Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Preservation Pedal: Redemption and Weird Love

A new month is nearly over, so it must be time for another blog post.  My personal productivity never fails to amaze me.  No, wait, I'm sorry -- I should be truthful; my personal productivity constantly fails to amaze me.  But anyway, let me bore you with my tale.

Way back when the spring was young, I resolved to make a trial of the Kentucky Century Challenge.  That's four 100-mile single-day rides in hilly terrain; complete 'em all, and you get a free jersey.  Accordingly, in April, I went down to London, KY, and rode the Redbud Ride.  There, I was successful, in what I was told is the most difficult of the four, and I thought the Century Challenge was pretty much in the bag.  I found out differently over the Memorial Day weekend, at the Horsey Hundred in Georgetown, where I failed, a leg-cramp casualty 72 miles in.  But I learned some lessons there.  I learned that just because they claim the ride is supported, and there'll be food and drink at the rest stops, it ain't necessarily so, and the wise cyclist stuffs his jersey pockets with emergency rations and maintains a strict "keep full" policy with respect to his water bottle.  After the Horsey, I was bitter and disillusioned about the Challenge, and actually toyed with the notion of skipping the Preservation Pedal, even though I'd already paid the registration.  The registration, you see, was only $35 (compared to the larcenous $65 extorted by the Horsey).  The Preservation Pedal departs from Winchester, which isn't far from Georgetown, so I figured I could expect the same sort of terrain, and -- truth to tell -- I wasn't all that eager to see more of that.  But a few weeks went by, and I thought, well, I've already paid, let's go see if we can complete another one; don't want those Kentuckians thinking that this northeast Indiana flatlander has run away, tail 'twixt legs like a whipped dog.

So I headed down there.  And I went nice and early, the day before.  My friend Joseph had suggested that I conduct a driving reconnaissance of the course, so I'd at least know what to expect and where.  The course wasn't available online (else I could've used Google Earth for the purpose).  When I got there for the advertised early packet pickup, when I should've gotten my route map and cue sheet, I discovered that a severe thunderstorm had dismantled the organizers' tent, and the packets were unavailable until event morning.  So I went and checked into my lodging, with a familiar sinking feeling: it's a surprise party, and the surprises are usually disagreeable.  This time, I had my (lockable) cap installed on my truck, so I required my trusty mount to sleep out in the truck.  It did not complain.

So, event morning.  The forecast called for rain all day.  This required me to make a mirror-related decision right away.  My rear-view mirror mounts to glasses (any glasses will do).  At the Redbud, on a bright sunny day, I wore my contacts and a pair of sunglasses, and that worked fine.  At the Horsey, another clear day, I opted for my prescription glasses, which worked pretty well although I had to rinse dripped sweat off the lenses several times.  But, if it rained, I didn't want to wear my glasses, which would be constantly collecting water.  So I opted for the contacts, and no mirror, although I didn't feel good about it -- that mirror has come in handy at times.  It seemed like the best solution at the time.  I slipped into my water-bearing hydration backpack, filled my frame bottle, and stuffed three Special K protein bars and a Milky Way into my jersey pockets, and was about as ready as I could be.  It wasn't raining, but the sky was solid-overcast and the relative humidity felt like 99.9%; it was one of those fairly cool but clammy sort of mornings.

We started from the courthouse square (Winchester is the county seat of Clark County).  The official start time for the century was the usual 8 am.  At 7:40, I was leaning on my bike in front of the courthouse and was fairly shocked at how few cyclists I saw -- few enough for me to make a rough count.  There were certainly no more than a hundred of us.

See all the cyclists?  Neither do I.  That's because most of them are already on the course.

A couple of minutes before 8, without announcement or ceremony, people started riding out, so I zeroed my bike computer's mileage, clipped in, and joined the meager pack.  Between one thing and another, this seemed like an inauspicious start, and I must admit that my heart really wasn't in it.  The event kind of smelled like another fiasco, or at least a hundred miles of drudgery, to me, and part of me was wishing I'd stayed home.

