Friday, September 30, 2011

North Carolina 600k Coastal Route - Volunteer Pre-Ride

My friend Paul was in need of a 600k to complete his SR Series for the year.  With little on the calendar this late in the season it looked like North Carolina was the best bet.  After some communication with Tony Goodnight, Regional RBA, Paul learned that volunteers were needed for a pre-ride checkout two-weeks before the main event.  Seeking some company for the unsupported 378 mile ride he asked if I wanted to join.  It seemed like a good opportunity to get in one more late season long ride.

The ride starts in Lumberton, NC, which is right off I-95 quite near the South Carolina border.  The starting point is a Super 8 Motel.  We undertook the 10 hour drive on Friday to be ready for a Saturday 7:30 am start.  The route was advertised as quite flat running near the coast.  There was a suggested sleep stop at Sunset Beach, mile 270.  We both felt that was a little too far for us (the NC riders are very fast).  We opted for Shalotte at mile 258.  Our conservative ride plan projected our arrival at 5:40am.  I hoped we could better that by riding efficiently.  I was considering the ride plan as the worst case scenario.  

The Ride - Day 1

We pushed off from the motel right on time at 7:30am, a very civilized hour to begin a long bike ride.  The first leg was 44 miles north to Roseboro.   After some initial quick turns to get out of Lumberton we found ourselves in rural surroundings with minimal traffic.  The route used some country lanes and state roads which were all of good quality.  There were nice long stretches without turns.  I favor pulling rather than drafting so after we established a nice rhythm I stayed on the front holding a steady pace.  The cue sheet was quite accurate, the roads well marked, and not a single pothole to be found.  The only obstacle were the dogs.  It seems like every home in North Carolina comes with at least one dog and zero leashes.  We lost count of how many times we were chased.  Mostly, they were friendly pets and were just playing the game.  But, one needed to be aware of them or a crash could result.  Rain was predicted for much of the day.  However, we arrived in Roseboro at 10:30 without a drop having fallen.  The skies were decidedly overcast with the air temperature in a comfortable range (70-80F).  Neither of us had any complaints.
Paul riding past blueberry fields
We departed the control at Roseboro in short order headed south east to Maple Hill, which is a little over 100k.  The terrain and scenery were much the same as the prior section, as was the occasional dog chase.  I kept my position on the front continuing to hold a steady, but not too fast pace.  I was enjoying myself and feeling like I could pull all day.  There were not many cues for such a long section.  There were roads that we would remain on for over 11 miles at a time.  It made for easy navigation, but required mental discipline.  I played mileage games in my head to keep from getting bored.  Of course, sprinting away from dogs also provided some entertainment.  After a 7 mile stint on NC-50 we arrived at the control in Maple Hill.

The next section would be a short one.  South for 24 miles to Rocky Point.   There were only four cues needed to cover the distance.  I remained on the front maintaining the same steady rhythm.  We experienced some light rain for very brief periods, but not enough to matter.  As of yet we'd not felt the need for any rain gear.  We arrived at the control, which was at mile 132.  The distance being covered in a total of 9 hours and 40 minutes.  We were steadily gaining time on our ride plan, which would get us to our sleep stop at a more reasonable hour.  Our arrival at Rocky Point marked the furthest point from the start.  The route design has the entire 600k contained in the southeast corner of the state.  This would require some tacking around to achieve the required distance.  We would double back to the northwest before heading south again.  The strategy would make it easier from an organization standpoint to provide support for the riders.  No one could ever be further than 80 miles from the starting location.  In addition, the terrain would remain relatively the same throughout.  We would not reach any of the hillier areas of the state.   After a brief break at the control store we pushed off for the 54 mile segment to Garland, which was a town we passed through on the way.
Passing by Pinelands wooded area
A total of seven cues would direct us through the next 54 mile segment.  The road selection continued to be pleasant.  At times it was very like riding through the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey.  Darkness came upon us during this stretch.  Although, the day had been very overcast the sky cleared considerably by nightfall.  We could see many stars overhead.  The temperature remained mild.  Despite having covered over 150 miles I was still feeling good and enjoying the ride.  I continued my position on the front holding our pace to what it had been during the day.  Our arrival at the Garland control marked the half-way point.  We had managed to cover the 300k in 13 hours 40 minutes.  We were holding over six hours in hand and were ahead of our ride plan by almost two hours.  Things were looking good.

