Mar 242014
The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

(Read Part 1 here)

The wisdom of our end-around route to avoid Combs Creek Road was soon called into question by a surprising amount of elevation change, and what seemed like an endless number of miles. In fact, our grand plan had added some 12 miles to our total, and they weren’t anywhere near as easy or swift to traverse as we had hoped. By the time we had climbed the mile-long, rutted doubletrack to the cemetery at Elkinsville, we were all ready to give our initial plan a harder look.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you're feeling well. Hell if you're not.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you’re feeling well. Hell if you’re not.

Even after the length of our excursion was clear, I was hesitant to deviate from it. The only other way South, where the remainder of our checkpoints lay, was on the dreaded Road-That-Sometimes-Isn’t. Jason’s condition had continued to degrade, and he was unable to make more than about 12 miles an hour, even on the flats. We had a choice to make, and neither option was good. Either we headed back the way we came, around half the county to avoid the mud, and risk grinding Jason’s legs to a dead stop, or we took on Combs Creek, and hoped that the hike wouldn’t blow them out entirely. Oh, and that my cyclocross bike would be up to the task of singletrack through a swamp.

In the end, we decided that miles were more daunting than the mud. We would take Combs Creek Road. That crusher of spirits, that destroyer of dreams, that haunt of the souls of men; that was the road we chose.

I didn’t have a great feeling about it.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so bad as the nightmares of last season’s event had persuaded us it would be. The colder temperatures of this winter had left a portion of the water still frozen under the mud, so it wasn’t as deep, and the standing water wasn’t as high. Even the sections that were impassable by bike were welcome in that they provided a change of pace. Being off the bike for a bit and walking, even if it was trudging through the mud, allowed our legs to relax a bit.

We spent the next two miles riding when we could, walking when we couldn’t, and setting our jaws, as men do against difficult tasks. The members of the fairer sex we encountered on Combs were handling the challenge with characteristic grace, smiling and encouraging each other with compliments and jokes. We grunted and panted up the hills, trying to smile at their greetings, but mostly wondering how they could be so damn cheerful in a time and place such as this.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

What did put a smile on my face was the performance of my humble little ‘cross bike. Despite being placed in conditions never imagined by its designers, it did everything I asked of it, and then some. For one stretch, behind a couple fat bikes whose 4-inch tires were tailor-made for the conditions, I actually found myself gaining on them!

Slowly, the mud bog gave way to creek crossings, then jeep tracks, and finally the gate that closes the route to vehicular traffic came into view. We had made it! We conquered Combs Creek Road! Or at least I thought we did, because when I turned around, I couldn’t seem to find Jason. A few minutes later he emerged, looking very haggard indeed, but with the relief of knowing that what we expected to be the worst was over.

Although we had cut significant mileage from our overall route by taking Combs, there was still quite a way to go to reach our final two mandatory checkpoints. It would be another eight miles to reach Hanner, with a brief stop along the way at Cornett for a time bonus that didn’t seem to matter any more.

Jason was suffering, there was no other word for it. I knew by this point that it wasn’t a matter of his conditioning, but that something else had gone terribly wrong, but he was determined to continue on, and so that’s what we did. Adding to the misery of his still-building fever was the fact that he was starting to have serious leg cramps, and had run out of water. I gave him one of my bottles of electrolytes, and he cashed it immediately. We hadn’t seen a SAG wagon for hours, and if we didn’t see one soon, I’d have to give him my hydration pack as well.

Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go...

Jason’s smile is only because he finally got some more water. Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go…

It took us every bit of an hour to get to Hanner Cemetery, where we finally ran into the SAG wagon. I refilled my bottles, and Jason replenished his CamelBak, and took in a little food. I felt terrible for him, but there was nothing I could do. I thought of swapping bikes, but figured that my bike’s more aggressive gearing would negate the weight advantage, especially as we were again into hilly territory. The cheery afternoon light had given way to a gloomy early evening, and I began to feel as if, for Jason and I alike, this just needed to be over. We had been out for a long, long time, and I couldn’t yet say how long we had to go. I did know that we’d stopped having fun some miles ago.

We turned right onto State Route 58, and I hoped that, it being a main road, the terrain would remain relatively flat. We turned into a slight wind, so I got in front, set my speed at a pace I thought Jason could maintain, and tried to give him a tow. A hundred yards later, I glanced over my shoulder, and he had dropped off already. I circled back and tried again, sitting tall in the saddle to block as much wind as I could, and setting a speed a couple clicks slower. Same result.

There was no pulling him. He was so overcome with sickness at this point that he bordered on delirium. I filed in behind him and offered what encouragement I could, counting down the miles to our next turn and reminiscing aloud about the events of last year. Anything to take his mind off his present misery.

