Monday, November 12, 2012

Checking in

Obviously, I haven't written in a while. My mind has been abuzz with all kinds of random associations though most are political in nature. It doesn't seem appropriate to include them here. This should be a politics-free zone. Immediately the idea that there are no politics of the self jumped to mind. Not sure if that's true, but it was the very next thought as I finished writing the previous sentence. Now I have something new to ponder. I'm not sure what the next couple of months will look like as training goes underground (my basement really, but "underground" sounds much more mysterious). Happy Holidays to everyone. May you find adventures that bring back the "kid on Christmas" feeling.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

AML - Day 2

Redefining the challenge
     Saturday morning broke cold and overcast with threats of rain and dropping temperatures. My first attempt to clear my throat was a complete failure. With more force I cleared the congestion to reveal a raw throat. Great, I thought with an excessive amount of sarcasm. Urgent bodily needs forced me to dress and get down the hall to the shared bathroom. Reacquainting myself with the slightly damp lycra didn't bring the desire to get up the road I was hoping for. Quite the contrary, if I'm not mistaken my next thought was "please let there be a friend of Nelson's heading to Blacksburg." I'll save the suspense and just tell you now
there weren't. Nelson and I discussed potential routes back to Blacksburg on the bike. At first I wasn't enthusiastic, but I warmed to it as we discussed roads and the climbing that would have to be done. Several homemade mochas (coffee and a packet of Nestle's hot chocolate mix) and scones later, I had dutifully recorded all 39 turns on a small blue scrap of paper. Unlike yesterday, I would not be following a track on my GPS. My success would depend upon the accuracy of directions scribbled on a little scrap of blue paper stuffed into my Gas Tank.
     After unpacking every piece of cold-weather gear I had brought with me, I made a brief stop at The Dirtbean to grab some food and water to get me into Covington, 40-some miles away. The first leg, West Virginia 39, is a beautiful, smooth, wide road through a fortuitous gap in one of the many Appalachian ridges I would see today. Like the Greenbriar and Big Stony Creek I rode against the flow of water gradually climbing out of the valley. The slight right on Douthat Creek (in Google) or Douthards Creek (in real life) had me questioning the route, but I decided that the names were within the margin of error as the directions from Google and the distance from Marlinton were both correct. Worth noting here is that I did not confirm my supposition by talking to any locals. Whatever the name I enjoyed the rolling farm road until it turned into a climbing forest road (read gravel). At around 2800 feet the climb topped out and the descent was a challenge but thrilling. The road continued to deteriorate until it was crossed by a metal gate with an unequivocal "Private Property" sign. It was quite the opposite of Google's assurance that Douthat Creek becomes Public Road 96. Twelve miles down this dead end had me searching for a way out of the negativity
threatening to envelope me. Not now, I pleaded with petulant child inside. You can have your say when this is done, but for now I need you to stay quiet. There is work to do, and now it is more than I was planning. Amazingly, it worked. The truth was that I did feel reasonably good now that the muscles were warm, and that gave me confidence.
     Once I returned to West Virginia 39 (fully two hours after I began the valley road to nowhere) I simply rode to West Virginia 92 and south to pick County Road 14. Really Google?! This twenty miles of perfect pavement lost out to the unimproved dirt track figment of your imagination known as "Public Road 96?" All right, stay positive.
     Since I was now off-route I had plenty of time to calculate how many miles I would travel before seeing my next turn, County Road 14. Today, my GPS had become an expensive speedo and odometer to track the mileages from the all-important blue scrap of paper. Each turn was a time to recalibrate and predict the odometer's expected mileage at the next turn. Being off-route without a map forced me to consider extremes and I was happy to see I still remembered high school geometry. For example, let's assume Douthat Creek and Public Road 96 cut a perfect diagonal across West Virginia 39 and 92 as the worst case, and the identical distance as the best case. If the original route was about 17 miles, my alternate route could be anywhere from that same 17 miles up to 25.5 miles given that the worst case would add miles at the rate of 2 for every 1.414 miles of the original route, or about 50% more. Thankfully the alternate was very close to the original route. At 17.5 miles I spied a left turn towards Sherwood Lake matching my directions...and here were two cyclists chatting just off the road. My luck was turning. They were pretty sure that the road I assumed to be County Road 14 was not. No, this road goes eleven miles to Sherwood Lake, they said. Are you sure, I implored. This says I just need to follow it for 3.5 miles until I reach Rucker Gap Road. RUCKER GAP, they exclaimed. Yes, that's the road. Yippee. Then Janice said something interesting. We were never much for road signs around here, she said. Then 9/11 happened and the road signs started appearing. Fascinating. It's like a riddle. Try to figure out the linkage that ties the proliferation of road signs on the Virginia/West Virginia border to a terrorist attack in New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, PA. I'm sure it has something to do with emergency services, but I'd love to trace the path of that legislation from its inception.
