Sunday, June 30, 2013

National 24-Hour Challenge

Here is more than you wanted to know about how Sam and I spent June 15 and 16.  Photo credits:  Sam.  (Sam has a knack for making the human subject of a photograph look, er, studlier than he really is, so take the pictures with a certain grain of salt.  Unless I look like a tool, in which case he went for realism in that shot.)

The Short Version

At the National 24-Hour Challenge, a draft-legal ultra-cycling race/ride (depending on your perspective) in central Michigan, Sam (crewing) and I (riding) knocked off nearly 310 miles in the between 20 and 22 hours that the course was open.  If one applies the 1.22 multiplier that we were encouraged to apply to our final mileage, we approached a 24-hour 600K.  [For perhaps obvious reasons that analysis is short-sighted.  The most obvious, in my case, is that I was lying on the floor and moaning long before the course was closed, suggesting I would not have continued riding had the course remained open.  My best guess is that the closure might have cost me 30 miles.]

The N24HC is a phenomenally run event with a friendly staff and dozens of selfless volunteers; a comfortable race HQ; an interesting and not overly challenging course; and a huge and varied field of entrants.  But for some bad pavement and hordes of wheel-suckers, I can think of nothing I would change.

The variables are too many to say this definitively, but I found the N24HC course to be harder than the Saratoga 12/24, my only other time-limited ultra-cycling event.  The most obvious problem with voicing this comparison is that in Saratoga I rode for 12 hours and last weekend I rode for the lion's share of 24!  Both events had oddly perfect weather -- temperatures in the 70s, overcast skies, just enough rain spitting to be enjoyable -- except for the storms last weekend, when I was not riding.  Both have fairly easy terrain:  The 2012 Saratoga course had two short moderately challenging climbs and 31.5 miles of flat or slightly downhill riding; The N24HC course has miles of rolling hills that one can ride without leaving the aero position.  (Summary:  the terrain is probably incommensurate, but neither is hard.)  The Saratoga event was repeated 32.5 mile loops, long enough to keep one's speed up but short enough to be psychologically manageable.  The N24HC has a first loop of 117.6 miles, which is a long ride in its own right, and night loops of 7.5 miles, which are psychologically easy but (1) encourage frequent resting, and (2) prevent one's finding a rhythm.

We went hard -- probably too hard -- for the first ~164 miles, or the long loop and two of the medium loops.  That pace put us well ahead of where we needed to be to finish 400 miles, but at that point a nutrition deficit became clear and although riding pace did not substantially diminish, breaks became frequent, longer, and increasingly pathetic.  After 249.9 miles we stopped for a long break with the plan of reaching a total of 300 miles after a morning start.  The course closure likely delayed that start (although who really knows) and in the final 3:35 we spooled off eight final short laps for 60 more miles.

Going hard.  Perhaps too hard.
The result was a tie for 42nd place, not counting tandems; third in the 35-39 age group; and a good start on a new goal of reaching 1000 total miles at this event over three not-necessarily-consecutive years.

We learned some lessons, too: 

(1) At this event, at least, the 400-mile strategy is to ride the long loop and five medium loops before beginning the short night loop.  That sets up a possible 401.1 mile finish (after 22 night loops).  Otherwise one must ride four medium and 26 night loops for 407.4 miles.  25 night loops after four day loops would produce a heart-breaking 399.9 miles!

(2) We should have used more solid food earlier.  Over this distance, Heed, Accelerade, and gel work as supplements but do not work as a diet strategy.  (I know, everybody has a contrary story.  But this is the lesson I draw.)   That approach is consistent with thoughtful advice from Allen Delaney at Rehab 2 Racing of taking more liquid nutrition at night to avert sleepiness.  A few burgers, sandwiches, or slices of pizza between noon and 10 p.m. might ensure enough calories and a quiet enough stomach to tolerate several night hours of primarily liquid simple carbohydrates and caffeine.

Solid food.  Should have had more.
(3) We should have seen the doldrums coming and injected a serious caffeine boost.  I would guess that a cup of coffee at 6 p.m., before heading out for the fourth medium loop, would have set up a much better late-evening of riding.

