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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.

1 comment:

  1. It was a tough day to be out on the gravel. Nice job making it to checkpoint #1, that is the hardest climbing of the ride. Always good to see you and Shaun on course, you guys made a great team but Mother Nature was a little Hot and Windy that day. Keep On Cranking, you already know you got what it takes.