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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Back in the Saddle at Odin's Revenge

Back to Odin's Revenge.  180 miles of the toughest gravel and dirt roads winding through the rolling hills and steep ravines of remote ranch country in central Nebraska.  Adventure gravel geeks of all sorts, seasoned and green, fast and slow, journey here to challenge themselves and each other.  Even more so, they look to the open western prairie for an experience to share with each other and with the friendly folks that put it all together.  Odin's Revenge represents the best of the gravel scene.

Finding my way, out there somewhere on the Odin's Revenge course.
Relishing a return to Odin's Revenge for the fourth time, I carry the unfamiliar weight of a DNF ("did not finish") from the 210 mile Gold Rush Mother Lode, just two weeks ago.  In addition to the emotional baggage, I know there's a physical one, as well.  I've ridden to work every day since without issue, but harder efforts on single track reveal the truth.  I have no power.  I still have not physically recovered from the heat of the Mother Lode.  Not sure Odin's Revenge is the place to do that.

So, I roll into Gothenburg with considerable concerns about the race ahead, while quietly hoping for a solid finish.  Seductive whispers of dropping the mileage down to the 60 mile "short course" creep into my thoughts during the six hour drive.  Such a decision would be easy to rationalize, but hard to live with.  I know, when it comes right down to it, I'm all-in for the full 180 mile course.

Chad Quigley, the Revenge behind Odin's, setting up the pre-race gathering at Walker's Steak House.
Nothing lightens the heart quite like the Odin's Revenge pre-race gathering at the Walker Steak House. Folks filter in over the next few hours, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones.  Some talk of rides in the past, but mostly of the day ahead.  What did Chad and Team DSG cook up this year?  Even more Minimum Maintenance Roads, or worse?  What about the heat, the wind, the rains?  Oh, what are you running for tires?  That may all sound like a bunch of Nervous Nellies, but, with this crowd, it's more like being excited to face whatever comes our way.  Anticipation fills the old dance hall, mixing with the aroma of sizzling steaks and cold beer.

Chad announces that he designed the course along the lines of the inaugural 2012 race:  two odd shaped balloons connected at a start/finish area, with a meandering southern loop of about 100 miles, followed by a northern loop of about 80 miles.  Racers must reach four check points along the way at miles 42.6, 69.6, 96.5 and 138.5, each with a time cut-off.  The finish arrives at mile 178.1, for those that manage to make it.  It all looks reasonable enough on paper.  Of course, those miles cover what most cyclists would not consider normal roads or, in some cases, roads at all.

If you're looking for sweet gravel, you'll find plenty at Odin's Revenge.  Just know that there's some other stuff, too.
Having finished the last three years, I recognize enough of the roads on the cue sheets to know that this course will be at least as difficult those in the past.  My game plan is simple.  From the very start, ride moderately, with just enough effort to complete the 100 mile first loop on time to get the cue sheets for the second loop. Then take a break, refuel, assess how you feel for the 80 mile second loop, and head out with an appropriate plan to finish within the time cut-off of 12:30 am.  No attack speed today.  This is all about finishing.

Back to the Blue Heron campground, I enjoy the camaraderie of several other racers preparing for the day ahead:  strongman Jeff Caldwell and his irrepressible daughter Piper of North Platte, NE joyfully spinning around on their fatties; gravel veteran Shane Buscher of Lincoln, NE; tip-of-the-spear racer Daniel Schneider of Colorado; Omaha JackRabbit guru Scott Redd of Omaha, NE; and the ever-smiling, fast-roadie-racer Lawrence Fitz of Champaign, IL.  Some familiar faces.  Some new.  All having fun.

That light must be an angel looking over me, as we prepare for the 6:00 am start.
(photo by Emilie Kenoyer)
As usual, I awake moments before the alarm is set to go off.  The forecast calls for temperatures in the upper 80's, with morning winds from the south, the direction we're starting into, and then shifting to be from the north late morning, the direction we'll be riding then.  So, warm and headwinds all day.  All the more reason to ride conservatively.

The start line at 6:00 am is a festive happening, with pictures and well-wishing all around.  It's easy to get caught up in all that energy, but I remind myself to ride conservatively.  Many, many unknown variables about the course, the conditions and, most importantly, my body.  Go slow.

Cruising past one of the very few structures out there on the southern loop.
Only twenty-five of the forty registered racers actually start and, at the first hint of gravel, most of them disappear over the first hill.  I feel much better turning pedals than expected, but resist the temptation to respond.  This in not the day to chase rabbits.  Let them go.  Let them all go.  Find your pace.  Keep it mellow.  You're in this one to finish.

