Monday, May 18, 2009

Who conquered whom?? The Man, or Mt. Mitchell??

Yesterday was the day. Over the weekend, I nearly psyched myself out about the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. The ride began to take on almost mythical proportions. I posted on my facebook status: JD is ready to conquer Mt. Mitchell - or to be conquered by Mt. Mitchell.....the Mountain will decide! However, if he doesn't like the decision, he will fight it! The day had come to enter into battle with Mt. Mitchell. Was I really ready? Kip, Yukie and I left Greenville at the scheduled time (~5am) to begin the Assault at 6:30 from in front of Spartanburg's Memorial Auditorium.

Because I did not pre-register, I had to purchase a registration number from someone who wasn't going to be able to make the ride. I was very lucky to respond to a guy in NC who had everything I wanted (Number, jersey and t-shirt). We made the deal, and he communicated the change to the event organizers. He simply asked me to mail him a check (which I did the following day). Thanks Mark!

I was either very lucky or very unlucky in getting this number from him. It put me out with the first wave of riders who not by coincidence are the folks with the fastest estimated finish time. I'll count myself as lucky for now, but you'll see how it might have been different.

At 630 on the dot, they released the first wave. My strategy was to see how things were shaking out with this group. I had told Kip I was thinking about holding back until his wave left (he was wave 4 - about 3 minutes behind wave 1). As my wave left the start line, I decided to just go with the flow - they didn't take off as quickly as I thought they would. In fact, wave 2 had caught us in almost no time - before we even got to the interstate crossings.

Although I had decided to stick with this lead pack, there were times we were riding 4 and 5 abreast. I wanted nothing to do with that, and even though I occasionally felt the force of the wind, I opted to stay to the far right. Regardless of what else might happen, I felt safer to that side of the peleton.

It turns out this was a very smart decision for me. As we entered the bridge on the (I don't recall exactly which) interstate crossing, Mt. Mitchell fired her first volley. The cry 'HOLE' was suddenly raised. Despite the experience of the group, there was a lot of braking and swerving. Of course, this meant that someone was going down. Unfortunately, it sounded like about a dozen someones. This occurred to my front, and as the 'wave' of crashed bikes spread across the peleton, I was riding my own brakes to keep from hitting the guy in front of me. All this while drifting towards the barrier at the edge of the interstate bridge. I was extremely lucky to have been able to just squeeze between a falling rider and the bridge barrier. I don't know if anyone was hurt, I hope no-one was. I was able to accelerate and keep with the front pack. Mt. Mitchell had drawn first blood.

It seemed like no time before the mess was straightened out and the front pack had grown to have probably 300 riders in it. What a sight! I was in the front 1/3 of this pack, and through my helmet mounted mirror, I could see nothing but the head and shoulders of a huge mass of riders behind me. As we rode past some spectators, I heard a little girl exclaim "I have never seen so many!!" It truly was a sight to behold - riding within this group was an experience I'll not soon forget. An army had amassed and was sending it's best forward towards the inevitable battle for the summit. .

As we counted off the miles, I watched our average speed increase - early on, it was 18mph. Soon it was 19, then up to 20 and climbing. We were out in the country now, and into the rolling hills. I knew I would not be able to keep this pace forever, even though I was drafting in this massive group. I started to work my way to the back of the pack.

As we would go up a roller, I would allow a bike or a few bikes to leapfrog in front of me. As we rolled down the other side, I'd hold my position in the peleton. For each roller, I'd allow a few more bikes in front of me. We had reached an average pace of 21 mph somewhere in the early 20s (mileage) or so (who knows exactly when...). As I rode in and worked my way back through this pack, I also learned a couple of things.

I have never been especially comfortable with using frame mounted water bottles. I gave them up about 18 years ago when the first camelbacks came out (and I was mostly riding mountain bikes). After purchasing this road bike last year, I tried a few times to get accustomed to their use. I never really got the hang of it (not to mention the camelback is so much easier). As I rode in this peleton, I watched a rider in front of me. He simply left the spout of the water bottle open! How simple! Now, I only had to reach down, take a drink and replace the bottle!! You'd think an engineer (me) would be able to figure something like this out! It only took once for me to see it. I also realized I could reach down and open the spout with my hand before even pulling the bottle out of the cage (for that first drink). Previously, I pulled the spout open with my teeth. This was a great revelation, and I managed to successfully consume my first bottle of Gatorade almost completely by the time I finished my rear-ward drift.

This too was a part of my ride strategy - I had two bottles with Gatorade and about a dozen packets of gel. The goal was to completely consume the two bottles on the way to Marion. I also carried a 100 ounce camelback from which to drink.

As for the gels, originally, I planned to consume one gel pack every 45 minutes. I changed my plan and at about 1 hour consumed my first one on the ride. Partly this was due to the fact I had to maintain this pace and handle the goo - while staying in formation! Last thing I wanted was to cause a wreck while slurping down a goo pack! I managed to get the first one down, with only minor adjustments to my riding. Good Job JD! Staying on track with the strategy (mostly).

