Monday, October 4, 2010

Natchez Trace 600k - The long and winding road!

To cap off my season with a second series I decided on this unique concept brevet as the final piece to the package.  The ride begins in Nashville Tennessee at the northern terminus of the Nathchez Trace Parkway.  The route consists entirely of that single road to Tupelo Mississippi and back for the 600k  (a 1000k was being run concurrently which went further south).  The parkway itself is actually an historical park.  The two lane road features 442 miles of meticulously maintained blacktop crossing three state borders.  It has frequent historical landmarks, allows no commercial traffic, is devoid of any businesses, and has beautiful scenic vistas.  Given that the road has low speed limits the only vehicle traffic is that of vacationers enjoying the resource.   From a cycling perspective it is very pleasant to ride.  There are many gentle gradients varying from two to seven percent.  Mostly concentrated in the one-hundred mile stretch from Nashville to Collingwood, TN.  I was a late entrant signing up about ten days prior to the start and was quite amped about the concept.  My wife would travel with me to Nashville and after the ride we would move on to Arkansas to visit family and vacation a bit.
The Natchez Trace Parkway near the northern end.  The road continues for over four hundred miles.
Natchez Trace 600k - Day # 1

The ride was scheduled to begin at the civilized hour of 6:00am on Friday (the 1000k started at 4:00am Thursday).  I arrived at the YMCA parking lot at 5:15am to check in along with 10 other riders (the 1000k field was 51 strong).  I leave my drop bag with the volunteer, then wait patiently for the start time.  I know none of the other riders.  When we are given the off signal we head out as one group.  In just a couple of miles we reach the parkway on ramp.  It's the first of many gentle climbs as it winds over the top of the road we just exited.  In less than a mile there is a long gradient.  I opt to gear down and undertake it slowly.  Most of the group charges up at a faster pace.  I decide to let them go.  Three riders are behind me having dropped off the back.  I want to start slowly to thoroughly warm up.  I notice my legs feel a bit stiff as the climb continues for quite awhile.  As I wind around one of the turns I no longer see any riders.  After reaching the top with a long view of the road ahead there is no one in sight.  A look behind reveals no one visible there as well.   I resign myself to riding solo for awhile resolving to enjoy the experience.  I'm getting my first taste of this unusual road as there is some daylight starting to appear.  The opportunity to take in the scenery and be introspective has some appeal in this setting.  As full daylight brings the surroundings into view I am impressed at the beauty and solitude of this place.  At twenty miles in I've yet to see a vehicle, or any living thing.  The rolling terrain continues with more gradual ups and downs.  I'm not feeling much snap in my legs as I tackle the inclines.  My hope is that as the miles tick off I will start feeling better.  The sun rises above the tree line bringing the temperature higher as well.  It was mid sixties at the start, soon I expect to be dealing with temps in the nineties.  At forty miles in I pass the Jackson Falls comfort station which consists of restrooms and a water fountain.  I'm planning on refilling water at the first optional stop on my cue sheet which is a trading post just off the parkway.  All the controls and optional stops are commercial establishments located at parkway exits, as there is nothing to be purchased anywhere on the Natchez Trace (hereafter referred to as NT).  Five miles past the free, convenient opportunity to re-fill water I suck the last drop from my Camelbak.  I'm twenty miles from the optional stop at Napier, Tn.  There is nothing listed in between.  I have a bottle of Perpetuem that I've been steadily sipping on in my bottle cage.  It still has a little bit left so I use it as fluid which lasts about five miles.  I've got to ride the next fifteen miles with no fluids.  Of course the temperature is steadily rising every minute.  With twelve miles to go to the stop I see a bicycle up ahead traveling in the same direction.  At first I think it is another rider on the 600k, until I notice panniers front and rear on the bike.  I catch up to the guy on a gradual incline.  I match his pace to converse with him.  I find out his name is Sam and he is on his way back to the west coast having just completed a US crossing going west to east.  He graduated college in the late spring and decided to spend six months on a cycling adventure.  We converse until he decides to stop for a break at one of the historical points (Merriweathers Gravesite).  Since there is no water there I decide to keep moving on to the trading post which is now just a few miles farther.
I arrive at the exit and find the store which is just one quarter of a mile from the NT.  It feels really hot when I stop riding.  I buy a bag of ice, bottles of water and refresh camelbak, and Perpetuem bottle.  Taking no more time than what is needed to perform those tasks I head back on the parkway and continue south.  The next stop will be the official control in Collingwood, twenty-six miles away.  I vow to drink the fifty ounces of water from the Camelbak by then.  It is really hot now and I need to replenish lost fluids.  It was stupid of me to run out of water when there were resources available.  I'm angry with myself for not having my head fully in the game.  I may be physically below par today, but there is no reason why I shouldn't be able to think clearly. 
One of the many scenic vistas to be enjoyed on the NT.
I met Sam along the way.  He was heading for the west coast on a double US crossing.
As I'm working my way south the wind starts to pick-up.  Of  course it is not blowing in my favor, but instead is a noticeable head wind.  At this point I begin to feel the first niggling pangs of doubt.  I'm questioning if I can make it through when I feel this poorly so early on.  Add to it having to deal with a hot, windy environment while riding all alone.  I decide that no matter what I'm making the next control in Collingwood.  If I'm in a real bad way when I get there I can quit, but not before.  I can't believe I've only ridden a little more than 100k and I'm entertaining thoughts of quitting.

