Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lumpy Proving Grounds

When manufacturers test stuff, they usually take it to the breaking point. If it's a car, they put a test dummy inside and bash it into walls and pillars, drop weights on it, slam into it with huge steel wedges, and then measure the destructive forces to see whether the test dummy would have survived the crash.

Today, I feel like that test dummy. The scientists have yet to determine whether I survived.

Earlier in the week, Jeff Bauer suggested that doing the 400K out of Dawsonville, GA, this past weekend would be fun. The weather was looking perfect, and we planned to ride the Tennessee 400K out of Cookeville the weekend after. Back-to-back 400Ks -- particularly when you start with one of the hardest 400Ks around -- is good training for a 1200K like the one we plan to ride in June.

We drove down Friday after work, got as much sleep as we could, and headed over to the start at the parking lot of a grocery store at 6 am. Eight of us were riding the 400K, but there were another 10 riders there to do a 200K whose route followed the first part of ours to Helen, GA. The Regional Brevet Administrator (RBA) for Georgia, Kevin Kaiser, was calling the 200K "The Lumpy 200K," but I suggest renaming it "To Helen (and) Back."

It was dark and chilly as we headed down quiet roads and into Dahlonega. Much of the group stayed together for almost 10 miles before the fast folks disappeared. Jeff and I have both done this route a couple of times before -- Jeff on geared bikes, fixed-gear bikes, and a tandem -- and we knew that it was best to settle in for the long haul.

We began Woody Gap, the first long out of Dahlonega, with Julie Gazmarian and Andy Akard, but Julie soon disappeared as she went to catch up to her husband, Paul Foster. We chatted with Andy until the top, but he stopped there to change some clothes and we rolled down towards Suches.

The day was about perfect -- temperatures starting near 50 and rising during the day to the upper 70s, with a mild wind out of the south that rarely hampered our progress and usually nudged us along. Jeff and I climbed Wolfpen, and then zoomed down the swoopy roads on the other side. With all of the climbing, we were averaging just over 12 mph by the time we got to the first control.

Julie and Paul were still at this store. I ate a quick fried pie and refilled my bottles with Gatorade while Jeff did the same, and the four of us rode together over Jack's Gap and to the base of Unicoi Gap. Jeff and I paused to take off arm- and knee-warmers for this climb, while Julie and Paul headed up. We caught up with them at the store in Helen, and we started up Hwy 356 together before they went off the front for the last time.

The route from here heads to a series of Army Corps of Engineer lakes that, collectively, are called Lake Rabun. People were out having fun on their boats and at their stately summer homes, and we really enjoyed the gorgeous spring views as we worked our way over the rolling road.

Near the last of the lakes, Jeff had a flat tire. We pulled into a driveway to fix it, and I realized that I was very hungry. I had a candy bar from the store control, so I ate that hoping to boost my flagging energy stores. It was tough going the next 20 miles, but we made it to the Clayton control about 2 pm and I was happy to scarf a Wendy's triple and large fries before we headed down Warwoman Road and the long climb up to Highlands, NC.

We had just started the 12 miles on Hwy 28 when Jeff had another flat (this one on the front tire). We found a shady spot to fix it, and Jeff said that it was too bad that it had not happened about five miles further up, when we would be sorely needing the break. I sat down for a minute anyway -- he may not have needed the rest, but I certainly did.

The climb has some steep sections, some easy sections, some breaks where it's level and some breaks where you actually descend, and then about five miles of unending suffering. Four of the faster 400K riders zoomed by as we grunted our way up, calling out encouragement. By the time I saw this sign, I was almost too tired to be happy.

In town, Jeff and I took another break for some ice cream and soup. We then filled our bottles again and began the descent back down the road on which we had come up. About a mile into this, we passed Chris Kaiser pushing his recumbent bike up the hill. Jeff had commented earlier that this is a nearly impossible route for a recumbent, and it turned out that Chris abandoned soon after this point.

The wind was briefly in our faces as we headed down Walhalla Road, but was fading with the last of the day. Generally, the trend here is downhill, and we got to Walhalla, SC, with enough daylight to put on more clothes and reflective gear.

For the past 75 miles I had been plagued by little twinges in my right leg that felt like harbingers of an impending cramp, but as the temperatures dropped and the roads leveled out these fell away. Jeff and I made good time passing back into Georgia through Westminster and on to the control in Toccoa, and hit the Waffle House in Demorest about 1 am. The place was hopping with young adults, either from an area prom or a convention at a Christian ministry in town, but they were well-behaved and Jeff and I had no trouble finding a seat. I had some hash browns and a Diet Coke with vanilla, hoping that the caffeine would keep me awake for the long dark hours and 50 miles between us and the finish.

The roads were wonderfully quiet as we cruised along here, listening to the night cries of birds and enjoying the full moon shimmering amongst thin high clouds. We stopped twice to make sure that we were on the right roads, suffered up a hill they call "Baby Brasstown" and another long climb that looked and felt like a full-blown Gap but apparently doesn't rate a name, and finally passed through Dahlonega again to the cruel rollers of Auraria Road.

Somewhere in here, I was telling Jeff about the last time that I had done this ride, saying that about this point I went into "git 'er done mode" and just wanted the ride to be over. I was tired, but didn't feel that I was in any danger of falling asleep thanks to how much my legs and the bicycle contact points hurt. I knew however that, once again, I just wanted this ride to be over. Jeff said he felt the same, and we were each ecstatic when we finally returned to the parking lot just after 5 am, handing our cards over to a sleepy Kevin Kaiser.

