Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Because Betsy Told Me To ...

Betsy Graham was one of my journalism professors in college, and she taught me a lot about how to write (like saying "a lot" and not "alot"). She said that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You don't necessarily have to write it that way, but it has to seem that way to the reader when they go through the words.

Here's the 1000K the way Betsy would have wanted it. It has pictures, because that's the way that Stewart Schwartz (another professor) would have demanded it. It is chronological, because that's the way that George Greiff would have liked it.


Although I'd been busy for the past two months getting stuff ready for the event, things really started with a great mixer hosted by Gran Fondo (a.k.a., the Greatest Bike Shop in This and Any Other Universe that Theoretical Physicists Anywhere Might Ever Think Up). Vida and Lynn Greer opened up the shop to randonneurs throughout the day, so that they had a constant stream of cyclists with both minor and major issues to fix on their bikes.

I had to work that day, so it was after 5:30 when I finally rode my bike over. The shop was packed with folks -- old acquaintances rekindling, new relationships starting, and a lot of "yeah, I've seen your name on the list" conversations. I checked in with Lynn to see how it was going, and he was having a blast. "I just love having this many people around that get such a kick out of cycling," he said.

Although I had to spend most of the mixer transferring groceries and signs from one car to another, I did manage to chat with a few folks and have a glass of really good wine. Just after RandoGirl showed up, the 60 of us walked down the street to Finezza's for dinner. In spite of having to eat at the bar (only 50 had RSVP'd), and me running out in the middle of the meal to get some other last-minute supplies from Office Depot, we all had fun.

Back home, I started to put brevet cards, phone numbers, and pencils in individual ziplock bags. John Shelso, one of my volunteers from Memphis, arrived so I put him to work. We finished up just after 10 pm, and turned in. Three hours of sleep was going to have to do.


John and I were on the road by 1:30 am, just getting to the ride start at 2 am. There were already a few riders there, ready for check-in and inspection. Two other volunteers -- Marcia Swan and Kent Kersten -- showed up soon after us, and we got to work.

Pete Dusel (the reflective one) and Marcia

Things went relatively smoothly, thanks primarily to Tennessee RBA Jeff Sammons's excellent pre-ride communications to the riders. Everyone who had bothered to read these emails knew what to do, and the others quickly fell in line. Soon enough, everyone was inspected, their drop bags were dropped off, and all were ready to go. About 10 minutes before 4 am, I gave last-minute instructions, and then sent them off.

Kent (left) and John

In the now-emptier parking lot, we quickly loaded the drop bags into the correct vehicles. Marcia headed back to her hotel room, while John, Kent, and I went over to Bill and Sametta Glass's house for a nap. The RAAMinator was very heavily laden, thanks to the bags and groceries, and the hitch on the rear rack scraped on any bump. I left more than a little plastic on Bill and Sametta's driveway.

Grabbing the sofa, I was soon asleep. Of course, the cats decided that visitors were fun to play with. I guess they "kneaded" me to get off of their bed (sorry).

Hey! You're on my sofa!

After 7 am, we all got up (blearily) and started back to work. Kent, John, and I went out for a bagel and coffee, and then did the grocery shopping. The RAAMinator was very full when we got back, so we shifted some things to Marcia's station wagon. Alan Gosart had also arrived by then, and so we headed south once we had the load balanced.

Marcia and Kent rode down in Marcia's car, and John was in Jeff Sammons's truck. Alan and I stopped for gas, which put us well behind the other volunteers. We slowed down more when we came upon a German tourist, who gladly took us up on our offer of ice. Although it was only 11:30 am, he was also very happy to have one of our cold beers.

Grateful tourist and beer

We were almost to the state line when we began running across our riders. They were then 100 miles in, and the temperatures had climbed into the 90's. Just like the tourist, they were very appreciative of ice and any other drink we might have ... although relatively few were ready for a beer yet.

Our first batch of thirsty, hot riders

For the next 150 miles, Alan and I caught up to riders and offered them cold drinks and food. Rarely did any of them turn us down, and most were glad to stand in a shady spot by the side of the road and take a break. Many of the cyclists were suffering badly, and some of the strongest surprised us by abandoning on this day.

Not long before nightfall, we arrived at French Camp, and our cabins at Camp of the Rising Son. Marcia and Kent had already arrived and unloaded most of the groceries, with John's help. When we got in, they quickly got the drop bags out of the RAAMinator and we finished setting up.

Food, drink, and medicine set up in dining hall

Summer Poche, the hospitality coordinator at the camp, was a flurry of activity and charm as she helped get us situated. Soon after our first riders began coming in, a couple that does the cooking for the camp arrived to start work on the next morning's breakfast. When they saw all of the hungry athletes, they went ahead and fixed breakfast for many right then. This hot meal got them back on the road, where they did the 80 miles to the turnaround and back to French Camp for a couple of hours sleep.

French Camp cooks extraordinaire

Hungry riders

Tired riders and volunteers enjoying breakfast

From left, Bill Glass, John, and Marcia


Most riders opted to sleep at French Camp before starting south, and in the morning they got up to enjoy another breakfast. I had managed to get almost four hours on a sofa in the lodge, and felt pretty good about this time.

Tennessee RBA Jeff Sammons ready to ride

The heat Thursday had taken a toll, and there were nine riders who would not be going on. Three were in French Camp, so I volunteered to ferry them up to the next overnight control at Tishomingo State Park, drop them off to man the control there, and then come back. This also gave me an opportunity to get a lot of the gear up there as well, which eased my worries about the RAAMinator scraping the road some more. It was, nonetheless, an exhausting 300-mile trip, and I did not get back to French Camp until just before 3 pm.