The remaining miles to the control remain hot hilly and windy.  It's very quiet on the NT.  Only occasionally a car or motorcycle passes me in either direction.  This really is something to be savored, but I'm struggling to enjoy myself.  I arrive at the exit and work my way to the control, a Tiger Mart.  Before arriving there I decided I would make it to Tupelo before allowing myself to think about quitting, so there was nothing to think about.  I go through the routine of refreshing my fluids, while eating a small bag of Fritos at the same time.  The volunteer transporting the drop bags to the sleep stop comes in for lunch.  He tells me the three riders behind me are way behind.  He's quite sure they won't be catching up.  The cashier at the control mentioned the group in front of me is over an hour ahead.  I expect to be riding solo until Tupelo, at which point there is a chance I can ride from there to the sleep stop with one of the 1000k riders.  The timing would be right for the mid-pack to be on their way through there.
There were plenty of cotton fields along the parkway in Alabama.
Back on the NT headed south I'm feeling a bit better after the stop.  After a few miles the terrain flattens out some.  Unfortunately, the wind does not let up.  After about 10 miles I cross the border into Alabama.  The NT cuts through a small 33 mile piece of the state.  The scenery changes to fields filled with cotton plants.  It's a refreshing change to view something a little different.  The Mississippi border comes up quickly, followed just six miles later by the exit for the optional store stop at Tishomingo, MS.  I use the opportunity to refresh fluids.  Since sunset is only about an hour away I put on my reflective gear so I won't need to stop again before the turn around.  I'm doing well from a time perspective having past the 200k mark in 9 1/2 hours.  I'm on target for a 15 hour 300k.  I'm quickly back on the parkway headed for the turn around control at Tupelo forty miles further south.  Sunset on the NT is a pretty sight.  With little to no traffic to interfere with the sights and sounds it is peaceful experience.  I think about Sam riding alone for months on end.  I try to imagine what it would be like.  I can only conclude that being by oneself for long periods becomes easier and more comfortable with practice.  I enjoy riding alone at times and have ridden up to 400k without the benefit of company.  But, truth be told, in the dark of night on an unfamiliar lonely stretch of road company is appreciated.  I begin to see the lead riders of the 1000k heading north to their second night sleep stop, which is where I will be headed after the half-way control.  The traffic picks up some as I near the city.   The NT has five exits for Tupelo so locals use it to get around the city to some degree.  So far all motorists have been well behaved. I reach my exit which is State Highway 6.  The stop is listed as an open control allowing riders to choose any business at the exit.  The choices appear to be burger, or chicken fast food establishments. I spot a convenience market and choose to stop there.  So far I've eaten very little in the way of solid food. The Hammer products have gotten me through largely on their own.  But, after 15 hours I'm in the mood to munch on something.  Scanning the shelves inside the market the only thing that appeals to me is cookies.  Contrary to my belief that simple sugars are less than an ideal food I buy a sleeve of vanilla cremes and eat all of them.  I refresh fluids and prepare to leave. 
The state of Mississippi hosts the southern end of the NT.
I notice one of the 1000k riders departing from the Hardees next door at the time I am leaving.  His name is Nemosho, he has ridden 700k as of Tupelo.  We ride together attempting to converse as much as our fatigue will allow.  It's about forty miles to the State Park where we will be able to sleep.  Nemosho is understandably riding quite conservatively.  On the other hand I'm having a sugar rush from the cookies and my legs want to spin.  Knowing how short lived energy is from sugar sources I go with the flow reluctantly leaving my newly found riding companion on his own.  I fly along until the surge of energy leaves me as quickly as it came.  The high is replaced by sleepiness.  After a few more miles I realize I have to find a place for a short nap.  I come across one of the many turnouts on the NT that feature a convenient trash receptacle designed for cars to throw out stuff without the driver having to exit the vehicle.  There is a fence to lean my bike against and a slab of cement to lay down on.  I'm asleep the second I lay my head down.  When I awaken with a start it takes a second to figure out where I am.  It is very dark on the NT with no artificial light except at bathrooms.  We were under a full moon, but it is not in visible anymore.  Probably because it is thundering and lightning at the moment.  A thunderclap must be responsible for waking me.  I figure I was only asleep for about twenty minutes, but I'm feeling considerably more alert.  Without further delay I resume riding.  I have about 15 miles to the control.  A rain shower appears to be a distinct possibility.  After another mile a car comes speeding up from behind.  The passenger yells something out the window and ejects a beer bottle in my direction.  Fortunately, it smashes to the pavement about 100 feet in front of me.  The inebriated occupant was incapable of timing his throw to compensate for the speed of the car.  The incident actually makes me laugh aloud.  About ten miles later I come to the exit for the state park.  It's raining softly as I turn into the entrance.  It's a full five miles on the park road to the cabins that are being  used for the overnight control.  To my surprise the five miles represent a good amount of climbing.  The rain picks up a bit as I make my way to the designated control cabin where the volunteers await.  I check in, am given my drop bag and shown to a cabin.  There are about ten riders already asleep in bunks. The lights are out.  I take a shower in the adjoining bathroom and return to the bunks to sleep.  It's after 2am, I'm hoping for three hours of quality sleep.