     Off again and climbing towards Rucker Gap which eventually topped me out just above 2600 feet. A very sketchy descent dropped me on Ogle Creek Road and down I went. Mile after mile I flew along at around 22 mph. The altimeter dropped below 2000 feet then it dropped below 1500 feet. Uh oh! This is going to mean I have to climb back up to Blacksburg. (How prescient those words would be.) After many miles of steady descent, a gas station near I-64 was the perfect refueling stop. Chocolate milk, Hot Chunky soup (Oh yeah!), beef jerky, and lemon pie. Topped off the water bottles and descended some more into Covington, elevation 1300 feet. A stray Verizon signal allowed me to check in with my better half as she trekked through the shoe stores and outlet malls of western PA and northeast Ohio. A small part of me was hoping she'd say that she was in Covington to pick me up after she saw me backtrack earlier in the day. Not gonna happen. She was having trouble tracking me on her phone. I was on my own until Blacksburg. I could have stopped in Covington, I suppose. They did have a hotel. But I had already decided I was getting back to the car tonight. Tonight...a night that was less than three hours away now. And still 65 miles to go before I sleep. Gotta get moving.
     Up became the most consistent direction leaving Covington. Pizza Hut on the outskirts of town smelled wonderful though I wasn't foolish enough to eat there. Soon enough I was beyond its draw and back into the countryside on a road beside flowing water; again. The only noteworthy event was a frightened deer attempting to scale a twenty-foot-high stone wall, and crashing spectacularly back to earth before bolting back into the woods on the other side of the road.
     When I reached the point which VA616 should have been, a sign indicated VA615. The road's alternate name, Blue Springs Road, was nowhere to be found. I decided to trust the mileage and the accuracy of my directions and began to climb alongside the ubiquitous oncoming creek. Once again I was bailed out by the stray athlete. A runner was able to confirm that I was indeed on Blue Springs Road. Hooray, onward and upward. 1600 feet and climbing. My next turn was a right on VA617, Jamison Mountain Road. A mile before I was to reach it, VA616 diverged from the road I was on, and I had a decision to make. Continue on for another mile and come back if there was no sign of VA617, or go right on VA616 and look for VA617 a mile up that road. I gambled on the road I was on as the grade was milder. This time it was a farmer that confirmed I was on the right road. Yes, this is Jamison Mountain Road. (Note: the name of the road will often indicate the geographic formation that features most prominently. Guess what I'm about to do.) Ugh. A thousand feet of climbing delivered me to a 2800-foot perch overlooking two barking dogs. Out in the road and unfriendly to boot, I had only the gift of gravity with which to evade them. They were not coming to me so I took the opportunity to eat and drink, and allow my legs a few minutes of recuperation. The dogs, perhaps losing interest, retreated to their yard, but still eyed me with suspicion. I was probably not the first cyclist they had seen. Out came the rain jacket as I needed something to break the wind. The sun was descending fast and the temperature with it.
     Like a stone I descended, picking up speed ridiculously fast. The dogs, pursuit animals at heart, had no chance. If one of them had sacrificied itself by darting in front of me, I would not be typing this. But true to their nature, they expected to chase me down. I expect they were satisfied to have run me off. For me, I turned on the NiteRider and dropped 1200 feet over the next eight miles. Left turn. Bathroom break. Right turn. New Castle. Just two big chunks left; 9.8 miles on VA311S and 17.6 miles on VA624. Traffic was a bit heavier on VA311S than I expected but after looking at a map I see that it leads to Roanoke. OK, not so surprising. There were some moderate climbs but still well within my ability as I was now setting a new personal best (two-day total) with each turn of the pedals. Then came the turn onto VA624, a ridge road that might be a wonderful drive some sunny weekend. And while it was a weekend the sun had long gone down and I wasn't driving. The darkness added an interesting, soul-crushing aspect to this final leg of the return trip. My light provided about 400 lumens evenly split between the spot and flood LEDs. This was enough light to see 200-300 feet up the road with reflective surfaces viewable at much greater distances. The centerline reflected back as it rose up and up but with no corresponding distance perception so it was impossible to anticipate the climb. All I knew was that I was going to go up, and I had to conserve (read go slow) as much as possible since I did not know how long or how steep the climb would be. This went on, mile after mile, as I climbed through 2500 feet. I knew the elevation of Blacksburg was around 2000 feet so eventually I had to go down. So the miles slowly dwindled and I waited for the long downhill but all I got was the short teaser that delivered me to the bottom of yet another climb. Soon I began verbally challenging the climbs. I'm sure I sounded like a complete fool; beyond tired, beyond caring. I don't care what you put in front of me I'm going over it. Don't you get it. You can't beat me. To my credit, the road did not beat me though in fairness: it's a road. I'm sure if it cared it could have squashed me like a bug. The climbing finally did end, but not until I was within Blacksburg city limits.
     In retrospect, I'm glad events unfolded how they did. I don't think I was capable of the full 400 miles. I am smarter, and I will be ready to challenge it again in the spring. I hope this was enjoyable read.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

