Monday, October 19, 2015

Black Cats and Whispers: Racing a Bike for 24 Hours

On Friday and Saturday, September 25th and 26th, I did a 24-hour bicycle time trial at The Texas Time Trials in Glen Rose, TX. The race, which consisted of as many laps around a hilly 26.4 mile loop of farm roads as one could do, started for me at 5 pm Friday afternoon.

When I started on Friday afternoon with thirty or so other crazy people, there were several even crazier folks already out there on the course racing 500 miles. Endurance cycling doesn’t have a lot of practitioners, so you get to line up with some of the very best guys in the sport. José Bermúdez, the guy I supported for Race Across America (RAAM) this summer, typically does the 500 mile race, as does Norm Hageman, a Texan about my age who also finished RAAM this year. Chris Hopkinson, a Brit who has finished RAAM several times, raced in the same 24-hour race I was doing (he would set a course record that day). It’s like going out to play intramural football and finding out you’re playing against Tom Brady, which for me was more cool than intimidating.     

I set my sights on this race back sometime in July, initially thinking I’d do the 12-hour race that I did last year. José Bermúdez recommended that I try the 24-hour race and offered to help support me (he was out of the race due to hand surgery), so I took him up on it. I started to put in 200 mile weeks starting through August (not that many miles, really), often riding in the hottest part of the afternoons. Many days I´d ride two to three hours when the temperature was over 100 and the heat index was over 107.     

My biggest rides to specifically prep for the race were a 125-miler on August 13th and a 201-miler on August 28th. I started the 201 miler at midnight so I could test my lights and see how I would handle a long ride with equal parts light and darkness. My main concern was cramps, which had hounded me on the 12-hour race the year before and had been even worse on a 6-hour race last spring. After researching cramps and their causes, thinking about what I had seen José and other riders do on Race Across America, evaluating my hydration and food choices, and experimenting on long, hot rides, I decided I would get in the habit of drinking a lot more water while riding (3 oz. per mile when it was really hot) and that half my water bottles would have nuun electrolyte replacement in them. Those two changes, along with eating salty peanuts like you get at a gas station convenience store, solved my cramps problem. You may think, "Well, why not drink Gatorade or Powerade? They have electrolytes in them, right?" Yes, they do. But they also have too much sugar. Drink that much Gatorade for 24 hours and you'll be wired and diabetic by the end.

A race of this nature is probably more mental than physical. To manage the race mentally, I broke it down into phases that shifted during different parts of the race. Of course, each hour of the race could be looked at as a phase, but twenty-four phases is too much. Each 26.4 mile lap could be a phase, but I thought I’d be doing thirteen of those if my plan went absolutely perfectly and thirteen phases was also a bit much. I wound up thinking of the phases in three ways: light and dark, heat and cool, and by the groups of racers that would start after me in the 12-hour, 6-hour, and 1-lap races.

When we started at 5 pm on Friday afternoon it was still over 90 degrees and felt even hotter on the indigo-black sections of new chip seal pavement. I did my best to ignore the riders who galloped away from me and passed me during the first lap and I tried to really hold back in spite of how good I felt. I was sure some of them were relay riders and that I would see some of the others again. I was right on both counts. By the time we were halfway into the second lap the temperature started to cool and the sun started to go down, marking the transition to darkness and cool.

I switched on my headlamp and settled into what would be a night phase of about eleven hours. Although the chip seal pavement was rougher than we would have liked, that’s what you get out in the country in Texas. But the course was remarkably free of bad dogs, debris, potholes, and sharp edged bridge pavement. You could relax and ride without too much concern about hitting something on the road that could take you down. I liked the arrangement of having my bike light on my head instead of my handlebars, because I could look where I was going on turns and not just where my handlebars were pointing. I have an excellent headlight made by FYXO and I ran it on the high setting, swapping batteries in the middle of the night. The brighter your lights are, the faster you feel like going. To stare into that round beam of light, though, becomes mentally difficult because of sensory deprivation. Where in daylight you’re able to look around at the scenery, the night forces you to focus on that relatively small cone of illuminated night. Since it’s only one night, there’s no real danger of falling asleep on the bike, but as any college student who ever pulled an all-nighter can attest, you do find it hard to concentrate from about 2-5 a.m. During those hours I started to imagine that I saw black cats at the bottom corners of the left and right edges of light. The cats faced inward towards the road, their backs hunched, poised to dash across my line of travel. “Don’t even think about it, cats” I’d say out loud. I’d also hear whispers behind me that would startle me a little bit and cause me to look around. Even after I figured out that the “whispers” were caused by the rustling of the colored ribbon we were required to tie to the backs of our helmets to identify our race category, I was still a little unnerved.

