Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Barry-Roubaix, 2011 Part 2

We decided on Friday night to get up at 7:30AM for breakfast on Saturday. I was up early, but we were not fast to get to breakfast. We moved slowly and did not get out of the room until 7:45AM. We went back to the hotel restaurant for a "continental" breakfast of oatmeal (packaged) donuts, and thankfully some cereal. I ate five or six bowls of three different kinds of cereal: crispx, frosted flakes, and cocoa krispies. We went back to the room and it was already 8:30AM and we jumped into a flurry of activity. Spandex was everywhere as we considered and reconsidered each and every layer we had planned out the night before. We were planning on being out of the room at 9:15AM and I did the worst job not making it out until 9:20AM. Chernoh and Jason were already at the car when I frantically burst out of the lobby door with my bike in one hand and four bags of clothes, food, race gear, and my post-race bag in the other hand. We knew where the start of the race was, but didn't actually test-drive the ride so we would know how long it would take us to get there.

When we got to the park it was chaos. There were more than 600 people registered to race, and pretty much all of them were there before us. They were dressed and ready to go, tooling around the parking lot and the main entrance to the park which made finding parking painfully slow. It was 9:35-9:40 AM when we finally stopped the car and got out. Chernoh and I started at 10AM promptly, and we panicked into our final preparations. I still had to apply toe-warmers to my socks, put on my shoes and shoe covers, load my jacket pockets with my gels, a few granola bars, a flat kit, gatorade, put on my cap and helmet, and perform pre-flight checks on the Falcon. It took way longer than it should have to do simple things, like attaching my number to my handlebars. The number contained a timing chip that was used to track the racers at the start and finish.

Jason was the first one to be ready, then me, and finally Chernoh. I hopped on the Falcon and started tooling around the parking lot while he finished his pre-flight checks. When he was ready we made our way east toward the large balloon arch that represented the START (on one side) and the FINISH (on the other side), and we found a place in line. There were four or five starting waves, each comprised of a few hundred people. We pulled up to the back of the "Elite" crowd, and said good morning to the people we recognized in the race (who were also toward the back of the pack). It was 9:56 AM. We had made it to the start by four minutes.

It was at that moment that I had, for the first time since I woke up on Friday a moment to pause, to think, to reflect, to say to myself:

"What the fuck am I doing here!?!?!"

This is a sixty five mile race on very challenging terrain (gravel roads with 4200ft of climbing) and it was 22 degrees. Sunny, but only 22 degrees. At that point in my life I have never ridden a bicycle more than 52 miles in a day on flat city terrain. That 52 miles was lots of stop and go traffic, on and off the seat, and I took a 10 minute break at a gas station to buy food and refill water. How did I end up here, and more importantly, how was I going to finish? Thankfully my moment of panic was cut short by the start of the race.

This is the complete read-out of my race from my bike computer. You can see the path that we took (Yes, a woman in the Bar Friday night noted aloud that we were literally circling "Podunk, Michigan").

There was no whistle. Just a surge at the front of the crowd, I waited for the wave of motion to make it to the back of the pack where I sat. When it got to me I jolted into action. I stood up on my pedal and sat down in my seat for the first time. We were being led down the road by a motorcycle, pacing us out of the park onto the roads, so things were pretty bunched up. As the race reached the main road, the motorcycle pulled off, and the leaders surged down the road. There was a group of us (Michael C, Mia, Chernoh, Brent, and Sean) who were together toward the back of the pack. Chris J was ahead and dropped back to yell, "If we don't jump and get up on that pack we will never stay with them." I assumed that we, the members of team Sprocket, would then be making a jump. I jumped up with Chris and attached myself to the trail end of the pack. No one else came with us. So my plan to stick with Chernoh and work as a team with the other members of team Sprocket lasted about a minute and a half into the race, and then I was on my own.

If you look at the heart rate graph you can see the level of exertion for the first six miles was the hardest as I struggled to stay attached to the pack of riders. After we made it over the first big climb and started to descend my heart rate dropped (amazing how fast and effortless it is to ride downhill vs uphill). It was then that I settled into the race and started to ride my race. I tried to stay with packs of riders to the best of my ability, and take advantage of drafting as much as I could. One of the reasons I was able to ride so fast for so long was that I was at the back of a pack and was slicing through turbulent air. But after the first big climb the leaders really pulled away, and the ride started to spread out. We also were free of the woods, which exposed us to the south eastern winds for most of the first half of the lap.

