TAT CN Header

Monday, July 6, 2015

2015 Stubborn Mule 30-hour

Cable, WI, is a long drive from the St. Louis area, but it's totally worth the trip (especially if you aren't the one who does the driving!). This year the Stubborn Mule adventure race moved northwest to the Cable area, and though I was looking forward to the race before I heard about the location change, I was really excited once I started reading about the mountain biking opportunities in the area.

Chuck and Lori picked me up Friday morning and we headed north through lots of rain, an ominous echo of last year's weather that thankfully did not portend another 6-hour midnight downpour during the race.  Our hotel was about 2 minutes from the race HQ, which we scouted out between check-in and dinner at the Sawmill Saloon.  After dinner we went back to get our bikes and gear as ready as possible, a task that was complicated by the fact that we had no idea how the course would be structured.

Most ARs I've done start with a pre-race meeting the day before where you get your maps and race instructions.  That way, you go into race morning having a good idea of where (if at all) you can drop gear and food, how the race is structured, etc. Without a pre-race meeting, I filled my normal pack food pockets and stocked up my bike, then put the rest of my race food in a large ziploc bag until I knew whether I'd be leaving some behind or carrying 30 hours worth of calories with me all day. Aiming for 250 calories an hour, that seemed like a lot of food.

Race check-in started at 4:45 a.m. We received two big maps, a smaller supplemental one, and a packet of CAMBA trail maps. Chuck copied information about private property from master maps while I traced the mandatory bike route on one of the trail maps (first scanning the descriptions and being relieved to see they were rated intermediate) and read over the race book, highlighting mandatory points and time limits.  We were left with a few minutes to strategize before the pre-race meeting, where it was my job to be the primary ears for our team.

The race was largely centered around the HQ/start/finish, giving us one place we'd return to repeatedly during the day (with a bathroom! I'm not too ladylike to go in the woods, but not having to was lovely!). This made staging gear super easy. We left extra food, shoes, paddles, and bikes at the HQ and made our way to the start.

Photo credit: Stubborn Mule AR
WEDALI up front, Chuck and I waaaaaay in the back on the right. :)
6:00 am 

Trek 1: 6 CPs, may be obtained in any order, must get 4 or attempt section for 2 hours

The opening jog was a sad reminder that my summer running mileage is anemic at best, but it was impossible to be down in such lovely surroundings.

Nice way to start the day
We got off to a slightly slow start, hampered by the fact that it was difficult to tell the difference between hills and depressions on the map, an issue which might have been mitigated if the navigator's assistant (that would be me) had looked at the clue sheet and mentioned that the clue was "depression".  Oops. My bad. It's only been three months since my last adventure race, but apparently my race brain is rusty.  That little issue resolved, we knocked out the first four CPs in quick order.

Getting CP4
The Chequamegon National Forest has "over 300 miles of marked and mapped routes", which is fantastic.  It also means you may well come to an intersection of six trails spidering off into different directions.  We hit one such junction on our way to CP5 and spent a longer time that felt right hiking it towards our next CP. At one point we stopped and asked ourselves, if we're not on the right trail, where else on the map are we, but at the time we didn't make the connection that we were on a roughly parallel trail.

In retrospect, we should have stopped, thought it through, and if necessary backed up to reattack, but we kept moving forward until we hit a signed intersection and figured out where we were.  At that point we decided to bag CP5 and move on to 6. Hiking along the grassy doubletrack, we saw a black bear on the trail ahead of us.

Not too long into our race this weekend, Chuck and I came across this bear. It stood in the trail for a minute or two and then ran off into the woods. It peered over at us from the side as we passed, but before I could get my camera out again it lost interest. We actually saw a second bear later that day, maybe around 4 or 5 in a different area.
Posted by Kate Lavelle Geisen on Monday, June 29, 2015

Holy shit. A bear. One of my enduring disappointments from last year's Stubborn Mule was the complete lack of bear sightings, so once our furry friend ambled along his or her way we were as excited little kids.  Seeing a bear totally made up for missing that checkpoint and losing some time. On a high, we collected our final checkpoint and made our way back to race HQ.

Chuck:  The bear was definitely a highlight for me too.  We all watched each other for a few minutes while Kate got her camera up and running.  The bear flicked his ears a few times and shifted his weight around projecting an image of total curiosity.  Finally deciding that this IS a bear we started making some noise, then he ran off just like the experts say its supposed to work.

After each leg of the race, teams checked in and out with volunteers. This meant race staff were able to keep track of how many CPs each team had throughout the race, plus they also tracked our transition times, which is interesting information for post-race analysis (that said, while I typically love to start talking about how the race went and what we could do better next time as soon as it's over, this time most of my post-race was spent asleep in the back seat of Chuck and Lori's van).

Trek 1: 
Time: 3:27
Distance covered: 9 miles
Checkpoints: 5/6


9:39 a.m. (3:39 of racing down, about 26 to go)

Paddle 1: 6 CPs, may be obtained in any order; teams must obtain at least 4/6

We now had a long flat-water paddle on the lovely (and enormous) Lake Namakegon. I'm still no fan of paddling, but like last year, the canoes were some of the nicest I've ever used in a race. I'd say the first three-fourths of the paddle weren't terrible at all. Chuck's nav was flawless, and while we aren't fast paddlers we weren't super slow, either.

Water like glass
At one point we crossed paths with a three-person team. Since the canoes only have front and back seats, the person in the middle is stuck on the bottom unless they bring something to sit on.  I was that unlucky person last year, enduring a long river paddle which perched on my pack, so I commiserated with the guy in the middle, telling him I knew it was no fun.

"Yeah," he responded, "but you weren't paddling!"   (That's what I get for revealing my "if I'm taking pictures I can't paddle" strategy in last year's race report. :D)

This smile may not be entirely sincere. Also, not the less smooth water.
We'd toyed with getting the four mandatory CPs and then heading back to HQ, but somehow we decided to get a fifth as well. I think Chuck even left it up to me, and far be it from me to add to my canoe time, but I wasn't feeling awful at the time. That changed not long after we pointed ourselves towards that last CP. My shoulders and back were sore, my hands were hurting, and I kept shifting position because my legs were uncomfortable. Additionally, lake traffic picked up as the day went on, and it seemed like every jet ski and pontoon boat was making a point to knock us around with their wake. I was very happy to get back to the beach and out of the canoe.

Get me out of this effing boat.
Photo credit: Lori Vohsen
Paddle 1:
Time: 3:59
Distance covered: 14 miles
Checkpoints: 5/6


Happily switching from paddle mode to bike mode.
Photo credit: Lori Vohsen
Once again we checked back in with the volunteers and then prepared for the bike leg.  We had a 25-mile bike to a new transition area with a 19-CP trekking leg, followed by a 34-mile bike leg back to HQ.  We weren't going to be back at HQ until early the next morning, so we loaded up with extra food, stuck our trekking shoes in our packs, and climbed onto our bikes.

