Monday, October 3, 2011

29th annual LOTOJA Classic Part III

Montpelier to Alpine

As I pedaled out of Montpelier I realized two things 1) I was ahead of last year's split time by about 20 minutes and 2) Despite that fact I was feeling distinctly uninspired. The battle with the high-country headwinds and the two man power push with the Dutchman from Illinois had left my legs feeling a little jelly-like. I remembered from LOTOJA 2010 that the Geneva summit was a dark and miserable climb. I approached it like a kid walking home with a bad report card that needs to be signed by his parents ... ie without any alacrity or enthusiasm. I couldn't help but slip into revere of summer rides over the Alpine loop when my quads would burn from being pushed beyond their limits and my lungs would ache from the oxygen depleted air but I could force myself to ignore the pain in my legs and the pressure in my head and continue to drive for the summit the only reward recording a tenth of a mile faster split time. That seemed like another lifetime now. An unfortunate and odd summer Strep infection laid me up completely for a couple of days in late August and never really left. I probably should have taken an entire week off from training but at the time that seemed like heresy. I got back on the bike as soon as my fever broke and what should have been a two day throat infection had drifted down into my lungs, which were burning again but not in any way that was productive or healthy. Realizing that today was not going to be my day (Again!, maybe I'm just not a game day rider?) was a sobering and thoroughly disappointing fact. I soldiered on, but again without any sense of urgency.

Eventually I started getting passed by other riders and that at least kindled the remaining embers of my competitive fire and I started pushing more. I passed one of our SpinGeeks lady-cyclist friends and she pulled alongside and picked my brain about the climb (the more you know ... well sometimes you're better off but sometimes not). I told her it was about five miles of grade that gets gradually steeper till you get to the last mile which pitches to about 8% and is ugly and unprotected from the wind (which has been blowing in our faces pretty much since we left Preston) and the climb went pretty much as I described it. Again, I remembered it being longer and steeper. It didn't break my spirit or completely sap my energy. I was definitely more physically ready for LOTOJA 2011 but that didn't change the fact that any time I backed away from red line effort and took a deep breath and completely expanded my lungs I would cough for about 2 minutes straight.

By the time I reached the summit I was riding with about a dozen other cyclists.

We reached the sign with the truck that promised a 7% negative grade for two miles and the lead cyclist shouted out: "That's two down, one to go." I responded with "Alright, next two miles are on the house." As I jumped out of the saddle for a brief pedal sprint before tucking in for the descent. With the the borrowed deep dish wheels I got pushed around a bit by crosswinds but nothing that made me nervous. I figured I would fall into the same climbing group and we would fight the headwinds together over the next ten miles before our third and final mountain pass but as the road leveled off I looked around and found myself completely alone. The rest of the riders must have stayed up in the saddle because they were nowhere in sight. I still can't figure out the reluctance to take advantage of the opportunity to descend at speed, especially on a wide, well paved state highway with traffic re-routed for the day. It makes no sense. I want to believe it's the group I'm riding with which probably consists of relative novices like myself but the Maharaja told dregger that even in his race (Master's class 300 35+ ... serious riders and strong) nobody would tuck. Whatever the reason I resigned myself to spending the afternoon pedaling alone. Not at all efficient but at least I wouldn't have to worry about crossing wheels with another rider if/when I had another coughing fit.

With the headwind and the gradual climb to the base of Salt River pass I'm only able to average about 17mph, it's cutting into the split time lead I brought to Montpelier and probably increased on the Geneva climb. I stop where they used to have the feed station. For some reason they decided to move that particular feed station to the Salt River pass summit, I assume so you're not carrying extra weight in the form of full water bottles during the King/Queen of the mountain hill climb. On paper that probably sounded like a good idea but in reality it was a liability. By that point in the race the temps had climbed to the low 80s and I had exactly half a bottle of water left. I pulled off the road and killed the last of my water (coughing and drinking also incongruous activities, coughing drinking and riding a bike? Even worse) and hacked away for about 5 minutes and watched all my Geneva summit comrades pass me by. I saw out of the corner of my eye that the Dutchman (hadn't seen him since Montpelier) had flagged down a SAG vehicle and was filling his water bottles. I wanted to yell "that's right, there's supposed to be a feed station here." but I was busy coughing and trying to collect myself for the climb.

Back on the bike I rode through the KOM trap and realized I was supposed to bump up my effort and speed to a more aggressive level, but just didn't have it in me. I wasn't in survival mode (yet) but I wasn't in competition mode either. Like the two previously climbs, this one went by faster and with less effort/drama than 2010 though the heat was more of a factor than the year before. I reflected again on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of sending a thousand cyclists up a five mile mountain pass without water. I was doing ok but surely among the other 1100 racers there would be somebody that wouldn't fair quite so well, who would be pushed into the red zone and beyond, perhaps with catastrophic results. I finished the hill but without glory or fanfare. Rodzilla was quick to point out that of 1010 LOTOJA distance riders that made it at least to the top of Salt River Pass, I finished 614th ... 60th percentile, not a triumph but I haven't felt triumphant for many, many miles now, perhaps not for several weeks now.

