Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Shift 4: Run for the border!

When Dorothy said we're not in Kansas anymore, she really meant she couldn't see these anymore.

Remember that blurb about those occasional hotels that are kind of suspect? Yeah, that was our Kansas hotel. After walking in, looking around and saying "hhmmm" in a rather glum tone, we focused on just getting some rest. But before we could do that, we need to have a conversation about the 800 pound gorilla in the room - the "good problem to have" conversation.

While we expected 20mph tail winds in Kansas before the race, we got 20mph cross winds throughout the state. Despite this, our team was still cranking along, but we still needed to estimate about where we were going to do a shift exchange. We knew the time (7am local), but where? Before going to bed, we realized we probably stayed one town further east than we should have, and would likely have to backtrack a little more than 'ideally' in the morning. I usually like to get up about ~2 hours before a shift start, but we were going to have get up a little earlier than normal. Now, backtracking is way easier on everyone (current and oncoming team) than trying to play catch up, but its still part of the game.

Fast forward to the next morning.
  • 1st order of business: moan and groan and damn the alarm clock
  • 2nd order of business: Check our updated projections, based on updates from our crew (we had to drive a little further west than expected)
  • 3rd order of business: confirm said projection with Truck1

The confirmation text message was pretty clear: Truck1 was projected to finish 45 miles west of the crew's projection, for a grand total of nearly 90 miles of backtracking. We had two hours before our shift start, had done no packing or prepping, and were still wiping the cobwebs from our eyes. No coffee, water bottles, food - nothing - had been made. I immediately got on the horn with John, started coordinating with our crew, emailing everyone to lift the inertia. While the immediate stress of getting out the door was paramount, the underlying reason also needed attention: weather. Our strongest truck wasn't meeting projections, not for lack of effort, but more for the weather cards they were dealt. In other words, the winds were stuff, and they were slowing us (and everyone else) down. I immediately started preparing for a tough shift (not that any shift is easy, but the challenges can be dynamic).

Fortunately, when we were on the road, I received a phone call from our crew member, the projection from Truck1 was off, and that the original projection place was a pretty good spot to shoot for, and that subsequent updates would be made as they got close. PHEW.

Fortunately, this got us to the exchange point in plenty of time. What was odd was that I feeling cold. After having 3 straight shifts in triple digit temperatures, the 72*F, humid and windy conditions made me cold. Hell, I had goose bumps and was shivering! Weird.

We got wind (no pun) that Truck1 was approaching, and that where we were for an exchange was perfect. It was also time in the race where I had a sinister laugh.

METAL was taking the last pull for Truck1, and Hammer was starting our shift. Hammer was positioned after the right turn, and halfway between the turn and a stop sign. Total Distance - quarter mile or less. METAL can roaring around the corner, and Hammer did his thing of getting up to speed. METAL started flooring it to catch him, but appeared to have some trouble. Next thing I know, METAL screams "SLOW DOWN!!!!", finally crosses wheels with Hammer, and off he goes. Funny part was - no one knew a stop sign was 100ft after an exchange. Whoops.

My thoughts were "Welcome to my world, METAL".

It turns out, the highest wattage, 579W, METAL put out for the entire race was at that exchange. This echoes my feelings. The hardest part of any pull for me is not the beginning of it when I'm getting up to speed, it's the end part of it when I'm just digging to catch up to my riding partner! I admit there was one time where I also got pissed and told him to slow down. I also realize that was probably some payback from the little incident in Monument Valley. hehe

Not as easy as it looks

This shift was wicked (note the Massachusetts heritage), and definitely unlike any shift I've done before. The wind was unrelenting in its battering against our right sides. I tried running my 404 up front, but that lasted all of one 3 mile pull, and that was with some tree coverage to my right. I opted for my most shallow wheel, an AC 420. Even then, it was like wrestling a bear on my bike. This image gives you a hint as to how slanted we rode:

Wind makes for ugly pedaling

I must have spent about a third of my time on the bullhorns, rather than in the aerobars because it was blowing me all over the place. Asking me to hold a straight line was akin asking a college student to do so while walking at 1am on a weekend night. I was all over the place! Just gnarly. There were times where I was really exposed that made it tough, but occasionally, there would be trees or hills to my right to provide some respite. This allowed me to relax a bit, but as soon as the coverage was gone, getting hit with it made me brace myself every time. Even passing our truck caused this on every single pull. It was truly "the gnar". 3 hours into the shift, the right side of my desk wheel was basically brown from all the dirt, grass and other crap that was blown from the Kansas plains onto it.

Waves of pain

After all that description, you can basically see all of that with a not-so-horizontal horizon in almost all of the ANIMAL CAM video, put together by our genious media team. Turn up your speakers!

Somewhere around the middle of the shift, we must have seen 5-6 solos out on the road, all within about 75 minutes of one another. It was insane. I somehow (was the asshole) that passed just about all of them, and while it was great to see them, I felt a tad 'odd' ripping by them at a speed that was likely more than double what they were doing.


