Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Endless Mountains Redux

As promised- Victor's Blog:

The truly amazing part of doing our first successful 1200k with Kate was just how ordinary it felt. It was physically challenging, no doubt, but that was expected. We had our share of rain, but none of it too hard or lasting for days. There were times when the sun was hot and the air humid, but at no point was it an intolerable steaming sauna. A few dogs chased us while we were passing by but did so almost playfully, as if to give us a taste of adventure instead of being a danger. PA drivers were almost universally courteous, a welcome change from typical Westchester self-absorbed, cell-phone-talking, hurrying-to-the-next-appointment driver. Even the mechanicals that materialized on the ride ended up being of non-threatening variety. I could feel the long days in the saddle on my tush but only a few days after the ride was done my butt was no longer sore! I found myself wondering about doing another 1200 next year, an unthinkable notion just a week ago.
The preparations started long before the ride itself, of course. Having failed the ride 4 years ago while riding a tandem, we vowed to find a more efficient way to cycle long distances. For Kate, the solution was to convert her older race bike, a Fuji SL1. It is an efficient, quick handling race machine. Kate likes a responsive bike, something she can steer with her thoughts, and Fuji certainly delivers. For me, a trusty Specialized Roubaix, already a bike set for longer rides, was converted to rando duty. I am a little obsessive about what goes on our bikes, so I spent quite a bit of time researching and thinking about making the bikes more suitable for the task. In the end, our steeds didn't look that much different from their original incarnation. Both sported compact cranks, 12-36 rear cassettes for those steep PA kicker hills, aero bars for comfort and speed on the flats and fairly upright riding positions. We both had generator hubs.  Mine was the older SON we used 4 years ago for the tandem, while Kate got herself a nice, light SONdelux version. Rear wheels were of the heavy duty touring kind. After suffering a wheel failure on the PA 600k, I was not about to take any chances! We both had large rear bags where we stored almost everything and small front bags similar to this one for on the bike food and such.
In a contrast with prevailing rando doctrine, we decided on minimal (for me) or no (for Kate) fenders. I carried both cycling shoes and Keen cycling sandals and ended up using both but could really do with just the sandals, like Kate. The Keens are comfortable, drain very well and the materials are waterproof (the sandals themselves are not, of course). Their only real downside is weight; they are quite a bit heavier than regular shoes.  With no need to keep the water off the shoes, the only weather protection we carried were sleeveless rain vests with mesh backs, which we hardly used.
The days before the ride were full of preparations. I mapped out the route for our GPS devices, based off the official cue sheets. Someone else had done the same thing and the links to the routes were posted on Tom's message board, but just downloading those didn't feel right. I had to do it for myself. I often imagine what the ride would be like while mapping it out. When the ride covers new ground, it rarely turns out to be as expected, but I find that it still helps to visualize riding. Kate made custom reflective sash belts for us. They started as Amphipod Xinglets, with the belts adjusted so that they would fit just right. Then Kate got rid of the adjusters and sewed it all together, making the belts much more compact to fit in our bags.
A crucial part of the preparations was the schedule that I made for each day. Based on our previous rides, I estimated the speeds for each leg of the ride, taking into account the fatigue (we were going to slow down each day) and elevation change (hillier sections would take longer to ride). Using those speeds, I estimated the arrival time for each control. Then I budgeted 15 minutes for each stop and voila, there was a schedule for every day of riding. Each day's schedule was printed and laminated separately on a small card I could carry in my front bag and take out while riding to consult and plan our stops. Having a schedule was a great way to keep things in check and plan ahead, even if we didn't stick to the schedule all the time.
The adventure started right after an uneventful day at work. I'm lucky to be able to work remotely 2-3 days a week, so I could spend the morning in front of the computer while thinking about what else I forgot to pack in the back of my mind. Kate is a teacher and off in the summer, so preparations had gone smoothly. By the afternoon, the car was packed and we headed out just before the traffic started building up.
After a carbo-loading dinner at a local diner, we arrived to the hotel where we were greeted by a friendly group of volunteers checking in both riders and bikes. Frame mounted lights? Check. Spare headlight? Check. Reflective gear? Check. We got our tracking devices attached to the bikes and spent the rest of the evening socializing with the arriving riders and volunteers. Kate made good use of the hotel pool and hot tub. She also picked a nice wool jersey for the first day's ride. Tom had a sample one that fit her just right. We retired to our room at around 9pm to get enough sleep for the 3am wake up call next morning. Spending time with other randos was very relaxing and sleep came easily.
The 3am alarm came and we packed our bags quickly. Everything was prepared from the day before leaving nothing to think about, a good thing this early in the morning. The hotel put out the breakfast early so we got to enjoy scrambled eggs and hot Belgian waffles before the ride. Good food = good mood! Finally, everyone gathered outside to admire each other's bikes (that was the idea, right?). I noticed quite a few “standard” rando bikes, outfitted with fenders, mud flaps and front bags. There were a few regular road bikes, including a beautiful Merlin Extralight with some exquisite metal work. Much to my surprise, there was a Cervelo time trial bike, complete with aero wheels and aero bar mounted hydration system. Some very nice carbon race bikes made appearance as well, including another Specialized Roubaix (the top end S-Works variety) and a gorgeous Willier Cento.
Before we knew it the time was 3:56 and Tom was done with the safety speech, so I asked if there was a penalty for a 3 minute early start (there was none). Just as we started rolling, we realized that most of the riders were facing the wrong way but after few seconds of confusion, everyone was rolling into the night. It had begun!
The entire group rolled together for the first few miles. Kate and I would ride moderately on the early climbs while others would pass us.  Then we would catch up on flats and descents. I was getting annoyed by having to navigate around people while coasting and having to use my brakes.  Kate reprimanded me for “weaving in and out.”  Hey, it's a lot safer than navigating in a 50+ strong group of Cat 5 racers with adrenaline and testosterone pumping in their blood! In any case, we got to a flat stretch soon, and the group split up.  Our familiar rhythm is to ride with a steady effort- easy on the hills and fast on the flats, where it takes little effort to get to speed and Kate stays tight on my wheel.  Few people are able to adapt to this, or care to, so we usually ride without company.  This brevet was to be different.