AML - Day 1

     As I mentioned in my previous post, my senses were overloaded for the 40 hours I wandered around western Virginia and eastern West Virginia. I've had to step back and recall some of the early moments of the ride as they were buried under an avalanche of new. Without further ado, here's my Day 1 of my trip report from an abbreviated Allegheny Mountains Loop attempt.

     I arrived at the hotel around 9:30 PM and began loading the frame bags...for the first time. Yes, the night before the ride was the first time I attempted to load all the equipment I thought I might need during the race into the seat and frame bags. It became obvious that I was going to have to make some tough choices. Rain pants? Out. Second spare tube? Out. And so it went until I had every bag stuuffed to capacity. Surely I can do better once I have a couple of these under my belt, right? Sleep was hard to come by and I finally rose at 4:00 AM when it was obvious my brain was not going to rest. I had purchased two "5-hour Energy" shots if my legs felt like riding through the night. Now I might need them just to get through a single day of riding. Yippee.
     After I swept the room and did a final check of the bags I rolled to the car, and let go of the last bit of normalcy. I was a cyclist, period, from this moment forward until I came back to this point some 400 miles from now. To be clear, this is a shift in mindset. I always consider myself a cyclist but now I was ONLY a cyclist. This ride would not end at home this evening. My wife and daughter would be voices on the phone, full of love and compassion, but unable to lessen the physical demands now before me. My body and mind were charged with a lone directive: go.
     Rolling to the wrong Starbucks ate up what would have been time spent obsessing so mybe the mistake worked in my favor. I finally met Chris Tomkins, an affable, high-energy guy, and enabled the SPOT Tracker to begin tracking my progress. The next several minutes were spent swapping introductory info with a dozen other riders. We were friendly and sincere, but I think we were all slightly distracted, like firefighters in the path of an oncoming wildfire. We were trained and ready, but you never know quite what to expect.

And they're off...
     The actual departure was anticlimactic. Conversations trailed off and the roll-out began. The Chris's, Tompkins and Arndt, made the light at Prices Fork along with Taylor Kruse, and were seen no more. A few minutes of riding and we were quickly out of town. A dense fog enveloped the surrounding farmland and my specs quickly became a liability. I could stop to clear the condensation, inside and out, only to have to do it again a few minutes later. What a drag. The eTrex GPS had also decided to be unhelpful. For whatever reason, the screen would not follow my current position. Every few minutes I had to use the "joystick" button on the face of the GPS to advance the map. When I had finally tired of that I stopped and restarted the device. This time when I clicked the "GO" button to start the route the device began behaving as expected. Yay! Now I can focus on riding. Whoops, missed a turn. OK, NOW I can focus on riding. I settled in to a reasonable pace, 13 mph or so. The uphills were slow but easily cleared. The downhills were ridiculously fast what with my mass and the smooth-rolling Small Block 8's. A couple of short, steep climbs away from the banks of the New River gave me a preview of the challenges still to come. Ten percent grades are hard to come by in central Ohio as I've stated in previous posts.
     Before moving on from the New River area, I want to mention that rather permanent-looking campsites that dot the north embankment. I get the sense that some people have checked out of conventional society, and have adopted a simpler life. Whether that's by choice or necessity I do not know. It's one of those questions I'm not sure will ever get answered.

