Monday, May 20, 2013

The Alexander 400

I learned a few things over the course of the weekend. Coming into a 400 mile gravel road race a little green about what to expect is both a blessing and a curse. So my plan was outlined in my previous blog post. I kept my ear to the weather and possible rain on day 1 was expected, next day would be all good, then storms on the third day. OK, roll the dice and roll the hills.

I arrived Thursday night in Spring Valley and ran into Chris Skogen, organizer extraordinaire, Ian, Pat, Phillip, Andy, and a number of other racers. When talking with Chris, I got the feeling that he thought we were all a bit crazy for taking this on...I have to agree with him on that assessment, if that was the case. So waking up later in the night to a pretty steady rain, the "aw, man, this is gonna be rough" statements started rolling through the head. The start was at 5:00 am and it was raining...not a light rain at all. There were 12 of us lined up. The rest decided to wait out the rain. I didn't even consider that, not a bad idea though.

Skogen biked with us until the gravel started and when he broke off, I was in the virtual lead!! This trail blazer was over taken within maybe 20-30 seconds at the most but I really enjoyed my time at the front. My goal was to hit my pace and ride and so i watch two guys go at a higher pace than mine and another yo-yoing off the back of their pace. The first climb was at mile 10 and it is a portent of what to expect. At the top I was surprised to see someone pull up next to me. The last I looked back, i didn't see anyone really close. I had the pleasure of meeting and riding with Lisa Thompson for the next 20-25 miles. It was nice to have her company but at one point, I looked around and she was not there. Poof! Wasn't sure what happened but I hoped that she was all good and that we would meet back up in Preston (40 miles in) which was only a few miles away. I had some hot coffee and got some food on but didn't see her. The rain was finally subsiding but the wind was still steady but not too extreme.

After leaving Preston, it was not far to the first water crossing. All sorts of carnage was going on there and with the rain, it was muddy but fun to wade across. After kickin the mud off the cleats, the miles were ticking away. Shortly before Harmony, 60 miles in or so, WCCO were camped out by an intersection and I took a few minutes to get interviewed...a guy gotta get his 15 minutes whenever he can, right? I hit the Kwik Stop or whatever it was in town and got some warm fishwich and fries into the belly. One thing I learned on this ride was that though these convenience stores have much of the same things to feed on, some are definitely better than others. This one was not one of the better ones...for the record. The roads were now all new to me and they were part of the Royal 162 course. They dipped down into Iowa and they were relatively flat, which means rollers and not a bunch of crazy climbs. There was some extended time on Stateline Road which I ended up hating. It was against the wind and the rain made the gravel extra soft so more work was needed to slog through got old.

80 miles in

About 125 miles in I was getting real nervous. My GPS was flashing low battery and I wanted to supply up with water get some food before nightfall. I pulled into Lansing and right away notice a BP. I was stoked! I hit it up and was happy to see a food counter. I asked for something hot and the hot subs were pointed out. I scanned the list and Bam! the hot taco sub hit me upside the head. I was so excited, I ordered a 12 inch. I got the GPS plugged in and washed up a bit, trucker style in the sink. I loitered around for a while but I couldn't finish the sandwich. It was just too much, but it was good.

With my belly full and supplies replenished, it was time to cross from Iowa to Wisconsin. It was getting close to dusk so there were a few swarms of gnats that I rode thru crossing the bridge but it was pretty nonetheless. I was debating on stopping for a little bit to try to catch some zzz's and after some gravel in a state forest, I figured that would be a good place to camp. Now I was sans tent so it was just a light sleep sack and a sleeping pad. I found a spot and got myself set up and got inside the sack but the mosquitos were unforgivable. They were just a dive bombing my ears, not one but both at the same time. I got sick of that real quick and decided that was not the place to be and got back on the bike. The darkness just hit so this was the first time using the Planet Bike lights. I put them on high and except for using caution on the descents, I could see just fine! I have never ridden much outside the city at night so this was somewhat of a new experience. The terrain was a lot of up and was all about climbing to go downhill again, just to get to climbing again. For the record, I think the hardest hill was topped at this time. It was Chellevold Road, mile 144, and I think I heard it laughing when I was grunting up that beast. After a couple plus hours of that, which also included a decent through the Peoples Republic of Turkey Run, I decided to find a place to lay my head in the next town. Mt. Sterling was the town and behind some business next to a stack of palettes was the place. There was a bit of a breeze that kicked up and with the damp clothes, it was cold. I was a shivering like a Chihuahua in the winter. I set up a palette to try and block it but I was as cold as ice like a song from Foreigner. I must have spent about 3 plus hours there trying to sleep. I may have nodded off for an hour or two but it got to the point where I just got up to get on the bike and be warm again.