Alan and I quickly loaded up the rest of the gear when I got a call from Bill Glass. He was just rolling back into French Camp with a busted bottom bracket on his bike. We scooped him up, ate lunch at the small cafe there, and then headed south a little bit to ensure the last of the riders were okay. They all seemed happy to see us -- particularly since we had ice and cold soft drinks. We left them to soldier on as the lengthening shadows promised cooler temperatures.

Repeating the previous day's protocol, Alan and I slowly moved up the Trace, offering ice, drinks, and food to the riders as we encountered them. Once again, many were happy to see us. Most of the time, the riders would lean their bikes against the van, take a break with a cold Coke, and decompress a bit.

Night had fallen with Alan and I got back to Tishomingo. Marcia, Kent, John, and our "conscripted" volunteers had everything arranged. Anthony Watts had also arrived, and his freshness and energy was invaluable that night.

Cramped feeding station at Tishomingo

I was really bushed at that point, so I grabbed a sandwich and limped off to a cabin about 10 pm.


A fairly comfortable cot with a sleeping bag was just what I needed, and it took an effort of will to drag myself back out into the world at 2 am. It had started to rain, however, and riders were still trickling in. I could not ask more of the other volunteers than I was willing to give of myself, and so I headed out to relieve those still on duty.

John and Alan

I took my netbook into the RAAMinator and wrote a disjointed blog post while watching for riders. The sky turned to a leaden gray as dawn came, and riders started crawling out of cabins. I drove a number of them over to the big camp dining hall for a hot breakfast. While we were there, the rain started in earnest, punctuated by peals of thunder. This gave all of us a good reason for a second cup of coffee before returning to our work.

Eventually, the rain eased off again, and most of the randonneurs rolled forth. The last of the riders came in about this time, having grabbed naps at various opportunities on the road, and we fixed them sandwiches and got them set up as best we could.

Early morning departures at Tishomingo

Marcia and Kent had left at about 8 am to set up a water stop 40 miles from the finish at the Jackson Falls rest area. Anthony was not able to stay with us for the full day, and he soon headed home. This left John, Alan, and I to make sure that the cabins were empty and fairly clean, and then load the drop bags into the truck.  John then headed north with the truck, Alan and I loaded the remaining food and drink into the RAAMinator, I grabbed a quick shower, and we began the support cycle anew.

Last day ... but at least the rain has stopped

The front that had brought the rain had also brought cooler temperatures. Riders were still wanting ice and cold drinks, but their spirits were obviously brightened by the end of the oppressive heat and the prospective of finally finishing.

Most of the cyclists were back in Alabama or beyond by the time we caught up with them. We fixed a few sandwiches with the last of the sliced turkey. Chips and cookies were more popular this day than they had been previously.

Crossing into Tennessee, we stopped in Collinwood to find a number of riders at the store control. Alan and I bought more ice, and a pizza to take up to the Jackson Falls water stop. One of the riders had a sticky headset, but I was unable to do much with it. Since it still worked, he was able to finish.

Jackson Falls water stop

There were a lot of riders hanging out at Jackson Falls, and the pizza went quickly. Marcia and Kent had run out of food, but a church group having a picnic there had given them bags of chips and pretzels. We replenished their supply of junk food and ice, and told them how many riders were still back. Marcia would continue to man the stop through most of the night as the last riders came through. She was a real trooper!

Kent, Alan, and Marcia by Marcia's heavily laden wagon

A rider goes cross-country back to the Trace from Jackson Falls

With just enough cold drinks and ice for the remaining riders north of us, Kent, Alan, and I headed north. The riders we passed here were still well-stocked from Jackson Falls. They were also smelling the barn and trying to get to the finish before nightfall.

We arrived at the finish about 6 pm, where most of the riders were enjoying a relaxing break on Bill and Sametta's carport. Pizza and cold drinks were in abundance, the weather was perfect, and everyone was happy. I had originally planned to get the overnight control volunteers back to the finish by 3 pm, so I barely had time to talk to a few folks about their ride as we quickly unloaded the last of the food and drinks. John needed to drive back to Memphis, and his car was still at my house. We loaded George Hiscox and his bike onto the back of the RAAMinator, drove him back to his car at the start, and headed home. I slept 10 hours that night.

A number of riders commented to me that we volunteers were probably working harder than they were, but we both knew that this was an exaggeration. Although it is trying work -- particularly running as lean as we were -- it was more exhausting mentally than physically. I saw a lot of fried riders over the weekend, who were sore in almost every place and brain-weary. They needed us to shepherd them along, and we were glad to do it.

Finishing a ride like this is a personal victory. You trained for it, tweaking your bicycle and supplies for months, losing weight and gaining endurance while you pored over the route and came up with a strategy that you stuck to while you could, and then improvised around when you had to.

Supporting a ride like this is a community victory. There's a lot of thinking and planning, and then communicating with the other volunteers to work together on a good plan. You try to identify everything that you may possibly need, and where and when you will need it, and then figure a way to get it there. You have to consider the requirements of both your fastest and slowest riders, and how you can help those who are struggling to make it home while still helping those looking for a personal best to get there fast.

When it's all over, whether riding or supporting, you are pretty tired. You're really happy to see that finish control, and ready to party. And you know that you've done something that is very, very special.


  1. Dear RB,

    Your volunteer efforts and Jeff's organization were greatly appreciated. It made for one of the best events I've ever ridden. I look forward to 2012 and the 1400K.

    Sincerely, Mike / Raleigh

  2. Randoboy and the crew you were great. A sincere thank you to all.
    La Tortue and the Moose