Tuesday, May 25, 2010

6.5 Hours of Sleep: Pay It Forward

A 600K can be many things. Exhilarating. Painful. Breathtakingly beautiful. Challenging. Humiliating.

But it cannot be easy. A randonneur might say that a 600K was easy, but what he or she really mean is that it was "comparatively easy."

"How was the Tennessee 600K?"

"Oh, it was easy ... compared to last year."

The old Tennessee 600K had 27,000 feet of climbing. The new one only has 21,000 feet ... although sections are steeper than the old course, and the almost incessant rollers made it hard to get a rhythm going.

See what I mean? 21,000 feet of climbing, as opposed to 27,000 feet? And, either way, you're biking 375 miles (don't ask me why the above elevation profile only shows 363 miles -- stupid computer) in 40 hours or less.

Not easy. Yet for some reason all of us below seem to be smiling.

We're either deluded or idiots. Or both.

Thirteen (a lucky number) rolled out at 4 am Saturday morning from Scottsville, KY, riding through early morning fog in temperatures just warm enough for a light jacket. The sun started to turn the world into a fuzzy light gray cotton ball within an hour, as most of the group stayed together and rode easy.

Tennessee RBA Jeff Sammons, shown above just after we entered Mammoth Cave National Park, designed this route with Kevin Warren. Jeff had test-ridden the route in November with a couple of other randonneurs, and had since tweaked the route. It included two river crossings by ferry, with the first one coming fairly early.

It was pretty cool crossing a river by ferry. If you've ever done it by car, it's cool that way, too. One thing to remember with a bicycle, however, is that most times crossing a river or creek or any body of water involves a downhill, followed by a climb. Crossing a river on a ferry usually means that the road is old, since they haven't put the money into building a bridge. The surfaces were good, but the climbs back up after the ferry ride were very steep. So, here's a hint to cyclists: Downshift before you roll on to the ferry.

Much of the group remained together through the first control as the fog cleared, but then seven of us slowly pulled away from the pack. This group included Jeff Bauer and myself, as well as George Hiscox, Scott Ohlwiler, Jeremy Miller, Steve Phillips, and Ed Garrison.

We were riding very hard, and minimizing our time at the controls. That's why I don't have more pictures. Also, to be honest, we were working so hard that I was sweating a lot (more on that later), and the camera lens had sweat on it for the few pictures I did take Saturday.

At the third control, I wiped the lens with a napkin. Here's George there, after filling his bottle and buying a box of Fig Newton's.

What we ate Saturday we generally ate on the bike. George put the Fig Newton's in his back pocket and munched them for the next hour or so. I had one or two myself, but also ate Pay Day candy bars that I would buy and stash in my front bag. For a sugar boost, I ate Skittles. When it's colder, I like chocolate, but this past weekend was too warm to keep chocolate from melting. If you've ever tried to eat melted chocolate on a bike, you know that it then gets on your gloves, your fingers, your handlebars, your face ... everything. It is not pretty.

David Nixon and Wendy Gardiner came in just before we left, and Dave had to help crack Wendy's back.

If that ain't sweet, I don't know what is.

Jeremy was probably our youngest rider, and new to brevets. His longest ride so far this year was just over 70 miles, but he did incredibly well.

At the next control, we again got our cards signed, bought more fuel, and rolled on, but Jeremy rode across the street to Taco Bell. We assumed that we would not see him again before the overnight control, but he managed to get his food and catch up with us before we had gone eight miles. We were all very impressed -- Jeremy could be a Superstar of the Randonneuring World ... if there were such a thing.

Ed had ridden the route back in November, and so knew what we were up against. I wish that I had been as careful as he was with sunscreen.

As I said, we rode very hard for the first 200 miles, minimizing our "off-bike" time. I was trying to drink as much as possible and eat before I got hungry, but about 25 miles from the overnight control my energy began to sag. Part of this was due to the way that the terrain had become much hillier when we entered Daniel Boone National Forest. Another part of it was probably due to this:

George and Jeremy, riding behind me, mentioned that I was looking seriously crusty with salt. I had been working up a sweat -- as we all had -- and was beginning to get cramps. I immediately tried to play catch-up with my fluids, but it's hard to do much once the damage is done. Also, I was running low on water, and what I had was tepid at best. It's times like this when you would be willing to kill for a bag of ice.

I was hanging off the back when we finally turned into Cumberland Falls State Park, where the overnight control was. It felt good to stop and take a picture at one of the scenic overlooks.

Although I was tired, we had ridden fast enough to get to the control about 6:30 pm. Jeff and I had originally hoped to get to the control about 10 pm, and then get a room so that we could sleep until 3 am. Keeping to this schedule, we now had over eight hours of "off-bike" time to look forward to.

When I got off the bike, I knew how badly I would need this long break. I sat down in a yard chair in the parking lot with the volunteers, realizing that this was the first time that I had not been in motion -- either cycling, or coasting, or running around a convenience store trying to get back to cycling and coasting -- in 17 hours. The volunteers quickly fixed me a sandwich and got me something to drink as I sat there, totally exhausted.

Going in to the hotel lobby to check in, my head began swimming as I filled in a registration card. I had to sit down again for a few minutes before I could walk to the room.

