By Jacob Ortony
The race was unbelievably painful for me. This was my first race with Half Acre, my first gravel race, and my first time combining a season opener with endurance racing. I was very well rested as my body has been recovering all winter from a nasty fall and hip injury.
With only two weeks of training for the race, I suffered for all the hours I didn't spend suffering; and as I was force-fed pain, these memories below are my pain foie gras. In the transition to fitness, my speeds usually drop while my body starts to adjust to the constant recovery of training. I was lucky that my speeds were relatively high, but I paid for the lack of preparation with epic unrelenting pain when my endurance ran out. My memories of race day seem like continuous disjointed fragments. There was the flash of morning and preparation drinking in the vast amounts of information of teammates going through various preparations, while running through my own thoughtlessly.
I ended up putting away a couple bowls of granola, a couple doughnut holes, a pint of beet juice, and 3 cups of coffee three hours before race time. I prepared 24 fl oz of fuel drink from 4 fl oz of agave nectar, two "5 hour energy drinks," and water. Reflecting on the horrendous taste, I kept one bottle filled with pure water as a chaser.
We arrived 20 minutes before the start and queued in the bullpen. I spent the time examining the racers around me and recognizing friendly faces (sensibly warming up) while I oscillated between worrying I was going to tip over from perched on my seat, dominoing a line of waiting racers, and searching out the strongest riders I have ridden with who give me a variety of inspiration. As the minutes dwindled in blinks, we were directed to the start area. Many more riders poured through gaps in the fences, warmed up and ready, as we packed into the crowd-contained column of street headed by a digital clock counting down the last 3 minutes. Here it was warm, and thousands of motivations affected sips of water, clicking, clacking, beeping, and deep breaths which were audible as the chatting quieted.
The start was dense! It seemed inevitable that crashes were impending as bars and wheels crossed, locked, and unlocked in the exponentially accelerating mass. With no easy transition, my thoughts quickly turned to pack tactics on an unknown road. The center line rule was out the window. There was never a time in the first 9 miles where only riding 2 abreast was a thought or concern (if it ever was). The column of cyclists distilled into fractions of varying fitness levels by flowing and catching on each other. My flow came in breaks up the left side trying to follow Paul-Brian who quickly disappeared. Being careful not to be caught in the left lane while representing Half Acre I made a surge for the front group. I jumped from group to group, looking for teammates to stay close to. I caught sight of Paul-Brian at the rear of the front pack, realizing that I was in the wind alone at an unsustainable pace. The fears hit me then; knowing I was not going to be able to keep this pace for minutes let alone 50 some miles. I dropped back with a sigh and a mental break to the second group just as we crested a hill and descended into new territory.
At 35 mph, the first of the pack hit deep mud, ruts and hiding holes. People slammed on their brakes and the pack reformed into lines following the deepest ruts. I chose a bad line and tried to hop across the ruts. As I hopped, my rear wheel caught the lip of the rut. As my weight came up and forward, my bike started to fishtail. I put a foot down and managed to stay up and steer to the road edge coming to a stop with a twinge of pain in my lower back. The second pack disappeared with me standing in 6-inch deep mud, wondering for a moment if I would kill my pedals if I tried to clip straight in. My Time ATACs gave me a little bit of happiness as I clipped in and seamlessly rode on.
Occasionally riders would pass in small groups, but for the most part I only had my hammering heart, pain pulsing up my back and the novel sound of my bike grinding gravel in every moving part. My mind broke with the pain of my back, and despair of being lost off the back with seemingly no-one behind me. I nearly lost to myself there nearly 9 miles into the race with 53 miles to go. Mike called out to me from a group zipping by, offering help, which I quickly declined. He looked like he had great rhythm and air enough to speak I wanted him to continue to enjoy it. Seeing him was enough to seed my second wind, though. I gained the resolve to fake a mechanical (concealing my weakness) and stretch my back while "examining my brakes." That 30-second stop was exactly what I needed. I decided the combination of the stresses of technical pack riding and inefficiencies of adapting to others' rhythms outweighed the benefits of aerodynamic efficiency at ~20mph.
I made a firm decision to make this my race and dropped into time trial mode. I regulated my breathing, worked on my form and technique. I stayed away from groups, passing quickly those I could and slowing to let others go ahead. The change in perspective changed the entire race for me. My warm muscles obeyed, my mind sang with endorphins, and I rapidly consumed miles for hours. I saw most of my teammates during this time. Ashley, Annette, and Mike. I was glad they saw me at my best. I danced up hills and even played with bunny hopping muddy craters with the freedom of not worrying about crashing anyone but myself. I did a lot of chatting as I passed people in their pain caves. Mostly 24-36 recreational riders, who smiled as I joked around with Thomas the Tank Engine quotes, and commiserating groans coupled with smiles. Some of the more serious riders looked a little grumpy and didn't respond to my friendly hellos. I caught up with Chernoh "The Train" Sesay and company from Johnny Sprockets. We passed each other back and forth until mile 44ish.