2:01 p.m. (8 hours of racing down, 22 to go)

Bike 1: 5 CPs, may be obtained in any order; teams must obtain at least 2/5 CPs

Chuck at the beginning of the bike leg

Yes! The bike leg! If there's anything I was trained for post-Dirty Kanza, it was this. We started on pavement/gravel, ticking off miles and our first checkpoint. We had to stop and check the maps to figure out the right turn for our next checkpoint, discovering at that point that we'd lost the map where we'd marked the mandatory bike route. We biked down to a trailhead and looked over the map posted there, noticing Lori's van in the parking area and looking forward to seeing her along the way. 

It looked like we could either take the singletrack or a little bit more road. "Let's take the road," I suggested, "Look how squiggly the singletrack is...the road will be way more direct."  That may have been true, but once we turned towards the trail the road got super rough.  The trail, once we hit it, was buttery smooth and so much fun. Bad call on my part, made worse by the fact that Lori was waiting to cheer and take pictures on the section of singletrack we'd missed.

Chuck:  Not a bad call on your part, I was down with it too.  It was the best call with the limited information we had.

"Is this Heaven?"
"No, this is Wisconsin."

Highest point on the trail (maybe in the area...I've forgotten now)
The trails alone made the 10-hour drive to Wisconsin totally worth it. This section of the race included the Flow Mama and Seeley Pass trails, the swoopiest fun I've ever had on a mountain bike. The three CPs on the singletrack were unmapped; you just had to keep an eye out for them as you rode. We snagged the High Point CP and then spent most of our remaining time on the trails swinging between savoring the trails and worrying we'd missed the other CPs (sometimes doing both at once, because we're overachievers like that). We did get some reassurance when we ran into another team (Marine One, maybe) at a trail intersection. "How many checkpoints have you found on the singletrack?" I asked.

"Just one," they replied. "Everybody else has said the same thing."  Whew. 

Finishing up Seeley Pass trail

Having missed us at the beginning of the singletrack, Lori found us towards the end and got a couple of pictures on the bike. Usually in an adventure race, by the time one leg ends I'm ready to be doing something new; not this time! I could have stayed on those trails for way longer.  Definitely the most fun I've ever had on singletrack. We pulled into the TA with huge smiles on our faces.

Bike 1:
Time: 3:46
Distance covered: 24.4 miles

Checkpoints: 5/5


Trek 2: 19 CPs, may be obtained in any order; teams must obtain at least 8 CPs or attempt course for 3 hours

As we reached the TA, we saw WEDALI running back in to get more water. "Take your time," Emily warned us, "The terrain is really subtle. It's tricky."  We pulled on trekking pants, changed shoes, and reapplied bug repellent, then I topped off our water while Chuck looked over our new map.  Knowing we weren't going to be clearing the course, we immediately discounted a couple CPs that had almost no contour lines to help with the nav and then identified two different circles of CPs; we'd complete one, then re-evaluate what we wanted to do next.

And we're off!

6:15 p.m. (12 hours of racing down, 18 to go). It's numbers like that that tell you 30 hours is a long time to race.

This trekking leg was centered around the famous Birkie Trail. One section of the Birkie was overlaid on our maps,  but no other trails were. This would have baffled me, but once again Chuck nailed the nav. As we completed our first loop, we passed near the TA again on the Birkie, and stopping to check a trail map saw yet another black bear ahead of us on the trail. With dusk starting to fall, I was slightly less excited about seeing the bear, really not wanting to encounter one in the dark.

We saw one 4-person team as we hiked back onto the Birkie from our first CP of the trek, and then we never saw another person until running into the Marine team on our approach to our last CP. Here we encountered the thickest vegetation of the race, thankfully able to follow their path to the CP but having to break our own trail when we decided to go north towards the road instead of backtracking.

Chuck:  And, she really means "BREAK" our own trail, the vegetation was straight out of some jungle movie, a machete would not have been out of place.

Moving in full dark now with only the light of our headlamps to help us find the clearest path, Chuck took us slowly and steadily towards the road. At one point I looked back and thought I saw eyes reflecting my headlamp, and every time he stopped to look at the map I heard weird noises behind me.  I was increasingly paranoid about bears. While I'm not a fan of three-person teams and being stuck in the middle of the canoe, at that point I wished desperately for a third teammate so that the bear I imagined behind us could eat them instead of me.  Possibly my happiest moment of the race was when we popped out on the road unmauled.

Trek 2:
Time: 4:05
Distance covered: ?

Checkpoints: 9/19


Hike-a-Bike: 10 CPs, may be obtained by bike or foot; teams must obtain at least 2 CPs 

The TA had moved into the Birkie warming huts, which made a nice place for us to plot the CPs given to us when we checked in. This next section was billed as "Hike-a-Bike". Again we were to cover a combination of gravel and singletrack. Paula, the race director, was at the TA and pointed out to everyone that our CAMBA trail maps would help greatly to find some of the points. Thankfully the map we needed wasn't the one we'd already lost!  After Chuck plotted our points, we went over them again with the trail map, also marking that with our route. While I'd been at sea with the topo map, at least the nav on the trail map made sense to me.

11:10 p.m. (17 hours of racing down, 13 to go). 

While all CPs could be obtained by either bike or foot, what it boiled down to for us (and most teams, I imagine) was biking to the attack point, dropping bikes, and hiking in to find the point.  For our first CP, on a peninsula, we questioned ourselves and had to crawl a log over a creek three times before we went far enough to find the flag. We then somehow missed a turn to our next CP ("Hilltop"), deciding to skip it when we finally figured out where we were.

Lots of signs at 1 a.m. The large trail map (not shown) to the right of this picture was really helpful.

We found the marsh CP with only one false start, and things got interesting.  Attacking too early for CP B9 ("Lake"), we then moved off our bearing in search of our target. Being in the wrong place, we naturally didn't find it, and our wandering around resulted in a slightly disconcerting period where we couldn't see our bike lights and didn't know how to get back to the road.  I thought we might have to wait til dawn to figure it out, but Chuck sat down with the map for a minute, got things straight, and led us back out.  Once we got back on the road, the actual attack point was just a little bit further, and we and the Wolseley Wanderers located it without further drama.

Chuck:  In vegetation that thick, and that late at night, I should not have taken us off a solid bearing in some vague hope of spotting a CP.  (I wonder now, in hindsight, if that poor decision was influenced by the beginning of my 'dark time' on the bike leg.)  To our great relief, spreading all the maps out on the forest floor and plotting a safety bearing to intersect the road worked out perfectly .  This was a great lesson learned.

Subsequent bike CPs were on singletrack, and though I'd been really excited to get back on the awesome CAMBA trails (and thrilled that we'd be riding "easy" trails in the dark), the reality was less joyous than our earlier ride. The trail may have been easy, but it was also boring. My increasing sleepiness was revealed by the way my bike was weaving back and forth across the trail.  Still, I was thrilled to be on the bike rather than on foot or in a canoe.

