So it's been an age since I have written anything. In fact it is 6 months! Despite the chronic hope that every year will be the year nothing goes wrong, I've also learned that every year, something will perhaps not go according to plan. Though not necessarily the same thing, I've come to appreciate that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
"The plan" this year was to try and maintain some fitness over the winter and have a strong spring/early summer in preparation for LEL. I loved the ride in 2013 and wanted to return specifically because my previous self had loved it so much. That plan has been challenged over and over this year. Certainly lots of ups and downs.
This past weekend, my original plan was to go to Wisconsin and ride my new Swiss Miss 400k (for those that don't know, I'm the Chicago RBA - long story). The route is crazy scenic, hilly and maybe 10-11,000 ft of climbing - 1/4 of it is packed in 40 miles. The weather forecast was absolutely grim - 11 hours of thunderstorms. 3 people were signed up. My favorite 400k in Iowa was also offered. Weather only marginally better. Of course, on Monday, I was sick as a dog and had lightly strained a hamstring.
There are tough decisions to be made in randonneuring. It's a dangerous sport, let's face it. I had to weigh a lot of things. Running the ride in Wisconsin wasn't an issue. Our treasurer could run it for me and we do almost everything electronically anyways. Whether I drove the 6 hours to the start and did it myself was the question. If I did the ride, I'd have no back out option at all and riding alone in thunderstorms at night wasn't really a great idea for someone like me. It's never my desire to become the source of someone else's worry if I didn't know them well. I have limits now that I have to respect. This was not a good situation, given my current state. So Friday morning, I officially backed out of riding my own 400k. It might be okay for some, but not me. I had to consider alternative options.
I'm friends with Greg Courtney in Iowa. I've ridden with him quite a bit over the last year and he is very familiar with my situation. Iowa is about 3 hours closer too. So as I got better on Friday and the forecast improved slightly, I decided to do the Iowa 400k. The ride is NOT a walk in the park; it's quite hilly with about 9-10,000 ft of climbing. There was a strong possibility of thunder in the afternoon, but not 11 hours of it. And if anything went super wrong, both Greg and IronK would be relatively close.
Only 2 people were on the 400k/600k in Iowa besides me. In the new state of "me", riding is a much more solo activity. While I like riding with other people, in a longer brevet, the idea of riding too late or being in a group I'm not familiar with is still challenging. All of my decisions now rotate around getting sleep. As a result, I'm quite a bit faster than I used to be; something that has come on slowly and subtly. I've never been fast - I was the gasping kid who collapsed at the end of the 100 yard dash and my pathetic gym grade cost me being salutatorian in high school. But a different brain has different ideas and sometimes given a blank slate, we change unexpectedly.
So at the start, with only 2 others on the course, neither of whom were anywhere near my pace, I was rather in a state. Should I even try this 400k? Was I nuts after backing out of my own ride? But I was feeling good and the wind wasn't supposed to be too bad. I'd have backup and I could take chances here. This was my favorite 400k route, why shouldn't I embrace it totally solo?
The forecast was actually pretty ideal for the route. No wind for several hours and then a cross headwind through the hilliest section between Redfield and Audubon. I calculated that I should be able to have a small tail for most of the last 80 miles. And I had new gear that needed breaking in - specifically new shoes.
So at the start, I was looking at a still, very humid grey day. There has been lots of rain this year and the grey against oceans of green was serene and oddly reminded me of being in Scotland years ago. The first sections are relatively flat and I pulled into Polk City, the first control, at about 40 miles with plenty of time, but still focused on what I was doing. The other 400k rider, Ahi, pulled up about 7 minutes after I did and we left together. After about 5 miles, he'd disappeared behind me and I was on my own for the rest of the ride. The heat was starting to build but it was more about humidity than actual heat. Having grown up in Cincinnati, humidity doesn't really bother me much. There are humidity dragons that live there; there are humidity lizards here.
This particular weekend was the Bacon Festival on the Raccoon River Trail. This generally means much partying, thousands of people and a lot of pork on one section. I was pretty early and I actually took advantage of Bacon Fest to buy a new headband. My hair currently looks like Dracula and hiding it is a priority. I pulled into Redfield and about 11:15, ate a piece of gas station pizza and filled my bottles. The next 50 miles had almost all the climbing focused in them. Feeling a bit lonely, I clamped my phone onto the handlebars and played an Audiobook. I don't use ear buds if I can avoid it. No one was around but me so the extra noise would serve to chase off anything ahead.
At Guthrie Center, it was getting hot so I stopped for a soda at a gas station. This was the peak time for thunder and it was a little grey to the west. One of the patrons mentioned rain but that only showers were forecasted. The nasty stuff had gone north. I saw a red fox cross the road in front of me outside the town limits, a rare treat.
