Friday, March 25, 2016

Bluebonnets and Water Crossings / 214 mile race Texas RAAM 2016

The Texas Race Across America event on March 18, 19 of 2016 featured races of nearly 400 miles and another of 214 miles. I did the shorter race. The start was in Marble Falls, west of Austin on the Colorado River. The course was a big loop through the beautiful Texas Hill Country down to Comfort, over to Kerrville, up west of Fredericksburg and back. Most riders (including all the 400 milers, I believe) had a support vehicle resupplying them and helping them with navigation. I rode in the randonneur division, which meant that I would be self-supported, relying on gas stations for resupply, and calling in my own checkpoints at three time stations the race directors used to help track the riders.

The staggered start was at 5 a.m. and it was cold and already extremely windy. I was set up with about 130 oz. of fluids, stuff to fix two flats, headlights and taillights, and a little nylon bag strapped to the top tube just behind the handlebars to carry food: peanuts, a couple of wraps that I cut into bite-size sections, fig newtons, and clif bars. One of my big water bottles had a thin mix of perpetuum, a powder with about 250 protein-heavy calories. In my other big bottle I dissolved two nuun electrolyte tablets to keep cramps at bay. I had plans to buy a couple of snickers bars and a burger in Kerrville.  If that sounds like a tremendous amount of food, keep in mind that for me, the 200+ miles would burn about 6,500 calories.

When we started in the dark, I was deathly afraid that I would miss a turn and sabotage my race. The cue sheet for navigation that we got the evening before the race was eight pages long; great if you’re riding shotgun in a support vehicle, not great if you’re self-supported.  Fortunately, I had downloaded the route map from the race website into my gps, which, along with the verbal descriptions of the sketchy places on the route from the race director, kept me straight.

I had a plan to keep my ride effort at 150 watts for the whole ride if at all possible. Power is the best measure of how hard you’re working, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of riding too hard early.
Riding in the Texas Hill Country means you’ll ride over cattle guards and through low water crossings. The cattle guards are easy: just keep pedaling and keep your front wheel straight. It was recommended that we dismount and walk the sections where water covered the low parts of the road (I guess there were about 20 such points). Those crossings can get super-slick, especially if they are tree-shaded and prone to grow algae. I developed a sense for how to identify the very slick crossings and walked my bike through them. Walking through the sometimes mid-shin deep water condemned us to ride the rest of the day with wet feet. The Swiftwick socks that my Bell and Co. team provided me kept me from having any foot problems due to wetness, swelling or friction. A couple of riders hit the deck hard trying to ride these crossings. One fractured a hip and the other did not finish.

My only mistake early in the race was to call in my first time station late. I had fixed in my mind that the first time station was at 79 miles, but it was actually at 72.9 near Luckenbach. I realized my mistake at about mile 74, dismounted and pulled out the cue sheets to confirm and texted to 2 of the race directors that I had cleared that first time station.

I was prepared to stop in Comfort (the 100-mile point) to refill my water, but it seemed like I had enough to make it to Kerrville at 119 miles, so I didn’t stop.  At Kerrville, I followed the advice of my coach, José Bermúdez, and made sure I ate as much as possible, including something hot and substantial. I texted in my time station at a convenience store, re-applied chamois cream, pulled off and stowed the knee warmers I had worn since the start, bought a gallon of water to top off my bottles and camelback, bought four snickers bars (I could only eat 2 through the course of the rest of the day) and headed down to the Dairy Queen for a burger. I was only able to eat about 2/3 of it. I had been very intentional about eating and drinking enough during the first 120 miles, since in my experience, being short on calories the first 100 miles will show up in your inability to push power the second hundred miles.

Leaving Kerrville started a section of about 35 miles that was nearly all uphill (including some tough, short climbs) and straight into an 18 mph headwind. I focused on just riding each hour as well as I could, keeping my cadence high, not taking any breaks and not being demoralized by my slow speed. I stopped seeing other riders and it occurred to me that I may have been running dead last since I had so much to do during my stop. I soon started to develop a shallow, rapid breathing out of proportion to my effort. I would switch gps screens from the map to the powermeter and I could see that my power output was slowly dropping, corroborated by my low heartrate. I’d also have short bouts of coughing. Since the wildflowers (blue bonnets and indian paintbrushes) were out in abundance, maybe it was an allergic reaction. Or maybe it was caused by the cold air or just the duration of the effort. It’s still a mystery. I passed an official and asked him if I was last or if anyone was behind me. He told me I was 5th overall at that point, including supported guys and teams. That was a nice surprise, and within the hour I passed another rider with his support vehicle stopped beside the road.
I stopped looking at the power screen and just resolved to keep eating and drinking and to not make any navigation errors.