After some initial confusion about which direction to head from the control we resumed the route.  We rode about 11 miles to Elizabethtown and stopped briefly to top our water.  There would be no opportunity to do so for the next 61 miles.  We became confused as we tried to move on.  As it turned out we passed by a turn and had to go back.   Then, we missed a cue and came upon a highway, at which point we thought we were off route.  Paul's Garmin helped us sort things out, but we lost a little time.  To make matters worse I hit a low energy point and was struggling a bit.  Paul was feeling good and eagerly took over the front.  He picked the pace up to a point that I just couldn't hold his wheel.  I could not roll faster than 14 or 15 mph for the next hour.  After which, my energy level started to return to normal.  We arrived at the control in Hallsboro which, as expected, was closed.  We developed an information control question for riders to use on the main ride.   Continuing, we had thirty miles left to cover to the sleep stop.  It was currently 1:08am.  Our ride plan predicted our arrival in Shallotte at 5:41am.  Barring any unforeseen problems we would beat that by more than two hours.

My energy level returned to near normal as Paul resumed on the front.  I shortly went by him to take my turn at a pull.  He quickly went around me again continuing at a faster pace.  I was able to hold on as we sped toward the control, which would be our opportunity to sleep.  I took a few turns at the front, but mostly Paul was pulling and setting the pace.  He had not eaten any solid food for the entire day, being totally sustained by a liquid nutrition system he recently subscribed to.  It seemed to be working for him as we rolled by the 400k point in 19 hrs and 10 minutes.  The final eight miles to the control went by equally fast and we arrived at 3:08am. Over eight hours ahead of the control closing time.  The Comfort Inn and Waffle House were adjacent businesses.  I agreed to go to the motel and check-in, while Paul rode over to restaurant to order food for us.  Within ten minutes I was sitting in front of a plate of waffles and a steaming bowl of grits.  Paul finally went off his liquid diet in favor of a waffle and hamburger.  Fully stuffed with food we went to the motel to sleep.  I fell asleep the second my head went down.

The Ride - Day #2 
Paul on the bridge to Sunset Beach
I awoke without the alarm at 6:30am.  We had decided we would be back to riding by 7:30am.  I wanted to get some breakfast before heading out.  Paul was going back to his liquid nutrition, so would not be eating.  I dressed in fresh bike clothes, which were carried with me from the start.  I then re-fueled on the free breakfast in the hotel lobby.  When I returned to the room Paul was dressed and ready.  We headed out to another pleasantly overcast morning.  After refilling our water at the convenience store across the street we headed southwest to Sunset Beach just 12 miles away.  The roads took on the look of the Jersey Shore as we made our way over the flat terrain.  The sun broke through making for a bright warm morning.  I took my position on the front for most of this leg.  I was rested and felt good.  The approach to the beach was a bridge over the inlet which resembled that of Cape May, NJ.  The climb up felt familiar in many ways.  It was by far the largest climb of the ride.  We were directed into the parking area by the pier and immediately some folks asked us if we were on the MS ride.  They were volunteers waiting for hundreds of riders to be passing through.  We answered the information control question at the pier and stopped at the nearby store to buy sunscreen.  Since rain was expected for the two days I didn't pack any.   Soon thereafter we were off to the next control, 100k to the northwest.
My Salsa rests on the pier at Sunset Beach
The distance to the finish was less than 110 miles, and we had until  11:30pm to get there.  That was over 14 hours from the current time.  I really liked our chances of finishing.  We crossed the same bridge leaving the beach.  We got the first taste of a headwind which would be with us for most of the remaining miles.  We alternated our position on the front.  Both of us felt strong and cutting through the wind was not a problem early on.  The scenery transformed back to the pine tree look for awhile and then became more open.  We started to see the MS riders heading the opposite way of us.  Small groups at first then larger packs.  We exchanged greetings with many of them.  It was a good twenty miles before we turned off away from the stream of riders.  We reached an optional store stop, which was actually just across the border in South Carolina.  We had pulled through the wind for 35 miles and needed to replace some water.  I also wanted to pick up some food to carry with me.  We made the stop brief and were back underway.
Icing the bottles at the control in South Carolina just past Tabor City
We crossed back into North Carolina in just a few hundred feet.  The wind kept coming at us as we continued to head north.  There was not much in the way of wind block through this open rural part of the state.  We shared the work equally with both of us holding up well.  The dogs were back out and we found ourselves either sprinting away or yelling at them depending on the circumstances.  In one instance some dogs came from the ride side and were close to Paul.  He asked me to move it.  I sprinted away quickly and looked back to empty road.  At that moment two other dogs ran out from a field on my left.  I really didn't like the look of one of them.  I was still going quite fast so they had no chance at me.  But, I thought about Paul who would be coming along any moment.  I reversed course following the retreating hounds.  Just then Paul came into view and I yelled to him to beware of the brown dog.  His reaction was to take the offensive steering his bike directly at the oncoming animal and yelling incoherently.  The dog's partner wanted nothing further to do with the situation and took off into the field.  The brown dog held his ground.  It wasn't until Paul was about fifty feet from running him down that the potential danger registered in the animal's brain, prompting him to scamper into the field.  We laughed about the episode for many miles.