The first control came quickly. I'm sure we were out in less than 15 minutes but some folks were lightning fast, arriving a couple of minutes behind us and leaving before us, too! That's some efficiency. But we had The Plan, so as much as it made me feel like we should move faster, I really had nothing to complain about. Right after the control, the first notable climb started. It was foggy at the top, and we took it easy going downhill on the other side, although it was full bright morning by then. At that point, Kate and I were pretty much on our own. We enjoyed the scenic rolling stretch along the Blue Mountain ridge, a staple of Tom's rides. Fox Gap is a long climb but there are several less steep sections in the middle. Kate and I dropped into our winch gears- 34 on the front/36 on the back, and took our time going up.  We looked for, and found, the spot where our chain broke on the tandem in 2009 and I used primitive tools (rocks) to fix it. At the top, we found the “Tom's worst kept secret” secret control, manned by Steve. Cards signed, we cautiously headed downhill, as it was still foggy at that elevation.
Arriving at the town by Delaware River, we were “greeted” by a grumpy woman walking her dog and yelling at us, “Walk those bikes across the bridge!” and “don't ride on MY sidewalk!” I had to keep my tongue in check.  I realized that ignoring her was probably going to rub her worse than almost anything that I could say. I'm sure Dr. Freud would have a few things to say about the source of this woman's ill temper.
After the river crossing, we headed into New Jersey. Remembering the terrain on the previous rides, I was mentally prepared for a nasty climb coming up just around the corner. I'm not so detail oriented as to print the profile for each section. Much to my surprise, the climb never came and the road was following a gentle rise along the creek and towards the next control.
The control was a bakery, which was unfortunately running low on rider friendly food. I grabbed the last two pieces of banana nut bread, one for now, one for later.  We got some coffee and pastries to chew on and were out of the control within our planned time. At this point, we were almost half an hour ahead of The Plan, all while riding conservatively.
Heading into the Delaware Water Gap area, we started to catch up to some riders. We were heading north, and had a steady if not strong breeze from the south. The longest/hardest day was starting with a tailwind! There were also a few hills, and a 50 mph descent to the park itself. Quite exhilarating! We got to the Old Mine Road and found the particularly nasty section of it partially fixed, meaning that it had mere incessant bumps instead of sinkholes capable of swallowing a Toyota Prius whole. After that descent, we took full advantage of tailwind, with me getting on the aero bars and using rollers to carry us over almost to the top of the next one. For the next 20 or so miles, we were having fun.
On the last 10 mile stretch before Port Jervis, both Kate and I felt a bit lethargic. Rule #1 to the rescue – if you feel like crap, eat something. I still had a slice of banana bread in my pocket, which we shared while riding. Things started looking up immediately, and other than a busy section of Route 6 in Port Jervis itself, it was a scenic and pleasant ride again. We passed the “scene of the crime” where my rear wheel collapsed spectacularly on the PA 600k ride, ending my hopes of finishing the PA randonneur series. No wheel trouble this time, I hoped.
The diner stop came quickly, and this was the first time I mentioned to Kate that, according to my schedule, we were looking at a daytime finish. We ride a lot slower while it's dark out, and riding in the dark while tired carries more risk, so we would avoid it if possible. I also mentioned that the next section was all uphill. Kate smiled and said that since we're making such a good progress, she was planning to take it a bit easier. That's not exactly what I had in mind, but we were ahead of schedule. So we headed out towards Hawk's Nest.
There were a few short hills, and a longer climb to the Hawk's Nest itself. But the real climb started when we turned right and away from the Delaware river. After a while, Kate mumbled something about, “it really IS all uphill.” The sky looked unsettled at this point, and I was getting worried about the forecasted afternoon thunderstorms. While at the next control, I saw the strong thunderstorms warning on the TV and checked on the radar map. It looked that if we were heading northwest (as we were), we'd miss it. So I ate some food, made sure Kate ate something, and had us rolling within 15 minutes again, heading back down to the Delaware River and familiar grounds from the PA brevet series rides.
Towpath Rd was as bumpy as expected and Route 6 as busy as I remembered it. The hub (I think) on my rear wheel started to make some funny noises. I stopped a few times to tighten it down which would stop the noise for a little while but then it would continue again. Not good. I was starting to fear the repeat of PA 600k that we had to abandon because of rear wheel failure. Finally, on the third stop I checked the spokes (ok), checked for the sideways play in the wheel (ok) and hub play (ok).  I figured that something may have gotten in and makes the noise, and there was not a thing I could do about it, and hopefully the hub would hold out. The wheel was built by a very experienced wheel builder, using high quality components, so I hoped for the best.
The day was getting warm and humid, and by the time we reached Lake Wallenpaupack, we were almost out of liquids, calling for a brief stop at a gas station there. For the next 10 miles, we had to contend with unpleasant rush hour traffic. Middle Creek Rd was a big relief and marked a return to the usual quiet roads Tom's rides are famous for. Before long, we were at the bottom of the Salem Rd climb, the “high point” of the day. We climbed at our own pace, passed the radio towers and then plunged into the descent on the other side, whee! I let it rip while Kate settled into her usual more conservative rhythm. As I was waiting at the turn, a car approached, with Mike Wali (I think) waving a water bottle out the window. Mike had rescued it after Kate left at the diner and was trying to return it to her. Thanks, Mike! A minute later, we were rolling into the Dunkin' Donuts in the middle of Carbondale. We took a bit longer, as Kate's feet were hurting.  The extra time was well spent ingesting a couple of sugar bombs known in "dunkinspeak" as Coolattas. That perked us right up yet again.  It was late afternoon as we started the last leg of the day's journey.
I remember this leg from 4 years ago as a painful slog in the darkness, the world reduced to a small patch of light in front of me, one steep hill after another. This time, the hills were still there, but the sheer beauty of the route was striking. The first (and hilliest) 25 miles of this leg were by far the prettiest, with low sun painting hay fields warm orange, deep shadows from the remote hills providing a stark contrast, and a blue sky mixed in with a variety of clouds right above it all. We missed so much last time! Still, it was a hard ride. I recall telling Kate, “Do you know the name of this road we're on? It's called Fair Hill Road but I don't see anything fair about hills this steep, this late in the day!” Soon, the sun began to set and although there was still plenty of light, as we approached US-11, a busy road, we turned the lights on as a precaution. From here on, it was a fast, mostly downhill, ride into the first overnight control.
