Now that I’ve explained my lack of preparation, it is time to discuss my unavoidable lack of performance.
The race was set to begin at 10:00 a.m. I left the house later than expected (setting the tone for the day), but still made it to the hotel conference room in which the registration was being held in time to get signed in by nine bells. I spent the next twenty minutes wandering around and checking out the bikes against which I would be racing. Lots of interesting stuff. Sure, I wanted a fat-tired bike before I arrived, but now I REALLY wanted one. Lots of Surly Pugsleys, a few Salsa Mukluks, a 9:zero:7, (which is fantastic just for what the name represents) and Lance Andre’s Fatback, which just sat next to the registration table setting the bar for a what a racing snow bike can be. Of course, I didn’t see any bright red bikes there besides mine. In my mind, the most important decision when picking a bike for this race was ‘which will be the most visible to the search party sent to find me?’ Titanium is nice and all, but it won’t draw attention to me when I’ve crashed into the woods and become immobile. I’ll take my bright red and white bike, thankyouverymuch.
We rolled out at a little after 10:00 a.m. from the behind the Star Brewery. We headed north through Dubuque out to West 32nd street. At this point, the race officially began. I knew this not because I was at the front and saw it, but because earlier we had been told that this would be where the race would began. I was content to hang out at the back so as not to slow down any of the real athletes who were competing in this race. It is important to note that just because this was going to be a fun little experiment for me it did not mean that most (if not all) of the other competitors were truly impressive athletes bent on winning. In fact, I think it says something about this race that the capability of entrants ranged from them, on the high side, to me, on the subterranean side.
Once we crossed West 32nd we started on a really rough, snowy bike path. Last year this section was only rideable by a very few (among which I could not count myself), so the fact that this year I was not pushing my bike made me more than happy to get beat up as I rolled over the frozen human footsteps and canine deposits.
From there we crossed under John Deere road, headed across US 52, and then headed off into the snowmobile trails running alongside the north side of the Northwest Arterial. This made for a couple of fun downhills, a few miserable uphills, and a few off-camber, barely rideable sections. My heart rate was pegged right away, which I knew wasn’t going to be good if I had planned on making it more than an hour into the race. I tried to balance this out by nearly falling several times on the steep downhill sections of the trails. It turns out that this does not, in fact, balance out a raised heart rate on uphills, but actually contributes to it being high. Who knew?
I did have a secret advantage; one that I didn’t notice any other competitor having. At nearly every intersection, along almost every road next to the trails, and just about any other spot where you can fit a minivan I had my family cheering for me. My wonderful wife, my two beautiful daughters, and my fantastic sisters were following along and cheering me on, complete with ‘Happy Ride Daddy’ and ‘Happy Daddy Go!’ signs. It might have seemed a little out of place in this type of race, but I can say that I appreciated it. They seemed to enjoy cheering me on, and really enjoyed seeing the other racers as well. I do want to mention to the several female racers that my 3 and 5 year old daughters were particularly excited to see that there were girls racing their bikes in the snow. I hope that they would assume that there were women capable of doing this race as well, but I’m sure it helps for them to see it directly.
After 20 miles or so of snowmobile trails, the course climbed up on to Humke road. After a brief respite of paved road, the course then went onto a Level B section of the road. “Level B” is the county’s designation for roads that were designed to cause injury. I think most roads are probably Level A. “Level A” == “avoid injury.” “Level B” == “cause injury.” I don’t know if there are any Level C roads in the county, but if there are you can bet it just a short concrete launch ramp over the edge of a bluff with a pile of skeletons at the bottom intermingled with rusty old mountain bike frames. Level B is somewhere between a four-lane highway and that. Needless to say, there is a spot on the output of my bike computer where the speed graph goes from over 20 mph to an abrupt zero. I laid it down pretty fantastically there; my only disappointment is that there wasn’t a witness to it. Luckily, I landed in pretty soft snow, and I was back up and flailing down the hill out of control almost immediately. Because I’m sure the 20 seconds I picked up by going way too fast downhill was more than worth the increased chance of breaking my face, right? It wouldn’t have made sense to take it easy down the hill. Nobody turns down free speed!
Once past the Level B section, the course ended up on Heritage Trail, the local rail-trail. At this point, it was relatively flat, and the course conditions were pretty good. I found solace in trying to stay in the track of someone running a set of Schwalbe tires; Nobby Nic maybe? Whatever the tire and whoever the rider, it tended to follow the part of the trail where I could ride faster and easier.
It is probably worth explaining that riding in snow is inherently different than normal off road riding. The challenge is in finding the easy spot. On any given trail there are subtle differences in the surface that are sometimes invisible, but they are there. One experienced rider described the change in sound from a ‘crunching’ sound that was synonymous with difficult pedaling to a sudden silence, indicating that a slightly harder surface was now under the tires. You can instantly feel a slight acceleration. It is hard for me to describe accurately, but it makes riding a fairly flat and wide open trail more challenging; rewarding attentiveness and careful tire placement with a little bit of speed and slight drop in required exertion.