About 3 hours into the shift, my left hip started feeling a little funny, and progressed to 'mildly bothersome' by the time the 5 hours were up. It basically felt like someone was jamming my femur into my hip socket. It's about as comfortable as it sounds. I was dealing with it pretty, starting to do a little bit of dynamic stretching off pull, and a little self massage. I wasn't about to let that get to me, because we were on the brink of something big.

Going to war with mother nature

Everyone thinks Kansas goes by fast because it's so flat. And while it does, most people don't recognize how long it is. Every year leading up to this year, it has taken our team more than 20 hours to cross the state. That means one truck gets more than one shift in Kansas. This year, that trend was not happening. We received word about 90 minutes before our shift change that it was possible to get to the Missouri border by the end of our shift. Not that we were sandbagging beforehand, but that fired our truck up! I took my last pull through some little town, and with the help of some locals, totally got the green light and just ripped through some brick-laden streets with plenty of cheering. I then handed off to the Hammer, who crossed into Missouri on his last pull of our shift. High fives and cheers were a plenty, and a lot of credit goes to our crew for helping us get there so efficiently.

The Show Me State!

Team Escort
In what seemed to be a daily tradition, Ryon chimed in with another gem of an email. Hypothesizing that our glycogen stores were getting low, he recommended to the entire team, even the crew, that we start getting more fat into our diets. For me, this is not a big deal. I usually get at least 50% of my daily calories from fat, and have always believed that "animal fat makes everything better". Ryon went on to say that he "didn't care if we were eating cheeseburgers and fries" - we just had to make it happen. Simply reading "cheeseburgers and fries" turned me into a new man. I immediately became fixated on having some. We scoped out the nearest Hardee's and everyone in the truck inhaled their meal.

From that point on, I craved a burger and fries after every shift, and made it a point to have some too!

We hadn't crossed the Mississippi yet, but the fatigue from the race was starting to set in about now (on schedule), and all the sudden sleeping in the truck became a hell of a lot more easy. So, take one tired racer, feed him a burger and fries, and within 30 minutes is guaranteed slumber in the back seat. This marked the point in the race where sleep was amassed more by naps in between shifts, rather than a standard 4-7 hours in a hotel bed.

We headed onward to Indiana, for what was one very tough shift for me...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Shift 3: It's mostly downhill from here

This shift essentially marked the slow 600 mile very gradual decent from the Rockies at nearly 10,000ft down to the great plains for Kansas. It was a shift I was looking forward to quite a bit, since the terrain including climbing the beautiful Cuchara pass, and heading into the flatlands of eastern Colorado. It was a shift that tested not just our climbing and time trial prowess, but also our bodies ability to deal with quite a bit less oxygen.

After trucking through the night, we arrived at our hotel early Monday morning. It wasn't really a hotel, it was the La Veta Inn. It deserves it's own paragraph.

One of the challenges of RAAM is simply finding a decent place to stay in. The country is littered with quite a few Motels - some questionable- and occasionally I've stayed at some during the race. It's not ideal, but since you're so beat, you just deal with it. The La Veta Inn was not one of those places. We got in the room, and it basically was an apartment - full kitchen, nice beds, couch - but it had a touch of "mountain getaway" to it. Waking up the next morning, the courtyard was basically a cafe, and they served, good, free coffee. Now, I am a snob of very few things, and coffee is one of them. Free coffee 15ft from my bed - saaaaaaaweeeeeet! We all got a bit comfy hanging out in the courtyard, ordering breakfast, and sharing a few laughs. The service there were awesome too. Completely acknowledging that you will likely never be in La Veta, CO (pop. 777), but if you ever are in the area and need a place to stay, definitely check this place out!

After we cleared the cobwebs in the morning, John did his mandatory, thankless duties of grabbing water and any other random supplies we would need for the shift, and for the inevitable "drive through the middle of po-dunk eastern colorado before we hit civilization in Kansas". This cued the Hammer and I to do mandatory bike maintenance.

I was stoked for the day. Of the second section of RAAM I wanted to ride, this area - with Cuchara Pass (9,989ft, which were staying at the bottom of) - and the road leading to the top - locally known as the Highway of Legends (ahem) was next on my list after Monument Valley. When I rode it in 2010, I really loved the area, and felt like Colorado left a (good!) mark on me and I was excited to return to what I think is the most beautiful area in RAAM.

1,000 words of METAL
Shortly after starting on the bikes, The Hammer was making claims of not feeling too well. The frequency of such statements was increasing, and I started having an "oh shit" moment, having flashbacks of my riding partner getting sick in 2010. I quietly was dropping f-bombs in my head, but also recognized that it wouldn't do me any good to get all worked up about it and expend energy. He did the best he could to get rid of the nausea, but elevation sickness was already settling in a little bit. It threw a small wrench into our morning mix, but fortunately, having been in the situation before, I knew I had to step up my game a bit for climbing the pass. I also know that if I was ever in a bad spot, he'd back me up, and that eventually became the case east of the Mississippi.

We arrived at our exchange spot on time (again!), and METAL, in usual fashion, approached with maximum ferocity. In his approach, he screamed the expected "GO GO GO!!!", and I put so much torque on my first pedal stroke that I actually popped a wheelie!