We rolled into the hotel in the twilight, just as the streetlights came on, and were greeted by Dan, Mike and Paul.  We were surprised when Paul took our picture and told us we were the first finishers of the day!  Four years ago, we had been some of the last. Before long, our cards were signed, SPOT trackers checked and we were shepherded into the common room where hot lasagna and other foods were waiting. What a service! It makes such a difference to arrive to the control at the end of a long day in the saddle and not have to worry about... anything, really!  As planned, Kate grabbed something quick and went to the room to shower.  Later she would come eat while I showered.
While eating the dinner, I made an assessment of the day. The Plan called for our arrival at about 9:30pm. We made it about an hour earlier, and our riding speed appeared to be quite a bit faster than projected, thanks to the tailwind from the south that pushed us along most of the day. Both Kate and I were tired, but we never went into the red, meaning better recovery for tomorrow. Kate had time to use her Compex muscle stimulator while I was simply happy for more sleep than planned. The next day's plan called for earlier arrival to the overnight meaning we could relax more at the stops and still arrive during the daylight. Kate was worried about her shifters giving out completely. Once they go, they go and there is nothing to do about it.  The spring was gone on the right shifter and she had to pull it back each time to shift.  She wrapped some bandages around her fingers to prevent chafing.  Doing this ride with only front gears was not what she had in mind.  We briefly discussed the possibility of starting a little later, at 5am, but eventually agreed to start at 4am, according to The Plan, and have a better cushion for the unforeseen situations.   With that comforting thought, I went to sleep.
The morning was dark and the roads were wet, although it wasn't raining anymore. We got some breakfast, packed up, donned night gear, and headed off into the darkness. The course called for a long flat stretch out of the control, so I had planned we would make good time.  But with the road glistening from the rain, we could not see very well, and slowed down quite a bit. Kate fell into a gloomy mood, matching the weather, and I was no better. We rode through Binghampton without saying much to one another.   Kate did not want to stay on my wheel getting rain and dirt in her face, even with the fender.  I had not put on my rain vest, so I was cold.  After such a great day yesterday, we were falling way behind The Plan. Kate said she wanted to adjust her saddle a bit and I wanted to put on my vest, so we agreed to stop at the next gas station, which thankfully was less than a mile down the road. The sky started to brighten up, but the rain was still coming down pretty hard. We were dripping wet as we came into the gas station, where I found some microwaved breakfast sandwiches and coffee and put on my rain vest. It probably took us 15 minutes but we felt much better. We set out just as a group of riders was passing by, so we rode with them for a while. 
At the next control the rain let off and more food lifted our mood. Just as Kate and I were ready to roll out, we noticed that Peter was getting ready to leave, so the three of us continued to ride together for the rest of the day. I was getting nervous about us finishing in the daylight, as we were a full half an hour behind The Plan at this early point, and the wind was not being helpful like it was the day before. 
We came upon a section of closed road where we had to carry the bikes over a barrier. I'm not sure how long the road was closed, but the vines were already spreading over the pavement in places, giving the place a somewhat post-apocalyptic look. The sky was starting to clear up, the river on the right looked beautiful, and the pavement dried enough not to whip up the water as it had earlier. Patches of fog were appearing here and there, rising from the wet ground. The quiet roads were taking us through farms now, a far cry from the urban landscape we rolled through in the morning.
This was the section where the most dramatic dog chase of the entire ride happened. There were two middle-sized farm dogs sitting outside who noticed us and gave chase. It was an uphill, not much but enough to stop us from just sprinting away. One of the dogs gave up quickly but another kept going, switching from one side of the road to another, barking and following us. I yelled at them in Russian and Peter yelled in German, while Kate cussed in good 'ole English. Looking back, the dog was probably playing as it never really came close, but it sure felt like a full-blown dog sprint at the time. After 30 seconds or so, the pooch gave up and strolled back to the farm it came from. We kept an eye for dogs from then on.
We arrived to Canton, still close to half an hour behind The Plan but at least we were not losing time any more. After a few minutes inside, Kate remarked, “This looks like the last control on the second day of the ride 4 years ago.” She was right! I recall sitting at gas station, utterly exhausted, hoping that someone would steal the tandem and we wouldn't have to ride in the cold and dark any longer. The same place but 4 years ago... we had arrived about 6pm but we spent too long at the gas station, huddled inside, with every piece of clothing we had on us, trying to get warm and eat something that would help us get going. I told Kate how it was 80 something miles to go.  She was hopeful we would get some sleep, but it turned into a 10 hour, bitterly cold death march to a DNF  Fast-forward 4 years: thanks to the weather (75 instead of 35 degrees), Tom's reworking the route, and better preparation on our part, the day was still new instead of fading and things were looking very good. There was still a way to go, so I put the nostalgia aside, got the slave driver mask on and we were rolling again soon.
Going over the next section, Kate and I were pointing out the memorable places from the last ride. “Hey, we stopped there for a hug break! Hey, that's where you were trying to mace those two dogs that came after us in the dark! Hey, that's a particularly nasty downhill where I had to slow down for a turn and then we had to grind all the way up in our lowest gear!” Actually, I think there were a whole lot of those last ones... We grew to lovingly call them “Tom's rollers.” You see, a typical “Tom's roller” consists of a half a mile uphill at 6% or more and a screaming half a mile downhill on the other side. Ideally, there would be a stop sign or a nasty turn at the bottom to rob you off all the momentum you gained on the downhill. Lather, rinse, and repeat. I remembered what torture this section was on the tandem in the dark and cold. On the singles, it was merely a hard ride and we had some beautiful scenery to keep us distracted. Kate, Peter and I had fun chasing each other down the hills.  Finally, a downhill didn't end with an uphill and we rolled through a small village of Liberty. Last time we rode through the village, it was completely dark, with only a few lights in the windows to show that people inhabited the place. This time it was a post card picturesque small Pennsylvania village. What a difference the daylight can make!
Finally, there was our reward, a 20-mile downhill (well, mostly) through the Pine Creek State Park. Unlike four years ago, we got to see and enjoy the cornfields, the marshes, quiet creeks, and fog rising from the mountains. The only distraction was some light rain. Thankfully Kate waited until the bottom of a hill, and a brief break in the rain, to get a flat. Having gotten 5 flats on the PA 300k ride, I was quite well trained in the art of roadside flat repair, and we were rolling again in under 10 minutes. We passed the biker bar where all the late night riders were trying to get warm 4 years ago. It was here that I fell asleep by the fire, only to be awaken by Kate telling me that we need to get rolling while another randonneur (Dan?) was stuffing newspaper between his jersey and jacket to keep the heat in. This time, we rolled right by, without as much as slowing down.