My mantra for the first lap was "don't burn any matches". I did not want to over exert myself climbing any particular hill or trying to catch any particular group of riders such that I wouldn't be able to keep going with them once I got there. The rest of the lap is a blur. Sometime down the road maybe 10 or 20 miles in the leaders of the "Blue" group (i.e., the 35 mile racers) started to catch us and pass "us" the Yellow tags (i.e., the 65 mile racers). We tried to attach onto their groups as much as possible but recognized that they were as fast as the leaders we were chasing, and only riding half of the distance we were riding. There were enough of them that it didn't matter, they kept coming and coming. Overall, I was pretty happy with the average speed that I was riding (high in the seventeen mph range), and felt like I was doing a good job managing my energy. Everything was kind of a blur though. I remembered some hills very well, and at the steepest climb at mile 21 there was even a family out in their yard blasting "Eye of the Tiger". That was a nice little boost before a really difficult climb, and there were photographers along the road at various places. I remember thinking at that point in time, when I crested that hill, that I was DEFINITELY going to be walking up that hill on the second lap. That downhill was also where I hit my fasted speed. It was for such a short duration that it didn't really plot well, but when I looked down at the Garmin I was at 38.6 mph. That's fast on a crossbike on gravel. The last 5-10 miles or so of the first lap were paved, which represented a nice break from beating ourselves on gravel roads. There was a big hill from mile 25-30 and it was at this point, as I was re-passing some of the mountain bikers in the 35 mile race, and also some of the riders in the 23 mile race, that it hit me.

I have to do it all again.

So I kept my feet turning but with the recognition that I had a long way left to go. As I crested the "last" hill of the first lap I could see riders stretching out in front of me and behind me. Not the thick crowds of the start and finish line, but the a steady stream of happy finishers. At mile 33.57, the path of the Yellows diverged from the greens and the blues. I took a left, and was shocked that I could see maybe a half a mile ahead of me down the road, and there were only two riders. When I got to that part of the course, I glanced over my shoulder. Only one additional rider had turned.

My stomach dropped. Morale dropped. I thought about turning around and throwing in the towel. I knew my teammates were behind me though, and I figured the worst thing that would happen would be I would ride slow enough for them to catch up and we would limp along together. So I kept riding. The second lap was much different than the first. Whereas I did not see a single person stopping in the first lap, there were Yellow riders who were pulling over to relieve themselves, get food and nutrients at aid stations, and the was less like a bicycle race and more like a thin trail of refugees fleeing a war zone, exhausted, dirty, and looking very despondent and pained.

You can see my change in mood in my Garmin graphs. The elevation chart makes it easy to compare lap 1 and lap 2. If you frame all the charts by "Distance" in the pull down menu at the top right, you can make cross-lap comparisons. Starting at mile 33.57 you can see how the elevation is a copy and paste as I climbed all the same hills twice. The speed chart is not. The minimum speeds from say mile 33 to mile 40 are not much different, but the maximum speeds are much slower. On the first lap I was able to crest the tops of hills and accelerate down, on the second, I was barely able to crest the hills much less expend energy on the down. At mile 40.65 I stopped for the first time in the race. I pulled over at an aid station looking for water because my bottles had frozen, and I had one of the women fill up a new bottle for me. It wasn't frozen solid, but the slushy water made it difficult to drink. The momentary rest felt good, and I continued to move on.

At mile 42 I hit my first wall. It was climbing a hill at the intersection of Head Rd and Head Lake Rd. There was a steep climb, and I actually had to get off my bike and walk it a few hundred yards to the top. I broke a cardinal rule of cycling, but at that point the choice wasn't between looking cool or not looking cool, but between making it to the top of the hill or not. My heart was thumping in my chest, my vision started to blur and and go dark, and I think the choice was between walking and passing out. I know this happened at mile 42 because it was the first of only two times that I flipped my garmin display from my "current state" display of Cadence, speed, heart rate, average speed to the "total time and distance". I had not looked at how long I had been riding or how far I had gone the entire first forty two miles of the race. I knew that it was a terrible psychological game to play trying to watch the minutes and miles go by.

