A happy couple on a tandem during the first segment
Prior to this event my DNF total stood at two. I packed on my first 600k attempt in 2006, a hilly upstate New York affair called the Catskill 600k Number two was in 2008 during a mountainous, hotter than hell, 1200k in Virginia called the Shenandoah. As fate would have it the DC 600k also started in Virginia and was held on the first weekend in June just like the Shenandoah. Those two factors should have had me steering way clear of this ride. But, like a moth to a flame I eagerly signed up. I even convinced my wife Lucy to join me for the weekend, not really knowing what she would do for the two days I would be riding. I silently vowed to find some time over the three days we would be away to spend with her. Even if I was exhausted from riding I would amiably accompany her to dinner, movie, sightseeing, or to anyplace she might want to go. As fate would have it packing it in on day one afforded us more time together than we would have imagined.
Driving down to Warrenton, Va, where the ride would begin and end, was strangely reminiscent of the Shenandoah experience. The scenery was so similar it gave me an uneasy feeling. After five hours on the road we arrived at the Hampton Inn, the official start, finish and overnight control. This being a two loop route with about 400k on day one and 200k on day two. It all seemed quite civilized and manageable. Despite the hot weather forecast I was feeling confident of my ability to finish the ride. I had no pre-conceived time goal other than to finish day one with enough time in hand for a few hours sleep. At the sign-in and bike check the evening before everyone was talking about the heat. It was hot, humid and would, according to forecasts, remain that way throughout. Many riders were discussing no sleep strategies to maximize the night riding and take advantage of more moderate temperatures. Deja Vu all over again. I found it difficult to sleep that night despite getting in to bed by 8:30pm. I tossed and turned for some time, yet awoke at 3am with no alarm.
Warrenton, VA to Wolftown 52 Miles
It's 4am under the canopy in front of the hotel. Organizer Lynn Kristianson signals the 46 riders to start. It's a muggy 70+ degrees at this early hour, not an arm warmer or leg warmer in sight. Certainly once the sun makes its appearance things will be heating up significantly. I'm mentally prepared for the heat, and am counting on some hilly terrain here and there. What I'm not expecting is constant hills. As soon as we leave the city limits the terrain becomes a constant procession of rolling hills. No one hill by itself presents any significant challenge but they never stop coming. Feeling rested and strong I manage this section quite nicely. I find myself with a group of about six riders whom only one, Maile, I am acquainted with. It's a friendly group and as daylight breaks we enjoyed each others company. We arrive at the control together agreeing to keep this initial stop short. Spending little more than ten minutes at the stop we roll out rather loosely with a few of the group straggling behind. It's difficult to get a large group through a control quickly. We re-group on the road with a total of four riders, two riders taking more time at the stop.
Maile is all smiles riding in the heat and hills of Virginia
Wolftown to Batesville 51 miles
With two hours in hand we continue with the same type of terrain. I'm thinking about asking someone if the whole route is this way but I don't want to be perceived as a complainer. No one else is commenting on it so I assume it's the routine here. I vow to silently endure as the day just keeps getting hotter and the hills getting bigger. Once again I flashback to my earlier Virginia experience. I console myself by reasoning that I managed to ride over 600k within the time limit on that ride before dropping out. Therefore, if the same thing happens here I will be an official finisher. Fortunately, I am not reminiscing on the Catskill 600k where my day ended at mile 136. I'm focusing on how strong I'm feeling, how beautiful the surrounding scenery is, and how it really isn't all that hot yet.
At about half way to Batesville an information control, an historical marker on the side of the road, presents itself. I fumble for my brevet card and pen as some of the group, most notably Maile, takes off. It is a minute or two before I'm underway and I'm accompanied by two other riders, Joel and Lothar. Everyone is feeling pressured to keep moving while the conditions are tolerable. I tend to be a little poky getting the paperwork documented, putting me at a bit of a disadvantage.
