Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rockwell Relay Redux Part 1: Prologue to Monticello




"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana 



Finisher's ring, 2011.  It's made of titanium because titanium is lightweight and strong.  Wish we could say the same about team Chain Whipped.

Yep, we're back again.  Ready to pit ourselves against the heat and hills, the distance and deprivation, the strength sapping and sanity testing endurance contest that is the Rockwell Relay.  Or to put it another way:


What is the Rockwell Relay: Moab to St. George? It’s taking 3 of your buddies and cycling, non-stop, from Moab to St. George, one teammate in the saddle at all times making for a ‘never forget’ experience. Covering 516 miles of majestic beauty, it is a ride that will not only invoke a sense of awe, it will test your mind, body, and soul.



Well stated, except for the distance part which in both years that we've done it has measured closer to 525 miles.  It's probably inevitable with a race of this distance, over mountain passes, across deserts and through national and state parks that there will be geographical hiccups, or more literally, bumps in the road.  Last year it was a late winter thaw that delayed the opening of Cedar Breaks and rerouted us (with more miles and more climb, always more climb) off Mammoth road and through Duck Creek.  This year it's a mudslide that takes out the main road down Cedar Canyon to Cedar City that has us riding further and higher than in 2011 ... more on this later (mainly because the further and higher mostly affects me, and no I'm not done complaining about it.  Soon though, promise).











My main reason for mentioning this, aside from the complaining, which so far  is my only consolation for what I'm going to call 'the Cedar Breaks Debacle', (this year's Fruita incident ...foreshadowing?  Perhaps not, read on) is to point out the size and scale of this event.  So many things have a chance to happen* in a race of this magnitude that you have to respect any crew of riders that crosses the finish line and dons one of the coveted finisher's rings.

*and it seems like most of them do, or have and then just when you think you've seen it all, instead of a curve ball, Mother Nature throws a knuckler in form of gale force headwinds for 400 miles of your 500 mile race.  I don't got no words (shaking head in disbelief).


First things first.  There's been a casting change.  Of course there's the original three Park Village amigos:



"Struuunth!" - Rodzilla  (closest thing to a team captain pep-talk I got from him this year)

but playing the part of the Legend (aka Ivan the diminutive Peruvian) is Thad 'Pickle Juice' Engar*, veteran of two LOTOJAs and firm believer in the (mythical?) restorative properties of his eponymous elixir.   For bookkeeping purposes let's shorten Thad 'Pickle Juice' Engar to just Pickle Juice ... or just 'Juice (if you're into the brevity thing).  That work for everybody? Good.  Or tough.  If you don't like it get your own blog.

*actually a Park Village alum as well though he moved to the south end of the Valley before Rodzilla arrived on the scene.







Team Chain Whipped (yeah we got a new name too) From left to right:  Pickle Juice (neither diminutive nor Peruvian), myself, Rodzilla & the Swede.  Surrounding us: several teams of cyclists who actually look capable of riding 525 miles with 25,000 vertical feet of climb (800 km and 8000 meters to those joining us from abroad, for bookkeeping purposes [again] this will be our last foray into the metric system, we've got enough to worry about this weekend without trying to do the conversion math to internationally accepted rules of weight and measure).  This is not a race designed for the circumferentially or gravitationally challenged.  Not too late to back out, but it will be soon.  Despite our collective girth, we manage to look sharp in the team jersey we purchased on RealCyclist.com  'Juice voted for a solid white  Italian jersey from Santini which in my opinion would have made us all look like team Michelin Man



Personally,  I think we made the right choice





Almost left without it.  My boys show up at the last minute with the Pickle Juice I've had chilling in the refrigerator for a month.  'Juice swears by it and since he beat my last LOTOJA finish by a good 15 minutes I'm going to take his advice.


No reason to include this photo other than it features my youngest son nathan (foreground) and Swedish Liz,  two people who consistently make me smile just by being themselves.

