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Race Report: D&L Canal Fat Epic

About two months ago a whole bunch of ECCC mountain bikers lead by Ian, Kenny, and Forrest gave me a fat bike. I almost literally haven’t ridden anything else since. It’s less of a bike and more of a pet monster best friend that sleeps in the basement and goes on adventures with me. This Saturday’s undertaking was our first race, the D&L Fat Epic, an 116 mile gravel path fat bike race along the Delaware and Lehigh canal trails from Washington’s Crossing to Allentown and back, organized by Hilltop Bicycles.

D&L Fat Epic promo image.

False advertising: The race did not look like this shot from the flyer.

Route map and non-elevation.

Route map and non-elevation.

Recap

Fortunately for me it did not snow as the organizers hoped, though we got close with the dusting earlier this week. Thinking about this event in advance was a bit awkward and quite different from summer racing: If conditions were good, I figured it’d be a 9–12 hour race; if it snowed, it could easily become a 24 hour race or longer. That’s a huge difference, and a much greater span than summer where I generally have my time estimates dialed in. In the end though the trail was muddy in several sections but others were very fast, at least by fat bike standards. Wind was minimal but with the riverside trail largely exposed and the sun not making an appearance, temperatures never went above the mid-30s.

In the very early going, by far the brightest sun of the whole day.

In the very early going, by far the brightest sun of the whole day.

Unfortunately I did not have my act together and missed the start. Dragging my feet about the whole affair, I arrived  in what would have been just barely in time for the opening gun but still didn’t have my equipment fully arranged. I had not been able to acquire a frame bag for my bike in time, and my untested, last minute, half-assed stopgap solution to pack extra clothes turned out to be at best quarter-assed, so it took a while to get strapped up and rolling. A powerful “Do as I say, not as I do” testament to not trying out new things on raceday…

That was a huge bummer as it meant I missed the best part of the race, some 40 fat bikers all streaming along on the very narrow trail as the field slowly disintegrated. On the “upside,” I got right down to the heart of the business: Grinding along the totally flat, completely non-technical rail trail for hours and hours on end. Normally that could at least be maybe justified with scenic views, but not on such a dreary overcast day. Needless to say, I had a lot of quiet time to ponder the absurdity of a race premised on taking some of the most rugged and capable human powered vehicles in existence and dropping them down on a basically linear, terrain-free route. Definitely the kind of “I’m-a-gonna do this ’cause I’m-a-gonna do this!” blockheaded project that I support 100% or more.

Mukmuk all loaded up and mudded up, at the halfway point.

Mukmuk all loaded up and mudded up, at the halfway point.

One semi-subconscious true upside to missing the start was that I didn’t have anyone to be tempted to keep up with, as hard race-pace efforts are challenging for my lower back. I had also been pretty careful to put as much as possible on my bike rather than in my hydration pack. Still, after about an hour my back hurt significantly from a combo of extra supplies weight, chugging along at a good pace with no terrain to force frequent posture shifts, and a slightly more aggressive saddle height for this gravel route.  I was pretty set on turning around at the 1st-quarter aid station and heading home.

When I got there though I was ahead of the positive end of my internal schedule and had already caught a third of the field, so at that point it was game on. Knowing I had more than enough water, I didn’t even pause at the tent so that I could put a few more minutes on the handful of people refueling there. Continuing on without any easy bailout was definitely a risk, but I was able to keep my back under control and the more serious spine/nerve symptoms I’ve learned to monitor didn’t develop at all.

After that, catching people became naturally harder and harder. I lost several more minutes falling on rocks portaging my bike along the river edge to skirt an active construction site completely blocking the path. Another good bunch of minutes I lost to navigation. Of course the several seemingly tricky spots on the route which I’d studied were no-brainers in real life, while another junction that seemed completely straightforward beforehand for some reason left me uncertain. Fortunately another rider, Shawn, came by shortly and helpfully confirmed the way with his GPS.

At the halfway point I also spent a good amount of extra time to change everything but my bibs and leg warmers. Obviously not in contention for a high result and with the people around me in the standings fairly well spread out, I thought I could make it home ok in my sweat-soaked, thinner outfit even with sundown coming soon, but it wasn’t worth it.

That was probably a good call as I slowed down quite a bit in the home stretch. As a guy at the final aid station put it in the best racing pep talk I’ve ever gotten:

Ok, you’re two to three hours from the end, the winners just finished, the sun’s going down, and you’re deeeep in no-man’s land so I really doubt you’ll see another competitor up or down for the rest of this race. But go, go, go!

Stopping there was humorously incongruous. By that point they had their routine totally down and were the model of a high efficiency pit stop. But I just wanted to eat cookies and chat, so I couldn’t understand why they were so eager for me to “Go, go go!” He was right, however. Having not seen anyone since the halfway stop, I wound up going for four hours in the second half of the race without seeing another competitor. Eventually I just got complacent and was moving smoothly but relatively slowly when out of nowhere a rider, Bill, caught up. That was great though as all of a sudden I remembered I was racing and the two of us rocked out the last seven miles at a quick pace for a strong finish.

Outcome

In the end I finished 19th of 39 starters, 34 finishers, with official race time of 10:14 (including my 14 minute late start!) and 9 hours of actual riding. It’s tempting to be a little frustrated: I should be faster. I have been faster. Objectively though that’s pretty good. In a few rough patches I reflected a bit on the many people I know, even active cyclists, who would be real jazzed to just go and ride like that on essentially a whim, and I kept chugging along.

All told the D&L Fat Epic was a great day, assuming you’re into that kind of thing. Hilltop Bicycles and the organizing crew did a good job with this event debut. In most ways and in the style of this kind of racing it was very low key: The aid stations were minimal though much appreciated and the volunteers awesome; the course was completely unmarked once out of the starting lot; nobody knew the trail was out at the construction site and the way completely blocked; and the final aid station got booted by the park rangers at sundown for not having a permit. But they had really great, relevant trophies for everybody; warm food at the finish; and in a surprise, everybody got a Mehler bikepacking tent. More tellingly, people came from a broad geographic range just to do this event. A large crew was down from the far reaches of upstate New York. Having people willing to travel and make a whole weekend of a race is a great positive indicator. I would definitely do it again.

The finishers' trophy, railroad spikes I believe actually collected from the trailside.

The finishers’ trophy, railroad spikes I believe actually collected from the trailside.

Perseverance

More than the solid finish, this is the first ultraendurance-ish race I’ve done since abandoning last year’s Cascades RAAM qualifier due to back and neck injuries from an  earlier 24hr MTB solo. It’s actually even the first long-ish ride I’ve done since then other than a casual double century earlier this summer. Going in I had real doubts about the wisdom of signing up—road riding remains somewhat uncomfortable after more than about two hours, and I’m still regularly seeing a chiropractor. Being a bit tired but otherwise in solid shape today is thus a big relief. It was also deeply rewarding to be ten hours in and maybe not too fast, but still pedaling smooth, mentally on board, and not at all struggling despite not having done a ton of riding lately. All those hours and hours of ridiculous training rides the past few years are in there somewhere. As satisfying is the competence to just head out and do a ride like that without real worries, with almost no hope of on-trail support or pick-up, just above freezing temps all day, and a fairly new bike and a lot of new, last minute gear.

