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Saturday, October 18, 2014

TC1200 2014 Edition - 3rd Time is a Charm

A few minutes before departure
I did not even have it as a stated goal of 2014 to complete a 1200K Grand Randonnee - in fact after DNF'ing in 2011 and 2012 (the second attempt ended with me in the emergency room) - I had expressed to some fellow randonneurs that 600K was my personal limit.  So what happened to change my mind?  Some gentle persuasion coupled with the commitment of a few other riders who shared a close riding pace with mine (start out slow and back off from there).  The only thing the finishing times on rusa.org tell you is some of the riders you can't keep up with, but they don't tell you who rides the same pace.  That information can only be gained by actually riding some long brevets with other riders.  Fortunately I had completed a couple of 400 and 600 brevets with Joe (GA) and Phil (SC).

This year's route gave a taste of NC, SC, and GA
Elevation profile doesn't adequately show rollers

Another factor was getting in enough base miles, including successfully crossing Caesar's Head Mountain.  It was almost a last minute decision in late May to sign up for the Double Caesar 600 which took place over Memorial Day weekend.  This event demonstrated that I could handle the biggest single climb of the 2014 Taste of Carolina 1200.  Still it would be mid August before I finally registered for the big one.

With virtually unanimous agreement among 1200K veterans that the challenge is at least as much mental as physical, I did some extra mental preparation by reading a couple of books that documented how individuals survived what appeared to be impossible situations.  "And I Alone Survived" by Lauren Elder, and "Touching the Void" by Joe Simpson were helpful in providing some material to think about during long nights on seemingly endless rollers.

The day finally arrived.  Ian and I left Greensboro Wednesday afternoon Oct 8 to carpool to Huntersville for the 0400 start on Thursday.  RBA Tony had a wonderful catered meal in the back of the Quality Inn parking lot.  I managed to get a few hours sleep before the usual nervous anxiety kicked in around 0030 with the result that I was checking the time every 20 minutes until the alarm finally went off a little after 2.

Following some final instructions, including warnings about bad railroad crossings and large potholes, Tony sent us off promptly at 0400 on a westward course toward Chimney Rock.  I hooked up with Phil and Joe early on, as planned (another rider would later name us the PBJ Team).  Jeff from Charlotte drifted back a little to ride with Gary.  We made good time (for us) to Chimney Rock (98 miles) and then the challenging climbs began.  Forty two miles later we arrived at Caesar's Head on wet roads.  Volunteer Tom B was waiting for us with some half subs and drinks.  Thunder was rolling not far away, and as we started down the 7 mile steep descent, the rain and wind picked up.  Fortunately it was not a heavy downpour.   The sun reappeared for a couple of hours after getting clear of Caesar's Head, but as we continued on to Anderson SC later that evening, rain again became our companion.  This was a surprise, as the forecast was showing only a 20% chance through Saturday.

I'm following Phil on the first morning
Terry was set up in Anderson (183 miles) with pizza and subs, so we took a break for food as well as getting prepped for another 3 or 4 hours of riding in the rain.  We added Clyde from California at this point - he was glad for some company through the dark and wet night.  Greenwood SC (223 miles) would be our first sleep stop, but all the rooms were already occupied when we arrived.  Tony managed to procure a large 2 room suite which worked out well.  This was to be my longest sleep stop of the entire 1200 - three hours.

Friday's trek to Pooler GA was slightly shorter (191 miles), but there was a surprising number of rollers.  This was likely the hottest day, with temperatures in the 90s.  A long section through a restricted area (no stopping allowed) left us with very little water.  Once we had made it to the other side of the Savannah River Nuclear Site, we looked in vain for some signs of civilization.  Joe opted to stop at a farm and ask for water while Phil and I pressed on.  A couple miles down the road we encountered the pleasant sight of the motor home driven by some folks from Canada who were meeting the bright red velomobile at controls.  They kindly gave us some cold water and refilled our bottles.  This kept us going until the oasis of the Georgia Welcome Center with its air conditioning and complimentary cold drinks.  Then it was on to Sylvania and a sit down meal at a Mexican restaurant.  Here we crossed paths with some faster riders, and after a filling meal, left together (the PBJ Team would quickly drop off the back).  By now the heat of the day had waned, making for a pleasant approximately 100K ride to Pooler.  I led the group for about the last 10 miles into Pooler, and my mental outlook was going downhill.  It wasn't the road conditions or weather, and I wasn't suffering from saddle sores or numb hands.  I just started thinking, "This is really dumb.  What are we proving anyway?  That we can follow some silly set of directions?  That we can get from point A to point B?"  However, the encouraging grin of TC 1200 veteran John O at the control, along with some hot food and a shower/bed, revived my lagging state.

