Tuesday, November 29, 2011

29th annual LOTOJA Classic, the final chapter.

So I've been putting this off for too long. Maybe I was hoping if I gave it enough time I would forget that it ever happened and anybody still reading this blog (and I assume that is a small group limited to my Uncle Harry [we call him Uncle M, cause everybody gets a nick-name in the blog-o-sphere] and a few blood relatives and those connected to me by marriage) would forget that I never finished the blog, even if I did finish the race ... or did I? Did Rodzilla? Were there injuries? Heroics? Last mile surges of power and speed? Mechanical failures? Are we still cycling aficionados or did the LOTOJA experience sour us on the activity altogether? I guess that's the point of this final chapter. This is the chapter I probably never would have gotten around to writing if it wasn't for multiple comments* on the blog wondering what happened, where's the final and climactic scene? Did you die? In jail? Lost the power of speech/ability to write? Where have you been? In the end I realized, like I did while sitting on a not very flat rock, on the side of the road that late summer afternoon in Alpine WY, that I had come too far not to finish what I had started.

*Full disclosure: there were actually only two comments (increases the total comments made by readers of the LOTOJA 2011 blog entries by 200% and don't think we don't appreciate it) but it was just enough to cut through my post-cycling season torpor and get me back on the keyboard.

One of the great things about Snake River Canyon is the fact that generally (and for me two years in a row now) there is a tailwind pushing you up the road. And it's a good thing too, my legs still felt fairly strong but my will had been frayed to the breaking point by the last 165 miles and 10 hours in the saddle*. I've been riding basically solo for the last 25 miles and this stretch of road is no different. I tuck my head and concentrate on turning the cranks and staying to right of the white line. This is a beautiful ride with ideal road conditions, large shoulder, even asphalt and some of the most gorgeous scenery you will ever experience on a bike. One day I would love to ride it with fresh legs and a clear head, unfortunately by the time you get here you've been pummeled to the point of mental numbness and your surroundings have little if any impact on your mood or progress. Survival mode is what I think I call that and yeah, I'm there now.

*Speaking of the saddle, the San Marco Mantra extra large cut-out bike seat may have been the best cyclig gear purchase I made in 2011, other than the purchase of Saxo bike itself. Have to say thanks here to the Maharaja who sold it to me basically new at about 60% off list price. It may not have saved my life but it did save my gooch, and for that I'm grateful.

I've got the road dirt from three states seven counties and four national forests stuck to every exposed skin surface and the Lo-Jack-like time chip strapped to my ankle like a virtual ball & chain. I'm shackled to this bike, to this race, like a prisoner breaking rocks on a chain gang. No, there won't be an armed posse with tracking bloodhounds in hot pursuit if I abandon my post and call it quits but the timing chip will register a DNF that will be entered in the official (and eternal) LOTOJA records and those three letters will haunt me the rest of my days. If you think it seems trivial, that if I want to quit (and I do want to quit, my ribs are aching from the constant coughing, I'm still operating on micro-breaths to keep from coughing more and now my back is starting to cramp from being bent over my handle bars all day) just quit already, you would not be alone. It's all I can do to convince myself that the mental anguish of not finishing could possibly be worse than the physical torture I'm going through at the moment.

As I looked back through the LOTOJA photos I realized there was a plethora of mini-van moments. I'm assuming it's representational, La Canadienne's way of saying "we were here, the mini-van and me, veterans of multiple bike races" A sort of 'support crew self portrait', or series of them. I'll include only one.

I start to pick up riders which only bothers me because I'm still prone to coughing fits at any moment and (and) I need to sit up and stretch my back every few miles and that drops my speed to dangerous levels if you're tucked in close behind me and not paying attention. The rider in this photo and I did an awkward cycling pas de deux where I would sit up, stretch, slow down, he'd almost cross wheels with me, cuss to himself and back off for a few minutes and then back on my tail. I finally told him stay back there if you want but you have to pay attention, I'm too wrecked to speed up and grab a wheel in front of us and too tired to yell a warning when I'm going to sit up in the saddle. In response he offered to take the point for a while. Gracious of him and I said so but pointed out again that I wasn't up for cooperative riding, even if it could save my skin. He tried for a while anyway and I went back to concentrating on my cadence and shouting down the "quit" voices coming from my head, chest and back.

