Wednesday, June 5, 2013

DC Randonneurs 600K

Last weekend I participated in the longest ride the Randonneurs offer that in the normal course does not boast a branded t-shirt or a water bottle.  This was my third 600K since 2009 and my first that was not put on by the Alaska Randonneurs.  (It was also probably my only true 600K.  The Alaska Randonneurs' loop comes in just a shade -- maybe 3 or 4 miles -- short.)

DC Rand Frederick 600K.  Day 1 in blue and Day 2 in pink.
Map, elevation profile, and data for the DC Randonneurs Frederick 600K.

We launched from Frederick at 4 am, which required my waking at 2 am and leaving home at 2:30 to make the start.  There was a good crowd with 23 starters.

The forecast called for heat and humidity.  Depending where you looked, temperatures were predicted into the low 90s.  I wore my silly-looking DeSoto leg coolers and a Skins brand long-sleeve compression shirt that also boasts cooling properties -- in fact, but for my neck and face, I was completely covered.  Thankfully, no cyclist looks good in his or her clothing, so I did not draw obvious snickers.

For reasons I never quite figured out, I was riding at the front of the group after the first 10th of a mile.  3 miles later there was one headlight with me.  By the outskirts of Frederick I recognized B__, with whom D__ and I had ridden nearly all of the 400K four weeks prior; nobody else was even in sight.  I deliberately pushed the pace because I kind of wanted to ride in the front, because I knew it would get hot later, and because RBA N__ had said at the start "If you make it to the first control before the store opens at 8 -- well, nobody will make it to the first control before 8."  (8:05.  But because the store opened a few minutes late, we half proved him wrong.)

B__ and I had a 10-minute lead at the first control (67 miles in).  I lost B__ on a hill after about 100 miles; he and the pack both caught me as I was finishing my lunch break at mile 120.  After that, except for an out-and-back stretch into Shepherdstown WV, that was the last I saw of any other riders until the next morning.

This route has two stretches of good hard climbing.  The first is before the mile 67 control.  The second is between miles 290 and 340 on day 2.  Most of the riding is over rolling hills through farmland where you are at the mercy of the sun and the wind.  The wind was not a non-issue, but it wasn't a problem either.  The sun was brutal.  It was 78 degrees at 4 when we started; downright hot at the first control at 8 am; and we were baking by mid-day.  I stopped for a snack at a Sheetz station a few miles short of Antietam, opened the freezer to grab a Snickers ice-cream bar -- and sat down in the freezer for a few minutes.  (But the way, that kind of worked.)

By the time I reached Shepherdstown WV at mile 160 I knew I would not be riding through the night without stopping.  I called P__ and she agreed to join me.  (Why I needed support for the overnight is not clear, although it gets dreadfully lonely riding hard for double-digit hours at a stretch.)

From Shepherdstown the route rather perversely re-crosses the Potomac into Maryland only to head back over the river for controls in Lovettsville and Purcelville.  Maybe it was the heat and maybe it is the population base in Civil War territory, but drivers became real jerks for a few hours there.  (Before I sound like I am complaining, it is better that this happens at 3 pm than at 3 am.)  The hills pick up again between Lovettsville and the final Potomac River crossing at Point of Rocks, Maryland.  After 200 miles I was definitely feeling every pedal stroke.

I've observed this phenomenon in every long ride I've done and I've heard it recounted many times by others, but I cannot internalize it.  The hard part of a ride is the last (X) miles before the end.  X is not quite a constant -- in a 200K, X is about 10 miles.  In a 400K X seems to run closer to 20 or 30 miles.  But a 400K does not get hard at mile 115, when the 200K does.  In a ride with an overnight, X occurs on each day.  Thus, last weekend's 600K became a death march at about mile 210, with the overnight at mile 228.  It happened again at mile 350, with the finish at mile 375.  I was tired in Lovettsville, but at the final first-day control Purcelville -- which, interestingly, has been a control or water-stop on all three rando rides I've done this spring -- the McDonalds cashier actually said "looks like it's been a long day."