Some miles down the road, we passed a lake and a dam, at which point the road pointed up. “Well, it looks like the 20 mile downhill is over, Kate.” Only a few miles later, we came to a T intersection, where 4 years ago the volunteers had a support station with pizza. I recall getting a slice and biting into it only to find it had burned into charcoal on the bottom, and spitting it out violently while the poor volunteer watched helplessly. I forgot the names of the volunteers who were there (along of many other things about that night) but I remember the fellow who gave me the pizza. Man, if you're reading it, I'm sorry! Last year at a bike race, Kate recognized the guy. He was working as a race official. We introduced ourselves and had a good laugh about it, marveling at the small world of cycling.
The next control was right down the road. We took our time, getting sandwiches and Pete and I had ice cream. Checking The Plan, I noticed that we made up some time while rolling, spent some extra at the control but were not falling further behind. Considering that we had a bit of a headwind for the entire day, this was good. The Plan had a margin built into it so we were still golden. The only downside of spending longer time at the control was having stiff legs when we finally got rolling.
As Tom had promised, the last leg of the day was vastly different from what we had 4 years ago. We took a gentler route to Lock Haven and got to ride by the floodwall protecting the town from Susquehanna River. There were a few extra hills going into Lamar, one of which had several false summits, getting me to do a crazy laugh impersonation, which Kate did not find amusing. Downhill to Lamar was rewarding, though, seeing that Flying J post was like a carrot to encourage me. Once inside, I grabbed a donut and coffee, finished the donut before checking out, grabbed another and then had to explain to the cashier that yes, I had two donuts, and yes, I finished one while waiting in the line. That was a scene that repeated itself over the next two day as I found it easier to pick the supplies while eating already. While outside, Kate and I shared our Lamar memories with Peter. Four years ago, we abandoned the ride here, and we're still convinced it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.
The final leg of the ride was rather uneventful. We diverted from The Plan but we were well on track for the daytime finish. Narrows Rd was like a space warp, landing us somewhere in Vermont for a short while before returning to the familiar Pennsylvania farmland. The Bull Run Rd climb was like riding through the rainforest in the ocean facing side of the Cascades, there was just so much green everywhere. The downhill called for some brakes, for once. After a false flat on Rt 192, we had an absolute blast going downhill into Lewisburg. There were only a couple of short hills in the mix, plus a careless driver who pulled out from a side road closer than comfortable. I don't think the most drivers realize that bicycles can easily break 30 mph when the road turns down a bit! We had a nice paceline going into the town right until the traffic light and took it easy rolling through the side streets. When we rolled in, the sun was behind the hills but the golden clouds were still filling the sky and it was still bright outside. We were greeted by smiling volunteers and got to experience the superb support EM1240 is famous for yet again!  Len took Kate’s bike for her as she went in to clean up.  Peter, Len and I chatted as we oiled the chains and readied the bikes for the next day’s adventure. Ron and Barb were hosting the dinner this time.  The highlight of the dinner was Barb's vegetarian chili complemented with grilled chicken and, of course, BEER! Nothing like a cold one at the end of the ride.
During the dinner, Kate, Peter and I reviewed The Plan for the next day, and agreed to roll out at 5am again. Kate got her swimsuit on and went for the pool and hot tub, while I just went to sleep.
In the morning we had the hotel breakfast and got going.  The sky was brightening, promising a (mostly) clear day. We also got some tough hills first thing in the morning, to get the legs going no doubt. On the first downhill, Peter and I plunged down and had to wait for Kate, who pointed out the folly of going 50 mph downhill in twilight. We rode on quietly. At one point, Kate mentioned she was looking forward to coffee at the next control. At about mile 18, we were passing a gas station and I called out for a second breakfast stop. We got coffee, and breakfast sandwiches, and pastries, including some to take with us. 15 minutes later, a much happier group of randonneurs got back on the road. We were pointing out to each other how much difference a few hundred calories and coffee can make, and I'm not just talking about riding ability! Our moods improved greatly. I don't remember anything standing out about the rest of this leg. There were some farms, and the road continued along the valley, with a ridge to our right, making a lot of 90 degree turns to get around the farm fields. A light breeze started to pick up, impeding our progress.
We were about to turn into Sheetz, being so used to having a Sheetz for the control. Looking on the cue sheet, we continued to the right place: Tom's gas station/deli/everything else, just down the road. The usual 15 minute food purchase and stretch the legs routine, and we were off. Just as we started, I noticed something wrong with the right pedal. I waved Kate and Peter to keep rolling and did a short check. The pedal appeared to be almost seized; it was finger tight to turn. I gave it a good shake and it seemed to loosen it up. I started off, figuring that it was held together by a good sized nut and while the pedal internals were probably getting ground into oblivion it was not likely to completely disintegrate on me. That turned out to be true, and the pedal was ridable for the next 300 miles. It continued to make bad grinding noises from time to time, and a few times it felt like it was about to seize but would eventually loosen up. I am glad it turned out to be nothing more than annoyance as there were no bike shops on the route.
The next section was notable for the abundance of fresh chip-seal spread all over the road. It was littering the side of the road, making nice piles to sink the tires into. It was collecting into the little dips on the turns, making traps for cyclists coming into a turn with too much speed. Constant vibrations passed to the hands and already tenderized butts. Plus, chip-seal slows you down by about a gear! Together with the breeze, it conspired to make this section a slow torture-fest. The chip-seal would disappear for a little while, giving false hope, just to appear again at the next turn! It was exercise in character building. A really mean and ugly character, that is. I was happy for this section to be over.
We met Judd and his wife at the next control, and he mentioned “a climb” on the upcoming section.  Kate said, “You mean like the last few hundred miles of climbing we have been doing?” And Judd just smiled.  My first thought was, “Does it have chip-seal?” We rolled out and joined US-22. “That goes right by our house- let’s ride home,” Kate noted wryly. We were going in a tight paceline on this busy road, and Peter hit a rock, narrowly avoiding a crash. We just weren't used to having somebody else along, as we tend to ride in "air tandem" style, without much need to communicate.  From here on, we made a point to call out hazards verbally as well as pointing them with a hand.