It’s difficult to classify this sort of thing as “fun”—the couple times I stopped I got a stream of text updates from my fellow fatbiker friend Forrest (who, to be fair, is in NH and couldn’t make it) about his much more exciting activities throughout the day, like sipping homemade hot chocolate while luxuriating on a couch with a warm blanket. But this is definitely what I’d rather be doing.

The ECCC votes to make fat biking mandatory.

The ECCC votes to make fat biking mandatory.

Race Report: Coup de Cascades Ultra

Last weekend I attempted the Coup de Cascades 425 mile solo ultra-endurance race, a RAAM qualifier outside Seattle. Unfortunately I had to abandon after 281 miles, 18.5k feet of climbing. I have some ongoing disc and nerve issues from an MTB ultra earlier this summer that I just can’t bull through much past ~16 hours of riding.

Back at the starting area post-abandonment.

Back at the starting area post-abandonment.

For those who’ll skip the text, more photos are in the Flickr gallery.  Strava logs are up here: Part 1part 2.

Thanks

Any race like this is a big production and takes a lot of people.

I especially have to thank Johann Liljengren (TriCycles/UPenn) for crew chiefing the race, supporting both the race and the extensive planning beforehand. Brian Thompson, my brother-in-law, also worked the on-site crew. Tim Manzella (TSV/Drexel) was incredibly helpful as my chief mechanic, keeping my bike running smooth and doing an extensive overhaul leading into the event. My wife Caitlin (PBCO/Tufts) of course was also as always supportive and helpful.

Johann and I revel in our pile of awesome!  This... doesn't even include food, water, etc.

Johann and I revel in our pile of awesome! This… doesn’t even include food, water, etc.

Brian has no idea where he's going to nap, but the answer is anywhere and everywhere.

Brian has no idea where he’s going to nap, but the answer is anywhere and everywhere.

Just another Friday night for Tim, drillin' out a stripped bolt at 2am...

Just another Friday night for Tim, drillin’ out a stripped bolt at 2am…

I also want to thank Richie Cortez at Philly Bikesmith for spending a morning on his day off on some last minute bike fitting. Alex Walker, Johann’s brother-in-law, also lent us tools and spare parts out here in Seattle so we didn’t have to bring everything cross-country. Ted Slack (QCW) graciously leant his bike case for the trip.

As usual, both Caitlin’s and my parents are unspoken heroes, shuttling us and all of our stuff to & from airports at all hours of the day.

Riding

A few days out there were serious mudslides on the first mountain pass of the original course, closing the road indefinitely. We were just glad the organizers came up with an alternative, though it turned out the local endurance racers felt the new route was much harder. For us the big effect was that we had no time to really chart up the map and figure out how long the climbs would be, etc.

The final course featured four 4000ft mountain passes and otherwise rolling terrain with almost literally no flat spots, conceptually broken into 4 parts:

  • A hundred miles of rolling hills starting a bit east of Redmond;
  • A hundred mile block crossing Stevens Pass eastbound out to Leavenworth, followed by Blewett Pass;
  • A hard, remote 150 miles through Yakima and over White and Cayusa passes alongside Mt Rainier;
  • Seventy five miles of rolling hills back to the finish.
The road ahead.

The road ahead.

Between Stevens and Blewett Passes.  I think.  It's all kind of blurry.

Between Stevens and Blewett Passes. I think. It’s all kind of blurry.

Breakpoint at the top of Stevens Pass.

Breakpoint at the top of Stevens Pass.

The first ~200 miles and two passes we flew through in ~12 hours, including two refueling breaks, well ahead of our time goals and the other two solo competitors. At that point though I had to take a long break. The multi-hour climbs up Steves and Blewett had put a huge toll on my back injury. I was barely pedaling at the top of Blewett, and it was almost an hour before I could put force on my feet again. By the time I got rolling both riders had passed me.

Still, we were hopeful because I pulled another solid 4 hour night block, covering another ~76 miles of hills into Yakima. Along the way I recaught one rider, and it seemed promising I’d be able to catch the other and be near my time goals even with substantial recovery periods after each of the mountain passes.

After that though the load had just built up too much. Another hour and my nerves were burning even softpedaling flat stretches, and I was already well past the 24hr anti-inflammatory daily limits without clear sign it was helping any more. After a few more hours of start & stop riding trying to pull it back together, I eventually just ground into a wall of pain I couldn’t overcome.

Race Nutrition

The nutrition plan I’ve been using lately was working out well. My main goal beside hydration is trying to take in around 300 calories an hour, to my limited understanding very roughly about the rate your body can process. A key point is that you can’t skip hours, you’ll never make up that deficit.

The first 12 hours of a ride the bulk of my calories come from egg & rice patties Caitlin makes from the Skratch Labs Portables recipe book (~100 calories per patty), with occasional Clif bars (240 cal), basically a a bar or 1–2 patties an hour. Hydration throughout this is a bottle an hour of Nuun (0 cal) or Hammer HEED (100 cal), supplemented by straight water from a small hydration pack.

Between 12 and 16 hours of riding I tend to find it pretty hard to continue using solid food. The rice patties are nice in that they’re fairly bland yet appealing once you bite the bullet and force them into your mouth, but it gets harder and harder to do that. So around this point I start using Hammer Perpetuem drink mix (270 cal/bottle). It’s somewhat hard to train with because it’s really best consumed while chilled, so you can’t easily take a bunch of bottles on a 4 or 6 hour ride. It also is pretty bland yet vaguely appealing and seems to play well with my stomach and deliver just enough of both calories and satisfaction, so I’m happy with it.

First stop. While I was originally mostly trying to train in ~6 hour blocks, we cut to 4 in an attempt to preempt back troubles.

First stop. While I was originally mostly trying to train in ~6 hour blocks, we cut to 4 in an attempt to preempt back troubles.

An hourly bottle feed.

An hourly bottle feed.

Technical Notes

On my bike we did a couple interesting things. After years fighting the logic of it, I did recently switch to 50×34 compact cranks to go with my standard 11×28 cassette. As a high cadence rider, frequently pedaling at 100–120 bpm, I can really use the extra gears on long or steep climbs to rely on my cardio and avoid digging into my strength reserves. Note that this setup works on a standard length rear Shimano derailleur, but just barely.

I also sparingly used a set of clip-on aero bars. Beyond the more recent back problems, I’ve had trouble adopting a true TT position, though this isn’t a huge problem on climbing-intensive courses. It puts so much more emphasis on your quads that I can’t sustain power in it for more than a couple hours. So, my clip-ons are set up fairly non-aggressively, as are my bars in general. The pads are also set farther forward on my forearms than normal and the rails cut down to match for better leg clearance climbing out of the saddle. Even only using them sparingly though was helpful to have a fifth hand position and stretching out my back on less technical descents.

Part of Johann’s whole system of over-engineered paper notes and spreadsheets for tracking mileage, estimating times, monitoring nutrition consumption, etc..

Just some of the stuff from our packing list, in this case logistics-oriented materials.

Just some of the stuff from our packing list, in this case logistics-oriented materials.

