Monday, January 21, 2013

Shift 7: Prelude to the short and unexpected

Unexpectedly, we were going to be on for a short Shift 7. Even though it wasn't a full shift, it deserves a (long) prelude.

****

Picking up where I left off after Shift 6, I think our truck made the executive decision to actually order breakfast at McDonalds right after we packed up the truck. Mainly, because we were all hungry, and it was right across the street. After eating really good for months on end (the norm), and even eating really good during the race, we all threw our hats into the f&*k it bin, and got some sausage mcmuffins with cheese, hash browns and OJ's - even if it meant farting more in the truck - if such a thing is even possible from 4 dudes locked in a truck for the next 4 hours.

I'm pretty sure I was asleep within 30 minutes of eating breakfast, and was only awoken to a stopped truck so someone could take a leak in the middle of Maryland. After a quick pit stop, I was back asleep, and woke up moments before we hit the hotel in Maryland.

Part of me was curious how are boys were doing, but part of me really didn't care. We were done. The only thing I really 'cared' about though is whether we'd finish before sunset, or while there was still light out. A few weeks before the race, Barrie's projections had us finishing right around midnight Thursday, and that got me pretty jazzed up. In the years I had done it, the race started at 2pm on Saturday, and we always finished Friday mid-late morning. This year, with the race starting at noon, and with our extra firepower, I thought our team was flirting with a Thursday finish - nevermind Friday. Now, I'm debating whether we can finish under daylight. This, would be cool. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about it, so I went about enjoying the rest of my day before the 'ceremonies'.

I think we got to the hotel around noon, unloaded our gear from the truck and just crashed in the room. I was rooming with Toby for the weekend, and even though the race was done, he was still furiously hunched over his macbook working on the latest video and what we could do for the finish. There were lots of high fives, laughs, and story telling, strong possibility of overuse of the words "epic" and "awesome" and the like. A little while later, the Hammer showed up in our room to hang out. Hammer and Toby go back further back than the Hammer and I and Toby and I, and so there was a serious bro down going on (no flat brim hats though).

We were all shooting the shit, reliving some laughs, talking about how this whole thing came together months in advance, and basically 'shut off' from the actual racing part of the race. We were done. Someone even mentioned checking out the jacuzzi. We'll assume that the sleep depravity was a major reason for 3 dudes even entertaining the idea of getting into a jacuzzi together, but whatever. Right after the decision was made to at least go check it out, I got a call from John (our driver). The conversation that ensued went basically like this:

John: Barrie wants us to finish up the race
Me: Whaaaaaat?
John: Yeah, Wildebeest is going to jump in with Truck1 after his last shift (!!!) and ride for about 3-3.5 hours with them. He wants us to take over from Truck1 for what he thinks will be the last 90 minutes of the race. He figures we'll start somewhere around 630 and 7pm. The idea is so that we can keep the average speed up as much as possible by having fresh riders out there.
Me: (speaking louder so that Toby and Airey can here me) Oh shit. Ok, we'll be ready to go for 530pm.

There were 2 sets of very wide eyes looking at me in the room. I summarized what John said to Toby and Hammer. After it sunk in, the conversation went like this:

Me: Dude, I gotta take a shit
Hammer: Dude, I gotta take a shit too
Toby: <bent over laughing>

After business was taken care of, it was time to get down to business. I'm not gonna lie, that was a tough transition. While we had a solid 3+ hours to get ready for the shift, it was actually a very long and hard 3 hours.

I was checking out the race results, and after we finished our "last" shift, where cumalatively we were averaging over 24mph, there was a slow decline towards 24. After a few more time stations, our cumulative average speed actually dropped under 24mph. This was no fault to the racers that were on course - the terrain was tough, and everyones legs were just fried. Immediately, there was a huge pressure on our truck: Keep it at 24mph or above. I thought it was doable, but definitely challenging. I knew we had it on ourselves, but would the outside environment of the tail end of rush hour, congested east coast roads, intersections and highway merging (!!) be enough of a hurdle to prevent us from keeping it above 24mph?

Toby's iPhone never left his hands
Time passed, and it was time to head out. We left the hotel extra early, in case we needed to go on early, Truck1was ahead of schedule, or anything else that the circumstances might throw at us.

