Monday, July 13, 2009
Racing Distance: The Saratoga 12/24
Saratoga is a place steeped in the history of battle, the traditions of horse racing and the hope of its rejuvenating springs. At 8am on Saturday, July 11th, I mounted my trusty steed, a second-hand Trek 5200 I call Morrigan, and began a long, arduous battle that would not end until I was drenched, exhausted and victorious 12 hours later.
Only a handful of women compete in this race each year. Most women’s bike races place all the riders in one group, from pros to masters with only one winner. But the pros typically don’t go near distance racing, and thus it is the perfect venue for a strong amateur rider, such as myself. In fact, there are relatively few men who race distance in this country. It takes a special kind of physical ability and mental fortitude that some people call Crazy. My partner Victor was also racing, but he dropped out after 4 loops and became my support. He made the mistake of trying a new nutrition product that didn’t agree with him. I felt bad for him, but happy to have him there for me, especially at the end.
The ride began with sun and a cool, blustery wind. The course was a steep climb up Bacon Hill and then rolling to flat terrain north towards Bluebird Road. After the climb I got down in my aero bars, dropped into my big ring and flew. The course was perfect for my abilities. I was able to pass many riders and some looked at me with concern wondering if I was doing the 12 or the 24-hour race. When they saw the 12 on my race number they were relieved.
It’s a non-drafting event, so you can’t really talk to people. My primary competition was Nancy Guth, a Champion ultra racer. We leapfrogged each other for the first few loops. I said if we kept going at that pace, we could break the course record of 199 miles and asked if she could do it. “I can,” she replied. So, I figured maybe I could too. But, she dropped back after a while, probably because she had just raced the previous weekend. Yet, as I would pass her after each checkpoint, she would shout encouragement.
The first checkpoint marked the turn southward and down the Hudson River to Schuylerville and the second checkpoint. The round trip loop was 32.5 miles this year. The winds were coming out of the South at over 15mph, with gusts up to 30mph, so that made the second part of the loop particularly brutal, especially as it climbed out of the valley back up Bacon Hill. This continued relentlessly all day long. I would fly through the first half of the loop, only to watch my average speed drop through the second half. After a while, I realized I was alone on the road and began to amuse myself by counting and repeating nonsense phrases or remembering the words to songs. I noticed a woman sitting on her porch, and there she remained for 3 loops, doing nothing but sitting and watching. I was glad to be riding.
I managed to find the perfect quaff to sweat ratio, and only needed to stop for the bathroom once. I refilled my aero bottle a few times with green tea and sucked down a few ounces of gel every half hour. My body had some aches, but nothing awful. I felt strong and energized. I knew I could win, and more importantly, break the course record. It grew cloudy and dark, then, at 6pm, the sky finally rumbled and flashed and let out a torrent of rain. But, the winds died down, so believe it or not, it seemed like a fine trade-off. Victor got in the car and started leapfrogging me to make sure I was OK. I came through the final checkpoint with under a half hour left. I knew I had to ride hard in order to accomplish my goal. I’m still not sure how I did it, but in what seemed like no time at all it was 8pm, and I had passed the 11-mile mark making my final mileage 207.