We continued on rolling terrain, and with each hill I wondered, “Is that the hill Judd was talking about?  It grew hotter in the sun. Than after crossing US-22 again, we made a turn on Sugar Grove Rd that had an “UH-OH” written right on the road. “This got to be the hill then,” I said. The hill didn't disappoint, presenting some very steep sections. But it was darkly shaded and cool, bordered with mountain streams. Peter had a saying written on his bike club jersey and Kate started reciting the Robert Frost poem from which it came:  The woods are lovely dark and deep… but I have promises to keep… and miles to go before I sleep… miles to go before I sleep.  We met Judd and his wife again at the top of the climb, manning a secret control with a big, knowing smile.  He said we looked good, in a surprised sort of way. We had the cards stamped, gulped down some water, and were off to a rewarding downhill on the other side of the ridge.
The next section had some character as well. The road turned into rollers, one a little taller than the one before, with no respite between. After more than a dozen of those appetizers, we got our main course; the Jo Hayes climb. Of all the hills on this edition of EM1240, I'd vote for Jo Hayes being the toughest mother flower in the bunch. It was one grade, with very little variation, all the way to the top, with little scenery to keep one's mind occupied and traffic constantly buzzing by. Kate stuck right on my wheel to the top. For the descent, I took the entire lane and let it rip. Kate was a little more cautious, getting to the gas station a minute later. She looked quite exhausted and said something along the lines of, “I'm going to need more than 15 minutes here.” From the way it was said, I figured that was non-negotiable. We took our time to recover in the air-conditioned room, getting caffeinated beverages, ice cream and sandwiches.
Fortunately, the next section was either flat or had true rollers, the kind that you can gain some speed and use it to get to the top. The wind continued from the southeast but now it was helping us along. We were flying! And we were making up time on the schedule. If the Pine Grove rest stop was longer than The Plan called for, this section made up for it and more.