The 25 miles to Audubon is a difficult ride, no question. It's 20 miles of very long, steep and seemingly endless rollers. To make matters worse, you are slowly gaining elevation so they just get nastier as time goes on. The last time I'd done the ride, a spoke had popped on the Princess leaving me with 125 miles of woggle wheel. This time, I was on the Jester which is a good climbing bike with my best wheels. I made it to the halfway point at 3:15, a little over 9 hours as a 200k. I thought about going to Subway, but the gas station was serving veggie pizza. That just never happens so I was compelled to stay and eat pizza. Bottles filled and my longest stop at 20 minutes, I took off for the second half of the ride.
Audubon is a 10 mile out and back off the main loop and 5 miles outside, I waved to Paul, the 600k rider. He said something about getting tired and I urged him on. Just before the turn, I saw the other 400k rider, Ahi, who was pressing on. I told him not to quit either. You can only say so much at 15 mph.
I turned north to Coon Rapids, still in very large rollers and one of my favorite roads. Big green hills surround you and there are some really stunning vistas. About 5 miles later, a fawn charged me. Yes, a 2 ft deer jumped in the road and came at me full on. Not wanting the poor thing to get hurt, I slowed up, stopped the bike and herded it to woods. Where mother deer was is anyone's guess. Hopefully, Bambi is okay.
There was a northwest wind blowing which slowed me slightly but as I angled up to Scranton, it gave me an occasional push too. The Scranton Casey's is notorious for not having much in the way of food, but heck, there was some pizza. So I had yet another piece along with some lemonade - a 10 minute stop at 164 miles. From here, at 6:00 pm, the wind was at its peak from the west northwest and 90% of the rest of the ride was east or south. Yum.
The next 40 miles went by in 2 hours with the sun finally making an appearance at the very end of the day and flooding the sky with a huge rainbow. I pulled into Ogden at just on 8:30 pm with the sun shining. Gee, there's pizza here too. A couple pulled up and asked me how far I was going. "250 miles," I said,"you'd be surprised how far you can go on Casey's pizza".
Another pretty fast stop and only 28 miles to Madrid. I climbed out of the Des Moines River valley still in the light (a first). The gentle wind was still a bit of a friend and curiously wasn't dying as it usually does at night. I headed southeast and crossed the High Trestle Trail at about 10 pm. The High Trestle Trail is a long, high bridge over the Des Moines River. It has a series of rotated psychotic blue squares on it making it a favorite place for teenagers to experience their first trip. I usually get through quickly but as it turns out half of Ames was on the bridge - I almost had to walk the bike the quarter mile or so across. There were families, toddlers, dogs and everyone else (along with the stoned teenagers).
I got to the Flat Tire Lounge (a cycling bar) before 10:30 to get my card signed as the last control. A super quick stop, I poured some more water in the Jester's hat and noticed that suddenly, the wind was raging about about 25 mph. I was thinking a storm was coming in but stars were still out in the sky. Fortunately, this appeared to be westerly, making it a tail wind all the way to Slater. A 30 mph tail is nothing to sneeze at even if it is only for 7 miles. And only about 20 miles to go...
So at the end of 7 miles, it was a cross wind for 8 miles into Ames proper. It could have been much worse, I usually do that section at about 22 mph but was down to about 15 as gusts buffeted me sideways. I made it through Ames fairly well, negotiating some construction and no train at the RR crossing to block me.
I cruised into the Quality Inn at 12:15. For me, it was a personal record in the 400k by over an hour - 18:15 total time - and my first solo 400k ever. Not sure, but looking back I suppose that this was a "fast ride". I had a great time simply watching the countryside go by. It's odd to me that this is the second personal record I've set in the last month; I had a personal record soloing the 300k at 13:03 a couple weeks ago. For someone with a chronic battle against their immune system, that's a huge thing. On a sad note, both Ahi and Paul did not finish.
In the last year, I've come to recognize that the rider I was pre-accident had a very different style. There is good and bad that comes along with that. Good because I got plenty of sleep after the 400k and was able to meet Greg the next day and do 70 miles of hills and wind easily. Bad because it's a much more solitary existence. I seem to be subconsciously avoid riding with others, something to consider in the long term. Had I a been on a 600k, I'd have probably PR'd that too. But a 600k wasn't what I needed for LEL. I needed to do a challenging ride, recover my confidence, and follow up on the next day with another one that I could again push my limits on. It's a slow build to a major event, carefully adding one little block at a time until hopefully, I'm solid at the start of LEL.
I've never considered myself in the least bit fast. One of the fast GLR recently wrote to me that he thought I would have to slow down to ride at his 17 mph pace. Even this ride, at my peak, left my computer saying the moving average was 15. But perhaps there is more to being fast than meets the eye.