After tossing and turning most of the night, I awoke to the sound of water dripping through the gutters outside our room. I quietly dressed and pondered what lay in wait for me. I headed off to try to eat some breakfast. As I nursed a cup of coffee and choked down a danish, the weather flashed across the screen. 44 degrees, scattered rain, windchill of 37 and a steady North wind around 15 mph. I went back to the room to finish getting ready and snapped a quick picture to set the tone.
Ready or not:
I finished my gear prep by loading my bottles and camelback with water before setting off for the start line about 3/4 of a mile from the hotel. The wind had a sting to it with the water hanging in the air as I hopped on the bike to ride. A few minutes later and I pulled up to a lot starting to fill with fellow riders for the Royal 162. I nervously alternated between chatting with some friends and riding my bike around the lot trying to stay warm and beat back the trepidation. As promised, Chris rolled us off with little fanfare escorting us to the start of the gravel. I'd estimate we rolled roughly 60 or so of us out of 90 odd entrants.
Finally, we were off and it was time to start clicking off the miles and relieve the nerves through solid strokes of the pedal. I found a semi comfortable spot around mid-pack of the main group and worked to try avoiding the gravel soup that was flying off the wheels in front of me. We were holding a steady but manageable pace to start. I fell back slightly on one of the first uphills and caught a face full of the wind. I knew it would be a mistake to lose the pack right away and start fighting the wind so soon. I hit the gas a little harder and latched back on to the pack so I could set in the draft for a bit more. All too soon though, I gauged the lead group of 20 or so was moving a bit harder than I wanted and I slowly drifted off the back along with single riders.
I mixed it up riding with a few people here and there starting around 10 or so miles into the race. My whole focus going in had been to treat this as a ride rather than race so my focus was solely on moving forward at my pace and syncing up with other riders as it made sense without taxing myself in the process. Soon, I found myself with 2 and then 3 guys. Andy (I think was his name) was the strongest in the group wearing a CRC kit and he soon rolled off the front leaving 3 of us riding but not really working together. Ian who appeared to be wearing a Little Guys Racing kit and Aaron from Angry Catfish dressed only in bibs, short sleeve jersey, and arm warmers kept rolling. Ben went down as we made the turn from flying descent to 180 degree uphill. We actually all made the turn, but the weird cross slope of the gravel laid him down, but he managed only a few scrapes.
The first 90 minutes or so we lucky in the fact it wasn't raining on us. We were just dealing with the cold wet air and sloppy gravel. I started contemplating taking off my rain coat or shedding my vest as I started heating up as we hit the various climbs. Being a 3 time veteran of the course, I knew the climbs were there and didn't sweat them. I'd just grind them out at a comfortable pace without digging too deep. It was part of my plan for the full day. Work when I needed to, but conserve energy where I could.
Photo by Crag Lindner:
The 3 of us rolled through Preston and kept right on trucking without a stop as we didn't need anything only 38 miles into the course. It wasn't until mile 46 or so that we made any stops and it was for a quick pee break for the other guys. I took the opportunity to stuff my pie hole with a Stinger waffle while we made a sub 1 minute stop. Aaron and I slowed dropped Ian off as we rolled along feeling pretty decent even though we were pretty thoroughly wet by this point. On the plus side, my shell was wet from the rain along with my legs and feet, but my hands and core were relatively warm even if they were damp from sweat and some moisture seeping in. Score for my gear choices!
Chris had provided us some information that there would be an offroad portion of the course somewhere along the way. The cue cards noted that we'd hit this about 56 miles in. I was due to reload my nutrition box and Aaron and I decided we'd hit the offroad section and make a short stop to rest and reload. As we rolled up to the private property we were about to ride through, we could see some of the lead groups coming back on the tail end of the off road loop. It appeared we were maybe 15 minutes or so back of some pretty strong riders including Charlie Farrow. We rolled the first grassy section of the course and were greeted by a full on CX course including run-ups, barriers, riding through a cornfield, and about every other surface you can think of. Pure mad genius for Chris to throw that in there. It may have been my favorite portion of the course. Aaron and I kept our plan and after the 1st run-up we stopped for a short nature break and reload. I stuffed my face with half a salted nut roll and filled my top tube bag with an assortment of goodies from my camelback before we rolled the rest of the course. Ian had caught back up as we were resting and the 3 of us rolled out to enjoy the rest of the offroad portion.
