despite the station being closed. It did, thank goodness. We refueled and motored on. It was now my turn to lead out. I headed towards Lake Logan Martin, crossing the dam where the day before, I had reminisced about my failed first ultra attempts. I was here again, and again in rough shape. But this time I was gonna finish. On the other side of the dam, where I had laid down in the grass two years prior, staring at the clouds while I waited to be rescued, I transition back to Diesel to take us into Leeds. Diesel would take us over one of the last two big climbs into Birmingham, on Highway 25. He motored up the first climb, turning his efforts back up. He was noticeably stronger now. We theorized in the van that the Snickers was now kicking in, pulling him back out of a calorie deficiency. Once over the first of the climbs, it would be my turn. I was to take us over the second and to ride us all the way back in. We planned on stopping a couple miles out from the finish so Diesel could get back on and we’d ride across the finish together.
Gary tried to get me to ride the TT back in. He and I knew it would be faster, that I’d blast through the last few miles in no time. I just couldn’t do it. My knees were absolutely shot. The last couple pulls had been excruciating. I tried not to complain, much at least. I had been popping ibuprofen pretty hard over the last 6 hours, taking eight 200mg pills over that time to try to make it bearable. I figured that I was resigned to riding the aluminum 2.1 to the finish now. I needed the more upright and rearward seat position. I couldn’t bear pulling up on the pedals much. I entered the last climb, staying seated until I absolutely had to stand to relieve my muscles. Upon standing, I kicked my legs out to the sides much more than normal. Keeping them inline just put too much stress on my quickly failing knees. I had never faced this before, knee issues, other than the time my cleat had slipped on the bottom of my shoe. That incident triggered a couple months of fiddling around until I finally figured out the source of the pain, which was in fact, my shoe. I made it up and over the top and then headed towards Hwy 119.
We went a short distance on 119 before making a right onto Zeigler at roughly 505 miles into the ride. We only had about 12 miles to go now. I couldn’t take it any more. My legs literally felt broken off at the knees I signaled for the van to come alongside. Gary asked how I was doing. I responded by asking how Diesel was. “He’s good”, Gary replied. “Does he wanna ride us back in? My knees are screwed.” I said. I could hear Diesel from the back of the van respond that he was good to go. I pulled into the next available turnoff, feeling a little defeated. I got the left foot unclipped but stood there a minute before even attempting to get the right out. To get my feet out, I had to kick my heel sharply to the side. Doing so now was extremely painful. I sat there a second before pulling in a breath and yanking the right one out. I eventually slowly slid off the bike as Diesel scrambled to get ready to ride. Don came up to get the bike from me as I hobbled into the back of the van. I couldn’t get comfortable back there. There was no position that felt good on my knees anymore. I resigned to just keeping my feet up under me, afraid that if I stretched my legs out, my knees would lock up into “robotic” stiffness.
- Sunday, April 1, ~6:24am (Birmingham)
I watched as Diesel chipped away the miles until we were at the last turnoff before the pump house on Sicard Hollow. There, I’d get back on the bike and we’d ride the last couple miles back to the Colonnade and the finish line. I had plenty of energy and felt pretty good, albeit exhausted, when I got back on the bike. Good except for the knees, that is. I climbed aboard and Diesel and I rolled out together. I started pounding away at the pedals, ready to get this ride finished. Diesel was pretty drained by now, as he didn’t get to fully recover with the abbreviated rest break. I’m sure that Snickers was wearing of by now too. He fell behind. I let up, realizing that he didn’t have that much left in the tank at this point. We made our way back to the Colonnade a little before 6:30am, just as the sun was thinking about coming up. There was no traffic, pretty much nobody around, except Tom, the race organizer, sitting in his truck in the parking lot. We pulled across the finish to his solitary clapping. It felt great to get this done. Tom gave each of us finisher medals and we took a couple shots in front of the HOTS500 banner at his tent. That was it. As un-ceremonial as this race started, it was all over. We asked Tom for a room key so we could shower up before making the trek back to Atlanta. Tom had a room at the Marriot dedicated for racer and crew use, just for this purpose.
After quickly cleaning up, we headed up Hwy 280 to the IHOP to grab some food before attempting to drive back. I was pretty hungry, but not absolutely ravenous. We guesstimated that Diesel and I each had likely burned in the neighborhood of 20,000-25,000 calories over the course of this race. The true hunger wouldn’t set in for a day or two, long after the race was just a memory. If anyone knows how to turn off the hunger machine, please let me know, it’s still going strong today. Don and Gary were exhausted. I volunteered to drive us back as far as I could. I had a couple cups of coffee at IHOP and hoped it’d last me for a while before I became too drowsy. I made it on Hwy 119 and a grand total of about 10 miles, to the onramp of I-20 East, before I folded. I found myself involuntarily trying to doze off. I was just too dangerous for all of us, so I pulled myself off the road. Gary volunteered to drive as far as he could. I slipped in the back to try and get some rest, so I could do some driving later. Once Gary bailed in Anniston, Don took over. I told Don to give me a 15 minute heads up when he thought he’d give into the Sandman, to allow me to get ready. Shortly before the Carrolton exit off I-20, Don gave me the high sign. I took a couple of No-Doz and drank a coke, enough to get me wired to drive us in. I drove us from the Carrolton exit, and got us all home. We had survived, not only the race, but also the agonizing ride back in.
We ended up third overall with a time of 30 hours and 16 minutes. We were the only two person team to compete. We missed Pattinson’s three person team by just over two hours. That would have been an experience to talk with him out on the course. There’s always next year, although I envision I may be trying this solo then. As part of my journey to hopefully conquer RAAM solo, this would be a crucial step in gaining experience and confidence that I can do this. The end is truly just the beginning.
- Saturday, April 7, 3:00pm (Peachtree City)
It’s taken me quite a bit to write this “race report” that more a story than a RR, just over 8 hours of editing according to MS Word. I’ve spent the week dealing with the pain in my right knee, hoping it will resolve itself over time. The pain in the left has already disappeared. It never was really that bad. I took the ladies of the household, Nurse Ratched, JoJo and Maddy, out to the Color Run at Atlanta Motor Speedway today. It’s a 5K run/walk in which powdered colors are thrown at the contestants every 1K throughout the event, culminating in a large “block party” at the end. It was fun. I owed it to them, for allowing me to be so selfish with my time to compete in these events. RAAM still waits ahead and the road will be long and tough getting there. I need to spend these times together while they’re here. They are so short in this one life we have together. We made it a fun walk, definitely not a run, my knee couldn’t take it. I made it through about 3K before being reduced to a hobble as the kneecap felt like it was gonna explode. I’ve concluded that this may be more than I can handle myself, that I’ll likely need to be in the hands of an ortho. I’ve most likely got patella femoral syndrome, but had better rule some potentially worse conditions considering what I’m asking my knees to do for me. I’ll get in at the first of the week to get worked over. I’ve gotta power through this, there’s so much more ahead, no time to be down for the count. Was it worth it? Absolutely, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Granted I might drop my seat just a bit on the TT bike, knowing what I do today 🙂