A hard day in the saddle (Part II)

The route and elevation profile
The route and elevation profile

Time to ride! After a decent breakfast, Vikki loaded me into the car and off we went. Sky was clear and temperature was 48 degrees with a mild westerly breeze.

Before the start
Before the start

There were about 1100 riders pushing off at 7:30 am. There’s something always invigorating about seeing so many other riders starting with you–it’s a psychological boost but one has to be careful not to cross wheels. In addition, it’s always tempting to go faster than you should just due to the atmosphere of a big group of riders, so I had to consciously dial back the pace in those early miles.  I had some thin layers on and glad of it with cold muscles and the early am chill combining against me, but I didn’t want to be burdened with a lot of extra clothing to peel off later in the day–I had to be self-sufficient for 100 miles.

IMG_3577 (1)
Best business slogan I’ve seen in awhile . . .

The first ten miles were flat–a good warmup. The first climb was pretty easy: 5.5 miles but the average gradient only 5-6 % . There were lots of cyclists going up the same hill at the same time, so it was a little tricky negotiating around them but I did pass many even though my exertion felt only mild. The downhill was glorious but chilly as it was in the shade. Then the first rest stop at about 22 miles–well-stocked with friendly people, good snacks, and lots of porta-potties (Some of us guys went out to the adjacent fencerow ).

During the next 15 miles or so I started to feel tired and thought “Oh, no, I can’t feel bad yet-I’m not even halfway”. But then I slowed down, relaxed and got back in with some different groups that helped break the wind and my legs came back.

Top of Sand Mountain climb looking back
Top of Sand Mountain climb looking back

I stopped at every rest stop (total five) for 10 minutes or so each, stretching, using the bathroom, eating, refilling my water bottles. After passing into Alabama, the second climb was steeper (average 8% for 2.5 miles) and moderate to hard exertion but I never feared not making it.

At the top were some lovely views off Sand Mountain looking west. Then we went across the plateau on top of with some rollers for the next 15-20 miles before a delicious descent down to the GA state line near Trenton. Crossing over I-59 we all knew what was approaching: the climb up Burkhalter Gap.

Right before Burkhalter  (starting at 82 miles) was a wonderful rest stop with dill pickles, PB&J sandwiches, a water hose, mechanical help, and shade (temperature now in low 80s with sunshine).  I knew I couldn’t linger, but I massaged my legs and tried some positive self-talk to prepare me for the ordeal ahead.

Burkhalter Gap goes up for 2.5 miles averaging 9% without undulation for the first 2 miles–just up. There’s a brief respite of 3-4% gradient, then the last 200 meters cants up to 13 % just to finish you off. Now remember-I had made it up once before and crapped out one other time trying it, so today was the tiebreaker. But I had never done it after two previous climbs and 80+ miles of riding–or so that little devil kept whispering.

I got into a rhythm and cranked along. I stayed seated for the first 50%, knowing I would need to conserve my standing leg strength for the last steeper part. During the first half of the climb, I was passing a few other cyclists during the ascent and thinking “you’re going to make it”.  During the second half, I started to have doubts. I got tired, the sun was hot, the mileage was taking its toll, and I alternated sitting and standing. The small respite in incline came and I tried to spin the legs a little to release the lactic acid. Then came the last stretch at 13%. Boy,  was I tempted to quit. The little devil kept whispering “you’ve made it 90%, it’s no shame to walk the rest, you don’t know anyone out here, no one will care . . .” Then my guardian angel appeared.

Some young man was running up and down the last 100 meters of the climb with a cowbell ringing it like he was calling the dead to life and screaming at each and every cyclist “You’re almost there, keep going, you’re going to make it, just a little more, you can do it . . .” I was too stressed to even look up at him, but that cowbell galvanized me and reversed my thinking. Now it was “Well, I can’t let him down, can I?” I stood up in the saddle the last 100 meters and went over the timing mat, turning left into the rest area at the top.  Hanging over the handlebars and gasping for breath, I was overcome with the emotion of the moment, thinking to myself: “you actually did it”   Then I saw a ten-year old boy come up right behind me–oh well.

The rest of the ride was anti-climactic, though my legs were starting to cramp up.

Actually just as I crossed the finish line my right quadriceps seized up and had to coast to the curb, almost falling off the bike. Vikki and Helen were there to greet me, and the beer trailer was a short walk away. The sense of relief was tremendous.

What did I learn?

  • Fitness is a spectrum-the same first hill I found to be a mild exertion would have been impossible for many others, just as the KOM cyclist up Burkhalter traveled at almost twice my speed during his ascent.
  • It’s so important to eat and drink a lot while riding these long distances: I probably consumed 80-100 oz. of sport drink and 800-1000 calories.
  • Intensity (hills or fast rides on the flats) is the key to increasing your fitness.
  • Long rides are essential to prepare for, well, long rides.
  • You can always do more than you think you can.
  • There are kind people everywhere and I am grateful for them (someone give that cowbell ringer a medal or a six-pack or a second cowbell, please!)
  • My wife and children kindly put up with my schedule disruptions, fatigue and sweaty clothes while training.

Mt. Ventoux, here I come!

A Hard Day in the Saddle (Part I).

From my first few months in Chattanooga, I wanted to complete the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge century ride.  In 2013 I planned to ride it but injured my knee and had to quit training. At the beginning of 2016 I decided to try again.

There were several aspects to completing this ride. First, the training. The basics of completing a century ride (100 miles) on a bike are well-known: establish a base of riding miles, add some intensity with increased tempo, practice climbing, and do long rides of at least 75% of the distance before the big day. However, when it’s January, 30 degrees and dark outside, and the bed is warm, it’s not easy getting on the trainer and pounding out intervals before going to work. (Sufferfest videos plugged into the TV really help-great scenery, interesting trivia, inspiring music, and a little humor). After the daylight savings time change in the spring, there’s more daylight at end of day, but riding then interrupts family dinner time, interferes with school activities, and conflicts with on-call duties at the hospital.

Avoiding injuries is next. During one training ride, I outran or out maneuvered five dogs out of six but the last one was too old or too fat or too slow to get out of my way as I tried to vector away.  Fortunately it was at low speed as I scooted my thigh and knee across the asphalt producing a beautiful road rash abrasion that kept me from sleeping on that side for several weeks-but no broken bones. Then I developed a low back sprain. Several sessions with the physical therapist and a better post-ride stretching routine helped clear that up.

Finally, the mental aspect. My chosen route had three discrete climbs, each between 1000-1400 feet ascents over 2 to 5 miles. I rode each of them separately, but one day about three weeks before the big day I tried to do 75 miles over climbs #2 and #3 and had to quit halfway up the second hill. That was devastating to my confidence. Lots of negative self-talk ensued:

  • If you can’t do two hills in a day, how are you going to do three?
  • That last hill is a beast, you’ll probably have to walk up
  • Maybe I should just do the metric century
  • Why am I doing all this exactly?

I started losing sleep, had trouble concentrating, experienced some very anxiety-filled dreams, and I told myself: “it’s just a stupid bike ride, dummy”.  Basically I was afraid–afraid of failing, afraid of quitting, afraid of the pain. Then I did one intense club ride averaging 19 mph for 25 miles, a metric century in Louisville at 18 mph and those efforts encouraged me. Finally, the weather on ride day was projected to be near perfect, and I committed to the endeavor. I tapered off training for the last week, washed and polished my bicycle, and laid out all my gear.  Game on!