As I continued my rear-ward drift, I was still feeling good, but knew it was important for me to find a pace that would leave something left for my personal battle with the mountain. Also, I began to feel the need for a little rest stop (read this as I needed to pee!). At something just over 30 miles, I found myself near the back of the main peleton. Again, what a sight! From the back, I could see that we stretched for almost 1/3 mile! Riders were 3 and 4 abreast up near the front, but towards the back, we had formed double pace lines. There was a lot of accordion effect back there, but at mile 35, I found a good spot to make my little rest break. I said good-bye to the main peleton, and dropped off the back. My average speed for the 35 miles showed 21mph.

When I remounted after my little break, I decided to let the road dictate my pace while I tried to maintain a consistent pedaling cadence. Occasionally, I would come upon another rider or group of riders and I would hold pace with them for a while. Somewhere around mile 45, Mount Mitchell fired another volley - this time directly at me - I felt the first spasms of my outer calves. I began to realize that Mt. Mitchell had her own strategy - first my body, then my mind. My body began to tell me that Mt. Mitchell was going to be a formidable foe!

I had already consumed my second gel pack, and was into my second bottle of Gatorade. I had started the ride well hydrated and felt I had sufficient nutrition from the previous days (I tried to eat well throughout the weekend). I could only attribute it to pushing myself too hard by staying with the front peleton. That is the fastest average pace I have ever held for any kind of distance. Who knows, there could be a thousand other reasons for it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had a fight on my hands. Maybe Mt. Mitchell had her own psy-ops in play (psychological operations - using the enemies mind against them).

I backed off my pace a little. I had to re-think my attack strategy. I started to take some time standing up in the saddle, moved around on my seat - anything that would change the way my muscles were working or which muscles were working. When I stood up the first time, I felt little spasms in my outer quads, just above the knee. This was not going to be easy.

Again, I tried to settle into a consistent pace. I had powered another goo pack and drank more Gatorade along with some water. I was watching my pace drop from 21mph - now at 20, now at 19. As Marion got closer, my average speed dropped further. The descent from Bills' Hill was fun. That hairpin was truly hairy! I was glad to see the course workers had it well marked!

As I ticked off more and more miles, I had periods where I fell into a paceline and had no trouble with cramping, then at other times, the calves would begin to spasm. Whenever this happened, I had to move out of the pace line, slow down and do my little bike dance again - standing, stretching, moving around to relieve the cramps. I managed to keep them mostly at bay and I was feeling ok when I came upon Tom Johnson's Camping Center.

Yukie was waiting for Kip and I with her little cowbell! What a welcome sight! I already felt a huge sense of accomplishment - to date my previous personal record for distance on a bike was 68 miles. Now, if nothing else, I could say my new personal record was 75 miles (my computer showed 4:14 with an average of 18mph - I had done this with only two stops to pee). Yukie gave me a cookie (a really really good cookie!), and snapped a photo. I was a little surprised to hear that Kip was still behind me. I think I can attribute this to the fast pace while riding in the big peleton. I told her I was fighting cramps already. She wished me luck, and off I went.

I got concerned briefly as I passed the camping center, and did not see the rest stop! (Was this another psy-ops ploy by the mountain??) I did not want to turn around, but I did need to grab some food (something besides gel packs) and top off my camelback. I was about to turn around when I saw the stop at the corner of hwy 80 and 70. They also had a counter there counting the number of bikes to have passed. When I pulled up, I think the number was at 316.

I stopped and ate two cookies, took a quick porta-john break and topped off my camelback. When I hopped back on my bike, I think almost 50 riders had passed - the counter was now up in the 360s (I think). I started off on the last of the ride's easy roads.

Almost immediately, I fell in with another rider to form a mini-paceline. He pulled into the wind for a while, then I got up front to give him a break. I was feeling pretty good, and was able to maintain a decent pace, but after a short time, Mt. Mitchell fired another burst. The cramps came back again - and this time with a vengeance! I pulled off the front, told the guy I was fighting cramps. He was super cool - he asked if I would be able to maintain some speed - I think he was going to slow up a little to allow me to work it out. What a super guy. I didn't feel right about holding him up, so I told him to go ahead, it was going to be a few minutes before I could resume the pace.

I managed to work the cramps out with my little bike dance just in time to begin the real climb. Mt Mitchell was not going to give itself up easily. I started with a slow pace up the mountain. Doing my dance occasionally as a preventive measure. Continually drinking little bits of water to try to keep up my hydration.

After some time - 30 minutes, maybe 40, Kip pulls up behind me and asks "How much do I charge (for him) to catch a draft?". I was glad to see him, and not surprised at all. He is a strong climber, and he knew exactly what to expect from this ride. He probably stuck to his ride strategy better than me. After all, he's done it 11 times in the past. I'm sure he was also a bit more motivated knowing how far in front of him I was - Yukie said I had something less than 10 minutes on him - maybe closer to 5.