One other notable is that in focusing on this kind of long form riding, I’ve consciously been less conscious about dieting. Historically I’ve been pretty good about being able to hit a pretty lean peak fitness weight for targeted events. But a true minimum weight is a literally thin line to be riding. At that point any travel, bad weather workout, or other exposure, and I get sick. That’s especially true under very high training volumes. So this year I opted to not worry about it so much. That’s cost performance on short, steep, high-intensity, climbs like the local group hill rides, but paid off in not getting sick nearly as much.

Parting Thoughts

This was a crushing disappointment, especially to be so close to doing so well. I’ve been thinking about this most of the year, since realizing it was the weekend before we would be out here for Caitlin to do IronMan Canada. A lot of prep work and planning went into the logistics, on top of all the riding. Worst, as far as I made it wasn’t even much of a stretch in length, and not at all in climbing, from many of my training rides earlier this summer.

That said, behind the disappointment it was still a really good experience. Our logistics and prep all seemed spot on, and I think we can dial it down even more with what we learned here. My vaguely structured, ultra-flexible training regimen, more a set of principles and desires than an actual plan, did a reasonable job at navigating a lot of work travel, ECCC commitments, and other obstacles to deliver the fitness I needed to do well, and based on this experience I can tweak that as well as plan even better for other events.

A middle of the night breakpoint.

A middle of the night breakpoint.

Re-catching second place on a climb along I-82 toward Yakima, approaching midnight.

Re-catching second place on a climb along I-82 toward Yakima, approaching midnight.

Also on the positive side are the simple basics of some great riding. Despite some overly busy sections, most of the course was really nice. Best though, the night sections were an amazing surrealist dream of incredible cycling—spinning along deep purple ridgelines under the slowly churning, looming blades of windfarms in silhouette; cranking at maximum speed down flats and false descents as endless wheat fields wafted in the breeze on either side, headed directly into the low hung full moon ahead; the lights of Yakima suddenly appearing in the deep valley below over a final peak. Unforgettable.

Beyond that, the event was also still a lot of fun, though obviously only in retrospect now that I’ve ice creamed to my best ability for the bulk of a week and am even starting to feel my feet again in ways other than burning. It was great calling and getting together with Johann to work logistics, and debating mechanical options with Tim on long rides. Having the guys with me was also really meaningful. I’ll always mantain that the team time trial is the most satisfying form of competitive cycling, and this is really similar. The crew fills a very different role, but it’s most definitely the same kind of collective team effort, and deeply satisfying in the same way.

Next time!

Again, there are more photos in the Flickr gallery.

FOT4153

Race Report: Burn 24 MTB Enduro

Last weekend my wife Caitlin T (PBCO/Tufts), Alex L (QCW/Temple), Johann L (Tricycles/UPenn), and Adam L (Tricycles/Drexel) went down to North Carolina for the Burn 24 Hour MTB Challenge at Dark Mountain.

The dream team.  And some random hanger-on.

The dream team. And some random hanger-on.

They did the 4 person relay and will have to recount their own details (Caitlin has a race report up), but an outsider summary sounded like this:

  • 12pm: “What a beautiful day—woo, bikes! Let’s race!”
  • 8pm: “Let’s make some dinner! Awesome race! Party times, woo!”
  • 12am: “…”
  • 4am: “Wake up, damnit, wake up, it’s your lap!”  “No! No! And don’t ever talk to me again!”
  • 12pm: “Well, I might MTB again sometime… if forced… maybe.”
"Yep, you're doin' a great job there Adam.  Great job.  Keep it up."

“Yep, you’re doin’ a great job there Adam. Great job. Keep it up.”

Intense logistics and strategizing!  Also, they completely stopped checking on me, and I needed checking on!

Intense logistics and strategizing! Also, they completely stopped checking on me, and I needed checking on!

I finished 2nd of ~15 in the Men’s Open Solo race. The winner did 18 laps and 3rd place 15; I did 17 laps in 24:17 hours race time, exactly 17 hours riding, for 108 miles, 13400 ft climbing. The GPS track is an amazing mess of scribbles.  Fantastically, a couple guys in the 40+ bracket crushed us all. As much as cycling is an old man’s sport, endurance mountain biking is a sport for grizzled old men with bones as old as the dirt underneath.

That result was completely unexpected. Work has been real busy in 2013—I wound up riding just a few hours less than I slept the preceding week, and went straight from the weekend to another work trip—and I’ve been MTBing very little the past year. This was really just a training and fun race to ride as much as I could, and I was mentally prepared for that to be as little as 6–8 hours.

But in the end it was a very rewarding experience and fitness check. Besides work, cycling this year has been tough. The last ~18 months or so I’ve largely “just” been distance riding, and balancing riding with other life priorities, travel, etc., my force and speed have really suffered. It’s discouraging to go to Greentree every week and just be pack fodder after being reliably able to touch the breakaway the past two summers. Late in the race then it was rewarding to still be riding well, rolling down the trail in the Carolina sun, and reflect that this is exactly what I’ve been “training” for and here I was, with 2nd place all but locked up.

The full(er) story & some technical notes follow below.

The real accomplishment was stepping onto the podium without falling over.

The real accomplishment was stepping onto the podium without falling over.

Recap

The defining moment of the race came just after midnight, my 12th hour break. I was still riding well, but without joy. I’d even been chased by a dog on a lonely, lonely stretch. Caitlin was out then and I was terrified she would be chased as well and come in… not happy, to say the least. I decided to clean up, wait to check on her, and go to sleep. Luckily the dog was chased off and she never saw it. But just as I was about to tell her to let me sleep as long as I could, she said “Yeah, Joe, you’re still in second, two laps up on third!” File this under THINGS TO NOT TELL A YOUNG-ISH ADULT MALE WHOM YOU ARE TRYING TO ENCOURAGE TO MAKE HEALTHY AND WISE LIFE DECISIONS.

Instantly I faced a strategic dilemma: Try to crank out more laps, or sleep and hope to recoup the time in better riding afterward? Any sport in which power napping is a valid strategy is an awesome one…

When the night calls...

When the night calls…

Full moon rising!

Full moon rising!

In the end I took a nap, figuring: 1) Otherwise I’d just wasted half an hour; 2) A break would ensure my lights lasted the night; 3) Third place probably wouldn’t be able to regain 2 laps on me. So I told Caitlin to wake me up in an hour and a half… and in 90 minutes told her that again, for a good 3 hour nap before heading back out at 5am.

Then: Near disaster—3rd place did two laps while I was sleeping! At an 8am break I learned I’d only been 4 minutes ahead of him at 6am. That’s nothing! I had to assume he was passing me even then.

At that point there was nothing to do but go crush four straight laps and hope I caught him or he fell apart. It must have actually been pretty exciting in that 3am–9am period as he got on lap and then tried to chase me down. Well, as exciting as a race drawn out over 24 hours with dudes riding around like zombies can be. The volunteers at the halfway aid station clearly knew a close race was going on and were real real stoked. 3rd place told me afterward they’d been excitedly giving him splits on me every lap.

In the end though that was his high water mark. I must have started my 5am block just ahead of him on course so it was fortunate I hadn’t slept any longer, but after that I reclaimed 5–10 minutes a lap. Unknown to me he saw this happening and gave up around 10am.