Exhausted as were were, as we rode back to our hotel we noticed that the Waffle House next door was open. Jeff and I couldn't help ourselves, and we stopped for "second breakfast" of more hash browns (scattered, smothered, covered, diced, and peppered for me) and jalapeno biscuits.

After this 400K, the Cascade 1200K may not exactly be a cake walk, but I'm pretty sure that there will not be a given day on that ride which will seem as tough. This test crash dummy will apparently live to get the spit kicked out of him again.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

It was just a little after noon when I finally said it out loud:

"This is stupid."

I'd been thinking that for the previous five hours, cycling in the rain between Leiper's Fork and Bell Buckle, TN. It wasn't too bad at first, when the temperature was a "balmy" 59 degrees and I was relatively dry. But as the day wore on, we all got wetter and wetter, the temperature dropped to 50, and the wind started to blow.

Let's be honest. I had really been thinking this was stupid for a couple of hours before we started, when I checked the weather report at 5 am and saw that the rain chances were still 60% at 10 am. The night before, the forecast was for the rain to stop an hour or so after we started, and while it still seemed stupid to hassle with that and the cold and rain due to follow, that was only a little stupid.

Part of the problem was that I didn't need this 300K. When Jeff Bauer and I drove down to Athens two weeks earlier and rode the 300K there, one of the reasons that we gave for the trip was so we could skip this 300K if the weather sucked. When I realized that -- surprise, surprise! -- the weather was actually going to suck, I tried to talk Jeff out of this ride.

"You should do the rides on days like this to prove to yourself that you can handle it," he said. His reasoning was that riding in crap like this when you didn't have to makes it easier to ride in crap when you had no other choice.

And I did need a long ride, since I had been completely off of the bike since that Athens 300K. RandoGirl, the RandoDaughter, and I went to the beach last weekend, and weather and work had kept me from riding on other days. If I didn't get out for at least a 200K, my legs might lose some of the fitness that I had worked so hard to build during the previous months.

Surprisingly, eight of us had started the ride in miserable conditions. By the time we reached the first control in Eagleville, the group had separated so that I was just riding with Jeff and Mark Young.

We got in and out of that control quickly, since we were too wet to stay inside the store. Leaving, you always find yourself more cold and wet than you thought that you were, and I shivered for the next few miles. As usual, Jeff and I kept up a running conversation about one thing or another -- movies, books, work -- which makes for a welcome distraction. We began talking about hypothermia, and Jeff told me about another randonneur friend who has suffered from hypothermia twice on Paris-Brest-Paris. Both times, the rider was seeking a Charly Miller Society ride, where you must finish this 1500K in 56 hours and 40 minutes or less. Since this typically demands doing the 750-mile-plus course without stopping to sleep, hypothermia and exhaustion are common.

Jeff's friend is already a member of the society, having done the ride under the time limit in 2007. I couldn't understand why anybody would want to put themselves through that.

"He likes to suffer," Jeff said.

"Come on," I said. "Nobody really likes to suffer."

"He does."

And that got me thinking. I don't like to suffer. I am willing to suffer to accomplish a goal, but it certainly is not something that I actively seek out. And right then, I was suffering when I did not really need to be suffering.

As we approached the Bell Buckle control at mile 70, I started to fall behind. My fingers were numb, so that it was difficult to shift, and my legs were much more sore than they should have been after so few miles. Once I got to the store, I went to the bathroom and washed my hands in hot water to get some feeling back, then went in search of stuff to put on to get warmer. I found a sweatshirt on sale for $15:

And some Incredible Hulk gardening gloves:

I drank a cup of hot cocoa, put the sweatshirt on under my jacket, put the dry gloves on my hands, and put plastic bags over my socks. Mark and Jeff had waited for me, putting bags on their hands and feet as well, and we headed out together on the long busy road towards Lewisburg. That's when I finally said it out loud:

This is stupid.

I kept falling off the back as we battled the growing wind. It was still raining, so getting into a paceline wasn't an attractive option, and my will and interest were waning. Mark and Jeff were almost out of sight when we started west on SR-270, and as I rode along I realized something about that road: It went straight west to Chapel Hill. And I know lots of ways to get home from Chapel Hill.

So, I "missed" the next left turn. I stopped at the next driveway and sent Jeff a text message -- "Struck by epiphany. See you Tuesday."

The 40 miles between there and Leiper's Fork well and truly sucked. The rain never really stopped, and the wind was blowing a steady 15 mph out of the northwest -- the direction that I had to go. I stopped briefly at the Sonic in Chapel Hill for some tater tots and a pretzel dog, but decided that the break wasn't worth the shivering as I acclimated back to the road for an hour after that. I did not stop again. Finally, about 4 pm, after 118 miles, I got back to my car and drove home.

Should I have stayed the course and finished the ride at all costs? Maybe. The physical costs were not that dire, but the psychic costs were racking up as I rode along and began questioning my resolve to do a full series this year. I felt that I got enough miles in Saturday, but just in case I rode another 80 miles on Sunday with the Harpeth Bike Club. My legs hurt today, but pain is just weakness leaving the body.

Isn't it?

I would probably be a more successful randonneur if I enjoyed suffering. But then I wouldn't be me, and I kind of like being me. So, instead, I'll choose my battles carefully, and I hope that I have enough strength to win the ones that really count.