Sunday, October 2, 2011

At the limit: Bikenfest 2011

The 2011 offering of Bikenfest, a brevet organized each October by John Kramer, was a lot harder than I anticipated.  I knew it had 10,000 vertical feet of climbing, and I anticipated rain that didn't come, but it was just 200k (124mi), the shortest brevet distance … I expect to be able to do that distance in decent time without any particular problems, and with little preparation.  I like to climb, I've done 10k in a day before (on the Torture 10k century when it was put on by Portland Wheelmen, and nearly that on my more rando-like wanderings in Switzerland).  

But this wasn't easy. 

I had a rough beginning when I couldn't find the ride start.  We had directions for reaching it from the West, which makes sense for a ride in Hood River.  But hotel space in Hood River was tight, so we stayed Friday night in The Dalles.  I got directions from Google Maps, based on location coordinates provided by the ride organizer.  Those directions took me to the town of Mosier, a few miles away … and I didn't have the foresight to also bring the original from-the-West directions, so our only choice was to drive to Hood River and ask directions.  Then we compounded the problem by misunderstanding road markings at the exit in Hood River, and were sent back to Mosier one more time.  The second time we reached Hood River, we were able to follow the directions provided by a very helpful convenience store clerk the first time, and found the park, but the other riders were 15 minutes down the road (or I should really say up the road, as it started with a couple of climbs).   It took me about an hour and a half to chase on. 

Brevets typically break up pretty quickly into groups riding at different paces.  I joined up with Lynne and Lesli and, off and on, a handful of other riders including Bill and Jeff.  We rode a fairly comfortable pace, reasonably portioning out our effort on the hills in consideration of many more ahead.   Though a little wary of having gone out faster than I would have liked, to catch the group, I was feeling good. I was particularly enjoying some of the swoopy descents, except when the wind was gusty, which was most of the time.  

Scenery:  Excellent.  Photos: zero.  I had my camera along, but never took it out of my bag.  Otherwise occupied.  

My first inkling of nutrition issues was at a market in Mosier, near the end of the first loop.  (The ride is basically two loops from the same park in Hood River.)  Others were getting corn-dogs and other nutritionally balanced foods.  They didn't look good to me, so I just had a Dr. Pepper. The bottle said 250 calories, which is about equivalent to a Clif Bar, but of course 250 calories of high fructose corn syrup isn't processed by the body like 250 calories of fat and somewhat slower-digesting carbs with a little protein.  I had been subsisting on oatmeal cookies from my front bag up to that point, which means that my digestive tract already had a steady, measured supply of sugar … a sudden big dose of sugar was not what it needed.  

Just a little while on, in Hood River, Cyndi met us and offered me half a chicken sandwich.  That was a much better choice … but a little too close after the soda.   Still, though getting the sandwich down was a bit of a challenge, I was feeling good overall.  In the next segment of the ride, I was still feeling pretty strong as we climbed toward Parkdale.   Lynne started to fade on that climb, and Lesli and I decided that she was probably better off finding her own pace than pushing to stay with ours. 

Very efficient stop in Parkdale, then out to Dee and starting the climb toward Lost Lake.  It's about 1800 feet of climb over  maybe 9 miles or so.   The climb was not as steep as I anticipated, and the pavement was not as bad.  And yet … trouble was coming.  I made a bottle of Nunn, but still my stomach was not happy about anything I had to eat.  I was in a really easy gear, easier than I would normally choose for that grade, but quickly tiring.  Lesli suggested I make myself at least work on a Clif bar, which I did with difficulty.  I was drinking a lot (I finished the both my bottle of Nunn and my bottle of water before reaching the lake), but that and the Clif bar weren't enough to keep me going.  Eventually I dropped off the back as Lesli kept her steady pace, and just slogged on as best I could.  Twice or maybe three times I stopped for half-minute naps.  

The brain is an organ that burns a lot of sugar and oxygen.  When blood sugar gets low, it's not just your muscles that become less efficient.  You get stupid.  Only a quarter mile from the lake, I nearly headed down a wrong road.  I stood perplexed at the junction for a while till another rider, thinking better than me, indicated that we should go straight on … so I did, and followed him to the Lost Lake resort.  

There are some wooden stairs up to the store at the resort.  Several bikes I recognized were parked in front.  Normally I would have carried my bike up the stairs and parked it near the door, for easy access to my bags.  I considered that, and knew right away that I just couldn't.  It was going to be enough to get myself up the stairs.  I parked just across the small road and tried to think about what I should carry up to the store.  I was dizzy and this seemed like a complicated problem, but at least I did manage to bring up my rain jacket and some other warm stuff I knew I would need for the descent.  It was a lot cooler at Lost Lake than at the foot of the climb. 

