The madness that is a LeMans-style start.
I think that if a race prep went completely smoothly, I wouldn’t know what to think. The night before the John Bryan 6 Hour, I had a near disaster. Those of you who know me well know that I have… a problem with sunglasses. I keep losing them, and leaving them, and having to buy more. I’ve probably bought 20 pair of sunglasses in the last three years. It’s a little obscene. Well, after Fast Laps last week, I set my brand new pair of Tifosi frames on the back of somebody’s car as I was trying to catch my breath, and never picked them up. I thought I had put them back in their case, but when I was getting everything together on Friday night, they weren’t there. I just about lost my mind trying to find them, tearing apart the house, the truck, the garage.
Fortunately, some kind soul had picked them up after the race and turned them in to the race directors, who had them waiting for me on Saturday morning. Crisis averted!
Race prep in the early morning.
My new friend Erik and I rolled into JB early, and took our time setting up our pit. We ended up with a 4-top of EZ-ups, sharing the space with Tom, Jason, Kent, Kelly, Aaron and Katie (Carney, not my wife). After I got my glasses back, I felt like the rest of the day was a victory, no matter how the race went! We all went quietly about our business, getting dressed, checking tire pressures, snugging bolts, munching pre-race snacks and warming up gently. Erik and I were the only ones in our combined pit who were going to ride the whole race solo, but our approaches were different. Erik is a very experienced cyclist with a 12 hour race already under his belt, and so appeared totally relaxed. Whereas I am a relative newbie, just dipping my toes in the water of endurance racing for the first time this season, and so was fussing and fretting about all sorts of details.
All at once, it was time to get lined up, and nearly 100 riders rolled over to the start area, laid their bikes at the line and walked the 50 yards back to the start. The JB 6-Hour features a LeMans-style start, which serves both to add a bit of drama and spread the riders out before they hit the singletrack. During the pre-race announcements, I thought I heard Dan, one of the race directors, say that whatever lap you had finished when the time was up was the most laps you would get. That surprised me, because it was a departure from last year, when you could start a lap right up until the last second, and it would count. This will become important later.
The start itself went well enough, although I probably let a few too many people past me. Knowing that I had a long day on the bike ahead of me, I didn’t exactly sprint to my bike, and wasn’t interested in setting any records on the mile-long drag race to the entrance of Abracadabra. But once we were on Abra, I was all over the back of a whole line of riders, and nobody was letting anybody past for the first mile or so. There was finally a little shuffling in the last half mile, and I picked up a few places from guys who were apparently a little uncomfortable with riding near trees.
Picking my way through Powerline
Once we finished Abra we hooked left, back onto Arboretum. There were a couple Double Track Heroes, guys I had already passed who had serious trouble with the tight singletrack sections, but wanted to show how good they were at sprinting once we were out on the jeep road. I rolled my eyes as they came steaming past, knowing I’d just have to pass them again on Powerline, where the trees are, in places, even tighter than Abra. Another line of riders stacked up, and it took me nearly all the way through Powerline to get through seven or eight riders and get some clear trail ahead of me, a task made more complicated when two of them inexplicably crashed on a muddy, but straight section of trail.
After all that sorted out, the first lap was good old fashioned MTB fun. I was riding loose, jumping everything and just having fun. I wasn’t in a sprint race for once, so while I was riding with purpose, I wasn’t beating myself to death on every hill and out of every corner. Despite the frustration, being stuck in traffic actually allowed me to relax more than I have in a bike race before, and it was pretty fun. I felt light, and so did the bike, and we sailed off the jumps with uncharacteristic ease. It’s amazing how relaxing can change your riding.
My cycle computer decided that it’d be a great day to act up, for some reason. I noticed it was only reading intermittently, and would sit at zero for nearly a minute at a time. I was aggravated at first, but decided it didn’t really matter that much anyway. Strava was running on my phone, and the laps were a measured distance anyway, so I could get the numbers I wanted later.
I finished the first lap (including the start chute) in a modest but respectable 1:04:11. Mentally, it felt like it was over very quickly, but I didn’t want to get too excited too early, so I swigged from my electrolyte bottle, slurped down a Stinger gel, and got my mind set for my second lap, where I expected to ride more my own pace.
Lap two was down to business. I dialed in a pace I felt was realistic, working to maintain momentum up the rises but not killing myself on the flats and declines. I spent a couple miles stuck behind a few teenaged riders who couldn’t or wouldn’t make room for me to pass, which was frustrating, but I was trying to remain strategically patient.
Outside of those few kids, the course was largely without the traffic I had to deal with on the first lap. I was able to concentrate on the trail, taking mental notes for future laps. I concentrated on flow, on not charging when I didn’t need to, and pedaling efficiently. Mostly, I concentrated on concentrating, which is the hardest task in any endurance race, particularly one in which you spend so much time by yourself. It’s very easy to get distracted, to let your mind wander or just stop thinking about what you’re doing. On the road, that generally leads to you getting lazy, letting your pace and cadence drop. In the woods, that can lead to you pinging your head off a tree, and that would make an already long day substantially longer.
I cleared lap two in 1:02:02, which was pretty satisfying, since I had set 1:08 as my mental target. Both of my opening two laps had been well under that, and while I didn’t anticipate maintaining quite that pace for the whole race, it put me in the right part of the curve.
Toward the end of lap two, my lower back started aching, a rare occurrence on a bicycle, for me. I had stopped in to the chiropractor the day before, thinking a quick adjustment would be just the ticket for me to stay comfortable on the bike all day. In retrospect, I should’ve gone at least two days before the race, to let everything heal up more completely before subjecting it to that kind of abuse.