Then the road did something cruel. What had been a false flat became steeper, until it was a legitimate climb. It rose nearly 300 feet by the time we turned, and most of that in the last half mile. My gearing wouldn’t allow me to stay with Jason without bogging, so I pulled ahead, opting instead to stop periodically and wait for him.

That face about says it all.

That face about says it all.

For me, this became the enduring image of the race. Despite how he was feeling, despite the miles and the mud and his cramping legs, Jason never quit. He clicked down to his granny gear and churned away at the pedals, dieseling up the hill with all the grim determination of a prize fighter in the tenth round. As much as I pitied his condition, I admired his resolve to finish even more, given his obvious and legitimate reasons to call it a day.

Our final checkpoint was Hickory Grove Church, situated at the top of an eponymous, winding ridge line. The road that took us there stayed at the top of that ridge, which meant that we had already accomplished the final big climb of the day. But there were plenty of little rollers along the ridge road, and each one became a mountain to my ailing teammate. We both began to wonder if we’d make it to the finish before the 6 pm time cutoff.

The twisting nature of the gravel road to the church deprived us of the obvious landmarks and lines of sight which make judging progress easy. I tried to break the remaining distance to the church into manageable segments for Jason, fearing all the while that my “just around one more curve” promises would become demoralizing if I was wrong. At last, the church came into view, and I feigned exuberance and sped ahead, hoping he would catch some of it and be able to forget his agony for a few moments.

It didn’t work. He rolled to a stop by the sign, and I could tell from his face that it was all he could do to get off the bike. We’d been out for so long that my phone battery was nearly dead, but I managed to snap our last two required photos before it did.

I love this bike. I think I'm going to name it Hoot.

I love this bike. I think I’m going to name it Hoot.

The good news was that this was our last checkpoint. The better news was that it would be nearly all downhill from there to the finish, and that meant we might just make it in time. We’d only have about 6 more miles to cover, and then it would all be over, and it would be time for beer, a hot shower, and food, and a warm bed!

At least, it would’ve been only six miles, if I hadn’t chosen that very moment to make my only navigational error of the day, and miss the turn onto McPike Branch Road. My miscue sent us zinging down the ridge on the South side instead of the West, adding two miles to our total when we could least afford it. As we neared the bottom, I began to suspect my error, but the lack of road signs and a dead phone battery meant I couldn’t quite be sure. We turned right when the road ended, and I glumly hoped that my gut feeling was wrong, and that we had taken the correct road. We hadn’t.

Jason was crestfallen, and I felt like I had let the air out of his tires, stolen his candy bar and kicked his puppy all at the same time. There was nothing to do for it now, only to pedal out the remaining four and a half miles to the finish. It took us half an hour. The county road dumped us out onto State Route 446 again. A slight rise was ahead, not more than 50 feet of elevation before our final turn, but it might as well have been Alpe d’Huez for Jason. He was so exhausted he couldn’t even look up, and so he just kept turning the cranks, watching his front tire eat up pavement, until he caught up to me at the top.

From there, it really was all down hill, and we coasted across the bridge to the finish, me standing on the pedals to charge the final few yards, and Jason nearly collapsing beneath the pats on the back from our waiting teammates. To the casual onlooker, it may have appeared an anticlimactic finish for a race. But those who have survived the Death March, and anyone who saw Jason’s condition knows that there should have been a brass band for him at the line. He was a soldier that day, and he earned his beer, even if he was in no condition to drink it afterward.

Finishing the Death March last year taught me about how far my body could be pushed. It taught me how to overcome physical pain with sheer determination. This year, it taught me that trying to avoid challenges sometimes results in bigger challenges. It taught me that “the right tool for the job” is sometimes overrated. And it taught me that holding back to help a friend make it home is just as rewarding as pounding through on your own. Jason’s endurance through suffering to get to the finish, both for his own conquest and to help me get the result I missed last year, will not soon be forgotten.

What trials, tricks and turmoil will the Death March bring us next year? I’m already making plans to find out.

Mar 242014
My wonderful, versatile 'cross bike!

Number plate affixed, ready to rock and roll!

That my last attempt at the Sub 9 Death March nearly killed me should have served as some deterrent. That this winter has been particularly severe and persistent should have discouraged me. Last year’s teammates opting out of this year’s event for those reasons and others should have been reason for me to follow suit.

But I didn’t. After training hard all through the winter, I wanted to have another go at the race that took me to the edge and showed me how to live there. I wanted to beat it, to show the hills how much stronger I’ve become, the mud how much better I can ride. I wanted to bring my teammate to the finish with me, thus earning the result I missed last year, since the rules require that you finish with your teammate.

So it was that I found myself on a brisk Saturday morning, bouncing my truck and trailer along the muddy fire roads in rural Brown County, Indiana. The Death March, as you loyal readers will recall, is an on/off road checkpoint race, which uses a selection of 17 old cemeteries as the checkpoints. There are five mandatory checkpoints in all, three of which are preselected, and two chosen out of a hat just before the start of the race. All additional checkpoints may be reached for various time bonuses, which will be subtracted from your overall time at the finish.