A cool shower helped, as did another sandwich, a couple of slices of pizza, a water bottle full of orange juice, and a couple of more bottles of water. Jeff Bauer and Kevin kept bringing me all of this stuff, since I had climbed into bed after the shower and was shivering from the energy loss. I was asleep by 7:30, waking only intermittently during the next few hours. Every time I did, I would move gingerly, trying not to set off any cramps, and to see if my body was going to work again.

Since we were ahead of schedule, and knew that the forecast for Sunday was for warm temperatures, Jeff and I decided to get up Sunday at 2 am and leave at 3 am. Fortunately, the food, drink, and sleep had done me a world of good, and I was again functional. It helped to know that we "only" had 150 miles to go, and 17 hours in which to do it.

We rode through the forest in the cool pre-dawn fog, arriving at the next control 45 miles away in just over three hours. This was a McDonald's, where we each had a big breakfast. I had been off caffeine, except for during overnight brevets, since March so that I could use it when I needed it to stay awake. The big cup of hot coffee Sunday morning was just what I needed.

We were now riding at a pace closer to what I usually do on brevets, averaging about 15 mph, and lingering an extra 10 minutes at the controls. I could take pictures of museums in little towns, and wonder what they might contain. I could also take pictures of hospitals that (I think) RandoGirl's company owns.

I had gotten a slight sunburn on the tops of my arms Saturday, so whenever we stopped I put more lotion on there. It was a kinder, gentler ride on Sunday.

Although we were more laid back, the weather was more difficult. The sun was fierce, and the wind had all but died. Since it been out of our backs Saturday, I did not miss it much, although the still air made slow climbs stultifying.

Around noon we turned on to the road heading for our final ferry crossing. A sign at the start said, "Road Closed Ahead." It wasn't lying.

Fortunately, we were able to walk our bicycles around the closure, where recent flooding had apparently washed out the road bed and the pavement had collapsed. As we rode up, there were two dogs hiding from the sun under the big Caterpillar truck, and they slunk off into the weeds. Only mad dogs, Englishmen, and randonneurs would be so foolish as to go out in this kind of heat.

Soon past the road closure, Ed caught back up to us. He had fallen off the pace Saturday about mile 175, but gotten into the overnight control soon after us. He was riding very strong, and we all crossed on the ferry together.

I cannot tell you how tempting it was to jump in that river.

Less than 10 miles beyond the ferry, we arrived at the penultimate control. I was overheating again, so I bought a big slushy and sat down on the floor in one corner of the store to drink it. Jeff got a root beer and joined me. Once our temperatures were closer to normal again, we headed out to tackle the last 35 miles.

The terrain had gotten milder, with long stretches of gently rolling farmland. We swapped off pulls, working as hard as we could in the prodigious heat. The sun radiating off the road took the temperatures to over 100 degrees, but the faster we rode the more the wind cooled us ... and the closer we got to the finish.

About 12 miles from the end, we stopped one more time to take refuge from the heat in a small gazebo. We sat in the comparative cool of the shade, drinking tepid water and eating another Pay Day, and marshaled our remaining strength before cranking out the last miles back to Scottsville. We finally arrived just after 4 pm -- almost exactly 36 hours after we had begun.

Ed beat us back by half an hour. George and Scott rode back together through the night, and beat the heat by finishing about 10 am. Dave and Wendy rode through the night with Jeremy and Steve, coming in about half an hour later. Jeff Sammons, Bob Hess, and Phil Randall had slept at Cumberland Falls, and came in a little after us. The last two riders were not able to finish.

I was whipped, but felt much better than I had Saturday evening. After a cool shower and changing into clean clothes -- plus three Diet Cokes and two sandwiches -- I felt almost like my old self ... or at least a whipped and bone-tired version. This was a marked contrast to the last 600K that I completed two years ago, when I had gotten little or no sleep and barely finished within the time limit.

It's amazing how much you can recover with a little bit of sleep. The downside is that you have to work so hard on a 600K to earn that chance to recover. I guess that's what really makes a 600K so difficult -- it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. Maybe that's why only damned fools do it.


  1. We all be damned fools. It was good seeing you this weekend, if even for brief periods. Slow down next time and ride with us sane folks... we drink beer and like chicken sandwiches... I think I ate 4 of them this weekend.

  2. Great riding with you, Robert! My two mini-adventures were riding over a raccoon that had darted out onto the road in the predawn hours and jumping onto the shoulder to avoid a passing RV.

    It was nice to ride a 600K in "diurnal mode" for a change, getting lots of sleep. The downside way paying for it on the second day riding through the heat of the afternoon.

  3. It was good to ride with everyone. I need to get some e-mail addresses to reach out to people. I appreciate the superhero comment. Superhero or insane, or both. I have been known to stick egg mcmuffins in my pockets, but this time I had that Taco Bell on my radar from before the ride. I did not plan to loose the group but I was confident I could read a cue sheet. I had a great experience and really benefited from riding with all the experienced riders. My big left toe is still burning from my shoes, and it is now Wednesday morning.


  4. If thy toe offend thee, adjust thine cleats.

  5. Great job guys! "Stultifying", great word. Regarding chocolate and hot weather, in a baggie I mix almond M&M's with Espresso beans. Melts in your mouth, not in your hand. Ciao!