At the summit feed station I prop my bike against the canopy and duck into the bank of Honeybuckets for some private time (for coughing). I've stayed well hydrated but even so I don't need a pee-break but I've noticed that my uncontrollable coughing* has been making the volunteers that come to top off my water bottles uncomfortable. Padding your Karma account by helping out in a race is one thing, contracting a serious respiratory illness is quite another. Rodzilla offers glowing reports of volunteer staff treating him like a team rider on tour. Mostly they kept me at arm's distance while leaning backward and I in turn tried to oblige them by filling my own bottles and finding a secluded spot to clear my chest.

*As I look back on what I've written I realize why it's taken me so long to get to this blog. With few exceptions the ride was an exercise in misery. What should have been the culmination of a year's worth of training and preparation quickly devolved into a slug fest of drudgery and pain. A certain amount of that drudgery and pain is par for the course in a 200(+) mile race but this was different. I was being beat up unnecessarily and betrayed cruelly by a body that was in great shape ... just not in great shape on this particular day. It's the sort of mental 'burr under the saddle' that will bug you until you take measures to quiet it. The obvious answer would be to ride LOTOJA again, hoping for if not ideal at least better circumstances. The thought made me chuckle without mirth as I toiled on the Salt River Pass climb. This was my last Rodeo. I told that to myself and anybody willing to listen multiple times. Heck, La Canadienne had practically embroidered that statement onto a throw pillow for our living room couch. The suffering of that particular moment was easily shouting down the thoughts of injustice that needs rectifying. One month removed from the event the two voices are on a more even playing field. I suppose it remains to be seen which one will win out in the end.

I leave the feed station and do the solo-tuck routine again. The only traffic I have to avoid comes from other cyclists sitting up in the saddle and coasting at a leisurely pace. Eventually I hook onto a group of three riders who have slowed to about 20mph despite being on the only downhill section of any significant length on our 206 mile race. I've long since dropped the idea of finishing in a competitive (realistically given my training I was thinking around 11 hours) time but I still wanted to finish sooner rather than later. I was left wondering what would be worse, stay behind these guys going slower than I can or jump out in front and battle the headwindwhich we are currently taking directly on the chin as is the norm* for Star Valley WY. It's the classic bike race conundrum: breakaway and hope your strength outlasts the elements and the peleton or stick with the group, conserve energy and accept your slower speed as the cost of only working part-time.

*except for 2010 whose Star Valley tailwind was an anomaly and a blessing brought to us by the prayers of La Canadienne, this year she's praying for no flats and no damaged wheels, would it have been too much to ask for both?

Eventually two riders dressed in black KUER jersey kits fly by on our left. Passing at this point is made difficult by the infamous Afton Wyoming Rumble strips:

in place to wake dozing motorists who may be veering off course but also effectually locking cyclists inside the 24" strip of asphalt between them and the side of the road. If you time it perfectly you can dart out and eventually back in between the designed road craters but you do so at your peril as any jump you make at speed is bound to put you out in the road (and in front of vehicle traffic). Call the technique the Star Valley bob & weave. It wasn't without some pause that I employed said technique in order to grab the team KUER rider's wheel. The move paid off instantly and my ride speed bumped up to about 25 mph and stayed there for most of the last ten miles into Afton. It wasn't long after joining team KUER that two ambulances went screaming past us toward Salt River Pass. I later learned that a LOTOJA rider went into cardiac arrest on the climb. Still not sure how that turned out but I know at the time I thought "that's bound to happen when you send 1000 dehydrated riders up a mountain pass in the middle of a hot afternoon". Nobody's fault really, but if I were on the LOTOJA organizing committee I'd move the feed station back to the bottom of the hill.

I rolled into Afton at about 2:30, still half an hour ahead of my 2010 split but in desperate need of some 'off the bike' time. I found my support crew, handed her my bike and walked to the nearest patch of shade and planted myself.

La Canadienne gives me a thumbs up for emptying my water bottles and eating all my snacks. I eat a couple cookies, half a sandwich, down two bottles of powerade, a bottle of coke classic and I'm back on the bike.

For the next 60 miles La Canadienne will have a front row seat to my suffering. In the first 120 miles support crews are routed away from cyclists with the exception of one or two feed stations. Lots of photo and video art coming up. Too bad I'm 3/4 spent (and we're only 2/3 done).

I ride the first half of Star Valley with a group of about a dozen riders. We encounter fun riders, moving slowly and the challenge becomes not only staying on the wheel in front of you, but timing your Star Valley bob & weave to match the rider in front of you, dodge the slow rider blocking you and perhaps most importantly avoid vehicle traffic approaching from behind. Most of those vehicles are connected in some way to the bike race we're in, so they are watching for and are respectful toward the cyclists but that doesn't mean they won't run you over if you pull out in front of them going 20 mph when they are going 45.

Exhibit A of that point: this video shot by La Canadienne, cut short and temporarily abandoned as an unobservant (to be fair La Canadienne isn't exactly giving 100% attention to driving at the moment) LOTOJA rider pulls the bob & weave in front of the family mini-van.