Settling in
     Climbing away from the New River we arrived in Pembroke and my first resupply stop. I topped off all water bottles as I had started with only two bottles filled. Look at me, being strategic! I threw one of the one-liter water bottles at the shopkeeper as I tried to hold three slippery bottles in one hand. She jumped back with unexpected quickness and a yelp at the clumsy attack. No one drew down on me so I considered that a win and decided to push my luck a little further. Venturing on to the shoulder-less death corridor known as US460 was just the sort of challenge I was looking for. Supersonic semis intermingling with all other manner of commercial conveyance made the short three-mile stretch seem far longer. Several lungfulls of partially-combusted diesel fuel had me celebrating the right turn on to SR635. Also known as Big Stony Creek Road, this quiet road ushered in the solitude of rural Virginia that would typify the next 250 miles. Big Stony Creek flowed towards me for fifteen miles as I climbed into the mountains. The stratified rock exposed and patiently eroded by the flowing water gave me a feeling of smallness faced with the eons seen by these children of the mountain. I didn't feel excluded though, as can so often happen among groups of people in a civilization. Rather, I felt welcome to dwell there as long as I wished; a tempting offer but I had business up the road.
     After a beautiful, fast descent eventually delivered me to Waitesville, I began the steep slog up Limestone Hill Road and put the first real hurt in my legs. Twelve-hundred vertical feet over two miles will certainly benefit me from a training perspective, but it did not make the rest of the day easier. Due to short sightlines, sketchy road conditions, and some very technical cornering, the downhill also didn't do much to reward the time spent climbing. Rolling along the valley road through Gap Mills I completely missed a bakery and a prime opportunity to refuel.
     As a consequence, my water began to run very low over the next mountain pass. A pit bull with designs on my lower right leg sought to take advantage by giving chase well beyond the yard from which he began. Add sprints to "disciplines exercised" on today's ride. Whether it was the energy expended or the mass moved, I must admit that I walked sections of the final climb before Caldwell. Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew. Regardless off the method I did get over that bump. The sign signifying the road's intersection with the Allegheny Trail was followed by a man partially extruded from the driver's side of a luminescent green Jeep offering us a beer. Maybe some other time. The descent was technical. Without even meaning to I traced a pretty solid line through a hairpin. There weren't many opportunities to "smell the roses" out there, but this was one of them. I have no explanation why it stood out. In my mind as I write this I can feel the feedback from the front wheel as I brake approaching the corner. I can see the contour of the outside shoulder of the road as I pick my line. I can hear the voices from the Allegheny Trail parking lot up and to my left. I can feel the wind shift around to my left as I move through the corner and see the valley below in my periphery. Then it was gone, joining all of the places I've been. Several 90-degree turns with almost no visibility forced me to brake excessively, and I started to wonder about brake pads. How hot are they? How hot can they get? What happens when they get too hot? What year will it be when I wake from my coma? Then the road rolled endlessly, and I trespassed a campground and procured enough water to get me to Caldwell.