For the next and last control we had to find a monument in the small town of Rebersburg and write down the date we found there. The town is so small you could hold your breath and get through it, but Kate spotted the monument before we rolled passed. We noted on our brevet cards- 1862 was the date that local townsmen were mustered into service during the Civil War. Luckily, we were there early enough that the general store was open, so we got some food.  It was a bit as though we had gone back in time. A very old woman took our sandwich orders.  The shop sold staples, like sugar and flour by the pound in large bags. The place accepted credit cards but also checks (made out in the family name) and even personal credit to the locals.
The last section of the day featured rolling hills, the next one taller than the one before but still not steep. We reached a gentle climb on Rt 192 and soon we passed Bull Run Rd on the left. I could smell the barn! The downhill was now a familiar one, and we ripped with abandon. Not much to say here, it was as gorgeous of scenery as it was the first time around. We took it easy through the town and finally rolled into the overnight control before 8pm, with sun still gracing the sky.
The stellar support from the volunteers was there again. Lane checked us in and Ron and Barb fed us for the second night in a row. Kate and I rode a big chunk of PA 400k with Lane this year and while he was down with a sore knee (I think) this time, he looked all psyched up for the next PA ride season. Did I mention there was beer in the cooler? My vote goes to the IPA as the best recovery beverage ever! While having a dinner, Kate, Peter and I made a plan to roll out at 6am on the last day and do the last day of riding entirely in the daylight.  Once again, Kate did some active recovery in the pool and Jacuzzi while I hit the sack.
Next morning, we were hoping the hotel would put out more than bad coffee and a few old bagels, but that didn't happen. We checked the McDonald's next door, but it was closed until 6am. The next choice was to ride until the first gas station, which was only 3 miles to go. On our way out, we saw Mike Anderson rolling into the overnight control. We gave him a big cheer.  I truly admire the courage and persistence of the folks that rode through the night. We stopped at the gas station, devoured our breakfast sandwiches, donuts and coffee within the allotted 15 minutes, and were on the way. Even with 130+ miles to go, it felt like we were almost done. The barn was still far away, but we could smell it.  Our butts were sore, but our spirits were high.
We rolled along the river and over some rollers straight into the first control. Quick stop, food and coffee and we were rolling again. Gap Rd climb was steady, and we enjoyed the quiet road on Sunday morning. On the crest we saw an off road park, with dozens of Jeep Wranglers parked all over and more coming up as we descended. You know the guys are serious about off-roading when there's a snorkel on every other car. After the downhill, Pine Grove was probably the busiest town of the entire four-day ride but we turned onto the secondary roads soon. We were in for a surprise climb on Rt 645. What it didn't have in length, it made up in steepness.  We just stood up and toughed it out, but that might have been the first time all weekend we went anaerobic. The downhill on the other side was quite exciting too, with a 90 degree left turn at the bottom of 14% stretch. With the climb done, we were looking forward to some food and drinks, and fortunately the control was just down the road.
The next section was not particularly memorable. There were beautiful farmlands, and we followed along the top of a small ridge dissecting a valley, but that was the kind of scenery we were used to by now. Many small rollers later, we rode into Virginville to drop off the post cards. There was no gas station or deli nearby and Peter really wanted a cold drink. There was a bar that was opened but it was a little early for a beer. Kate and I agreed that what we really wanted was a coke float. We convinced Peter to hold out.  We decided to continue along the route and stop at the first place that looked promising. That place turned out to be Crystal Cave, a true tourist attraction with, YES, an ice cream shack!  We procured ourselves ice cream floats and put our feet up. This being the last stop on the ride, we decided to take our time, chat and enjoy the food instead of devouring it. We saw a constant stream of families walking towards the cavern and another stream emerging from the cavern and heading to either food shack or ice cream shack or panning for gold in the fake stream.  We didn’t want to leave.
With the last bit of ice cream and carbonated sweetness gone, we had no choice but to hop on our bikes and get this thing done. Some way down the road, as we were starting to feel like the ride should really be over and why, oh why do the mountains continue endlessly in our path, we saw a couple in a parking lot, the gentleman on a bike and the lady ringing a cow bell and cheering.  At first, we were confused, but then we realized they were cheering for us!  The last time someone rang a cowbell at me was at the Battenkill Gran Fondo in the spring! It was very uplifting. The guy (sorry man, I forgot your name!) joined us for a little while, jumping a bit ahead to take pictures on the climb and then rolling along. We felt energized as we continued along another series of rollers and curvy descents and small farms on the roadside. Soon, the area was becoming more populated. We were riding through familiar territory, the road signs pointing to the familiar towns just a few miles away.

