Friday, March 31, 2017

The Texas RAAM 400 / Riding the mile you have right now

Texas Race Across America Course Map
Back in September, to prep my bike for a 24 hour race, I put a little piece of silver duct tape on the bridge of my aerobars and wrote “Be present” on it with a Sharpie. The words have long since worn off, but the piece of tape is still a reminder for me in an ultradistance bike race to focus on how I’m riding at the moment and block everything else out. That mantra turned out to be extremely useful in the Texas Race Across America (RAAM) 400, a 389 mile race around the Texas Hill Country that I did the weekend of March 25th and 26, 2017.

In 2016 I did the 214-mile race self-supported, which meant that I carried everything I needed and stopped at gas stations to resupply myself. I was very pleased with how the race went, but the morning after as Margaret and I got up and had a leisurely breakfast, I remembered that most of the 400-mile racers were still out there chugging along through the night, and, in the words of Shakespeare, “I held my manhood cheap.” I resolved to prepare myself and recruit a support crew for the longer race in the coming year.

To officially complete the 400 mile race, one must finish in less than thirty-two hours. Since I knew the course was very tough, with well over 20,000 feet of climbing, I decided that a reasonable goal for me would be thirty hours. I knew that some of the big guns like Andrew Willis would finish in under twenty-four hours. I believed that David Baxter would also finish way ahead of me and I knew that my placing at the finish would be totally dependent on who else showed up. My competition, then, was totally against myself and my goal, and not against anyone else.

For nearly six months every pedal stroke of my training on the bike pointed to this 400-mile race and I arrived at the start line at 5 a.m. Saturday morning physically and mentally honed. I managed to recruit my wife, Margaret, and our older son, J.D. to support me using our Toyota Tacoma truck as the follow vehicle. In the darkness, they would follow me directly, keeping me bathed in their headlights, ready to pull up alongside and hand full water bottles and food out of the window. Per race rules, after 7 a.m., they would leapfrog past me, pulling over where they had room to do so, and getting out to hand off whatever I needed as I passed.

The view from the support vehicle
Margaret and J.D. had several responsibilities as support crew. In addition to preparing and handing up food and drink, they were responsible for calling in the time stations to race headquarters as we passed them, and helping me navigate the course with the aid of an eight-page cue sheet. Supporting a rider like this, especially with a two-person crew, is busy, tedious work which allows for little or no rest. The driver can do nothing but drive, and the focus required to stay forty feet behind a rider going fifteen mph through the night is excruciatingly mind-numbing. The crewmember riding shotgun is constantly prepping the next round of food or drink, confirming navigation and looking for the next turn, organizing the vehicle, communicating with race headquarters, and anticipating what the rider will need.

We started the race individually at one-minute intervals and within the first ten miles I found myself being passed by other riders who seemed to fly by. “Vaya con Dios,” I whispered, certain that it would be foolish for me to vary from my planned pace to try to keep up with them and believing that I´d later pass some of them back as the miles wore on.

Within an hour of the start, still before 6 a.m., once we turned off of highway 281, we were plunged into inky darkness on the narrow farm and ranch roads. One place where the follow vehicle headlights and even your own bike headlight doesn´t help you is turning into a corner, so I negotiated those very cautiously, wary of the little piles of gravel that can take out your front wheel. Another place where the vehicle lights momentarily can’t help you is where the road dips down into low spots that cross one of the thousands of creeks that populate the Texas Hill Country.

The treacherous low water crossings of the Hill Country are best crossed on foot since they tend to be covered in slick greenish blackish algae, a point that was emphasized by Fred Boethling, one of the race directors. That didn’t stop some of the riders from flying into them (accidentally or otherwise), which resulted in horrific road rash for my friend, José Bermúdez, and a race-ending broken derailleur hanger for another self-supported rider who had traveled all the way from Colorado to compete.

My support crew was not totally responsible for navigation. I found my way mostly by the course map I had downloaded on my Garmin 810, a bike computer the screens of which I could thumb through as I rode along to see a map; various readouts of my speed, distance, and power; and a profile of the course elevation with a little blue dot showing my current location. The Garmin would chirp at me and inform me when I needed to turn, and also let me know when I had missed a turn and gone off course.  