Just ride as long and as far as it takes to get to the finish. Counting miles or minutes would be simply an additional form of torture. The rate of suffering will always exceed the rate of travel. (Jason confirmed my theory after the race when he told me that he let himself think that he was within a few miles of the finish when he was still 10-15 miles away). While I was walking up the hill, I thought of the article I had read about running a marathon and using a "run-walk-run" strategy and figured the same principles applied for biking.

I passed a course marshal who was sitting at that intersection and she asked a few riders who were still pedaling if they needed anything. When I got close enough that she asked me, I asked her if she had a fresh set of legs in her truck. She said no, but she could give me a ride back if I wanted. I said "No, I'll make it." She got into her truck and zoomed ahead, and I marched on to the top of the hill. A few riders passed me, asked me if I was okay. I nodded. There was a little bit of a flat spot for the intersection, and then the hill continued. My body felt like it was about to shut down, and for the first time my thoughts switched from, "this is really hard" to "I don't think I can do this" and "I think my race ends right here." But I was doing okay walking, so I walked. I pushed my bike to the top of the hill and paused. I sucked down the last of my second energy gel, drank some water, and opened a granola bar. I put the bar in my mouth and experienced a new sensation. I tried to bite down on the granola bar, but before I could even close my lips to chew I spit the bit out on the ground. Just the feeling of having solid food in my mouth made me feel nauseous. My stomach churned and I could feel the color draining out of my face. I stood there for what felt like a long time. Three or four riders passed me, and gave me the perfunctory "are you okay". I gave the perfunctory "yeah", and when I regained my composure I "wiped the gravel out of my vagina" and hopped back on the bike with a new mantra for the second lap.

"Just. finish."

Whatever it takes.

"Just. finish."

Walk, crawl, stop and vomit, no matter what.

"Just. finish."

I gave up with full certainty the idea of riding a "negative split" (second lap faster than the first lap) and I threw my leg over the saddle and thought of a trucker I saw interviewed on TV who said the secret to making money as a trucker was to keep that (the door) closed and those (the wheels) turning.

The south leg of the second lap was brutal. The ground had softened in the sunlight, the wind was stronger from the south east, and I rode most of the way alone, or with someone who was riding slower than I was, so I couldn't really partner up with them and ride my race. Everything about the second lap was harder than the first. There were no spectators, no photographers, and no music. Just the wind and the gravel to keep me company. I did not look left or right any more, as my neck and back were sore. Just holding my helmet up was challenging enough. After mile 42 my legs felt like they were full of lead. If I rode over the top of a hill, when I got to the top there was no power left to do anything more than coast on the downhill. If I walked, I could barely hop on and keep spinning. When I got to the big hill, the one that had music the first lap around I used what momentum I had, and climbed for as long as I could, but when it was time I hopped off. One of the Flatlandia guys who had passed me at mile 42, who I passed shortly there after, passed me again on the way up and gave a little encouraging comment about maybe I should be on the bike.

I tried to respond, and realized for the first time that my face was so cold it was deforming my speech. I couldn't "talk normal" and sounded like I had a shot of novocaine...everywhere. I wanted to throw out a snappy comeback, but instead I repeated my mantra aloud ("Just. Finish") and continued to plod up the hill. My legs were very unhappy with me. About 3/4 of the way to the top I caught up with him again. He had pulled over to the side of the road and was cramping up. I gave him a courtesy "are you okay" and he said "Yes" and I kept on going. I walked to the top, and pedaled on down the other side.

Miles and miles of gravel and bare trees blurred by mindlessly until mile 54. Mile 54 was memorable because it was only the second time that I flipped back to the total screen on my Garmin. Mile 54 was when my question to Chernoh and Jason from the previous night came flashing back onto my mental screen.

"So what do you guys mean when you say "cramp"? Because I've never gotten a cramp cycling."

Oh. This is what they mean. Fuck.

