I’d never heard of ultra cycling until a few days ago. Maybe I’d heard the term, but hadn’t bothered to figure out what it meant. But after a friend explained it to me, I learned that it was a cycling race in which you try to get as many miles as possible within a specified amount of time. Unlike randonneuring, where you try to finish a predetermined number of miles within a specified amount of time, in ultra cycling you always return to the same spot like a bike race. So you can leave equipment–food, clothes, etc–in that location without having to lug your stuff around with you as you do in randonneuring.
Originally, I signed up for Calvin’s 12-Hour Challenge with the intent to use it as training for TOSRV, which is next weekend. I thought it would give me enough time to try to get 100 miles in since we’ve had such a crappy spring so far in Northeast Ohio. I had thought about plotting a road ride from my house to Newton Falls through Lake Milton, and then back, which would be about 70 miles. Usually when I train for TOSRV, I try to do about 80 miles one of the days in the weekend before TOSRV. But then a few friends who were doing Calvin’s put the bug in my ear. I admit that I waited to decide until I saw the weather report for the day–I try to avoid doing events in the rain or excessive cold. Yeah, I’m a fair-weather cyclist. Even though TOSRV is generally–and probably will be this year–in the least optimal of riding weather. The weather was supposed to be partly sunny with a high of 66 degrees.
With the optimistic weather outlook, I decided Wednesday night that I would do Calvin’s in favor of my own Newton Falls ride because I would have the opportunity to actually ride to 100 miles and, if I still felt good, I could attempt additional miles. I’ve always wondered how far I could push myself past 100 if given the time or reason. I didn’t tell anyone, but I secretly hoped I would do 150 miles. The most I’ve ever done in a single day is 118 miles last year on TOSRV (the 115 mile “extended route” with detour plus 3 miles to or from Joanna’s apartment each day). So I wanted to blow my previous record out of the water. Plus, though I’ve told people that 100 miles is more than enough to ride in a single day, I’ve also secretly wanted to do something like, say, complete a ride like STP (Seattle-to-Portland) in a single day. It seems I’m always reaching for the higher apple on the cycling mileage tree once I’ve managed to grab a lower one.
But I knew better than to set my expectations too high. So my single ambition for the day was to at least complete 100 miles–that way I’d be assured I was in shape enough for TOSRV–and then if I felt like more I would do more. I was hoping for another 50 mile loop. But that’s not what I ended up doing due to a slight lack of self-confidence on my part when the time came. So I managed the remaining 50 miles after the initial 100 by completing 7 circuits of the 7 mile loop plus two partial miles at the very end of the race.
The first circuit of the 50 loop was the easiest (as usual on any ride of length). At 7:30 in the morning when the race began, there was hardly any noticeable wind. We zipped through the first stretch of 25 miles relatively easily at first. There were a few bumps that hardly qualified as hills (despite the advertised “flat to rolling” description of the route). But as the day wore on, a 15mph headwind developed out of the south-east. Since the first 25 miles were apparently south and east, the second loop was a hard push at first. Which had surprised me when I started that second loop–I’d remembered a brisk 16-17mph pace in that section at the start of the race. I guess I wasn’t paying attention that the wind had picked up since the last 25 or so miles of the loop were not in the wind.
The wind took the gusto out of my ambitions. There parts of that segment of the second loop where I was going 10-11mph. Ugh, I hate that. I wasn’t prepared mentally to deal with the challenge of wind since I’d been out so infrequently so far this year. I had to remember to not become discouraged by the slow speed but, rather, put my bike into a low gear where I could keep my cadence going, and just pretend to be climbing a long, slow hill. The biggest problem was that by the time I reached the midway rest stop, I felt really exhausted. My legs were starting to burn. As I scarfed down bananas and crackers to feed my demanding body, I decided that I was not going to do another 50 loop but try to do as much as I could with 7 mile loops. I then revised my goal to 130 miles. I did the math, decided it would “only” take 5 circuits of the 7 mile loop, and then I could call it quits.
The problem with making decisions like that mid ride is that you’ve convinced yourself that what you’ve decided is the truth. It’s like bailing out before you’ve even tried. So the failure here is mine. Despite the fact that the last 25 miles of the route were mostly in tailwind, and I had time to recuperate, I had already decided that I was not going to do another 50 miles. So when I got back to the starting point at the high school, I waited the twenty minutes for the 7 mile loop to open. Even though I had plenty of time to do another round on the 50. I could kick myself for that decision. But at the same time, I think I wasn’t sure I could do 150 miles so I was being over-cautious.