Back to the gravel we stayed together and rolled on. We still didn't really work together, but the shared suffering somehow seemed to make it better as it was still raining and we were all wet and cold to varying degrees. For some reason, I had it in my head that our last pass through town with any food/service available was coming around 90 miles in. In reality, we hit Harmony at 65 miles just a scant 7 or 8 miles after we'd just taken a relatively significant break on the CX course. We didn't have a choice other than to oll up to the gas station to reload on water and any fuel that we needed. At this point, it became pretty apparent that Aaron was suffering mightily with his gear (or lack thereof). As we started to warm up, it became very clear we were in a dangerous position. I had all ready reloaded with a liter of water and 2 glazed donuts and knew it was time to go. Aaron was figuring his options of dropping or continuing and Ian seemed like he could hang out for a bit longer. I made the call it was time to go, lest we all succumb to the dryness and warmth of Kwik Shop.
3 rollers with a hundy left to go:
Sadly, Ian and I rolled on while Aaron stayed back. With the rest of the conditions hammering us, I think he made the right call for himself. Ian and I started trading a few pulls after a short while, after a long pull I looked back and Ian had drifted a long ways off the tail. I made a judgement call to roll on my own as I was still feeling good and didn't want to pull in the reigns at this point. I feel a bit bad as I don't see Ian on the finishers list, but I had to ride for myself to maintain my plan. I started clicking off the miles thankful for what seemed like a brief respite from the serious climbs and just hitting the rollers. The tunes were flowing from the Ipod, my nutrition was still going well, and I felt as good as could be expected given the mileage and conditions I'd been dealing with. Beyond hydrating and eating, I kept my mind busy with the cue sheets trying to figure out where on the horizon the next turn would be coming from.
Over the next 30 odd miles, we'd get a fresh treat of being out of the semi-protected valleys and thrust into the rolling farmland where the wind could tear at us with abandon. I started closing on another rider at this point. I distinctly remember the absurdity of "chasing" him on a gradual incline while doing 8-10 mph due to wind and road conditions. The hilarity wasn't lost on me so at least my spirits were still as high as could be expected. Finally I caught up to Ben from Northfield around mile 90 or so. He was climbing equally to me or perhaps a bit better, but I was rolling the flats a shade faster and would really gain ground by pedaling the downhills in my big ring. We passed each other back and forth a bit, but ended up working together to conquer some of the headwinds.
The only real issue of the day sprang up for me in this section. My cue cards had been slowly getting soaked from the backside due to the road spray even though they were in my Banjo Brothers map case/cue sheet holder. The elements were just a bit too much for it to match. As I went to pull out the cue sheet I was done with, all I came away with was a chunk of that sheet and the next couple below it as they were stuck together and soaked through. I stopped to assess my options and pulled the wad of 5 or so sheets out of my holder. Carefully I managed to peel back the sheet I was done with and also separate out the chunks I'd torn off to piece my remaining sheets back together. Lest they get any wetter, I pulled a ziplock from my pack and stuffed them inside before returning them to the map case. I hadn't done this earlier as I didn't want to have to stop every time I was done with a cue sheet just to change it out. From this point on, my only stops would be for cue sheet changes and I'd address any other issues at those times.
As mile 100 appeared on my garmin, Ben and I had been working together again. We passed a random truck parked by the side of the road and were offered pizza, beer, coke, etc. Initially I refused and rolled right past while Ben stopped to take a look. The guy called after me that it was all neutral, so I turned back to verify as I really didn't want to operate outside the rules of the race, no matter how bad the conditions were and how tempting the opportunity was. The guys from Pirate Cycling League had gotten approval from Chris to set up the oasis as long as they offered it up to everyone on the 162 route. Woohoo! All I ended up taking though was half a Coke to down some more ibuprofen for my aching back. We chatted for a few minutes as I waited for Ben to wade through a couple hot slices and then we hit the road in under 5 minutes.
Ben must've felt pretty good as he tore up the following grade and left me in the dust. Shortly thereafter, we were back into the flatlands with the wind and I'd catch, pass, and drop him. We finally were back on the Almanzo 100 course around mile 105 and could see the increase in tire tracks. I knew the checkpoint was coming up and started really beleiving I could make it as I remembered how well I rolled the section after the checkpoint from the previous year. A scant 10 miles later I rolled into the checkpoint alone. I chatted with the workers for a few seconds as I peeled back my jacket to reveal #53. They asked how I felt. I really hadn't given it much thought until then other than I knew I wasn't really hurting. In all honesty, I felt many times better at that point than I had at any of my previous 3 Almanzo checkpoints. It was an amazing thing.