Toby was excited about this. He actually saw it as an opportunity, and somewhat timidly asked us if he could roll with our truck. Of course he could! He was stoked, and so were we. The man never stops. He was always playing an angle on how to beef up our social media presence, and saw this as an opportunity to broadcast some live stuff - us racing. Very cool. He is a social media monster, and pulled all nighters in the back of a conversion van in the middle of Kansas. That's the type of people we roll with.

Shortly after we took off from the hotel, I mentioned to the rest of the truck that the pressure was on us to keep the speed at or above 24mph, based on the latest data. Hammer just turned around and looked at me with a look in his eyes like "oh shit, it's about to get f&*king real". He was up to the challenge.

The ride out there was about 45 minutes or so, and I won't lie - I was a bit stressed, but not worried. I don't know why, but I was. Maybe it was thinking I was done, maybe it was because I felt this pressure to keep the average speed up. How the hell did over 5 days of racing gets placed on our trucks shoulders for an average speed metric that would live in infamy? Whatever, this is the shit champions are made of and from.

So, what did I do to prepare for such a task? I fell asleep.

Game Face. At least they don't have to worry about a backseat driver.
Flat out, in the back of the truck, neck crooked and everything, I completely zonked for almost 30 minutes. Toby was in the middle seat creating a ustream account, and doing test videos. He asks the Hammer to do a quick little audio test, then pans to me to say something, but I'm lights out. Hilarious! I finally woke up and everyone was laughing at me saying "Dude, you were totally out!" Dude, I know...

After I woke up, I started keeping tabs on our time, but also our racers out there. I was thinking that I was going to take the first pull, but after driving on the course backwards, I just kinda non-chalantly mentioned to Hammer "Hey Dude, I think you should take the first pull on this one", patted him on the shoulder and enjoyed his laugh, whose tone wreacked of "thanks buddy, I mean, asshole". We arrived at the spot, scoped it out for the best possible exchange place, and parked it for a few minutes. Based on the information I was gathering, it seemed like we were almost an hour ahead of time. We almost didn't know what to do, since we had never bene so early to an exchange. I then made a very strategic, calculated decision on how best to proceed, and announced it to the truck:

Me: Guys, I gotta take a shit. There's a gas station a couple miles down the road. This is non-negotiable.

The truck bursted into laughter!!

We made it to the gas station, and all the sudden, it was like a location-based laxative - everyone in the truck had to take a shit. After having lightened the load, I felt a lot better, and was ready to focus on the task at hand. I quickly downed some caffeinated gels to clear out the cobwebs, and was READY TO ROCK!!!

It is possible to stand in this position for
20 minutes straight without moving
We made it back to the exchange spot, and within a few minutes, Truck4 + some of our media crew rolled up to hang out for a bit. Everyone was chatty, complete with stories on how everyone was killing it out there, war stories, laughs and the whole 9. This immediately lightened the mood.

Meanwhile, Hammer took on this stoic presence that I had never seen before. He's always been cool and collected, but never like this. Dude was just stone cold sober and focused. He stood over his bike for at least 20 minutes without really moving, or even talking to anyone. I knew what was going on in his head. I mentioned to him how I had MAJOR butterflies in my stomach. He looked at me and just said "DUDE". That was all I needed to hear. He was in the same boat. The pressure was on. But why? There's only 90 minutes left. 30 some-odd miles. We got this. We both had razor sharp focus because we knew it was on. We all knew of the stature of Truck1 and its riders, but Truck2 was being given the ball in the bottom of the ninth to close out a near perfect game and make it lights out.

Beest
Eventually, the beest came around the corner, handed off the figurative baton to the Hammer, and off he went. There were lots of cheers after WB finished his last pull, for many reasons. One, for doing an amazing job in his first RAAM, but also because everyone knew this wasn't going to be his last RAAM.

This post is long enough, and so our last 90 minutes (and maybe even finish) will be chronicled in the subsequent post...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shift 6: The last shift ever?

Introducing METAL's, Hammer's, and Slayer's blogs. METAL tells a story like you have never read before, and usually has me laughing in tears with his big word and run on paragraph antics. He goes into excrutiating detail, as seen by a rate of one post per pull so far. Maybe it's because we won this year, but there are a tad less fluff than in years previous. While unfortunate, it always makes for good reads. Hammer's writing style is very descriptive and helps paint a picture that I simply can't. This is Slayers first foray into the blogosphere whose perspective is also descriptive, enlightening and equally complimentary to all the other blogs.