Cramping happens when your body is low on the elements that are required for proper neural functioning, primarily potassium and sodium. Without sufficient micronutrients the muscles start to fire on their own without voluntary control in an uncomfortable and counterproductive manner. This is what is commonly known as a "cramp". I knew I was in trouble. Despite being nauseated and feeling not at all hungry I downed my entire last energy gel, the last quarter bottle of Gatorade, and as much water as I could fit into my stomach. It wasn't going to do me any good to finish the race with a full gel and full water. Mile marker 52 was also memorable because I was fortunately going down hill when I cramped which gave me some coasting time to get nutrients, but I was coming up on a relatively steep ascent. The memorable part of it was that it was the first big hill I approached on the second lap that I did not remember climbing at all during the first lap. It's there on the garmin output at mile 21, but I had absolutely no memory of struggling up it the first time. I must have been on someone's wheel and just grinding up it with my head down because I was really surprised by it on the second lap. I remembered the dairy farm on the downhill on the other side, but not the climb itself. After mile 52 and taking in my final nutrients the next major landmark I was looking for was the pavement. Pavement would mean two things. First, I was on the final stretch. Second, Big. Ass. Climb. But I knew that the climbs were tall but not as step as some of the gravel roads and the pavement made it easier to get into a low gear and crawl on the bike. Once I hit blacktop I did not stop. Not only did I not stop I started to accelerate a little bit again. I even passed a few people. The last guy I caught sight of as were were on the "tail of the Q" heading back into the starting zone. So I pushed it hard for the last four miles (speeds back up in the 20s, pulling my average speed back up a bit. It wasn't a negative second lap by any stretch of the imagination, but I was still moving faster than I had on average, and was finishing with a bit of a flourish.

When I got to the finish line, there was no party for me, no one really noticed that I had even finished. As I cross the line I could see that my goal of finishing in four hours had not been met. I was 8 minutes too late, and felt like that was a final kick in the stomach from Barry County Michigan. I pedaled around for just a few minutes before I got off and started to look for Jason. He had the car-keys and the key to me getting out of my wet, slimy, and cold spandex. He had the key to being warm and maybe start feeling like a human again. I was going to go to the car with him, and got hit by the need to go to the bathroom. I asked him to do me a huge favor and ride down to the car and grab my backpack. I had been careful to pack the main compartment with my post race clothes. I went into the portajohn and found it relatively warm, and was back outside waited a few minutes for Jason to return.

He was back a few minutes after I got out of the car, at which time I started the longest, most complicated, most painful wardrobe change of my life. Basically, I couldn't flex any muscle in my lower body for more than 2 seconds without cramping. I put the lid down and sat down to try to bend over and get my shoes off. Before I could get my right cover unzipped my abs started to cramp. Stand up. Turn around. Put shoe on lid. Quad starts cramping. Bend over. Abs cramp. Lift heel off seat. Calves cramping. etc. etc. I was so glad that there were plenty of spaces and few people because there was no pressure at all to hurry. And hurry I did not. It probably took me 20 minutes to change out of my wet spandex with was stuffed into my water proof backpack, and into my warm thermal underwear and post-race street clothes. As I emerged feeling much more human Jason and I were getting ready to head down to the car when Chernoh crossed the finish line at about 4h40min. His timing was perfect. We exchanged the perfunctory "how did you do" stories and headed to the car.

Again, we were in no hurry. Jason was gracious as it took Chernoh and me a long time to get our shit together. Even though he had been ready to head back to the city since he finished his (35 mile) race. It took Chernoh a long time to change too (for similar reasons), so I organized my stuff, got ready to drive, and loaded my bike into the trunk again. I was finally able to pick up my phone and send a reply text message to the "Thinking of you" message I received from my girlfriend earlier in the day.

Me: Done. Alibe. Barekly. Phew.

Time was so short that morning I hadn't even had a moment to text "going to the start line wish me luck" to her. She sent her congratulations and I told her to look up the results to see if she could find out how I finished in the field. As we were driving away she continued to text the results of all the members of Team Sprocket in the sixty-five and thirty-five mile races. It felt very nice that she was sharing information with me that I could then share with my friends. It was like she was there in the car being our "race-support". When we finally got on the road I was not hungry, Chernoh was not hungry, and Jason was starving, but he was again patient and we all decided we would stop at the first Culvers we found about an hour down the road.