"Yep, we don't know these idiots.  Just here for a Sunday ride..."

“Yep, we don’t know these idiots. Just here for a Sunday ride…”

On trail though, I didn’t know. Realistically I figured he’d probably stop at 16 laps, but if I stopped I’d be rolling the dice if he slogged out another. Plus, the race ain’t over till it’s over.

Coming through the grasstrack start/finish loop to head out for that final, 17th, lap was loaded with trepidation. I hadn’t actually managed 4 straight laps without a break since the 1st & 2nd blocks of the race. That’s ~25 miles, in and of itself more than enough mountain biking for a good day. It was clear this was going to hurt.

Ultimately it was indeed probably one of the five physically hardest things I’ve ever done. Tellingly, 3 of the other 4 are also MTB enduros. My legs were still spinning well, my hands and arms solid enough to hold me on course, but my lower back rapidly degraded from passable to completely unforgiving. It was actually a fascinating lesson in physiology. It turns out you need your lower back for all sorts of things besides pedaling—like hard steering, and reaching for water bottles! On the steepest pitches I was finally forced to walk. On lesser climbs the effort required to put my lower back into it and anchor the pedal strokes was intense. How many times you can tap a completely tapped muscle before real bad things happen?

It felt like forever, but I focused on the lap mileage ticking away, no matter how slowly, and just kept rolling around. Eventually I hit the top of the course, saw daylight, and sailed down to the finish, safe in 2nd.

This is the end; my only friend, the end; of our elaborate plans, the end.

This is the end; my only friend, the end; of our elaborate plans, the end.

Tech Notes

For a few technical notes, my current ride is a carbon Jamis DXC Pro (26″ wheels). This is an amazing bike: Great climber, responsive, but very comfortable. Osprey Packs gets a shout-out for sending me a free replacement bite valve in very short order in time for the race. Rudy Project gets a big thumbs down; one of my helmet strap adjustors cracked for no reason early in the race, a significant problem later trying to stabilize a heavy helmet light. That’s the third straight Rudy I’ve had fail like that and won’t be buying them again.

Nutritionally I did pretty well. Caitlin and I have been experimenting with sticky rice cakes from the most recent Skratch Labs book, and I ate a couple of these per hour on average. That was augmented with some Tofurkey and cheese slices, muffins, bananas, and oranges in the breaks. This worked out really well, I had zero gut rot, indigestion, or nausea throughout the entire race.

The one downside was that in the last third solid food became very unappealing. I had to consciously work on continually eating, and needed something like protein shakes or yogurt. I’ve been meaning to figure out a liquid diet I like and will have to get on that. The last block I drank a couple bottles of Accelerade to compensate for eating less solids, but otherwise drank water and Nuun, caveat a couple sips of Coca Cola early on.

"Mmm...  Peanut butter... or peanut butter?"

“Mmm… Peanut butter… or peanut butter?”

Strategically, it worked out really well to break the day up into 4 hour blocks. Even if nothing else, that reduces the whole thing down to mentally palatable chunks. Each block I would break for a bit to refuel, stretch, and beg the guys to do some minor bike work. Every other block I cleaned up with towels and baby wipes and switched out all of my clothes. One thing I did have to fight a bit mentally was to stay focused on 4 hour blocks, rather than trying to do a set number of laps per block and winding up grinding out one too many.

Mountain biking is haaaaard!

Mountain biking is haaaaard!

Buuurn!

Unfortunately this was the final Burn 24; the organizers are, appropriately enough, burned out and taking a break. That’s a shame because they did a great job and it’s a really good course. I highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go ride on those Dark Mountain trails outside Wilkesboro, NC. It was like racing an all singletrack version of the Kingdom Trails, a high compliment.

Of course, what really made the weekend possible was being with a great crew of friends. I had almost no mechanical problems, but it was incredibly helpful to have guys on hand to deal with what little stuff inevitably cropped up. Other than the obviously necessary 3am gruffness, the group attitude also made the whole thing a great time. It really helps to be with good people when it’s 4am, pitch black out, raining lightly, and you need to chamois up and head out…

See y’all out there!  Just a few more photos are in the Flickr gallery.

"That was great.  Now let's never ever do this again," said everyone.

“That was great. Now let’s never ever do this again,” said everyone.

Race Report: Catskills

Chat, Ashley Doane, Ceci, Kevin M, Will C, and I all went up for the Tour of the Catskills stage race this weekend, with Brett Kielick also riding up to hang out and get in some more miles.

Ceci and Will did ridiculously well, Will winning the Cat M4 GC and CC just missing the W1/2/3 GC podium. Kevin and Ashley also did really well, with Ashley in particular grabbing 10th/76 in Saturday’s brutal road race (M3s).

I myself have nothing to report. The end of July I spent very sick with something picked up traveling and this was much too hard an event for jumping on a bike for the first time in three weeks. It was all I could do to just finish Saturday, make the cut, and start Sunday.

I did though manage to drive my Prius out of gas on the Palisades Parkway on the way up, one of the worst possible places to do so. No one died pushing the fully laden hybrid (they’re heavy!) up a steep hill and over the grass berm to get off the no-shoulder road before getting slammed by people coming around the curve behind, but Chat did mumble all weekend about his tennis career being ruined by all that strain the pushing put on his shoulder. I’m putting this down as a successful and obviously intentional team building exercise…

I have just a few comments of possible use for newer racers:

  • If you’re in a big field, can’t really see the road ahead, and need to know if there’s more climbing or a descent coming up, watch the treeline. If the trees keep going up, chances are you are as well. If you only see green or rock, chances are you’re going up a lot. Open sky means you better start prepping for a descent. This isn’t always conclusive, but it’s generally a pretty big hint.
  • Applying that prediction, usually hearing everyone shift is a good indicator you should be shifting as well. But if you’re rollercoasting from a big climb to a big descent, be mindful to not shift into the big ring until you yourself are actually on the crest and your leg speed is back up, lest you jam or throw your chain.
  • Similarly, normally I’m against herd mentality, but if you don’t know what’s coming up on the course but everyone else is eating, you should be thinking about it as well. Many of them probably have some idea about the course, and you don’t want to be caught out as the only one trying to eat later on a technical section or climb.
  • On a steep climb, especially early on before the field diminishes, you need to ride defensively and create space for yourself. A combination of going slow and a bit of panic cause the group to bunch up tightly. Combine that with some early weaving by weaker riders, bad shifts, etc., and conditions are ripe for a big pile up like we had in the opening miles of the cat 3 race on Saturday.
  • For a typical super hot summer road race, packing any less than the equivalent of at least seven bottles of liquid is a huge mistake, and the more the merrier. That may sound excessive, but at minimum you’re looking at two bottles for getting to the race and getting ready (particularly for mid-day starts), at least three to start the race with (I was super glad to start with four on Saturday), and two more to drink right afterward. Team sharing’s great and all, but I was stone-cold prepared to drive away and leave at the race anybody who’d finished my reserve nalgenes.

