Friday, October 9, 2015

Nashville to Natchez in 27 hours

As noted in the last post, the big project to start off the fall was a long ride/race across the deep South.  Except for a fair amount of cleanup and recovery left to accomplish and a steak dinner owed, I declare the project completed! 

 The Natchez Trace 444 was billed officially as an organized "ride", likely for National Park permitting purposes.  Nobody involved confused this event with anything other than an opportunity to ride faster than the next gal/guy -- making it, I suppose, a race.  But on the other hand, neither I nor my crew confused my entry with a realistic effort to win anything except for pride, from which perspective, I suppose, it was a very well supported ride.

A breakdown of the below:  first, some quick stats on the ride.  Second, a discussion from the rider's perspective on a virgin effort to ride around the clock and into the next revolution without really stopping.

Quick Stats 

Notable points:  Alabama line at Mile 100; Mississippi line at Mile 130; Tupelo at Mile 180; Jackson at Mile 345.
Elevation profile, north to south on The Trace.

The event:

The event used a time trial start with the first rider off at 6 pm.  The clock would remain open for 44 hours.  The ride covered 440 miles and ascended somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000 feet.

The start was at Mile 440 on the Natchez Trace Parkway, two miles south of the northern terminus just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.  RD George Thomas had hoped that riders would traverse the entire parkway, but the ideal staging area was the parking lot atop the parkway's first hill, saving us riders the opening two miles and 500 feet of climbing.

There were 20 starting teams comprising 16 solo riders plus crew and 4 relays plus crew.

The winner, a man named Scott Kuppersmith, knocked off this course in an incredible 21 hours, 22 minutes, averaging greater than 20 mph.  Barry Dickson, whom I know from DC Randonneurs events, took just over 22 hours to finish for second place.  Third place was Julian Eisenbeis, a German national who also took third the prior weekend in the Tejas 500 time trial event.

Team HBC:

We were Max (riding), Sam (crewing), and Damon (crewing).  

Of the 20 starting teams, we were seventh.  We were the fourth fastest solo rider team in the event; three relays also finished before we did.

We started Friday, October 2, at 6:17 pm CDT at Mile 440 on the Natchez Trace Parkway, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

We finished on Saturday, October 3, at 9:02 pm CDT at the southern terminus, Mile 0, in the town of Natchez, Mississippi.

We covered 440 miles in a total time of 26 hours, 45 minutes, for an overall average speed of 16.45 miles per hour.

Racing 440 Miles

We started at 6:16 pm on Friday with temperatures at 52 degrees and the sky alternating rain and drizzle.  It was the kind of weather that, had we not made substantial investment in getting this far, would have caused me to decline to take the start.  Funny how tenuous the desire when the project ahead is so daunting.

Team HBC -- Damon, Max, and Sam -- with the crew vehicle at the start.  Photo credit George Thomas.
Ultra races are laid-back affairs.  Even the huge ones -- I'm thinking of the JFK 50-mile running race, with 1000 entrants -- tend to involve high-school cafeteria race meetings and local 4-H clubs manning rest-stops.  Race directors are usually former competitors who take over when the founding director retires.  I don't actually know George Thomas's story, but I do see his name in the lists from time to time when I follow the ultra-racing circuit, and he has the physical presence of a real long-distance guy.

The Early Hours:

At the start of the Natchez Trace 444 we gathered in a parking lot; RD George Thomas and volunteer Johnny, a randonneur from Mississippi, handed out car stickers; and we waited for the start.

The Focus, kitted for night-riding; the Q3, ready for its maiden crewing voyage; me in background.  Credit Damon Taaffe.

Because the permit required 100-yard separation between cyclists, George sent us off in time-trial format with ample separation between racers.  We were ordered fastest to slowest by predicted finish time with Team HBC, "'A' goal 27 hours," starting 16th.

The starting corral, such as it is in these events.  I always feel outgunned when I see how confident and strong the other guys/gals appear.  Credit Damon Taaffe.
A few no-shows made us closer to 14th at 6:16 pm.  George is a master of amping up the excitement and offered a both-feet-in-the-pedals, running push start.

In the cold and damp I wore arm warmers, knee warmers, full-fingered gloves, and my Rapha hard-shell jacket.  The temperatures stayed near constant all night and I did not feel the need to remove or to add clothing until the sun was up.

Me, dressed for wet-and-chilly.  That was the crew's idea to tape over helmet vents for warmth.  Credit Damon Taaffe.
It was dusk at the start so George ordered immediate direct-follow support.  We crossed the iconic arched bridge four miles in and I rode right off the road three miles later.  Inauspicious start!

Direct-follow support.  Glad to see my visibility tape, lights, and sash are doing their jobs!  Credit Damon Taaffe.
The early hours, up to the first 100 miles, went well.  Very well.  No pain, no drowsiness, and evaporating angst.  Sam is experienced in the direct-follow arts and lit the road in front of me with high beams.  We passed several riders early, an apparent consequence of optimistic finish-time predictions on their parts or a pessimistic prediction on ours.  Our rider-crew coordination was seamless with easy bottle hand-offs and ready understanding of what food and drink was right at each moment.

Drinking after a handoff.  Credit Damon Taaffe.
The seamless handoffs cannot be overemphasized in a recap of this event.  Both Sam and Damon know what it means to ride through the night and to ride in the northern half of your threshold wattage.  They knew what to offer and knew that when I declined I meant it, and had a good reason.  They knew when to hide stimulants in the chicken broth and when to just give me a bottle of plain water.  And they knew how to do it without drama.  We had not a single dropped bottle, not a single refused offer of food.

We were moving well.  More than once I asked the crew "are we going too fast"?  But we were right on target, rolling through the gentle southern Tennessee mountains at 18 mph.  I've more than once observed that nothing feels better than the first mile of a marathon.  The first 100 of an ultracycling race ranks right up there.

The Dark Hours:

Night-riding on the Natchez Trace Parkway.  Photo credit George Thomas.  (George was taking photos with an iPad this weekend.  One hates to ask whether that is what he was holding up to snap this one while passing us!)
Night riding is pleasant until it isn't.  Usually I just enjoy the dark at the end of a day-long ride and am not forced to push long past midnight.  On a recent successful all-night ride, Damon and I encountered the dark somewhere in the final miles of the incomparable Skyline Drive and rode under a cold and starry sky to a 24-hour Wegman's in Purcelville Virginia -- where we huddled in the lawn-chair display in the heated vestibule eating Wegman's brand sandwich cookies.  Once we recovered, rolling home to DC was possible if increasingly unpleasant.

Last weekend we moved quickly through Tennessee and across Alabama.  Tupelo, MS, came at mile 180 on the route.  And at mile 188, 300 kilometers and 10:30 in, Sam and Damon pulled me over to switch lights and batteries.  Goal 1 well under way to being accomplished:  from the start until 4:30 in the morning the bike stayed between my legs.  We were back on the road in 10 minutes.

More than once I observed the hypnotic effect of legs pumping in the beam cast from the headlights.  The video shows the car's perspective, somewhat different from my own.

The good vibes from our quick turn at mile 188 lasted for a good half hour.  I then begged 10' in the car.  Sam gave me 5, stretched to 7 when I really begged.  Believe it or not, it helped.  We moved well again as the dark gave way to light.  Sam and Damon left me to fill the car's tank and returned with a hot biscuit.

The Fast Part:

Whether the food, the light, the nap, the terrain, or something else, we picked up speed in the morning.  Miles 200-300 went quickly with stretches at 20 mph.

Ticking them off.  Credit Damon Taaffe.

Standing isn't efficient, but it does relieve the primary contact point.  Credit Damon Taaffe.

Terrain was a big part of it.  If you look at the elevation profile above, the stretch in the middle is right where the road levels out and holds steady for a long way.  It was possible to be in the aero-bars and hold a steady 170 watts.  And with the daylight back, I could see the power-meter, reading a steady 170 watts.

New light was also part.  You just feel better during the day.  I've never heard anybody say otherwise.  The road also dried up and I was able to strip out of the cold-and-wet-weather gear.  The sun even broke through the clouds for a few moments here and there, creating a remarkable golden glow on the parkway.

I'm a big fan of this picture from the morning.  Three things -- this is the worst the pavement got on the Trace.  The empty road is about accurate for 90% of the ride.  And somehow the green jersey and yellow arm-warmers set off the lovely green trees nicely.  Credit Damon Taaffe.
Somewhere during that stretch we recognized the race was unfolding as well as we could have asked.  We even discussed a new goal -- sub-26 hours, or, in my optimistic state, even 25:30.