But, you know, exercise is the best antidepressant, and after a few miles I was enjoying the ride.  It got hilly right out of town and pretty much stayed that way the whole ride.  The first fifty miles or so was very reminiscent of the Horsey, with some big, long, punishing climbs followed by steep, brake-heating descents; after that, it was pretty much rolling hills that are easier to handle (if you can see what's coming up, you feel free to go downhill as fast as you can, carrying some kinetic energy that you can trade for gravitational potential on the following uphill).  When I was at the second rest stop, I did hear a witness's account of how one guy crashed out on one of the steep, winding descents only about 7 miles in: he couldn't make a switchback turn, and he and his bike slid under the guardrail, and he left part of his face on the bottom edge of the rail.  That's why I get passed a lot on downhills of that sort; if I don't know what's coming, I use my brakes as necessary so I always have a decent chance of dealing with the unexpected.  I need to live forever, so as to cost my former employer as much as possible in pension payments, you see.

The first rest stop was 17 miles in.  I was, of course, vitally interested in the food situation, and what I discovered wasn't promising: trail mix was the only food on offer.  I wasn't hungry yet, but you have to eat proactively, so I threw down a bag of trail mix, and added a second bag to my jersey-pocket pantry.  Tanked up on water, and off I went.

Toward the left, it seems that my phone/camera might have been wet.  It was, along with everything else.  A clammy morning.

 I grabbed a few pictures between the first and second stops:

A bottom-land creek.  Muddy, probably because of the previous day's rain.  May've been dry before that.

And some higher terrain.  Still lots of water in the air.  Pretty state, Kentucky is.

32 miles in, the second stop was hosted by the Allansville Baptist Church.  Initially, I had that "here-we-go-again" feeling, as the only food on offer was more trail mix and mini-pretzels.  At least, water and reconstituted Gatorade were plentiful.  I used liberal amounts of water to wash down a little bag of mini-pretzels.  But, just as I was about to mount up and go, reinforcement food arrived.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (PBJS)!  PB-and-honey sandwiches!  Bananas!  Orange quarters!  Cookies!  All that heart could desire.  So I did a PBJS, a banana, a couple of orange quarters, and a cookie, topped off with water, and set off down the road (Muddy Creek Road, in fact) with a little more cheer.  Things were looking up.

Between stops two and three, the weather started to break:

The sun ... I knew it had to be there, somewhere.

The third stop was at 50 miles, at Bethlehem Church.  It was lavishly provisioned.  I ate and drank there in the same way, and in the same quantities, as the previous one.  I didn't feel hungry, and initially felt a little over-full when I was leaving, but I have learned one lesson very well: if it's a century, and you're at a stop, eat!  I was encouraged by words I overheard at that stop from a guy who'd ridden the route before: the "big climbs" were pretty much over, although we could expect "rollers" constantly for the rest of the way.  This turned out to be correct.

One other lesson I've learned: take the "1 pm" warnings with a grain, or several grains, of salt.  On the Preservation Pedal cue sheet, as at the Horsey, there was a stop designated as a bailout point: we were instructed, if we reached the Sewell Shop stop at mile 57 at 1 pm or later, to make a 10-mile direct return to Winchester on a couple of designated roads.  When I got there, it was five minutes past one.  I wasn't about to punch out: there were a bunch of people behind me, I was going to finish that ride, and they could just close the roads and arrest me or whatever they wanted, but I was going on.  So I did.  And, for the record, I finished at about 4:50 pm.  Looking back, I cannot explain their thinking behind that, unless it was simply to provide an excuse to people who were exhausted and despairing of completion anyway.  I did, however, skip the stop at Sewell Shop; it was only seven miles past the previous one, I was full of food, and my water was still full as well.  It worked out fine.  Sometimes, you just have to keep your own counsel.

On my way to the North Middletown Christian Church stop, I encountered a couple of groups of Horsican-Americans who were near the road and seemed agreeable to the idea of my photographing them.

These horses seemed to find a low, muddy area of their pasture agreeable.