I soak in the moment.  The slow awakening sun greets lazy clouds, light breezes and mild temperatures, as the low hills of the Platte River Valley roll by.  This is my favorite time of day and I'm doing my favorite thing at my favorite event.  So happy to just be here.

The difficulties of the hills pick up, both in pitch and in surface, but it's a kinder, gentler ride when not pushing the pace.  The hardest part of these early miles is riding alone.  Even at relatively small races,  I enjoy riding with others, off and on, at least through the first few check points.  Today, with my measured pace, that isn't happening.  I'm at the blunt end of the spear.

Topping another small rise, I spot Check Point 1 at mile 42.6, managed by Merrie Quigley and her enthusiastic crew of cowbell clangers.  Merrie's famous "protein balls" are always a special treat, along with the cold, crisp water served by Culligan Water man Gordon Sanders.  Notwithstanding my pedestrian pace, it's only about 3 1/2 hours into the race, almost an hour before the cut-off time.  I feel fresh and energized.

Now come steeper climbs, more deeply rutted roads and thicker talcum they call dirt around here.  This is much more work, particularly with temperatures and winds rising.  With each turn, the names of the roads evoke memories of challenging sections of prior races :  Cut Creek Road, Hansen Hill, Effenbeck Road, Cottonwood Road and the renowned Government Pocket Road.  But the climbs don't seem as steep, the ruts as deep or the talcum as soft.  Maybe it's the relaxed mindset, but I'm feeling strong.

I cruise into Check Point 2 at Potter's Pasture at mile 69.6, hosted by artiste Garrett Olsen and Jen Wilson.  Very upscale, with a party tent, cheese and crackers, and adult beverages.  It's a peaceful spot.  Sweet.  I lie down for just a minute, top off water and get back out there, with still almost an hour in the time bank.  That was nice.

Picked up this cool print from cyclist artiste Garrett Olsen, who volunteers every year at Odin's Revenge.
Not long thereafter, I find Scott Redd at the top of a hill on Gillman Road, taking pictures, of course.  Scott is a cycling aficionado who has ridden many gravel events, including this year's TransIowa, and is the creative force behind the eclectic Omaha JackRabbit ride in October each year.  Just a few uphill pitches and "it's all a downhill trend," he says as he gazes into a Garmin digital map he created last night from the written cue sheets.  We ride together the hour or so remaining of the southern loop, sharing our time and encouraging each other.  What a great way to spin into Check Point 3.

Cruising along the canal with Scott Redd, a strong rider and great companion as the day grows longer.
Sticking to the plan, I put my feet up in the convenience store at the Blue Heron Campground, inhale a bottle of chocolate milk and a can of Coke, study the cue sheets for the northern loop and assess the eighty-two miles ahead.  There's at least twenty miles straight north, maybe thirty, into the now stout wind on a variety of unknown, numbered roads, with stretches into uninviting places as "Roten Valley."  I also hear whispers in the air, cautioning of unrideable, even indiscernible, paths unworthy of the name "road," lying in wait to lure and entrap the unwary.

Whatever, dude.  I now have about an hour and a half in the time bank and I feel really good.  The slow, steady pace is working.  Let's see what's out there and get to that next check point, about 42 miles away.

The next 30 miles or so are the least pleasant part of the entire day:  generally uphill on a false flat or a real hill, directly into a headwind, temperatures in the low 90's, thick gravel everywhere and not nearly as scenic as the southern loop.  All pass from memory as I spin into the raucous, rocking venue that is Check Point 4.  Lane Bergen, just back from his 1400 mile bike ride along the Continental Divide, and his proud dad Matt, hoop and holler to the squawking squeeze box of musician Paul Siebert.  It's all quite the mix of sights and sounds, planted on an intersection of a primitive dirt road and a barely maintained gravel road in the middle of nowhere particular.  What a fun stop.  And, despite the difficult section just covered, I still carry a solid hour and a half in the time bank.

Matt Bergen at Check Point 4, as I take off for the final 40 miles.  Or so.
(photo by Lane Bergen)
Now, I know I'll finish this.  Whatever lies ahead in the final 40 miles will have to include at least 20 miles of riding south, some tailwind and mostly "trending downhill," as Scott would say.  After a quick few miles, my optimism for a fast finishing forty miles fades upon turning onto a series of "Minimum Maintenance Roads," where I am abruptly reduced to walking, dragging and carrying my bike, while attempting to navigate through waist high grass.  Fortunately, these parts of the "roads" are relatively short connectors and soon I'm back to cruising on gravel.  