*****

I woke up around 11pm for a 2am start. I'm not sure if the alarm woke me up, or if it was the Hammer, but it was obvious that as soon as I opened my eyes, the Hammer was wide awake, and a bundle of energy. Normally this part of the race for me is reserved for some sluggishness. Despite the lack of sleep catching up, I'd wake up a little earlier so I could have more time to wake up. Not for him. I'm pretty sure his fists were clinched and he was throwing out some words making it painfully obvious that he was AMPED UP for our upcoming last shift. Fortunately, his energy was contagious.

I quickly wiped the cobwebs from my eyes, went to work on my quad/ITB and we starting chatting up the next few hours. Of course, we were checking on our teams progress who continued to put time into the competition, and that alone is enough to get us pretty pumped up about closing the book on this years race.

The next few hours before our shift were pretty mellow. We packed up the truck, made our way to the projected hand off, which was further east than originally predicted (as usual), and we made it to the spot with about 10 minutes to setup (also the usual).

On-Time

For those who are not familiar with our unofficial team rule of "DON'T BE LATE", being early is on time, and being on time is late. Being late is like giving 2 of your teammates a death warrant for your truck. You see, 5 hours is a long time to be doing gut wrenching intervals, and each racer 'budgets' the amount of energy to expend over their shift. Until they hear from the oncoming team when and where the exchange will happen, they keep expending their energy to be done by the time 5 hours are up. A smart racer might even keep a little in reserve in case shit happens.

I was proud to say that our truck was setup and rider no earlier than 10-15 minutes for every exchange. This meant that 20-60 minutes out from an exchange, we communicate to Truck1 that we are ready, which means they can empty their tanks for the 5 hour mark. It's also a huge sense of relief for any rider that they don't have to go longer than the 5 hours. Going longer than 5 hours usually summons dark energies and negotiates the sale their soul to the devil just to make it through another few pulls. Truck1 has the honor of being our A-racers, and our truck did everything to keep up with them in all senses of the race, which also meant being on time.

Into the Night

Temps in the West Virigina night were comfortable as ever. The Hammer and I both started out on our TT bikes, but about 2 hours in, I switched over to my road bike.

Recently, Slayer and I had a conversation the other day about the benefits of switching bikes mid-shift. While the mechanics of pedaling the bike are very similar between TT and Road bikes, there's something that's just a little different. Whenever I (or Slayer) would switch bikes mid-shift, it almost was a sense of relief because different muscles were being used, and thus, we were able to side step certain muscular fatigue and keep producing watts at high levels.

The bike to use due to the terrain was not clear cut like it was for earlier parts of the race. The rolling foothills of the appalachians weren't very tall, but were couple hundred foot steep suckers that were just a little too tall to hammer it at the bottom, and let momentum and speed carry over to the top. This is evident in the below photos:



With the roadie, I could climb better, but with the TT bike and aero wheels, I could descend faster. Knowing that Graf gave us the talk back in April that the race can be won up the hills, I opted for the roadie. That, and because my hip bothered me on my TT bike, it was offered relief on my roadie. This gave me 2 aspects of producing more power for this menacing section. Win-win.

Most of the shift was pretty uneventful, or at least the first 3 hours. Go up a hill on Route 50, descend a hill on Route 50. The highlight of the course was going up a hill and seeing dear on the side of the road, and having to back off because I didn't want to startle them, and then crash the Follow Vehicle. That would have supremely sucked.

External Motivation and The Tipping Point

I am not one who is motivated by external factors all that much. It's not to say that I'm not motivated at all by my external environment, but the internal fire burns stronger. This can be seen as a spot of weakness to some who are much more externally motivated, but I could really care less.

Things were going pretty well for me, all things considered. Yeah, I was pretty fatigued in the middle of the night, but I was humming along at a nice clip. Somewhere around hour 3, we passed a time station. I didn't really think anything about it, but I happened to check our teams projection sheet, and the results hit me like a ton of bricks.

Barrie, our amazing crew chief, made a fairly robust projected exchange spreadsheet that we used throughout the race. The projected times were based off of old times + x factors, and then we posted actual times/speeds as we passed through time stations. It's pretty nerdy, useful and intuitive.