10 more miles of hills in Virginia before re-crossing the Potomac back into Maryland.  Thankfully the cue sheet follows the easy route from Point of Rocks to Frederick.  I like a cue sheet that says "X Mountville Rd."  I rolled into the Frederick Days Inn at 8:45 pm, a pace that contends with my personal best for a 400K.  Displaying the uneasy tension between touring and racing, both RBA N__ and tireless volunteer M__ congratulated me on being the first one in, while I did my best not to show that I was pretty psyched by the fact.

P__ checked us into our room, I stashed the bike in the car, I took a much needed shower, and I set a 2 am alarm before hitting the sack at 9:30. 12:15 am came quickly.  2 took a while.  I should have gotten up when my internal clock said so rather than waiting for the iPhone.

Breakfast:  two bowls of chili with lots of sour cream.  One bowl of chicken soup with rice.  A handful of dough-nuts.  A cup of coffee with another cup in the water bottle.  Whatever else I could cram down my gullet.  Water and Gatorade in the other two bottles as I departed.  While waiting for the Garmin to charge I chatted with M__, who told me three riders had ridden through but were looking pretty spent.  To punctuate that remark, three more riders arrived at the overnight as I was preparing to leave.  To their credit, they looked quite chipper, and after nearly 23 hours on the road had stomachs for bowls of chili before going down for what was going to be a short sleep.  (The results suggest they did not finish the ride -- quite defensible given the storms that hit the area late in the day on Sunday.)

I left the overnight 15 minutes before the pack from yesterday, timed deliberately to ride alone at night and to save time at the controls.  On this second trip through downtown Frederick I was truly riding by myself, although at 2:45 there were still drunks walking the streets.  A few miles into the country it was just me, a fat crescent moon, the big dipper to my left (west, maybe?), and some rustling in the bushes.  My lighting problems seem to be solved (see gear, below) and I was well able to see imperfections and hazards in the road, to read the cue sheet, and to identify streets by their signs.  I was alert and comfortable on the bike.  The last time I enjoyed cycling this much . . . was the first three hours riding on day 2 of the Alaska 600K in June 2012 ("A Pocket Adventure," American Randonneur, Winter 2012).  I may be discerning a pattern!

Somewhere up the road the route re-entered Pennsylvania.  I reached the first control of the second day just before 6 am. By now fully in the "anything fatty and salty looks good mode," I ordered the breakfast sandwich with an extra egg and extra bacon, disappointed to be stuck with a muffin instead of a croissant.  Add in a chocolate milk, a large Starbucks frappuccino (coffee flavored and sweetened with Maltodextrin), and water for the bottles, and once again I was saddling up just as the pack pulled in.  The pack had lost three members (the ride-through trio) and gained one (B__, my companion from the first 100 miles).  To a one they looked strong and comfortable.

Day 2, Part 2 gets hilly once again, winding for ~15 miles through the Pigeon Hills (named, I was told, for a now extinct population of carrier pigeons).  Pigeon Hill climbs, like life, are "nasty, brutish, and [mercifully] short."  Here I had my one truly annoying routing problem which came from turning the cue sheet too early.  It only caused a couple of miles of extra riding, but at 300 miles in -- in particular when I was still in unannounced quasi-competition with the pack -- those extra miles took on new meaning.  The second control came quickly, and once again I pulled out as the group pulled in.

The hills continued for the next 40 miles, and although no one hill was difficult, by now climbing meant standing in a granny gear almost no matter what the grade.  (In fact, I noted that my chain ring of choice changed from 50 teeth on day 1 to 34 teeth on day 2.  The power required to maintain a good cadence in 50-anything was hard to come by.)  It was hard work to hold any kind of pace toward the end of this ride.

The last 63 miles required a full 5 hours, including a short nap at the Citgo station with 25 miles to go.  (I left that station as the pack . . . .  You guessed it.)  The DC Randonneurs have this thing with parading riders through downtown Frederick, which is lots of fun at the beginning of a ride at 4 am but is just annoying riding solo at the very end.  Who needs 10 stoplights to close out 375 miles?  I made it back to the Days Inn at 1:51 pm, 33:51 from the start, 1:01 after the through-the-night group, and :29 before the large pack behind me.