He stuck with me for a little while and we had a bit of a chat. I was not really breathing hard, but my legs were definitely working! I was in my easiest gear, but I felt as if I was pushing the big ring! I didn't want to slow him down, so I told him to go ahead. We did agree to stop briefly at the entrance to the parkway for the rest stop.

I'm not sure eating those cookies at the Marion rest stop was a good idea. I think one would have been ok, but three was too much (one from Yukie, and two at the stop). About the time Kip caught me, I felt as if I was crashing from the sugar rush (more psy-ops?). At the Parkway rest stop, I decided to forego the cookies, and immediately reached for a banana. It tasted really good.

Again, Kip waited for me and we entered the parkway together. We rode and chatted, he told me he was rocking some Dan Fogelburg for the climb - memories of his high school days when they would come up on the parkway for camping. I know he's a stronger climber than me, so I encouraged him to go ahead, I'd be along eventually. As he began to accelerate away, he looked back and commented to me - "for old times sake, you should sing some 'Hotel California'". This is a reference to a backpacking trip he and I took quite some years ago - for some reason on that particular day, that song was stuck in my head, and I was singing it as we hiked.

It's funny how things happen sometimes - a few days ago, during my correspondence with Mark, he gave me his perspective on the ride. He commented:
Mt. Mitchell is as much mental as physical. Make no bones about it, you will be climbing for around 3 hours or so. The attitude you take into the climb is important. I think a lot of people (including myself many years ago) would look up the road and it would look like the climb would let off around the next turn. In most cases, it doesn't. Being repeatedly disappointed by the road going up around every turn tends to have a detrimental psychological effect. For me, it always worked best to expect the climb to continue and embrace it. (If you tell yourself that enough after a while you'll actually believe it :-)"

This is a wise man! He may have said how many times he has done this ride, but I can't recall. I do know he has done this ride several times in the years past. As I read his comments, it reminded me of my Military time.

I responded to him:
"...after some research... I began to realize the climb at the end is really going to have a huge mental component. In the mid-'80s, I was in a Ranger unit at Fort Lewis Wa. As you might imagine, there was plenty of mental games that went on. As I went through the training leading up to my assignment to the Ranger unit, I learned early on to mentally embrace the difficulties I faced.

One of the more difficult things we did was the 'forced march' - heavy pack with full combat load of ammo, marching (you could say hiking) along roadways for 25 miles (and frequently more). Honestly, it truly sucked! As I felt my mental state shifting from positive to negative, I would begin chanting (to myself of course) "you gotta love it". Perhaps not surprisingly, I would begin to get really pumped up and would have renewed strength. I sometimes wonder if my comrades thought I was crazy with that stupid smile on my face!"

By the time Kip made his comment to me about 'Hotel California', I had already just about worn my personal mantra out. I won't even hazard a guess to how many times I repeated that phrase to myself - "you gotta love it". Now, Kip had given me something else to distract myself with. Almost immediately the guitar riff began in my head. It seemed my cadence was in perfect time to the song.

I continued up the Parkway as Kip put distance between us. While the temperature was not warm, the sun was bright and it actually felt much warmer than it really was. There is two climbs on the Parkway, separated by a beautiful downhill - beautiful of course because it is the first break you've really had for at least 7 miles. These are not 7 easy miles either! Along with the grade, Mt. Mitchell begins to bring out the big guns - the altitude begins to take it's toll.

I wolfed down another banana at the rest stop before making this descent, then fired my way down it. No brakes - why would I even think about slowing myself down on this section?? (ok, I'm not stupid, I probably did use my brakes where my personal safety required it, but I used them as little as possible!). I didn't do a lot of pedaling down this descent either - I used the time to do as much on - bike stretching as possible. Mt. Mitchell wasn't done with me yet. At the end of the descent, the parkway continues up (again!).

I occasionally had to do my little bike dance, but for the most part, I guess I was moving around enough to keep the muscles from cramping too badly. Once in this second climbing section along the parkway, I stopped at a view area and enjoyed the view while I did a few basic stretches and to catch my breath. The mountain was relentless in it's attack between the never ending climbing and the altitude. In fact, I can't recall how many times I looked down at my tires thinking I had a flat - "riding my bike shouldn't be this difficult", I would think. Of course, it was the reduced oxygen in the air (or was it Mt. Mitchell's psy-ops?). Although I was aware of my time, I was in more of a survival mode than a 'personal best' (attack?) mode. After all, it was my first time - no matter how long it took, it would be a personal best.

Finally, I came upon the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park. Wow! Something on the order of 4 miles left to go!!! I was actually very excited, but my body didn't respond like it was excited....My body was telling me 'let's just get this thing over'! Now, I started doing the time calculations in my head. When I entered the park, I was just around 6:45. I seemed to be hitting something just over 4mph on the steep sections, so I felt really good about being able to beat the 8 hour goal I had set for myself.