Chuck, on the other hand, hasn't spent as much time on the bike lately. With a previous long ride of around 20 miles, he suffered quietly throughout most of this leg.  Since I had a pretty good handle on the (uncomplicated) singetrack nav, Chuck was able to retreat to the pain cave for a while, emerging right as we hit our final trail and just in time for my attitude to go south.

Chuck:  And that's why AR is such a great team sport!  Everyone goes through a time where they have to depend on their teammates.  Kate did outstanding leading us through that section.

I'd been excited about riding another IMBA Epic designee, but despite the fact that daylight had broken and the trail was easier than almost anything we have locally, I somehow began riding (and feeling) like I'd never been on a mountain bike. Meanwhile, Chuck was zipping along the trail like a kid just let out for recess.

We finally got to the end of the trail, where one of us noticed that the cover of one of Chuck's red blinkies was missing.  I mentioned that I'd seen it back on the trail, not realizing it was his. "Where was it?" he demanded, "That's my best light!"

"I don't know...it was a ways back," I mumbled vaguely, watching in disbelief as he turned his bike and rode back towards the trail.  I thought he was just joking about going back for the light, but he kept going.

"Come on!"

I stared at his back, still trying to formulate the words to nicely tell my teammate that there was no way in hell I was turning around for his stupid taillight when he looked back at me with a big grin and turned us back towards the race HQ.

Chuck: Evidence that I was out of the 'dark time' and Kate was in one. She is usually way to quick to get caught by something that easy.

Time: 7:40
Distance covered: 30-ish? miles
Checkpoints: 8/10

Paddle 2: 10 miles, 4 cps, any order; teams must get at least 1.

7:17 a.m. (25 hours of racing down, 5 to go). 

The volunteers at HQ gave us coordinates for four paddling CPs.  It was mandatory to get one, but there were three that were allegedly "pretty close together".  We grudgingly grabbed the paddles and trudged back to the canoe beach, only realizing after we'd chosen our boat that our map was back at HQ.  I sat in a beach chair and almost fell asleep while Chuck retrieved our map.

The lake was beautiful in the morning light, flat and calm with no sign of the pontoon boats and jet skis that had plagued us the previous morning.  Still, the first part of the paddle was terrible as we both fought with sleep.  A combination of chocolate-covered espresso beans and conversation helped the situation, but the paddle quickly revealed that my idea and Chuck's idea of "pretty close together" are wildly different. Still, we stuck with our plan of getting the three closest CPs, all of which needed a question answered to prove you were there, and were both thrilled to finally limp back to the beach.

Paddle done, just one...more...leg...
We were very not thrilled when we turned in our passport and answers and were told we'd written the wrong number down for one of the questions. We'd miscounted the number of 2x6's that made up a bench on one of the docks, so we didn't get credit for that CP. Rules are rules, and everyone else had gotten the question right, so it was our mistake not to get out of the canoe onto the dock and count more carefully, but I was pissed we'd done all that paddling for nothing.  Definitely my least happy moment of the race.

Paddle 2:
Time: 2:19
Distance covered: 8? miles
Checkpoints: 2/4


9:48 a.m. (28 hours of racing down, 2 to go). 

Trek 3: 9 CPs, all optional; 4.5 miles

Plotting and strategizing...and eating Pringles.

The volunteers gave us our final set of coordinates to plot for the final trek.  We knew we didn't have time to get all of them, so we picked the closest ones and headed out.  We found the first one, located on a beautiful open grassy hilltop (you'll have to take my word for it since I left the camera back at HQ), pretty quickly. The second, located at the end of a boardwalk in the middle of a marsh, proved much more difficult as we got distracted by a small marsh along our bearing. Eventually we found it, and since it was another question/answer CP, I made Chuck double check my answer.

There was one more CP in close proximity, but after the issues we'd had with our last one we decided not to take any chances with the hour we had left.  Instead, we headed back to the finish line, which we found with no problem.

Trek 3:
Time: 1:25
Distance covered: not all that far
Checkpoints: 2/9

Second in my growing set of Stubborn Mule coasters!

11:13 a.m. (29:13 total race time). 

Even better than finishing the race was the fact that we were able to immediately use the showers at the resort hosting the race, brush our teeth, and then eat. I know I've been grosser during a race (Thunder Rolls 2013!), but I've never wanted a shower as badly as I did this year.

Showers...and food (lots of food)...

...and beer. Now we're happy.
We ended up finishing first in our division and 8th overall. Had we gotten credit for the paddle CP where we answered the question wrong, we'd have been 6th overall. Either way, we had a great race.

If you have any way of making it to next year's Stubborn Mule, you really should. The location is incredible, and the race director and volunteers are fantastic. The race is so well-planned and the logistics both years I've raced it have been flawless.  Seriously.  Do this race. Your only regret will be waiting this long.

Chuck:  Oh yeah, I'm definitely IN for next year!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Muddy Kanza

Weather has been a huge factor in some of the big gravel races so far this year with Land Run's mud destroying derailleurs left and right and only one person making it past the first Trans Iowa checkpoint before the cutoff. Hopes that Dirty Kanza would avoid the curse were dashed by constant rain over Emporia in the weeks before the race. Every look at my weather app during the 10-day forecast window (and there were many such looks) was highlighted by the big red FLOOD WARNING bar at the top of the page.

Despite this, I was at peace. I had trained for a DK PR, hoping for a 17-hour or maybe, in my faintest everything-goes-perfectly-and-miracles-really-do-happen dreams, a finish time that started with 16, but when conditions made it apparent that this was most unlikely I changed my focus to adventure.  A challenging Dirty Kanza would be sure to yield good stories, and adventure racing has left me no stranger to finding fun in difficult conditions.

Wet roads at the Fig AR back in November. It had snowed that morning,so that water was COLD.
My equanimity was shaken at the rider meeting Friday afternoon when race director Jim Cummins noted that some of the water crossings were 8 feet deep. I was fully prepared to carry my bike through chest-deep water but not to swim. Obviously the promoters weren't sending anyone in literally over their heads, and he reassured us that contingency plans were in place if the waters didn't recede enough to be safely crossed.

The majority of the DK route is gravel, but there are several dirt roads which can be real issues in wet conditions. More rain hit Emporia Thursday and Friday, and the intel was that an early 3-mile stretch of dirt road was so bad that one of the Jeeps scouting the course had gotten stuck. Hike-a-bike skills were going to come in handy if things didn't dry out quickly.

Mother Nature tempered her May bitchiness with a generous race-day forecast: unseasonably low temperatures, no rain, and a relatively gentle wind out of the north (I spent a considerable amount of time with the course map figuring out exactly how many miles we'd spend riding into a headwind once the course turned back to the north: 44, if you're interested, broken up into 1-11 mile stretches). She must have woken up in a bad mood, though, because we woke to a misty morning and increased wind: the forecast of 10 mph max winds became 15 mph with gusts in the 20's at times. Not cool, Mother Nature. Not cool at all.


