Ever have that thing where you doze off a little and you’re in a weird transitional dream state? Then you either continue into a deep slumber or wake up with drool coming down your face and your boss walking by your desk?
How about when you wake up from that and find yourself on Route 443 in rural Pennsylvania, on your bike, into a headwind, out of water, and 2 hours away from decent services? Are you just in a dream within a dream? Is this Inception?
DOES MY HOBBY ACTUALLY SUCK?
These were all questions I asked myself as I snapped-to-it smack in the middle of the road during the 300K Michaux Meander randonneuring event, out of water, with just a pack of emergency pop-tarts still being saved for when something REALLY bad was going to happen.
Things had started off so normally, too. My friend Brad, AKA the only other dumb adult in McLean, had agreed to do this ride with me and picked my bike and me up on Friday evening for the hour long drive to the Days Inn in Frederick, MD (where the ride was to start the next morning). We had both already eaten dinner, but once we got checked in it seemed like a good idea to have a second dinner and of course alcohol because all of my successful long distance events have been preceded by the meat sweats and alcohol.
We ended up at the Roasthouse Pub after 9pm and I did my duty by having a plate of something with meat on that something and then by drinking more beer than I probably should have at that late hour. Brad took my cue and did the same. Two married men alone together in Frederick, MD, sharing a meal and a hotel room. Few romcoms have started out this promising.
Unfortunately, this was as exciting as it got and at 4am Saturday, our alarms went off and the reality that we had committed to riding almost 200 miles on an otherwise perfectly good day started to set in. Fortunately, we had the foresight to immediately drive to the 7-Eleven across the street (we needed to save our legs, obviously) and get breakfast, skipping the perfectly good Waffle House attached to our hotel. Honestly, I would make a joke about the quality of a 7-Eleven dark roast coffee paired with two blueberry pop-tarts, but it tasted FUCKING AMAZING and was so energizing I probably would have failed 7 different WADA drug tests had they been onsite at our premier athletic event.
We came back to the room and finished getting dressed. I looked at myself in the mirror. Every goddamn piece of clothing I was wearing was black, which of course is the best color. I did have to bend to some archaic randonneuring (and maybe modern societal) conventions of safety and wear a hot pink xinglet and reflective ankle bands, but they went well with my outfit. Because when they have to ID your body after you get peaced-out by a logging truck, you want to look put together. Permission to Rapha to use that tag line in their next ad campaign.
When I arrived at check-in, I found that the approximately 25 other adult cyclists milling around had made mature, responsible choices like helmet lights and high-viz vests and those fancy pants with reflective piping. I threw a silent temper tantrum and resolved to grow up one day.
We headed out of town as a group, but as usual I was getting antsy because my legs were fresh and the only strategy when things get friendly and social is to go off the front like a selfish asshole. This usually results in me 1) taking a wrong turn and 2) blowing up (read any previous blog entry of mine for evidence). I had Brad with me though and he is strong af and I figured there were a couple of other folks who would hang with us as we picked up the pace a tad. So I picked up the pace a tad.
My goal was to ride the whole thing in under 12 hours. Why the rush?
Because affluent white people like to make up random achievements so they can pretend their lives are hard. Because there is a really cool challenge called R60 where you try to ride four different randonneuring events (a 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k) in under 60% of the max allotted time. Since I rode the last fall’s Mountain Church 200k brevet in under 8 hours,
I just needed the three longer events to complete the challenge.
About 10 miles into the ride we started becoming a little stretched out, and at one point I looked back and everyone had disappeared, even Brad. This usually means wrong turn on my part, but in this case I was just headed straight toward the Island of Blowuplandia. As we skirted the Catoctins to our west, I was acutely aware of how cold it was, and I just concentrated on spinning my legs until the sun came up. The first visual treat of the ride came in the form of passing into Pennsylvania as the impending sunrise made the horizon to my east glow a deeply layered bronze and blue.
I was trying my best to drink drinks but I wasn’t that thirsty. I also felt like a major exercise dweeb because I was swallowing two Hammer Endurolyte EXTREME caps every hour and sucking down a Hammer Gel when I felt like pretending I was eating cake icing straight from the can (which Fat Chris loved to do on the regular).
About 50 miles in, the course turned Northwest and with it brought a longish climb into and through the Michaux State Forest. This was my favorite part of the ride because I love climbs, and I love forests. There was still snow on the ground in spots and one section in particular, Pine Grove Road, was as beautiful and idyllic a spot as I had seen since we rolled through Pennsylvania last year.
After screaming down a big descent coming out of Michaux, I started to get excited because I knew a control was coming up in the small town of Newville. Controls are places on rando rides where you have to prove you passed through – by either answering a question or getting a receipt. You fill out the information on your control card, which you turn in at the end of the ride. I knew there was a Sheetz about 2 miles past the control on the other side of Newville, so ignored the Sheetz on my way into town to find the second control (the first control was technically the ride start at the Days Inn).
As I rode up to the control, an ornamental fountain, I drank my last drop of water. I counted seconds in my head as I pulled out my control card and answered the question on the card (“how many urns are on this ugly ass fountain? 3 urns on this ugly ass fountain”). A scant two minutes later I rode off to reload at Sheetz. I was crushing this ride. I AM A FAST RANDONNEUR. R TO THE 60.
Except there was no Sheetz.
I had read the cue sheet wrong when I looked at it the night before. The Sheetz I had passed up coming into Newville was essentially my last chance for the next 40 miles. I pulled out the cue sheet and looked and it VERY SPECIFICALLY noted “STRONGLY RECOMMEND RESUPPLY HERE, NEWVILLE HAS VERY LITTLE”. They weren’t kidding. Not only did Newville have nothing, but there was nothing more than a soda machine for the next 43.9 miles of the route.