Natchez Trace 600k - Day#2

I awake on my own about 5am after a rather fitful sleep.  I lay in the bunk for another half hour before getting up and preparing to ride.  Most of my cabin mates continue sleeping.  It takes me about 45 minutes to get my gear together and get dressed working in the cramped quarters of the bathroom.  It was raining lightly outside when I got up, but now a thunderstorm has come overhead and it's absolutely pouring buckets, accompanied by loud thunder claps.  There is a breakfast being offered in the dining hall so I decide to go to that while waiting for the storm to blow through.  The volunteers are serving eggs, pancakes, sausage, hash browns and cereal.  After consuming all of the items that can be considered vegetarian I hang out chatting with some of the other riders until the rain lightens enough to depart.  I'm extremely careful on the wet leaf covered road leading out of the park.  Soon, I'm back on the NT headed north.  The road is very quiet at this early hour.  I see an occasional RV, but not much else.  Some of the faster 1000k riders who departed the camp after me start to pass by.  Before long the rain picks up dampening my mood.  I'm not thinking about quitting anymore, I've gone this far and I plan to see it through.  I pass the sign denoting entry into the state of Alabama. I notice the loaded touring bike headed southbound.  Sam is out here on the NT riding in the rain.  We wave to each other shouting good luck as we pass by.  Thinking of the incredible distance he has left to cover makes my task seem insignificant.  I've got about 200k to go with 14 hours of time left.  Regardless of the elements I'm confident I can manage that.     
The parkway crosses the Tennessee River
The Tennessee River viewed from the bridge.
Thankfully, the rain lightens up again and I cross the final state border back into Tennessee.  A rider appears on my left saying he doesn't expect we should have any more rain as the Nashville area is dry.  His name is Jim.  He is the RBA of the Pittsburgh region and he is riding the 1000k.  He explains he's ridden the entire day before alone.  He was looking for some company for the remaining miles.  A more fortuitous meeting has never occurred.  While I am mentally prepared to finish the ride alone the time will certainly pass by quicker and easier with company.  Jim and I fall into step chatting easily.  The exit for the Collingwood control appears.  We head off the NT to the stop.  There are a lot of riders there.  I am smack in the middle of the 1000k group.  Shortly we head back to the NT for the remaining 90 miles.  The roads are drying out and although somewhat overcast rain does not look likely.  Jim's weather prediction is so far holding true.  The terrain gets more hilly as we go north.  On one particular incline I comment to Jim that it appears we've been gradually going up for a long time.  After viewing his GPS he tells me the incline is a 2% grade for fifteen miles.  The weather warms to a comfortable, but not hot temperature.  On occasion the sun peeks out between the clouds.  We maintain a steady pace and discuss whether or not to stop at the optional rest stop coming up.  