Back to riding in the dark, which may have been a blessing for some of the hills that were being climbed. After a bit, I started to hear the birds singing so I knew light was coming. When dawn finally broke, the beauty of the Wisconsin countryside was really overwhelming. Riding the farms on the ridges was a site to see, and the unleashed dogs were kind of invigorating and added some get up and go to the morning. The course was brutal though...Ridge Road to Creek Road to Hill Road to River Road...Up, down, up, down...minimal recovery time. After 40 tiring miles, I rolled into Prairie du Chein feeling mighty low. I had one thing on my mind and that was French Toast. I stopped at the joint named Huckleberry's and enjoyed the apple cinnamon French toast on was my destiny. Had another needed GPS charge there so a bit of loitering was done. After a sufficient charge, I restocked on supplies and crossed the river into Iowa.

At this point I was considering on getting a room in Decorah, which was 70 miles away, for the night and making the final push on Sunday. I was also wondering if that was a good idea considering the possibility of a storm on Sunday. What to do? Well, as I was in the town of McGregor when I entered Iowa, I notice a couple bikers in front of me. I was thinking they were on the same adventure as I was and ended catching them at the top of the climb out of there. I was happy to see that they were Philip Carlton and Andy Tetmeyer. It was nice to have a conversation with fellow bikers after riding a day solo. These guys also ride fast and efficiently so it was good to get into the rhythm of the rollers...down the hill, get to hammering and make it up the next with momentum. My bike is set up with a 1x10. There is a 32 tooth chainring in the front so my top speed was not as top as theirs so I was forced to do some chasing at times. I was really enjoying what Skogen was throwing our way at this point. There was a Minimum Maintenance Road (MMR) and it was much fun bombing down and climbing up. I was just wondering how he finds these roads...he is like the Route Wizard or something. If there is a steep hill next to another steep hill or MMR, he will find it.

After a getting dropped a few times after some long descents, I told Andy and Philip that I was getting worked and that they didn't have to wait for me. I was starting to get the nods and I was in dire need of changing my chamois so after watching them ride away a third time, I pulled over, changed and lied down for a cat nap. After about 15 minutes, I got back going and made my way the final 25 miles or so to Decorah. I was feeling pretty shelled once I got there. I stopped at some place and got a burger and zucchini. Time was needed to charge the GPS so the usual loitering was going on. Talked to a few people and enjoyed the food. I took off with the decision made to nap in a park and then hit the road for a final push. There were 130 miles to go and I wanted to get there before any storming. I was at the store getting supplied up when Andy and Philip rolled up. They just finished getting their food on and doing some bike repair. They said they were hitting the road so I was happy to join them.

It was late afternoon and our goal was to make it to the bar that was 60 miles from the finish and have a beer. At this point, 60 miles did not sound very far at all. We had 130 miles till the finish, a slight wind at our back and the sun was out. We were all working good together. I think that burger was just what I needed because I was able to keep up with them at this point. The terrain was the flattest yet, just rollers so we made good time. We did make it to the bar by 11:00 pm and gladly had a beer which was partnered with another beer. I needed time to charge the GPS. I decided on a Busch Light. All along the course, that was the beer of choice for the road trippers. That beer made up 95% of the cans sitting in the ditches beside the road. I had to see what all the fuss was about...I assume folks were just trying it and throwing the full cans out the window. The beer did not take me to Flavor Country. Anyway, we hit the road and Philip's knee was giving him troubles and it finally rebelled with somewhere around 45 miles to go in the race. He wrapped himself up in a ditch for some shut eye and Andy and I pressed on. About 15 miles later, Andy decided to take a quick break and I couldn't. I was afraid that if I stopped, I would have a hellofa time starting up again.

We were back on the Almanzo route so it was familiar again. I then made my way down and up and up and up Maple road in the dark. Not long after that I arrived at the water crossing. I heard over the social interwebs that the crossing was treacherous and that a rope was set up to help. When I got down there in the dark, I saw no rope and saw a lot of water. I have crossed that water in waist deep once before for the Gentlemen's ride but that was with people, in the day and without a loaded bike. I was fretting until I saw a sign with a statement about the re-route. I was a bit crushed that I had to climb out of there when I just wanted to bike forward but safety first. At every subsequent intersection, I stopped and looked for the guiding tape and eventually found my way. It was then a get to Oriole hill and climb and then one more final climb until the home stretch. It was starting to get light and with that, I noticed some real dark clouds coming along with flashes of lightning. I put down the hammer as best as I could to get to the finish line before the rain. When I arrived, nobody was there until the awesome Eddie K pops out of his car. Then a few other folks appeared from out of nowhere and the Poof! Skogen appeared. The dude is a magician. He shook my hand and let me know I got third place. I was really surprised. It was a good thing to hear at 6:00 am, 49 hours after the start! I was not sure how it all worked out but 155 miles the first day, and 230 the second. I have no clue where that was buried but I was sure happy it showed up. Here is the final tally:

For everything that I brought, the Enervitine and the Honey Stinger waffles always packed a boost. I didn't eat any of the bars. The boiled eggs I brought were delicious and the tortilla wrapped bacon hit the spot each day (recommended)! I didn't dip into the flask so that was not needed but everything else was used or fortunately not needed. A warmer sleeping bag would have been nice that first night but so would have making it to Prairie du Chien instead. I was glad for the weight savings. I cleared every hill which I was not sure whether that was going to happen but having gears really made that possible...that doesn't mean that I am not excited to switch the bike back into a single for the Chequamegon 100!

There are a few of my favorite things that I gotta give a shout out to which I looked at for much of the race. My Banjo Brothers cue sheet holder and bento box. They keep me on track and give me easy access to snacks. I have logged so many miles with these for many years and I look forward to more. The two Blaze Micros that I was rocking from Planet Bike gave me the sasquatch vision I needed to make it through the night miles. That was a style of riding that was new to me. My Garmin was essential but raised my blood pressure when the low battery sign showed...somehow it would show for hours though. Whew. Most of all, shouts out to Skogen, for creating a masterpiece and Lisa, Andy and Philip for being great riding partners!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Alexander 400 Preparation

Riding into new territory here. The Alexander 400 is a 380 mile gravel road race that starts in southeastern Minnesota then loops up and down the roads less travelled through Wisconsin and Iowa. It starts tomorrow, May 17 at 5:00 am and after casting lines out and about, I came up with a plan.

To prepare for this race, I worked on the mental state first. I figure the centuries logged the last few years, in all sorts of weather on gravel and in mountain bike, has prepped me for those dark times that will surely come and come again over the course. The fitness part has been a bit more difficult. A long winter left snow until two weeks ago did not lend itself to numerous training opportunities but getting out there in the cold builds character, right? So since the beginning of March, I have tried to get out there and log at least a 50 mile ride on the weekend. Some were 60, a couple were 80 and even logged 107 for the Ragnarok in April. Some good procession but 380 as steady of a pace as I can...not sure about that.

My angle initially was to bring a tent and take the ride in with some down time but talking to folks and considering my own sleep issues, I decided to ditch the tent and just bring a thin sleep sack and pad. If it is not raining, I can pull over for a few hours of sleep at night and when my body wakes, it is time to ride on. The longer the stop is, I figure the harder it will be to get back on the bike. With that consideration, I hope to make it at least 200 miles the first day. That would put me on the border of Iowa where there are hotels. This is where the decision will be depending on the weather. The next motel opportunity is 70 miles away so it will be late and if it is raining, a stop may be warranted. If not, the goal is to get as far out into the Iowa countryside as possible. Some downtime in some woods would be good then and onward from there. With that angle, I anticipate finishing late Saturday night. TBD...

So here is a list of what I am bringing...likely too much but I am a rookie at this so the post-race write up will contain the analysis:
Revelate Seat Bag
Revalate Frame Bag
Sleep Pad
Sleep Sack
2x Inner Tubes
Patch Kit
DZ Nuts
Knog Rear Light
2x Planet Bike Blaze 2W Micro head lights
Planet Bike Superflash Turbo
Garmin 705 with charger
Kershaw Knife
5x Honey Stinger Vanilla Waffles
2x Packs of Beef Jerky
2x Water Bottles
Some Heed for those bottles
Camelbak with tire irons, Planet Bike Air Smith mini-pump, spoke wrench, allen wrenches, chain bits
3x Packs of Gu Chomps
2x Enervitine
2x Honey Stinger Energy Bars
Coco Hydro electrolyte powder
BB phone and charger
Banjo Bros cue sheet holder
Banjo Brothers Bento Box
Rain Jacket and Pants
Extra pair of shorts
Extra pair of socks
Fleece long sleeve jersey
Behind Bars/LGR kit
Extra batteries (AA and AAA)

I loaded the GPS file to my Garmin and downloaded the cue sheets. I got all hoopty and busted out the packing tape to laminate the cue sheets. An ounce of prevention...
I will be riding my Kona Raijin set up with CX tires. Here is the whip all decked out:

and a shot of the cockpit: