Almanzo 100- May 17, 2008
100 miles of gravel should be tough, it should challenge you, but it should also reward. Almanzo 100 didn’t disappoint on any of those counts. While I could ponder and pontificate on the additional training I should have put in, the missed turns I made, or how much the headwind sucked, it is what it is and that’s all part of the race to the finish. As my buddy Squirrel so eloquently has put down in permanent ink- “Suck it up” is the only true option.
I tried to set no expectations for myself other than finishing as strongly as I could. This being my first true race, I just needed to finish. I’m too damn competitive for that so as last week focused my attention on the race I picked a few goals to shoot for. I wanted to finish in less than 9 hours total time out, in the top half of the field, and average better than 12.5 mph moving average. Considering my last gravel grinder put me at 10 hours out with over 8 hours of actual riding time, I thought these were good set points.
Friday afternoon found me picking up Squirrel for a dash north to Rochester. We’d be camping out in the race director’s (Chris Skogen) backyard. We arrived in plenty of time to take a quick spin to the shop that was hosting the start/finish line for the race. A stop for some supplies for the evening meal and we headed back to our host’s house. Calling it an early evening we turned in before 10. I tossed and turned most of the night regretting that I hadn’t brought any type of pad for my sleeping bag.
Saturday morning dawned early, chilly, and slightly overcast as I fought off the shivers and tried to decide the best clothing options for the day. I chose a sleeveless base layer, bibs, my new Rasmussen Death Squad five thousand short sleeve jersey, and arm and leg warmers. A breakfast of a homemade waffle offered up by an awesome host was downed and off to the starting line we went. Roughly an hour before start, we wandered around the host store and met some of the other competitors.
The weapons of choice were as widely varied as the competitors. Being that there were 3 categories- single speed, fixed, and open, the hardware ranged from simple to complex. One of the more interesting combos I ran across was a cross style bike with mono shock setup, running deep section HED rims and cross tires with a mustache type handlebar. I felt a bit outgunned with a hard tail mountain bike and 2.1 tires. The sun started to creep out as we inched closer to the 8 AM start time and I started warming up. Just as the race director was making the announcement to start lining up I made the decision to peel off the leg warmers and stuff them into my hydration pack. If there had been a few more minutes to spare, I’d mostly like have tossed the arm warmers as well.
With a field around 60 strong, we rolled to the start line for a mass rollout. As we had the first few miles rolling through downtown Rochester, I made sure to stay in the top 20 riders to guarantee I wouldn’t be dropped by any errant stoplights. The first little miscue came as the lead pack accidentally turned to cut through a parking lot only to find no outlet. A number circled back, but I chose the path of least resistance by hopping the curb and going across the parking. Score one for the mountain bike! I was in the top 3 for the first, last and only time of the day.
As we warmed up and rolled into the start of the gravel, we hit a couple small rollers to get us ready for the first climb of the day. A 200’ 8-10% grade blew the group into pieces. While I had gears and could easily make my way to the top, I quickly learned that I could only put power down by being seated. I had too much pressure in my tires with pretty small knobs that wouldn’t bite on the hard pack with loose pebbles on top. This would be a pretty common occurrence for the rest of the day which forced me to either climb seated or really work on smoothing my pedal stroke while standing. The main group of riders totaled somewhere in the low teens and were off like a shot from the top of the hill.
Squirrel enjoying the gravel early:
I worked into a steady pace trying to keep my heart rate in the lower half of zone 4 and began rolling off the miles. I tailed Squirrel and a few other riders in the first section and witnessed a rider go down. A very brief slow down to make sure he was ok and we picked the pace right back up. The miles now varied between flat and rollers with no major climbs for a time. Mile 25 found us rolling through the town of St Charles and enjoying another short stretch of pavement along with another climb as we headed up to and beyond I-90. This also turned us into our first real foray with the headwinds as we headed back west. After enjoying cross tailwinds strong from the northwest for the first jaunt, the headwinds hit hard.
We now stair stepped our way south and west varying between cross tail and head winds. Outside of the next pass through town of Chatsfield, we found the longest climb of the day. Close two 2 miles long and gaining over 300’ of elevation, we transitioned from tarmac back to a wide packed gravel road. I kept my pace up on the climb and slowly put some time on a couple fellows that had gained on me in the downhill into town. At this point in the race, seeing other competitors started coming mostly in areas where I could see more than a quarter mile in front or behind. For all intents and purposes, I was now riding alone.