That insulated bottle is full of coffee.  No accident that the first loop went quickly!
And, (4) once it became clear that reaching the goal was going to require work, we should have had a clearer split of authority:  Sam (the crew) is the decision-maker and I (the rider) am the executer.  I have some confidence that Sam's preference would have been another 50 miles before calling it a night, which would have preserved the 400-mile option and at least made 350 miles very realistic.

Summary:  this event is highly recommended.  I, and I hope we, will be back.

The Long Version

Sam and I drove from Indianapolis to Middleville, Michigan, on Friday, June 14; checked in at race headquarters at the Thornapple Kellogg Middle School; and drove two of the loops of the National 24-Hour Challenge bike race before heading to our hotel.  We were back at the course by 6:45 on Saturday morning in plenty of time to park conveniently close to the start line and race facilities. Sam changed the rear tube on the Gunnar, which had mysteriously lost most of its air, and attended the crew briefing while I tried to keep busy doing nothing (other than agonizing whether to wear or not to wear this or that piece of clothing, to bring two or three spare tubes, how many of my gel packs should be caffeinated versus not . . .).  We chatted with the occasional old-timer and spied for extraordinary bikes or bicyclists.  Our closest brush to what counts in ultracycling as fame was seeing Dave Haase of the first RAAM documentary.  As always happens in these events, the start came far too quickly for my liking.

Four-time RAAM finisher Dave Haasse.  Not skimping on the gear, either.
The vibe surrounding the starting area of any ultra event is impossibly superior to that of a normal running or triathlon race.  Perhaps among the top competitors, who know each other, there is some posturing and behind-the-back talk; for everybody else, it is a gathering of hippies and seekers and friends looking forward to a day together in the saddle.  

What bagpipes have to do with ultra-cycling, I have no idea.
There are no start-line nerves, little if any jockeying to toe the line first; families and crews mingle with the riders and no barriers hold anybody back.

The guy behind me later explained that his arse was comfortably numb.
The RD called the start at 8 am and we rolled as a group down the 1/2 mile back road leaving the school parking lot.

The start.
Police waved us through stop signs and lights for the first 10 miles and the pack divided up quickly into a small lead group with maybe three or four riders; a large chase pack with as many as 50; and everybody else, whom I did not see again until we retired to the shorter loops in the afternoon.  I was quickly scolded for riding in my aero bars by one of the many riders in matching underoos who clearly follow the cycling strategy that goes "don't pedal if somebody else will do it for you."  After finally breaking from the peloton 15 miles in, I rode my own pace until maybe mile 90, when I shared a few pulls with a small group before losing them as well.

The National 24-Hour Challenge is -- to my surprise -- a full-on draft-legal event from start to finish.  I showed up planning to test my own solo limits.  Most riders seem to have showed up planning to start working hard once the sun set and riding in a pack became unsafe or infeasible!  This had at least one amusing consequence:  my bike selection was the opposite of others'.  I rode a time-trial frame (with drop bars and clip-ons) during the day until I could not stand it any longer, then moved to the Gunnar, an upright road frame, for the long late hours.  Others rode road bikes until dark and then moved to time trial bikes for the night-time.  Another consequence, less amusing:  anybody riding hard could be assured of a wheel-sucker latching on before too much time passed.

Wheel suckers.  Nice guys, though.
We started off with great weather and rode hard to maximize the miles before it got hot, or it started to rain, or it turned windy, or gravity reversed itself.  Sam hit the checkpoints and had food and drink prepared to perfection -- a casual but realistic guess as to my total non-riding time in the first 117 miles is less than three minutes.  A lack of down time keeps the momentum up for the riding.  (Showing the importance of a good crew chief, one rider with whom I swapped leads over many miles consistently fell behind at check-points, working hard to catch me just in time to fall behind again at the next one.)  Our seamless checkpoints, the superlative weather, an aggressive riding posture on the trusty P2SL, and my reintroduction to caffeine, from which I had weaned myself in the preceding weeks, contributed to personal bests at the 100-mile distance and the 180K distance, on the way to 20 minutes faster than planned for the 117.6-mile long first loop.  After sitting for a few minutes and eating not nearly enough, I started my first day loop at 1:50 pm, 5:50 into the 24-hour clock -- still well ahead of plan.