My safe and rational choice was to turn around and add 7-8 miles to my route and probably pass other riders on a reverse march of shame. That would have been embarrassing though, so I came up with a much better plan. I was down to two gels, a package of pop-tarts, and probably two swigs of water if I took the tops off of my two bottles. I would immediately eat the gels and then save the pop-tarts for when I hit 100 miles. I would drink the drops of water I had left as a last resort.
Pennsylvania farmland stretched into Pennsylvania farmland and alarmingly some roads seemed to have a posted speed limit of 55 mph. For the most part it was just a headwind and the same goddamn scenery for miles, after miles, after miles. The solid lines in the middle of the road seemed to curve and twist into themselves and then back outwa….
HOLY FUCKING SHIT I WAS JUST ASLEEP.
If you’ve ever seen the video of the RAAM racer just slowly swerving around and finally falling over, that’s probably what I looked like minus the crash. That freaked me out sufficiently, and the adrenaline kick that came with it made me a lot more alert. Thinking back, I had been yawning deeply for the previous hour and I’m sure I had dozed off once already without noticing it. I still had 20+ miles to go, directly into a headwind, no water, and only a miracle was going to save me.
That miracle was, of course, pop-tarts. At about 100 miles, I pulled out the pack I had been carrying and like an absolute pro, leaned over my aerobars and opened them up and starting eating the crumbled pieces out of the package, just like the studs on the TransAmerica do, because that’s the secret to being a fast ultracyclist, eating on th…
(Half the pop tart crumbles go flying out of the package and onto the road).
So pro. I had to laugh, because my blood sugar was low and my brain was unable to process an effective response. Laughing was all I had. Or maybe I was crying. Whatever. Either way, I finished what I had left and kept pedaling.
You play mind games when you are out there and mine is and has frequently been the whole Mike Hall “pretend you are being chased” story. It’s just fun for whatever reason, mostly because I am a child, but it’s effective because you can’t let yourself stop spinning and when you stop at a control or convenience store you never want to be there for long. I kept looking back over my shoulder and every mailbox or cow or broken down car I saw in the distance I just assumed was Brad or someone else easily chasing me down.
At 12:40 I finally rolled into Mercersburg and right up to the knock-off Sheetz in town, called Rutters. Over the past 20 minutes I had been enumerating all my steps to take when I got there so I could minimize the time for my stop. Stuff like 2. throw away trash 5. get trash food 7. drink caffeine 8. leave. It all went pretty well until the cashier wouldn’t sign my card without permission from her manager and then never gave a receipt to me. Which is great because I’m not sure you even need a signature and you definitely need a receipt and I didn’t realize my error until I was a mile outside of town. AND RIDERS WERE GAINING ON ME.
The good news was I had chugged a chocolate milk and restocked on pop tarts and even bought four stroop waffels (that is the belgian spelling, probably) . The latter were especially incredible and I managed to suck down all four of them before my next control in Sheperdstown. I even bought a bag of Reese’s Pretzels in the off-chance I made another stupid ride mistake again (chances = high).
At about mile 157 I pulled into the Sheperdstown Sheetz and was reminded why they were the REAL DEAL. The cashier signed my card and cheerfully agreed to refuse to sign cards for anyone named Brad (I think she was just being nice though). I was feeling a little worn down at this point and texted Brad to see where he was – despite some seat issues he was having a strong ride and just about 45 minutes behind with another group. God forbid they catch up to me and we have a friendly, social ride to the finish. I wolfed down package number three of pop-tarts and got on my bike.
Unfortunately with the headwind and my advancing lameness, my 12 hour ride was looking like a no go. Fortunately, there is also an R70 designation, so I shifted my goals on the fly and immediately cheered up instead of dwelling on being a failure.
The ride out of Sheperdstown and West Virginia was a retrace of the route in and I actually passed Brad and a few other Randos right before my turn southeast towards Frederick.
There was just one really big climb until the finish, and that was the backside of Gathland State Park via Gapland Road. I was kind of dreading it most of the way, just waiting for the route to shoot straight up. Then all of a sudden I was at the top and hurtling down the other side. I was actually a little disappointed that I didn’t have to grind through another soul crushing climb. THAT’S HOW DELIRIOUS I WAS.
From there to Frederick it was mostly rollers, which sound benign, but are actually the worst with a head wind. You hurtle down a steep descent and try to carry your speed up the next hill, but the wind just stops you in your tracks. It’s cruel. After cresting Mar-Lu Ridge though, the best thing happened. I finally caught a tailwind into town. Suddenly I was cranking at 20+ mph with little effort, down in my aerobars like a champ. My estimated arrival time kept dropping…6:10, 6:08, 6:05. Suddenly, the most important thing in the world was to get back to the Days Inn by 6:00.
6:02, 5:59. Stoplight. Rush hour. FFFFUUUU.
I sprinted off the line, standing and pedaling like a crazy person and somehow rolled into the parking lot at 6pm sharp, 13 hours after I started. R70! I checked in at the finish line, sucked down about 10 cups of coke and prattled on to anyone who would listen about my ride. A 200k went off a few hours after our ride and those folks were starting to trickle in. Brad rolled in a while later and we decided to head back to Roasthouse to toast our ride. More beer, more meat. Then our waitress brought us a donut bread pudding to share, complete with two spoons.
The greatest romcom ending ever.