Unfinished Business


I had to come back. It was that simple. Wintergreen was the location of perhaps my worst ride ever, last year, when I severely bonked riding the 100 mile course which included 11,000 vertical feet of climbing. I cramped going up Vesuvius and again at Reed’s Gap. When it came to taking on the right nutrition for an event like this, I sucked.

It was so bad that when I attempted to ride up Reed’s Gap the EMTs pulled me off my bike and made me rest. They offered to give me a ride in the SAG wagon but I refused.

It’s not so much that I like to suffer but it’s a rewarding feeling to overcome suffering. Still, a 100-mile ride might be more fun without it. Those guys that go 100 miles in four or five hours miss out on half the fun.

And if climbing 11,000 vertical feet (more than two miles in height) wasn’t enough, the organizers decided to make it harder. They added another 2,000′. But I knew I had to come try it again. This time I would taper the week before instead of doing a hard ride the day before. 

I was smart on Friday when I rode with DC Velo at Hains Point. After the second lap when the big boys put down the hammer I decided not to chase. I knew I would be riding Blue Ridge and it would be foolish to try to keep up. I was glad to see some other riders also not to go, including a triathlete. We kept a reasonable pace and rode another lap together. But I did have my referee physical test Friday night and ran my best distance ever for the 12-minute run. Still, I was hoping my hard workout Friday night would have no effect. I may have been wrong.

This year was different from last year’s Blue Ridge Extreme. Rather than one start/finish location at the Afton Inn, this featured a start down in the valley near Beech Grove, about a mile above the Ski Barn. The finish was at Wintergreen Resort. Depending on where you parked, you might have to pedal by your vehicle on the way to the mountain top finish line.

We started with a mass start at a couple minutes past 8:00 a.m. It was a nice 2-3% downhill for a mile to the Ski Barn before turning and heading out towards Crabtree Falls and the climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I didn’t think I had the legs today and wondered about that stupid referee fitness exam I ran Friday night.

On the climb to Crabtree Falls and Montebello I saw a woman wearing shorts that stated “I climbed the Rock Pile.” That made for instant conversation. She didn’t have a name on her bib and I never asked her. But we talked about Mount Washington. She and her riding partner climbed it last week. She climbed it in two hours. I would say that was Diana Horvat, based on published results at Mount Washington.

We were soon joined by Michael Taylor and a friend of his, Jonathan Levine. Michael occasionally plays Ultimate with me on the Mall. While they stayed together 100% of the time, I would join them off and on throughout the ride.

The ride up to the Parkway was work but fun. It was about an 18-mile climb. I never faltered and pedaled right up, passing many people who had pulled over to rest.

I was conscious to drink a lot to combat cramping. On the day I went through 10 bottles of water and five of Elixir or Heed, depending on whether I mixed it or took what was at the water stops. Still, I don’t think it was enough. Add in two Power Bars, 13 Clif Bars (mini), three bananas and one would think I would be plenty fueled.

I rode solo most of the day. It seems my pace was in between those people I wanted to ride with or I was a third wheel. I didn’t appear to have any problems and enjoyed the ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway which went north from Crabtree Falls (or whatever the gap there is called). We turned off and headed down towards Sherando. 

I bombed the descent, hitting 46 mph in one stretch and passing a group of strong riders. But I pulled over for a mechanical. My back wheel never felt right. It seemed to be rubbing on the brake and I eventually just opened up the calipers. Who needs brakes when you’re climbing so much? 

Although my brake may have been rubbing and that made it a bit harder for 60 miles, I thought I was ready to tackle the climb at Vesuvius.

At first, I felt good on the climb. And just like the other side of the mountain, four hours earlier, I motored on up the climb. For a while. I passed a number of people walking and I kept going. But it was getting harder. As I stood and got out of the saddle, I was really dragging. Or the bike was really dragging. My front tire was flat.

As long as I was in the saddle and my weight was back, it was OK, or so it seemed. I’m sure even then it wasn’t. But out of the saddle, forget it. It probably took me 40-50% more energy to move the bike with a flat. It wasn’t completely flat, but very low. When I stood I could feel and hear the tire pressing against the rim.

Maybe it was the extra energy caused by the flat or maybe it’s because I suck, but I was about a mile from the summit when I felt the first twinge in the hamstring. Then the second hamstring. Then the quadriceps. I was cramping. Damn! I dismounted. I walked for a little bit before getting back on and finishing the ride to the summit.

At the top I made a very stupid decision. I was running a hard case tire to prevent flats, and they give me fits when I try to change them out. I didn’t want to take too much time changing the tire because I had a time cutoff to make back to the Ski Barn. I simply asked for the tire to be pumped up. I hoped that just by pumping it up it would hold enough to get me to the next rest stop. And the next.

I should have taken the time to do a complete tube change. You don’t think well when you are tired.

It worked for a few minutes but I soon felt I was riding low on the front tire. Stupidly, it did not prevent me from absolutely bombing the curved descents down past Crabtree Falls. I passed Jonathan and bridged up to Michael.

Michael and I rode together for a while and I even did my share of pulling when I finally told him I wasn’t going to make it. The tire was flat again. I limped to the next rest stop. The riders trailing by 2-3 minutes went flying by as a volunteer put more air in the tire. He was not equipped to make a quick change and neither was I.

With a full tire, I headed off to the Ski Barn with one last climb and descent before reaching the Ski Barn. The tire was failing again and this time I just hoped the SAG vehicle would come by and I would call it a day. I had ridden on a flat tire for more than 25 miles and it took its effect on me. I was beat.