This data for the first 250 miles made me Pollyannish.  That changed.
The calculations worked out.  With mile 300 coming at race-time 17:15 (11:30 am CDT), a fairly casual 8:15 for the final 140 miles would achieve the ambitious goal.  (By way of comparison, the first 140 miles, riding in hills and complete darkness, took just less than 8 hours.)

But Then It Got Long:

Natchez Trace, South of Jackson, Mississippi.
Sam and Damon may have known better.  140 miles is a nice long ride for a Saturday.  It's a monumental distance when you have already been on the road for 300 miles basically nonstop.  The below video, taken almost exactly at Mile 300, is evocative:  I'm still enjoying riding (see the smile!), but I'm also getting off the bike.  Something that happened with increasing frequency through the afternoon.

We kept moving at a respectable pace.  The 600K point, mile 375, came at 21:30.  We had slowed down by only :30 in the second 300K.  Of course, from here out, everything was new.  I had never before ridden further than 310 miles in 24 hours and never more than 600K in a single ride.

I distinctly recall every mile for the final 88, which is when we escaped the traffic around Jackson, Mississippi, and had the parkway to ourselves again.  The parkway has mile signs on the eastern shoulder making it possible to count downward.  When it seems as if each mile takes an eternity, that means you live 88 eternities in the final five hours. 

Strange things start happening to your body after more than 20 hours in the saddle.  Some of them are obvious.  Wrists, ankles, crotch -- the contact points -- simply kill.  Back, shoulders, and hips -- the support muscles -- are if anything worse.  And, it turns out, you get puffy.  Check out the left arm in the picture below.  I'm a lot of things, but the Michelin Man is not usually one of them. 

Does that look like a slouch of defeat?  Because it kind of is.  Somewhere south of Jackson, MS.  Credit Damon Taaffe.
And you find you will do anything to relieve the pain.

Car hood functioning as exercise ball.  Credit Damon Taaffe.
I will say things slowed down, because objectively they did, and relative to the most ambitious of hopes, by a lot.  But in truth not as much as I perceived them to do.  We held a strong pace, as fast as 17.3 on average (including stops), for 300 miles in 17:15.  The remaining 140 miles took us 9:30, for an average pace of 14.7, including stops.  Good?  No.  Embarrassing?  Not that, either.  (I regret that I lost my GPS file for the course from Mile 245 on, so I can't report with more specificity.)

The End.

We reached the end at 9:02 pm CDT on Saturday, 26 hours and 46 minutes after the Friday evening start.

This is the end . . .  Credit Damon Taaffe.
Consistent with the laid-back nature of the event, the end came when we hit Mile 0 on the Trace.  I was riding and Damon said, "stop."  So we stopped.

We took a picture, or two, and loaded the bike in the car.

And drove two miles to the Natchez Grand Hotel, where George met us with a handshake and a finisher's medal.

Team HBC at the end.  Credit George Thomas.

In Closing

When Sam and I crewed for Damon in the Silver State 508 almost exactly one year ago, Damon eventually reached the point that Mike Tyson has described: "everybody has a game plan until he gets punched in the face."  As crew, looking for a way to keep my rider moving, I said to Damon "this is why they call it ultracycling.  Any idiot can ride the first 300 miles."  (Or something like that.  After 24 hours in a crew vehicle, who can really remember.)  Damon put that one back in my face over the weekend.  I clearly recalled my own words when he said, somewhere south of Jackson, Mississippi, "this is why it's hard" and "this is why you came here."

To Damon's credit, it worked.  In fact, when I think about what worked best for the 54 hours we three were together in the south, it is precisely the crew's running the race and my doing what I was told -- eating, drinking, and pedaling -- so much as I humanly could.  Had the crew not been there, I expect that with 60 miles to go I would have laid on the ground and napped.  That final stretch might have taken 10 hours.  With them present, I had to keep moving to keep my commitment to the crew.

On the ride back Sam asked me which was harder, the Natchez Trace 444 or the Big Savage SR600 Damon and I rode four weeks prior.  The event last weekend was harder and by a mile.  The SR600 was objectively harder cycling, but the Natchez Trace 444 was nonstop, even when it hurt so badly I could barely look at the bicycle.

How'd the Natchez Trace 444 go?  12 hours of lovely, almost mystical, night riding.  8 more of daytime time-trialing on a lovely road across a state I'd never before visited.  And 7 final excruciating hours that, when it is all said and done, are the reason I may now call myself "an ultracyclist."  The race was remarkable.  Give it a go -- I'll crew for you!