So ends the climbing fireworks until our coda in West Virginia. The middle is a battle of attrition fought on multiple fronts. I trained this year to manage the grueling miles that must be dispatched in the dark, with weary legs, insufficient sleep, mounting battle damage and the finish line an abstract prospect sitting on the far side of some real night terrors.
After Kansas, looming in front of us were the dark rides in Ohio and Missouri, two nights of rollers and the possibility of total physical collapse.
Our race bell rings four hours earlier for each shift and for this ride in Kansas we'd start before daybreak and burn our last shift of riding mostly in the light. Kansas is all TT bike, 6 to 7 miles each turn, no hills: Ground and Pound. Toro called this "a recovery day" which seemed like saying we should recover from battle by jumping on a sword. He was right, we needed to take a day off from climbing and TT intervals require a different kind of riding. Again, the race played to our strengths because another day of climbing from me would have been pathetic. Time trial riding would recruit any remaining muscles that had not been shredded in the first three days. One day with no hills, I needed it.
Drive: Alamosa Colorado to Ulysses, Kansas
Ride: Just east of Ulysses, KS to just east of Pratt, KS
Rotating Crew: Izzy
Team ViaSat a solid second place.
|Looking West at Sunset: Kevin and Larry were on course out there somewhere|
Drive to Ulysses
We left off last time at the end of our third shift of racing having traversed the Continental Divide.
With the Rockies behind us we hit the plains. Kansas is visually distinct. Its just green and flat with grain elevators and small towns spaced at somewhat regular intervals. We became as Kansas, no undulations, turns in the road or any secrets to hold. The narrow spectrum of scenery takes on a dreamlike quality which is double trippy when you are weary from days of racing and a lack of sleep. As the race progresses, we talk less and spend more time in a vegetative state just this side of consciousness. We drove past Kim, Colorado which for some reason always looks like a place I would never want to ride.
|Just into Kansas|
Eastern Colorado is home to corn fields and feedlots, not much else in sight. Kevin and Larry got the honor. We pulled off to switch drivers and let Izzy drive for a while, once outside we confirmed a hefty head wind from the east. It was a mighty quiet ride to Ulysses and the straight open roads meant we would arrive in time to get some extra sleep.
|That's a Pass on hpsetup|
Ulysses Kansas: A Travelers Guide
Part of the fun in RAAM is going places you would never intentionally visit. Its the vacation itinerary nobody would punch into Expedia but the experience is singular. You hit odd places at all hours in that post-race stupor that hangs over the second half of the race. Ulysses is all of about a mile and a half long but locals were thoughtful enough to decorate a VW Bug like a pink pig to welcome RAAM to town. I'm still not certain what to make of that honor.
Let's Take a Virtual Tour of Ulysses
According to census data there are nine black people among the 5,515 who call Ulysses home. It is also the number of pillows I had to toss on the floor to expose my hotel bed that night. I'm not saying I had one pillow for each black person in town just pointing out relevant pillow/demographic facts. As a statistician, I raised one eyebrow like Spock and deployed my brain to make a mental visual spread sheet with two cells. This was way better than the pie chart which was mostly a circle with a line down the middle.
|Mattress excavation required, if Ed was any good he would have cleared out this mess|
Aside from cultural monoversity and wildly outlying pillow stats, local laws suggest a history of problems with kooky animal collectors and the super-nosey neighbors they roused to pass strange laws.
"It shall be unlawful to keep:
(a) Any warm-blooded, carnivorous or imnivorous, wild or exotic animal (including but not limited to non-human primates, raccoons, skunks, foxes and exotic cats).
(c) Any pit bull dog"
While Toro is an animal he's likely not a non-human primate, so we'd steer clear of any trouble with the local Roscoe P. Coltrane.
|My money is on the Stick Car in the middle|
During the drive I had booked us a couple rooms at the Single Tree Inn with spotty cell coverage. We all saw photos of the building on the internet and arrived in great time. The Hotel Deploy fire drill started meaning two luggage carts were bag-sorted per room and reverse loaded to come off in the right order (not kidding, we were getting THAT efficient). Then we learned this was the wrong hotel. What? There were like three cars in the lot so we said, OK fine can we have two rooms? Nope, all booked. It took a few minutes to cipher but we were booked at another hotel 1.5 miles to the east. Pack it back up, ugh.
|This is the wrong hotel...bummer|
The main road that runs the length of Ulysses had a RAAM race detour in the center of town. As we moved to our hotel on the far east side of town we drove the detour (really simple diversion around a few blocks of road construction) and took notes in case we'd have to race it in the dark later.