One of this group came right up to the fence.  I'm guessing that he or she was thinking, "Just let that goofball stick his hand through the fence; see what a hell of a bite I'll deliver."  I didn't.

Look at those horses.  Look at that sky.  Now tell me that northern Kentucky doesn't lavishly repay the effort involved in a hundred-mile ride.

At mile 83, there was a stop at the Clintonville Church.  As with all the stops all the way to the end, it was generously provisioned.  There, my bicycle shared a leaning post with a recumbent that I'd been sharing a pace with for most of the ride.  A few of us were talking to its owner.  I asked him how long it had taken to become comfortable riding it.  His answer: "About 1500 miles."  I think that must be a pretty different skill set.

Yes, the owner says there's a lengthy learning curve.  He also says there's no butt soreness involved: he has a "seat," not a "saddle."  He's got a point there.  I bet he goes through more Phil's Tenacious Oil than I do, at chain-service time.

An odd thing: after that stop at mile 83, although I was conscious of feeling tired, I felt no tiniest bit of "bonk," nor any ghost of a leg cramp.  I realized along about then that I'd been riding scared: afraid my legs would cramp, I'd been gearing down more, granny-gearing up every hill that seemed significant, not pushing.  But now I had growing confidence that they wouldn't cramp, and I started pushing myself.  My pace picked up substantially, and I began to lead my local "pack" of riders, more often than not.  And, as it turned out, I had nothing to fear.  Going back into Winchester, on near-level roads, I was cranking out 20 mph and feeling much the same as I normally do on a 25-mile training loop near my home.  And, in due course, I rolled up to the courthouse once again, and checked in at the Century Challenge table.

The official cue-sheet distance was 101.6 miles.  I'm fairly sure the cue sheet is correct.  Looks like I have a ~1.6% calibration issue.
It felt good.  It felt better than good.  I think I fell in love -- weird love -- with my own legs.  They're short, fat, stumpy things.  There's a scar or two, here and there.  I don't shave 'em.  But all they require is some food and water, and they'll just crank away as long as you ask them to.  Good boys, they are.

I still have a decision to make.  I can no longer get a "free" Century Challenge jersey, having whiffed on the Horsey.  But here's the deal: ride all four, free jersey; ride three of the four, get one at "cost" ($30); ride less than three, can't get one at all.  I'm thinking that, if I end up riding 3.72 out of four, which will be the situation if I complete the Hub City Tour in September, I could wear that jersey with a sense of honor, especially since that Horsey 0.72 of a century was partly their fault.  So, I may ride the Hub City after all.  I have a while to think it over, before I must decide.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Horsey Hundred: Century Failure

Let's go straight to the bottom line: my Kentucky Century Challenge campaign is over.  To be successful, you have to complete all four constituent rides.  You can't miss on any of them.  And I've missed on the Horsey Hundred.  I completed only 72 of the 104 miles of the century route there.  No free jersey for me!

How did this happen?  Well, it's a mixture of my stupidity and some non-performance by the Bluegrass Cycling Club.  I'll tell my side of it.  I'm guessing they won't tell theirs.  But let's start from the beginning.

This time, I lodged in a palatial Courtyard by Marriott, thanks to a Priceline deal.  The ride started out from Georgetown, but my hotel was in north Lexington, about 10 quick miles away by I-75.  No matter how posh the facility, though, it just wouldn't be the same without my two-wheeled aluminum and carbon fiber roommate.

We both slept well.  I used the bed, which was excellent.

The century and the 78-mile riders went off at 8 am.  Here's the street, in front of several Georgetown College buildings, about 15 minutes before that time.  The weather was flawless: about 70 degrees, clear skies, practically no wind.

A few minutes after I collected this image, a car inched its way through this crowd.  Very, very slowly.

The first rest stop was only about 13 miles in.  Seemed odd to me.  It had plenty of food.  I should have had more appreciation for food being present; later, that wouldn't be the case.  This rest stop was at a church in the small town of Midway; adjacent was an old cemetery.  In hindsight, that was a little bit of an omen, too.