Although Mark had warned me that the first couple of miles of the Park Access road was steep, I didn't realize how difficult it would really be. I continued along, doing my bike dance when necessary and standing up to allow a greater volume of air intake. Still, during this first couple of miles up the access road, I made the choice to stop to catch my breath. This was Mt. Mitchell's way of reminding me that I was the invader, and She would not be conquered easily - now she really started working on conquering my mind - the body was already weakened.

While I'm not the greatest physical specimen, I do have some experience with what my body is telling me, and I'm a pretty good listener. If you doubt me, think about what I have just described to you. I began cramping nearly 55 miles before this point in my story. If I didn't know my body, I would have never made it this far. When my body starts to speak, I have to listen. Three times on this climb, Mt Mitchell hit me with her best shots, causing my body to raise it's inner voice (to a volume above the chorus of 'Hotel Calfornia' :) to talk to me. Rather than argue about it, I stopped for a brief moment, took a few deep breaths to re-group and set my new attack strategy before getting back in the saddle. At the top of this little climb, there was another rest stop.

I took the opportunity to grab another half banana, and this time, I also grabbed half a cookie - I only had one mile left right? I should be able to go into full attack mode for the final push to the summit - right? The next section was a beautiful easy grade that I was able to shift up a number of gears and actually carry some speed. This really gave me confidence to beat my 8 hour goal.

Unfortunately, Mt. Mitchell wasn't finished with me yet. She realized she couldn't stop me with her psy-ops, so she fired her last volley which resulted in not simple spasms but full on cramps of my inner thighs. She was not giving up - taking her final blows to my stressed out legs. She didn't realize who she was dealing with though - because neither was I. With less than a mile to go, I got back into my dance mode and fended off her best attempts at conquering me. I saw the cars parked in the lower parking lot, and I felt victory at hand. As I rounded the corner, I was surprised to see the finish line there in the lower parking lot - surprised and relieved!

I looked up at the timer as I crossed the line - unofficially, I conquered Mt. Mitchell in 7 hours and 55 minutes. I had managed to fend off the final cramps on the last grade and cross the line. I felt it was a hard fought and well earned victory. She was a very formidable foe - firing her best shots even as I breached her final defenses.

As I crossed the line, I was very pleased to hear Kip and Yukie cheer me on. Finishing the ride was an accomplishment to be proud of, but sharing it with good friends made it that much better.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Getting PSYCHED for the ASSAULT!

So, what to do with myself on a somewhat dreary, overcast / rainy day, two days before the biggest bicycle ride of my life? GET PSYCHED!!!!! For sure, I'm spending a lot of time drinking water. I found with one of my off-road triathlons that getting hydrated for the event doesn't really start the day before, but a couple days before. I need my body to be saturated when I awake at 4am on Monday morning! I'm also reading up a little on the ride. I finally found a cool description of the ride. I'll extract it because it is too cool:

{quoted from Bicycling Magazine - original found in the link above}
The Assault on Mount Mitchell cruises rural rollers before an epic stretch of climbing along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the highest point east of the Mississippi. of the nation’s most popular challenge rides, and it fills up fast. The big draw is the iconic, 6,578-foot summit of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. The first 80 miles of this well-supported century roam the rural flatlands and rollers north of Spartunburg, SC. Once the ride reaches, Marion, NC, the challenge begins: nearly 8,000 feet of climbing in roughly 30 miles. The hardest stretch of climbing kicks in on Route 80 after the route passes Lake Tahoma. The switchback-heavy approach to the Blue Ridge Parkway is sure to take some of the bite out of your legs. The Parkway itself is no slouch, but the countless succession of overlooks, road tunnels, and butterflies is sure to distract from the effort of climbing. Along this 11-mile stretch, views of Mount Mitchell (the big ridge above the Parkway and the eastern Continental Divide) foreshadow how much more climbing remain. The final approach to the summit up Route 128 is steep, steady, and relatively straight as it passes more roadside overlooks en route to the top. Savor the accomplishment and the 360-degree views at the top before hopping on the end-of-ride shuttle down the mountain.

Everything I can find indicates a total cumulative climb of just over 11,000 feet! That's a lot of climbing. I also found this elevation map:

That is about 80 miles where the curve begins to go straight up! Just outside the town of Marion, NC.

I'll be going up for the ride with my friend Kip who has made this trek 11 times (or so). His experience is pretty comforting to me. I really can't believe how psyched I'm getting for this ride. I'm already nervous, and I'm still two days out!

Tomorrow we'll pick up our registration packets. We talked about driving up to the mountain to check it out, but I don't think that is going to happen. No need to blow my own mind until I get up there! We'll also get the bicycles and gear loaded up on Yukie's car so we'll be ready to depart early on monday morning. Probably leave about 5am!

I'll be in the first wave of riders that depart Spartanburg's Memorial Auditorium at 630am. I'd like to think I can do the ride in less than 8 hours, but I'll be satisfied with less than 9 hours. The total ride distance is 102 miles. I know it's going to be a mental game once I begin the climb. I think I'm going to have to go back to the old Ranger days and pull out a trick or two to keep me rolling up that hill.