For the first time, our truck didn't meet the projected time for the prior time station. I took this to heart, and I was pissed. I took a minute to think through this. Maybe the projected time was during the day when we didn't have to do static exchanges. Maybe the missed turn we had made for significant time loss. Maybe something else.

Maybe it was time to find another gear. A fire was lit under my arse, and it was game time more than ever. I checked the clock, and I had about 2 hours left in my RAAM career. Game on.

Each pull after this point was an all out time trial, rather than just sustainable, hard-ass tempo. When I would approach the Hammer for an exchange, I was out of the saddle for full on 20s sprints. He picked up on this too, and we basically started attacking each other at every exchange. With the Hammer being a former State Crit champion, this meant all out WAR on each other (in a friendly way of course). THIS was a very awesome part of the shift, and one that really set the tone for the last few hours.

About 2 pulls later, I knew the Hammer was going to have a long pull, and for whatever reason, I knew it was time to switch out my climbing wheels for my Zipp 404's. The section in front of us was definitely rolling, and while some would go for their TT bikes, I stayed with the roadie, but chose the aero wheels to bridge the gap. A toss up really, but using the above mentioned logic, I knew this would be a good choice. My first pull on the 404's was like THUNDER. Let's face it, race wheels sound bad ass, and when a racer is fired up, it only stirs the pot. On said pull, I dropped the follow vehicle. Twice. I also arrived at the next exchange point faster than expected, and then dropped our truck. It was full-on Animal mode, and I had a shit-eatin' grin from making good problems for our team to have. I was amped up, and even though I was pushing really, really hard, I felt like I could have kept going for a few more hours.

2% almost feels like 10%
Despite the fog, we could tell that the sun was going to start coming up, and the last section of our shift had considerable climbing. Climbing at this stage in the race is almost comedic. I admit, at a 2 % grade, I'm practically out of the saddle. I don't really care - anything to get up the hill faster is what I'll go with. There actually is a video of me climbing like that, and the grade is so little, I looks like I'm on a flat. Even I thought "What am I doing?", but then I remembered. Whatever.

The Hammer and I exchanged out for the last pull of the shift, which I got. I was pretty happy about this, and thought it would be a great finish to my RAAM career. Even better was that I was going to finish a climb, and then get a fun descent down to where Truck3 was waiting for us.

As I crested, a feeling of happiness came over me. That feeling of "it's over" that any endurance athlete has felt in a long ass race. As I crested the hill, I could see the downhill, and naturally, I kicked up for a very fun descent.

Then I was greeted with a little surprise.

Parked on the side of the road was 4Mil's bus. I couldn't believe it. This was my last pull, and here I got to see our competition, parked on the side of the road, maybe even sleeping. If they were awake, even better. If they got to see Team ViaSat blowing by them, well then, damn. I instantly got a shot of adrenaline, and attacked a downhill like I've never attacked before. It was so completely freaking awesome, I can't describe it. It might sound absurd, but in the thick of everything we have been through, I couldn't have scripted a better way to round out my last RAAM.

Scripted
At this stage, anything is bent over hilarious





















The funny part was that there was a red light waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, and Truck3 was on the other side of the intersection. I was having a party in my head, the Follow Vehicle was cheering me on, and there was a flat out party where our truck and Truck3 were setup. It was like we took over the intersection as 3 disparate parties.




These never stopped












I soft pedaled through the intersection got off my bike, and it was like pandomonium!!!!! I was all jazzed up, describing my descent in full detail, everyone was high fiving, and it was a bigger celebration of finishing in a random parking lot than any RAAM finish might be in. It was the longest we've ever taken to get all packed up after a shift but it didn't matter, we were done!!! Barrie and our crew confirmed that we wouldn't have to ride again, and so it was off the Annapolis for some serious celebrating!!!

Truck3 started their RAAM finish with these views. Also scripted!



Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Shift 5: No Bueno

** No photos in this post. That's the drawback of riding the graveyard shift, 4am-9am: No Media Support **

Greenville, IL to Sullivan, IN. Hardest shift ever for me.

It wasn't because of the weather. We actually had really nice weather. I believe our shift started at 4:00am (local) time, and so the temperatures were nice. Temperature range for the shift was 66-89, with an average of 73, which is pretty cool by this years standards.

It wasn't because of the traffic. Not many drive at this time of morning (thankfully).