The original plan had been to scout part of the race route the day before, but that plan collapsed under the weight of a full day of packing and loading for a week-long adventure. I brought three bikes with me; the mountain bike I used last year, my cyclocross racer, and my motorcycle, which of course wouldn’t see the outside of the trailer until I arrived in Florida on Sunday evening.

Two wild and crazy guys!

Two wild and crazy guys!

Which knobby-tired bike to use would depend on what I found on the gravel roads that made up the majority of the route. If they were in suitable condition, I would take the ‘cross bike. If they were not, or if a checkpoint was selected that would require extensive use of singetrack trail (read: Callahan), I would take the mountain bike.

Our scouting excursion on the way to the staging area proved as encouraging as it was useful . The roads were mostly clear of snow, and the muddy spots seemed either navigable or entirely avoidable. The three pre-selected checkpoints (Hillenberg-Stephenson, Elkinsville and Hanner) would ensure that we covered respectable mileage, but on my ‘cross bike this was no issue. Then we were granted a favor when the final two checkpoints (Hickory Grove and Mitchell) were drawn. Neither added substantial mileage to the route, and more crucially, neither required the navigation of muddy, serpentine trails to reach.

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

There was only one limiting factor in our plan: how to get to Elkinsville. The direct route takes you up Combs Creek Road, a route that, for some stretches, loses the “road” part of its appellation entirely. Last year, it was the graveyard of many racers’ dreams of a finish, including those of my teammate. The power required to slog through the muddy mess that the road became sent his legs into cramps and spasms from which he never recovered, and he was forced to retire.

Having been warned off by previous experience, this year’s team agreed to take the long way around, avoiding the muddy nightmares of Combs Creek “Road” and picking up the bonus checkpoints at Houston and Lutes, instead. We reasoned that what it added in length, it would make up in speed. When we came to the bridge at Maumee, we would turn right where other teams went left, and time would tell if our gamble would pay out.

After the final two checkpoints were announced, our foursome, which consisted of Mike and Kelly on one team, and Jason and me on the other, huddled over our maps briefly, and then set off across the bridge at an easy pace. Mitchell Cemetery was only a mile from the start, so we took the low hanging fruit early. The couple of rolling hills on the way there gave us a chance to warm up our legs, and I was happy to feel the wind on my face again, after a winter spent with too many hours inside, slaving on the trainer and at the gym.

Word to your mother.

Word to your mother.

We rolled out of Mitchell and turned right, up the gentle hill on State Route 446 toward Hillenburg. This was the route that the majority of teams took at the start, so despite our delayed departure, there was a logjam of bikes and riders by the sign, waiting for their turn for the requisite picture. Completing two of the five mandatory checkpoints so quickly created a deceiving sense of progress, even though we had ridden a scant five miles, and most of that on pavement.

The race began in earnest when we turned off of State Route 446, onto Tower Ridge Road. The road gave us enough mud, gravel and rolling hills to keep our attention and challenge our legs a little. I made sure to keep my aggression on the climbs in check, knowing that the grueling parts of the race were a long way ahead of us. Still, the miles were coming easy, our crew was in good spirits, and my bike was working flawlessly. There were some patches of slushy ice along this stretch that kept me on my toes. The mountain bikes would blow past me on the descents, confident in the traction of their fatter tires. But I would surge past them again when the grade turned upward, standing on the pedals just to stretch my legs.

Top of the tower.

Top of the tower.

We paused at Todd Cemetery for an easy bonus, then pressed on to the lookout tower itself. Climbing the 133 steps to the top was worth a 35 minute time bonus, if you were so inclined. Some of our crew were not, but my teammate and I climbed all the way to the cab, and snapped our pictures. We took our first break when we came back down, munching on some food and getting some electrolytes. As we rolled out onto the gravel road again, Jason mentioned that he was feeling a little queasy. We both shrugged it off–it was probably nothing, right?–and pressed on.

A series of swift downhills brought us to Robertson Cemetery for another time bonus, and then we slogged along some soft gravel and mud to the bridge at Maumee. Sticking to the plan, we turned right as the rest of the crowd headed left, and thought ourselves clever as we sped down the pavement.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

It was on the three mile stretch to Houston that I began to notice Jason lagging behind, especially on the occasional hill. I held back the pace to stay with him, figuring that the additional weight and less advantageous gearing of his mountain bike made speed on the road less easy than my  comparatively sleek, light, and road-geared ‘crosser. In fact, and unbeknownst to all of us, his lack of power was due to an unfortunately-timed case of the flu, the effects of which would become increasingly debilitating as the race wore on. Even when the four of us were set upon by a few farm dogs (whose gravest threat beyond their barking was that one of them ran in front of Mike’s wheel and was nearly run over), he didn’t seem able to accelerate much.