Finally, we made that last turn onto Rt 663. The end was in sight. We traded pulls on this final stretch and just chilled for the last couple of miles. At the entrance to the hotel, Keith took our picture as we tried to pose rolling side by side. Then there was Chris congratulating us on the finish.  We were again, the first finishers. Although that was never our goal, we felt proud. There was more picture-taking and posing with our medals. We hung around to see more people finish and hear the stories from the road. And there was beer, and more beer. We were only sorry that Tom was waylaid by work and could not be there.  We stayed up for as long as we could keep our heads up and eyes open, talking and laughing and listening and feeling really good. Then we went to bed and slept very soundly.

So, that’s the story of an extraordinary, yet ordinary ride. In the four years since our last attempt, so much had happened.  We faced some challenges (Kate was diagnosed with MS) as well as some great joys (we got married) but mostly we rode our bikes and had a lot of fun.  We knew we wanted to try the Endless Mountains again, and while we didn’t set out to train for it in a narrowly focused way, it was always there in the background, calling. Thank you Tom, and all the other volunteers.  We hope to be on the other side next time, cheering and supporting the next bunch through the EM1240.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Chocolate Milk

This morning, my coffee is infused with fresh, creamy chocolate milk from the Battenkill Valley Creamery.  My Gran Fondo winning time of 3:32:17 would also have put me in the top spot the day before in my category.  It was a tiny bit faster than my pace in 2011. It was cold, there was a bit of freezing rain, but the dirt was perfect. As always, it's a difficult race, but so much fun to be there with all my friends.  Dieter Drake and his crew surely know how to put on a great event. The best part is that I got to race with Victor!

Don't get me wrong, I love racing in the women's peleton, but any day I get to ride with Victor is a joy.  We have completed the 200km and 300km qualifiers for the Endless Mountains 1240km- Victor has promised to guest blog about our randonneuring adventures, so stay tuned.

This spring I also had great time racing with my teammate Bari Wood at Bethel and look forward to more races with her and my other teammates coming up.
Bethel with Kristin Thor Budden and Bari Wood

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Face the Sun

UCI recently posted videos from the UWCT events in South Africa (see below). Watching them gets me psyched for new adventures and challenges ahead.  It also reminds me to take care and be cautious.  Last year, juggling responsibilities and pressures, I let the ball drop on my health.  My body was telling me something was wrong. I listened, although I didn't really like what I heard, and have made some changes that I hope will make it possible for me to continue doing all of the things I love. 

A year ago, I went off my MS medication.  The truth is, I just didn't want to define myself as a person with MS, and sticking myself with a needle each day was a painful reminder.  Sure enough, my symptoms started coming back worse than before.  As I stood waiting to go up on the ramp at the UWCT time trial, I was dizzy.  I knew the feeling would go away once I started riding, but walking up the stairs with my bike was a challenge.  

By the fall, I was regularly waking up in the middle of the night with intense muscle spasms that would seize up my legs in pain.  The dizziness was constant. My left hip and foot were so painful I could not walk without a limp. I had to stop running.  I searched for answers.  I consulted a neurologist, internist, ENT, podiatrist, orthopedist, therapist and nutritionist. I had X-rays, MRIs, shots, and tried a variety of diets, drugs and therapies.  Finally, I went back on Copaxone.  In just a short time, the spasms and dizziness have subsided. The pain is still there, but I'm managing. I learned that while I don't have to define myself by MS, I can’t ignore it either.  

One of the things that keeps me healthy is having athletic goals, which motivate me to continue exercising in spite of pain and other exacerbations.  Back in 2009, Victor and I attempted to ride the inaugural Endless Mountains 1240km (DNF story here).  We made some mistakes, but we learned from them.  This time around, I think we can do it!   We start with base training in South Carolina this week.

On our last day in South Africa, I picked up a sugar packet that had a message printed on the back:  "Turn to face the sun and the shadows will fall behind you." I stuck it in my pocket and keep it on a shelf because I think it’s a really good way to live your life.  Along with a remarkable team of fellow volunteers, I will organize the Golden Apple Tour again.  This year I am excited to race for the Tarmac/Iron Bridge Consulting Elite Team and look forward to riding, training and racing with all my cycling friends.

Writing this blog also helps and motivates me. I love the craft of writing and hope that others can find inspiration and strength reading about my adventures and struggles. In the end, we all hope to be able to tell a good story.  So, as I turn to face the sun, letting the shadows fall behind, I embrace all who care to join me. Let's ride!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Best Race Ever!