Entering first checkpoint, mile 30.5, at 1:23 down.  Perhaps a tad quick, but it felt good at the time.
Long loop
Short loops
The National 24-Hour Challenge course is comprised of three loops.  The first is 117.6 miles winding in an approximate square to the east, then south, then west, and then back north to the start/finish/race HQ/loop turn-around point.  It has checkpoints at miles 30, 67, and 92, with the fourth check-point at the loop's end. Riders are required to complete that loop before starting the second, medium-sized loop (denominated the "day loop"), a 23.7 mile ride south, west, and back north with one check-point mid-way.  After at least one completion of the day loop, but not before 7:15 p.m., riders may begin the short "night loop", 7.5 miles in a rectangle from the same start/finish/turn-around point.  After the long loop, crews remain at the race headquarters and offer support only at the turns.  Strategizing the rider's choice of loops ends up being important if going for a particular distance.  In the final tally I rode 1 long, 4 day, and 13 night loops for a total of 309.9 miles.  With 13 more night loops I would have hit 407.4 total, the minimum I would need to break 400 miles.  But had I ridden 5 day loops, 22 night loops would have brought me to 401.1 miles, reaching that elusive goal a good 20 minutes faster.

I was feeling beat when I left race HQ for the day loop.  One of the small group I had joined briefly toward the end of the long loop left with me and we chatted for a few minutes until I noticed he hadn't answered my last question.  I looked back and saw he had flatted, but this was not a randonneur ride, so I pedaled on without him.  My first trip on the day loop was comfortable and even strong, so I rolled immediately into a second go.  Trip number two was much less pleasant.  At the end I lay in the cool grass of the middle-school lawn while Sam located a baked potato somewhere.  After maybe 20 minutes off the bike I set out for loop three, once again finishing on a strong note, and set out immediately for number four.  I learned half-way through that I was out of gel in my jersey pocket and stumbled in to HQ at mile 212.4 at 7:30, 11:30 into the ride, feeling bonked.  The lap finish times Sam compiled suggest I was off my bike at this point for a full hour, which definitively put an end to any real 400-mile aspirations.

Now things really slowed down.  I did not attempt the fifth day loop, which was possible but threatened substantial lost time if I failed to return before the loop closed at 9 pm.  (My day-loop times ranged between 1:15 for the first and 1:21 for the fourth.  I finished that miserable fourth loop with 1:33 remaining before 9 pm.  Even with five minutes down to eat gel or to slug coffee, barring a flat, a fifth loop before 9 pm should have been an easy spin.)  Instead, Sam outfitted the Gunnar and I managed two night loops before another rest; two more, then a rest; and one last before calling it a day at 11:20 pm, at that point 250 miles down.  (Silver lining?  A big PB for the 400K distance, although not exactly on a regulation 400K.)

Nutrition became a problem sometime during the day loops.  The most likely time is at the end of the first loop, when I should have refueled substantially rather than relying on a Honey Stinger Waffle and similar fast-digesting foods.  Gels and Heed during the loops, with nibbles at the potato in between, were insufficient to keep me moving.  The result was slower -- and fewer -- day loops than necessary and a bad place from which to launch into the predictably difficult night riding.

Rain moved into the area.  We tried to sleep in the car, which was a failure, before moving into a hallway in the middle school.  Sleep was difficult with bright lights and loudly conversing neighbors.  At some time during the night the RD closed the course for thunderstorms.  I was relieved:  a real excuse to be doing nothing!  I kept hoping the organizers would call the race, but of course they would not.  The whole point of an ultra event is to compete on vectors beyond raw speed.  Stamina is key, to be sure, but the ability to handle adverse circumstances may be the single greatest factor in success in these events.

 I do not recall the time of the closure.  At some point the RD informed crew that a multiplier of 1.22 would adjust finishing distances for the period of course closure, which suggests it was more than 1/6 of the day -- thus, more than four hours.  That surprises me; my recollection was that the closure occurred at 2 a.m. -- but I was dumb from exertion and half asleep in any event.  The idea of a multiplier is obviously wrongheaded for another reason, which my example shows:  I was resting before the closure even began and would have continued resting even in its absence.  Even the strongest riders would not hold their pace for 24-hour non-stop.

Finally the announcement came:  the course was to be opened at 4:25 a.m., [X] hours after the closure. Not unlike 2:45 a.m. two weeks prior, I now felt ready, even jittery, wanting to get back on the bike.  A McDonalds from the next town up had supplied a banquet-sized coffee service and I scrounged three still-warm slices of cheese pizza from an unattended box.  There was a reason the pizza had not been eaten(!), but simple carbohydrates, salt, fat, and perhaps a modicum of protein, chased with hot coffee, put me in a hammering state of mind.  Sam headed off for breakfast sandwiches and I joined the group lined up at the re-start line.  The rest of the coffee went in a water bottle.

This event is not just well run, it is nicely run.  I overheard the RD talking to a volunteer, saying "nobody is giving me grief about the closure."  I joked, "I want to complain about the closure!"  The volunteer grabbed my elbow:  "you should complain.  Can I get you more coffee?" -- in all earnestness.  They (and it was a big "they," with dozens of volunteers working through the night) were worried about the riders, they were concerned simultaneously for our safety and the fulsomeness of our experience -- this race is a serious event for the contenders and an extraordinary experience for the rest of us.

The remaining 3:35 went remarkably quickly.  My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested completing seven night loops was possible at the pedestrian pace of 30' per 7.5-mile loop.  Seven would turn my 249.9 miles into 302.4 -- not the 400 I thought I might target when I started riding at 8 am the prior day, but a nice round number that would eclipse my prior longest distance in a one-day period (approximately 268 at the Alaska 600K in 2012).  The road was wet from the rain and there was some hazard from sand across the road and downed leaves.  Several riders stopped with flats.  I rode on the crown of the roads as far from depressions in the pavement as possible.  Sam handed me a Subway flatbread breakfast sandwich (A+ -- remember that one!) and a bottle of diluted cola after three loops.  After two more I slugged most of a Starbucks Frappuccino.  I had checked the time after three loops -- 5:45, meaning 1:20 since the re-start -- and concluded if I reached the turn-around with more than 1:20 to go I would shoot for three more.

Going for three more.
Sure enough, the fifth loop of the morning ended at 6:37.  I finally crossed at 7:53 after eight times around that morning.  The last short loop was the fastest.

This is the end.  Beautiful friend . . .
We loaded the bikes, changed clothes, and ate Egg McMuffins provided by the same nearby McDonalds franchise.  Sam had been awake since 5:30 a.m. Saturday and I was wearing down for a different reason, so we started the four-hour drive home without waiting for the award ceremony.


sam said...

Nice writeup Max. Agreed on the lessons. The cold egg mcmuffin is probably a nice option, at a few hundred calories, easy to eat on the bike (since it's all congealed into a blob), and generally delicious. Also plenty of fat and protein.

I wonder, for the future, if knocking a couple MPH off the pace while riding (long before you reach the point of exhaustion) would make the stops less necessary. You mentioned this at checkpoint 3, as you realized you were about to PR the century and 180K distances. In hindsight, that was probably the point at which to slow down, and try to find a more sustainable pace.

Max said...

And salt.

Food and caffeine. Maybe Damon will weigh in on what worked to keep him going for 28 hours last weekend. There has got to be a perfect time to infuse to kick off the nighttime.

Slowing down is hard. I'm ambivalent about it. I kind of wonder if my biggest problem was in not having a clear goal to revert to after accomplishing the first one (6 hours for the day loop). What if we had said "9:45 for the 300K (3d day loop)" -- that might have prevented the 15' down time between 2 and 3; "10:15 for the double century" would have kept me moving at that point; "3 night loops at a time" -- and so on.