Refueling yourself while racing is not as simple as putting gas in a gas tank. In addition to drinking three large water bottles, I needed to eat 600 - 800 calories per lap, not to fuel the lap I was doing, but to be able to have the energy to race six, eight, or ten hours later. The best approach time-wise is to eat on the bike. Stopping longer than absolutely necessary at your support station kills your average speed and doesn’t make you feel much better anyway. Endurance cyclists have a little nylon bag strapped to the top tube of the bike behind the headset where they store food. Real food. In a race this long the gels and energy bars you typically think cyclists would eat are too sugary. I ate jerky, peanuts, sushi, Chinese dumplings, breakfast sandwiches, wraps, and cheese sticks wrapped with prosciutto. In addition to water I drank coffee, coke, V8, and a protein-rich drink called Perpetuum. A phenomenon of racing, though, is that the body’s ability to absorb food and hydration seems to be reduced. I got to the point where I didn’t want to eat any more. I felt like I was gestating a food baby and in the cool of the night I couldn’t finish three water bottles per lap. José encouraged me to keep eating, though, and it was a good thing he did.   

At 6 a.m. the 12-hour racers hit the course. They seemed to fly by me, but I tried to ignore them and I sure didn’t try to match them. For me, their start marked the promise of impending daylight. And just like I had seen José do during RAAM, when the sun came up at about 7 a.m. I felt faster and as refreshed as if I had slept some. It’s both awesome and sobering to see the sunrise at 7 in the middle of a 24-hour ride. You realize you’ve been at it for fourteen hours, have gotten through the night, still feel pretty good and are feeling even better with daylight and the cool of the morning. It occurs to you, though, that you’ve still have ten hours to go and you’ll still be racing as you see the sun traverse just about the entire Texas sky. It also occurs to you that it’s going to get extremely hot during the last six hours of the race, the phase where you’re most debilitated. You can’t think about that very long, though, or you’ll trash your morale and start to feel overly sorry for yourself. You’ll lose focus.

The best analogy I can think of to describe proper focus is when I would go to the rifle range for annual qualification with the M-16 in the Marines. You’re shooting at targets 200, 300 and 500 yards away, lining up the target, your front sight post, and the rear sight aperture. Of course, you have to look at the target and make sure you’re aiming at the right one, and you have to line up your sights, placing the front sight post perfectly in the middle of the opening of the rear sight back by your eye. At the moment you press the trigger, though, only one thing can be in focus. That’s the nature of focus. You might intuit that the target should be the focus, but it’s not. To shoot the rifle accurately, the front sight post must be sharp and clear, there in the exact center of a blurry rear sight and in the bullseye of the blurry blob of the target. It’s a method so proven that most of us could hit 10 out of 10 in the prone position from 500 yards, a great confidence booster when you consider that the Army claimed the maximum effective range of the weapon was 350 meters.

So, in the long-distance race, a lot of things can be in the picture, but you can only focus on one thing at a time. That focus must be on what you´re going to do to help yourself out when you pass your support area again within the next hour and forty minutes or so based on how you feel at that moment. That’s your front sight post. So, to answer people’s question, “What the heck do you think about on the bike for 24 hours” the answer is that it’s a kind of internal dialogue about how I’m doing and what I’m going to do at the next stop. “How do the legs feel? Good? Yeah, good. Knee hurts a little, though. I’ll sit a little further back on the saddle. Butt is getting a little chafed. I’ll put on more chamois cream at the tent. I’m not hungry but I should eat these peanuts anyway. I can drink half this bottle at the next downhill. I should  get a coke at the next stop. I’ll take off my arm warmers and put on sunscreen at the next stop, too. I should hit the porta-potty soon. Let me think about how I’ll make that transition as quickly as possible without dropping stuff out of my jersey pockets. Is my speed and level of effort right? How do the legs feel . . . ?”  That is pretty much the cycle of thoughts if the focus is right. You must remind yourself that all you can do is all you can do right now. Thoughts like “If I’m this tired and uncomfortable now, just think how bad I’ll feel in ten hours” and “How am I going to explain this to people next week” must be kept at bay.

At about 11 a.m. on Saturday, when we realized that I had about six hours (plenty of time at the rate of speed I was able to maintain at that point) to cover eighty miles to make my best-case goal of 344 miles, I was really happy, but I was also challenged to keep focus. The heat on the last two laps was brutal, and the 6-hour racers went past me like they were on motorcycles. The release of the one-lap menagerie, including José on his mountain bike, told me I was close to being done. With about six miles to go, as I approached the town of Glen Rose for the final time, a black Cadillac SUV came barreling out of a driveway on the opposite side of the road from me as I passed. The driver, apparently enraged at the sight of a cyclist on “his” road, laid on the horn and swerved at me, squealing the tires and taking off up the road at an unsafe speed. I guess he wanted to remind me I was still in Texas. I was too tired and happy to care. I crossed the line to finish my thirteenth lap at 4:52 pm, with eight minutes to spare.

I felt surprisingly good at the end, a little stiff and pretty tired, but not overly so. I was sitting way in the back at the awards ceremony and when I won a raffle item and they called my name a couple of times I actually ran (shuffled, really) up to the podium out of fear that they’d think I wasn’t there. So that’s not too bad if you can run a little bit after a 24-hour bike time trial. I finished with 344 miles, 6th out of 20 men in the solo category of the 24 hour race, not bad at all for my first race at that distance. I also raised nearly $1,200.00 for Fisher House Foundation, a charity that helps wounded service members and their families with housing and travel expenses. I owe a lot to José, who advised me and coached me and helped prep my stuff. I don´t think I would have made 300 miles without his help.  

Will I do something like this again? I’m not sure. I do know it won’t be today.