I'M PSYCHED!!!!!!!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Have you been training?

Have you been training? This is the question posed by a mountain biking friend when I spilled the beans that I would be riding in the 34th annual "Assault on Mt. Mitchell" (yes, I have received confirmation of the registration transfer). Hey, it's a fair question..after all, who in their right mind would attempt a full century with 11,000 ft of climbing without training for it?

C'mon, you have to ask?? ME of course!!! Although I have to admit, I wouldn't say I haven't trained on my bicycle. I have ridden almost 1000 miles since the beginning of the year. Not a lot by some standards, but plenty by other standards! Most of my rides are in the 30 to 40 mile range - not even half the distance of the assault!

In fact, the furthest I have ridden my bike (in the last 20 years anyway) is 63 miles. Some might say I'm setting myself up for failure. I have a few choice words for them, however, I won't repeat them on this public blog. The thing is, if I didn't think I was capable of completing the ride, I would not sign up for it. The real question for me is whether I finish in 8 hours or 12 hours (or something in between). I'd like to think I can do it in 8 or less, but I don't really know as I have never done a ride of this intensity before!

I've had several of my friends comment to me about how this will test me...yes, of course it will test me, but it is not about about the combination of distance and elevation gain - it is all about the third variable - time!

For example - Besides biking, I'm a runner as well. Not the fastest runner for sure. I mean, lately I run a 5k in just under 23 minutes. Not terrible for a 43 year old guy, but certainly nothing to be super excited about. That works out to be an average pace of around 7:20 min / mile or so. However, I know I can go out and run at a 10 min / mile pace just about all day. The difference in a 5k between 7:20 /mile and 10/mile is HUGE! I mean, if I run at 7:20 per mile I would be over 1 mile ahead of me running 10 /mile in a 5k race!!!

The real point is, if I stay hydrated, keep up on the nutrition and refrain from riding at my limit (from the outset), I am very confident I will finish the Assault. Especially since this is my first attempt, I don't really care if it takes me 8 hours or 12 hours. This year is establishing the baseline for which all future years are to be judged!

And yes, this is the first, and it will not be the last. I will continue to ride this event until I am no longer capable of propelling a bike! And, I will always do my best, regardless of whether I have trained for it or not!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

OK, it's official....

...I'm a hammerhead when I ride with the C2a group at Donaldson on tuesday nights. There is also another 6-10 people who fall right in that same category as I do. These guys and me need to jump up to the C1b group and stay there. Tonight I rode with the C2a group, and found myself and this other crowd of guys (and a woman or two) who stayed out front most of the ride and pushed the pace to 19.1-19.2 mph.

So, why did I drop back a group from last week? I mean, last week was quite successful for me and showed that I could ride with that group. But why go back? Well, it has to do with a little gum surgery I had last Thursday. It's the second round of gum surgery in preparations for getting braces. Since my face was still a bit swollen, and I have a bunch of stitches in my mouth, I thought it better not to push quite as hard tonight. It made no difference really...I played the role of hammerhead quite well, and I apologize to Dan and the rest of the group for it.

We started out fine, worked our average speed up into the 18.5 mph range by the time we hit Garrison road. It just kept climbing from there. By the time we climbed the hill (as we approach Reedy Fork Road for the first time), the pace was kicking 19mph. That stretch of road always brings up the pace as that is probably the biggest hill in the ride, and people just like to hammer it. It's nice that we re-group before the turn onto Reedy Fork Road - we tend to get a little spread out along there.

Of course, the next little section brings us onto old hundred road. That's a great little road as well, and some competitive juices tend to flow a little through there. Again, very cool that we take the opportunity to re-group at the stop sign.

Rocking along towards Holly Road, we actually began to bring the pace back into the 18.9mph range. Dan was calling for a bit of a slow down, and we actually got it. Well, until we turned onto Holly Road. That's when this group of Hammerheads (yes, me included) began to push the pace again. Even after a re-group at the Reedy fork road stop sign, we kept the pace up in the 19.1mph range.

That ride along Reedy fork just begs to be ridden fast - or at least at a pace that ends up faster than our advertised pace. We continued to push it, now with some other folks up front as well (besides the 10 or so I have previously mentioned).

I need to make a comment about riding in pace lines. I was trying to stay in the left pace line, but there was a guy riding quite erratically in the right pace line. I understand a little drift here and there, but he was drifting so far to the left, I had to back off the pace and allow a gap to form between me and the guy who should have been in front of me. It was like he was trying to take the middle - which either pushed me way to the left of the lane, or made me back off. It was pretty irritating. Then, he would drift back into the right pace line, and I would move into position on the left. Again, no time would pass and he would be drifting my way again. Very unsafe!

Fast forward a bit in the ride to the stop sign at Michelin Road. Our pace was showing around 19.0-19.1mph, so not terribly out of the advertised pace zone, I think we need to consider the overall pace to be a success to this point.