Pizza, a little chatting, and heading home to watch the terrible Will Smith movie "After Earth."  (Do not go see that.)  Three days later I am still in recovery mode.


No single rando ride can give any but the most general of lessons for other rides because the variables overwhelm the constants.  The constants: 600K takes longer to ride than does 400K.  Riding in the heat is harder than is riding in cool temperatures.  Headwinds suck.  So do hills.

A.  I did all but the first 90 miles of this ride solo (and for the entire first 90 I was pulling).  Partly that's my personality, partly it just happened that way, partly I got a little competitive and wanted to stay ahead of the large pack that was shadowing me, and partly I knew that I was moving through controls quickly while the pack was necessarily taking a long time.  Being able to ride my own pace and not waste time when I wanted to move -- and to waste time when I needed to do so -- was helpful.  One could debate whether those benefits overcome the benefits of pack cycling.  I vote that they do.  Solo riding is not essential. On other rides (200K permanent 2007; Alaska 600K 2009; 300K permanent 2011) my companion has been the difference between my finishing (surviving?) and not.  But unthinking adherence to a pack ethic is more drag than boost.

B.  I had planned to skip the overnight and ride into the night with a tentative goal of finishing under 30 hours.  That plan went out the window about 150 miles in after 90 miles of baking in 90+-degree heat with no shade.  Instead, I arrived at the overnight control (mile 228) in a fairly respectable 16:45 (faster, in any event, than my personal best 400K pace), slept fitfully for 4 1/2 hours, and launched again at 2:45 am.  Three riders from the pack that rolled in behind me, strong by reputation, pulled into the control at 9:30 pm (45 minutes after I had), slept for less than an hour, and rode into the night at 11 pm.  Not unpredictably, despite their starting nearly 3:45 before me, they finished just an hour ahead.  Which is the better approach?
1.  Here is one place where variables overwhelm constants.  Saturday was a brutal day.  Most of the ride was through exposed farmland.  I doubt it would have been helpful to ride more slowly, because it was the sun, not the exertion, that took its toll.  On this ride skipping the overnight seems not to have worked.  On a cooler or otherwise easier 600K it might work.  
2.  There is a happy medium.  I was alert at 12:15 am and could easily have been riding by 1.  Had I done so, I very likely would have caught, and passed, the overnight group.  Future:  set the alarm as a backup, but get up and go when I wake up.
3.  The general principle?  Rest is key, but time spent not sleeping (or getting your stomach back) is probably better spent on the bike.

C.  Corollary to B, above: I reserved a room in Frederick instead of something less pleasant like crawling into the back of my car for a few hours.  Taking a shower and lying on a bed makes me feel human.  It also saps much resolve to keep hammering away.  Is it smart to reserve "just in case"?  It just depends.  A worst-case-scenario backup plan makes sense.  A backup plan that threatens to be unduly tempting may not.  

D.  All day 1 I rode way off the front.  Too hard?  Pace oneself?
1.  I say no.  I can pace a marathon.  I can even pace an ironman.  I can't pace a 30+ hour event.  Push when you feel good and relax when you don't.
2.  I was tempted to quit this ride at the overnight.  Other (more experienced) randonneurs did.  I might well have if I hadn't made a statement by riding way up front.  It would have been way too shaming not to ride day 2.

E.  Eating gel:  it works.  Do it.  Even when you twitch just thinking about it.  In particular on the second day, I ceased using Accelerade and ceased taking gel.  I ate enough at controls to get me through, but I was slogging.  When I finally forced myself to consume a gel pack -- voila.  I was riding again.  That said, I want to invent a gel with no sweetness to it.  I will carry enough for one day in a squeeze bottle.  Suggestions welcome.  My recipe will probably start with an entire shaker-full of salt.  The next ingredient may be ground-up beef jerky.

