Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Almanzo Race Report (the unabridged addition)

Sorry for the delay in getting a race report posted, but a week's vacation had to be enjoyed and that surely didn't include typing out a full fledged novella regarding the trials, tribulations, and depth of emotions that surround racing through 100 miles of the most beautiful gravel Rochester, Minnesota has to offer. The plus side to 1900 miles and 30+ hours on the road is that you get a lot of time to repeat the entire experience in your head and develop some interesting thoughts about it. For those with ADD in the crowd, you can skip off to the brief recap here. For those interested in sharing the journey a potty break may be in your best interest if you don't like to stop in the middle.

Onward and upward. As I laid out in my pre-race planning, I set a few goals for myself before embarking on this years Almanzo 100. After all was said and done, I took my preset plan, conditions of the day, and worked them to the point that I was happy with the outcome.

Race packet extraordinaire

As most entrants of this year's iteration will tell you, the wind was nothing short of brutal. Roughly 25 mph sustained winds out of the northwest with gusts nearing 40 were the bane of most come race day. The early morning cool weather didn't really seem to affect me. I rode with my full finger lightweight gloves, a sleeveless base, short sleeve jersey, calf height socks, leg warmers, shorts, wind/water proof jacket, and a sweat cap. I never was cold during the ride even considering the 35ish degree windchill for the start. I assume riding throughout the winter has conditioned me pretty well for temps and I was happy that I also had the experience needed to pick out pretty much the perfect gear selection. The only change I made during the day was at the checkpoint I dropped the full jacket for arm warmers and wind vest out of my support bag. I have to give a huge thanks to Annie (the race director's wife) for agreeing to tote my support materials out to the checkpoint along with the materials she was hauling for a friend of hers that she was crewing for. I could have made the race running the setup I had on including nutrition, but it was nice knowing I had a little less thinking on my plate by having a crew, so thank you sincerely.

The Rassy death squad 5000 jersey of the day.

We rolled through town with a neutral start provided by Chris (the race director) himself who lead us to the first gravel of the day. I knew even with the rollout that I wanted to be up front in the pack when we started into the gravel as the first climb would be a selection process. As expected, the lead group made a breka this year, the same as last at the top of the hill. The difference being this year I was within spitting distance of them as they crested the hill. Unfortunately, spitting distance is not within drafting distance and they kept the hammer down to help shake off chasers such as myself. I soon found a strong pace and was keeping the pack pretty well in site for quite some time. Eventually, Dennis and a few others worked up to me and I joined in on their paceline with some yo-yoing on and off. They were still riding hard and eventually I worked my way off the back as the pace was putting my heartrate higher than I planned in order to survive the back half of the race. I eased off and started the long journey of riding mostly alone.

As we rolled into the first pass through checkpoint I was greeted by a woman excitedly telling me to turn left in lieu of right at a particular turn. Then she was saying something about the next turn and it was lost on me. Luckily I happened upon another rider waiting for traffic to clear and followed him through town with nary a missed turn. As we headed out of town, we hit the first hill worth remembering in my mind. The 4 lane super gravel highway that climbed for 3 miles out of town last year had now been paved over and rendered useless for our purposes. As luck would have it, there was a turnoff to a nice steeper yet shorter climb out of the valley. I approached the hills with less gusto than normal as I knew I needed to hold something back for the wind that lay in wait on the back portion of the course.

Nearing the 50 mile mark I decided to answer the call of nature that had been ringing for a bit. I hopped off the bike with nary a rider in site and was soon enough rewarded by the site of 4 or 5 riders working their way past me including Steve who I admit was riding well and closer to me than I'd anticipated. Damn, there's 5 spots down that I was going to have to push hard to get back.

As I remounted the bike and felt the wind pick up around me, my plan started to fray heavily around the seems. I suddenly had lost my legs. While I admittedly was having a bit of stomach churning before the stop, I had been pressing long enough and fast enough that it hadn't really been on my mind. Something was going wrong with my nutrition in very short order. My stomach began to do flip flops as I made every effort to keep the pedals turning. I was 15 miles from the checkpoint. I latched back onto another rider I had passed earlier as he now churned slowly past me. I vaguely remember the screaming rutted downhill where we were jumping the rain ruts repeatedly as the road serpentined down into a hollow.

I'm a bit fuzzy about the order of the climbs and places in this area, but somewhere we hit a beautiful stretch of Minnesota level B road which just means the gravel isn't as fresh as the rest of the roads, we rode more steep hills, and we passed the Masonic park in the middle of nowhere. The significant things that stick out for me in this stretch are started to completely lose my shit as I passed the Masonic park. Something snapped in my psyche and every emotion I'd been keeping in check to that point blew up. I was hurting, crying, pissed off, contemplating a DNF, and sick all at the same time. Then came the hill. I ended up in my granny gear and saw a 2.XX reading on my speedo. I literally wobbled and weaved my way to the top. As each corner passed, the pain in my legs was only surpassed by the grumbling in my stomach. Each corner poised the question in my head of whether or not I should stop to try throwing up. Each corner posted me closer to the checkpoint.