I'm laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I’m laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I, on the other hand, was feeling no such illness, and so jumped at the chance to cut across the edge of a cornfield, in order to take a more direct route to the cemetery in Houston. That shortcut proved a completely terrible idea. The ground was softer than it appeared, and so we all ended up in our granny gears, churning through it and laughing through gritted teeth. I suspect the others were laughing to keep themselves from cussing me out. It was like riding through peanut butter. The grassy yard between the cornfield and the cemetery was in no better condition, and I nearly fell over when my tires sank inches deep into the turf-camouflaged mud. If my teammates had chosen at that moment to make me carry their packs for the rest of the race, I would hardly have blamed them!

We departed Houston and made the long, gradual climb to Lutes. My teammate’s condition was declining with every mile, and he found his legs unwilling to respond to his calls for more power. We rallied up at Lutes and I made sure we each took in some food. A few hills later, the unspoken decision was made to separate our teams, allowing the stronger pair to go ahead, while I stayed back with Jason. We would rally again at Elkinsville.

To be continued…

It's starting to become a long day, and we're not yet half way through...

It’s starting to become a long day, and we’re not yet half way through…


Mar 202014
Riding the pine. Not where I wanted to be, at this point in the season.

Riding the pine. Not where I wanted to be, at this point in the season.

It happens to every athlete, at some point. When you push the bounds of what your body is capable of, when you’re constantly approaching the limits of your physical system, sometimes your body pushes back. A joint will give way, a muscle will tear, a minor injury will happen. When you push to the maximum, a small area of weakness will yield, and you’ll find yourself on the bench, or worse, in the hospital.

I’ve nursed a variety of large and small injuries over the past few years, as I’ve ramped up my fitness. I had my right ACL reconstructed in 2010 after blowing it playing basketball. I’ve had problems with my left knee and hip, both shoulders, and my upper spine. Most of these minor issues have been corrected by a short period of rest, some Motrin, and adjustments to my training technique or riding position. Of note, none of these problems have caused me to miss or DNF a race, to date.

The last time I was completely unable to train.

The last time I was completely unable to train.

In a way, I’m thankful for these small problems. I’m of the opinion that my body uses them as “circuit breakers,” to force me to take a break before something more catastrophic happens.

That’s it for the positive.

The latest malady I’ve had to deal with is totally debilitating. On Friday, I completed CrossFit Open workout 14.3 at Total Control in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. It’s an 8 minute workout of alternating deadlifts and box jumps/step-ups, with the weight and reps of deadlift increasing with each round. When the clock ran out, I dropped 15th and last rep of 275, and immediately my head exploded. For the next few minutes, I had an almost debilitating headache. It subsided after about 10 minutes, and I didn’t think much more of it.

Monday morning, I decided I wanted to try for a better score. I warmed up and tore into the workout, at a sufficient pace to beat my previous effort. But 5 reps into my set of 225 lb deadlifts, I set the bar down to get a breath and reset, and my head exploded again. I dropped to the floor in pain, and had to abandon the workout. 20 minutes later, the pain had subsided enough for me to function and drive home, but it never really went away for the rest of the day.

I felt better in the morning, but I spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday just feeling off. A hint of a headache would come and go, and I was groggy and had intermittent trouble concentrating. I felt like I needed another big cup of coffee, but coffee didn’t help.

(Not my brain)

(Not my brain)

It happened again Wednesday night, this time without working out. The feeling was like somebody was driving a large ice pick up through the base of my skull. At its height, the pain was crippling. I told Katie I needed to go the hospital, and she drove me to the ER. They did two CT scans of my noggin which showed nothing abnormal (good news), and they gave me some intravenous medicines and sent me home.

It may be some time before I have an actionable diagnosis. One thing for certain in the meantime is that there will be no training or racing until we get this figured out. This weekend was going to be a big one. I was going to race on the Killer Gravel at the Barry-Roubaix in Michigan, covering 62 miles and almost 4000 feet of climbing. But with my head the way it is, it’s just not a good idea. I’m probably out of the CrossFit Open, as well, and next month’s races (a half marathon and a 65 mile mountain bike race) are in doubt.

Setbacks happen in any athlete’s progression. When you’re trying to be the absolute best you can be, sometimes you overreach by just a little, and suffer the consequences. I’m thankful that there is no evidence of anything truly scary yet, but still gutted that I find myself sidelined just as the race season was starting to crescendo. I’m feeling strong, light, fast and ready for the challenges I laid out for myself this year. I’ve been moving weights and climbing hills that I would’ve thought impossible only a couple years ago. But when your body says NO MAS, sometimes you don’t have any choice but to listen.