At the turn before mile 44, I crested a hill shortly before a turning point, which was signed by a mother and son. The son was playing with the sign throwing it up in the air spinning and catching it. When he saw me he was in the left lane holding the sign to go straight ahead. I zipped passed. Then, I noticed the mother running from her vehicle with a look of worry and frustration. I slowed down a bit, watching back for riders, nervous that I had been misdirected. As the volunteers shrunk in the distance I could just make riders turning left at the intersection. With a grumble, I turned back. Within a couple minutes I was back pointing the right direction with some sincere apologies given and accepted. I had a brief surge of energy to reclaim the time. I was flying past riders confused at my second passing and started to realize my impeding exhaustion. My shifting became clumsy and ill timed. When I hit the hills I would lose momentum and my legs seemed heavy and swollen. I switched my cyclocomputer away from the mileage as the constant calculation of time to go started to fray my resolve again. I kept looking for my next landmark which was the rejoining of the 62, 24, and 36 mile courses at the bottom of a steep hill into a right turn. I kept turning right at the bottom of fast descents, watching with extra caution for bicycle cross-traffic but the signs all were marked only for the killer course.
My overall average speed started to decline slowly from 17.5 to 17 mph. I calculated again and again that I would be done within the hour with a time of between 3 hours and 3:30, in the worst case that my overall average ended up being ~16mph. My math sucked. My speeds declined to 7 mph uphill, 19 in the flats.
With 8 miles to go, trundling along, I found some more motivation. One of my frequent commuting routes along the lakefront is about 8 miles along. I have ridden it many times in states of utter exhaustion at the end of very long rides. I just imagined that home was so close, I knew I could make it if I just gear it down and keep moving. It wasn't a race anymore. It was getting home. With 4 miles left to go I caught a single speed rider in agony. He was walking the hills and silent to my compliments of his singlespeed tenacity. He asked how long we had to go, and I told him that it was about 4 miles and that I had turned it into a commute to home which had a certainty of finishing soon. He told me that he couldn't often commute because his work was 20 miles away. I couldn't think of a response fast enough. After utilizing all of my gears and bombing down the next hill he disappeared.
With a couple miles to go I started passing cargo bikes with giant plastic bins strapped and racked on. I couldn't fathom what was going on and asked if there was a cargo category to enjoy their laughed reply. I saw the city limits sign and indulged in thinking about how wonderful it was that this was a small town. I would only be a mile or so away. I started pushing the pace. I passed the last group of cargo bike volunteers cleaning up trash and course debris. I asked one thick legged rider in florescent yellow if I could ride in his rack. He looked at me without a smile. I turned my attention to the hill and accelerated over the top. I entered the city on smooth pavement and pushed harder for my last show of strength at the finish line. Looking back I saw a lone rider a block back. I tucked down and hit the corners hard, yelling out for a hazard of pooled water at one of the last turns and then after a couple short corners I saw the finish line. The chasing rider had made up a lot of distance, and despite the scope of the race, I didn't want to lose a place with so little to go.
I gave it everything as an alien horrible sound broke out just behind me. I pulled to the left and was passed by the unsmiling volunteer with a rack half full of bouncing bottles and cans sprinting for the finish line. I shook my head in weary disapproval and bunny hopped over the finish line. After coming to a stop I looked around an recognized no one. I had no idea where I was, or where I should go. I had fantasized about collapsing into the waiting arms of my teammates, carried to the back seat of a warm car, and being given chocolate Ovaltine. Instead I was confused, wobbling along on the sideline wondering if I was going to fall over. I saw Lily Grumbles smiling and celebrating and I wobbled over to her. I don't even know what I said, but then I found myself looking at the grass and thinking I need to go lay down on that. I excused myself and wandered to the roadside and looked at the grass again. It was a mud pit splotchy with snow and grass and looked like a really bad idea. I started to wander towards the biggest crowd.
Realizing I was representing HAC, I put a hard game face on, straightened my kit slowly, and walked into the crowds. Warmth and sound grew and within minutes I had rested my bike against a barrier, hugged teammates, and was standing carefree next to the bonfire, steaming among warnings that it might be smoke drinking an Old Dirty Bastard and eating good warm food.
The post-race blended into evening and night with parties which has left me very impressed with my new team. I was totally wrong about my time, I had calculated it was going to be about 3:20:00 in the last 15 miles, but even two digit multiplication was beyond me then. I ended up finishing in 3:49 at 97th place. If I hadn't been misdirected I might have been able to ride it in with Chernoh from Johnny Sprockets, which would have been great. All of the other ifs and buts were fully in my control, and perhaps next year I can shave 45 minutes off my time and finish with the lead group... =) I also need to thank Chamois Buttr. While it might not be the intended effect, embro gave me something to focus on when things got fierce and allowed me to compete at a higher level despite the biting conditions.