I'm sure this won't be the first time for me as long as I continue to push my endurance and boundaries, but diving deep into your own black hole of despair isn't a whole lot of fun. I sincerely considered DNFing at the checkpoint in Spring Valley. I knew what lay ahead if I furthered on. The wind would be worse and quite possibly there were new hills to be tackled as well. I made the checkpoint in 21st. Other than the nature break, I had yet to be off my bike even though at some points I was barely moving. My speed average had plummeted from almost 19 mph in the first 25 miles to barely 14. I reached Annie in the support vehicle and she informed me that Steve had only arrived a short time earlier and was still at the convenience store.

I was admittedly shell shocked at this point. I was surprised I'd made it to the checkpoint in 21st. While I hadn't seen too many people pass me, my mind was telling me that I was failing miserably and way off the pace. Every turn of the pedals had yielded nothing but protests from my legs. I grabbed my cooler and proceeded to lose my shit completely and thoroughly. It was dark, ugly, and spiraling downward at breakneck speed. I later apologized to Annie for what had to be a pretty unsightly showing of raw emotions in front of she and her daughter as I sat nearby on my cooler and contemplated my life that brought me to such a point. Steve came back from the store and stopped for a minute to check on me. Something as simple as asking how I was doing proved to be impossible to answer. I simply couldn't speak. I opened my mouth and no words would come. It was a new and somewhat intimidating place to be in. I finally croaked out that I was shelled and not sure what lay in wait for my continuance. Steve voiced a few words of wisdom to get some rest and respite from the wind and then figure things out before he headed off to finish out the race.

Feeling I was making something of a spectacle at this point I spied a sunny spot next to an adjacent building that would give me some relief from the wind. I picked out a spot and flopped to the ground. Some of the thoughts I found at that moment are more personal that I can really share, but suffice it say that I thoroughly questioned my sanity, my abilities as a man, and my failures as a father and husband. It had been quite some time since I'd been to these depths and not something to really aspire to hit on any regular basis. I munched on a quarter of a PB&J I'd packed as solid food in my support bag. As I rested, I slowly regained some composure and felt a bit better. Apparently PB&J has restorative powers that I was unaware of. In what felt like much longer than it really was, I slowly got myself back together, packed my support bag up, and bid adieu to the checkpoint.

I headed back into the grind. I knew it would be windy, but wasn't quite prepared for that level of ferocity. Soon enough I did find my form and my legs, though tired, were actually pacing along surprisingly well. I could make out a couple of riders in front of me and eventually I met up with a local Rochester rider by the name of Drew. At first I passed him and started opening a gap. Then we came upon Steve who was emerging from his own roadside stupor. I slowed my pace to try and work with him, but alas he was facing his own demons at that point and waived me forward. Drew had passed me back at this point and slowly I crept back to his wheel. Quite literally it would take a mile or two before I could close a hundred yard gap at the pace we were riding. 10-13 mph into the wind was about all we could muster at this point. We were leaning hard into the cross wind and literally hanging on for dear life during the gusts. At one point I had a gust move my front wheel sideways across the gravel even as I had my weight on it.

As I clawed my way back to Drew, we decided it was time to partner up and hopefully share some work. We actually worked out well drafting each other without guttering and sharing pulls into the wind. I began to look forward to our turns in this section as at least it would change the side of my face the wind was scouring. As we worked together, Drew and I exchanged some pleasantries, but mostly settled in for the grind. We managed to reel in another rider or two along the way and similarly one of us would drop and reattach from time to time as well. The finally time left me out in front of Drew and nearly catching 2 riders in front of me. Strangely enough, one of them was Dennis, who I assumed was all ready drinking chocolate milk at the finish line and hanging out.

I crept to within roughly 100 yards of the riders before we hit the pavement section. That was it as they both turned on the afterburners with the pavement and tailwind and were gone. My pace doubled and tripled at points as I too enjoyed the smooth tarmac knowing we were a stones throw away from being done.

The last cue sheet.

A funny thing happened as I neared the finish line. I felt great. I was definitely tired, but my legs still had more left in them. I was able to finish and enjoy the post race beers, schwag, and festivities of cheering for other finishers. I made it. I managed to battle back from a massive bonk/funk/failure mode and finished relatively strong. I was 20th across the line with a total time of 7:57:35.

The bike computer showing no bonus miles this year!

I'll post my afterthoughts separately, but a huge thanks go out to Chris, his wife Annie, and the rest of his family, friends, and sponsors that help make this race something truly special.

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