Georgia Welcome Center

PBJ Team at Mexican restaurant in Sylvania

Leaving Sylvania with some faster riders

We left Pooler a little after 3 am Saturday for the short ride to the heart of Savannah.  It was in Savannah that things began to go wrong for me.  We were making a left turn from Louisville Rd to Boundary St, and I was looking at the street sign for Boundary instead of watching where I was going.  I looked back in time to see a guard rail about a foot away and my front wheel glanced off it without sending me down.  However, the impact was enough to knock the left fork leg (aluminum) slightly back.  I didn't notice it at the time and just compensated for the pull to the right throughout the day.  By early evening my lower back was complaining, and other riders were asking why I was positioned so strangely on the bike, always having to keep my left hand lower than the right.  All that evening and into the early morning of Sunday my back pain grew steadily worse.  I could see that the front wheel wasn't perpendicular when I stood on the pedals, but I just attributed it to my sleep deprivation and the fact that my right eye is very near sighted relative to the left.  I couldn't keep up with Joe and Adam on the rollers.  Phil and I arrived in Clinton a little after 0600, about 3 hours later than I had estimated.  We then had some difficulty finding the Days Inn, so it was close to 7 when we pulled into the control.  The control closed around 1030, but Tony informed us we had to get on the road by 0900 to make the 90 hour cutoff, as the last leg to Huntersville had some stiff climbing.  A quick shower and about an hour of sleep later, it was time to take off under gray skies and a mist.  I tossed down some water and energy bars and was the last rider out, around 0855.  I caught up with Phil about a mile later, who was trying to get his headlight operational.

Intersection where I tweaked my fork.  It was dark at the time.
Big cobblestones in Savannah.  We walked.

Phil shortly took off and I began my only solo day of the 1200.  By now the worst was over (so I thought), and I can make it.  A heavy rainstorm soon blew in but even that didn't really faze me.  It was just the angry pain in my back that was getting unbearable.  Tony passed me in his van about 35 miles out of Clinton, stopped and told me to give him everything out of my trunk bag I absolutely didn't need, in order to lighten my load.  He wondered why I was riding so cockeyed and I mentioned that I thought the fork was slightly out of alignment.  After downing a Gatorade, it was on the road again with Tony's brief encouraging words of "Get going."  I don't remember too much about the next 25 miles, other than trying to shift around some, lean to one side and then the other, all in an attempt to get some relief for my lower back.  Arriving at the penultimate control of Clover SC around 1600, I was really in a daze and raised the concern of the store clerk and a couple of customers.  I grabbed a pre-made sub sandwich and a drink, and planted myself on the edge of a stack of water bottles outside.  43 miles left and slightly less than 6 hours.  I should be able to maintain an 8 mph average.

Things went from bad to worse as night fell.  The hills got steeper and it began to drizzle.  I was badly dehydrated, bonking, and seriously sleep deprived.  Maybe it was the pain in my back that kept me awake.  At one point I was trying to get started on a hill and fell over, right into the road.  After picking myself up I tried again, but fell a second time.  I know I let out some kind of an expletive at this point and just decided to walk up the hill.  Even that was tough.  I never felt I would miss the time cutoff, and never considered throwing in the towel.  But there was none of the exhilaration that usually accompanies getting near the end of a challenge.

Coming down the sidewalk toward Quality Inn
 Once I made the right turn onto NC 73, I knew the big hills were behind me.  It was still another 7 or so miles to the end, but I was thinking it would go pretty quickly.  By then it was about 2030, so I still had 1.5 hours.  The rain was continuing, but not heavily.  What really started scaring me was the fact that I could not hold a steady line near the fog line.  I found myself drifting over right next to the center line and weaving around.  This is dangerous and reckless, I said to myself.  So I began a routine of keeping my eye on my rearview mirror, and as soon as I could see traffic approaching I would pull off the road and let it all go by, then ride another 100 or 200 yards until I had to pull over again.  The lights of I-77 never looked so good!  Another block or so and I was ready to take the cloverleaf for US 21 N.  A van slows down in the opposite lane and Tony yells out the window.  He gets turned around and glides alongside me and says to just get on the sidewalk and hit the crosswalk button to cross NC 73.  It is now about 2120.  You would think I would have had a rush of adrenaline, being that close to the end.  But I was so out of it and sleep deprived, I barely made it across NC 73 before the time ran out on the walk signal.  I then started walking down the sidewalk, until I realized it might be faster to get back on my bike and at least coast.  So I coasted down to the corner where I needed to go left to the Quality Inn.  Again I paused and tried to think whether I should stay on the sidewalk or go out in the street.  It seemed like a major decision.  There was no traffic so I could have moved out into the street.  But for some reason I decided it would be more consistent to stay on the sidewalk, so I turned left and coasted down to where I had to get off the sidewalk.  As I entered the Quality Inn driveway, a big cheer went up.  Rounding the curve, there was my wife Deane and one of my sons (Caleb), Tony, Ian and Mary, Terry, and several riders from California including Jenny, Patrick, and Jason.  What a welcome!  It took a while to sink in that I had actually completed a 1200.  Ian and Mary gave me their last beer along with some of Ian's K Hound celebration cake.