I zone out for a couple of miles before noticing that a road sign does not match the cue sheets.  Oh, no.  This is not the time to go off course and get lost in unfamiliar, remote country.  I backtrack and eventually get back on course, losing maybe half an hour or so and a lot of enthusiasm for that fast finish.

Yes, this is the "road" on one stretch of Odin's Revenge.  Does that look like "Minimum Maintenance" to you?
(photo by Scott Redd)
But I carry on, now finally back on solid gravel roads, for the most part.  As the sun slides away with a glorious farewell, I'm determined to stay on course now that it's dark.  I stop frequently to ensure that the cue sheets and road signs stay true.  The miles grow longer, but pass.  I'm certainly ready to get off the bike when crossing U.S. Highway 30 and then the bridge over Interstate 70 to take the turn onto Willow Island Road for the final 6 miles.  Not even the chunky gravel here dampens my spirit.  I will finish this race, on this day.  

A truck approaches from ahead, flashing its lights and stopping for me.  It's Race Director Chad Quigley and his wife Merrie, out checking on the racers still out on the course.  He's the force behind the fabulous team that puts together this great race, taking care of everyone within the spirit of such events.  A few minutes later, Chad and Merrie drive off to find Scott Redd and Janine Copple, who apparently are somewhere behind me.

Eventually, the heavy gravel of Willow Island Road T-bones into paved highway 47 for a short coast to the finish line at the Blue Heron Campground.  The handful of volunteers, racers and crew still hanging around bring me home to a chorus of cheers and cowbells, right at 11:27 pm.  That's 17 hours and 27 minutes after the start and just over an hour before the final time cut-off.  While snapping my finish line photo, Emilie Kenoyer exclaims, "Craig, you're just beaming!" 

That I am.  Still.

There's a finish line photo of one happy camper.  (photo by Emilie Kenoyer)
  Epilogue:  Scott Redd and Janine Copple knew they had become too late to be labeled as "official finishers" on some list, but kept pedaling well into the night to finish the entire course at 1:21 am.  Such determination represents the spirit of these events.  And Odin's Revenge itself, created and nurtured by Chad Quigley and the rest of Team DSG, represents the best of the unsanctioned, grass roots gravel race scene.  Support them and others like them.  The experiences they help to create are worth having and sharing.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cooked at the Mother Lode

I'm a finisher.  I have to finish what I start.  That's often a good thing, but not always.  I'll admit that there are more than a few things I never should have started.  But it doesn't matter.  I'm going to finish.

So, it's hard to start something, then leave it undone, for any reason.  That's why the Black Hills BackBone ride festers.  And why that's a DNF ("did not finish") last week at the 2016 Gold Rush Mother Lode perplexes and disappoints.

Nonpareil support chieftain Shaun Arritola briefs me on final preparations before the start of the 2016 Mother Lode.
The day does not pounce in ambush.  The forecast warns it will be hot and windy and it delivers:  81 degrees with steady 25 mph winds at the 5:00 am start.  The route also is no secret:  the same 210 miles of Black Hills gravel, with 12,000 some feet of elevation gain, that I rode last year.  But I finished last year and arrive this year better trained and more prepared.  And, for the first time at such an event, I even bring a support crew, the indomitable, ultimate get-it-done-guy Shaun Arritola.  I know it will not be easy, but I'm confident.

With the challenging conditions, I plan to ride conservatively for the 69 mile, mostly uphill climb to Check Point 1 at O'Neil Pass to make the cut-off time in sufficient shape to tackle the next segment.  Last year, even carrying a BackBone load of food, water and gear, I comfortably hit Check Point 1 with 50 minutes to spare.  With much less weight on the bike and some weight less on me, and a bunch of early season miles in the legs, I believe a similar result is very doable, even on this day.

Gravel royalty and friend Greg Gleason of Sioux Falls, always a great presence at a race.
Riding moderately, I watch most of the small field disappear on the first set of rollers.  Of the 30 registered racers, only 21 actually take the start, so I really enjoy the companionship of Joe Clark, of West Saint Paul, MN, during some of those early miles.  Joe is an experienced endurance cyclist of the wildly popular Minnesota gravel scene, including the storied Heck of the North races out of Duluth.  Unfortunately, Joe picks up a quicker pace on the steeps and, too soon, he's off the front.