Subway, the beginning of the end
     I love the BMT from Subway, so much so that I ordered two of them at the Subway in Caldwell along with an endless fountain of Coca-Cola, my first soda in over five months. Eating at Subway while training has never included a BMT (topped with vinegar and oil) and perhaps I need look no further since my stomach is knotting up at the imagined smell of vinegar as I write this. Whatever the reason the sub consumed did not deliver the energy I needed. The Greenbrier River Trail became a slog of unendurable length. Mile markers hid amongst the trees for six, seven, even eight minutes before finally acknowledging that another mile was indeed complete. The darkness crept over the the trail and into my mind. All of my positive thoughts snuffed out like a candle. The rushing of the water which originally sounded like a beautiful version of traffic now mocked me as I looked around for some vestige of civilization. I was alone. Fear was starting to wear down my defenses and overwhelm me. I choked another half of my sub down without any satisfaction whatsoever. Marlinton became an obsession. 30 miles to go. Lights on. 25 miles to go. Passed by Ruth. 20 miles to go. Passed by James. 15 miles to go. Chased lights. Chased anything to take my mind off the mile markers. Surprisingly, the falling leaves obscured the trail and played tricks with the light my headlamp produced. More than once I found myself near the edge of the trail but thankfully no painful consequences resulted. Finally, I reached Marlinton. My energy stores were near empty as I'd flirted with the dreaded bonk for at least three hours. I was hungry but could only stand the taste of a Sprite. A little human kindness from Brittany, the lone Subway employee, located for me the Old Clark Inn and the biker-friendly proprietor Nelson. He hooked me up with a room and within minutes I was blissfully asleep. What a day! Truth be told, I think I was probably already decided that my AML was over, but a part of me knew how my mental state can vary; mercurial, some might call it. Things could always look better in the morning.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lessons Learned

     Epic and humbling. My mind is abuzz with lessons learned and a fresh reminder of what life can be. First things first, I did not complete the 400 miles. There is no way to lessen the embarassment caused by my preparation falling so far short of the challenge. The Appalachian Mountains are unmoved and impassive. They hide nothing and accept no challenge. The shame is that I, a supposedly sentient being, was surprised by an obstacle that should not have been surprising. It has been in its present location for over 400 million years. Simply put, I was not prepared and I have no excuse. Why is this so important? Because this kind of gulf between expectation and reality with regard to an event like the Tour Divide could be disastrous. Clearly, I have some work to do on the mental side.
     Now on to what I learned from this weekend.
1. Do not attempt this again unless I am 100 percent. Considering that I did not train hills and I was too heavy, a healthy me had a razor thin margin of error. Perhaps my heart would still have sounded like a trip-hammer in my ears on the steeper sections of the climbs if I were virus-free, but I doubt it.
2. Do not take equipment without testing it first. My sleep system was a farce. I had no confidence that it would work at all. Consequently, when it came time to consider sleeping options on Friday night, I did not seriously entertain the idea of pitching my tarp and sleeping outside. File this under the heading "train like you race."
3. Don't eat things you haven't eaten during training. My mental focus began falling apart after a stop at Subway Friday afternoon. I ordered two BMTs which I always top with vinegar and oil. I get the feeling it was the vinegar but I can't be sure. All I know is that I was nauseous for the next six hours. Almost all training rides leading up to the AML included Subway, but I would have turkey or chicken breast. I don't know why I changed, and the details aren't particularly relevant. What I do know is I have to train as I will race.
4. Think small or stated in New Age-speak, "be in the now". I have been working on this but I still have work to do. My brain has a tendency to want to jump ahead on the route. This is bad because my body hasn't covered the distance to catch up with my mind, and one of two things will happen without intervention. One possibility is that I will grow increasingly frustrated as my head thinks I am moving too slow. The other possibility is that my body will try to keep up with my mind, and I will burn out.
5. Know the route. I missed a bakery. REALLY?! Without a well-placed campground I certainly would have run out of water, and who wouldn't benefit from some warm, flaky confection. MMMmmmmm...
     As for the ride itself, the 40 hours from the time I left Blacksburg until I returned will take up a lot of space in my memory. Similar to the way eight weeks of Basic Training hold more space in the banks of my mind than some entire years, this ride had so many noteworthy moments and lessons to teach I will be reflecting and recounting them for a long time. I think this blog post has reached a reasonable size so I will write up the trip report and post it separately.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Here's a couple of pictures of the bike with the kit nearly complete. The seat bag still needs to be added which will require a rethink of the bottle carrier though I think I've got that solved. Nothing I'm using is custom. Without some experience, customizing seemes like a waste of time.