This was the most challenging mental and physical activity I have ever done.  I still can hardly believe it, after trying and failing twice in the past.  Other than the tweaked fork, there were no mechanical issues.  I used my air horn a few times on dogs.  My back is slowly recovering, but there were no other major physical problems such as numb hands, cramps, swollen knees, etc.  Thanks to Tony for putting on a great event and providing superb support at controls.  And many thanks to Joe and Phil, whose companionship through the first three days was invaluable.
Made it.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Double Caesar 600

This brevet is named after Caesar's Head Mountain, bordering North and South Carolina, and for the feature of crossing this mountain twice (once in each direction).  Double the pain, double the fun, right?  Audax Atlanta hosts the event starting in Evans GA on the northern outskirts of Augusta.  I usually get a mild case of the jitters the evening before one of these long out of town brevets, and this was no exception.  It's not too late to back out - just give Kevin a call and he'll understand.  No, can't give in to such thoughts - you've trained and prepared.  Your emotions will settle down once the ride is underway.

Six of us took off from the Publix shopping center at 4 a.m. Saturday May 24.  Temperatures were pleasantly mild.  I led from the back, watching as a small string of taillights disappeared up the road.  I was determined to not repeat a previous mistake made during a tough 600 - working hard for the first 80 miles to stay with a faster group, only to have nothing left once the real climbing started and thus earning the DNF award.  Ride your own ride, finishing is the goal, if you want to sprint, save it for the last 2 miles.

Looking at the elevation profile, one could be excused for thinking there is virtually no climbing except for Caesar's Head.  However, a surprising number of rollers are hidden in that profile, and some of them are long enough to make it impossible for an average rider to just "power over the top."  Knowing Caesar's Head lay ahead kept me in the mode of conserving energy.

I caught up with Tim C at the 146 mile control (about 15 miles before the real ascent).  It was pretty toasty by that point, and with reports of the fast crew running out of water halfway up the mountain, Tim and I each purchased an extra bottle of water.  Once we hit the major climbing, Tim was struggling with leg cramps and told me to keep going.  Descending toward Brevard NC (the turnaround), some mild showers fell and I stopped at a closed shop next to the road to put on a rain jacket.  I got in under the porch just as the rain really picked up.  It shortly was a hard downpour, so I just sat it out under that nice porch for about 15 or 20 minutes.  Ed B was on his way back from Brevard and pulled in, totally soaked.  Tim rode by as the rain stopped, and I followed him by a few minutes.  The annual "White Squirrel Festival" in Brevard meant some of our route was closed off to traffic, so that meant walking my bike for a couple of blocks through some throngs.  A sit down meal at the Huddle House was followed by the realization that we were as far away from Augusta as we could be, and there was that pesky mountain to deal with.  The approach from the North Carolina side is not quite as formidable, and you can't see that far ahead in the dark, but I will admit the sign announcing the Visitor's Center as 1000 feet ahead was a very welcome sight.  Descending the steeper side of Caesar's Head in the dark, while shivering, was actually not as hair raising of an experience as I dreaded.  Tim descends much faster than I do, so it was a couple of miles after reaching the end of Caesar's Head Highway before I saw his taillight far in the distance.

Tim and I made it to the overnight control (251 miles) at Clemson Outdoor Center just before 4 a.m., where Kevin had a large cabin reserved with a couple of showers, plenty of food, and sleeping arrangements.  The fast crew (we saw them screaming down Caesar's Head as we were grinding up) had already been and gone.  Ed beat us to Clemson by about 3 hours, but elected to get some sleep and leave with us.  Departure time for the final 200K was set for 6:30 a.m., when a few 200K riders would join us.  It was essentially a solo ride back for me, but that was fine given the beautiful weather.  One incident with a dawg deserves mention.  I was coming up to a stop sign when a medium size dog came tearing out of a yard just behind me.  I felt it going for my right ankle but managed to kick out of the pedal and flail my leg around to keep the dawg from biting.  I did get in a good kick to the dawg's head before I stopped and got off my bike.  The dawg and I stood glaring at each other, about 20 feet between us, while I unsnapped my can of Halt! from its clip.  Just then the dawg charged me with its fangs bared.  About two feet away I sprayed the dawg's face full with Halt! and watched it turn 180 degrees and head for the grass, rubbing its head desperately trying to get rid of the pepper spray.  This dawg had a long leash, and must have broken free from whoever was supposed to be tending it.  I was the last to finish the ride, so did not get a chance to compare notes with other riders, but Kevin did not say anyone else had an incident (thankfully).

Summary:  A difficult but very scenic 600.  About 20,000 feet of climbing, concentrated heavily in the middle 40 miles.  Excellent support by the RBA and members of Audax Atlanta.

Acknowledgement:  All pictures courtesy of Wilmington Rick, who rode this brevet last year.