Once again, as we got on to Perimeter road the ride shifted into a 'every man for himself' type of ride. I actually like this a lot, but the group riding discipline really begins to break down. People really need to remember that it is a BAD thing to slow down as you are yelling 'HOLE'. I was really surprised we didn't have an accident along that section up to Ashmore Bridge Road. The best thing to do is to ride over the hole (or take a tip from the mountain biking crowd and bunny hop it) OR gently adjust your line and point to the obstacle so the rider behind you will be able to react. DO NOT MAKE A SUDDEN ADJUSTMENT IN YOUR SPEED! Even a slight adjustment in your speed has a very negative effect further back in the group. It is also important for the people up front to be the eyes of the group. They are the ones who are first to come upon the obstacle.

Another thing I saw along this stretch of road that is bad group riding form is allowing large (3 bike length) gaps to form in front of you. When you are the 6th rider in line, you should do your best to keep a good following distance. Another little issue here was some people riding in the 'third' lane. The worst part, this 'third' lane rider was riding to the left of the guy who was allowing the large gap. These two were just in front of me, so it prevented me (and / or others) from being able to fill that gap.

When the group gets out on Perimeter road, we should actually make an even more concerted effort to have a disciplined pace line. The pace picks up, so it becomes more important for the group to work together to maintain the higher pace. Two pace lines, or a single pace line with rotation up front, splitting into two for the main peleton. As I watched the riders in the 'third' lane, I finally decided to get out front where I feel it is actually safer.

I managed to pull a few folks with me, and we did a bit of a rotation for a couple of miles. Was it the best most disciplined rotation, probably not, but I think we were doing ok. There was probably four of us up there in the front, and we each did some pulling at whatever pace we were riding (pretty fast). It's important to remember in these pace lines not to pull for too long. There are several other riders behind you who are fully capable of pulling the group for a while. If you pull for too long, you won't be able to keep the pace when you finally pull out of the wind. This ended up happening to me. I got out front for part of that last hill, and found myself burning out again. I should have known to pull out of the lead earlier, but I'm a pig-headed SOB sometimes.

As I have seen for the last several rides, we managed to up our pace by about a half mph by the time I backed off near the stop sign. It really was a great ride despite my bitching. So, next week, I'll jump in with the C1b group and see how that goes.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Lady and the Tramps ROCK the Upstate Challenge Mud Run!!

Thanks to the wife and kids of my team-mate Joe for taking the following photos!

Here's the team: Left to right: Me, Debbie, Joe and Jim. Pre-race of course!

A quick shot of the little map they have set up at the starting line:

On your Marks!

and they're off!

Great shot of me in the mud pit!

Coming to the last mud pit - That's Joe's son giving him the high five!

The last big wall - we kind of messed up our order here, but it actually worked out for the best. Joe goes up first. Take a look at the other team going up the other side of the wall. As Joe is climbing, they already have two people on top.

Next up: Jim. The other team still has the original two up on top, and the third is just starting

Then Debbie, while Joe climbs down the back. Our third person gets to the top about the same time their third person does.
Finally, between Joe lifting, and Jim pulling, they just about launched me over the wall! The other team managed to get only one person up to the top in the time it took us to get our entire team up there!! That team started 9 minutes before us!
The triumphant team!!
We actually had a really good result. Out of 523 teams that had a finishing time, we came in 17th with an official time of 38:22!! Can't wait for next year!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How do you know...

...when it's time to bump up to the next pace group? This story actually starts a few weeks ago, before Dan stepped up and created the 19+ mph group (with lots of help from Lori of course!). If you recall, I was not the most complimentary to the hammers, but that blog actually resulted in me making the suggestion to Dan to start a faster group.

That has really worked out well. The folks who were ready to ride faster than 19mph, certainly needed it, and those of us left in the 18-19mph group benefited from it as well. We now were able to maintain the advertised pace. I led the C2a group a couple of weeks ago, but when I arrived last week, Dan had already volunteered to lead it. That was great with me, I got to just do a ride-along.

It was this experience where I made my realization. I realized if I'm not leading the group, I should ride in the next faster group. What happened that I realized this? Well, I saw myself as one of the hammers. Not that I was out pushing the pace out of the advertised pace zone, but I was out front quite a bit. Absolutely, I'm not saying I was in front for the entire ride, many others worked the lead positions, but I found myself out in front (and sometimes by myself) during those parts of the ride where it gets a little spirited. Maybe the others were just taking it easy on me that day, maybe I was feeling stronger than usual.

Whatever it was, I decided I would move up for this week. When I arrived, Dan had already volunteered to lead the C2a group. Lori was looking for someone to lead the C1a and C1b. Dan just about had me talked into leading the C1b group, but Bob came over and checked with Lori about leading it. Not knowing how I would really do in this group, I decided it would be better if I just rode along for today. I was happy that Bob stepped up.