It's about this point that I start noticing relay riders ... not true actually, I've been seeing the bib numbers with the scarlet 'R' all day, it's only now that they really begin to annoy me. Earlier in the day they were more amusing especially a mother/son duo I passed twice in Star Valley (stop to cough in the port-a-potties every 25 miles or so and you're bound to start seeing the same faces/bib numbers), the kid in that team looked to be about eleven years old and was making great time on what was probably the flattest leg in that relay but also the leg that was most dramatically affected by the wind. I shouted my props to him and gave him a thumbs up (twice) but by mile 175 my milk of human kindness had curdled and I was in no mood to interact with part-time LOTOJA participants.

The worst was team Great Harvest Bread Company. They must have had three or four teams entered, all wearing matching jersey kits with the company logo and I keep seeing these same jerseys, advertising fresh baked breads and sundry bakery pastries, over and over. Maybe it's because the thought of any food at this point makes me want to yerk or maybe they looked like they had been over-sampling their products when they should have been training and yet they are ahead of me and then behind me and then ahead of me again. Do I sound surly, or unnecessarily harsh? Like I said, any fraternal affection I may have shared with fellow riders had long since evaporated and at this point I'm not entirely right in my head (or body, but the latter is to be expected) and I keep seeing these same jerseys, over and over. I'm not sure how/why I keep passing them and they in turn keep passing me and honestly I probably would have forgotten all about them by now if it weren't for the fact that any time I got close enough to them to hear their conversation it generally involved complaints about how long and steep the canyon was and were they going to be able to finish. On any other day I would probably have been more sympathetic and probably even encouraging but at the moment I had no patience for anyone complaining about doing only 40 miles of this race (and the most scenic and gentle 40 miles at that). At the risk of sounding elitist, if I were in charge of LOTOJA I would ditch the relay; it dilutes the event as a whole. Go the distance or don't go at all. Again, just one rider's opinion.

I made it to Hoback Junction and the last feed station. Neutral support, no coke classic and neck rub from La Canadienne but there were half a dozen Honey Buckets and I ducked in to a vacant one and coughed for another 5 or 6 minutes. When I was more done than not with the coughing, I filled my water bottles, got back on my bike and with a feeling of resignation rather than elation, I began the final push to the finish.

"Only 25 miles, you can do it! ... groan."-La Canadienne

I Love that video, especially when she realizes that 'Only 25 miles' is not encouraging at this point. 25 miles translates to 90 more minutes of this ... this ... ordeal. You can see I'm gassed. No zip or zeal I'm just going to grind this out and be done. It's about this time that I begin chastising myself. The conversation in my head follows a theme and that theme is "Why are you here? What were you thinking?" Lot's of self recrimination based on the fact that I've trained harder for this than I have for anything and still it's going to take me twelve hours to finish. I begin making promises to myself never to be so foolish as to try this again. Even exhausted and dehydrated (and surly, let's not forget that), I can recall telling myself the same thing last year, only to abandon that pledge before I had left the Jackson City limits. This time I rehearsed in my head the message I wanted to pass along to future me. The me who will forget how painful this experience has been as soon as I'm off the bike and my electrolyte levels have had a chance to stabilize and the cramps in my muscles have eased.

I cross the snake river for the last time and enter Jackson and still no sign of the grand Tetons. They (LOTOJA organizers) are fond of pointing out that their race finishes in the shadows of those iconic peaks but what they don't tell you is you can't actually see them until you're within 5 km of the finish line. When they do finally appear they look surreal, like they are Hollywood CGI trickery and this whole thing is just a movie set on a painfully long (directors cut for sure) movie that should have been edited down to something ... if not more enjoyable at least more manageable.