Gear and Loading

The Gunnar, fully loaded for a multi-day ride.
A few notes about gear.  The Gunnar once again performed almost perfectly.  I changed to a larger cassette last weekend (11-28 rather than 12-25) and after a Memorial Day check-out century ride resolved minor shifting problems. Two glitches:  First, I have a constant rubbing in the big ring, while riding in the small ring is near silent.  I assume my front derailleur is positioned just a tad too low.  Second, the shifting went a little sour in the larger cogs after about 300 miles.  I assume I can correct that with a few twists of the barrel adjuster.

My new WTB Rocket V SLT saddle (currently $100 at Jenson unless I bought the last 10) was simply phenomenal.  Nothing can prevent saddle discomfort after riding maybe 24 hours in a 34-hour stretch.  This was as close as one could hope.  I have it mounted with the nose pitched just slightly higher than past practice.  The result is a much easier upright seating posture with much less weight on my wrists.

I switched back to my White Mountain Wheels custom build wheelset with 26c Grand Bois tires and  latex tubes.  The wheelset is lighter than the Hed Belgiums (with a Powertap) from Neuvation; it has 32 spokes rear (carry the spares on your wheel); and it looks really good.  The 26c tires clear the brakes better on the Gunnar than did the 28s.  I used slime in the latex tubes.  The ride was smooth; I believe it was efficient; and it was flat-free.  No reason ever to change wheels again.

I rode with one DiNotte 200L lamp and one Serfas 500L lamp, carrying a spare battery (or battery pack) for each.  Even at the darkest hour, the Serfas on its 150 lumen setting and the DiNotte on its medium (about 140 lumens), operating together, provide more than ample light.  From my perspective, I have three vectors of redundancy:  redundant lights, redundant batteries, and redundant technologies.  As if that isn't enough, I had a spare of each type of light in the drop-bag.  Each Serfas battery was plenty for the four hours of use each day.  On the DiNotte I used one set of Eneloop rechargeables for the entire ride, without recharging -- thus, perhaps 6 hours total on one battery pack without a hitch.  (I ran the Serfas later into the dawn hours than I did the DiNotte.)

I carried my Yuba battery pack for recharging either the Serfas or the Garmin.  It worked fine on the Garmin, although it was a little slow and I learned that recharging resets the Garmin's routing function.  Thus, one big recharge works well (and I should simply have recharged at night, but forgot), but a small recharge at each control is at best annoying and at worst infeasible.  (The recharging also resets the trip computer function, which is less annoying while riding but promises to be a real pain when I try to upload my data.)

I lightened the load after the check-out ride, carrying only (1) the Jandd frame pack, (2) the Revelate "Jerry Can" pack that sits atop the top tube directly in front of the seat-post (full of spare electronics), (3) a light tool kit with two tubes in the seat-bag, and (4) three water bottles.  It worked.  You can pack for anything, or you can pack for most things and decide that the extreme (more flats in a day than I have patches in my patch-kit?) are god's telling you something.  (One guy in the pack that was shadowing me rode an old aluminum Novara Strada.  His load:  a small seat bag; an extra tire strapped below that; and two water bottles.  That was it.  I don't see myself going that light, but I was envious!)

In the future I will carry less food in the frame pack.  I can't buy gel packs on the road, but everything else I can pick up on the way.  That will free up space for my bivy sack and some emergency warm clothing on the Big Wild Ride.

I wore a Skins long-sleeve compression shirt under my jersey on day 1.  I am unsure whether it worked from a temperature perspective (rather than a looser jersey with arm coolers), but I have some confidence that it mitigated the stress on my shoulders and back from long hours in the saddle. I will definitely be wearing it in Alaska.  The DeSoto leg coolers served their purpose, with a caveat: they have a remarkably effective silicone grip strip around the top.  After 200 miles they had abraded rings around my legs that are taking an annoyingly long time to heal.


A good, hard ride.  Nothing can replace back-to-back long days for purposes of preparation for a multi-day event.  Probably I should find an excuse to do another of these before Alaska in July.