Somewhere west of Fredericksburg, my wife pulled up alongside me and we chatted for a few seconds as I rode along. She went on ahead and stopped and got out. I stopped and she gave me a kiss and a hug. For her to come out there and find me (she had been hanging out in Fredericksburg most of the day) to hug and kiss on me, her ol´ sweaty husband, was a great morale boost.   
It was getting dark again as I approached Marble Falls. I had to turn my headlight back on and swap out my sunglasses for my clear ones. I made it back to the start/finish 4th overall, ahead of all the teams and all the supported guys but two. I was second in the randonneurs to David Baxter, an accomplished Ultracyclist who whipped us all.  

My average power for the day was a paltry 134 watts, but my normalized wattage (that doesn’t count coasting downhill or stopping) was 158 watts, which was above my goal. The GPS credited me with over 14,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the ride, even hillier than I had anticipated, but my lower back could have told me that.  

All in all, a very positive race for me, but to put it in perspective, my race was much less than a single day’s work for a cyclist crossing the country competing in RAAM, much less than what the 400 mile guys did, and it was about the distance that Kurt Searvogel did every day for a year to set the world record for highest annual mileage.

Things that worked well:
The training program. José Bermúdez had me on a program of 6 days per week, usually only about 90 minutes per day. Saturdays were progressively longer rides, working up to the distance and elevation change that I would see in Texas. Most weeks were under 200 miles except for the ones where I needed to put in a really big Saturday ride. He worked in threshold, VO2 max, hill repeats, steady state and tempo intervals based on percentages of my power at lactate threshold, the same training concept as any competitive cyclist at any distance. Rest was factored in every month, within the week, and even within each workout. I didn´t do any weights or swimming and did very little running in order to put all my effort into cycling prep for this race.

 ‘king bright light (headlight) by FYXO, an Australian company. I needed the brightest setting early in the morning, then turned it off for most of the day. It still had battery left when I needed to turn it on again near the end of the race.

Garmin Vector 2S powermeter. My bike got caught out in a biblical rain/hail storm during the pre-race meeting the evening before the race and I thought, “Surely my powermeter is ruined by rainwater.” But it worked perfectly.

Garmin 810 edge GPS. I bought a refurbished one for about 60% of its regular price. This and the powermeter represented huge purchases for a poor humanities professor, but both turned out to be enormously helpful for training and racing.

“Ride with GPS” digital, downloadable maps

Camelback mule (Carried lots of little odds and ends in addition to water. Never felt too heavy or shifty.

Michelin endurance pro 4 tires (the 25mm size absorbed road vibration very well). I inflated the front to 90 psi and the rear to 100, pretty low pressure for a heavy rider.

Zefal magnum 33-oz water bottles (I have the clear ones).

Pactimo kit and Swiftwick socks - the best, most comfortable, most functional gear I’ve worn in 30 years of cycling

Rol race SL wheels. These are from a company in Austin. Very affordable wheels, about the lightest I would attempt to ride, and have been almost totally maintenance-free. I’m not easy on wheels.

“Gas tank” by Revelate to carry accessible food on the bike

Things that could have worked better:
Trying to text in to race headquarters using Siri. I wanted to use this technique to save time and effort (we had to text in to two people at each time station), but Siri wouldn’t cooperate. She would confuse who I wanted to text with a similar name and fail to understand what I said, prompting me to use language that she found objectionable.

The “Ride with GPS” course map. This may have been a problem of a setting that I can program myself, but the map would not prompt me to turn until I was actually in the turn. In fact, initially, I wondered if it was beeping because I was turning or because it was telling me to turn. So I had to pretty much ride with the map on the screen to see upcoming turns. Still, much, much better than trying to ride while consulting 8 pages of cue sheets.

My ghetto toe warmers. For years I´ve used cut-off ziplock bags over my socks and under my shoes just to hold in a little body heat and keep the wind off of my toes. They´re not as good as real booties or toe warmers, but I knew those would just get wet. The ziplock baggies, though, from the very first low water crossing, just seemed to hold water in. I only pulled them off at about ¾ of the way through the race. I should have done it in Kerrville at my long stop.


My breathing. I’m looking into Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction and what to do about it.