It took us a while to get out of town.  My hope was for three, we didn't leave till four and then we forgot to give any navigational pointers to 'Juice and so missed multiple turn offs.  The sign in, packet pick-up and meet/greet Bratwurst BBQ with local bike hero, Fat* Cyclist was supposed to end at 8.  They pushed that back just long enough for us to grab a Brat and a photo-op.

*Yes, Irony is the point of his nick-name though there was a time (allegedly) when fatty was a cold hard fact not the punchline to a private joke.





Yes Fatty is a small man, but then we're a large team.  Rejected team names:  Draft Horses, The Fat is Fast and Offensive Linemen.  Clearly any one of those would have worked.  That said, by the end of the race the teams we were leapfrogging for 36 hours began making crack that whip motions every time Team Chain Whipped passed them.  So Kudos to Matt for coming up with a team name that included a pantomime for the spectators.

Even with the new team name there's no hiding Rodzilla, who despite essentially a 6 month hiatus from the blog-o-sphere has developed his own fan base.   It's not a Fat Cyclist-level following, but he's not giving out free Bratwurst either (gotta give it up for Fatty, the brats and photo-op were the highlight of day one).  He does get shout outs from all quarters.  I think it's the fascination fellow riders have with a man of his dimensions, on a bike, in a race ... particularly this race.  It makes anything seem possible.  That and let's face it, he's just one charming SOB*.  He shows up at events like this and people start throwing SWAG at him and pretending like they've been friends for years.  We meet our internet nemesis ... nemeses?  (What's plural for nemesis), Team Sasquatch.  Or at least 3/4 of them.  Apparently they booted** the slow guy and replaced him with a ringer*** as their point man.   The other members of Team Sasquatch are shockingly old (I'm 43, you gotta be old school-old if I'm calling you old. We're talking 'I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert back before Ronnie Van Zant was decapitated by a Betamax recorder in a plane crash' old).  With all the smack talk going back and forth I pictured some punk kids who needed to be taught to respect their elders, or maybe some middle aged guys with slacker jobs that only require a 20 hour work week and gives them plenty of time to train, anything but this.  I want to go off on their ... you know, oldness but they punk'd us last year and I see no fear in their eyes this time around either.

*Son Of a Biker ... what were you thinking?
**Hey! we're the only team that's allowed to do that.
*** Nobody ever actually sees the ringer (we'll call him Racer X) from team Sasquatch, we only know that he consistently cleans my clock on every cyclist one split, only to have his other teammates get caught and passed by our cyclists 2-4.  [spoiler alert] In the end the difference between his split times and mine will be about the difference in our collective team finish times

We check into the Bowen Motel (this year's accomodations = second verse, same as the first) and then head to the Moab Diner for dinner.  What? The Bratwurst?  That was pre-dinner.  One of the best things about a big race is the 'carb-loading' umbrella that covers a week's worth of culinary sins.

Thought bubbles:  Rodney-"That was a lot of food.  I've eaten more, but that was a lot."  Pickle Juice-"If the diner is the thing that kills him you're covering his legs, not me."

We went in for a hand scooped shake but end up eating so much* they closed down the place out of fear that they don't have enough food for anybody else.

*carb loading

Don't let this picture of apparent focused preparation fool you, after a restless night's sleep (I'm first in the saddle, I started getting nervous and sleeping poorly on Monday of this week) I go over to 'Juice & Rodzilla's room at 7:15 to find them still sleeping off their Moab Diner induced coma.  I hustle them out of bed (multiple times, it's like trying to get my son, nathan, ready for school).



Look at Rodzilla's face.  It's starting.  The Rockwell Relay is a Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness level journey to the edge of your physical, emotional and psychological limits, no matter what you read on Fatty's* everybody had fun, no one complained and we all sang Kumbaya in the park when it was over blog report.  If you want the real story get an account from the 11 DNF teams or the half dozen teams that had one or multiple riders go down, piled those extra miles on the 'healthy' riders only to watch them be felled by the elements and the event as well.  Some novelty T-shirt wisdom for you:  You don't have to be crazy to [enter this race] but it helps.  Or more accurately, if you're mentally imbalanced before the race starts, you're ahead of the game but we're all going to catch up with you before this is over.