One of these stones MUST say "Jim Wetzel's 2014 Kentucky Century Challenge, RIP."

Lexington, Georgetown, Frankfort: this is the heart of the bluegrass region, thoroughbred country.  I rode past seemingly endless rolling green pastures, bordered by very neat four-rail wooden fences and elderly-looking stone fences.  Many Horsican-Americans were present.  They tended to be far away, though, as the vastness of their pastures allowed them to keep well aloof from the two-wheeled human pests who infested the roadways, wearing goofy-looking helmets.  Here are some horses, out enjoying their morning ...

Yes, these were full-sized horses.  But they were far away, and the focal length of my phone camera is ... well, very short.

... and here's one of my fellow cyclists, likewise documenting them.

I think she had a more reasonable camera.

Mile 25, and a second rest stop.  The last one I saw with anything to eat.  Also cemetery-equipped.

I didn't check these stones for my name, either.  Should've.

About 42 miles in, we were routed past the front of the Kentucky Statehouse, in Frankfort (of course).  It's an attractive building.

I must admit that I was so busy keeping track of the pavement route markers that I didn't realize the city I had ridden into was Frankfort, until I got here.  Obliviousness, thy name is "Wetzel."

Third rest stop, 51 miles in.  Notice the great bounty of food available.  There were ... pickles.  Also pickles.  And some pickles.  Nothing else.

The line in the background is for water and pseudo-Gatorade.  It is a long line, the end of which is well out-of-frame.  Notice also the tiny little table which allegedly held food before they "ran out."  Anyone ever been on a supported ride?  Ever see so little space for provision?  Yeah, me neither.

Now, I don't know about you, but when my fuel tank is empty and I'm looking for some energy food, pickles are always the first thing I think of.  Or maybe not.  This rest-stop famine situation struck me as a Bad Thing, since we'd had 26 medium-tough miles since the last stop, and another 21 miles (of unknown difficulty) to the next.  Oh, well, I thought, nothing I can do about it; might as well get going.  I should add that, while there was both powdered imitation Gatorade and regular-type water available, there were long lines for both.  There was also a sign saying that if the time was 1 pm, and you were there, you would no longer have time to finish the century and should start following the 78-mile route markers.  The time was five minutes to noon when I read this.  I was bewildered; I'd started on time and had been keeping a decent 16-to-18 mph pace (when actually rolling), and I would have thought I should have an ample time margin in hand (as in, more than a mere hour).  Between the sign and the long water lines, I looked at the two-thirds full bottle on my bike and thought, that's enough to go 21 miles on; I'm getting out of here.  This turned out to be a bad mistake.  Live and learn ... or, sometimes, die and learn.

The next 21 miles were all hills.  None of them were quite as steep as the toughest ones I'd seen at the Redbud Ride, but they were pretty steep (I'd say up to 15% slopes in places), and they would climb constantly for long distances, often approaching a mile.  Then you'd get a steep, scary downhill, and then immediately start another long, punishing climb.  Basically, no level road to give you a chance at recovery.  By mile 60, I had drunk all my water, and by mile 65, I had "bonked:"  dehydration, loss of electrolytes, probably low blood sugar, no energy.  I kept having to make roadside stops (at which I'd ordinarily drink water, but I was out) just to catch my breath and occasionally take a picture like this one.  The route was still very scenic, but I was ceasing to be able to appreciate it.  I was starting to get leg cramps and making very slow progress indeed.  The thought of the rest stop at mile 72, presumably with abundant food, kept me moving ... sort of.

Again -- this is absolutely knock-your-eyes-out gorgeous country.  I'd have enjoyed it much more if I'd actually been alive.

I limped into the 72-mile rest stop with my left leg cramping almost continuously.  I got down in the grass and did a lot of stretching.  Then I went to the food area.  There were orange quarters and ... you guessed it, pickles.  I drank the powdered Gatorade mix as if it were good, which it wasn't.  I ate the equivalent of several oranges in the form of quarters.  I ate a pickle.  I filled my water bottle.  I sat around for a good while, stretching and resting and trying to convince myself that I could make it without the bananas and peanut-butter sandwiches I'd been hoping for.