Some place after the first hundred miles I started looking at the course elevation profile screen more. If I saw that the next couple of miles were uphill, I´d shift into an easier gear and increase my rpm to avoid overtaxing my legs. If I saw a long downhill coming, I´d get into a big gear, try to get a little bit aerodynamic and take advantage of the free speed. As I neared Vanderpool at about the 150 mile point, though, the slope of the elevation profile went almost wall-like off the upper right corner of the screen. I chuckled and said to myself, “Well, this will be tough.” It was. The hills starting near Vanderpool were steep enough to create the sensation that my front wheel wanted to come off the ground as I granny-geared up the climb. I was soon to see more of those green walls on the elevation profile (which did NOT elicit chuckles) near Leakey at the 175 mile point, which was to become a critical psychological moment in the race for me. 
Getting into the warm part of the day west of Boerne, TX
For me, to let my mind wander off of the task at hand of just riding my current mile sends me mentally to one of two dangerous places: to the finish or to a distance/pain algebra problem. The less problematic fantasy is about finishing, coming across the line and having that medal hung around my neck, seeing my goal time achieved, hugging my family, eating a nice sit-down meal with clean hands, and regaling gape-mouthed friends for months after with stories of my achievement (which truly is a fantasy since non-endurance athletes rightfully care absolutely nothing about your ride). The problem with the finishing fantasy is that you must always at some point mentally snap back to the present, and the letdown of realizing you´ve still got 200+ miles to go after you’ve been daydreaming can be soul-crushing. You may even be a little tempted to abandon the race and just fast forward to all that comfort you were lusting after. But the more perilous mind-wandering phenomenon is the distance/pain algebra problem. The interior monologue of the distance/pain algebra problem goes like this, “Well, I’m only 175 miles into a 400 mile bike race. If my legs and my shoulders and my butt are hurting this much now, less than halfway in, then the pain at the 350 mile point will be proportional to . . . hmmm, let’s see . . . solve for X . . .  well, that will be just too excruciating. And even then I’ll still have fifty miles to go. I’ll never make it.” And you’ll be mentally destroyed by anxiety over assumed future pain.

The truth is, if you take the right actions, much of your increasing discomfort may not be linear and it may be managed, reduced or even banished. If you’ve trained properly what you’re feeling in your legs at 175 miles at is not muscular failure, but a lack of calories, hydration or electrolytes that are only as far away as a wave to the support vehicle. Saddle discomfort can be relieved by more chamois cream, an adjustment in the shorts, saddle, or position. So act. Don’t just sit there miserable, fantasizing about being done or devastating your morale with distance/pain algebra. 
Riding past the omnipresent and iconic bluebonnets

Ultraracing is about managing problems when reality crashes into the ideal. Ideally, we would be able to gut out thirty hours of racing with no sleep, but as we approached Mountain Home at about 2 a.m., I was getting too sleepy and made the decision to take a nap. It was getting cold and we were all at a low point. Margaret took one of the coolers out of the back seat so J.D. could get in the truck and we slept for twenty minutes, which turned out to be a huge boost that got us through the rest of the night. It was soon after we got going again that I ran into several very cold places, prompting me to grit my teeth and groan out loud. I immediately had to stop and get all my warm clothes on again. Looking back at the temperature profile on the Garmin, we hit lows of 41 near Mountain Home in the wee hours of the morning, which felt brutally cold after having hit highs of 97 in the hills near Leakey the afternoon before.

The dark night of the soul near Mountain Home
My need to focus on the now sometimes pushed me to do ridiculous things. In addition to thinking about the mile I was riding at the time, I compromised and allowed myself to think about getting to the next town if it were only ten to fifteen miles away. At one point, where I was nearly 300 miles in and within fourteen miles of reaching the town of Doss, my sleep-deprived mind arrived at the solution of composing a preposterous country song that went something like, “I’m ridin’ to Doss . . . on my carbon fiber hoss . . . I wish I could stop and floss . . . “

Soon after seven a.m. we saw our second sunrise of the race. As usual, my energy and positivity rose in proportion to the increasing daylight and I could tell that Margaret and J.D. were feeling better too. They went into leapfrog mode and at one point I could see them up ahead standing by the road near the truck, her in the safety vest and him in the bright yellow shirt I loaned them. In the shimmering distance, she looked tall and regal and he looked tall and athletic. At that moment I was immensely proud of and thankful for them. We could smell the barn. More animals, both wild and domestic, came into activity at daylight also. At one point my addled brain registered that a skunk was waddling across the road in front of me. When he realized I was passing him, he stopped and lifted his tail, locked and loaded to spray me as my crew looked on, horrified. He thought better of it, though, and I rode on unsprayed. Through the course of the race we saw, in addition to two skunks, jackrabbits, bison, antelope, wild hogs, turkeys, a roadrunner, foxes, and about a thousand deer. I was not chased by a single loose dog.

When you have less than three miles to the finish, FM 2147 turns right onto 281, a major four-lane highway. The lanes are wide there, but there is little to no shoulder. Since it was daylight, the follow vehicle couldn’t be behind me. I rode as far to the right as I could so that vehicles in that lane had room to easily get by me on that Sunday morning. Still, within a mile of getting on 281, one driver got behind me and laid on his/her horn and another passed me and held his arm with extended middle finger out the window at me for a solid eight seconds. Welcome to Texas™. Drive Friendly™. That was my victory lap.
The finish line in Marble Falls, TX
With my crew, J.D. and Margaret

Still, I’m immensely thankful for the whole experience: to God for the health, safety and opportunity to train and race, to my family for supporting me not only during the race but all those weekends spent doing long rides, to my coach José Bermúdez for the training and encouragement, and to the race directors of RAAM for their labor of love.

And I´m thankful for the lesson of savoring the moment, valuing what I´m doing right now without letting anxiety about the future steal my joy.