Both of us agree to just use the NT rest areas for the remainder of the way.  They are plentiful in the northern portion.  They feature bathrooms and drinkable water.  Shortly before the Gordon House rest area at mile 346 I'm stung in the neck by a bee.  The area swells up a bit, but not dangerously so.  A couple of the volunteers pull alongside in a car and inform us they are setting up a rest station at the rest area just a few miles ahead.  When we arrive there we opt to stop.  They have water food and ice.  I ice the site of my bee sting, refresh fluids and head out with Jim for the remaining thirty miles.  The terrain is decidedly more hilly now.  We make it to the next rest area at mile 365 and stop to set up for night riding.  Back on the NT we encounter more inclines.  They are longish climbs with varying degrees of steepness, although none are terribly steep.  The hills continue into full darkness as we near the end of the NT.  After some momentary confusion as to which way to turn at the end, we are finally off the parkway.  The cue sheet leads us to a volunteers house just a few miles away.  The standard practice with brevets is to select the finish location that is at the highest elevation.  I rather enjoy the final big climb. Surprisingly, my legs are feeling real strong all the way up.  Somewhere along the last 100 miles I finally warmed up.  I felt like myself again.

Jim and I are clocked in at 8:16pm.  Jim is almost 11 hrs ahead of the 1000k cut-off.  With the heat he encountered on the first two days  it's an impressive effort. As for my time of over 38 hours it represents one of my slowest at the distance. But, perhaps the most satisfying.  I was doubting myself for a good portion of the ride, all the while continuing to move forward.  Eventually, the doubt was replaced by determination.  I learned a lot in the hours and minutes that made up this adventure.  A lot about the mental side of ultra distance riding.  I read somewhere that the credo of the distance rider is that:  no matter how bad you feel or how good you feel it wont last.  Keeping those words in mind helped me manage the lows and not take the highs for granted.    

Epilog

Overall, this was a great event.  Every bit the adventrue I hoped it would be.  The Organizer, Jeff Sammons, and his crew of volunteers did an admirable job managing the two simultaneous rides.  The Harpeth Valley Bicycle Club were wonderful hosts.  There were side events both before and after the ride. From a reception at the well known Gran Fondo Bike Shop, followed by a pre-ride dinner.  To a  post ride breakfast on Sunday morning held at the Loveless Cafe, a famous eatery in Nashville. My wife Lucy and I had the pleasure of attending the breakfast.
Lucy and I at the Loveless Cafe.  The biscuits are to die for.
Jeff states in his post ride communications that they are planning a Natchez Trace 1400k which would traverse the entire length of the parkway in 2012.  Sounds like a winner!  I hope to be there.

For the present this concludes my 2010 brevet season (except for R-12 and fun rides).  Were off to Arkansas. 

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done on the ride, the report and the second SR.

    ReplyDelete