The climb was as tough and beautiful as I remember, but fortunately, I was firing on all cylinders. The Hammer, not so much, but even when he is at 60% capacity, the man can still rip! I was taking longer pulls than he, and was going to take over from him at the summit. Naturally, I had to do a photo op:

Not 2 seconds after this photo was taken, The Hammer comes barreling up the road, catching me off guard (again), and I ran to get on my bike.

Now, here's where the FUN was - the descent off of this peak! YEEHAW!

Open Road Descent from nearly 10,000ft. Winning, literally and figuratively.
I was descending for a quite a while, and eventually came around a corner to find Hammer and John waiting for me. I was coming in pretty hot, but was telling them both that I was good, and that they needed to focus on getting the Hammer down the mountain to a lower elevation so he could get back on 8 cylinders. That, and of course, I selfishly didn't want to stop descending :)

Eventually we got to the bottom of the descent, banked left towards Trinidad, and swapped out the roadies for the TT bikes. I was also looking forward to this section, since its flat/rolling, typically with a ripping tail wind.

Hammer doing what he does best - making John and I  look slow. Me saying "sorry dude, but you'll have to keep going"
 Ripping it was, but the ultimate buzz kill came about halfway to Trinidad:
I was stuck at this light for what seemed like an eternity due to road construction closing an entire line. Rest assured that when that light turned green, I basically dropped all the traffic behind me.

After passing through Trinidad with our Media Crew chowing down on steaks and cheering us on, we headed out to the eastern plains of Colorado.
Lunch for me. Hard to say if a steak would have been better.
Temperatures quickly raised from the 80's on the mountain, to over a 100 out here. The road was generally straight, and false flat downhill. In other words, time to RIP! The Hammer was back firing on all cylinders, there was no traffic, and we basically had the road to ourselves. Well, and the wind.

What was a tailwind west of Trinidad, somehow turned into a crosswind east of it. It was a consistent 15-20mph right at our right side, with the occasional gust of about 25. It was difficult, but we were both running our disks and deep front wheels. At times, it made handling the bike a tad difficult, but with such little traffic on the road, it really wasn't an issue if we were getting blown around a bit. The objective was speed, and we used all of our resources to maximize it.

We also started really fine tuning and honing our exchange strategy. The greatest part is that it took just about zero effort for our 3 man truck to be in sync with one another. While our basic team strategy is '15 minutes on / 15 minutes off', we had migrated to a '8 Minute on / 8 minute off' Strategy that was working really, really well. Not only that, we were orchestrating our exchanges with minimal speed loss. John was in tune with how we were feeling, and he was on top of things, as usual. BOOM. Things were clicking in our truck, and I couldn't be happier.

Check out a video our media team did of us through this section:

This section of the country also marked the first time our team was going to be passing some solo's. I think I saw 2 or 3 out there, and fortunately when I saw them, they and their crew seemed to be in good spirits.

The shift ended just east of Kim, CO, quite possibly one of the smallet towns in existence. Population: 72. Damn. Eric and Rich showed up on time as usual, and we handed off the reigns to them to make it to the Kansas border. It was time to rest up, because the winds weren't done with us yet.

While the shift was over at this point, I was beginning to feel really good about the race and its potential outcome. We were about an hour up on 4Mil at this point, and a bit more on Strategic Lions. Ryon, resident number cruncher on the team, chimed in with an email to the team saying that the competition was going to have to increase their power by about 10% over the next day and a half just to catch up to us. Having used a power meter in training, I can appreciate this. 10% more power when you are already racing doesn't just come out of nowhere. In fact, it may not even come out at all. It is a HUGE thing to ask of yourself and your teammates to go from, say, 300W to 330W . Even then, at the speeds the top teams are racing at, so much energy is going into overcoming air resistance, that it's almost sad how much little speed you can get from 10% more power, whereas the energy expenditure would go way up.

Out of the aerobars only for turns
It was at about this point where I started thinking that this was our race to lose. It was a bold thought, and admittedly, one that I was a little bit uncomfortable with, seeing as though we were only about a third of the way into this race, and that real racing starts east of the MississippI river. I was slightly excited with the idea, but really, it was totally back burnered, and it changed my perspective a little bit. I didn't downshift into risk mitigation mode (yet), but it did make me focus on the race a little differently. Kansas isn't really a logistical challenge, but if we weren't careful, we could screw something up, and lose precious time. I refused to do anything of the like. Because everything west of Kansas is wide open roads where you can really rip it and focus on just about nothing except for pedaling, Kansas starts the trend of increased congestion as we continue east, and the need to not miss any turns.

I kind of kept these thoughts to myself, and nonchalantly mentioned to The Hammer "Hey, did you see Ryon's email?" but it didn't go much further than that. It was time to relax, reflect, and share some war stories and laughs amongst the truck, and with our newest crew member. The post shift adrenaline rush/crash and bullshitting with everyone else is always one of my most favorite parts of the race. It was time to kick back and plan for a very hard, windy next shift.