“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~African Proverb
Every long ride provides opportunities for learning, and this ride in the wilds of Wisconsin was designed to be my final prep for PBP. I would be packing a bike and all my gear for airline travel, figuring out what I REALLY needed and what could be left behind, fine-tuning my nutrition, and testing a bunch of new gear. Since my last 600k at the beginning of April I had been gifted a shiny new wheel with a hub generator and a generator powered light. I had used birthday money to purchase a custom rear bag which arrived the day before my departure. I had revisited my bike fitter to sort out issues I’d been having with numbness in my hands and pain in my sitting bones. I’d been through 3 handlebar bags, not liking any of them, and had wrestled for hours with several friends and multiple bike shops with the best way to mount my new light and retain enough real estate for my Garmin, bag, and hands on my 40cm handlebars. I had also resurrected a pair of worn out shoes by stuffing new insoles in with a bit more arch support. There were bound to be issues, and since all my PBP qualifiers were done this was the ideal ride to find them and figure out solutions. Adding to the intrigue, as the day of departure neared the weather forecast turned ominous. It looked like I would have yet another encounter with the Kraken before this ride was complete. Despite the fact that the West Coast of the US is in one of the worst droughts in recorded history, the weather gods seemed determined to make sure that all of my most challenging rides would also include a storm of epic proportions requiring ridiculous quantities of Goretex.
Packing the bike turned out to be a project which took over 90 minutes and left me exhausted. Every item I’d McGuyvered onto its carbon frame had to be removed for it to fit into the case. Tall Paul, my trustworthy mechanic, had installed my new pedals with the type of enthusiasm only a big man can muster. I discovered that my pedal wrench no longer worked to remove them, and had to find the box they came in and instructions to figure out the necessary tool – an 8mm allen wrench – which I of course didn’t own. Following the inevitable trip to the hardware store, it took all of my body weight and a few good jumps on the wrench to loosen the bolts enough to finally remove the pedals. While I had planned to practice a few times, by the time I had her all packed up I was determined that Mags would not see the light of day again until she was safely in Minnesota!
Prepping food for the ride, staging and packing every conceivable piece of clothing, safely cushioning my lights, Garmin, and other delicate stuff, and closing up my office for nearly a week off consumed me and my energy. When I finally got on the plane to Minneapolis I was frazzled, wiped out, not sleeping well, and had started on Adrenal support to try and pull myself back from the brink of what felt like over-training. All in all, a less than perfect set-up for starting a 600k.
The flight was uneventful, the bike arrived without incident, and with Michele’s expert help Mags was reassembled in less than 30 minutes. Removing the rear rack had taken me considerable time and effort, and I hated the thought of re-installing it only to have to break it down yet again for my return to San Diego. Michele had an idea and we headed off to a local bike shop. $100 later I had a shiny new Caridice rack which mounted to my seat rails and supported my new Dill Pickle bag like it was designed for it. And in fact, it was, since the Dill Pickle design is based on the Caridice bags and made to work with their racks. Mags was lighter in the rear, the bag was supported better, and the rack installed with a single bolt – SO much easier. There was even room to mount clip-on fenders!
In the morning, we took a leisurely spin around Minneapolis to test everything out with Michele playing tour-guide as we rode past a dozen lakes, the University of Minnesota, and the Loch Ness Monster. Thai food for lunch and then we loaded up the car and headed east to Delavan, Wisconsin for a 6am start. The weather forecast had not improved, with a few big bands of storms in the area. Depending on how the wind blew and how quickly, we could have hours of light drizzle or we could have torrential rain and severe thunder storms. As we loaded up our bikes and set out clothing for the morning, I realized my rain jacket was still in the cavernous duffle bag back in Minneapolis. With the jacket the same color as the bag and tucked into a corner, I had missed it in my rush to separate what I needed for the ride from what I needed for the days before and after. This was about the same moment Michele realized her front bag which had been pre-packed with everything from her asthma inhaler and electrolytes to her spot tracker (a device which allows her partner and my husband to follow our progress and know we are still alive and moving) was still in her garage. At the last second she had grabbed a second rain jacket so she’d have choices about what to wear, and she offered me the spare. With the new and more spacious front and rear bags, I had extra room for the food she didn’t have space for and I always have extra electrolytes. Between us, we could still make this work!