*an exaggeration.  Team Fatty did suffer (and wrote about it).  Everybody did.  But there's suffering and then there's suffering We're about to get a dose of the latter.


I stop by several times to make sure they are getting ready and not screwing around ... they're screwing around.



The race route is taking us within 50 miles of two summer wildfires not yet controlled by the forestry service.  Pickle Juice brings a filtration mask (just in case).






I prove that simple tasks ... like making a pre-race PB&J become exponentially more difficult as the time available for them diminishes.



It's a sandwich, not Rubik's cube but you wouldn't know it to watch me.  Somewhere there's security video of what happened in the Bowen Motel parking lot.  It's comedy gold I'm sure, I'll just say the process ended with crushed tupperware, peanut butter on the pavement, some on my sandals, some on the bread (but not as much as on the pavement and my sandals) and me wondering if I should have gone back to the natural laxative Fruition bars I ate before last year's race.

We get to the start just in time to snap a few last minute photos




The pre-race clock shows goose eggs across the board.  Last year it read 34:45:00 when we crossed the finish line.  The hope was to match or better that time this year.  The weather channel has nothing but bad news in that regard however.  All week I have been monitoring the forecast and it calls for sun, lots of it.  Wind, lots of that too but nothing I read prepared me for what we actually encountered.  That said, I knew from last year's experience that the first leg shapes the entire race, wind or no wind.  There are more teams to ride with this year but even so if you get dropped off the back right out of the gate your teammates will be paying the price for it all weekend ... no pressure.  I check my Garmin and my 'resting' heart rate is 105 and bumps to over 120 as we get under a minute.  'Juice knows how race day affects me and does his best to talk me down.  I'll call the results mixed.  'A' for effort on his part, 'D' for execution on mine.





They count us down from ten and cut us loose on more than five hundred miles of southwestern desert and mountains.

photo
'Juice pedals past the race photographer and ... is that a smile?  Last time you'll see that for two days, at least while he's in the saddle.  For now however, the intensity is dialed back from an 11/10 to a steady 4.5.  Just takin' in the morning air.



photo


As we roll out of town with the obligatory police escort (always equal parts fun and surreal, no matter how many races you've done) my heart rate continues to ramp up.  Conventional wisdom holds that if you work as a group, everyone benefits; the proverbial rising tide affect on all ships involved. But it's a race and even though a 500 mile race won't be lost in the first 10 miles, these are the Alpha Dog* team members.  They signed up for Cyclist 1 duties knowing that they would be climbing almost twice as much as the next highest teammate and riding more miles than any other team member but one.  In short, they are confident in their abilities & training and impatient to show them off.

*and me, I'm no Alpha Dog.  I'm happy to lope along anonymously with the pack.  I just wish the pack would stop running away from me.


photo

Just outside of town we hit a two mile section of 6% grade.  The peleton charges into it, wildly and with no discernible plans to parse out their energy for the entire ride.  One of the seductive qualities of the Relay is the relatively short length of the individual legs.  If you're accustomed to racing in terms of century (+) rides, 55 miles seems, if not like a Time Trial sprint, at least a distance you can blast through and spend 8 or 9 hours recovering before doing it again.  Easy to forget that in those 55 miles there will be 4800 feet of climb (the race bible says 4500, my Garmin says 4800 and since the Garmin was with me on the bike and the bible wasn't? we're going with the Garmin's numbers).  That's a lot of climb and the largest continuous hill comes up around the 40 mile mark.  You're probably going to want to save something for that.  Apparently I'm the only one with that thought because despite the fact that I'm pushing hard and hitting unprecedented heart rates (previous max was 175, I have been hovering around 180 since the city limits ... what do you call it when you've left the red zone? Infra-red?  That's where I am now and have been for about 15 minutes) I find myself suddenly and disconcertingly alone.  The peleton is history and there's nobody on my wheel.  How this happened I can't say.  I may have blacked out a little bit while in the infrared.  I crest a hill and spot a lone cyclist about 300 yards in front of me.  We are both getting our first taste of the continuous 15mph wind out of the south (hey that's exactly where we are headed, great!) and it's the threat of fighting this wind alone along with a tapping of reserves I didn't know existed that get me up to this rider's wheel.  I pull alongside him and he gives me a grateful look.  It's only fifty five miles but doing it solo will be soul crippling (and we have to do it two more times, don't let yourself forget about that).   It's team Rusty Cranks, a foursome of old* guys (This time we're talkin' baby boomer, getting the senior discount at Denny's and feeling comfortable with it old, these guys were aptly named) who still ride. We agree to work together and manage to bump our combined speeds to 17-18 mph.  I would say on the flat but I'm not sure there's any flat road between Moab and Monticello.