I can't pinpoint the moment or mile that it happened, but suddenly I was tearing up one of the bigger rollers when I felt cramping in the hamstring area behind my right knee. Odd, as I don't ever remember cramping like that before. It caused me some concern as I slowed my cadence and let the cramp release. I was losing Joel and Lothar as they appeared to be suffering no such affliction. We were close to the control so I decided to just continue as best I could. I am prone to cramping in the heat, when under trained, but thought I was well prepared this time. Also, the weak link is usually the inner quad muscle on one or both sides. Not what I'm feeling now. As I approach the control, which is atop somewhat of an incline on a busy highway I drop to the granny gear to ward off a return of the cramps. A rider catches up to me from behind, senses my plight and places his hand on my back to gently push me up the incline to the entrance of the control. I learn his name is Al. He is friends with Maile, who is still at the control just ready to depart. I decide I will need to take some recovery time here. I want to figure out what is wrong. As I dismount the bike I notice my feet hurt. The pieces of the puzzle begin falling into place. I was forced to buy new cycling shoes less than a week ago as my old ones, which were quite worn, began hurting one of my heels. The new shoes were a different brand and somewhat sleeker. I only had the opportunity to ride about 25 miles in them before taking the start of the 600k. Anyone in the know would deem it seriously foolish to try a big ride with any equipment that wasn't thoroughly tested. However, in this case I reasoned that I had only two choices; (a). use the old shoes that I know for sure would hurt my feet, or (b). use the new shoes that I didn't know would hurt my feet. It seemed so logical to go with the new pair. What did I have to lose? The unknown factor being the new shoes not only hurt my feet, but were causing my hamstrings to cramp up as well. I had packed the old pair in my suitcase as back-up. They are back at the hotel. Again two choices (a) ride the140+ miles remaining on this loop putting up with pain and cramps, or (b) ask Lucy to meet me at the next control and switch shoes there. The next control is only twenty five miles away. It's not likely Lucy can make it there in time as it will be a 128 mile drive for her. I opt for plan A.
Batesville to Howardsville 25 Miles
After a long break, long enough to realize how hot it has gotten, I am underway headed for the control by the river in Howardsville. I start out alone, but ride well enough to overtake a rider. The terrain is still quite hilly, in fact the hills are longer, and a bit steeper, but spaced a little father apart. For the first time there is actually some flat sections. I continue to cramp on the hills, but am able to ride up them with a slow cadence. The rider I passed catches me on one of the hills. I find out his name is George. He is from the DC area. It helps distract me from my suffering to chat with him about all things Rando and many other topics as well. I enjoy the conversation but am not able to stay with him on the big hills and am soon riding alone again. Another rider I know, Nick, passes me on one of the tougher climbs. As he rides by he sums up the situation in just two words, "Holy Cow!" After a few more hills I enjoy a longish downhill trend which leads me to River Road and the control. It is a virtual reunion with riders who have dropped me, Maile, Al, Joel, Lothar, and Nick are all there. When I dismount the bike I notice, for the first time, how fatigued I feel. I am listless, without energy. I surmise that others are feeling similarly to me as no one appears to be making any effort to leave the control. With the exception of Maile who had told me earlier her plan was to minimise the down time. She leaves the control on her own. I silently admire her for being able to stick to her plan. I have no plan. I have entered survival mode which allows for no plan. My decisions are minute to minute based on what it takes to survive to the next minute. I want nothing to eat, but decide I should have something. A snack cake and ice pop seem to go down okay. I need to drink but don't feel like it. I manage to get down a Gatorade, but feel like barfing afterwards. None of these are good signs. I take some Endurolyte tables hoping they will stay down. Mostly I just sit there with the other riders saying little and doing nothing. I decide to head out after all the other riders except for Al have departed. He remains seated in the same spot as I ride out to the road. I'm hoping that at some point I can pay back the boost he gave me. He may need it later.