The sun rises earlier in Wisconsin than it does in San Diego, and it was full light as we stumbled out to the start, my brain still foggy with not enough sleep. There were about 15 riders at the start, evenly spread between riding 200, 400, and 600 kilometers. We would be sharing the course with the 400k riders for the day, and going on to complete an additional 200k after (hopefully!) a sleep stop. The sky was the color of lead and a misty drizzle seeped from heavy clouds. I had come from the endless grey of San Diego’s May and June with hopes of enjoying some sun and found myself facing exactly the same 60 degree damp mist I’d come from. Yuck. But adrenaline always runs high at the start of a 600k and Michele and I cheerfully pedaled off with the rest of the group, drops of vapor leaking from the atmosphere and moistening our jackets and skin. Deliberately conserving energy, we were off the back of the pack in the first 5 miles and saw precious little of the other riders for the next two days.
Wisconsin is green. Arizona’s green is dark, with shades of silver, blue, and brown. San Diego’s green is the verdant yellow-tinged green of spring, fading to brown as the days turn warm then hot. Wisconsin’s green is simply GREEN. It’s the green of summer, the green of mature plants about to burst with their bounty, the green which appears with the perfect 50-50 blend of the two primary colors from which it’s made. Against the backdrop of a steely sky, the color pops until it is almost but not quite an assault on the senses. The landscape is rolling hills dotted with pristine barns. Locust trees bloom white and perfume the air with a scent reminiscent of lilac, and the gullies beside the road overflow with hemp, hosta, a hundred varieties of grass, and a riot of wildflowers. The fields literally teem with life – squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, possums, deer, a host of insects, and a wide variety of farm animals made their appearances over our two days on the road. A red tailed hawk flies through a gully alongside my bike. Sand hill cranes prance on spindly legs. Frogs croak their greetings from every pond, tiny green creatures whose combined songs form a panoply of sound.
Wisconsin is hilly. California is known for its mountains with long, gradual sustained climbs. They go for miles at a steady 5-7% grade, testing endurance and slow-twitch muscles. The roads in Wisconsin were put in before modern engineering taught road makers to create gentle switch-backed grades to accommodate the needs of mass transporting of goods in massive trucks. Instead, dairy farmers intent on getting their wares to every household and farm demanded and funded the paving of every dirt farm road in the region, resulting in asphalt being slapped onto existing dirt roads taken “as-is”. Once you get off the interstate, the result is a network of rolling hills which follow the contour of the land rather than the marvels of modern engineering. The roads go straight up, often peaking with a steeper lip, then straight down the other side. My Garmin recorded 15% and more over and over before the barometric changes of the impending storms combined with the insult of such numbers caused it to stop providing % grade information completely, displaying a big fat “zero” as my legs protested the steeper climbs. This type of climbing requires fast-twitch response and an ability to recover on the downhill stretches, the exact opposite of what my legs and liver were accustomed to.
Gradually the drizzle disappeared, leaving grey skies, little wind, and a pleasantly warm day. My brain felt foggy, and I couldn’t seem to pull out of it. We pedaled steadily, taking little time at controls so we could get enough time in the bank for a good sleep stop. I gawked at the scenery, shooting photos from the bike of shiny new barns and old weather beaten barns. We passed lakes, streams, and rivers, all swollen from the recent rains. The climbing was unrelenting, and the grades and lengths of the climbs increased as we approached the Baraboo Bluff. As we climbed up Freedom Road, the most daunting climb of the weekend and the one which strikes fear into the hearts of riders from around the mid-west, the flora became even denser and the trees reached down to cradle the road in their leafy embrace forming a dripping canopy overhead. The scenery was stunningly untamed with rolling hills stretching off in all directions like so many giant inchworms working their way across the land. After a short and technical descent we took a few moments to soak in the beauty of Devil’s Lake which was blessedly uncrowded due to the threatening weather.
All day we had been leap-frogging with two older gentlemen whose names we never learned. Sometimes we reached the control first, sometimes it was them, but we crossed paths at nearly every stop. Michele and I grabbed ice cream treats as we waited for the ferry which would take us across Lake Wisconsin, and like clockwork they appeared – Green Jersey and Black Hawk – named for their clothing in absence of other information. They would be finishing their ride after the first loop at 400k, their first attempt at such a distance, and were hoping to end their adventure in less than 24 hours. Both were happy to have gotten past the challenge of Freedom Road, yet neither indulged in the sugary snack and they were surprisingly untalkative as the ferry carried us across the dark waters of the lake. We parted ways on the far side, and Michele and I were once again on our own.