Our actual hotel was far better than the first one that rejected us. We packed in quick, negotiated food from the hotel staff during hours none was generally available. Packing in required a LONG walk down a ground floor hallway, kinda like The Shining, but this was a one-time trek as somebody smartly suggested we park METAL1 right outside the fire exit on the east side. I never saw the front entrance again.
The hotel was clearly the nicest one in town and far better than the cozy family-run 1950's place we stayed in last year. Although, I did enjoy my little chat with the lamb and duck that lived in the little paddock situated in front of that Motel.
This phase of the race was really tranquil. We had arrived with time for plenty of sleep, food was dialed in and Kansas navigation requires little to no preparation. Just point the bike down course and light it up. We got a break from climbing and concerns about navigation. The only requirement was to burn TT intervals as hard as possible without blowing up. Simple but painful. Kansas is perfectly placed as the middle of seven shifts, just pound it out.
|Izzy is Easy Like Sunday Morning but you don't feel gay listening to him|
We woke up in the dark, two hours before shift. We were perfectly placed to watch our team race by, do a short chase down and start our fourth of seven shifts.
While loading up METAL1 in the dark of early morning, we knew our mates would come race by, directly in front of our hotel. Its really nice to actually see them go by, you just see what time it is plug in 25MPH into the equation and you can nail the shift change. In the pitch black silence we spot our team flying east through Ulysses. Let's switch that calculation to 28MPH. I lost my mind and yelled as loud as I could at Brad. Many roosters and dogs accepted and bested my rejoinder, oops. I might grouse about stupid birds but I was the one who felt like a dumb cock. The RAAM organizers encourage us to be good ambassadors of the race, waking up a loaded hotel and surrounding county is not what they had in mind. What's worse, I'm not even sure Brad heard me.
Navigating for Ed is much easier when he zeroes his odometer at each time station (TS). Executed properly, the truck odometer will match the route book, meaning that tricky corner behind the trees in the dark at 6.4 miles after the TS will actually show up at 6.4 miles. Failure to zero means constantly dealing with offsets, estimates and thumbnail calculations made by a weary brain. While we helped Ed navigate, its basically his responsibility and his problem to deal with. In the chaos and complexity of racing in the dark with tortuous rapid fire turns, Ed values a properly zeroed odometer highly as a way to remove a variable and avoid the panic of potentially driving off course.
Our hotel was just east of the TS and Ed decided to backtrack a few miles to get his zero. Unfortunately, that took way longer than expected (due to the construction detour). Secondly, there was exactly one turn, a left at a T intersection, between time stations. While this maneuver was not wildly popular among the riders Ed felt better doing this and while we had to gear up a little for a chase-down we set up to race in plenty of time. I mention this episode because it shows the unique pressure the navigator bears and that erring on the side of caution is GENERALLY the best choice especially when there is a route detour. Later that day, a perfect storm of over-cautiousness backfired and cost us some serious sleep loss.
Ready to Race
It was still very dark when we took over from Brad and John. Evidence of a recent rain was all around, soaked fields, puddles but nothing fell directly during our shift. It seems we missed a deluge by only a few hours, this was a pattern during RAAM. We would examine Doppler maps only to learn that rain was all around but not upon us. Luck.
|Not even a bad picture, that's about what a night shift change looks like.|
Last year, Tobias and I rode with a massive tailwind and temperatures that topped out at 108 degrees. METAL heaven. We began this year in the high 50's and it never got higher than 75 degrees. The last thing I expected was to be chilly in Kansas. This was a major difference in 2010, I wore arm warmers for 15 minutes in the mountains of West Virginia in 2009. That's it. It was warm to hot all the time. While we had decent weather in 2010, I was never hot and often chilled. I suppose the biggest bummer was putting arm warmers on my right arm which meant each day the wound was set back to day one. After each shift I'd peel off the warmer, bandages and xeroform (sterile medicated wound dressing) which revealed what Toro called my crème brûlée.