Beyond that, I encourage anyone with any interest in climbing to do this event. It’s a touch expensive, but has a solid time trial and two brutal road races. Combine devastating heat with what I think could be the hardest climbs in this region that you could have a mass-start race on—and I ride a lot in Vermont and New Hampshire—and it’s game on. It also seemed well organized. Marshaling, signage, and caravan coverage seemed spot on, and check-in was butter smooth. This could obviously change, but this year my buddies John Frey and Alan Atwood were doing results and chief refereeing, so placings, GC, stage communiques, etc., were all posted online ridiculously quickly.

More importantly, it’s a fun weekend. We rented a huge house nearby for pretty cheap and had a great time making dinner, getting ice cream in a sweet little Main St kind of town nearby, and hanging out. Don’t miss out next year!

Race Report: Poolesville 3

Over the weekend I went down for the Poolesville Road Race and rolled in at the back of the field sprint, 23 of 59 in the cat 3. A combo of 80F temperatures, narrow roads, a dirt section, and 65mi of steady rollers dropped more than half the field.

The race is just on the edge of being a reasonable day trip from Philly, about 3hrs away in Maryland (I made a weekend of it with some in-laws). But, I recommend it for any road course fans; crit monkeys stay home. It’s a quiet event but well organized, with great marshaling. There was also super aggressive yellow line enforcement, of which I approve; the motos were even coming forward to move offenders to the back during the race. The course is comparable with Turkey Hill, but a ~10 mile loop so it feels a bit more like a road race to me, as opposed to a circuit race. Climbing is similar to Turkey Hill, nothing crazy at all, but more steadily rolling. It is very narrow, but on the plus side mostly shaded and not as hot. There’s also a pretty clean ~1.5mi dirt section that’s kind of fun.

One thing I did well is moving up and fighting for my place aggressively the first two laps. Characteristically I started literally in last place and was kind of concerned between the rollers and dirt about being blocked in as groups dropped. The course is very tight, never more than 10 feet across and often less, and the hills weren’t really long enough to move up easily, so moving up was tough. I wound up riding the corners much more crit-like and aggressively than I would usually. They’re where the yellow line is fuzziest and the road widest (by simple geometry), so by taking it a little wide or a little tight and kicking it a bit harder than necessary coming out I was able to pick up 3 places here, 6 places there, etc., and pretty quickly found myself sticking safely by the front.

The dirt section was actually fun, and fairly tactical. On the fun side it was really ridable but had the usual dirt ridiculousness. I didn’t see anybody crash, but saw a bunch of guys slowly divert off the road, tons of dropped bottles, chains, etc. It was also super dry so the first few times we hit it there was just a mile and a half of billowing dust with ghosts moving about in it, like we were riding out of a western or something, with visibility about three bikes ahead.

Up the ziggurat, lickety-split! (photo by Pam Mauch)

On the tactical side, it’s a dirt section, so of course the guys in front punch it in order to stay safely out of the mess. It may have also been just slightly uphill. With everyone trying to give each other more space, it’s like a CX race where you’re sort of drafting and the pace is high, but you’re not really in a draft either so you’re kind of TTing. That’s a setup for lots of people to get gapped, but it was the kind of dirt section with two solid hard packed tracks and loose gravel in between so you couldn’t just go around them at will. Coming into it near the front then became more important, plus I had to really work gaps and safe looking places to cross the gravel so that I was always moving up and not getting blocked in.

In the end I just didn’t have enough to do much more. At the end of April I thought I had a good shot to do really well here and at Turkey Hill. They’re my kind of courses, good for someone who can climb a bit and time trial a bit, and I was riding well. Then I got sick, like usual, too many ECCC weekends living out of cars and way overstuffed motel rooms. Not a big deal, but I haven’t been able to shake the last trace of congestion and fatigue. At Turkey Hill I got up Gamber’s with the group the second time and just sat up, the first time I’ve not finished at least in the field sprint there. This race obviously went much better and it was pretty easy to hang on even through a couple fragmentations, but in the one short excursion I did to test my top end it just wasn’t there like it was two weeks ago.

To an extent I guess I’m disappointed about that. I won’t be able to race again until August and had pretty high hopes for these. However, I’m actually pretty ok with it, which is good in its own way, and both of these days were still a lot of fun. Ultimately not every race can be your best race ever and a lot of it is just getting out there, throwing some efforts against the wall, and seeing what sticks.

I think Ron Short’s photo of Darco and I sums it up super well—that big blue American sky, the long road behind, ridiculous people getting absolutely shelled but still having a great time:

Darco and I at Turkey Hill; photo by Ron Short & GoPro.

Race Report: 2012 Army Hill Climb + 2/3 Crit

This weekend Army had several non-collegiate categories for their fantastic hill climb and crit (nothing for the circuit or TTT).

In the open hill climb I got crushed by Charlie Avis (Trek-LiveStrong), but I’m pretty ok with that. More importantly, various Drexel, UVM, and other riffraf were held at bay for 2nd/7. My time was still pretty low against the Men’s A results. I was 4 seconds behind my previous best time on the course. I’m still debating if that’s an “only 4s” or a “a disappointing 4s.”

On that note though, results from the past couple years (setting aside the year w/ a course change) bears out the theory that the very top of the conference has been fairly steady, but the talent pool has deepened. Men’s B has basically dropped 40s (on a 10–12 minute climb) from 5 years ago. The long standing, wide discontinuity between the top 5 Men A and that field has also steadily dissipated.

The Men 2/3 crit was to some extent a very spirited group ride, with only thirteen starters, but it was a pretty legitimate group—the green jersey (ECCC sprint points leader) and both the weekend’s Men’s A winners were all in there. Most of the guys were pretty game so there were plenty of attacks, but no one had the sustainable power to stick a break so it all rolled into a field sprint. I lost focus in the last lap and got pushed off the wheels of the clear contenders, so I rolled in right behind but just out of the front line sprint, for 6th. My head was not in a racing mindset going into the race, so my cornering until I could get settled was not efficient and definitely cost me. Ultimately though, I was pretty happy to be able to hang with those guys fairly easily on a solid crit course.

One general note is that a day like that can be kind of rough logistically; when to eat, staying warm, not getting sunburnt, and so on. My hill climb was at ~9:15 in the morning, and my crit not until ~5:30. Personally I find it can be easy to screw up eating either too much or too little on that kind of day, particularly if you’re running around and doing stuff like I am. A strategy I’ve developed is to continuously eat small amounts. I don’t particularly eat any set lunch, but every two hours or so have a PB sandwich, Clif bar, (soy) yogurt, or similar. That way I’m continually digesting everything and never wind up with an overfull stomach, but also stay fed.

Similarly, that’s a long day in general; we started setting up at ~6:45 and didn’t finish tear down until near 7. In this case there were also officiating and other problems that needed to be mitigated; I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get away to do the crit until minutes beforehand, and was definitely not in the mood. That’s all pretty draining even without a morning race. To help deal with that as well as general fatigue, hard racing/riding the day before, etc., I’ve come to accept pre-race caffeine. I don’t drink any caffeine on a normal basis, so if I have a Dr Pepper or something, it has a notable effect. Red Bull or such has an almost unbelievable effect for a couple hours if your baseline is no coffee, and I confess to having a stock on hand for particularly dire days. I’m not convinced the effects of these aren’t mostly psychological, but whatever works, works, psychological or not. The zero baseline is probably critical to the efficacy of this though.