We continued pedaling as darkness fell, stopping to put on reflective gear and lights, crossing paths over and over with Green Jersey and Black Hawk without stopping to chat.
The towns and controls are a blur to me as I write this, a common occurrence when I ride in new and unfamiliar places. At one point, we came to an intersection Michele didn’t recognize. We made a turn instinctively thinking we would be easily back on track, but concern got the better of us and we stopped to ask a dog walker how to get to the street we needed. His cell phone map showed we had missed a turn in the center of town, and we were able to find our way back to the route with an extra mile or two and a few turns. Soon we saw the lights of Green Jersey and Black Hawk who had gotten ahead of us while we figured out the way, and we caught and passed them easily. Not long after, the route sheet said to take a right hand fork. We did, and my Garmin immediately said we were off course. We stopped and looked at the road, the Garmin, and the route sheet, and convinced ourselves that we were correctly following the route sheet. In a situation where route sheet and GPS disagree, the route sheet is ALWAYS definitive. When the next turn didn’t appear in the right number of miles we stopped again, again convincing ourselves it was just a little further. But the next intersection wasn’t the correct road. Thankfully my phone had data service and a look at Google Maps showed us where we had gone wrong. We used the map to once again get ourselves back onto the route, riding about 10 extra miles before we were back on course. Somehow, we were again behind Green Jersey and Black Hawk, and again we caught them easily and kept pedaling into the night.
The four of us were together when a black truck pulled alongside us and the passenger leaned out and yelled “Who f@@#in rides a bike at night???” I yelled back “WE do!” The driver shouted epitaphs about our craziness as he rapidly accelerated and screamed past us into the night, leaving us laughing about his statement of the obvious and the surreal encounter which would have been scary had I been alone on the road.
It was right around midnight when we saw the first few flashes of lightening, just on schedule with Weather Bug’s predictions. The first raindrops fell, and we all instinctively knew it meant business. By the time we had pulled on jackets and gotten our rain legs pulled down over our now damp knees, it was raining in earnest. We got back on the bikes, not wanting to linger in the downpour and knowing we would be slower with the decreased visibility. The rain came down harder and harder, rapidly permeating our rain gear and every pore of our bike bags. We slowed down our constant snacking, needing both hands always on the bars to safely navigate puddle riddled pot holes on dark wet pavement. My new light was insanely bright, illuminating far more of the road than my previous light, but it couldn’t fix the lack of vision caused by water streaming into my eyes. We were so intent on keeping our focus on the road ahead that we didn’t even realized we’d left the guys so far behind we could no longer see their headlights. We pulled into the control at Whitewater feeling waterlogged and hungry. A quick snack and we continued on into the rain as the guys pulled in.
Around 3:30am, Michele got a case of the sleepies. We slowed way down as she struggled to stay awake and waited for her caffeine pill to kick in. By the time she recovered, it was my turn. I tried peppermint gum, sucking on Honey Stingers, biting my lips, singing to myself, talking to her. Birds started to flutter and sing signaling the coming of the new day, and gradually the light shifted from the dark of night to twilight and finally to the break of another soggy morning. Despite the new brightness, nothing was working and I caught myself nodding off. It took an act of sheer will to force myself awake for the final 10 miles to our sleep stop, 24 hours and 5 minutes after starting. We stripped off sodden layers, throwing wool jerseys over the heater and using the blow drier to dry off our brevet cards. We both ate some pasta and chicken, though I had trouble choking down the food. I fell into bed and slept hard for the hour I had, depending on Michele more than I cared to admit to make sure we were set up for a timely departure.
It was still raining when we left the hotel at 8:15am, a steady pattering of raindrops showing no signs of slowing. I had remembered to turn off my Garmin before going to sleep, and it was intent on exerting payback for my ignoring it’s “off course” warnings the night before, flatly refusing to turn back on. This meant there would be no turn-by turn directions and worse, no electronic record of the final 200 kilometers of the ride. Navigating by route sheet in daylight on a route Michele knew well would not be a problem, but I was disappointed to lose the data. There was little wind and the air was pleasantly warm, forcing us to vent our rain jackets even though it allowed more moisture inside. We had come to terms with being wet, and I was awake and feeling better, enjoying the morning. The rain tapered off for a while, and the brighter sky gave us a few moments of false hope before the heavens opened with a vengeance, unleashing a fearsome deluge on our already soggy ride. For about half an hour the rain came down in buckets, trickling down our necks and into our eyes, permeating everything in our bags. The sky was nearly black, and I could almost picture Neptune shaking his trident and laughing as the Kraken had its way with us. It was over as abruptly as it began, the roiling clouds behind us as we came upon the next insult – a stretch of recently unpaved and closed road blocking our way. Since neither of us knew a way around, it was time to hike our bikes. It felt good to use my legs in a different way, even though it slowed us down. Finally the pavement returned and we continued, heading to Brodbend. The ominous clouds gradually parted, giving way to blue skies and brilliant sun. We stripped off layers as the temperature climbed into the 80s, the moist air fresh from the recent rain. The sun warmed my back and my sodden jersey, socks, and gloves gradually dried out.