The 7 mile loop started and ended in the wind. However, there was a beautiful stretch of about 2 miles along a road in which you were in a tailwind, and another 2 miles or so were on a road that was in a less discouraging cross-wind. Because the course was much shorter, the bits of wind push were brief enough so as not to be demoralizing. It took me approximately 20 minutes to complete each loop and there was somewhat of a sense of instant gratification at being able to cross the finish line more frequently, though the miles seemed to add up into the total much more slowly.
I took frequent breaks between the loops which I think would not have happened had I done a third 50 mile loop. If I had done a third 50 miles, I might have had time to stack a few 7 mile loops afterwords and, therefore, have a higher finishing mileage. But I’m not going to beat myself up for it too much because 1) I came into this ride with a meager 260+ miles and 2) my longest ride this season was 68 miles. I think that I was being over-cautious in just doing 7 mile loops after the first 100, but, also, I know my own body. If I wasn’t feeling it after 100, then it was perfectly wise of me to just take on more miles in small bites.
So when I did in fact complete my promised 5 loops on the 7 mile route, I was contemplating quitting. The time at this point was about 6pm–the race had an hour and a half left. I had a headache (perhaps I wasn’t drinking enough fluids, though I was really gulping down the gatoraid like there was no tomorrow after each wind push), my legs were feeling the ache of fatigue, my knees were tingling a little (indicative of my knee issues), and there was a sharp pain in the middle of my right shoulder (I can’t figure out why this happens on all my rides early in the season). When I got to the high school after the 5th loop, I grabbed ibuprofen from my overnight bag in my car. I seriously need to start carrying this stuff with me on rides. I took the ibuprofen and then sat for a bit (maybe 20 minutes) with my friend Dave’s wife Angela. She reminded me that I had plenty of time to do more circuits. The headache started to fade and I was feeling better. So I reluctantly got back on the bike and started off.
An amazing thing happened. As soon as I started pedaling, I felt better than I’d felt on the last two loops! Oh, man, God bless the makers of pain relief medications for muscles! I think, too, that the force of the wind was starting to ease up at this point. I started pushing 13-14mph on the wind stretches of the 7 mile course and I was back to 16-18mph on the windless part (whereas, on my last two runs I’d found myself going 15mph). After completing the 6th loop, which brought me to 42 miles, I immediately–without stopping to take a break–started another loop with gusto. I was so close. I knew I couldn’t let my 150 mile dreams go now.
I breezed through that 7th loop with tons of energy that seemed to come out of nowhere. If only I’d taken the ibuprofen earlier! When I reached the finish line that seventh time, the race moderators shouted that there were 9 minutes left–time enough for 2 miles. I hesitated a minute thinking, “No, really, I don’t need to do this.” But then, my competitive conscience taunted, “But you’ll even it out to 150 instead of 149.” And the next thing I knew, I was clipping my foot back into the pedal and I was off!
Knowing it was the final minutes of the race, I could really push myself because it didn’t matter any more if I burned out. So I hammered out that windy stretch. More moderators were standing by the first mile marker; they shouted, “4 minutes!! Keep going!!” I pushed harder and was proud that despite the wind I was pulling a steady 14.5mph. I did, in fact, make it to the second mile marker where they collected the chip I wore on my leg for counting laps. There was a group of about 10 of us. We all turned around and headed (with a tailwind) back to the high school. I really felt proud of myself. It had been very exciting at the end there. I almost felt like I was in the last few kilometers of the Tour de France.
I have to admit that despite my initial skepticism about riding a full 12 hours–which I totally did not aim to do–I kind of ended up liking the challenge of this ride. It was really an interesting experiment on just how far I can push my body. I learned some really interesting things about myself, like that I can survive on crackers, bananas, grapes, gatoraid, and water for 12 hours. I was never once starving, except when I wasn’t watching my intake, and I just kept a steady flow of food in my body whenever it was available. Normally I’d freak about eating this much, but my body demands it in a trial of endurance. I’m pretty sure everything I ate while riding was immediately used as fuel. (As evidenced by frequent bathroom breaks after the ride! TMI, I know!)
It’s weird how your body lets you know what you need. Every once in awhile, you’ll crave certain things. Instead of a banana, you want salty peanut butter crackers. Instead of water after a hard push in the wind, the only thing that quenches your thirst is the sweetness of gatoraid. It’s even stranger that these things satisfy your body in ways that make you feel as though it’s been restored in some minor way.