So, having made it through the ‘difficult’ part of the race, it was now time to concentrate on keeping a decent pace, not overheating, getting some calories in, and not breaking anything. I had already overheated and shed some clothes, then got cold and put them back on. At some point my front derailleur had lost it’s grip on the shifter cable, but since it was in the small ring it wasn’t causing me any problems. I figured it would be easy enough to pull the cable back through and tighten it up, but time spent doing that was time spent not pedaling. At the pace I was maintaining on the trail (7-8 mph) I needed to worry more about forward motion and less about ensuring that I could get into my big rings. So seeing as how my pace wasn’t really decent, I had already overheated, and I had broken some stuff already, I concentrated on getting calories in. I thawed out a Clif bar and some gel under my jersey and managed to get those eaten, and I had been drinking a ton. I wasn’t sure how much was getting absorbed and how much of it was just going through the system, but I was finally able to keep my heart rate down under 160, so I figured that would help.
I made it to the Dyersville checkpoint at almost exactly 5 hours in. I was pretty happy to have made it this far. I parked my bike outside Chad’s Pizza and went inside, eager to change into some dry clothes and get something to eat that was actually hot, instead of just ‘thawed.’ I probably stayed here too long, even though I only had one small slice of pizza and some corn. I’m not sure why the corn sounded good; it was hot, and it had salt and pepper on it. I figured that since it was a vegetable that it had to be somewhat good for me, and even had a brief image in my head of marathon runners flying through a checkpoint, grabbing a small cup of corn and tossing it back, and chasing it with Gatoraid. I put on a dry base shirt, an insulated jersey, some dry socks, and then headed back out onto the course. I figured I would be able to make it to Farley for sure, and that I would evaluate whether I would continue on at the point. So far, except for some major cramping that I had been able to slow down and pedal through, I really hadn’t been having any problems.
I had ridden about a mile past Farley when I noticed my front tire was completely flat. I’m not sure how long it had been flat. Looking back at the speed graph of my bike computer I would guess that it had been flat since late November, but it’s more likely that it went flat right around the Farley tunnel. I figured I would try to throw a tube into it, and if I didn’t get too cold, I’d keep riding, and if it didn’t work out that way, I would call my wife and go home and shower. I called her to let her know my intentions, and set to changing the tire. It was a little bit of a fight to get the tire off of the rim. Not sure if this was because of the sealant, or the cold, or because I’m weak, or what, but it took longer than I expected. I got the tube in, and spent a lot of effort trying to get the tire back over the bead. Eventually, I got it, pumped it up, and kept on riding. I was just north of Epworth now, and I knew Graf was only four miles away. I was actually thinking ‘Graf would be a respectable place to throw in the towel, that’s over 75% of the distance’, but once I got there, I felt pretty good and decided to keep going. At this point it’s already 9 hours into the race, and I know I’ve got probably three hours left to go. My new tube in the front was leaking slowly. I was stopping every few miles to pump it up; I figured if I stopped to change it again I would get too cold. The whole time I was constantly surprised that I wasn’t in more pain, cramping more, or slowing down even more, but since none of that was happening, I really didn’t have a good reason to quit, so I just kept going.
I made it to the mandatory checkpoint at the Handle Bar in Durango around 8:30 or so, which was 10+ hours into the race. I was quite obviously the last one to get here. The bartender gently broke the news to me that I was last, checked me in, and then called the race organizers to let them know that I wasn’t lost, that I was planning on finishing. I ordered some hot chocolate and some mini-tacos, and laid my gloves, jacket, and outer jersey by the fireplace to dry out a little bit. I was there for about twenty minutes, and then loaded back up for the final push home. I now had some drier clothes, and my front tire was actually holding air. What could go wrong?
Well, nothing, except that I got lost. In the town that was born in raised. Twice. (I got lost twice; I didn’t mean that I was born and raised here twice. That wouldn’t make any sense at all. Not that getting lost did either.)
The first incident was caused by the tunnel under John Deere road that led back towards the bike trail being completely shrouded in darkness. I saw all kinds of tire tracks heading up a steep snowmobile trail just past the turn. By this time my brain no worky so well, so I just got off the bike and started pushing. It took a good five minutes before I realized what was going on, and then turned around and headed back down the hill, and then found the tunnel, and was back to getting abused by the rough trail to get downtown. Once I got into downtown Dubuque I tried to remember which street would lead back to the road under the train tracks near the Star Brewery. Everything east of White street is kind of a mystery to me; at one point I ended up riding backwards down a one-way street. Anyone who has spent much time in Dubuque realizes this is any easy mistake to make, but they can still laugh at me if they like.
Finally, about 12 hours and 10 minutes after I started, I rolled my bike into the lobby at the Grand Harbor hotel. I walked into the second floor conference room (where the awards ceremony had probably ended an hour earlier) and asked if it was too late to check-in. Traci, one of the organizers gave me a big hug and started a big round of applause for me. And that was awesome. Highlight of the day. I’m in a room full of people who did this same race in probably half of the time it took me, and they are telling me that I did well. I’ll take that any day.
I spent some time talking to people, ate a cupcake, and then headed home. At the advice of my sister, I tried to take an ice bath to ward off the impending soreness in my legs. THIS WAS BY FAR THE DUMBEST THING I DID ALL DAY! It was the first time that I really got cold! My feet shut down instantly. I couldn’t feel my legs. Horrible! Why would anyone do this? And she thinks I’m crazy for riding my bike in cold weather? No way. I took a regular human shower with warm water, and then went to bed.
Looking back on the whole thing, I’ve got more to say, but I’ll save that for another post.