My primary goal this year, at least in the beginning, was the Toughman.  But, when I qualified for the UCWT Final, my priorities shifted.  Swimming doesn’t tax the legs, so I did several long open water swims, but training for the bike prohibited much running.  In addition, I tore my hamstring doing a half marathon in March and that took weeks to heal.  If that’s not enough, I have chronic nerve pain in my left foot that becomes unbearable after about 3 miles, so I had not done more than 7 miles all summer, with most runs closer to 3 or 4.  My last run was at the beginning of August, so doing the Toughman on September 9th seemed impossible- or maybe just another challenge.  I decided I would try.  As it turned out, it was the most fun I have ever had racing.

The water in the Hudson was brackish and warm.  As I stood on the shore waiting for my wave to start, I joked and laughed with the other women.  I felt relaxed and ready to enjoy the day no matter what happened.  The horn went off and I ran into the water like a dog after a ball.  My line was straight, I stayed with the pack and drafted; it was the best swim time I have ever had- a mile in 31 minutes!  At one point I found myself wedged between two women, so rather than drop back or try to speed up, I began swimming in sync, so that we wouldn’t bump into each other.  I felt like a dolphin and imagined we might just leap out of the water together!

Now, you may not know this, but all the best races have strippers, and this one was no exception.  I ran up to the beach, pulled my wetsuit down to my hips and flopped down on the ground.  A stripper grabbed the wetsuit and WHOOOSH I was free.  

In no time I was out on the bike.  I always feel like a kid on the bike, but riding on the closed highway gave me an added thrill.  There were many friends marshaling along the way,  shouting encouragement.  On the first loop, Bari (who was doing a relay) and I were leapfrogging- she would pass me on the uphill and I would fly by on the downs and flats.  After my experience in South Africa I was worried about dehydration, so I drank down my 40oz bottle after the 1st turn around grabbed a refill.  I had to stop pedaling to pour it into my aero bottle and lost Bari.  Then, my aero bar slipped.  It was hanging down on the right side.  I was trying to figure out what to do about it when I saw the Briarcliff Bike Works tent.  I pulled over and showed Lou the problem.  He quickly got out his wrench and tightened the bars in place.  Thanks to Lou I was back on the road!  I refilled my bottle one more time as I headed back into the park.

Alas, I had misjudged and my quaff to sweat ratio was off.   I decided to go to the port-o-john in the transition area.  It might have been a better idea to go in the woods.  It was a struggle to get out of and back into my tri suit without touching anything! It was by far the longest transition I have ever had- 6+ minutes!!!  No matter, I knew the hardest part was ahead and I was just hoping I could finish the race, not worried about making any personal record. 

I took off very slowly to warm up my running muscles.  After about 3 miles the pain in my foot kicked in.  My mental strategy was to recognize the pain and then file it away in a box on a far away shelf that I could ignore.  It wasn’t very hard, because there were so many other thoughts flooding my mind.  I lived in Croton for 15 years and raised my kids there.  The run went by my old house and along the trails I used to run with my dogs when I first discovered my inner athlete.  It went passed the beach where my son was a lifeguard.  It went passed the field where my daughter played soccer.  Though I didn’t grow up in Croton, passing over the Croton Dam I was reminded of my high school days when teenagers from miles around would congregate on a sunny afternoon to throw Frisbees and drink beer.  At every mile there were people giving out water and nutrition.  There were cheerleaders and marching bands and girl scouts and boy scouts and whole families cheering us forward.  I felt grateful and energized just to be.

By some miracle, my muscles were holding up.  But people were still passing me.  So, at the turn around I picked up the pace.  I was concerned about the big hill on RT 129 at mile 10 because I remembered how difficult it was four years ago.  But, this year it seemed much easier.  I even passed several people!  Then, it was all downhill to the finish.  I was elated; I was going to do it! 

With about a mile to go, I heard a female voice behind.  Suddenly, the competitor in me shouted an alert!  As the woman caught me, I picked up my pace to stay with her as she was my age.  We ran together for a while. I had no idea how many people in my age group were in front of me, but I didn't want to let her get away.  It was not easy keeping up, but I did.  Then, about 200 meters from the end, a young guy she knew came up and started pacing her at a faster clip.  I thought, “OK, that’s it.  I’m done,” and I let her get away. 

Then, I heard Marcus saying, “Don’t give up!”  I dug down deep and caught her 100 meters from the end.  I pulled ahead, fueled by some mysterious power reserve.  You can see how happy I was when I crossed the finish line from the smile on my face.  I didn’t know it, but I had won 2nd place in my age group!   Amazingly enough, I even set a new PR! 

Victor and his son were there with me to celebrate as I went up on stage.   I got a humongous medal, a plaque and fancy heart-rate monitor watch as a winner’s gift.  We ate BBQ, drank beer and marveled at how much fun the triathlon scene can be.  Even as the event was drawing to a close, the last athletes finished to cheers as the MC announced their names and congratulated each one!  Victor was very impressed.   Although I have encouraged him, he has never been interested in competing in triathlon.  As we were leaving, he stopped at the Danny’s Cycles booth.  They were having a 50% off sale.  I went ahead to get stuff to the car and when he showed up; he had purchased a pair of tri shoes!  Toughman 2012 was my 67th race since June 2001.  It was, by far, the most fun I have ever had racing. The only thing that could make it better is racing it next year with Victor.