The SAG vehicle, which seemingly had been circling like a shark ready to attack the past 45 minutes, was now nowhere to be found. I gutted it out and made it to the Ski Barn. At this point, I knew not many people were left behind me. I was surprised when I turned the corner and saw a lot of riders still hanging at the rest stop, waiting for the climb to the finish. I limped in on a flat tire and a rider said he could fix it in five minutes. And he did. I regret not finding out his name.

I mentioned to him that I flew down the mountain, trying to keep my weight on my back wheel. He told me that my biggest risk was not in a blow out due to an overheated tire but that the tire itself would roll under itself in one of the turns and come off the rim. Oops. I guess I was lucky because I hit speeds of 40 mph.

I was near exhaustion having ridden so long on a flat and had already decided to call it a day. Completing what you start is one thing; doing it while hurting your body is another. Rather than finish at the mountaintop, I decided long ago that I would simply bail out at the car when I passed the field where we parked at the start.

But the new inflated tire gave me new life and I rode with Michael and Jonathan for a while even passing the field where I was parked. Jonathan suggested I could go two miles past the car then turn back rather than ride the final four miles to the finish. That way, I would still get in my century ride.

That sounded good to me. I thought about going farther with them as well but really was spent. I don’t know how much extra energy I used riding on that flat but knew I already worked harder than anyone on the day. So I rode with them until I reached the two-mile point and then turned around and went back to the car. I told them to report to the organizers that Bib 321 went home. Check me off course, no need to send out the search crews looking for me.

The climb up to Wintergreen was steep, but not as steep as Reed’s Gap last year. I was happy they replaced Reed’s Gap with the Wintergreen climb. At the parking lot before the start, I heard one rider state she was going to return only to the parking lot. She was riding the half-metric (30 miles). One guy told her she needed to climb to Wintergreen and she said “Oh, no, I drove up there.” He said, “going in a car will make you sick — on a bike it’s OK.”

But I didn’t need one final climb. I knew it would be a decision I would have to live with. I really didn’t mind having a DNF by my name. It’s not a race and I really didn’t need to finish off punishing my body just to say that I did. Plus I did it before. And one hour, one day, and one year later I would have to be OK with. And I was.

There are a number of factors that would have gotten me to the top.

  • Had I parked at Wintergreen and took the shuttle to the start — my car would have been at the top waiting for me
  • Had I wanted to experience a mountaintop finish. But having made it to Mt. Washington this year, nothing else compares.
  • Had one of my riding partners been struggling and needed support from this rider, I would have stayed with them. But they were fine. In fact, on my descent to the parking lot I eyed up the last of the riders still climbing to see if I should ride with them. But they were fine and didn’t need the support of this old rider to help them.
  • I wanted to better last year’s time despite the organizers adding 2,000 more vertical feet of climbing. I wasn’t going to do it. As we started the climb I was already on last year’s time so there was no way I could lower my time. If I still had a chance I would have gone for it but those 25 miles riding flat killed my chances.
  • Had this been a stage race where one must finish to ride again
  • Last year’s gift was a shot glass or beer mug imprinted with Blue Ridge Challenge. I was offered one and told them to keep it. This year they offered them for sale too so I assume that was the finishing line prize. No thanks. On the other hand, if, like, Newton’s Revenge they had a ribbon/medal and an embroidered blanket for the finishers, well nothing would have stopped me.

So, it was fun but I don’t see myself wanting to do this ride a third time. I would like to use Reed’s Gap and Vesuvius as training rides in preparation for another try at Mt. Washington but don’t need to spend $70 for another supported ride.

I have a time listed on the official site behind Michael and Jonathan at 9:23. I have no clue as to my real time. At 4:15 p.m. (8:15 running clock) I was at the Ski Barn with five miles to the summit. Did it take us an hour to the summit? More confusing was one rider who was with us at the Ski Barn and is listed as having finished under seven hours. At the 7:00 mark she was climbing Vesuvius. Oh well. It’s not a race but a ride and one few people are willing to undertake.

Did I finish what I started? Well, yes and no. Fighting Father Time is one thing. Few of us improve physically after 30. Yes, if you’ve never done anything athletic one can certainly be better later in life. But I was always reasonably fit. Still, I do see remarkable fitness in those guys, in their mid to late 50s, who have retired, and all they do is ride. Most of them signed up for the Mount Washington Hill Climb. I didn’t see many people older than me on this ride.
Fighting gravity is another. Having climbed Mount Washington and having run the best referee fitness test, I am thinking I am about at peak fitness. I can’t believe sometimes the muscular form in my legs. So I hoped that even by adding 2,000′ more vertical climb that I could better last year’s time.

Yes, the flat slowed me down and took a lot out of me. But even before I noticed, I wasn’t on record pace. Perhaps if I rode with a group I would have done better. It takes 30% more energy to ride solo than to ride behind someone. But I’m not sure how much that matters when one is climbing or descending and a lot of the course is just that.

So I’m pleased with where I am. I’m not going to win any races but I want to maintain a healthy lifestyle and remain fit. Even if I am near the end of the pack, I still get out and do it, and that’s what’s important. At least that’s what I am going to tell myself.

EPILOGUE: A few weeks after the Blue Ridge Extreme Challenge I took my bike to The Bike Lane to get the rear wheel trued. To my amazement, they told me that the wheel wasn’t out of true but the rim was cracked. I am both lucky to have hit speeds of 40 mph on those technical descents without having the wheel break a spoke and also satisfied that I really had to overcome pedaling on a flat front tire for 20 miles with a cracked back wheel.

EDIT – The Blue Ridge Extreme Century was canceled for 2009 and never returned.

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