The morning mist was so insignificant compared to the rain we could have faced that it didn't factor into my thoughts for the day, but it could have ended my race before I reached the starting line. Shouldering my bike to descend the outdoor staircase from the hotel's second floor, I took about three steps before slipping on the wet metal and falling the rest of the way down to the ground...except I didn't fall, somehow managing to surf the stairs on my flip flops, landing on my feet at the bottom without dropping my bike or my purse. My heart rate probably didn't return to normal for an hour, but I took the incident as a sign of a charmed day.

We were at the start line early enough that I had plenty of time to be ready and lined up in the 16 hour group without any last-minute rushing.  My faster Momentum teammates were staged a few pace groups ahead of me, but I didn't have any desire to hang on to a faster pace than I was comfortable with, especially so early in a long day, and I still had friends around me.
Dirty Kanza has been such a Team Virtus thing since before I'd ever heard of it that it was weird to be there without the whole group. I was really glad to have Travis there with me.
Travis, Justin, Craig, Tara, and Chris were all right there and I could see other St. Louis area friends nearby.  Even Jim, who's much faster than I'll ever hope to be, was back there with us, riding singlespeed and hoping to avoid getting caught up in the lead-pack craziness that eventually derailed his race last year; his presence was a real perk because he gave me some last-minute tutoring in the on-the-back bike carrying style I'd first seen employed in his Land Run blog post.

The one person missing was my DK buddy from last year, Matt. We'd tentatively planned to ride together as long as our paces matched, and I knew he and his friends were also in the 16 hour group but couldn't see them. Oh, well. I assumed things would sort themselves out once we got moving. Being so far back in the pack, it was impossible to hear any of the pre-race instruction at the front, so we only knew the race was starting when the people ahead of us started to move.

Leg 1: Emporia to Madison ~73 miles - 6:47:51 ride time

A Dirty Kanza roll-out is a special thing. The street is packed with spectators, all cheering and ringing cowbells. You really do feel like the rockstar on all the DK merchandise.  We hadn't made it more than a few blocks before we stopped, blocked by one of the trains that runs through town every 25 minutes.
Photo credit: Mickey Boianoff

"Great," somebody muttered, "Now I'm not going to win."

The pack split into two lines as we turned onto the gravel roads. Damp but very rideable, they showed clear signs of having been underwater recently, most notably the large carp lying by the side of the road. In addition to being the toughest race I've ever done, DK now holds the distinction of the only time I've ever had to avoid a fish while on a bike.

Right around this point Matt and his buddies came rolling past me, so I jumped into their draft. We all rolled together until about the ten mile mark, when we hit the hike-a-bike. I stopped at the edge of the road before my tires touched mud and hoisted my bike the way Jim had showed me earlier. It was surprisingly comfortable. Crowds of people lined the grassy edges of the road, but I stuck with the group in the muddy middle.

Not me, but you get the idea.
Photo credit: Jason Kulma
We're having fun now!
Photo credit: Josh Johnson
I really felt for the people on tandems; the hike-a-bike was an ordeal for them. I had a much easier time; in fact, it was weirdly fun. My adventure mindset was in full swing, and the situation was so ridiculous that you had to laugh: not an hour into a 200-mile race we were carrying our bikes through peanut-butter mud with no end in sight.  Mud-splattered faces were only outnumbered by shoes that looked more like fluffy bear-paw slippers. Some people grumbled while others shared my entertainment. "Well," one guy remarked, "no good story ever started 'We were sitting on the couch...'"

"Right!" I continued with one of Bob's favorite lines, "and no good story ever ended 'It got hard and then we quit.'"

The mud seemed to last forever, making me even more apprehensive about my chances of making it to the first checkpoint before the cutoff, but everyone was in the same situation and there was good camaraderie in the ranks. Very occasionally someone would ride through, but I knew that was beyond my abilities. While I'm not a particularly fast cyclist, it turns out I can carry a bike pretty well. As the hike stretched on I passed a lot of people and caught up with more and more of the Momentum guys, who typically I'd never see until the finish line.

After about three miles of this craziness the mud came to an end; I knocked as much mud as possible off of my bike shoes and climbed back onto my bike. I was a little worried my legs would be tired from trudging through all that slop, but the only lingering after-effect was a gigantic blister on my heel, the consequence of a slipping ankle sock.  My relatively speedy hike had another negative consequences, though. Once I was pedaling again, rider after rider flew past me like I was standing still. This was somewhat demoralizing until I finally realized that these were all the fast people I'd passed on the HAB; typically they'd have been miles ahead of me by this point.

Photo credit: Jeff Maassen
The gravel was in pretty good shape, some muddy spots but nothing like the road where we'd carried our bikes. Now the issue was water crossings. Most of them were small, but the recent rains had me worried about washouts you couldn't see beneath the water. Approaching one, I saw a guy ride in, hit something, and fly over his handlebars. That was enough to convince me to walk it, and as others rode past me into it I felt like a wimp until a couple others crashed in the same spot.

Coming through the cattle pens about 24 miles in.
Photo credit: J. Greg Jordan
I'd lost my riding companions during the hike a bike, though for a while I repeatedly leapfrogged with Joe, Jeff, and Shaun, who were faster than me but made some stops for mechanical issues and at the neutral water stop.  I'd worn my camelbak so I could avoid stopping for water this early in the course, concerned about crowding and water availability with a stop so early into the race (around mile 32). Just past there I saw the one person I never expected or wanted to see on the course; Mickey was walking his broken bike back towards the water stop, out of the race after beating the sun last year. I was so disappointed for him but reminded him of the silver lining that now he could clean up my bike for me at the checkpoint. I'm not entirely sure he was comforted by that thought.

I rode the remainder of leg 1 by myself, but not really alone, talking with people who were riding near me or reliving memories of past trips along some of the familiar roads.  There were no more prolonged hikes during this leg, though we did have some bigger water crossings and reroutes due to high water.

Water crossing
I opted to carry my bike through the water because, you know, I hadn't done enough of that yet.
Screen grab from Dave Leiker photography slideshow
Low-water crossing on the reroute. The water got higher towards the middle and was really moving. I was very nervous walking across this. (Photo credit: Matt Gunter)
The reroutes were easy to follow, but they created confusion because I had no idea how they affected the mileage to the first checkpoint. Would it be longer or shorter? What were my chances of making the cutoff? I was skeptical that I'd get there in time and not completely broken up about that. Leg 1 was hard. I wasn't going to quit (been there, done that, didn't like the feeling), but if I gave it my best effort and didn't get there in time...well, chalk it up to a tough year. I'd join the people crewing for my Momentum teammates and do what I could to contribute to their finishes.  I had mixed feelings when I reached the checkpoint with over an hour to spare, seeing the smiling faces and hearing the cheers of not just my crew but my STL-area friends there to crew for Chris, Kate, Teresa, Lo, and Alice.