My pace got slower and slower. For the first time in months of riding together, Michele was truly kicking my butt and I just couldn’t fix it. I continued to graze on the food in my bag, nothing tasting good, not really hungry. Every hill felt like a new ordeal, and I’m usually an enthusiastic climber. She had ridden 2600 kilometers in the past month, and both of us were borderline for over training. I had figured either she would fall apart or she would completely decimate me. It turned out to be the later, and I was beginning to feel like I would be more of a liability than an asset to her in Paris. I would try to pick up my pace, and my legs simply refused to work harder. I didn’t have the shaky feeling of a bonk and my head was clear, but everything hurt. Both hands were screaming, my butt was loudly complaining about its contact with the seat, and my female parts were on fire from continuous rubbing on wet shorts – a condition colorfully referred to as “frotch” (a merging of the words “fire” and “crotch”) by Jenny Hatfield of San Francisco in her blog about her recently completed Sunshine 1200k. The pain was wearing on my mood, and I was trying to stay cheerful but winding up in a state of silent suffering. Two Ibuprofens, a liberal application of chamois cream, and some topical anesthetic (thanks to Nicole Honda on a previous 600k) gradually helped the pain and we slogged on, Michele trying unsuccessfully to hide her impatience with my ever slowing pace.
I’m not sure exactly where the dots connected into lines for her, but Michele abruptly figured out what was causing my issues and announced “I think you have the “Silent Bonk”!” A new term for me, but woefully not a new experience, the silent bonk is what happens when your brain has enough sugar but your legs and liver don’t. For years I’ve been eating mostly protein and fat on my rides, measuring carbs in small doses with the goal of keeping my blood sugar level. As someone who tends towards hypoglycemia, this strategy has worked well for me most of the time with a few noteworthy exceptions like the second day of my attempted “double-double” last fall. But this year, while training for PBP, I’ve been putting in more miles and doing longer rides with less recovery time in between. I’ve been experiencing big swings in my energy level, having difficulty sleeping, and my usually cast-iron stomach has been more finicky than usual. Since I turned 50 this year and have also been not so gracefully going through “the change” I attributed all this to the chemical storm induced by declining estrogen rather to anything nutritional on my rides. Osvaldo and I had discussed the possibility I was over training as he was also noting a decline in my speed and an increase in my fatigue.
As it turns out, despite all my knowledge about nutrition I needed a lesson from a person who lives with a power lifter! Power lifters rely on fast-twitch muscles to do repetitive high intensity activity. Michele’s partner had been lifting for years, and had learned how this type of exercise depletes muscle glycogen rapidly, leading the body to tap into the lever’s reserves. She had been religiously consuming carbs before, during, and immediately after her workouts in order to give her muscles fuel for that fast-twitch response while maintaining enough reserves for solid recovery between workouts. A normal liver is able to store about 2000 calories worth of carbohydrates. Fast-twitch muscles depend on carbohydrates to operate, and if an endurance cyclist is not eating easy to access carbs, the legs draw off the liver. Over the last two months, I had managed to deplete my liver reserves. As I continued to eat mostly protein on this ride, my body had taken what carbs I had consumed and sent them to my brain, leaving my legs with no fuel. Worse, I was using precious energy to digest the protein I was eating. The result was protein not moving out of my bloated belly, a mild case of heartburn, legs which refused to perform, and a brain which was finally awake and frustrated. Michele handed me a little gel packet of pure Vermont maple syrup and suggested I try it. With nothing to lose, I sucked down its sticky sweetness.