As we departed the parking lot, I found myself out front and Bob asked me to set the pace initially so he could get a head count. He came back up front and we chatted a bit as we rode down Perimeter road. I told him I was ok leading while I'm fresh, but was unsure how things were going to work out. I was actually a little nervous, and that nervous energy translated into a pace a little faster than Bob wanted - he had to ask me to back it down.

I stayed up front for Perimeter road, and got back in close to the front as we made the turns that put us onto Michelin Road. Somehow, I ended up in front again as we made the right onto Lost Swamp and again onto Griffin Road. As we began that long gradual grade on Griffin road, Bob and I peeled off and went to the back of the pack for a while.

Unsure of my own strength, I decided to sit in the back for a while. While it was a really good group, I still found a little accordion effect being all the way in the back. Not a big problem and it started to give me some confidence. I did my best to work that effect in an effort to minimize the gaps with the rider in front of me. This required some bursts of speed from time to time, and I found that I did indeed have the strength. As we forked left off of Garrison Road, I decided it was time for me to see about getting back up towards the front.

We made our way along Richey Road and up that nice grade towards the stop sign. My confidence was returning, and I began to push myself. Nothing special about what I did as there are some very strong riders in that group. For me though, just being towards the front, and hanging on the wheels up there was giving me an extra boost.

The group was excellent. We did a stop at the left turn onto Woodville road to make sure we still had everyone. With fear of repeating myself, this is part of what makes these rides so fun, and being out there with other like-minded people makes it so very worth it. We were spread out a little at the stop, but when we resumed the ride, I moved quickly up towards the front.

Bob seemed like he was feeling his oats a little, or maybe it was some inner madman seeing who he could draw along with him as he pushed the pace a little early along that road. I managed to work my way up next to him as we crossed the bridge before the ascent. I was feeling good - I was out front with a great climb ahead of us. It wasn't long however, before we were caught.

My confidence had returned in full, I now felt I could hang with this group. In fact, I felt I could do my share of pulling. While Bob and I were out front at the beginning of the ascent, we were quickly passed by some half dozen or so riders. I tried to latch onto someone's wheel, and kept pushing up the hill. The strong riders in front of me give me motivation to ride with this group again - I know I have some improving to do.

We made the turns onto Reedy Fork, then onto old hundred road. I was a little out of sync with the ride I think. As we made our way along old Hundred road, I waited and waited for someone to break didn't happen, so I took a shot at it. Nobody chased and I ended up at the stop sign by myself briefly. I took a turn out front for a little while on the next stretch along Hopkins Road, but again, the strong riders in the group ended up pulling us to the next stop sign (at Reedy Fork road).

To let you know how awesome this group was...I needed to step behind a tree about that time. We were taking a short stop to allow some others to catch up, so I decided to take that opportunity to find that tree. I jumped across the road, rode a short distance and found that tree. Plenty of nice comments as the group rode by, I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me in catching them. To my delight, they had stopped at the next stop sign. THANK YOU!! I really didn't want to finish the ride by myself.

We made the turn onto Holly road, and Bob was riding strong with one other rider along with him. The pack was moving well, but didn't seem to be catching them. I took that opportunity to push a little to bridge the gap. It took a lot of effort, which didn't help me in the long run. I managed to bridge as we came down the hill and I passed both of them as we went up the hill. My effort cost me, and four or five people passed me as we crested the hill. I dug as deep as I could, and managed to re-take a couple or three of them. Really nice move by those guys who ended up out front.

Back onto Reedy Fork Road, and the ladies from the Every Woman team got back out front. I give both of them a lot of credit - they spent a lot of time pulling us guys around the countryside tonight. I managed to do some more pulling and our pace was right in the zone it is supposed to be. I was showing about 19.6mph. {late edit: pace was not 19.6 because I got out front, the pace was a result of the combined group effort}

Along Reedy Fork, leading up to the four way stop at Griffin Mill road, we had a small group out front. I felt good when I was able to catch / stay with them after that gradual ascent. Quick stop at the stop sign to regroup and we were off again. We stayed cohesive along Michelin Road and to the stop at Perimeter Road.

Bob had us all stop and thanked everyone for the ride. He also told us it was every man and woman for himself (little inside joke here). As we turned onto Perimeter road, it was the ladies leading a small pack of about 6 riders. I don't like when a pack gets away, it is so much work to reel them in. I quickly bridged the gap to join them. They set a strong pace about up to where Ashmore bridge road peels off.

About that time, our peleton began to absorb our little breakaway. The ladies peeled off the front and resumed positions in the pack. We continued to push a strong pace, and I found myself up near the front again as we approached the golf course. I followed a strong rider up the hill next to the golf course entrance. We backed off slightly at the top, and were quickly absorbed by our peleton.

As the ride got closer to finishing, people really started pushing. I tried to do my share up front, and as we came up the last hill, I was in the front, but I waved the others around - I was BEAT!. I expected to be immediately absorbed by the main group, but I found there was only about 10 or so riders nearby. I took a quick look back and saw how spread out the rest of the group had gotten over that last couple of miles. This actually gave me some motivation, so I pushed myself and re-took a couple or three riders. At about that time, my average pace was showing 19.9mph.