Race Report: 2012 Yale Lux et Velocitas

This weekend a bunch of us did the open ITT and non-collegiate crits at the Yale ECCC races.  In the open ITT I finished 5/14, which sounds ok but was DFL by a second on the Men’s A times and a disappointment. The 1/2/3 crit (probably mostly 3s, bunch of 2s, couple 1s) was much better.  Though I only finished 24/37, quietly not contesting the field sprint, my mental game was solid and I felt super visible and active throughout, so I was very pleased.

In the ITT my form was good but I was up about two gears from where I needed to be.  Ultimately, as I get older I just can’t keep up my traditional nonsense of sleeping 1–4 hours, driving overnight, running around to get the race going, and expecting to be at strength.

One note for new racers is that for TTs in particular you should closely examine the course map since there’s little guidance in front of you and you’re pushing every section.  I had not raced this TT before and scared the hell out of the marshals at the left out of the park as I Tokyo drifted my rear wheel to rapidly go from big ringing hard into an expected slight bend to dealing with an actual beyond 90 corner, scrubbing seconds and being super perilous.

The Yale crit is flat and non-technical, with just one corner requiring care.  Imagine a fast approach on a wide road with a 90 degree corner onto a single-lane version of the old South St bridge, with the same exposed rebar ribbing, lips and curbs, and more holes.

I made at least two big mistakes in the race.

Maybe four laps in I guessed people were going to get tired of dealing with the pack on that bridge and the first separation would happen, so I went to the front.  I was about a lap late; I could see a credible 5–7 person break forming up ahead as I worked around riders they were shedding.  At that point I made a miscalculation.  I figured I was at ~85%.  I could probably bridge, but it would take 100%+ and risk blowing up.  In part because mentally, particularly after the ITT, I was not prepared to be in this kind of strong position, I opted to play it safe, assuming someone would go around and I could follow their chase.  No one went, either because they’d broken or another rider had already established what turned out to be a pretty effective block.  That precious couple seconds as I realized no one was coming was enough for the break to slip too far away for me to try for it.

Later, the break slowed or the block weakened and we came closer.  Tim Manzella (TSV/Drexel) was near the front and started digging toward it.  I thought if I buried myself I could get him close enough to launch into the break, so I rolled by the line and gave him a wheel. We made up ground but I didn’t have enough strength endurance and in the end couldn’t get him close enough.  The big mistake though was that I assumed at least a chunk of the field was with us, and had not verified that.  As I began to weaken and told Tim to launch, I expected there to be a line for me to rejoin and sat up a fair bit. In reality, we had separated from the field when we pulled forward, and Brett Houser (Drexel) and Matt Griswold (BU) had started running a block.  The field was nowhere nearby.  Given that separation, I should have let up earlier and switched off with Tim so we could try to TTT up together rather than me redlining to launch him, but the latter was the only plan I had in mind.  That we were all alone caught me way off guard, so I couldn’t readjust to tag his wheel and our bridge fizzled out.  After that the break was safe all the way to the finish.

Photo by Rich Foley.

Three observations for newer racers: One is that I’m always super conscious of where my handlebars are.  I try to never ride with my bars next to another guy’s, as handlebar-on-handlebar is about the most dangerous contact you can have.  In contrast, if some guy hits my hips with his bars, it’s probably not going to be a problem (at least for me).  As a corollary, the guy with the bars in front better owns the line and is asserting his space.  So, particularly approaching a tricky corner where I want to control my line, I’m usually very aware of giving a couple extra kicks to put my bars definitively ahead of the guy next to me, making space for myself.

Another is that in the closing laps, you’ve got to expect attacks to come, and you’ve got to think about where they’ll come and how.  A wide, fast boulevard section like the main stretch at Yale is a clear candidate.  I think some guys were surprised I was pretty easily able to counter a couple late attacks on the field, but it was precisely because I was waiting for them—watching the left side out of the corner of my eye since we were on the right, not blocked in by the guy in front of me, in the drops, spinning loosely and ready to spin up and accelerate rapidly to full speed.

Finally, I was pretty much mentally fixed on not contesting the sprint, even if I’d had much left (very questionable).  However, it was still well worth my effort to come forward and fight for front pack positioning in the closing laps.  Even if you can’t contest the sprint, if you’re near the front as it begins, you’ll still roll in before other people.  More importantly, that effort guaranteed there were only a couple, likely competent, riders in front of me going through that bridge as people ramped up in the last couple laps, protecting mission #1: My own safety.

All in all, the crit was a super fun ride with a ton of guys I know. After the Phlyer I started working out again after several months’ near-hiatus, so I did these races to benchmark where I am and to continue getting into the rhythm of racing and getting my mental game back in form.  I was shocked to find myself in a strong position physically and mentally, and pleased with how assertively and cleanly I rode the Sunday race, so it was a big success by those goals.

Photo by Rich Foley.

Race Report: 2012 Philly Phlyer

A race report from earlier this year that did not get posted previously.

This weekend (March 17/18) was of course the Philly Phlyer extravaganza.  I wound up doing the full slate: The open TTT and the 3/4 circuit and crit.  In each I pretty much just rolled in at the back of the main group: 8/17 in the TTT, 44/90 in the circuit, and 23/52 in the crit.

On the one hand that’s somewhat ho-hum.  On the other, I double checked my training log this morning and have definitively not been working out since Labor Day, so those are much better outcomes than I could have reasonably asked for.  Even better, it’s the middle of March and I’ve already done more road races than all of last year.

Most importantly though was that the weekend went amazingly.  Charles Rumford (Drexel/QCW) and Glenn Eck (Temple) did a fantastic job arranging the venues, coordinating everyone, all the endless thankless tasks that go into promoting not just a race, but three great and affordable races right downtown.  You really could not have asked for a more smoothly run weekend of racing.

Alan, Charles, and I before the start of the Temple Crit.

TTT

Tim, Brett H, Chat, Blake, Ryan Shank, and I all signed up for the TTT.  Yes, it’s a 4-person TTT, but Drexel Cycling does not respect your lamestream rules and regulations.  We’ve been talking about this for months now but, per tradition, not actually preparing, so I was surprised by how smooth it went.  Fortunately we beat the Peanut Butter Human Zoom monkey girls, to whom we’d been talking a lot of smack, thus preserving our manhood, albeit just barely.  Physical near catastrophe was also just barely averted several times as Houser attempted to get fancy with the handoffs.  Strategically, Tim’s harder, longer pulls eventually lead to him taking the final one and I was able to pip him at the line for the critical intra-team victory.

Circuit

Having not been riding, I wasn’t planning on doing the circuit race despite yet more smack talk.  In the end though the sun was shining, the temperatures way up, and I couldn’t resist that beautiful course.

My only real disappointment was that, despite all that smack talk, I was hoping to help protect Victoria Hanks (PBCO/HZ).  She’s probably stronger than me, but I think male/female power-to-weight imbalances make that course tough for women in men’s fields, and I expected her to struggle a bit in the endgame climbs.  In the event though, I was in too defensive a posture myself to process the situation and respond appropriately when she did finally slip back (and wound up coming in just behind the main field).  It’s a testament to what a mental game cycling is and how much discipline real strategy takes that I fully anticipated exactly what happened, saw it happening, had a plan for that circumstance, had reserves I would have happily burned to execute that plan, but completely blew it simply by being too much on the bubble myself to be thinking strategically and process the situation.