Sand Creek Road offers some protection from the early sun and stout winds.
So, it's hot, windy and uphill.  But I know that, over the course of a long race, things change.  They always do.  Besides, I'm riding comfortably hard and feeling good.  Before long, mile 40 rolls by and it's just over 3 1/2 hours into the race, well ahead of the pace required for the cut-off and even ahead of last year.  However, at the same time, I glance at my on-board thermometer.  It's 105 degrees, at about 8:30 am, I'm cranking up a steep hill in brilliant sunshine, and there's still 170 miles to go.  Wowzer.

I coach myself with reminders that it's only 29 miles to Check Point 1 and, notwithstanding the conditions, I feel pretty good.  The next 10 miles take all of an hour, but now it's only 19 miles to the top, with about 3 hours to make it.  The slow, steady plan seems to be working.

Not steep here, but up.  Always up.  And only occasional shade in the building heat.
That last hour was slower, though.  Much slower.  The next hour is even slower.  I leap frog two others finding their way up this climb:  Kate Geisen of Illinois and Renee Hahne of Missouri, both strong, accomplished endurance athletes.  As the stops start, then grow more frequent, we check on and encourage each other.  We struggle in the oppressive heat, but each manage, in our own way.  On one nasty, endless, near-shadeless pitch, I can only move station-to-station:  ride to the next shade spot, rest and repeat.  After awhile, it turns more ugly:  ride to the next shade spot, rest, walk to the next shade spot, rest and repeat.  Then it turns to just walking when I can.

As I wilt, local endurance legend and Black Hills Expedition founder Jason Thorman spins by and then stops to walk with me for a bit.  He says he'll make it and knows I will too.  Thanks, Jason.  Soon he's back on the bike and up the hill, but not out of sight before he dismounts again.  I feel better, and worse, knowing that even Jason is walking chunks of this climb.

My comfortable time cushion shrinks.  The top of the pass looms, but is unseen, like climbing Mt. Denali with the summit in the clouds.  I still try to moderate effort to timely reach Check Point 1 in sufficient shape to continue, but I must timely reach Check Point 1.  I slip into survival mode.

The morning sun, when it's in your face, really shows your age.  But that don't matter.  (photo by Randy Ericksen)
Eventually hitting the pavement of U.S. Highway 85, I turn hard left and sprint the final quarter mile incline to Check Point 1.  Made it.  Less than 1 minute to spare.  So much for a big time cushion.  So much for the conservative effort.  So much for sufficient shape to continue.

Shaun rushes up to usher me to a pit stop extraordinaire.  A pop-up tent, with lounge chairs, multiple coolers, cold drinks, food, bike parts and tools, clothes, and my drop bag numbered for the Check Point.  I plop into a chair, remove my helmet and shoes and gasp that I only have about 10-15 minutes to cool off, if I am to have any chance of making Check Point 2 on time.  Shaun immediately grabs a 5 pound bag of crushed ice for my torso, another 5 pound bag of crushed ice for my neck and a series of cold packs on my head.  I pound ice cold water, ice cold sports drinks and ice cold, fully loaded Cokes.

All to no avail.  Fifteen minutes later, I do not feel any cooler.  Not one bit.  I am cooked to the core and all this is not touching it at all.  I consider the course ahead:  54 miles of long, exposed rollers, with precious little shade, no ranches, let alone towns, no cell phone coverage, and one remote Forest Service campground with well water.  Even at this elevation, it's still over 100 degrees.  One could get in real trouble out there, under these conditions.

Shaun encourages with his words, actions and spirit.  I hop on the bike, but just can not do it.  No power.  I return to the chair, the ice, the cold drinks.  The clock keeps ticking.  I keep pushing the cold treatment.  Another 15 minutes pass.  I still cannot cool down.  I am cooked.  I can turn pedals, but the pace I can maintain going up is nowhere near close enough to make that next check point.  And I'm not altogether convinced I would make it anyhow, even with unlimited time.  I pull the plug.

Roasted and toasted. Cooling off on USFS 805 on the slow ride back to Spearfish.
Almost two hours later, I rise and decide to ride the 40 mile course returning to Spearfish, which would make 110 miles for the day.  I feel fine, but the first little incline confirms my decision to withdraw from the race.  Pitches that I normally would ride at 10-12 mph were but half that.  Maybe.  I simply had no power.  The flats and down hills are fine, as everything else feels good.  With most of that 40 miles downhill, I cruise back to Spearfish for a soak in the creek by the City Campground.

Trying to process this experience, I do not think I was deficient in water, fuel or electrolytes.  I was not symptomatic.  I think that my body just could not process the heat at the effort I was trying to maintain and just slowed everything down.  I could still safely ride, but only at a pace too slow for this race.

But I don't know.  I just figure it's nothing that can't be resolved with a little more riding and a little more fitness.  I'll go with that.