My friend Emma was crewing for me. She has years of DK crew experience as well as volunteering at many other races, and she was totally invested in my success. I rolled up to a 3-person crew, though, as Tiara (who I know) and Loralee (who I met right then) were hanging with Emma waiting for their own riders and in true AR-family fashion, jumped right in to take care of me.

With the cool temps I decided to ditch my camelbak in favor of one extra bottle in my jersey, so in addition to refilling my food, getting me full bottles, making sure I was fed, and cleaning up my bike, they also emptied my pack to make sure I had everything I needed for the next leg. I have been so lucky in all of my DK experiences to have friends who are willing to give up their time and spend the day taking care of me.  I can't even tell you how much that means to me.

Compared to previous races this year, I'd been much more purposeful and conscientious about nutrition and hydration, and it showed. I felt much less foggy than at mile 47 at Cedar Cross and overall pretty good.  As best I can tell, within 11 minutes I had on dry socks and was off for leg 2. Nearing the end of the block, I heard my name and saw Matt with his wife, Valerie, who was crewing for him. He waved me off, telling me he'd catch up with me, and I hit the hill out of Madison with lighter spirits in anticipation of company for leg 2.

Leg 2: Madison to Cottonwood Falls ~81 miles ~8:55 ride time for leg - 15:42:18 total race time
Note: all of this happened, but it may not have happened exactly in this order. The bad thing about using a Garmin over cue sheets and going with happy ignorance over paying close attention to mileage and time is that you have no real idea where on the course things happened.

There was another reroute just out of town, which meant that once again I was going to be flying blind regarding end mileage. Since I was using my Garmin for navigation, all I could see was the arrow pointing where to go, the miles remaining to the next turn, and the estimated time to the next turn. If I switched screens I could see the time or my current mileage, but I did this very rarely, preferring the zen that comes with just following the road until you get where you're going.

At the same time, I was getting a little sick of riding on my own and started to consider stopping to wait for Matt. I'd enjoy the break. I'd have company. Win-win. On the other hand, Mickey would kill me if I stopped, plus our ride-together agreement was based on us going at comparable paces. Nearly 90 miles in I was starting to wear down and wasn't positive I could keep up with the guys when they caught me.  I wouldn't take it personally if they dropped me, but I'd feel stupid to wait around and still have to ride alone.

My deliberation ended when Matt and Dave caught me at yet another hike-a-bike muddy road. Dave started riding before we did and was soon out of sight. The road became rideable even for me, but pedaling on the packed mud was exhausting and tricky, keeping momentum on a soft surface while riding in ruts. We were going slightly downhill and averaging 4 mph. I was even happier to reach the end of that stretch than to finish the first bike hike-a-bike...and way more tired.

You're going to have to trust me when I tell you it was so much worse than it looks.
Tara was at the end of the road with a broken derailleur as she and Craig were discussing converting it to a singlespeed so she could keep going.  As disappointed as I was for her, I was also a little irritated with my own derailleur for its own continuing health.  All day long the course was littered with broken bikes and shattered dreams and here my stupid bike was refusing to give me an out. We may have "joked" about "accidentally" breaking our own bikes so we "couldn't" keep going, but in anticipation of a short break the upcoming neutral water stop we moved on.

Between us and that water stop rested some pretty sketchy bridges and "the bitch", a steep S-curve climb where I didn't make it far beforewalking. Another guy rode it halfway up before giving in, only to realize "This is just as bad walking!"  We proceeded to give him a hard time about taking the easy way out and riding part way.

The course turned north (into the wind) at mile 107, giving me the opportunity to put Mickey's advice into practice: You need to stop taking the conditions personally. I definitely do that. I get tired and every hill is a personal insult. The wind is killing me. The race director wants me to suffer. This time, when the wind was in my face I used Shaun's line: I'm a knife cutting through the wind. I focused on the fact that I just had to get through this stretch before the wind was at my side again. "The good news," I told Matt, "is that we're also going to be riding up hills that block the wind."

He may be a gentleman, but not enough to let me rest in my delusion. "Not these hills! They aren't steep enough to block the wind." Isn't it just like Jim Cummins to send us up hills that don't give us a break from the wind?

The day was getting long and the miles and hills were wearing on us. Again and again we marveled, "We paid for this! Remember how we swore last year we were never doing this again? What's wrong with us?" We also had the opportunity to play Good Samaritan to a rider who was stopped along the road; after several flats he needed a tube and a pump, both of which we had, so we pulled over, gave him the things he needed, and waited for him to get his tire changed and aired up.

I think I took this while the Kuat guy was changing his tire. My hands were so disgusting. 
It seemed to take for-ev-er to get to the mile 124 water stop, and when we did there was a big crowd. There was one 5-gallon cooler with GU brew, one 5-gallon cooler that still had some water, and some of the volunteers had gone for more. This left a line of around 10 people for water. I hated losing the time, but one thing I've learned is that I have to have one bottle of plain water; I can't drink only flavored stuff all day.

As we (finally) pulled away from the water stop, my Garmin died. Having anticipated this, I'd borrowed an extra Garmin from Chuck; since Matt had the course on his (not dead) Garmin, I kept riding while I switched computers and got Chuck's going. I hadn't thought about the fact that his settings were different from mine, little details like his mileage is set on kilometers instead of miles and his readout doesn't show the time of day, so it was basically just useful for recording my track and showing me where I was going unless I wanted to do math. Which I didn't.

Matt did do the math. At this point it was around 6:45; we had 35 miles and 3.5 hours to make the CP2 cutoff. Should be plenty of time. As we rode along, he noticed, "Hey, there's Wendy!" We caught up and passed her, then she caught back up with us, so I got a chance to ask about our mutual friends before she moved on. Matt urged me to chase since he was dragging a little and knew I was feeling strong at that point. I thought about it but decided that in the long run I was better off sticking together and having company for the last leg of the race, generally a dark time mentally for me, than fighting out a couple of places in the standings. I fail at being competitive.

Photo credit: Matt Gunter
Other than Matt feeling lousy, this was a very pretty, very fun section of the race with non-terrible climbs and a nearly ten-mile stretch of downhills.  We were probably 10 miles out from Cottonwood Falls when the sun began to set enough to use our lights, and I was very glad I'd just put them on in the morning instead of waiting until the last checkpoint.  The temperature, which had been comfortably cool all day, started dropping. I was chilly, though not miserable, in my jersey and arm warmers and really looking forward to the jacket waiting at CP2, which we reached at about 9:45.

Finally warm and ready to finish this thing!
Photo credit: Mickey Boianoff
Once again my crew took awesome care of me. Matt's wife had picked up coffee, and Emma had hot chicken noodle soup waiting for me. While Emma loaded my pre-opened food and my bottles onto my bike, Loralee wrapped me in a blanket, sat me down, and changed my socks for me. Meanwhile Mickey took my bike and cleaned it up. Amazing teamwork and care from a group of people who'd been up every bit as long as I had.