One thing I did do well was effectively employ all of my different muscles, forms, and cross-training.  Not having been working out, I really don’t have any strength right now, but my cardio is still solid.  Also having a decently stable and efficient high cadence spin, the first couple times up Ford Rd I just sat and spun in a very easy gear, burning my cardio rather than my strength.  The third lap that wasn’t fast enough and I needed more speed, but leveraged all my running to stand the whole climb and really basically run up the climb at a pretty high standing cadence.  Together that meant it wasn’t until the final climb (keeping in mind between the TTT and Intro races I’d already done 4 laps before the start of the race) that I had to really dig into my limited cycling strength reserves to ride up in a somewhat more traditional mix of seated and standing hard digging to stay in over the last hump.  This is one of the ways a lot of cross-training among road, MTB, and running, as well as explicitly working on different styles of riding, has really helped me, giving me many different options and reserves.

Crit

I was especially not planning on doing the crit, instead figuring on announcing and foregoing all the many risks of a pretty choppy course. Ironically, what put me over the top to jump in was that Tony Eberhardt, coach of the UNH team whom I like a lot, said he was going to do it.  He wound up breaking a clavicle on a fluke pothole crash.

One thing I did well here was to ride my own race and not panic. Given the many surface challenges of the course and that I’m not at the moment strong enough physically or mentally to fight for front pack positioning or a win anyway, I made a pretty conscious decision to tailgate more loosely than is best and give people lots of room in the two particularly risky corners.  This risked wasting fair amounts of energy having to catch up each time.  However, I would have space to avoid the many anticipated crashes.  The only reason this would work was because I looked at the course and figured: (1) If I fell behind I’d be able to make up ground comparatively easily on the two uphill stretches; (2) More importantly: They were hard corners.  The group would slow down a lot, as it did.  By hanging loose in the approaches and following my own curve, I gave myself space to avoid crashes, and ultimately didn’t expend that much extra energy because I was smoothing over the hard rubberbanding of the group.  In the end I really only had to dig hard once to reattach after a clump ahead of me dropped on a prime lap, and pretty easily hung in there for the end.

Tom, Brendan, and I patrol the back of the field in the opening laps of the Temple Crit.

Race Report: Philly Marathon

This past Sunday, Caitlin did the half marathon and I did the full marathon. Caitlin ran with some of the Students Run Philly Style kids from her school in about 2.5 hrs. I finished in 3:25:02, 931st/5921 male finishers, 192/927 in my age bracket, 1098/10076 overall. That’s 25 minutes slower than my original goal early this year, and somewhere between 25 to maybe 45 minutes slower than I was running by Labor Day. Given how the preceding week and the fall in general has worked out though, we were both pretty happy.

We’ve both been sick with some sort of sinus thing the past 10 days or so. Up until about 12 hours before the race weren’t even real set on getting up in the morning to go, particularly after a brief jog to go pick up bibs on Saturday didn’t go so awesome. Both of us have also really fallen off the trolley on training. After her Ironman at the end of the summer, Caitlin decided she was ready to start hibernating early. The excessive number of hours I was working out by the end of the summer directly converted first into driving overnight each Friday and Sunday to ECCC MTB races, and then to some new work projects. From a high of 40–60mi running + 12–16hrs riding + weights & core each week, Sunday’s marathon alone was literally more running than I did in the 6 week span from late September to early November, and I haven’t been riding either. We were fully prepared for a disaster.

We were both super glad we went though, obviously especially since it actually went pretty well. It was a gorgeous day to run, perfect temperatures and clear skies. The marathon also makes Philly look super awesome, I really enjoy it. It’s filled with great stuff, like the opening stretch down the Parkway into the morning sun coming up over city hall and the skyscrapers, the people lined up shoulder to shoulder cheering all down Chestnut St, and the way the the sun lines up perfectly in your face again when you make the last turn for homestretch return down Kelly Drive. I think it really is one of the best ways to see Philly, it comes across in a great light, so I highly recommend it for that reason alone.

More technical notes:

In terms of general fitness it was actually not difficult. I pretty easily cleared the first half in ~90 minutes, but starting around mile 15 had real serious knee problems and was very close to dropping out. Unfortunately, that stretch from mile ~14 (Girard Ave) to ~18.5 (Grape St) I consider definitively the hardest part of the course. Physically the sequence from 23rd & Chestnut to 34th St to Memorial Hall is the hardest because it’s uphill throughout, but that stretch on the river has no real crowds. It gets real quiet from miles 15 to 17 especially, and if you’re running in the top third of the field, there aren’t even that many other runners around. There’s nothing exciting going on course-wise either, it’s just flat and no turns, so it’s a real long time to spend by yourself in pain.

I told myself though to just keep going to mile 18, where there’d be a timing mat and I could quit with an official time at the 30k. Somehow that meant something in my head. At 18mi my knee was still getting worse but I told myself I just had to get into Manayunk where there’d be no way I could quit with people cheering again, and then I’d be on the return and home free. I did though have to adopt some serious survival strategies, which in the end carried the day. I cut my average pace by about a minute and a half (not that I had much choice), and started walking ~3 minutes every 2 miles or so. I could not possibly have run any faster or for any longer periods, but combined those gave just enough relief to my knee to finish, walk home, and just generally not permanently destroy the joint.

Food wise I have definitely settled on a really really scientific regimen of water, Shot Bloks, Snickers bars, and Dr Pepper… It blows my mind how little food and liquid most people must be taking in during one of these events, given that only the more serious end of the field carries anything at all, and even then hardly anyone and generally just a couple gels. Four hours and more for the bulk of the people is a long time to be out there doing a serious workout and living off just the occasional water cup and gel.

I run longer stuff with a Nathan HPL #008 water vest which I strongly endorse, it’s amazingly stable for running and hardly noticeable even when well overstuffed. I use it even in supported events like this because I hate dealing with or slowing down for water cups, and much prefer to take in sips throughout rather than gulp down at water stations. Besides generally making sense to me, I also think having a higher caloric intake mostly eliminates concerns many other people have, like stressing out about a great breakfast or oversize carb dinner the night before. I pretty much just eat what I always eat, in part because by eating steadily in the event itself I figure I avoid an unsustainable deficit. That said, I do try to be conscious of not eating ridiculously more calories or sugar per hour than I can probably process (the soda adds up real fast on the latter).

Finally, another important piece of gear I’ve adopted alongside my beloved compression calf sleeves and water pack are double layer running socks. Historically when doing a lot of running I’ve fairly regularly gotten minor blisters that I could ignore while running but would be a small nuisance otherwise. This year I’ve used WrightSock double layers for longer runs, and that minor problem has been completely eliminated. Worth checking out.

Old Race Reports: Summer 2008 Pickle in the ‘Villa

This is an old race report, from my first Pickle Run, in August of 2008.  It’s reposted for the archives here for the sheer awesomeness of this debacle of a race attempt.