Before you get to the final leg (in the actual shadow of the aforementioned mountains) you are re-routed onto a bike path and then under highway 89, then back onto highway 89. It was as I merged onto that main drag that I got passed by Thad Engar (no nick-name but his wife called him the blog stalker because he's been closely following Cycling With Rodzilla all year as he's trained for his second LOTOJA, the first one he finished well after dark). The same Thad Engar that rolled the Desperado Duel less than a month ago and got beat in that same race by not only Rodzilla but La Canadienne and Swedish Liz as well. In our last, brief conversation he was questioning not only his state of readiness but even whether he was going to actually ride in this year's LOTOJA. He's obviously come a long way, mentally at least (he was probably physically prepared for the Desperado, just mismanaged that particular race, been there, done that) and when he passes me along with half a dozen other cyclists he shouts "Steve! What are you doing back here?" "I'm cooked" is what I think said but I can't be certain. I think he offers me some shot blocks to which I respond "Thanks, I've got plenty, I'm just done." If I wasn't so far in the tank I would probably have tried to stay on his wheel, but I'm long past that. I can maintain a 17-18 mph average, better than 2010 and it will have to be sufficient for 2011.

Back to the shadows of the Tetons. Part of the reason they look fake to me is that I seem to always arrive here after the sun has set and the lighting soft-focus ethereal quality. I started this morning at 7:13, it's now about quarter after the hour and even if only suspect but don't know it, I'm going to finish with a worse time than I did on my first go-round. La Canadienne is anxiously and closely watching the finish line hoping not to miss the climactic videoclip. Even with her sharp vision she gets a few videos of anonymous cyclists, until:

I cross the 200 meter mark, my name's called and I try to decide if I'm feeling steady enough to sail through both hands raised in victory. Like 2010 I'm limited in my balance and stability. As I meander over the finish line, a team of cyclists with far more energy than me sprint out the final 20 meters. They somehow manage to get around me without taking me out and we pull to a final stop in the chute.

It feels glorious to be off the bike finally and permanently, but I have work to do. I see La Canadienne with camera rolling and head over to have the final word on the day's activities.

Almost to a person, everyone who has seen that video comments on how much better I look at the finish than I did in 2010. True enough, last year I looked like a reanimated corpse, and this was a definite improvement on that, but they seem to miss the cold, dead look in my eyes. This race has beaten me down, again. And I'm not coming back for more.

We make our way back to the path and there's a huge crowd of cyclists and support teams, but no place to sit down. All I want is to sit down and the fact that I'm not is starting to really bother me. I don't realize that the crowd is backed up waiting for their finisher's medals. I run into Thad Engar again and he's flying high on race endorphins, caramel frappucinos and pickle juice (the latter two the secrets to his successful ride, and he beat me so I'm certainly not going to argue the point). I inadvertently cut to the front of the medal line, grab my sprocket on a ribbon finishers medal and we head to the parking lot.

Unlike 2010, I have my sandals and something warm to wear, but little else, certainly not a lot of extra energy so I find the first thing I can sit on or next to (in this case a lightpost) and that's where I set up camp. I either pass out or fall asleep while La Canadienne goes the last half mile to the van but eventually she finds me and we load up and get ready to leave.

The last we've heard of Rodzilla he hadn't beat the 6:30 sweep in Alpine but he somehow managed to duck the event staff bent on reigning him in and he's currently somewhere in Snake River Canyon. By now it's about 8:15, the finish line will closing any minute and it seems unlikely the big man will have covered the last 45 miles in less than 2 hours. That would be incredibly tough on fresh legs under perfect conditions. Our plan is to head home (there's a convoluted story about mis-communications, lack of lodging, lack of baby-sitting etc. etc. but it doesn't bear telling, I will say that this race ending in Jackson Hole is one big reason I'm not fired up to do it again, not a convenient destination) but I feel I owe it to find Rodzilla and wish him a final Godspeed and good luck.

As we retrace the race route in the car we watch the road for any rider resembling my over sized training companion. We see lots of cyclists but none are him. Just before we turn back onto highway 89 we see the support vehicle for the final group of riders. That car doubles as the final sweep and still no Rodzilla. I tell La Canadienne to turn off on the side street next the tunnel where I got passed by Thad 'it's all about the caramel frapuccino & pickle juice' Engar. Any rider still on a bike will have to pass this point and because they are riding on a bike path they will be moving more slowly. It's about 8:50 now, the finish line has been closed for a good 25 minutes but a semi-steady parade of nocturnal cyclists continues to pass us, still turning the cranks, still pushing for the finish line. Several riders pass by before we finally see the dim headlight and then the hulking dark figure that is Rodney and his Cannondale Super Six. We flag him down. I tell him I'm sorry I have to leave. I'm really feeling sick by now and not just post-race queasy, there's some legitimate medical problem brewing inside me that needs professional attention or, failing that, at least a warm bed and several hours to sleep in it. I tell him he's got maybe 9 miles left, "you've come this far, finish it." Then we both give him a hug, we get on highway 89 south and we don't look back.