Lothar leads the group up one of the countless rolling hills on the route
Howardsville to Louisa 54 Miles
The road is flat for awhile. I still feel some fatigue but am riding smoothly. I start to catch up to some of the riders. Nick, George, Joel and Lothar are riding as a group. I fall into step with them, hoping I can keep from getting dropped this time. The terrain is definitely more favorable I'm hoping it stays that way. No sooner do I form the thought when we come upon a good sized hill. I climb with Joel and Lothar while Nick and George fall behind. The three of us continue to the information control, another historic marker, at the 137 mile point. After handling the paperwork we continue with more flat road. Joel suggests picking up the pace to make some time during this stretch. I reluctantly go along with the plan. Loethar gets dropped after a mile or two. We come to a small town at which point I decide I need to refill water. Each bottle only lasts about 10 miles. Joel stops with me. I fill up both bottles and stash a store bought bottle in my back pocket. We re-group with the other riders only to split up again, although somewhat differently on the next hill. I feel my energy level diminish at the top of the climb. Back on flat ground I can't keep pace with the two riders in front of me. I fall back and ride alone soon to be passed by Nick. Somewhere behind is Lothar and Al. I'm riding at the pace I can manage. Welcome back to survival mode. A brief refreshing rain shower that lasts for about five minutes helps cool me a bit. I ride past two riders off to the side of the road. I ask if they are okay and they explain they are putting on rain gear. I think they must be kidding as it is 96 degrees and humid. What possible point would there be to wearing rain gear? I ride for another ten miles at which point I reach the depths of my fatigue. The thought of not finishing, which was buried in the back of my head, is now my most prominent thought. With every turn of the pedals I consider making the call to Lucy to come pick me up. Cell phone service is very spotty out here in rural Virginia. So, the call would have to be made at the right point. I scan the cue sheet noticing the route crosses over an interstate highway (I-64) in about ten more miles, which is the 169 mile point. Generally, one can rely on cell service near the interstates. I decide that if the call is to made that is the place to do it. The ten miles tick off ever so slowly. The terrain is moderate but I just have no fire left in me for a snappy pace. I'm simply grinding along watching my odometer and cue sheet as each tenth of a mile passes. Finally, the overpass appears. I pull off to make the call. There is no thinking about it anymore. I see no other option. I am physically and mentally done. After discussing the options with Lucy we decide she will meet me at the next control in Louisa which is at mile 182, thirteen miles from my location. The drive to there from Warrenton will take a little more than an hour and I'm guessing it will take that long for me to cover the distance at the rate I am moving. Lothar passes by while I'm still on the side of the road. I wave and tell him I'm okay. He waves and keeps going. As I resume riding I notice no improvement in my energy level despite about ten minutes rest. I expect the thirteen miles I've yet to cover to be excruciatingly slow and painful. After slogging through five and a half miles of easy terrain I feel completely out of gas. I pull over at a church and sit on the steps. I feel like I can't go any further. I eat the remaining half of a peanut butter sandwich which I've had with me since morning. I wait about ten minutes to feel the effect. Nothing happens. I still don't want to move. I notice a sign pointing to I-64 up ahead, meaning there is an entrance to the interstate. I presume there will be services at the interchange so I decide to go there. It winds up being about two miles. There is a gas station with convenience store just past the highway ramp. I get the address from the store clerk and call Lucy so she can enter it in the GPS. She agrees to pick me up at the new location. While waiting I ask myself all the tough questions. Am I sure this is the right decision? The next control doesn't close for another four hours shouldn't I just rest for an hour or two then try to make it? I remain committed to dropping out. There is not a spark of fire left in me for this ride. Either I wasn't determined enough going in, or the heat, the cramps and the sore feet just beat it out of me. I am at peace with it ending here. No regrets.
I would later learn that I was one of twelve riders to DNF, which equates to about 26%. Most of the riders I met on the route made it around both loops. Maile, Joel, Lothar, George and Nick all finished. Unfortunately, I learned that Al dropped out at Palmyra about twenty miles behind me.
I learned a few things from the experience, one being overconfident can be as bad as a lack of confidence when it comes to 375 miles. I came in with no plan, and, very few tools for combating the heat. Most of the riders had carried with them ice socks. I hadn't thought to bring one. My hydration and nutrition were sub par; two regular size water bottles filled with plain water, a single peanut butter sandwich, and one flask of Hammer Gel. I also had Endurolytes which seemed to help minimally this time. Add to all that the mistake of wearing new shoes. All things to be stored into the memory banks for future reference. Hard learned lessons are the best kind as they are not soon forgotten.
New Jersey 600k in two weeks. Stay tuned.