Despite fighting the wind I was pleased with our progress.  We were sharing the work on the front and ticking off the miles.  We arrived at the control in Boardman by 1:30pm, seven and one-half hours in advance of the closing time.  I would treat myself to a lunch of mac and cheese while Paul mixed up more of his magic powder.  We were back underway with just one final control to reach before the finish, 18.5 miles in a northeast direction.
Paul pushing through the wind
The wind may have been the worst yet on this leg.  Fortunately, it was a short stretch as the miles ticked off rather slowly, despite us sharing the work.  The area was quite exposed with little wind block so there was no choice but to grind it out.  We were still almost three hours ahead of our ride plan and oodles ahead of the official cut-off times.  With nothing to worry about I did my best to just enjoy the challenge.  I would make note of my odometer mileage when I took the front and try to hold the pace for five miles.  If I held on then Paul would not pass me and take over the front.  It became a mental game that helped me get through the section.  We made it to the control in Clarkton almost six hours ahead of the closing time.  We were 28 miles from the finish.

The final leg was almost due west.  The wind that had plagued us all day was predominantly from the east.  We should get some assist for the last miles.  After a quick stop we headed out in good spirits.  The terrain and scenery were much of the same, but the wind assist was noticeable to our speed.  I continued my mental game using the five mile increments.  It was no longer necessary, but it helped to pass the time.  The occasional dog chase helped as well.  At fifteen miles out it was quite clear that we would finish the ride with lots of time to spare.  We both continued to ride strong as we began to recognize the road names from the ride out of Lumberton the day before.  As luck would have it we caught the green light to cross the busy road to the finish at the motel.  We pulled up at 5:13pm for a time of 33:43.  Six hours and seventeen minutes ahead of the closing time.  It was my fastest 600k that I could remember.


I enjoy traveling to rides outside the home region.  I have ridden in more than half of the fifty states in the US.  Each area has it's own nuances that make cycling there a little different.  North Carolina offered roads that were incredibly well maintained and motorists that demonstrated the utmost of courteousness.  Most importantly, the people we encountered along the way were as nice as they could be.  At every stop strangers would approach us and inquire about our ride.  They were friendly and seemed genuinely interested in the details of our adventure. To the point of being excited when we told them the distance we were covering.  The local people had an appreciation for cyclists and it showed in the way we were treated.  The route was cleverly crafted by Tony Goodnight, an experienced Randonneur and Ultra Racer.  Tony represents the non-profit group Bicycle for Life.  They present a very full calendar of Randonneur events.  This late season offering, for which we tested the 600k route, takes place on October 8th.  A full line of rides from 200k to 1000k, and all distances in between, are scheduled on that date from Lumberton, North Carolina.  It's a great thing to get in on.

Most gratifying about the trip was Paul's successful completion of his SR Series.  His list of accomplishments include a full series each year since 2004.  It is a streak he very much wanted to maintain.  A stomach ailment made this especially difficult for the last two years.  His body would simply rebel somewhere over the 200 mile mark making the long rides nearly impossible to finish.  He sought help from various medical professionals for the baffling problem.  After two years with no improvement a medication was located that had promise.  Also, he added a liquid nutrition program, custom designed to his needs, to be used while riding.  With two prior 600k's earlier this season ending in a DNF this ride represented his final chance at the series.  His perseverance and unwavering dedication to the goal finally paid off. He finished the ride feeling like his problems may be behind him.  I couldn't be any happier for him.

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