Leg 3: Cottonwood Falls to Emporia ~44 miles, ~4:20 ride time, 20:02:07 total time

We'd heard conflicting information all evening. One guy told us the volunteers at the water stop had told him that the CP3 and finish line cutoffs had been pushed back an hour, which would make them 11:15 p.m. and 4 a.m. respectively. I didn't think this was necessary; after all, the course was what it was -- either you could finish it in the allotted time or you couldn't.  At CP2 our crews told us that a nasty rumor was circulating that the finish line cutoff had been changed to 2 a.m.; I'd have flipped out if that had been the case but couldn't worry about it at the time. Surely the promoters wouldn't do that. We'd also heard that leg 3 was a piece of cake compared to the other legs.

None of that was true. No cutoffs had changed for the 200-mile riders, though one had for the 100-mile group, and while the last leg may not have been as challenging as the first two, after already riding 158 miles, the only thing that would have been a piece of cake would be lying down for a nap.  Why would Jim Cummins put hills here? He must really hate us.

As strong as I'd felt for the last half of leg 2, I felt lousy for leg 3, dragging behind on flats and struggling up hills. Matt did an awesome job of checking in on me, maintaining a pace I could manage, and previewing what we had coming up.  Last year I did a lot more walking up hills than I did this time, but I was also a lot faster on the downhill side. This year's wet conditions had resulted in more than one sloppy mud hole towards the bottom, robbing me of the kind of confidence I'd felt in 2014. Even my typical exhaustion-induced loss of fear (if I crash, someone will drive me back) deserted me. Against all of my pre-race expectations it appeared we were going to finish this race. I wanted that more than a car ride.

This was a joke, but one I clung to all day, and Matt and I spent a lot of time commenting about how glad we were to be washing away the shame of our "easy year" finish in 2014.
At midnight or so I started feeling really sleepy. Not quite fall-asleep-on-your-bike sleepy, but almost. I started eating more, and that seemed to help. Another help was the roadside party set up on our way. I think it was the same family from last year, though in a different location, and I'd been fantasizing about their yard and a can of Coke when we came across them earlier than expected. They had beer, Coke, oreos, and a fire. I took a soda and some cookies and stayed away from that fire. One racer was there waiting for a ride after getting sucked into a rut on a downhill, crashing, and destroying his wheel. So close, relatively, but too far away to run or walk it in. I felt terrible for him.

Snack break over, we pushed on.  Groups kept approaching and passing so quickly that we kept asking ourselves, "How were they behind us??" But we'd had an incredibly lucky day, absolutely no mechanicals of any kind, no flat tires, no crashes, and no health issues other than just minor struggles. Many others hadn't been so lucky, and we'd been able to keep riding while they were stopped.

Finally the lights of Emporia grew nearer and nearer.  Jim Cummins just had to put us on loose gravel right at the end! He probably had it brought in specifically for us. We sped into town and onto the smooth, smooth pavement of the home stretch, through the Emporia State University campus, and down the street to the finish line, crossing at 2:02 a.m.

Getting my hug from race director Kristi Mohn
Post-race triumph
What a great riding partner!

My awesome crew...couldn't have done it without her support!

I can tell you without a doubt that this was the hardest race I've ever done, and if that doesn't come across in my writing that's because I've had a couple days of space.  It was SO HARD. And I finished, taking just one hour more than for last year's "easy" conditions. I never would have finished this course two years ago, but that DNF has fed my training ever since and made me stronger and more determined.

My determination has its limits, though. During the race, I swore repeatedly that I was never coming back and doing it again. I hadn't made it back home before the thought of not being at next year's race started to hurt. It's become a little bit like Cheers, where maybe not everybody knows my name but an awful lot do, and I can't imagine not being there. I'm not racing DK in 2016 (I can't...I have other plans and told too many people to punch me in the face if I talked about registering), though I'm hoping to at least salve my FOMO by going to crew.  But in 2017, I'll be back with a vengeance.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Creve Coeur Heartbreaker

Seems like my Friday Facebook news feed was filled with posts from people headed out of town to go mountain biking with their significant others. And OK, maybe "filled" is an overstatement, but where I don't envy material things (much), I'm definitely jealous of people whose significant others share their love of endurance sports...or, failing that, can at least enjoy hanging out with that group. So I was having a minor pity party (party of 1) when I saw Laura's suggestion that someone do the Creve Coeur Heartbreaker MTB race on Saturday.
While I couldn't go out of town, a quick conversation with Jeff ascertained that I could get away for the morning and go "race" my mountain bike. With DK looming next Saturday, the last thing I want to do is get hurt, but Creve Coeur is pretty tame. Since this was to be my second mountain bike ride since Easter weekend, my goals were moderate*:

1. Avoid injury
2. Have fun
3. Get in some saddle time/mountain biking practice

*In actuality, these are always my goals, but avoid injury was moved up from the third spot in deference to Dirty Kanza.

My normal pre-race doubts surfaced Saturday morning, but I ignored them, arriving at the park with plenty of time to get registered and catch up with lots of bike friends...but not, unfortunately, to adjust the helmet I'd grabbed in place of my normal one. This will be painfully clear in every picture from the day.

I raced marathon, where you ride as many laps as possible in 3 hours.  If you cross the finish line before the 3 hour mark, you can keep going and finish the next lap. The winner is the person with the most laps, and if two people have the same number of laps, the winner is the person with the shorter time. 

Start times were staggered, with marathon, cat 3, and juniors starting at 9:30 and cat 1, cat 2, and singlespeed starting at 11.  This meant that an hour and a half into the race we were going to get passed by an onslaught of fast, fresh racers. I much prefer races where we all start at once and those way faster folks have an entire lap to spread out before passing me.

Lap 1: The Creve Coeur trails are fast and flowy, very similar to my local trails but less rooty. The first lap started with a lollipop on the road and then a trip through the grass in order to spread out the field before entering the singletrack. I managed to be not at the back as we hit the trails, which was kind of cool, and I stayed in that spot through a longish, super-fun gradual downhill that contoured along a hillside.

Photo credit for all pictures: Mike Dawson
The downhill ended with an uphill right turn switchback that I blew and had to scramble out of the way of the people right behind me, giving up a bunch of spots in the process and ended up behind several younger riders who were awesome but slower than I'd have been going. I'm not much of a passer (having little opportunity to practice), and I was really uncomfortable trying to get around the kids on that tight trail, so I ended up spending a lot of time behind them.  But hey, if I was better at racing my bike I'd be better at passing people, too. Lap time: 40:04

Lap 2: No kids in front of me, not much of anyone in back of me. Other than once again blowing the uphill switchback as well as one later in the loop, it was a fast, smooth ride. Super fun. Lap time: (35:35).

I think I was telling Mike that every picture was going to have my look of fear as I rounded these turns. 

Lap 3: The 11:00 group was getting race instructions as I passed through the start/finish area, so I hoped the announcer was long-winded enough to give me a decent head start. I caught up with Dean on the long downhill and he told me to let him know if I wanted to get around.  "That's ok, I'm about to blow that uphills switchback and don't want to get in your way," (I'm not sure why Mickey keeps telling me I need to work on my self-talk.)