Apparently I didn't look so good when I entered the store, because riders inside immediately started bringing me things instead of leaving me to forage for myself.  I didn't feel so good either.  Hot chocolate sounded like a great idea, but my stomach said no.  Cool ranch Doritos … now that was food.  I needed salt, lots of it, right away.  Jerky … that's something I'm not used to eating, but it's got salt and a bit of protein and probably some fat, which sounded like a pretty good combination.  It went down pretty well. The store clerk (probably the proprietor) offered me green tea with slices of fresh ginger, which was a little bitter but probably an excellent choice for my stomach.   I kept trying to think of some form of sugar that I could digest.  There were Nerd candies in a display on the counter.  I knew they were very sour, and that sounded like it might work.  I was able to eat about two thirds of a box.  

I was there for some time after other riders left and a few more came and went.  Lynne arrived, looking beat.  She changed, washed up, drank the hot chocolate I couldn't get down, and we set out together for the descent.  I was already feeling better, but not good.  Lynne is a cautious descender, so I leap-frogged her down the hill.  We were lighted up and in full reflective regalia, and reached the bottom before it was really dark.  Bill was just ahead of us, but Lynne and I didn't try to join up with him.  It was important that we find a pace that was going to be comfortable for both of us, rather than pushing any harder than necessary. 

At this point I thought we were doing reasonably well on time.  We certainly would arrive later than I had initially anticipated, but the big climbs were all done, and we were only about 25 miles from the finish.  Slow and steady was good enough.  

But we were not through, and there were some hills left, even if not big ones.  My blood sugar was getting back in balance … I wasn't eating more, but food already in my belly was getting processed, which was enough.  Lynne was still close to the edge, doing fine on the flats and on short hills, but with almost nothing in the bank.  One longer climb toward Hood River on Tucker Road was enough to put her into deficit, so we walked a few minutes, and resumed riding where it leveled out.  Onward. 

Slowly my legs were coming back.  Slowly, too, my brain.  Too slowly. Lynne and I were baffled why a left turn led us to an intersection of two roads which were not on our route.  We had no idea how far off track we were, or how best to get back on track.  I called Cyndi, who gave her phone to the ride organizer John, who had some difficulty figuring out where we were.  He did say, though, that if we found Barrett Drive on the way back, we could follow it to the next cue.  At about the same time, Lynne remembered that her phone has GPS.   We probably spent 10 or 15 minutes at this intersection, and maybe on balance that wasn't all bad, because both Lynne and I were recovering from our earlier blood sugar crises. 

Back … it turned out the road we were on was the same as Barrett Drive, just changing name along the way.  Soon we were back where we had turned, and saw Jeff.  Jeff said he was sorry about the circumstances but happy to see us.  He was worried we wouldn't make the time cut.  I was still confident we could, probably because I couldn't do arithmetic very well. 

Jeff is a good navigator, and so is Lynne.  I am not, but teamed with the other two, we were quite efficient in spotting each turn.  We knew it would be tight, and fortunately we were already riding pretty strongly, calling out cues and directions as we rode.  We worried a bit at one intersection when I mis-read a 1.1 mile segment as .1 mile and worried that we had missed a cue.  After a moment to clear that up, we pressed on, knowing by this point that it was going to be very, very tight.   I still thought we would make it, but we obviously could not afford any further delays. 

As we reached town, Lynne called out that she knew the rest of the way from having driven it in the morning … no more cue sheet, just go where she called.   Through downtown, where we saw Lesli and Sarah and they cheered us on.  Then the Chinese restaurant with the big panda, and even I knew where we were.  And where we were was the beginning of a series of switchbacks leading up to the start/finish point.   And where we were was four minutes to the time cut.  My confidence was sagging, but we had a chance. 

Up, around.  Up, around.   We're climbing fine, but now we have two minutes, and I have no idea how many more of these switchbacks we have.  Up, around.  Up, around.  It is now 9pm, the cut-off time.   The switchbacks end. And I'm thinking:  If it's 9pm, we are still on time if we reach the finish before 9:01pm.  We might make it. 

Into the park. Jeff is ringing his bell to announce our arrival, and I can hear Cyndi give a welcoming cheer.  I'm still not certain whether we actually made it.  I have a pretty good idea of how far ahead my watch is (it was reading 9:04, and it's normally 4 minutes fast), but not down to the second.  But now John is greeting us too, remarking on the closest finish ever, and offering to sign our brevet cards.  Maybe he counted the time we entered the park and not the time we reached his table, or maybe we really did reach his table before 9:01pm, I don't know, but our recorded time is 13 hours 30 minutes, exactly the time cut for a 200 kilometer brevet.  Much relief and happiness ensued.