*You know what's great about cycling?  Old guys can do it and do it well.  I'm not talking senior tour golf either.  There are plenty of the AARP set who will ride you under the road if you make the mistake of disregarding them.  Frankly, it's just one more thing to love  about the sport.


After about five miles together I see the tail end of the peleton.  I'm having a tough time believing it.  I tell my partner we need to charge them before they get away.  He gives me the look that Rodzilla's dog Lilly probably gives him when he leaves for work every morning ... he's not coming much as he wants to.  I feel bad but I decide to put the team first and push hard to catch the group ahead.  It doesn't take long or much effort. I realize (almost too late) that the peleton is stopping.   Everybody is stopping.  This section of highway 191 is schedule for resurfacing and is shut down to one lane.



The cyclists (all but maybe a half dozen) are mustering at the extreme end of the construction site.  If our fellow motorists thought they would get first crack at the new asphalt they were sadly mistaken, on this day at least.  I joined the throng of my non motorized brethren (if there was a female cyclist in this particular mix I didn't see her) and felt like pinching myself.  This piece of fortunate misfortune was the best thing that could have possibly happened.  Our finish time would suffer but that was the least of my worries at the moment.  We stood unclipped and resting for a full five minutes (heart rate drops back to physiologic levels, good news there) then the road crew switches the sign from stop to slow (yeah right) and unleashes us on two miles of black glass.

The burners still get separation and eventually drop us average riders but they leave me plenty of wheels to work with.  UDOT saves the day.  Never thought I would ever think, let alone write those words.




The pace picks up dramatically now.  Vive le Peleton!  As we make our way over the nearly constant positive grade between Monticello and Moab (with a nice longer roller thrown in here and there to keep things interesting).

At about twenty miles out, the crew I'm rowing with begins to get visits from their support staff.  It's been just over an hour and I'm down to a few ounces of water.  I haven't eaten anything and hardly dare to try cause it's hot, and my mouth is already dry.  Anything I have in my pocket is only going to compound that.

photo
                                    If this photo were a painting the title would be: deebers on a bike, on a hill, parched.


As we continue to hit hill after hill it dawns on me that if the boys from team Chain Whipped didn't hustle out of town they are likely stuck in the construction zone traffic jam.  Did I really write UDOT saves the day?  Too late to redact that statement?   As we hit (another) hill I see what looks like the team truck.  I don't want Pickle Juice railing at me for not eating*.  So I quickly stuff  one of the stinger waffles from my pocket in my gullet, it instantly turns to paste in my mouth, somehow expanding to twice it's size and settling in.  Worst decision of this recently started race.  As it turns out my crew was not among the vehicles I spotted roadside and as I crest the hill, I try in vain to wring some fluid from my long empty water bottles and wonder how long I can ride before I'll have to pull off and beg some water from another team.  The retro rider in the pink jersey (and helmet that looks like it came from a 70's roller derby event) had a third bottle cage sticking out from under his saddle.  I had been eye balling it jealously for about 10 miles.  If he were still around I might actually attempt the pick pocket move, desperate as I am.