Next up: Rodzilla's story (if he'll tell it)


  1. Congrats on your finish! My time wasn't much better than yours and I wasn't coughing up a lung. Nice work. Brilliant and engaging writing! I agree with you big time with the LOTOJA relay. All a bunch of suckers. Non athletic types. I have ZERO respect for LOTOJA relayers...they shouldnt get a decal for their car. No fair. LOTOJA this year sucked.....I wont ride it again until 2013. Two years in a row sapped all motivation. However, the love for cycling lives on...power to the pedal my friend!

  2. Just as a point of clarification, its the Double Latte Powerbar Gels, Coke Classic, and dill pickle juice. (I didn't use any of them on Desperado Dual) When I rode up to you, I asked if you were all right. Having seen your training rides, there was no way I should have caught you unless something was horribly wrong.

    Here is my log for the year.
    Count: 84 Activities
    Distance: 2,023.03 mi
    Time: 144:52:43 h:m:s
    Elevation Gain: 96,770 ft
    Avg Speed: 14.2 mph

    You should have wiped the floor with me. Shoot me an email if you want to compare notes on what I ate. (tmengar@gmail.com) We need to get you a successful Lotoja, and Swedish is going to need the company. I also want to get a group of about 10 and work together and finish around 10 hours.

  3. Thanks for the comment and clarification.

    Great job on LOTOJA, I could see you were amped post-race and I was really happy for you, especially since you seemed really disappointed in yourself after the Desperado (If pickle juice made that much difference then maybe I better start stocking up for the 2012 season). Way to regroup and bring it on race day. I'm afraid my fate may have been sealed in late August when I got that strep infection and didn't stay off my bike for week to convalesce like I should have. Ironic, I give my patients that advice all the time and the ones that are training for some event alwyas give me that sideways look like "Whatever, I don't have time for that." I guess that's what I did too (and I know better) Once that bug moved into my lungs I think my goose was cooked. Your training log does lend credence to Rodzilla's claims that you don't need to put in lots of miles, just the right miles (i.e. lots of hill climbs) and drop the weight. Sounds like you did exactly that (score one for the Rodzilla debate team). As for future LOTOJAs I'll be happy to train with anybody that wants to do it but I'm afraid it's not in the cards for me. Lots of reasons for that, some I've covered in the blog but not all. It's an epic race and one any serious cyclist should have on their bucket list. I've crossed it off my list and I've made my peace with that fact. Also, sorry for outing your first and last name identity in the blog-o-sphere. Bit of a party foul there. It's not necessarily Cyclers Anonymous but sometimes it's nice to have that pseudo-ID protection (even if we plaster your mug all over the blog). Right now I'm leaning towards 'pickle juice' as your blog name which until recently would have sounded like a left-handed compliment to me, but apparently 'the juice' has the power to take mere mortals to the super-human level.

    Again, great job on LOTOJA and yes, let's get together for some rides come Spring.

    Steve (imdeebers) Larsen

    PS have you considered riding the Rockwell Relay? http://rockwellrelay.com/ That was by far my favorite event last year. They even have a ladies only Relay later in the summer. All our wives did it and loved it too. Give it some thought.

    PPS Keep checking in with the blog. I've been told my last entry was a bit of a downer. I need to post some of the Post LOTOJA rides that La Canadienne and I did together in the fall. Some great times, and reminders of why I love this sport so much.

  4. We want to hear Rodzilla's story!

  5. One of the most over used phrases on the blog. "Here's the Thing"

    Here's the thing, I wasn't happy about how this story ended for the big guy. And even less happy to re-live the story. And frankly even more unhappy about the events that have transpired since LOTOJA.

    Thanks to those loyal readers, which seems to be Thad, Artistwife, my wife and some Larsen Clan family. X2 as many as we had.

    Okay I understand that a story regardless of the outcome needs to be told. I promise that I will have this story weaved into an entertaining tale in the next few days.

    I will also promise to snap out of the funk I have been in and post a little more regularly.

    Thanks for staying tuned