Somewhere between Afton and Thayne I spy a pair of honeybuckets and an unmanned water station I remember from LOTOJA 2010. I've been riding for 25 miles while suppressing a fit of coughing that would likely shake me off my bike and be far worse than slowing down for fun/relay ride traffic for every rider behind me. Over the last 8 hours I've learned that if I never actually fill my lungs with air I won't cough, or at least will be able to stop the inevitable cough. That technique can only work for so long though, eventually your muscles need the oxygen you're partially filled lungs are unable to provide. The honeybuckets give me a chance to stir the O2 tanks and clear the airways. That second part has become increasingly difficult as the day has gone on. Albuterol doesn't stop the wheezing in my chest any longer, but it does make it less shrill. I'm also running low in the calorie department so I try eating. Maybe it's the fact that I'm sitting in a honeybucket in Thayne, Wyoming, maybe it's the incessant hacking, maybe it's the heat and electrolyte depletion but everything tastes terrible. My stomach, as is so often the case in rides of length, doesn't want to deal with food till we're done with this ordeal. Eating will be a chore from now until Jackson.

I finish the rest of Star Valley, with its unrelenting headwinds essentially alone. I continue to pass fun and relay riders but I never group up with anybody else. I reach Alpine and the last supported feed station at about 4:30. Last year this is where I felt the best. In a 12 hour ride your body has several opportunities to withstand pressure, begin to fold, find strength, hold out some more, start to buckle ... and so on. I must have hit Alpine on a 'find strength' stretch. On this occasion I'm in 'buckle under' mode. La Canadienne waves me in and I'm confronted with the sad fact that there is nowhere to sit. I let her take my bike and I stumble 20 yards over to a large but not necessarily flat rock and I again plant myself like an unwanted weed in a cornfield. Technically I've been sitting for the better part of the last 9 hours but it still feels really great to sit, that is to not move, even for a short while. I take just one bite of everything La Canadienne hands me but nothing makes it past the first cut. I drink because I know I have to but that's it. After about five minutes of stunned silence in which I stare at nothing but the blue, late summer Wyoming sky and wait for an energy surge to find and move me from my perch, I get to my feet and load my pockets with shot blocks and snacks I will never eat and get on my bike for the last push to the finish.

There's just over 9 hours on the clock and 160 miles on the odometer. 45 miles to go. If my luck and strength hold out I may just beat last year's 12 hour finish but honestly I'm beyond caring. I remember telling a friend I hadn't seen in a while that I was riding LOTOJA and he chuckled and said "I thought you were smarter than that." That comment was what I kept running over in my mind at that very moment. Why am I doing this? The fun stopped a long time ago and now all that remains is the suffering and the test of will. I ask myself what I'm fighting for if I'm clearly not in any shape to finish this ride, at least not today. A month ago definitely, in two weeks (after a colleague diagnoses me with bronchitis and provides me with a Rx for a round of antibiotics and a lecture for being foolhardy with regards to my personal health) for sure but on September 10th, 2011? It's not looking good. As I pass the 47 miles to go sign at the mouth of Snake River Canyon I realize the answer to that question is a lumbering cyclist who stands about 6'6" tips the scales at about 270 (if he's been minding the midday snacks and bedtime treats) and is better suited for sports like the caber toss:

File:Caber Toss.jpg

or wife carrying competitions

than road bike racing. He's been my training partner, my teammate, my friend and he may have once saved my life.

Breaking through the haze of muscle pain, oxygen deprivation, electrolyte imbalances and calorie deficiency are thoughts of the big man. It really doesn't matter how crappy I feel on this particular day, I know in my heart it's a safe bet that if Rodzilla were in the same predicament he would finish the race. He wouldn't come this far and throw in the towel. I have my doubts that he will actually cross the finish line in time to avoid the DNF sweep, have had those doubts for weeks now and have given them voice on more than one occasion. What I never doubted however is that he will cross that line. It may be long after sunset, after the support vehicles have seen him safely off the road and after the actual finish line has been broken down and stored away until LOTOJA 2012. The effort may even cost him eligibility to compete in any future LOTOJA bike races (see LOTOJA race bible for rules: Re continuing to ride after dark) but he will finish. He's a large man with more heart and determination than common sense. If the movie Rudy were about horse jockeys instead of college football it could be the Rodzilla story. It's thoughts of Rodzilla's indomitable spirit that break through my stupor. Rodzilla will finish this race. At this point he's about 90 minutes behind me and it's not looking good for an 'official' finish, but that's not going to stop him. The fact that I'm barely breathing and if I put forth a semi-herculean effort in these final 47 miles I will finish the same (or possibly worse) than in 2010 despite my increased investment (financial, physical and emotional) shouldn't stop me either. With those thoughts in mind and the meager but very real sense of determination that accompany them, I pedal into Snake River Canyon.

Next up: The End Game.


  1. Okay, we are waiting for the end game!

  2. Can't wait for the final installment of LOTOJA 2011. when you posting?