Finding Inspiration in Strange Places
I have an unfortunate but well-deserved reputation for making "bike faces." Denner has even mentioned my lamentable theatrics have gotten him fired up. As we began each shift in 2010, Tyner and Brad would show up looking like death. While I made a concerted effort to avoid their smell of death the very fact of total commitment to the race compelled me to match the effort.
|Tyner's corpse two weeks after being thrown off a cliff|
|A few pulls in: the sun rose in the east, that's the normal direction|
It was pretty clear we were having a good day. With wide open roads you actually see your partner racing more in Kansas and Toro was killing it.
|Eye of the Tiger and BikeFace|
|Light traffic meant we could exchange left of the rumble strip, always faster and less chance of a pinch flat.|
I love Kansas because its quite and fast. You feel like you are reeling in Annapolis in one shift.
|No too many times in RAAM you find a perfect exchange point and realize you'll see the other guy more than a mile before he arrives.|
My increased performance in Kansas is directly rooted in doing TT interval training camps with Toro this year. The benefit was unfiltered and direct: I literally put myself on the limit I had come to know in training. Since you never know when or even if you'll ever get this chance again, I felt great during the shift feeling the extra power. It was nice to look back at cold, dark, excruciating mornings doing intervals and realize it was time well spent. I had a couple power lapses in '09 and much of my training was geared to kick ass from coast to coast. I got Tyner looking like a corpse, Toro stomping out his mathematical metronome destruction and I feel strong from head to toe on the course. This is the adventure and essence of the race.
|We don't like to exchange on a decline but the road situation dictated this rare downhill exchange|
A Farewell to Kansas
We were racing totally under control. In fact, at the end of the shift Toro had Ed stop halfway through his pull so he'd have visual marker to meter his efforts. I was done racing so I had time to grab cameras and capture a rare bird: actual race photos other than an exchange.
|30 something MPH, last pull|
Imagine my glee when I found a photo that SEEMED to show Toro suffering. Was he trying to act like me and do a bike face? What next, jump outta the saddle and start dancing like Contador? I present the following photo as Exhibit A:
METAL: dude, look at this photo. What the hell is that?
Toro: Increased air intake.
Foiled. Not giving up.
Our fourth shift ended and we had ridden strong. The next two shifts would be tackled in the dark, we were the last of the four trucks to deal with this. Shifts five and six are the sag in the board. Without a doubt the hardest part of the race. The lack of sleep and daily leg-ripping starts adding up.
Wei would be joining us for this off shift. The drive to our hotel in the Ozark Lakes section of Missouri was hands down the longest and most frustrating transition of the entire race. It took us nearly seven hours to get to the hotel. Why, you say?
Unlike the previous transition which was fast and straight this edition featured jogging around side roads and one huge waste of time.
DeTour De Kansas
We were done riding but the guys behind us were facing some sort of course detour some place before Maize, Kansas. Its was decided that we would drive the course to the next time station to pre-scout it out. It was something like 75 miles of two lane community road rather than us skipping out to a faster expressway.
The problem with this idea is that it was help they did not need. They were racing under Daytime rules which meant they did not need direct follow. That means, if they were worried about the course they had the option of having the follow vehicle move ahead of the racers and check it out. Instead, we were recruited for this task at the cost of actual and much-needed sleep. Riders ate and stewed.
The hilarious thing is that the "detour" was so obvious and simple Wei had trouble even explaining it over the phone. It was something like "proceed .3 miles past the sign which is marked at a turn that you actually cannot turn at and take a right at the T in the road...repeat...proceed .3miles..." The racers picked up a couple words of that. Dude. So Wei keeps paring down the message until it becomes "TAKE A RIGHT AT THE T" which sounded like "OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT!" If these guys messed this up in broad daylight, we did not deserve to finish.
Even worse news was much later when we saw the sad TS data they produced. We surmised Tobias was still sick because they posted a 22.25MPH time. For reference, we'd topped 27MPH on the previous TS. Skip it. Well, everybody was doing their best and nobody wants to have the team ride off course. Still, our forward scouting was no help to those guys. You always expect a little RAAM frustration on the road and it was totally appropriate that we'd get robbed of some rest right before the part of the race where you need it most. Nobody gave the fiasco a second thought.
Let the Nightmares Begin
So we'll leave off here driving to Missouri, the long way. The true test of RAAM is coming up. Could I avoid having a bad day and really go hard seven times with no let up? Will Toro use a women's restroom while a lady holding an infant and her angry husband have to wait? Did I actually snap a photo of this? Some of these questions will be obliquely answered in our next episode.
Next time is Missouri or Misery if you like. Rolling hills, massive road kill, fog, fatigue and the mental battle of fighting in demise. In other words, good times.
I'll try to actually read this thing to check for egregious errors and omissions. Sorry if you beat me to it.