By the end of the lap, I was suffering far more than I should have been so early in the race, so when I pitted (as planned), I took a few extra seconds to take some ibuprofen. I swapped out my bottle, munched on a little food and headed back out, trying to remain optimistic that the next two laps would be as relatively easy as my first two.
On lap three, my lower back started to feel better, but my upper back was a touch worse. I was starting to wonder what I was doing out there, beating myself up, running solo, while almost all of my friends were running on a team. Seeing my friends in our pit had had an unexpectedly depressive effect on my psyche, like a parched man watching someone else drink a glass of water. It was entirely too early to be getting that down on myself, but the pain in my back had taken the glow of perfection off the day. When that happens in an endurance race, it’s all too easy to lose your mojo entirely.
Churning through, mid-race.
I fought back, reminding myself that I was in the middle of completing one of the goals I had set for myself for the year, and that whatever happened, I would finish. While it’s always my goal to do as well as I am able, the first time I take on a new race of any kind, the biggest goal is to finish. That’s how I approached my first half marathon last year, and the Death March this year taught me just how important that goal can be.
So I went about my business as well as I could, letting off the throttle a little bit, and trying to relax my back whenever I was able. But when I got to the long, gentle climb on Frankenlight, I didn’t have any power to keep my speed up. My legs weren’t hurting yet, but neither did they have the juice to push too hard. The climb, which is really more like a false flat, sapped my pace hard, and I limped along pathetically for a half mile before I could get some speed back.
Lap three was over in 1:15:01, including several minutes for my first pit stop. I was still more or less on pace, but the jump in time was worrying. I hoped that I could at least maintain for the next lap.
By my fourth lap, I was in a regular dialog with The Blerch. My back and neck were starting to get painfully stiff and sore, and I was using every trick I knew to mentally pull myself back to the pits, where I could have a break and a short rest. I wanted so badly to sit down and relax, to take off my sweaty kit and get in a cool shower, or just to eat some real food instead of gels and electrolyte water. I wanted to go chill with my friends, who were apparently having much more fun than I was, riding on relay teams and relaxing while their teammates were out riding. All thoughts of the glory of a personal victory were gone now, and all there was in my head was the battle between the desire to quit, and the desire to survive to the finish.
I’ve been to this place in my mind before, of course. Through the several endurance events I’ve done this year, I’ve become familiar with it, but not friendly. In retrospect, it is a part of each long race I remember most clearly and yet not at all, because I am fully involved in the fight in my head, even while my bike is winding its way through the woods. It is a place of raw emotion that, while created by physical sensation, drowns it out almost entirely.
Suffering, but rolling smooth nonetheless.
The only way out of that hole is distraction, and so I went to my old standby, mental math. Trying to calculate how far I’d gone, and how far I had to go, and what my average speed was, and what it needed to be, and how many minutes per mile, and all of that. Doing so got my mind off of my suffering and reassured me that I was going plenty fast enough, so long as I just kept going. Besides, since I wouldn’t get credit for a sixth lap, as I had planned on doing for the weeks leading up to the race, I only had one more lap to do after this, and then I’d be done.
Lap 4 was over in 1:08:55, surprisingly on target, despite all my struggling.
Katie (my wife, not Carney) was there when I got back to the pit, and helped me get reloaded and refueled. Just seeing her was enough to lift my spirits and restore my focus and optimism. I realized that I was still ahead of Erik, and made up my mind that, while I knew he was catching me, I was going to stay ahead of him to the finish. He rolled into our pit only a few minutes behind me, so I got rested and ready as fast as I could, and then jumped on my bike and headed out for the last time, ready to leave it all out there on a final, frantic lap.
I rode hard, as hard as my body would let me. In several places, the trail reverses on itself, and I could see Erik’s yellow jersey through the trees, gaining on me. I put in everything I had, tried to roll through corners as fast as possible, picking efficient lines to keep my pace up. The bike was working perfectly, as it had all day, and I tried to repay it by riding well. By the end of the lap I was thoroughly used up, and I crossed the line too exhausted to sprint, and rolled back to my pit. I had managed to stay ahead of Erik by a mere 44 seconds, finishing my fifth and final lap in 1:15:54, including my second pit stop.
But as I came to a stop, people started asking me if I was going out for a sixth lap! What sixth lap? The clock was already at 5:46! It turns out that I (and a few other riders) had misunderstood the pre-race announcements, and the rule was whatever lap you started before the clock ran out would be your last lap. I was in shock. I had just completely drained whatever reserves I had left, trying to stay ahead of Erik and put in a good last lap, and now they were saying I could do one more, and hit my goal?
I looked at Katie, mouth hanging open in disbelief at my error. Erik rolled back into the pit and called me to go with him, but I just couldn’t. I was exhausted, in pain, out of juice, and just didn’t want to go any more. At the risk of feeling like I was quitting, I made the hard decision to hang it up for the day with 5 laps done and time left on the clock. I hated that decision. The next ten minutes were an eternity, while I sat in the pits and sipped water, watching the clock run out to finalize my decision. A few of my friends urged me to rest a little and go out with 5 minutes left, just to get that last lap, but I just didn’t want it. I felt like I had used myself up on my fifth lap, and to go out and struggle through one more was more than I could contemplate.
In the final count, I finished tenth of twenty in the solo men’s class, completing five laps in a total clock time of 5:46:04 and covering some 62.7 miles. Going out for another lap would have netted me another two positions, but I still would’ve been miles from the podium. In terms of goals, I did manage to tick two out of three boxes for the day, both in finishing the 6 hour race solo, and completing a metric century (100 km) on my mountain bike. That’s a big deal for me, since one of my goals next year is to do a 100 mile mountain bike race, and 100 kms is a big stepping stone for that. So with mixed emotions, I’ll call my performance a win, with the caveat that I have unfinished business with this race next year.