"Get in your granny gear and take it wide," he coached.  This is how awesome the STL cycling community is...we're in a race, I look like an idiot with my helmet askew, and someone who's never met me is giving me pointers.  I didn't shift down far enough, but his advice got me further up the hill than I'd gone before.  We both pulled over shortly afterwards to let Roggo through on his way to crushing the men's marathon race and I guess I passed there.  

Hitting the first switchback-y field section, I could see Carrie ahead of me as she completed that out and back.  I was excited, both for the opportunity to cheer for my friend and because I was that close to someone who's much stronger than me on singletrack.  Shortly after that, Renee hit one of the nasty ruts in the field and went down, giving me the opportunity to pass after making sure she was OK.  

Unfortunately, right after I got back onto the trails a couple guys passing told me my saddle bag was falling off.  One of the straps had ripped, so I pulled it off the saddle, watching Renee pass me back as I rushed to stuff it into my jersey pocket.  I caught sight of her in the second field section and had almost caught up with a mile to go in the lap, when I had to pull over for about 6 minutes while what seemed like the entire cat 1/2/ss field rode by. Sigh. Lap time: (40:45)

The helmet seems to be getting worse...

Lap 4: This felt pretty fast but I was getting tired and it showed in my handling. I was riding sloppy, which is where I typically start clipping trees and crashing.  In addition to the two switchbacks I never successfully rode, I also pushed my bike up the hill to the second field section.  

I would finish this lap in plenty of time to go out for another; both leg cramps and mental negotiations started up. The devil on my shoulder was convincingJust hang out before the finish until 12:30. You don't want to get hurt right before DK. It's probably smarter to just quit before you get hurt. You're just out here for fun anyway, remember?  There was an opposing voice, though, one that reminded me how I've read that the real training starts once you get tired and that you don't build mental toughness by quitting: Surely you're not really talking about quitting 2.5 hours into a bike ride?

Any remaining thought I had of stopping at 4 laps was squashed when Renee headed out for her fifth as I passed through the start/finish. (Lap time: 37:06)

Not sure when this was taken, but it's a good representation of my grim determination face, so it's fitting here.

Lap 5: I stopped briefly to chug the Gatorade I'd left on the picnic table, hoping that it might help chase away the leg cramps, and then rode back onto the singletrack.  While I didn't let myself quit, I did back off on the intensity in the interest of staying uninjured, and I was glad I'd kept riding. It was a great course, a beautiful day, and the downhill sections were a blast. Maria passed me just before the start of the second field section, and maybe it was the sight of her that kept me from walking that field hill again.  I could see the 4th place girl ahead of me in the field but couldn't close the gap and then got close again on the switchback after the stairs but had to run it again.  I tried hard to catch her in the final grassy section before the finish line, but she stayed ahead and finished 7 seconds before I did.  Slightly disappointing, but it certainly kept the finish interesting for me.  Lap time: 38:30.

Momentum Racing post-race groupie
Issues, I've got 'em: Eating on the bike is always an issue for me, but most especially on singletrack. I'd hoped to remedy that some with Perpetuem in a water bottle, but unlike on gravel, reaching down and grabbing a water bottle -- even on the smooth trails at Creve Coeur -- is still really hard for me. I didn't bonk, but my nutrition was suboptimal at best.  Drinking wasn't much better. I'd gone with a Camelbak but used a smaller bladder than my normal ones; turns out the bite valve is broken and runs constantly unless closed, so grabbing a drink wasn't quite the one step process it normally is.  

I lost time on those switchbacks I had to walk; that's hopefully just a matter of training and riding more.  The most annoying time waster was that stupid seat bag because I'd decided even before the race that any flats or mechanicals and I'd just walk back to the finish, so I didn't even need the bag.

Fun, I had it: The weather was fantastic, and it's hard to imagine better trail conditions. The race was well-organized, and the course was well-marked. I've had a great time with all of the gravel training we've done and don't even remotely have that "I can't wait to be done with this!" feeling, but this race makes me really excited to put in more time on my mountain bike. Also, Strava tells me that my max speed was 30.4 mph, which is almost certainly a new record for me on singletrack; it wasn't so long ago that I didn't like going that fast on my road bike!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Teamwork makes the dream work! (Hairy Hundred 2015)

Falling just two weeks before Dirty Kanza, the Hairy Hundred offers mid-Missouri-area gravel fans one last local-ish opportunity to race before the DK taper begins.  This year it also afforded some prime weather-stalking, as the chances of rain swung wildly in the lead-up to the race before settling Saturday on a 20% chance of rain.  Which made it all the more surprising to see this when I checked the weather on race morning:

Well this looks fun...
Luckily, in the sleep-deprived haze brought on by a 3:30 alarm I'd neglected to check the weather, so I was an hour away in O'Fallon before I saw the forecast. Any temptation to go home and kiss my entry fee goodbye was overridden by the knowledge that Mickey and Shaun wouldn't bail and that we certainly have no guarantee of good weather in Kansas. If conditions were as bad as they appeared, we'd get in some bad weather training, possibly secure ourselves some good weather mojo for DK, and, as long as we avoided death by lightning strike, probably come home with some good stories.

Mickey's pics
Good call, weather man
We made it to Rocheport really early; it was weird to not be rushing around in last-minute panic. All of the spaces in the bike rack near the start line were taken, so we stood there holding our bikes and somehow everyone else lined up behind us.

Laughing with my friend Renee (who I met here last year) about being in the front. "We'll probably win the whole thing!"
Mickey's pics
Pre-race team photo

The guys are waaaay faster than me, but Mickey was riding with me so as to avoid the temptation of racing hard and Shaun planned to stick with us. The guys' take-it-easy strategy did not mean a relaxing day for me, though. Hairy Hundred was to be part two of Mickey's enduring quest to turn me into a bike racer instead of rider, but the additional pressure did come with some perks this time.

Company for the entire race and pizza delivery. Score!
After some words thanking Michelle, who'd done the lion's share of prep work for the race, and talking about the really cool finisher's prizes, we were sent off with a low-key, "OK, go!" Having no desire to be at the front of a race, even for the neutral roll-out (which so often are anything but), I rode way over to the right behind the guys. It actually stayed neutral, leaving us in the lead until the turn off of the Katy.

Tracy's pics
Neutral rollout on the Katy.  Photo credit: Tracy Wilkins
I'd been in my big ring for the flat trail and failed to downshift in time for my bike to actually respond before hitting the first hill, and my slow crawl gave me a nice view of pretty much everyone riding past.   We'd been warned of thick gravel and sloppy conditions, so I was pleasantly surprised by how rideable the roads were.  The light drizzle we'd experienced before the start had tapered off, and though threatening clouds loomed no subsequent rain appeared.

I had to work a lot harder than I'm used to in order to keep up with the guys' easy pace. Pushing harder was the point of the day, but I was still feeling some anxiety about both my effort level and the fact that the guys were going to spend 91 miles waiting on me.  Sensing this (which isn't brain surgery...if I'm quiet something is probably wrong), Mickey started checking in on me with some encouragement, coaching, and much-needed reminders to eat and drink.