Within minutes, I felt NORMAL. All of a sudden I was able to keep up. The next few climbs didn’t really feel like climbing and I was able to stay with Michele with relative ease. Our pace picked up dramatically as I felt like myself again for about an hour. As we blew into the next control, I could feel the effects starting to wane. Two men who we’d seen at a control earlier in the day were inside feeding on submarine sandwiches and Gatorade, surprised to see us so soon. I filled my bottle with a mixture of lemonade and water, sucked down another packet of maple flavored crack, and again perked up quickly. Michele and I fairly flew the final 28 miles back to the start in Delevan, pulling into the control at 8:10pm. Despite the bonus miles, our brush with the Kraken, my silent bonk, and our late night stupidity, I beat my best time on a 600k by 6 minutes!
I started this post saying this ride was filled with learning experiences. What did I learn? First, the new bag and rack are a significant upgrade. With all the pockets, I was able to keep all my stuff more organized. The new rack is much lighter than the last and doesn’t connect to the rear stays so my bike frame was able to absorb bumps more normally and was more agile on the climbs. This system has a lower center of gravity which helped the bike to corner more solidly, giving me more confidence on the downhill stretches. The brighter lights helped immensely for keeping my speed up once it was dark, and not having to worry about batteries was liberating to say the least. The device charger never seemed to work right, and I simply didn’t have the brain power to figure out what was connected incorrectly. I suspect one of several connection points was slightly loose, and the situation will likely be fixed with a liberal application of duct tape.
While I love the guy who does my bike fits, I think I’ve exceeded the limits of what he can help me with. His bias is towards positioning for racing, and the position which maximizes power output in a race is not necessarily the position which will be comfortable after 500 or more miles. If anything, my hand pain was worse this ride than before my last bike fit though things had seemed better on rides of 200k or less. I also had pain in both feet, worse than usual chaffing and my usual issues with my sit-bones. The day after we finished I rode about 10 miles on Michele’s custom Waterford bike, a steed with a similar frame size but set up for a more upright position. While it felt weird, the position gave me less pressure on my hands and changed the contact point between my body and the seat. NO pain in the butt despite well-formed bruises and welts from the previous two days of riding. Michele’s extra stems went back into my bag to take home and experiment with because this situation must be fixed.
The point-and-shoot camera I brought on this ride was easier to use while pedaling than the camera on my phone, but the battery had a dismally short life and quit working early on the second day. I’ll need to carry extra lithium ion batteries for it or find a different solution so I don’t have to stop pedaling every time I want to take a picture.
Teamwork proved critical to this ride. I carried some extra calories for Michele, her rain jacket saved me from the misery of trying to stay dry in a plastic garbage bag during a deluge, I got her through the zombie hours with a rousing conversation about sex, politics, and the politics of sex, and her ability to recognize the silent bonk saved my ride as well as my confidence. I now have strict orders to be religious about drinking orange juice or carrot juice after EVERY ride to replenish my liver glycogen – the first hour after an intense workout is a window in which the liver sucks up sugar without leaving enough for the pancreas to dump insulin into the blood stream, extremely helpful for rebuilding and maintaining the glycogen which will give me fuel reserves for the next ride. I will be taking a bit of time off the bike to give myself time to recover, and we made the decision together to ship my bike back to San Diego. The 5 business days it will take to get there will FORCE me to honor this down time, something I would find extremely hard to do on my own. For the remainder of my training rides, I’ll be carrying a flask of pure maple syrup as well as filling my top tube bag with gum drops or organic jelly beans with the goal of adding 60-120 calories of carbs per hour to the other stuff I’m eating. This should give my legs the sugar they need to keep the fast-twitch muscles fueled and digestion going, while avoiding spikes in blood sugar leading to a strong insulin response and staying with my desire to eat real food on my rides.
Whew! My brain is full, my legs tired, my belly sated with fish and pasta, Mags is on her way back to San Diego via FedEx, and it is time to start really planning for Paris. Many thanks to Michele Brougher for being my companion on the road, having patience with my challenges, the gift of a Caradice rack, and for insisting I come ride on her turf. Thanks also to her partner, Iron K, for welcoming me into their home, for not killing either of us for not reaching her at the end of the ride to let her know we were safe, and for letting me test ride with her very costly favorite bike shorts (which definitively did NOT work for me) before forking out major bucks for a pair of my own. Thanks to Jenny Hatfield (who I have yet to meet) for adding the word “frotch” to my already colorful vocabulary. Apologies to my cousin, Juliette, who lives stupidly close to Delavan. Had I realized how close you were, I would have insisted on arriving earlier so you could have joined us for dinner. I’ll definitely be back, and will look you up next time! And a final thanks to my amazing husband who put up with me travelling halfway across the country so I could do yet another 375 miles on a bike in the rain. I love you more bunches than I can count!