I can tell you that I never dreamed in a million years that I could keep up a ride for 12 hours. Well, my actual ride time, according to the computer on my bike, was 10 hours 21 minutes. It’s weird how much time is lost to periods of rest. I’m sure I could probably make rest time shorter if I practiced. Regardless of how you look at it, 10 hours is a long time to be riding a bike. I sit at work for 8 hours and I become restless. It’s extremely challenging to do anything–even something you enjoy, let alone something strenuous–for 10 hours straight. So I’m proud of this accomplishment alone. I never knew I was this disciplined or motivated. Cycling teaches me so much about my inner strengths.
Fortunately, the kind people who organize Calvin’s Challenge offer the use of the shower facilities in the gym to wayward cyclists like myself who may have a long drive home after the ride. So I showered (which is the best part of any ride). Then I ate–nay, I inhaled–the post ride dinner that was given to all the riders. It was a pulled pork sandwich with baked beans and a few other sides. I’m not too sure, I ate them all like someone who hasn’t had food in a week. Which is strange because I’d not been hungry like that on the whole ride! But as soon as you stop, your body seems to scream, “All right, already, let’s eat something REAL now, thank you very much.”
Oh, and that can of Coke Zero. Though it was warm, it felt so good to drink something that fizzed and was not too sweet. The little things in life that you enjoy after you’ve spent the greater part of a day slowly suffering.
I expected to bonk right away, but I actually didn’t. After attacking my food–leaving behind a mess of empty bags, wraps, and containers–I headed out, deciding to skip the awards ceremony since I didn’t figure I’d won anything. There were so many very serious racers there, people who passed me at incredible speeds that I couldn’t imagine in that wind and who did not stop for breaks at all. (Ss I was dismounting my bike to use a portapod in the last hour of the race, I heard one guy say to the girl with him he was riding, “At this point you can’t afford to get off the bike for even 2 or 3 minutes.” Which, of course, made me feel guilty for having to go pee so badly that I had stopped). I was sure my mileage was considered quite low. I was just happy to have broken my own record.
My drive home was about 3 hours. About an hour into my drive, I stopped in Dublin–just outside of Columbus–to get a coffee at McDonald’s just in case I needed the extra energy boost. As I was waiting on my coffee, I checked Facebook and learned from my friend Sue that I’d actually won a bronze medal for women in my age group (35-40)! She had collected the medal for me. Wow!! That was totally unexpected. Of course I tried to rain on my feelings of accomplishment by thinking that perhaps there were only three women competing in my age group–which is how I won first place in a (running) 5K a few years ago (and I hate running). The 2011 results have not been posted to the Calvin’s website yet, so I can’t confirm. But, really, I shouldn’t look gift encouragement in the mouth. In the hours since realizing I actually got an award for my efforts, I started to think about–what?! oh, no–trying to do a ride like this again. I have never before been interested in racing–the kind where you get in a draft line with a bunch of people and try to be the fastest–but a race in which you just try to collect the highest amount of miles in a certain amount of time has definitely got my interest peaked. I think I may have found my niche. Not to get ahead of myself. But I think I could start to like this ultra cycling thing. Every once in awhile.
I can’t believe how pumped I remained on the drive home. Maybe it was a mixture of caffeine and adrenaline, but I did not once get close to feeling physically drained as has happened before when I’ve had to drive back from somewhere after a 100-mile ride. I had my iPod playing U2 songs on random and I happily sang along. I was strangely over-warm in the car–was my body still overheating from the work out?–so I had the air on blowing in my face the entire way. But I made it home at 12:15am feeling satisfied about my day. It took me about an hour or so to calm down enough to sleep. There goes my theory that a century ride is a great cure for insomnia. I did wake up at 11am this morning, though.
I’m really not any more sore than I would be after any other century ride. I guess there’s a point where the pain can’t be increased any further. To be honest, though, all my muscles just feel achy when I walk, which is pretty normal. Maybe my body did some repair to itself while I slept. I think in a few days time I’ll be ready to ride again. And, fortunately, TOSRV is this weekend. I guess I don’t have to worry about being unable to complete the ride this year. After this, the first day of TOSRV is going to feel really quick! Even though TOSRV is 105 miles, and then you get up the next day to do it all over again in reverse. But I’ve done it before. I can do it again. (I hope!)
The weather outlook for TOSRV this year is a bit bleak right now (rain both days?). I guess that’s what you get for the 50th year of this ride which is infamous for its incredibly bad weather. Oh well. If the miles are not so much a problem, I can focus my efforts on dealing with my mortal enemy–the rain. Oh well. It wouldn’t be a challenge otherwise. And I love a challenge. (This is my endorphins speaking, by the way. They always cause me to glow even days after a ride.)