Tag Archives: ultraendurance

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: 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.