The fourth stop was the Jack Jouett house, built in 1797.  Mr. Jouett was a hero of the American Revolution, credited with saving the lives of a number of Virginia legislators, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.  I just wish he'd left me a bunch of bananas somewhere.

I got on the bike, and had the left leg cramp up on about the second pedal stroke.  I stopped and rubbed it for a minute, and started out again.  Less than a tenth of a mile down the road, both legs cramped at once and I nearly dumped the bike.  At that point, it was obvious: to ride like that in the vicinity of any automobile traffic was too stupid an idea even for me.  I can just see having both legs lock up while screaming down one of those 35 mph downhills, with maybe a car coming the other way ... much potential for ugliness there.  So I walked the bike back into the worthless rest-stop area and made the call for the SAG vehicle, so that (for the first time ever, anywhere) I could make the Ride of Shame back to the start.  Which took quite a while, by the way; the driver had been asked to make a backward sweep of the portion of the course we'd already traveled, to check for any riders who might be broken down or injured at the roadside.  Of course, he did it much faster by car than I'd done it by bike, but 72 miles still takes a couple of hours to drive.

This really was a completely new experience to me.  I know about being winded.  I know about being tired ... very tired, even, as I was at the end of the Redbud. Those are conditions that are subject to one's will.  You can tell yourself that you need to crank a little bit, and you can do that.  You're not happy about it, maybe, but there's no question that it can be done.  But you get yourself dehydrated, and low on blood sugar, and it's a very different situation.  It no longer matters what you think would be a good thing to do.  Your motivation is irrelevant.  You've become a machine, with an empty gas tank.  The machine doesn't run, and that's all there is to it.  I'd read about "bonking" before, but had never experienced it.  It's very different from anything else.  Having now bonked, I know now what it is; it's a condition nearly as definite as a broken leg.  Absent the cramping, I could and would have finished the ride, even bonked, although it would have taken me several more hours.  The difficult hills, I was told, were behind me, and from the Jouett house back to Georgetown was (net) downhill.  But, even as much as I hated to quit -- and I hated it pretty comprehensively -- leg cramps aren't something you can argue with.  They don't listen.

Now, here's the thing: a lot of this is my fault.  Even given the rest-stop famine, most of those who set out to ride the century finished it.  I believe these were the folks who carried multiple water bottles and their own fuel, in the form of energy gels, energy bars, and suchlike, on their persons.  I should have been doing the same.  I also made a severe error in judgement by leaving the mile 51 stop without filling my bottle (and my belly) with water.  However ... the Bluegrass Cycling Club, as the sponsoring organization, collected the unprecedented sum of $65 from each rider as a registration fee, and that's about twice what any other ride I've been on does.  They claimed they would provide rest stops with food and drink, which they failed to do.  A "supported ride" is supposed to include food, drink, and SAG support; this was both the most costly and most poorly-supported ride I've ever experienced, and that is a disagreeable combination.  The riders I talked to were all angry about this; the ones who'd ridden the Horsey in previous years said that the provisioning of the stops had been excellent in the past, and that this was also the first year of the high registration fees.  In my mind, the BCC bears at least half the responsibility for the end of my Century Challenge campaign, and I cannot feel well-disposed toward them as a result.  It certainly increases my appreciation of a club like the Cumberland Valley Cycling Club, which puts the Redbud together for half the registration fee, provides plentifully-provisioned and fun-themed rest stops, and even manages a complimentary, advertising-laden T-shirt.

So, where do I go from here?  Well, I'll likely ride the June 21 Preservation Pedal anyway, because I'm already (non-refundably) registered for it.  The fourth Kentucky century, the Hub City Tour,  looks unlikely to me at this point: I mean, what for?  But I'll decide on that later; it's scheduled for, I think, sometime in September.