Now focused on getting to the checkpoint in good time without making any stops, I made my first miscue of the race. I easily made the un-marked turn noted on the cue sheet, but was befuddled by a road sign that noted a turn to the right while there was also a route going straight. Convinced that the road turning sign signified that the route we were on also turned, I pushed ahead. I noted several riders that were coming up on me at the time, questioning my decision, but ultimately following me. Damn, it was a wrong turn. I paid no attention that all the bike tracks had gone straight being that I was so convinced I was right. After a mile, we all pretty much realized the mistake and doubled back down the road for 2 bonus miles on the route! At least I only drug 3 other souls along with me.
Squirrel and another fixed gear rider had caught back up to me at this point and pulled ahead for a short time. However, the road soon was to my benefit with flats and a few long downhills with very short rollers at the ends. I soon passed them and put time in the bank as well. I pushed along and rolled into the only checkpoint on the route in Spring Valley at the 62 mile marker. I was averaging well over 15 mph at this point and while I was starting to tire, I still felt good. It was time for a brief stop to reload on water (70 oz in the hydration pack and 24 oz on the bike), take some ibuprofen, and reapply the chamois crème. In retrospect, I spent too much time at the checkpoint as I was stopped near 30 minutes.
My legs felt strong and slightly recharged as I pulled out of the checkpoint and into the wind. This leg was to be almost entirely north into a steady 15-20 mph wind from the northwest. I pulled away from some riders on the first section out of the checkpoint only to start the downhill slide to bonksville around mile 75. My heart rate freefell by 30 beats per minute, my legs ached, and although I could tell myself just to stay on the bike, it wasn’t happening. On a small incline, I finally hopped off the bike and walked for roughly 100 yards until I could force myself back on. I felt like hell and knew it was going to be a rough finish with 25 miles of headwind yet to fight.
I struggled through another 7 miles and finally took a quick break for another gel and more ibuprofen. I stopped completely this time for about 5 minutes and focused on stretching out and getting my head together. I kept expecting riders to start streaming past me, but they didn’t come. I wasn’t the only one suffering the winds! I resigned myself to start back up and gladly found my pace slowly picking up. I was working through it.
Around mile 85 I made my second tactical mistake of the day. Not realizing that we were doing two turns in quick succession, I instead focused on the large figure dotting the center of the road ahead. Setting in the middle of an intersection was an ominous figure of a large farm dog. He was waiting ever so patiently for me to slowly crawl up to his turf. As I took stock of my options, out-sprinting him was quickly dismissed and the water bottle plan was put into action. As I approached, another large dog joined him. With about 20 feet left to go, I realized the main dog was indeed panting, wagging his tail, and friendly as could be. Whew, disaster avoided, or so I thought. I was so engrossed on finding a way to fight off a possibly hostile dog, I missed that fact that he was indeed directly ensconced in the middle of the intersection I needed to turn at. I rode 2 miles down the road before realizing I was indeed off course once again. If you’re keeping track I’m now at 6 bonus miles for the ride, woohoo….
I doubled back to find my mistake and was at least thankful for the tailwind that propelled me back. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had just passed me while I was out exploring off course. The mistake helped fuel some determination back into my legs and I began riding with intent instead of desperation. I downed another gel and got back to work.
We finally hit pavement with about 8 miles left to go. I kept expecting there to be a turnoff to more gravel somewhere in there, but mercifully we were done. The torture was quite over though as the pavement turned to some short, but wicked rollers as we headed back to Rochester. I succumbed to a single rider in this section and couldn’t keep pace as he slowly pulled off the front. As we hit the city limits, I began to feel that bit of euphoria of knowing that I would make it to the finish. The final mile found me in a whole new world. I was physically and mentally drained, my emotions let go and the evidence starting pooling under my sunglasses. I made the final turn, the cowbell, the cheers, the finish line. I shot through and stayed on my feet long enough to check in until I could collapse against the building with my head in my hands. I was done.
7:54 was my final time. 14.5 mph moving average. 31st place overall. As the field narrowed to 59 official entrants, I only missed my goal of top half of the field even though I handily exceeded both my average speed and overall time goals. I loved it, I hated it, I want more.
Link to more pictures and total results. All photo credits to Chris Skogen!