Shaun flatted about nine miles in and sent us ahead while he fixed it.  Knowing how fast he is, I spent the rest of the race waiting for him to catch up. I thought he was there at one point when I felt a push from behind, but it was Benji who slowed to say hi before passing us easily on his singlespeed.

For all the gray in the sky, it was a beautiful day and I was really glad we'd ignored the weather man's gloomy predictions. I eventually settled into a more relaxed demeanor, enjoying the rural scenery and downhills while watching the number of miles remaining tick away.

Tracy's pics
Stealing another of Tracy's pictures to break up the words.
One race goal was to practice keeping up with my nutrition.  I'd struggled with this at Cedar Cross, finding it difficult to combine a harder pace with a) the bike handling necessary to get out food on the go and b) being able to eat enough food to sustain the effort.  My solution for this last year at Dirty Kanza was to try and get a large share of my nutrition in liquid form (Perpetuem then), and I'd intended to use Hairy Hundred to test out CarboRocket Half-Evil, which was first suggested by Emily and has since been highly recommended by several area friends. Instead, I'd accidentally grabbed CarboRocket's energy drink, which provided 100 calories per bottle instead of 300ish. That's a helpful calorie supplement, not replacement.  Whoops.

I'd realized my mistake the night before while preparing my bottles, so I'd brought enough food to make up the difference.  I was helped in my efforts to eat regularly by the fact that I was starving. No matter what I ate, I was still hungry. As we closed in on Fayette (and Casey's) I started thinking about pizza. Instead, Mickey rode past the store.

"Um....I guess we aren't stopping at Casey's, huh?"

"Did you want to stop?" he asked.

Well, yeah, I wanted to stop. I mean, pizza. But I took a mental inventory: two full water bottles, plenty of food, riders parked at the gas station...I didn't need anything, and the idea of leapfrogging people was appealing. "Fine. But I'm stopping at the bag drop."

Mickey's pics
Coming to the top of a hill somewhere on the course.

Not long past Fayette the course turned west and the wind became much more noticeable.  I slowed down some, but the most annoying thing about it was actually how difficult it made for me to hear. I was proud of how little it was bothering me, and I just focused on keeping the pedals going.  More troublesome was the fresh gravel we encountered in this section.

I did have to stop at about 40 miles in to switch out an empty bottle with the full one in my jersey pocket (doing that on the move is still a work in progress and not something I'm comfortable with on the thicker gravel), but otherwise we made slow, if steady, progress towards the bag drop and pulled in with plenty of full bags left on the table.

Matt was just heading out after fixing Renee's bike, and she left shortly after we arrived. In the interests of speed, I grabbed food and a drink from my bag (Starbucks mocha double shot and a rice bar) and devoured them on the way to the bathroom. By the time I'd finished that and put fresh water into my bottles, Mickey was waiting. After he grabbed a couple of bars out of my bag for me, we were off again.

Hairy Hundred has two distinct segments. The first 60 miles features near-constant rolling hills.  Once you leave the bag drop, only about 3 miles of hills remain before the final, flat 30 miles of the race.  Much of this runs along the Missouri River, and nearly all of it goes south...which conveniently was also the direction the wind was coming from.

Tracy's pics
Photo credit: Tracy Wilkins
The part with the hills wasn't too terrible. For the most part I was able to cling to Mickey's rear wheel and take advantage of the draft. After we turned from the pavement back onto gravel we could see a figure in black ahead of us, and we gradually began to close the distance until we realized it was Renee.

"OK, she's struggling...we need to pass her fast enough that she doesn't try to hang on," Mickey coached.  I wasn't flying up any hills myself and warned him I wouldn't be able to hold any pass on an uphill, so we waited until it flattened out and made our move.  I followed along with the plan but felt conflicted about it. I've been careful to base my goals on experience instead of results because I worry that being competitive could easily take the fun out of things for me, so I'm much more of a social rider than a racer. My instinct was much more to ride with my friend and, if not work together, at least suffer together.  Still, this was a race, and I was racing, so we made our pass and kept pedaling hard until no one else was in sight.

As the course flattened out and turned south, however, all of my wind-related serenity was replaced by a sense of persecution. Why are we riding straight into the wind? How can every single turn send us more directly into the face of the wind? What is it with these race directors and their flat finishes? This would have been the perfect time to take advantage of the opportunity to draft off of a much stronger riding partner, but I'd let the wind defeat me to the point that I just trailed miserably along behind. Mickey really tried to work together, but I did a lousy job of keeping up my end of the bargain. My mental game still needs work.

While I didn't manage to benefit from the draft as much as I should have, Mickey's presence kept me riding harder than I otherwise would have and kept me from stopping for a break.With 11 miles to go, we hopped back onto the Katy Trail and rode east or, as I'd been thinking about it for the past hour or more, finally not into a headwind. Somehow this did little to dispel my misery since I still had to pedal my bike.  

We passed Matt and Nathan helping Tracy with a flat. The guys quickly passed us back, and the next mile or so of conversation helped pass the time quickly before I couldn't hold onto the pace anymore and dropped back to elderly shuffle pace.

Mickey's pics
Thumbs down for bikes.

I was trying mightily not to complain, and while whiny pouters bring out the worst in me Mickey showed a lot of patience, trying to encourage and distract me into riding faster. I was only moderately receptive to his help, threatening once to punch him in the face and telling him another time, "I hate you so much right now!"

At last we spotted the tunnel that came right before the finish. Mickey, who insists that I ended last year's race in a surprise sprint finish, asked me, "When are you going to start your sprint?"

"This is my sprint," I grumbled, but when he picked up his pace, I did too, and we kept it up until I edged him at the finish, raising my hand (just one) in victory. Even though I know he let me win, it was still pretty satisfying.

Mickey went to get changed, but my first priority was food and a drink that wasn't CarboRocket (note to self: make sure you always have one bottle of plain water). I'd just sat down with my pizza when a guy came up to me. "So, you know you won, right? So we need you to come pick out your prize."

Whaaaat? I'd had no thought of winning, because Dirty Dog Race Pack's Shelby had been ahead of me and riding strong all day long. We'd last caught sight of her leaving the bag drop, but it turned out that she'd missed the reroute in New Franklin, riding several miles out of her way.

Mickey's pics
Winning! The print, from a painting by local artist James J. Froese, is of an iconic local tree. It's going to look great in my dining room!
It feels a little cheesy to win because someone else missed a turn, but I guess the fact is that my race put me in a position to take advantage of her bad luck.  By "my race", of course, I mean our race, because while I did my own pedaling, Mickey's company gave me a lot of advantages.  I do wonder how much of my end-of-race meltdown can be attributed to the wind and how much was due to starting off harder than usual.  Either way I need to start cultivating some mental toughness, because this winning thing is pretty cool.