Yeah, I was a little fatigued. I hit a max HR of 165 (drown from 186 on Shift 1, showing that even the heart as a muscle does get fatigued this deep into a race), but I was at least consistent during all my pulls, averaging just under 25mph.

Groggy? Yeah, a little.

Motivation: Still high, but who is exactly amped at this hour?

I took the first pull of the shift, and wanted to ease into things. In other words, not floor it out of the gate. The first pull was exactly that. Eventually we made our way onto the frontage road of I-70, and it went on for a very long time (couple hours). Things were OK for me, but my left hip was 'noticeable'. It wasn't until we took the right at Effingham (no, I'm not cursing Ham, but Hammer does say it kinda funny), which provided a nice, flat stretch of road where I should have been absolutely ripping, where things started falling apart.

My left hip went from noticeable, to absolute freaking pain. I was literally screaming out loud in the middle of the night because of it. Now, screaming out in the middle of nowhere in RAAM (and in training) is not something new to me. I admit, I do it when necessary, and it makes me feel better. Somehow. But now, it wasn't helping. This was a different kind of pain.

I hadn't mentioned any of this stuff to John or really anyone really, but after doing an exchange, he said to me "Is everything alright? Your pedaling didn't look all that great, and the Follow Vehicle called and said they could hear you screaming." The cat was out of the bag.

Subsequent pulls were done with my left leg being a passive stowaway on a battleship that refused to go down. It was there for show, comraderie, physical balance and minor work output, but other than, it wasn't doing much.

I learned a few things about myself in 2010, when I went into the race injured, and actually developed another injury over the course of the US of A. I mentioned the issues I had during the race to people, but I didn't complain. I gutted it out across the country because there was no other option (in my mind anyways) when the team is counting on you and your friends and family are cheering you onthousands of miles away. This year would be no different, and I knew this would be a test of mettle.

I started learning how to pedal differently. When I engaged my glute muscles, my hip hurt a lot. When I didn't engage them, things were a lot less bothersome. So, I started pedaling more with my quad, hammie and calf without my glute. Admittedly, this produced some conflict. Part of my PT in 2010/2011 revolved around re-engaging my glute muscles when pedaling because over the course of time, they basically turned off when cycling. I was a total leg masher at the time. I put those thoughts aside for the meantime, and just focused on what I could do go as fast as possible. Learning a new cycling movement. Engaging different muscles. Keeping my head a little lower. Focusing on right leg strength, while not overburdening it. Keeping a positive mindset.

Fortunately, Airey was feeling like a rock star and did more than his fair share of pulls (it ended up being a 60/40 split). His claims of riding endurance pace at 28mph took huge pressure off of me to just focus on doing the best I could, without worrying about average speed dropping.

The end of the shift came, and it was a little bittersweet. The sections of road we were on were built for speed. Of the 48 miles I road, I gained a mere 646ft. It was borderline Fiesta Island flat. I was a bit ticked that I couldn't just floor it, but there's nothing I could have done better. Fortunately, even our competition was a full 1mph slower than us for that stretch, which gives a lot of credit to the Hammer for carrying the load when his wingman was down.

My thoughts post-shift went immediately into figuring out how to solve this problem. I wrote some emails to Ryon and my former coach, and also talked about options with our crew chief. Admittedly, there were a few times where I had 'resorted' to thinking about how the team would take it if I asked other riders to ride more.  Not my first, second or third choices, but to be objective, we had to consider all possibilities. Barrie fortunately, was already one step ahead of me, and drawing up scenarios using that idea.

Ultimately, we decided it was best to contact my ART doc and get some guidance. After a 10 minute conversation, her sage advice was to focus on rolling/massage my left IT band, rather than focusing on the hip. It instantly clicked. She wanted me to focus on the likely cause, not the effect, that I had been focusing on. It was a lesson learned over the course of PT a few years ago, and it instantly made sense.

In the back seat of our suburban, I would do 15 minutes "on", and about 45 minutes "off" when it came time to rolling it out with The Stick, and using a lacrosse ball (ow!), which went on for about 6 hours. The effort didn't stop once we got to the hotel room, when I was eating my obligatory Cheeseburger and Fries. I even woke up extra early before my last shift to try and loosen up the muscles.

I was hell bent on being as best as I could for what might be our last shift, my last shift in RAAM.