Garmin eTrex 20
NiteRider 1400 PRO
Profile Design aerobars
Revelate bags; Gas Tank, large Tangle, and Viscacha
Seat tube bottle holder
Kenda XC Smallblock 8s (32mm) w/tubes
Pearl Izumi bibs
Spare shorts (to double-up possibly)
Nike Dri-fit (15 years old and fantastically warm on 40-degree mornings)
Long-fngered windproof gloves
Halo sweatband (love this thing!)
Generic lightweight rain gear (from my bike messenger days)
RayWay Quilt and tarp (didn't finish the Net-Tent in time, could be trouble)
1/8" ultralight sleeping pad (cut to 4 feet)
Generic multi-tool, mini-leatherman, tire levers
two spares tubes
Pump and CO2
Assos chamois cream
Baby Gold Bond powder (for the nethers at sleepy time)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Gear purchases for the AML

     Decisions have been made. Websites have been visited. Paypal has been remunerated. Gear has been ordered. I settled on Revelate for bags. I liked Ollie's TD setup so I stole it. A Viscacha, Tangle, and Gas Tank are en route from Alaska as I type this. For not-getting-lost I chose the Garmin eTrex 20. Again, this appears to be a popular choice amongst the Dividerati. I am a little puzzled as it appears at first blush as if you can attach a bike mount OR a carabiner as a tether, but not both. I need to give it a closer look this evening.

     As I've stated in a previous post, I am going with the RayWay Quilt, Tarp, and Net-Tent. This choice necessitates a sleeping pad as the quilt has no bottom. For that I chose a ProLite Gear EvoPad 1/8. It's 7' long and weighs 3.5 ounces! Pretty cool. Hopefully it's comfortable. I'll cut it down once I've figured out my sleep position and how warm my legs need to be. One final, small purchase that I expect to be very important is a Halo Headband. I've recently gone away from wearing contacts while riding to 'scripts sports glasses. They have two drawbacks; one, they collect sweat on the inside, and two, they fog up on really humid days especially as it cools in the evening. I'm hoping the Halo will fix both problems though the fogging problem may require some spit as well.

     My choice of light was picked a while ago and I've used it extensively over the last two months, a Niterider PRO 1400. It's super-bright, and works great for single-track except that it sometimes comes off its mount. I don't ride much single-track in the dark so I haven't yet figured out what makes it stay on which is about 40% of the time. While the PRO 1400 should be fine for the AML I may need to consider the Mi-Newt for the TD. The time and resources to charge the PRO 1400 8-cell battery seems like it will put some unnecessarily harsh limitations on my lodging options. Finally, I'm taking a closer look at my tires. 235 miles of pavement versus 78 miles of rail-trail, 65 miles of forest roads, 22 miles of easements, and NO single-track has me strongly considering cross tires instead of the standard MTB tires. I hope to have pictures up as soon as I get the bags and pack them.

The deep breath before the plunge

     I am afraid, excited and afraid. I am three days away from the AML and I started developing a sore throat Sunday night. It's no worse today but it is still there. I haven't done any serious riding for more than a week. My sleep system is still not done which means I'll be field testing it during the ride. At least it's not supposed to rain so maybe it won't be too bad. And last but not least, my back has started tightening up. Any cyclist knows how deadly this is as the back is the plane off of which your hips and legs generate their power. Any loss of suppleness correlates to a loss of power. I visited my chiropractor yesterday but the adjustment did little to address the root problem. At this point, stretching is all I can do.

     This whole build-up reminds me of the 1992 Duathlon World Championships. I raced the qualifier on a whim with almost no training though I was much more active than I have been over the last few years, and rarely did I weigh more than 190 pounds. I ended up 13th overall, and 2nd in my age group which got me an invite to the World's. One week before leaving for Germany I caught some kind of living death from a classmate, but I still went, and I still raced. I survived. That's all. All week I woke up in a pool of sweat, and the only thing I could keep down was water. I survived.

     So that's what I need to do here; survive. I have let go of all expectations. Let's be clear; I needed to do this anyhow. The stupidest thing I could have done was line up on the starting line with a finishing time in mind. So many things are going to happen that I am likely not prepared for that adding another requirement (because that's how my mind will view it) will only serve to wreck whatever positive mental attitude I have. Yes, letting go of some baseless goal was necessary, I just wish I didn't have to get sick to do it.

     The race is still 90% likely for me. The potential severity of the cold has me a little unsure of how I should proceed. I have to consider the possibility of getting walloped by this thing on Friday night after I've spent the day draining my energy and compromising my immune system. I cannot be wiped out 150 miles from my car with no transportation other than my bike. Or maybe I can. This whole adventure is an exercise outside of my comfort zone. Just how far outside I go is a question still to be answered.