I was hoping that my appetite would return before we got to Culvers. It did not. I ordered a burger and fries anyway, and made my way through them. Once again Jason was done eating when I was just half-way through my burger. I was nibbling in an uncharacteristic way. We all opted for a little custard afterwards and were on our way. I did not feel hungry when I started eating, but I did feel full and satisfied after eating. Thankfully the nausea had passed. My pre-Culvers reminder to Chernoh and Jason that we needed gas did not prevent us from getting back on the highway without it. So we stopped at the next exit and found a Shell station. We topped off the tank and headed back south around the big Lake without incident. After the race stories were finished we were a much subdued group relative to our trip over. Jason was happy with his performance and finish, but Chernoh and I were disappointed. Chernoh had hoped to do better. At one point he stopped at an aid station with his legs immobile because of severe cramping. He tought he spent at least five minutes laying on the ground trying to stop the cramping. I was disappointed because of being 8 minutes later than I had hoped to cross the finish line which was kind of the theme for the weekend. A co-worker's call on Friday morning made me late to pick up the rental car which kind of shifted my entire schedule backwards by what felt like 8 minutes. I was never quite where I wanted to be when I wanted to be there. I did not even get a moment to take my camera out of the bag and snap a picture of the start or finish line. The only picture I have from the weekend with my brand new lens is of some landscaping at the hotel the morning before the race.

We dropped Jason off at his place in the West Loop, and Chernoh and I went to my house. I asked him if he would be so kind as to help me unload the car so I could get all of my stuff in, drop him off, and then find a place to park over by the Enterprise and not have to worry about unloading, and getting the bike and the bike rack into the house. In return, I helped him do the same when we got to his house.

As we were saying our final goodbyes and congratulations Chernoh said something that struck a chord. He said, "I was more than a little disappointed with how I did, I thought I was stronger, but I am glad that I did it." Which made me realize that I was not glad that I did it.

The ride back to enterprise, alone, was really the first moment I had had to reflect on anything and everything since I woke up on Friday morning. Everything had been go-go-go for 48 hrs that in the silence of my own mind, things started to collapse in upon themselves.

Not that I regretted doing it, but that I was void of positive affect. Neither gladness, joy, nor pride washed over me at the finish line. None of those came to me in the hours afterwards. There was just the feeling of emptiness that I had spent everything I had and been able to push myself along the edge of physical collapse. It's not like what I did had the cultural swag of "running a marathon" as a major life accomplishment. It doesn't have the sub-cultural swag of even "riding a century" (which is riding 100 miles on a bike in a single day) or a Century-five which is riding 100 miles in 5 hrs (average speed of 20 mph). Who on earth has heard of the more famous inspiration for this race, "The Paris-Roubaix" much less the "Barry-Roubaix" around Podunk, Michigan. I spent just over four hours in the saddle on a cold March morning over gravel and sandy terrain. One lap felt like a race, the second a death march. What did I accomplish? I left a spot at 10 AM and arrived back at the same spot 4 hrs and 8 minutes later. There was no feeling like "I was improving" or "I raced well" or "I learned something new about my sport or my body." There were 147 men who pre-registed for the Barry-Roubaix and 12 women. Only 108 of the men and six of the women finished. Chris J (the teammate who spurred me onto chasing the pack), Mia, and Michael C all bailed after the first lap. When I got home that night and started to settle back into my apartment, I was so lonely. There was no one to reach for, no one to rub my sore and tired body, no one to celebrate with. It's not hard to explain physically why I was so drained and empty, but I struggled with trying to explain how to my girlfriend and family why that translated into an emotional emptiness.

That night I wrote to my girlfriend:
I do not have the words to explain why or how I fell apart. All I know that I am in pieces and I have only hurt and offended the ones that I love as I have tried to get help and support to put myself back together. I am sorry that I failed you all, and would do almost anything to find a way to make up those 8 lost minutes. They seem to have made all the difference.

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