Setting a goal, but adjusting it as you ride, seems to be the only way to handle this kind of long event.  Nothing is predictable after about 300 kilometers.

After plenty of experimentation with gear, I think I've found a packing strategy that works for me.  I'm interested to note that my load was very similar to what I carried on the 600K in Alaska last summer, and not deliberately.  Thus, two different courses of experimentation produced the same result.


Unknown said...

A very thorough write-up! Congrats on gutting out a tough ride. I think I'd have been tempted to ride straight through simply to minimize the heat, but that's easier said from the peanut gallery than done in practice.

I've noticed, both from riding with you in similar brevets and reading reports of your rides, that you definitely have a competitive streak in you about these things. I'm curious why you're motivated to ride off the front in brevets, when you're likely the only one focused on doing so, but are seemingly less interested in events like Fireweed 400, Furnace Creek, and Tejas 500. Those would seem to be natural fits.

Max said...

It's much easier to compete when nobody else is racing. That having been said -- Furnace Creek 2015!

I agree about the night. It would have required a compadre to work this time around (and even then would have been tough). On the other hand, an earlier start would have accomplished much the same goal. (I left around 3 and finished around 2. Leaving around 1 should have produced a noon finish.)

And, many thanks for reading and for the comment.

Unknown said...

Speaking of riding off the front, you may remember in 2012's Frederick 300k a guy named Henrik Olsen riding off the front and finishing in 11:40 or so. Turns out he was racing UMCA 12- and 24-hour races, and put in a 432-mile performance at the National 24-hour race you'll be contesting next month. It's nice to know we were dusted by someone with talent, but see what you can do to ride 433.

Max said...

He's the real deal. Won Saratoga 12 a few years back, I think.

sam said...

Excellent write-up and congratulations. I don't think I'd have had the willpower to head out for a second day after that heat, and with a willing driver nearby.

Re: riding off the front. See , but seriously I think staying ahead of the pack is a pretty reasonable thing to do. There are a lot of pitfalls and annoying expectations that go along with pack riding. And, while many of them won't admit it, there are quite a few randos who want to finish their rides fast, and faster than the next guy.

The gear situation looks pretty dialed in, but there's something comical about needing an entire additional bag to hold electronic doo-dads.

Your sleep experience is interesting. I challenge anyone to get a restful sleep after a long day in the saddle -- waking up after 2-3 hours seems to be the norm. Agreed that just getting up and going is the right approach there.

All in all an excellent ride!

Unknown said...

Great article.

Sam, I rode my 7th consecutive Mountains of Misery double metric over Memorial Day, along with a buddy of mine whom Max knows well. It's a noncompetitive event, but a lot of talented riders show up, and the two of us set a very ambitious goal of 8 hours (my previous best being about 8:40, and my average of all rides being more like 9:30). It turned out we had a great day -- my friend and I both went in the 7:40s, which put us 6th and 7th overall. Second place was in the 7:20's, which is sick.

But the point of the story is that at least one guy agreed with you that pack riding was for the birds. He dropped the 50-person hard-driving peloton in the first 100 yards of the ride, and we never saw him again. He rode 6:26, i.e., about an hour faster than the exceptionally strong rider in second place. (14k feet of climbing in 127 miles, btw.)

When something like that happens, you know one of two things: either the guy cut the course, or -- as turned out to be the case -- his racing team's website describes him as a "multi-time national road racing and criterium champion."

sam said...

First, that's a great story

And second, that is a 20mph average. On the MoM. WoW.

Makes you realize that there are cyclists, and then there are cyclists. And the latter are participating in an entirely different sport than the former.

Max said...

You know, we all torture ourselves riding really long things and sometimes poke fun at the made-for-everyone "challenge centuries," but one would have a serious year with some cool travel and scenery if one tried to hit (1) Mt. Mitchell, (2) MoM, (3) Diabolical Double, (4) Death Ride, (5) Triple Bypass (maybe even Double Triple Bypass), (6) RAMROD, (7) this ridiculous ride Damon is aiming for in mid-August, (8) others?