*Pickle Juice has strict instructions from la Canadienne to make sure I get adequate nutrition this year, he has sworn a solemn oath to track calories spent and make sure they are replaced





Unfortunatley Retro helmet-pink jersey (and the rest of riders I was working with) have dropped me as I slowed down to not get water and then tried to gag down the driest stinger waffle ever eaten in competition.  It doesn't take much separation in this headwind before you're in no man's land.  The photo below is taken from the next hill, the one the boys finally caught me on.  That speck about 2/3 of the way up the hill in the background is me.  It's the last I'll see of these guys until we reach Monticello.




Finally, salvation in the form of a water bottle.  I've never been so happy to see the big man.



As I pass the crew I ask 'Juice, half joking half not, if there is anybody at all behind me.  I'm back to seeing nobody for miles of riding.  He assures me that there are riders behind us.  Lots.  Some deeply into the hurt locker already.  This event looks crazy hard on paper, maybe those teams didn't bother reading before they signed the dotted line?



Coming up close on my heals are the Cyclist 1s of 4 of the 5 LOTOJA teams.  We will leapfrog this quartet for the next day and a half.   Out in front is a rider I only know as Jed.  He's an incredibly strong rider with a penchant for upright, no hands snacking.  I'll be a firsthand witness to both of those facts as the race progresses.




As I reach the big climb at mile forty the wind kicks up to the 20 mph range and the temperatures edge into the 90's depite the 2500 foot of elevation gain since Moab.  On the big hill I make the mistake of going for the full unzip (the other riders were doing it, the pros do it, why can't I do it?) in an attempt to cool down, only to have the monster head wind cause my open jersey to slap me stupid with everything that's currently in my outer pockets (that would be my ipod, cell phone and 1 1/2 energy bars).  Note to self, never go for the full unzip under any circumstances, ever.  I pull off at the summit to re-zip (we're on a major highway on top of a mountain on a blustery day, going hands free seemed like a really dicey proposition) and I get caught by the LOTOJA teams and I push myself back into infrared to hold their collective wheels and deliver some riders for the Swede to work with.  We're all going to get a chance to eat a man-sized portion of this wind by ourselves,  but if Matt does on his first leg it won't be because I left him stranded.  The road becomes as close to flat as it ever will on this first leg and still, even working as a group we can only manage a 12-13 mph pace with any consistency.  I come close to getting dropped several times, the slipstream in this wind is down to inches, or so it seems, leave the sweet spot and kiss the wheel in front of you good-bye, but I somehow manage to hang on.

I finally roll into Monticello at 11:34, 27 minutes slower than last year but twice as spent.  I felt I was in better condition (and forewarned) this year and still it seemed like I had to push myself to the edge and beyond on that ride just to finish.  I roll a few yards with Matt and tell him to grab a wheel and hold it, even if he thinks he can go faster, hold on as long as you possibly can.  You fight this wind alone and you won't make it twenty miles.  He nods, tells Rodney to get out of the way and he's gone.  The effort has paid off.  Our Monticello split time is 28th out of 60 starting teams.  Not gaudy or flashy numbers, but in this race we were never going to be in the top 10%.  We'll take our place in middle of the bell shaped curve and be glad for all the company we have.

Monticello finish video here

I head back to the truck and 'Juice tries to feed me seven things at once but all I want is something cold to drink.  Eventually they talk me into some Tacos at Taco Time.  Apparently I begin singing Cypress Hill songs at an unacceptable decibel level and Pickle Juice gives Rodzilla a look that says "is he going to keep doing this, cause it's is going to be a really long race if he doesn't stop."  Rodney gives him the look that says "Yeah, he'll wind down in a bit, just give him a minute."  And I think don't kid yourself 'Juice, it's going to be a really long race regardless The sooner you loosen your grip on reality and embrace the madness the easier it will be on you.  Also I figured at the time (and still do now) that this is that type of race.  It will test your mettle, make you access mental and physical strength you didn't even know existed.  If you don't feel like crying or laughing hysterically (or singing bad stoner rap music at volume) when you're done then probably you didn't do it right.



"To [Moticello] and beyond!"

Next up Rockwell Relay Redux Part 2: Monticello to Torrey.




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