After the checkpoint, the rolling terrain starts again in earnest. I also knew there would be a good number more miles into that dreaded wind. I had passed a few tail end charlie's from the Almanzo 100 a few miles before the checkpoint, but now I could see more in front of me. Typically I'd catch site of them walking the small rollers that I was still grinding out and before I knew it, I'd be passing them. Even though I was only rolling 12 or so mph, the speed difference was amazing as they were barely pushing on having given it their all. I tried to say a few words of encouragement to each rider I passed. Hopefully it made some small difference to them.
I started my countdown at this point, 30 miles, 20 miles, 10 miles to go. With 20ish left to go, we hit the water crossing. Having seen it last year, I knew what I was in store for. My plan was to actually take the time to remove my shoes and socks, roll up my leg warmers, and to walk across barefoot. My plan worked beautifully! Until I stumbled about 2/3 across the channel and steadied myself by dunking my shoes and socks in my left hand completely under the water. Son-of-a-bitch!!! The two guys that had waded across just before I got there had a good chuckle I'm sure. I tossed my gear onto the bank as I stumbled out the other side with the sharp rocks poking my barefeet, taunting my decision even further. I sat down to wring out my now sopping socks and dump the standing water out of my shoes. This was the wettest my feet had been all day as well as the coldest, but I was 20 miles from home and it was going to take a bullet to stop me from getting there.
2011 Water Crossing from Chris Skogen on Vimeo.
The guys from the crossing were long gone, but as I was gearing back up, Ben caught up to me and waded straight across. I really wasn't in the mood to be caught and passed by anyone at this point so I bid him adieu and started cranking up the quarry climb on the far side of the crossing trying to catch back to the other 2 riders. I finally caught them another couple miles down the road as we hit some more steep rollers. I made a pass and the stronger rider grabbed my wheel. He then came back around and started spinning up the climb as he was on a mountain bike with some smaller gears. I decided to have a little fun as I was feeling good at this point. The grade dropped and we were still climbing. I sat in his draft for a minute or two and then came around to take a pull. Once I got in front of him, I hit the gas. After a minute or two I looked back and he was all ready a couple hundred yards back.
We were getting close to home by this point and even though my knees were aching along with my back and right hip, my legs still had power. I was down to the last 10 miles, then BAM! Chris throws in the most devious climb of the day. Oriole road. That name is burned into anyones psyche that rode the course. It was new for this year and I wasn't expecting it. Last year we had backtracked nearly the last 10 miles of the course and I was expecting the same as we'd all ready hit some of it. Now with 7 miles left, here was a wall of a climb. I hadn't walked any climbs to this point and pride sure wasn't going to let me do it now. I geared down as low as I could (since my baby ring up front hadn't worked all day) and let 'er rip. 4-5 mph was all I could muster and I flipped to check the grade seeing steady sections of 20% with some as high as 23%. The climb lasted close to a mile as near as I can tell on my readout. Finally at the top, the road actually dipped and I could build up some speed on the rolling terrain.
I passed a couple more riders about mile 150 and had just caught another when it came time to change out the last cue sheet. Reluctantly I watched the 1 then the other 2 riders roll back past as I stopped to change out the sheet. Not willing to risk any possible missed turns at this point meant letting them go. As I flipped to it, I was overjoyed to see I really only had 3 or so miles left and that our mileage was done at 155.8 rather than 162 which I'd had in my head all day. Fueled by a gel I'd taken in prepping for the last push and the euphoria of realizing how close I was, I lit it up. I hadn't ridden that fast since rolling out early in the morning. Not realizing we were actually rolling south now, I had picked up a tailwind push too.
I powered past the two riders on an uphill section that I stood and powered through. Now onto flat roads and coming into the last pavement, I caught and flew past the final rider in my sights. I sprinted out of the last corner and down to the school where Chris was waiting with open arms and the remaining people were clapping, cheering, honking, and making any noise they could. It was spectacular. 13 hours and 24 minutes for 155.8 miles for 16th place. I was a finisher! I felt fantastic.
One happy camper:
I'll see if I can come up with some thoughts and feelings about the whole ordeal in another post, but suffice to say, this was a near perfect race for me in planning, execution, and completion and I can't ask for anything more.