The Pickle Run. Increasingly notorious, yet still a mystery to many. For those just tuning in, one of the projects of Drexel Cycling founder Frank Durso is the Pickle Run, actually a series of runs he’s been promoting. They work like this: He sets up a course at some location not many people know. Everybody comes and runs, making a prediction beforehand about their time. Afterward, prizes are awarded for fastest runs by age and for closest prediction. It turns out they also give prizes for really bad predictions. Even better, they also hide giant pickles around the course which will also get you a prize if you find one and run it back to the finish. But, really, the key point is that Frank runs around in a giant pickle costume being a goof. Today was the inaugural Pickle in the Villa, a trail run race.

None of this did I know. All I knew was that I was somehow talked into signing up for this “Pickle Run” and that I had to make a prediction about my time when I pre-registered. Caitlin and I debated long and hard about this. Here are the two basic problem we faced: One, I haven’t run systematically in a couple years at this point. I don’t even watch the clock anymore when I do make it out for one in a steady trickle of oddly scheduled runs. All I knew was that I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, and that my times are wildly inconsistent based on sleep, food, etc. Second, I had no idea what the course was going to be like. It said “trail run” but sounded more like a basic bike path around a park or something. I had no idea, only that it was supposed to be 4 miles long. Notably (this is important later), at one point I settled on 35 minutes, figuring that when I was in shape I could do four miles in about 24 minutes, so that would cover being out of shape and any possibly challenging terrain. Caitlin scoffed. “Thirty five minutes?! Slow! Why am I dating you???” but abruptly terminated any discussion of how fast she could do it. Generally shamed, I hesitantly revised downward to 28.5 minutes.

Speed forward twelve hours, and we get to the questionable decision making that is the hallmark of any Drexel Cycling story. Cycling widow that I am, I was all alone Friday evening while Caitlin was off racing for the weekend. Around 10:30 I looked at the clock, thought to myself “Sure, I’ll get to bed at 11, get up and leave by 7:15, get there at 8, race at 8:30. Great!” and started playing around with fixing some problems with my computer instead of going to bed right then. This is a critical yet common error that many Joes are known to make. Seven hours later I look at the clock and say “Holy god, it’s 5:30! I need to leave in two hours!” and dive into bed.

Later, in the middle of a vaguely pleasant but forgotten dream I wake up. All sorts of things are flashing and beeping. It’s 7:49! Shazbot—I have successfully slept through the collective wailing of four alarm clocks! Gathering my cool, I grab my sleeveless Drexel jersey, slip on the shortest short shorts I have, and run out the door with my shoes half on. Bursting into the Kia, I slam the gas before the door’s even shut and peel out of the parking space like Elwood Blues on speed. Seconds later I’m doing 85 and making my way around the Lombard curve and onto the highway, at which point my trusty Korean sidekick and I really punch it, rollover warnings be damned.

Adroitly aided by our other buddy TomTom after some sketchy sections trying to type in the address while racing trucks down the narrow parts of 76, we cruise without incident to the race and come skidding to a flying stop in a great parking space for which the “Handicapped” sign had fortunately, arguably, fallen over. Car door slam still ringing in my ears, I grab my bib number out of the registration lady’s hand as she’s packing up and quick foot it to the start line with a whopping forty seconds to spare. Former Drexel Cycling superstar Dan Heinaman is there laughing, noting that “Yeah, they said only one person hadn’t shown up yet and I just figured it had to be you!” Catching my breath, I went to make a snarky rebuttal but the starting gun went off and I immediately lost my breath again.

Here we begin the long dark tea time of the soul that is the heart of a good race. Warming up on the move, I begin a debate about optimal strategy here. I’ve had two hours sleep, no breakfast, and had pretty much skipped dinner. The smart move is to go into survival mode and trudge along. The genius move is to book it, go wide to flank the 150 people between you and the front of the herd, and pray to all the trail gods that you don’t fall apart completely in your highly distinctive and recognizable Drexel jersey such that you’ll be choking on their knowing smirks as the entire crowd re-passes you. Clearly, that was the only viable choice, so that’s what I did.

Just a few seconds later, coming down a nice grassy field I was thinking to myself “Hmmm, this is kind of like a cyclocross race of running—not really off road, not really on road. Easy!” when I saw the Lord of the Pickle himself, Frank Durso, course marshaling and cackling maniacally. Seeing that he was not, indeed, in Pickle costume, I briefly dreamed of many forms of vengeance upon him for getting me all the way out here way early on a Saturday morning—when he wasn’t even wearing the Pickle costume, the point of the whole thing! Those thoughts were quickly obliterated though as I realized the source of his maniacal glee, a sharp left turn and descent into the woods as the race turned into a legitimate trail run! “Shazbot!” I thought to myself as the course plunged into the woods, across several creeks, and up a number of hills.

Later, having developed a style I’m labeling Drunken Running, the key tenet being that it doesn’t matter if you can’t run straight if the course doesn’t go straight, I was sitting pretty in the top seven or so as we rounded the top of what I thought to be the main loop on a lollipop course. “Halfway! Man, easy!” I exclaimed, and pushed on.

Coming down toward the stem of the lollipop, a little voice somewhere deep in my subconscious noted “Hey Joe-Man! Those arrows ahead aren’t going straight back… Aw, shazbot…” and watched in quiet horror as my feet followed the course sharply away from our direction home. At that point I think I blacked out.

Waking up much later, subconscious noting that we were now on what my head was convinced was mile nine of a four mile course, people starting trickling past. Belatedly coming around to reason, feet and head finally switched to our patented survival strategy: Find some cute girl and follow her around for some motivation to keep moving. What with the stream of runners now going by, that proved not hard and much thanks goes out to the sweet girl from Ursinus College for unknowingly ensuring I got back with some semblance of dignity intact. I apologize for sprinting by you in the last hundred meters, but after all, you have to finish strong to look good for the crowd…

Hanging out at the awards ceremony, Frank now in costume, I was shocked to learn all sorts of Pickle Run proceedings that I had not been aware of before. For example, that you got prizes for either winning, predicting, or finding a pickle. Not shockingly, the straight winners were largely high school runners who mostly looked too young to shave, but had times in the mid 27s and 28s. Amusingly though, all of them got schooled on the predictions, having seriously underestimated what would definitely be a legitimate mountain bike race course. The winner came in with a decidedly more average time, but was only off by seven seconds. Dan Heinaman also built on earlier foundations and took home a pickle for solid predicting, having won an earlier race in the series by being off by only a second, and being reasonably close today on a generally unpredictable course.

To be honest, I was a little disconsolate at not winning a pickle and wasn’t really paying attention when all of a sudden I heard my name being announced! Shocked, I quickly enquired what was going on and discovered that they were giving out pickles for worst predictions and I’d come in a strong second with a 34:30 time, off by 6 minutes! Sweet, sweet inconsistency paying off once more! Drexel Cycling, rockin’ it in (some sort of) style yet again! Most importantly though, that was only thirty seconds off my original prediction. Third place was a minute and a half off their prediction. If only I had stuck to pattern and not listened to Caitlin, I would have an admittedly same-sized yet vastly less questionably prestigious pickle!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you Pickle Race. Further, let me tell you, this is one of the most awesome trophies I’ve ever won, and I’ve got some kickass Sarah Uhl handmade specials that set the bar pretty high:

The bandito Pickle Villa strikes again!