At the end of this ride, I still felt pretty good. I don't know if I could have maintained any faster pace, but I certainly was able to hold the pace of the group - even getting out front in the second half of the ride. Considering I had low confidence at the start of the ride I now know riding with this group was the right move for me.

p.s. for Bob: You asked if I was going to lead this group next week - I told you I might. Unfortunately, I am having a little surgery on thursday of this week, so I doubt I'll be up for riding at this pace by next tuesday. I'll be out there, but it will likely be in a slower group.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

St Francis Mud Run 2009 - great dirty fun!

Today is the 5th annual St Francis Mud Run ! I did this event last year with some adventure racing friends. This year, I was invited by a couple of co-workers who I have run with often in the local Corporate Shield road races. They also recruited a fourth co-worker to fill out the team.

So, it was Jim (team Captian), Debbie, Joe and myself. We dubbed ourselves "Lady and the Tramps". Regardless of what anyone might say, there are two on our team who are definitely competitive in an extroverted way (Jim and Debbie), while the other two of us are competitive, but in a more introverted way (of course, Me and Joe). What I mean is Jim and Debbie will openly talk about their competitiveness, it's right there in the open, Joe and I on the other hand, we're going to deny our competitiveness all the way up to the starting gun - then it's like releasing the hounds after the fox - we're going to push our hardest and do the absolute best we can.

Jim being who he is, insisted on a couple of practice runs. The first one was about 2 weeks before the event. The permanent fixtures were set up on the course (walls, frames, other necessary structures), but the stuff like the cargo nets and the ropes (and other less permanent stuff) were not. No problem, just being able to see the course and work out the strategy for the walls was a big deal.

The next practice run came a week before the event. This time, everything was there except the mud! Holes had been dug, cargo nets and ropes were hung and the climbing holds were even bolted on the 8' wall. We weren't moving quite as fast as race pace, and we actually did some obstacles twice. It was a good practice.

Yesterday, I stopped over at the Goodwill's Greenville headquarters to pick up our registration packet with our numbers and other schwag. This allowed us to arrive in the neighborhood of an hour prior to our 859am start time. Plenty of time to find each other and get a little warm up before we launched our attempt.

This year was a little different than last year. The event organizers decided (very wisely) to break the participants down into different categories. Since all four of us are regular runners, and because we all have a competitive streak, we selected Division A, and further, we selected the 'Corporate' category.

It turns out this breakdown by division was a great thing. Last year (2008), my team was # 175, and we had a start time something around 1245pm. While we were a pretty strong team, we didn't have any strategy and we actually wasted a lot of energy overcoming the 6' walls. Further, we were slowed numerous times waiting for other teams to get past the obstacles so we could make our attempt. Despite that, we actually had a pretty good finish - we
finished 51st out of 308 teams with a time of 48:35.

This year, our team was # 48 so we had a much earlier start time. More importantly, all the teams in front of us were 'trained runners', so we hoped to have a clean run (no waiting for other teams). By the time we got to the obstacles, the mud was in full force, so only the first 10 teams or so had a 'clean' run (even the very first mud pit had not turned to mud for the first several teams).

Our practice paid off pretty well. We had numerous comments from the Marines working the obstacles that we were the fastest over the 6' walls. The teamwork and decisions made during those practice runs might have trimmed minutes off our times - it certainly made for a reduction in the overall level of exertion. That teamwork allowed us to make passes on the open run sections. We even made a couple of passes in the woods. No other teams passed us, but we passed at least 4 to 6 other teams. We caught both the blue course teams that left in front of us

The course is set up as two lanes really - the red lane and the blue lane. This makes for a much better run. It really means there is 2 minutes between teams on the same course at the start.
To be clear, the starting line alternates between red and blue teams. One team every minute.

We caught the #44 team (they left 4 minutes ahead of us) as we made the final run up to the 5 ton truck. That was the second to last obstacle, and we managed to stay in front of them to the end. We got a little confused on our strategy for the last 8' wall, but Joe came down and gave me a boost all the way up. His strength at the end made a difference.

As I carried Debbie across the line (technically the fireman's carry was the last obstacle - where two team members would carry the other two), I looked up at the clock. I saw 1:37:??. We started at 59:00. This means our time is somewhere between 38 and 38.5 minutes. (I'm pretty sure my '??' above were less than :30). That is a pretty good time. Based on last year's results, that would have put us in 7th place overall!!.

Jim came over to me as I was getting changed near my car. He had spoken to someone from one of the elite teams (2 I think). They had run it in less than 31 minutes. Sounds like a little bit faster than last year's winning time. Not surprising as the course was widened this year to reduce the number of backups at some of the bigger obstacles.

All that is left to say is a Big THANKS to the Marine Reserve Unit who allowed us to use the course for the day and especially to the MANY volunteers who helped organize this very fun event!

Thanks to The Greenville News for posting up photos of the event. A friend pointed me to these photos of the Lady and the Tramps...